I have been a member of the Fantasy Faction forum for getting on for five years now and one of the best things about the community has been the writing contest – it’s only 1500 words so come give it a go! Contest winners were posted on the website but that hasn’t happened for a while, so I’ve been asked to fill in. It’s an honour to do so, and here is another winner.
The theme for the competition when this story won was “Imprisoned”, and the winning story is “Small Time Crooks”, by Alex Hormann. You can follow Alex at his blog ‘At Boundary’s Edge’ on his twitter to see more of his thoughts on SFF and other such things, or come join us at the forum!
“The world sits upon the shell of a great tortoise,” I said. “This tortoise walks across the great desert of creation, heading for the distant oasis. There, at the end of all things, it will bathe in the waters and we will all be reborn in the kingdom of the New God. Until that day, we walk as one. Ever moving, never still. Nothing can contain us as we march toward our shared destiny.”
Jopra stared at me for a long while, then tilted his head left and right in sequence to take in our surroundings. “You have to admit though,” he said. “An iron cube does a pretty close job.”
I folded my arms in mock indignation. “I am trying to educate you. It is hardly my fault if you refuse to indulge in a little intellectual escapism.”
“Sucmir,” he said, slowly so as not to cause offence. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. Really. But this is entirely your fault.”
“I think you’re overstating my role in the decision making process.”
“Who said we should become thieves?”
“Well, I did.”
“And who said we should come to Barahan?”
“You agreed it sounded like easy pickings,” I argued, but I had to concede he had a point.
“And who chose the Prime Scholar’s library as a target?”
“Me, again. Though in my defence the easier pickings had already been picked. Presumably because they were easy.”
“Just one final question. Who was it that, when confronted by the Prime Scholar, decided to rush him with a sword.”
“He’s ninety-three, Jopra! How was I supposed to know he could take us both on in a fight? It wasn’t even a fair fight. It never is with magi. Besides, nobody ever warned me he had magic powers.”
“Then I put it to you, Sucmir, daughter of Pannin, that you are wholly and singularly responsible for our current predicament.”
Our current predicament, as he had so artfully worded it, was rather dire. The moment I had raised my sword to the old man, he’d mumbled something in the Red Tongue and the next thing I knew both Jopra and myself were stuck in an iron cell. Two metres across in every direction, there wasn’t really enough room for us to both be comfortable. Then, I suppose comfort wasn’t terribly high on the list of priorities for keeping prisoners. It was at least cleaner than most cells I’d spent nights in over the years. No trace of previous occupants.
There was air on the cell, fresh though it couldn’t tell its source. Light too, although the walls were plain and windowless. Jopra had given them a lick and confirmed they were iron. One of his disgusting little gifts, that was. Given that the walls and ceiling and floor were all perfectly smooth and there appeared to be no seams where they met, I had to assume our cell was magical in nature. The thought did not console me magi are trouble, simple as. I never would’ve tried to rob the old man if someone had warned me. The Prime Scholar of Barahan was supposed to be an old man in a tower, not one of the greatest spellmongers of the age.
Yet here we were.
I’m not sure how long we spent in silence. Time flows differently when you’re imprisoned. A day can stretch out to become a year. Even an hour can feel like an eternity. But just when you get used to it, when you think you’ve been in there forever, a guard turns the key and sets you free, and you find not all that much has changed while you’ve been gone. Within our cubicle, there was not even the drifting of shadows by which we could keep the time.
“Where do you think we are?” asked Jopra.
“In a box,” I answered, more acidly than I intended.
“Yes, but where? I remember blacking out in the tower, and then we were here. I’m a light sleeper. If we were taken far, I’d have woken. We must be fairly close.”
“He’s a magi,” I reminded him. “He could have thrown us a hundred leagues with a click of his fingers.”
Jopra shook his head. “No. We’re still in the tower. I can feel it.”
“Oh, well. If you can feel it, that’s another matter.”
“But how did we get in here?” he continued, ignoring me. “One of these walls must be a fake. Or maybe the ceiling hinges.” He stood and started to feel around the rims of the room with his fingertips.
I left him to it. I didn’t now much about magi – secrecy being very much their prerogative – but I felt confident that we wouldn’t find an exit until such a time that the Prime Scholar wanted us to. Given the look on his face as he cast his spell, I doubted that moment would come any time soon. Refusing to stand, I shuffled to the middle of the room so Jopra had space to go about his futile search.
“Nothing,” he eventually admitted, and slumped against the wall. Our feet touched in the middle of the room.
The silence dragged out, interrupted only by the rumbling of my stomach. If the Prime Scholar wanted us to survive in captivity, he’d have to bring us food sooner or later. Preferably sooner, but either way he’d be forced to reveal the entrance, and thus the exit, to our prison.
“Sucmir,” said Jopra after a while. “I don’t think is a regular prison.”
I looked around our well-lit windowless new home. “Whatever gave you that impression?”
“It smells wrong.”
“The only thing I can smell is you.”
“Exactly. If this were a prison, it would reek of a hundred other things. It’s too plain, too bland. I think there’s magic behind this. Not just how we got here, but the walls themselves. None of it has been used before. I think the Prime Scholar made this prison just for us.”
“Well. Doesn’t that you feel nice and warm inside?”
Jopra opened his mouth to say something else, but I cut him off before he could speak.
“Does it matter?” I asked, not waiting for an answer. “Wherever we are, whatever this place is, we are not leaving it. Not until our gaoler comes by with a key. There’s nothing we can do to escape, so why bother trying? We may as well sit back and get some rest.”
“And tell each other stories about tortoises?” he asked with an arched eyebrow.
“Unless you have other inspiring stories.” I had a full repertoire of such things, having spent years in the temple studying fables. A shame for my tutors that the moral teachings hadn’t stuck quite so well as the imagery.
“I would find silence more inspiring.”
So silence it was. I closed my eyes and tried to get some sleep. Not the easiest thing in the world, as the floor and walls were hard and smooth. I turned over a few times, all to no avail, and in the end settled on sitting upright, awake but as rested as I could be in the circumstances.
I must have drifted off at some point, for the next thing I was aware of was the room shaking. Jopra was already awake, and we both tried to no avail to steady ourselves with hands pressed against the walls and floor.
“We’re moving,” he said, rather unnecessarily.
“They must have loaded us onto a cart,” I said. “Or a boat.”
The room stopped moving as abruptly as it had started, and my heart slowed accordingly. It started pounding in swift order when there was a loud cracking noise from overhead. The ceiling of our prison slowly rose and light spilled in. For a moment it was blinding, all I could see was white brilliance, but slowly the dazzling brightness became bearable and I could see again.
Jopra screamed, a sound of pure horror, and I understood why.
I was looking at an eye. A human eye, impossibly big, and set in a wrinkled face to the same scale. The giant’s face smiled and pulled away, and it was then that I recognised him. The Prime Scholar.
“How are faring little thieves?” he asked. His voice was not the booming I had expected, but it sounded as though he was standing next to me. “I trust we’re getting comfortable?”
“What have you done?” I shouted.
“Well,” he said, as if he were being perfectly reasonable. “You came to steal my magics, so I thought I’d give you a free taste. A little bit of shrinking, you see. I don’t have the time to manage prisoners. But, I have always fancied having some pets.” His smile broadened. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you fed and watered. In fact, I’ll get some food for you right now. Don’t go anywhere.”
The Prime Scholar laughed as he slid the lid of our prison back into place.