Contest #200 winner 🏆

132 comments

Horror

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

“Right, you stinking mutt, into your cell and keep quiet.” The gaoler manhandled Edmond Barker into a cold, damp room then clanged an iron-barred gate behind him and turned a key in the lock. His rancid beer breath rattled in Edmond’s nose. “Now both of you listen up! The man in the cell next to you could be your saviour or your downfall. The secret to your release is somewhere in the cell next to yours, so only your companion can find it. High tide is in one hour and will completely fill both your cells. Be out or be drowned.”


“Hey! You next door!” Edmond grabbed the cell gate. “Come to your bars, let me shake your hand. My name is Edmond Barker. Reach through and shake my hand.” Edmond held his arm out as far as he could to the left, and another man grasped his fingers.

The other man’s hand was greasy and rough, dirt and dust were ingrained in it - the poor sod had been down here a while. They shook for a few moments before the other man released his grip.


“Now hold on just a moment there, gentlemen,” the gaoler said. “There are rules. I said keep quiet, didn’t I?” He tapped his boot on the stone floor. There was faint puddle-splash already. “Since you’re so keen, Edmond Barker, you can go first. You may relay whatever you know to your fellow prisoner, and try to free him first, but he must not communicate anything to you in return until he is free of his cell. So be quick about it. A drowning man will be less likely to stick around and help you.”


“We don’t have much time. Is there anything in your cell that suggests where I should start my search?”


The other man simply moaned.


“Come, friend, what’s your name?” Edmond strained his ears for any response but there was nothing more.


“Perhaps,” said the gaoler, scraping a wooden chair along the floor and taking a seat with a deep sigh, “your companion takes the rules more seriously than you do. And perhaps, that is the best for both of you.”


Edmond started searching for clues. He shuffled to the front, right, bottom corner of his cell wall, against the bars, sweeping his fingers over the rough stonework, moving higher and to the left. He felt for any slight indentation or irregularity in the wall.


“There is nothing here.” He shook his fist into the air, then ran his grazed fingers over the empty sockets where his eyes used to be. “It will take longer than an hour to examine the entire cell."


“Perhaps you should have thought of that before. You might still have your sight if you hadn’t gawped at the King’s daughter in her dressing room.”


“I heard her scream! I ran to her aid! I wasn’t to know her distress was caused by a new corset being fitted.”


“You had no business in that part of the palace. And you have paid the price of being there.”


Edmond ran the tips of his fingers under his tattered shirt and over the branded skin on his chest: PEEPING TOM. King Benson was cruel, and his high court dished out what they considered "fitting penalties".


The blinded man turned his attention to the back wall of his cell. He started in the top left corner, feeling over the stonework as rapidly as he could, there was nothing unusual.


“What am I missing?” Edmond shouted at the guard. “What is there here that I would see if I had eyes to see it with?”


“I’m going to set another rule,” said the gaoler. “You may ask me only three questions. You can expect honest answers, but I will not tell you anything which might lead to your immediate release. There must be some element of wit about you in order to escape.”


“You can’t keep changing the rules!” Edmond fell into a desperate crouch near the ground, quaking on his bare feet.


“I will do whatever I wish. Now choose your questions carefully.”


Edmond reached out a hand to steady himself, placing it firmly on the floor as he rocked forward in despair. His fingers caught a deep groove, as if between two flag stones, but when he followed it to its end, some three inches later, it did not adjoin another stone.


He sat down and felt the groove again, in both directions. At one end was the shape of an arrowhead, carved into the floor. He ran his hands in the direction the arrow pointed and there was another groove carved into the rock, this one at right angles to the first, but again ending in an arrowhead. There was a whole series of them, each pointing to another. He followed the trail.


After a short time, Edmond’s fingers found the unwelcome coldness of rising sea water.


“The cell is flooding! We don’t have long. We must work together.”


The gaoler cleared his throat. “Now be reminded that your cell mate must not communicate anything to you until you free him from his cell.”


“Ah, we will both be drowned!” The water was nearly covering Edmond’s fingers.


The sea continued to rise as Edmond worked. The blood vessels in his feet and hands constricting with the dropping temperature of the water around them. He clenched and flexed his hands as he went, trying to keep them warm, but as the ocean swirled into his cell it brought freezing air with it and soon his whole body quivered.


By the time Edmond had found the final arrow, the water was deep enough that he had to raise himself up on his knees to breathe every minute or so. With each jagged breath he took, he risked losing the point on the floor he had reached, but each time he managed to find it again.


