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

13:13 Jun 10, 2023

There were a few things in this story that caught my attention: - With Edmond being blind, how would he know the jailer's breath became mist on the air? It's clear by the rest of the text that the piece is written purely from Edmond's perspective, so this is quite a jarring break from the pattern. This kind of thing occurs in other places, too. How would Edmond know the man was wading from his cell? How would he know the man was standing directly in front of him? I'm not saying he can't know some of these things, it's just that the text does...

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21:13 Jun 10, 2023

Hi Claire, THANK YOU! I love it when people pay this level of attention and I really appreciate that you took so much time to respond to this story, it really means a lot to me. You may have read some of the other comments that refer to the switch in POV and yes, I recognise that as an issue with this piece. Sadly, as is often the case when I only have a week to write and edit, I did not have time to go over it as much as I would have liked to and given more opportunity I would have worked harder to fix that. It was pointed out before the de...

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Mishael S. N
10:41 Jun 10, 2023

Woohoo! Katherine you wowed me. Will there be another chapter of the story? I love your choice of words, you were graphic in your description, the suspense, top notch. You got my full attention, then the story ended and I was not disappointed. Congratulations.

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10:44 Jun 10, 2023

Thank you! This is great to hear. I doubt there will be more of this story though, none of my characters live long enough for me to write a sequel!!

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Mishael S. N
23:07 Jun 16, 2023

Fair enough. You did a great job.

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Brittany Butler
03:26 Jun 10, 2023

I really enjoyed this - congratulations on the win! It pulls the reader in quickly, is perfectly paced, and is strong in its simplicity. And oh gosh, realizing the other prisoner's real punishment was "to be a traitor to [his] own kind?" I'm still wincing! Well done.

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09:34 Jun 10, 2023

Thank you Brittany! Yeah, that last twisted punishment was added in a later edit. I love when I find a twist within a twist. Thank you for reading. I hope that wincing stops soon!

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01:49 Jun 10, 2023

Very frightening. Had to read to the horrible end. As you wrote to 'my lips are sealed' I began to realize that the other prisoner couldn't speak. What a problem. Oh dear. Kept on hoping Edmond may somehow be saved but he couldn't be. And so wrongfully imprisoned. Well written. Very disturbing.

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09:35 Jun 10, 2023

Thank you Kaitlyn. I really appreciate your comments. Yes, sadly for Edmond there was no way out.

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Glenda Toews
01:08 Jun 10, 2023

Oh, God, the ending... Chilling... I always give my husband crap when he wants to turn on horrors and bloody hell, I just read one! Very Well Done Katharine! I don't want to dive deeper into your brain 😆 Congratulations on your win!

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09:36 Jun 10, 2023

Thanks Glenda. Honestly sometimes I don't want to dive deeper into my brain either! I appreciate your kind words.

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Avery Mossop
00:33 Jun 10, 2023

This was such a gripping story. I really felt for the character. And. the sense of urgency and panic really came through. The ending was so tragic (and amazing). At first you’re feeling so sad for poor Edmond as he’s not going to make it, but then there’s the added horror of a man who has to relive that scenario every night until eventually the person in the next cell fails. Thanks for sharing this great story. And congratulations on the win!! :)

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09:37 Jun 10, 2023

Hi Avery, thank you very much for the congrats and the comments. I'm glad all of that came across in the story.

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Michelle Oliver
23:31 Jun 09, 2023

What a story, congratulations on the win, it’s so well deserved. Such a well crafted story. Kept me gripped until the end with excellent pacing.

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09:38 Jun 10, 2023

Hi Michelle, I'm so glad you liked it. Thank you very much for your kind words.

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Evelyn Griffith
21:59 Jun 09, 2023

Wow, this is so tragic. I loved that I was so shaken from the very first moment. I think it really expresses well that horror doesn't have to be gory. Though this did have evidence of physical cruelty, it didn't show it in the moment of the scene, and I think that can be just as impactful. I also loved that it was set in an almost fantasy-like setting. It made me especially sympathetic to the main character because a lot of my favorite characters have been in situations like that (trapped in a tyrannical king's dungeon). It felt like the mai...

