After a long boring prison wagon ride later we rounded a bend in the hills above the city. Vassar Prison, stood gleaming in the midday light. It was an unattractive blocky building four levels high with the worst offenders on top. A massive wall encircled the grounds, the top had iron spikes, and broken chunks of glass embedded in the top.
“Whooo boys fresh meat!” A loud and obnoxious prisoner called out when they brought me up the stairs.
I tried to ignore them as they hooted and hollered. The guards packed weighted truncheons. The older guard looked like he had bloodied his stout club quite a few times. The younger man’s eyes darted around looking for threats.
I’d been searched and almost everything interesting had been taken from me. Fortunately I managed to conceal a stock checkering tool. It’s not the most formidable weapon but in a pinch I figured I could shove it in someone’s neck.
They dusted me with some nasty smelling white powder and shaved my hair. I had always been one who took pride in having a full head of hair. Even if I kept it closely cut, the nasty uneven splotchy shave job they gave me was horrible.
It was warm in the Black level, despite it being spring. The tin roof amplified the heat of the sun. I couldn’t imagine the oppressive heat of late summer. The smell of unwashed bodies, urine, and feces was strong. I tried to breathe through my mouth to avoid vomiting on the granite blocks beneath my feet. The skinny outside windows too high to reach let in a pittance of light and air.
The younger guard opened an empty cell. If I was lucky I wouldn’t have a large cell mate named Guido.
“Get in.” The older guard ordered. I didn’t dare disobey; I wanted to keep the number of lumps I already had in my head.
They closed the steel bars and locked me in.
“Put your hands through the bars so we can unlock you.” The guard explained, he seemed surprised and annoyed that I didn’t know the routine. “Unless you’d rather keep those wrist irons on?”
“Oh no please.” I said as I stretched my arms through the steel.
The younger guard fiddled with the lock and in a few moments my wrists were free. I pulled them back inside and rubbed them. “Thank you.”
The older guard grunted, “What are you playin’ at?”
“No. Two Ten you’ve been playing a strange game with us since the Airborne Police placed you in our care.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
The guard slammed his truncheon against the bars “Prisoners don’t get to say ‘I’ in here.”
“What should… one say?”
The younger guard said, “That’s yer prisoner number.”
The older guard adjusted a big wad of chewing tobacco and spit a glob of nasty brown spit on the floor. “Oh come on now, Prisoner Two Ten you’re full of bird droppin’s. Nobody arrives in the Black Ward without a least some prior stints in a place like this.”
The younger skinnier guard nodded, “Yeah who’d you kill?”
“Kill? No I… Two Ten has not killed anyone.” It felt odd to refer to myself as a number.
“What then? Did you steal the virtue from a girl?”
I shook my head.
“Why is Two Ten in here then?” The older guard asked.
“I…” a club smacked the bars again, “Two Ten is accused of stealing a Raptor.”
They stood silent for a few moments until the older guard began laughing. “That’s a good one Two Ten; looks like we’ve got us a joker. Come on, let’s go.” He said to the younger guard and they disappeared.
I sat down on a granite ledge and took in the surroundings. The granite walls were scratched, pitted and dirty. A couple of buckets sat in the corner, while several filthy mattresses were stacked against one wall. Then it hit me, this room was too large for a one or two man cell. I counted the burlap bags.
My heart sank when I realized I’d be sharing the room with a bunch of Black Ward prisoners. The worst of the worst lived in this room, murderers, rapists, and people who talk in the theatre.
They must have been out on a work detail. They worked in the iron ore mines. Steel was almost as important to the economy as cattle.
Unfortunately I had all day to sit and think about my new cell mates. I imagined a room full of rough burly types standing a head taller than me who would love nothing more than to use me as a punching bag, or something much worse.
I had nothing to read, nothing to listen to other than the occasional muted conversation down the hallway. The cell across from mine was empty.
Eventually I heard several chained footsteps approaching. I shrank back from the entrance. The door opened and seven filthy prisoners walked in.
“Hey Forty Six we got us a new one.” A skinny little man said when he noticed me. He smiled revealing a mouth missing quite a few teeth.
“What’s that Thirty Three? A new guy ‘eh?” A massive dark haired man asked as he stuck his chains through the bars to be released.
I didn’t know what to do, should I show them my strength? Prove I wasn’t a weakling, but compared to this Forty Six man I looked like a weakling.
After all the men had been unlocked and their chains pulled through the bars Forty Six walked up to me. He was filthy, his clothes ragged, he smelled of oil, crushed rock and sweat. His skin was a deep olive, so he was probably from one of Velderland’s island protectorates.
I stood; he didn’t say anything for the longest time. Then I noticed he had a lazy eye. His left eye wandered around looking sideways while his right fixed on me. I tried to ignore the moving eye but it was hard not to stare.