The final arrow pointed to a specific stone in the bottom of the wall, and there were markings on that, too. He ran his shaking fingers, sore and scratched from the floor, across the carving and read out the letters as he went.


“M I R R O R – Mirror. The word is mirror. What can it mean?”


“No one here is permitted to answer that question,” said the gaoler, his breath catching in his throat as the cold began to affect him too.


“Friend, if there is a mirror in your cell look behind it, around it, under it. No, wait – your key will be in my cell, and vice versa. That’s how this works! We must find each other’s freedom.”


The water had reached Edmond’s knees.


“You will have to hurry up in there. My boots are soaked through, and I’ll not stay much longer,” said the gaoler, his voice becoming mist on the air.


“Mirror! Mirror! What does it mean? Opposite?”


Edmund took a breath and hurried back down on all fours, shuffling about in the freezing, salty water. He shivered and shook as he counted how many stones there were from the back wall to the one with the clue. Seven.


He stood, numbing water dripping from his ragged clothes, and felt his way to the opposite wall. He held his nose, crouched down again, submerged himself in the bitter saline, and counted seven bricks in on the lowest level of the wall. He must have felt this stone before, but now he had reason to think there was something special about it, he paid more attention.


On the top right corner of the stone there was a gap in the mortar, big enough to get a fingertip inside.


Edmond lifted his head and drew a deeper breath. His whole body juddered with nerves and cold. Then he sank himself back into the sea water to fight for his life. His lungs in shock, his chest contracting, he fought against the panic. Edmond forced his concentration and pulled and pushed against the corner of the stone until something came loose. He lifted his head again to gulp in stale air, and then pulled himself back down, his skin raised in goose bumps, every muscle tensed to a shiver.


After several jerks, the stone came free from the wall, and he reached into the hole where it had sat, scraping his painful fingertips over the rough surface. On the next stone back in the wall was a smooth, metal hook, and on the hook was a key.


Edmond wrestled the key from its home and stood back up on tight, quivering legs. “I’ve got it, I’ve got a key!”


“And just in time,” said the gaoler. “I’m about to go and dry myself by the fire. It’s freezing in here!”


“You can’t go yet, I need my escape too.”


“Well, that depends entirely on your companion, doesn’t it? Give me the key, he has to be free first.”


Edmond staggered to the metal bars, feet cramping, head reeling, and handed the key through them. The gaoler took it from his trembling hand, and there was the clinking of a lock as the water continued to rise.


“Are you going to help me? Friend?” Edmond managed to splutter through the bars.


The other man waded out of his cell and stood directly in front of Edmond on the other side of the bars. He took Edmond's right hand in his left, passing Edmond's bleeding fingers under his saturated shirt and over his branded chest.


“Would you like to ask your questions now?” the gaoler asked.


“Does he already know how to save me?” Edmond said, the water now past waist deep.


“Yes," stammered the gaoler through chattering teeth. "He must simply speak the word carved into the wall in his cell.”


“Then why does he not do it?” Edmond screamed at the man, pulling his hands back from his chest.


"He's trying to tell you that himself," said the gaoler.


The other man reached through the bars and took Edmond’s hands again, placing them back on his skin.


“What was your crime?” Edmond asked as he steadied himself in the water, breathing hard, and tried to examine the brand.


T R A I T O R


“Traitor! A traitor to who? The King?” Edmond was dizzy. He didn't know how traitors were treated.


“That’s right,” said the gaoler. “A traitor through and through."


"And what would he say if I asked him how he was punished?"


"If he could speak, he would have to say: My Lips Are Sealed." The gaoler paused for a moment and let out a grim laugh. "It's time for us to go, Edmond. You have been unlucky."


Edmond screamed and rattled the bars of his cell as the chilling water rushed at chest height around him. He strained his voice and every sinew of his body, raging against the king and against his own torment. There was a moment of warmth in his right hand as the other prisoner gripped it. The man leaned his head against the grasp, as if to express horror and sorrow that he could not help. A tiny moment of hope, and then it was gone.


"Come on lad, up the steps," said the gaoler, pulling the other man away. "You should know by now you can't help them, the others. Your lips are one thing, but that's your true punishment, to be a traitor to your own kind. You'll do it all again tomorrow night, and the next, and the next. Until some poor bastard fails to find the key."


Edmond collapsed into the swirling water. The last thing he heard were heavy footsteps traipsing away up the steps above him.

