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

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

132 comments

Amanda Lieser
20:46 Jun 22, 2023

Hi Katharine, Oh, what a bone, chilling tale! And an amazing shortlist. I think your use of the dungeon setting was a brilliant choice. It had a lot of ethical questions in it, and I found myself rereading the piece once I knew the ending, so that I could try and snag a hint at the true feelings of each prisoner. I loved the way you built up the conflict for this story, but that ending truly took the cake. Nice work!!

Reply

22:12 Jun 22, 2023

Thank you Amanda - I'm really glad you found so much in it. I'm very flattered that you took the time to read it twice! Thank you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Octavia Brown
04:21 Jun 21, 2023

Wow, this was...different! In a very good way, I did not expect this twist and it fell together so well!

Reply

04:28 Jun 21, 2023

Thank you Octavia, I'm glad you liked it.

Reply

Octavia Brown
21:39 Jun 30, 2023

You're Welcome!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Jeannette Miller
16:51 Jun 19, 2023

Katherine, Excellent! I love how you built the tension, suspense, and urgency of Edmond's situation. It kept me engaged throughout the story even though I had a feeling the other guy was going to be mute by having his mouth sewn shut (from the clue in the prompt). The gaoler is certainly an interesting character, isn't he? I could hear his "schtick" as he goes through the intro like a flight attendant at the beginning of a flight. And then the companion, traitor, who is so weary from doing this over and over while waiting for his fate of ex...

Reply

18:10 Jun 19, 2023

Thank you Jeannette, yes the gaoler is an interesting guy - I wonder myself what keeps him going back into freezing cold sea water night after night along with the prisoners. Ventriloquism hadn't occurred to me, I must admit - great idea but perhaps he would then lose his tongue too? Thank you for taking the time to comment. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Chaise Ann
19:10 Jun 17, 2023

brilliant it makes me so curious i want to have a whole story based on this little piece and i would actually read the story

Reply

19:18 Jun 18, 2023

Thank you Chaise! Someone else suggested a sequel, but I tend to kill my characters off too quickly to produce sequels. I suppose an expansion of this might work though, looking at what led up to these guys being imprisoned and maybe at the previous or subsequent inhabitants of Edmond's cell. Interesting idea. Thanks.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Bryanne Bose
22:52 Jun 16, 2023

This was amazing! I love how you incorporated the prompt in such a clever and creative way. Every new detail of the story was so well written and by the end my jaw was on the floor. This story had me hooked from start to finish and overall is very well done.

Reply

19:15 Jun 18, 2023

Thank you for reading and for your kind words Bryanne.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
14:50 Jun 16, 2023

It an amazing gripping story. Congrats on your win!

Reply

19:14 Jun 18, 2023

Thank you Faith! I'm really glad you liked it 😁

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Jacob Warren
14:46 Jun 16, 2023

Great story! I loved all the vivid sensory details. I felt like I was there.

Reply

19:14 Jun 18, 2023

Thanks Jacob, that's good to hear. I bet you're glad you weren't actually there!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
M. M.
12:25 Jun 16, 2023

For a very very short horror prose this was brilliantly done. I haven't been here in awhile and chose your story as a first to read. Congrats it was very impressive and deserved the win.

Reply

19:13 Jun 18, 2023

Thanks M! These are kind words indeed. I'm glad you read this and didn't find it a disappointing return to Reedsy. I hope you'll stick around.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Tommy Goround
01:52 Jun 16, 2023

Love the ending. Very glad an adventure won. Clapping.

Reply

19:11 Jun 18, 2023

Thank you Tommy!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Amanda Rye
01:38 Jun 15, 2023

Clever! Gave me a few chills… I love the little world you build in so few paragraphs. Didn’t even feel like an info dump. Always love it when we can find new ‘worlds’ in such short stories, especially with the word limit.

Reply

04:43 Jun 15, 2023

Thank you Amanda, I'm really glad liked it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Andrea Corwin
23:00 Jun 14, 2023

I enjoyed reading this and like the horror genre. Very good twist at the end - the comment the jailer made to the cellmate! That poor fellow has only terror awaiting each night. Great job. You moved this short story along nicely. Some of the critiques here are helpful.

Reply

04:42 Jun 15, 2023

Thank you Andrea. I'm really glad to hear you liked it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
17:42 Jun 14, 2023

You captured me with the first sentence! An excellent story!!!

Reply

19:20 Jun 14, 2023

Thank you Maryanne. I am often told not to open with dialogue - but I guess it works here.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
John Siddham
09:15 Jun 13, 2023

Gripping till the end. Very well written, and very clever how you revealed Edmond's crime. Congrats!

Reply

11:45 Jun 13, 2023

Thanks very much John!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Sarah Saleem
07:49 Jun 13, 2023

I love that ending!, it's spine chilling and tragic at the same time!, true horror with all it's thrills!

Reply

11:44 Jun 13, 2023

Thank you Sarah!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Zatoichi Mifune
15:20 Jun 12, 2023

Oh gosh that's good. One of the best stories I've read, I enjoyed it so much! Really interesting. I can see why this won. So if I'm getting this right, the other man isn't allowed to help Edmond or whoever is in the cell next, so they basically just die... but they die thinking that they had a chance and failed? I think I've got that wrong. Also the 'until etc etc fails to find the key'... Fails to find it? Then they would both die? I could (try to) analyse and re-read this story for hours and I wouldn't get bored.

Reply

16:57 Jun 12, 2023

Hi there, thank you for reading and for your kind words about the story! Yes you are correct.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Sherry Bazley
02:04 Jun 12, 2023

Wow. I really enjoyed that. You established the time and setting, the problem and the solution in the first five paragraphs and then built tension into the story right up to the moment of denouement. You told it all with a such a delicate touch, which was sharp contrast to the cruel horror of the protagonist's fate. Great job. Thank you!

Reply

18:50 Jun 25, 2023

Thank you Sherry, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
00:35 Jun 12, 2023

Great story!

Reply

18:50 Jun 25, 2023

Thank you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Philip Ebuluofor
16:08 Jun 11, 2023

I just know that the prompt is where the winner will come from. Fine work here. Congrats.

Reply

16:10 Jun 11, 2023

Thank you Philip!

Reply

Philip Ebuluofor
15:08 Jun 12, 2023

Welcome.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
09:24 Jun 11, 2023

Really gripping! The twist at the end is so unsettling and you do a marvelous job of just leaving it there for the reader to work out what the real punishment is. Well earned win!

Reply

09:52 Jun 11, 2023

Thank you Anne, I'm really glad you liked it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Sjan Evardsson
22:05 Jun 10, 2023

Congrats on the well-deserved win!

Reply

22:06 Jun 10, 2023

Thank you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.