It had been quiet in the cell for longer than usual. The old man, Fenris, hadn't visited, and even the guards hadn't done their round for what felt like a long time. Tarn sat on the hard bench at the back of the cell and played with the dirt beneath his fingernails, scraping it out and wondering how it always managed to then find its way under the opposite nail. It seemed impossible to ever fully be rid of it, the dirt simply shifting around to a new position.
He had spent some time thinking about his favourite places. The machine rooms were the least good, of course, because they were always too hot, and the guards were mean, and some of the boys got squashed to death in the machines. The work was hard, too, but he'd never really minded that: it had been something to do, at least. The wide tunnel with the dirty stream running through it he hadn't liked either, as it had smelled really bad. There were no guards to chase or beat him there, though, and he'd quite liked how quiet it had been, so it balanced out. The streets he'd discovered up on top of the world had been very different but scarier than he'd expected, to the point where he was always confused and always afraid. The lack of direction or purpose had left him uncomfortable, even though most people seemed to be at least a little bit happy. The Round had definitely been his favourite: Wide Riley had been kind and friendly and welcoming, before his chest was squashed by the nasty people who lived on top of the roof, and Tarn had felt for the first time like he belonged somewhere. Belonging was a concept he struggled to understand, but if he had to define it he'd simply point at the doors of The Round. Then again, the place wasn't the same anymore, and everybody he'd known there was dead. Other than Wide Riley he was having difficulty remembering anybody else's name, and even the specifics of Wide Riley's face were starting to slip away. He worried that soon he'd wake from sleep to find he'd forgotten the man entirely.
The jail cell slipped somewhere in the middle. It was a good temperature, neither too cold nor too warm, though it was damp, the walls running wet with an oily sheen. Its confines reminded him of his old sleeping hole, which he liked, though really it gave him too much space - it would need to be smaller to be properly cosy like the sleeping hole. They brought him food, and the helpings had even got bigger and more filling the longer he'd been there, which made him think that perhaps the guards here actually liked him. He knew they weren't family, but perhaps they could still be his friends. Best of all were the conversations with Fenris, who had initially seemed intimidating and even a little frightening but had since softened and even become compassionate towards Tarn. He seemed genuinely interested in what Tarn had to say, just like Wide Riley but older. So although the cell wasn't his absolute favourite, it was a lot better than the worst.
Tarn was woken by the noise of the door scraping open down the hallway. He didn't know how long he'd been sleeping for or how long it had been since he'd seen anyone. He recognised the short, rapid footsteps as belonging to Fenris, and swung his legs down onto the floor of the cell.
"You are awake, good," Fenris said, arriving outside the bars of the cell and looking furtively left and right. "it is time to move you. You must do precisely as I tell you."
"I will try," Tarn said, a little hesitantly. "I do like it here, though. Can't I stay?"
The old man glanced at him in confusion, then shook his head in irritation. "No," he said, unlocking the door to the cell and swinging the bars aside. "Now, up you get. Follow me."
Not wanting to annoy him further, Tarn stood and walked to the edge of the cell. He paused on the threshold for a moment, looking back at the small space which had been his home, then moved tentatively out into the corridor. Although its walls were lined with bricks, overhead the ceiling still looked as if it had been dug directly into rock, and the floor beneath his feet was grainy like dried earth. He remained silent, following Fenris to a turn in the corridor, then another.
"Take me too?" shouted a voice from one of the cells. Tarn peered in as they passed, seeing a dishevelled man with wild eyes and tattoos across his face.
"Can we take him as well?" Tarn asked, hurrying to catch up to Fenris.
"No," said the old man, his voice clipped and tense. "Be silent. Follow and say nothing until I say you can do so."
Tarn knew he'd made another mistake and had really annoyed the old man now. He probably wouldn't want to be his friend anymore, and wouldn't want to have conversations. It reminded him of being hit by the machine room guards when he used his speech. Perhaps he was only allowed to talk when he was shut in the cell?
He was led back to the entrance, reversing the steps from when he'd first been brought here. Several rough arms had gripped his then, pushing him nastily down steps and into the corridors leading to the cell. This time he walked freely behind the other man.
They climbed a staircase, then took an unfamiliar route through a side door into a narrow, windowless passageway. After a series of confusing turns which left Tarn entirely disoriented, they passed through a door to a stairwell. Steps twisted around and around, rising up until Tarn couldn't make them out properly in the gloom above.
"Up here, quickly," Fenris said, beginning to climb.
The steps were difficult, one side being very narrow and the other being deeper. A thin rope wound its way up the staircase and Tarn clung to it as he navigated his way up, watching his feet carefully as he pushed up to each step. The staircase seemed never-ending, twisting up and up and up. Gradually the air began to smell less dense and dank.
Finally they paused, and Fenris manipulated something out of Tarn's sight, then there was a creak of old hinges and a wooden trapdoor was flung upwards, illuminating the stairwell with flickering yellow light.
"Come," Fenris' voice beckoned. Tarn did as he was told and climbed the last few steps, emerging out of the stairwell onto a wooden-floored platform with stone walls and a roughly boarded ceiling. A brazier hung from the ceiling on chains, burning brightly. Between the edges of the ceiling and the stone walls were large gaps, beyond which Tarn could make out stars in the night sky. "You will stay here," Fenris continued. "Do not leave this place. Do not make a sound. Wait here until I return. Get some rest."
And with that, the old man disappeared back down the trapdoor, closing it behind him.
Tarn noticed a platter of food in the corner, far more generous and elaborate than anything he had eaten here previously. He leaned on the stonework, stretching to see through the gap. Far below he could make out yellow pinpricks of light in clustered patterns, though he couldn't possibly fathom what they were.
He was up above ground again, he knew, perhaps even higher than before. Yet he was trapped once more within the stone walls of the tower. He wondered whether the world was nothing more than a series of prisons, through which one travelled, until death.
Thanks for reading! I hope you're enjoying these puzzley, non-linear chapters. :) Your support is greatly appreciated, whether through votes, comments or being a patron at patreon.com/simonkjones
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The Mechanical Crown (complete novel!)Fantasy
An explorer, a princess, a secret and a sword. A belief that the world can be better. The Mechanical Crown is an epic adventure full of intrigue, mystery and adventure. Plus a bit of romance. **Selected for the Wattpad Picks FEATURED LIST March 20...