May 31, 2023 20:53

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132 comments

Michał Przywara
21:26 Jun 02, 2023

Fantastic! It's rare for a story to do this, but within a couple paragraphs I forgot I was reading and was just absorbed. I think it's because you start us in medias res, but also because it's such a high stakes beginning. The bombshells get dropped gradually, each one upping things further. It's not just prison, they will die. He can get out, but it depends on the other prisoner. He's blind, and has recently been blinded. It's all great, cranks up the tension. The gaoler being arbitrary and sadistic - hell, gleeful really - doesn't help o...

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21:38 Jun 02, 2023

Thanks very much for this Michal. I'm so glad to hear it pulled you in in that way - that's a high compliment indeed. As for the traitor - was he even a traitor? The peeping Tom was no peeping Tom. And besides - the king is pretty awful - maybe betraying him isn't the worst thing a man could do? Perhaps the text doesn't bring those ideas out enough - but that was my thinking about the poor mute in this story.

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Michał Przywara
21:59 Jun 02, 2023

Oh no, the cruel arbitrariness of the king comes across well. Everything about this screams medieval-prison and king-on-power-trip. Honestly, I don't think it matters if the men are innocent or guilty - and we don't have enough info to say for sure. The punishment in either case is "cruel and unusual", and says volumes about the one who inflicted it.

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Michał Przywara
20:49 Jun 09, 2023

Congratulations! A well deserved win :)

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Mary Bendickson
01:48 Jun 09, 2023

Clever, clever, clever. Devious, devious, devious. I so thought he should have been saved. 🎉 Congrats on the win!

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20:20 Jun 09, 2023

Thank you Mary - sadly for most of my characters they stand little chance of being saved. I appreciate your kind words.

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Madii Keene
16:53 Jun 09, 2023

I really enjoyed reading this. Congrats on the win!

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20:11 Jun 09, 2023

Thank you Madii, thats very kind.

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Brandi Martin
09:44 Jun 06, 2023

damn

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15:01 Jun 06, 2023

quite

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Raquel Hunter
14:58 May 15, 2024

I second that “damn.” I loved this story so much I just read it aloud to my husband. So very “damn.”

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Steve Uppendahl
20:35 Jun 13, 2023

Wow. That was brutal. And amazing. It made me think of Greek Mythology. A man forced to relive the same nightmare again and again. Makes me wonder what his traitorous crime was and his relation to the king. Seems personal to me. (That could be a linked story - just an idea!) Congrats on your win! Write on.

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20:41 Jun 13, 2023

Thank you Steve - I really appreciate your kind words. Personally I tend to think that the "Traitor" hasn't really done anything wrong - the "Peeping Tom" was innocent - perhaps King Benson just likes torturing people? Sometimes I wonder how these ideas get in my head - I'm actually quite nice in real life!

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Steve Uppendahl
21:03 Jun 13, 2023

Oh, I get you, 100%! I can come up with some twisted stuff myself. But, I consider myself nice. (Though, I'm sure some of my students would disagree.) Keep up the great work!

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Pasomi Mucha
12:36 Jun 13, 2023

This is one of the most gripping stories I have ever read here. Congratulations for a very well deserved win!

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18:24 Jun 13, 2023

Thank you Pasomi!

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Alex Sultan
07:45 Jun 11, 2023

Excellent story, friend. It is a well deserved win. All the tension to it was so well done, and I liked the twist at the end - as soon as you wrote T R A I T O R , I had a good idea of what you were going for, and the execution was great. I really enjoyed reading through it.

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07:49 Jun 11, 2023

Thank you Alex. It's lovely to see you on Reedsy again! How are you? How's the novel going?

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Alex Sultan
12:02 Jun 12, 2023

I am well, thank you. I'm always glad to see you're still posting! My novel is nearly finished - I'm hoping to have it done in August, and to start sending it out by November. It is all so great so far

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16:52 Jun 25, 2023

Hi Alex, I have posted a new story for this week: Life's Not Fair. If you have any time I'd really appreciate a critique before the deadline.

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Zack Herman
23:04 Jun 09, 2023

Shades of Poe and EC Comics. Great stuff and well deserved win!

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09:39 Jun 10, 2023

High praise indeed! Thank you. Thank you!

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21:29 Jun 09, 2023

Congratulations Katharine! This was rivetting! And cruel! I like it!!!

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09:41 Jun 10, 2023

Thanks Derrick! Good to hear.

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Raquel Hunter
15:08 May 15, 2024

Derrick! I just finished your Gossapp Girl story yesterday and was completely blown away. I love seeing you here under this incredible tale. Both of you are true literary inspirations!

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Jon Blackstock
21:14 Jun 09, 2023

Brilliant! Reminded me of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum."

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09:45 Jun 10, 2023

Wow! That is high praise! Thank you!

