Chapter Ten

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Time melted away. She tried to wake but couldn't open her eyes. Watery broth filled her mouth, followed by a sip of bitter water. The sensation was quickly followed by violent shaking, although no one touched her. She had little control over the convulsions that racked her small frame, but once they settled, she was given more to eat and drink by an unknown hand. She said thank you before sleep came for her again.

'I'll always find you, Snow, Be brave.'

'I love you, Snow, always know that.

'If I ever see that mutt again, I will put it out of its misery.'

She woke with a start and found herself buried beneath blankets and sacks, surrounded by boxes of foodstuffs. 'Sshhh, lovey,' came a whispered voice. To her left she found a small grubby fellow with a head too large for his shoulder, his finger to his lips. He pointed through a gap in the mountain of boxes, towards a door that was slightly ajar. There she saw the legs and bodies of guardsmen, and heard raised voices demanding to know where she was.

Other small fellows were arguing with the guards, saying there was no one hidden there, that they were late for their shift and threatened that if they didn't get going then the city would fall out of the sky. This caused everyone to move quickly from the room beyond where Snow was, much to her relief.

'The name's Pat,' the voice startled her again. She turned to the small fellow and saw his grin behind the black soot that covered his face. 'Ain't no one gonna hurt you here, Miss Peto.' He knew who she was and she didn't know what to make of that. She tried to sit up under the weight of her covers only to have her head start spinning again, which in turn set off a queasy feeling in her tummy. Then she remembered everything, Raena, Hunter, the apple, and unfortunately the swim in the darkness.

'Oh goodness,' she said before the churning in her stomach leapt up her throat and splashed down her front. 'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry,' she said as gentle hands mopped a clean cloth over her face.

'Shhh, t'is nothing. We'll get you cleaned up again in no time.' She let the little man help her take her overshirt off. She wore women's clothes underneath that she didn't recognise and blushed at the thought of strangers dressing her. 'Whose clothes am I wearing?' she whispered.

'No need to fret, Missy. We had Mrs Marta come clean you up. We are well-bred, if not well-behaved gentlemen. You are quite safe with us.' He tucked her in again, his kind smile the last thing she saw before sleep caught her again.

It was a few more days in her make-shift bed before Snow's strength returned. She spent much of that time learning about her unusual hero's. They were seven short, little men in total, all of them no taller than her shoulders. They were 'coalies', men who stacked the engine boilers full of coal to keep the engines hot and the steam city afloat. Black as black, they were constantly covered in soot, working shift about to keep the engines running.

They kept Snow hidden for three weeks before more of Raena's men showed up again.

'Snip, we've got company,' said Nik as he shoved her through the coalie dormitory door towards the bunk beds. He opened an old chest, pulled a bundle of dirty laundry out of it before helping her back in with an apology on his face. He piled the clothes back over her, closed her in and sat on top of it as larger men stomped through the hall.

She heard, trying not to giggle, Nik's attempt at an outraged bluster while sitting above her, probably with his shirt off. The outburst was enough to move the guards on to the next room. She stayed there until the lid was lifted and Nik said it was all clear.

She loved these burly, hot tempered little men. They had taken her in knowing full well that 'The Queen of Skylands' was offering a reward for her capture. They called her Snip, to keep others from overhearing her name and because they were a bit like that. All of them were called by a nickname and she knew very few of their real names. They loved to work, loved to eat, and they loved to jokes with each other, quite like a large family, Snow imagined. They each told stories about each of the tattoos they wore, talked about childhood antics as 'little people', reminisce about childhood crushes before they'd start bellowing out ballads to unrequited love.

They shared a life time of experiences that Snow had never ever imagined were confined within the walls of the floating city. More and more, she found herself laughing or hugging or – heaven forbid – punching a fellow coalie as she grew to love her new friends.

She accidentally confessed to them one day, that she knew very few cuss words which they immediately tried to correct, causing her ears to burn and her face to blush. Pat stepped in, smacking those closest to him over the head, telling them to shut their cake-holes. She bit her lip then cracked up laughing.

In return for their protection and kindness, she kept their laundry cleaned and food on the table. They loved her cooking and thanked her for her help. Tom piped up and joked that if she ever wanted to give up her life of crime that she'd always have a job there as their cook. She laughed at this but it was a sad reminder of her current situation. Tom was thumped for the comment, oblivious to her pain. The subject was changed to lighten the mood.

She was sketching with coal, one afternoon. Tom and Nik swore she drew just like the artist in the paper, The White Maid. She quickly rubbed the coal off the table top denying it, but when she tried to change the subject suddenly, they hassled her all the more. The next day a real sketch pad and pencils graced the kitchen table, which touched her heart immensely. She had fun hearing their stories and sketching them. She'd leave the sketches on the table overnight, only to find them gone and in the local paper by the next week.

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