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09:41 Jun 10, 2023

Hi Evelyn, I'm so happy to hear that it pulled you in from the start. I'm often told it is a mistake to open with dialogue, but I guess it works in this instance. I am a big horror fan, but I agree that gore is often unnecessary. Thank you for reading and taking the time to respond to the story.

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Kajsa Ohman
21:15 Jun 09, 2023

Great job, and congratulations. This is a 'real' story, in a rather old-fashioned sense of the word--as, Edgar Allen Poe for example, or Kafka's 'Penal Colony.' I was glad to see it. I loved the 'tiny moment of hope' at the end. Picky little things, such as: 'The last thing he heard were...' You'd want 'the last things were' or 'the last thing was,' preferably the latter. Again, wonderful work.

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09:44 Jun 10, 2023

Hi Kajsa, thank you so much, this is really useful feedback. I know there are a couple of mistakes in there, I ran out of editing time 😕 I LOVE it when picky people read and comment on my stories! Please feel free to come back for future submissions, it's difficult to find people who pay that much attention! The tiny moment of hope is possibly my favourite point in this piece. I'm glad you picked up on it.

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Ellen Neuborne
19:06 Jun 09, 2023

Great twist. A literal response to the figurative prompt! And a great story, full of vivid description and tension.

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20:02 Jun 09, 2023

Thank you - my mind usually takes these prompts to grim places no matter how they start off. I'm glad you liked it.

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Sally Jupe
18:01 Jun 09, 2023

So engaging from the start Katherine, albeit so sad, even though it is fiction, we can all sense the awfulness and injustice of their dire situations. What a great story made from that particular prompt too! All the winning stories here amaze me and I don't get why my own imagination fails to think of anything remotely interesting to write as this........well done for winning!

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20:03 Jun 09, 2023

Hi Sally, thank you for reading and for your kind comments. I will try to check out your stories - I'm sure your ideas are better than you think they are - we are all our own worst critics.

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Anna W
17:38 Jun 09, 2023

Phenomenal! I see why you won, Katharine! Your story gripped me, right from the start. I couldn't read it fast enough! What a cruel and continually torturous punishment, even for an alleged "traitor," It took me a moment to figure out "gaoler" is "jailer," simply because I didn't realize there was a separate British word for that. Your story perfectly gave me the context clues to know everything I needed to know, though. How interesting! I'm glad to have learned a new fact about a difference in American English and British English. Fanta...

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20:06 Jun 09, 2023

Hi Anna, thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment. "Jailer" is also used in UK English - it is a more recent version of the word as I understand it. But I tried to give this story an olde worlde feel so the spelling aged with it. Thank you for the congratulations - I will be celebrating this weekend!

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Lydia Middaugh
17:34 Jun 09, 2023

Brilliant! Totally deserving of a win! Congratulations!

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20:06 Jun 09, 2023

Thank you Lydia, that is very kind.

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Chuck Sears
16:31 Jun 09, 2023

Great story! What a hook at the end!

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20:12 Jun 09, 2023

I like a creepy ending. Thank you for reading!

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Crows_ Garden
16:29 Jun 09, 2023

This is such a lovely take on the prompt. I especially like the traitor's punishment, that's really messed up-

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20:17 Jun 09, 2023

The original ending was a bit less twisty - but I love to mess things up! Thank you for your kind words.

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Rebecca Dushime
16:22 Jun 09, 2023

i'm sorry but the was to scary like when i was reading the my lights want out

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Kevin Logue
16:09 Jun 09, 2023

Kept me gripped throughout, very well done. Congratulations on the win.

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20:18 Jun 09, 2023

Thanks Kevin, thats really good to hear!

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Buzz Shepard
21:54 Jun 25, 2023

Well done!

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Mostafa Fayad
19:30 Jun 18, 2023

Hello Katharine Widdows, I need to talk to you about something you may like, I want to translate some of your stories to arabic and make you have more audience, in a new side of the world. here is my E-mail for more details, if you are interested: mostafa.fayad2009@gmail.com you can ask Thomas Brodkin, he is an author here, about me, and what he and I did together waiting for a massage from you

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Unknown User
13:16 Mar 11, 2024

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