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Chuck Thompson
20:58 Jun 09, 2023

Nicely done! The interminable punishment of the traitor can only be resolved by his own death. Your twist(s) fascinated me. Thanks for a job well done!

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09:45 Jun 10, 2023

Thank you Chuck! I do love a bit of a twist.

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Miriam Esessien
17:17 Jun 09, 2023

This has to be one of the best stories I've seen here in a while. It was graphic and absorbing and kept my hairs on end from start to finish. Bravo!

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20:11 Jun 09, 2023

Wow Miriam, high praise indeed - thank you!

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Madeline Hurning
02:04 Jun 06, 2023

Wow amazing story Katharine! I agree with Jon's comment about the change in perspective being a little confusing at this part: "The other man waded out of his cell and stood directly in front of Edmond on the other side of the bars. He took Edmond's right hand in his left, passing Edmond's bleeding fingers under his saturated shirt and over his branded chest." I loved the story being reliant on Edmond's perspective and having the description of the story based on Edmond being blind, I think changing that part to Edmond "hearing" the man wad...

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15:01 Jun 06, 2023

Thank you Madeline, this is really useful feedback. I wish I had had more time to play with the editing on this story - I think you (and Jon) are right, and I have spotted a couple of other bits that could do with some work as well. Never mind eh? I'll keep it in mind for the next one.

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Sjan Evardsson
21:10 Jun 02, 2023

King Benson is cruel, indeed, and it seems the gaoler has his own cruel streak to go along with it. Chilling, in more ways than one.

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20:46 Jun 10, 2023

Thank you Sjan, yes, the gaoler is a nasty piece of work. Shiver.

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Ferris Shaw
09:22 Oct 01, 2023

No coincidence there. No doubt Benson, or one of his lieutenants, hired this man because of his cruel streak. That's his major qualification for the position.

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Jon Casper
09:59 Jun 02, 2023

- Grabs my attention right away. Reminds me a little of the SAW movies, where captives are given puzzles to save their own lives. //Edmond held his arm out as far as he could to the left, and [his fingers were grasped by another man.] //The other man’s hand was greasy and rough, dirt and dust were ingrained in it and Edmond knew the poor sod had been down here a while. - My hackles raised at the passive voice ("fingers were grasped") in the first sentence. I wonder if you could combine these two sentences to make it more active. Like: //E...

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19:09 Jun 02, 2023

Thank you Jon! Brilliant notes again. I have made a whole stack of changes, thanks to you, and I have updated the ending to be even more grim - I quite like it now and might even enter it.

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Jon Casper
10:03 Jun 03, 2023

Love the change to the ending! Also the changes throughout are excellent. Best of luck in the contest!

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Raquel Hunter
21:58 May 14, 2024

Katherine can I ask you a question? Are you deranged?? And I mean that in the best way. That was delightfully horrible. I want to read everything you’ve ever written!

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06:45 May 15, 2024

Hi Raquel, yes, completely deranged I'm afraid. This is a huge compliment, thank you! I don't always write horror, but feel free to look around my profile for more of it...there is quite a bit.

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Raquel Hunter
11:57 May 15, 2024

LOL I love your reply! I look forward to going down this rabbit hole!! Happy to give you my first follow!

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13:29 May 15, 2024

Thank you!

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Rae Toonery
11:34 Aug 26, 2023

Genius! I love it. Very clever plot; tension sustained throughout and great use of sensory detail. The rancid breath rattling in his nose - excellent word play.

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11:40 Aug 26, 2023

Thanks Rae - that's high praise coming from you! Let me check out your profile - glad you found me on here :)

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Geir Westrul
01:10 Aug 24, 2023

Katharine, what a deliciously dark tale, a deadly puzzle plot with multiple time clocks (the flooding water, the limit of three questions, gaoler who will leave) and then the obstacles of the need to cooperate with (and trust) the prisoner in the next cell, then realizing our protagonist, Edmond, has been blinded ... the tension just kept building. The ending is so dark, the sealed lips, the "convicted traitor" forced to be a traitor again and again as his punishment. Wow. Congratulations on well deserved win!

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17:36 Aug 24, 2023

Thank you Geir, I'm glad you picked up on so many points and really glad you liked it.

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Victor Wachanga
20:43 Aug 17, 2023

A very immersive story. Loved it.

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20:44 Aug 17, 2023

Thank you!

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Karen McDermott
07:54 Jul 07, 2023

Beautifully crafted and compelling. A well-deserved win.

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08:08 Jul 07, 2023

Thank you Karen 🙂

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