At this point in time I began doubting why I had decided to keep my bond with Windrider. I had offered him to Carolyn but she hadn’t taken him. I guess I was stubborn, why should they be able to force me to give it up? I almost ran to the bars right then to yell for a guard to let me give up my Raptor. I swallowed hard and shoved my fear down with the bile.
He kept staring at me not saying a word, the other prisoners didn’t say much. Hushed side conversations but no one dared interfere with the ritual. Fourty Six was obviously the Alpha male of this cell.
After standing for a while I realized he was waiting for me to make the first move. Should I hit him? Prostrate myself on the ground in front of him and beg for mercy?
You’re a dead man.
Actually that thought had occurred to me. But since I had been the one foolish enough to put myself in this position I figured I’d try and make the most of it.
I held out my hand, “Hello Forty Six, the guards called me Two Ten. Looks like you guys are stuck with me.”
He didn’t say anything, his lazy eye looked down at my hand but I wasn’t sure if that was his doing or an unconscious act. He didn’t shake my hand, didn’t smile, he just stood there like a stone ink Construct.
I lowered my hand and casually put it in my pocket around the handle of my checkering tool. “What do you want? Are you going to beat the stuffing out of me to show me how tough you are?”
He smiled, revealing a mouth that had met many high speed knuckles. “Not today, yer first night in the Black Ward is a freebie.”
“Yep, the rules o’ Black Ward say new guys gets one day ta adjust. Then we beat the stuffin’ out of ya.”
“Well thank you for not beating my head in.”
He laughed a genuine belly laugh, “Yer a silly one. What was yer job ‘fore this?”
I shrugged, “Two Ten is… err was a Journeyman Armsmaker.”
“Really?” The scrawny prisoner asked, “You made smoke poles?”
I hated the term smoke pole. The weapons I made were precision instruments of destruction, not inaccurate muskets. “Umm, yes, I mostly made Carbines for the Airborne.”
Forty Six sat down on the nearby granite shelf, “Been up in the air before?”
I nodded and began telling them about the last few days. The prisoners pulled out their mattresses and sat down like children waiting for grandma to start story time. They must not get much entertainment. Maybe that’s why they didn’t beat prisoners on their first day, so they could get some news of the outside before they crushed your spirit and head.
I told them of my work in Tent city, of the sneak attack by the Skaji. They hung on every word some with mouths agape. I told them of shooting the enemy rider, rescuing Carolyn and flying to safety. I didn’t embellish too much, my tale was hard enough for me to believe. I omitted the part where Carolyn told me I had the potential to learn how to work the ink.
A young red haired kid called Three oh Eight, raised his hand like he was in school so I pointed at him, “So if yer some kinda hero how did you end up in this slice o’ hells?”
I sighed, “They say I stole my Bird’s bond. That I’m a thief for not giving him up.”
The prisoners growled in disapproval. “That ain’t fair you got the short stick.”
I nodded, “I guess I’m a fool, I should have just let them have him.”
Forty Six slapped me on my still healing shoulder with one of his massive paws. I winced. “Nae Two Ten, if you did that we woulda not heard yer story. Even if yer full of droppins.”
I crossed my arms, “I… Two Ten is telling the truth. It is a crazy story but it is what happened.”
Thirty Three spit, “Bah yer a liar, you think just cuz we’re prisoners we be complete numbskulls. I says we beat him now.”
The scrawny man launched himself off his filthy mattress and charged me, I brought my hands up in front of me to be ready to grapple with him but I didn’t need to.
Forty Six grabbed the Thirty Three by the collar, “Hey I says we don’t beat him. Even if his story be full of droppins I liked it. Two Ten tells a good yarn. If he’s tellin the truth, an the Skaji are attackin we’ll hear eventually.”
Thirty Three sat back down, he had murder in his eyes. I’d have to watch my back around him.
The guards came down the hall and shoved tin plates of hard bread and thin gruel through the bars. When they reached our cell they only had seven plates.
“Hey where is the plate for Two Ten?”
A guard, one I hadn’t seen before, stopped and looked at me. “Did you work today?”
“Well then I don’t have no food for you.”
My shoulders slumped, I was starving. The guard laughed manically and left.
I found an unoccupied corner of the cell and sat down head on my knees. How had I come to this? Why was I such a fool?
A few moments later someone tapped me on the head. I looked up. Forty Six handed my half of his bread.
He shrugged, “I liked yer story. Even if it be a fantasy.”
I thanked him and began devouring the crusty bread. It was horrible stuff but I was so hungry it tasted like a master chef had prepared it.
As the light from the window faded two guards came rapping their truncheons on the cell doors. “All quiet in the Black Ward!”
When they passed our cell they stuffed a “clean” mattress and blanket through the bars. “Here you go Two Ten.”
I reached for the sewn burlap sack but a large hand found it first. “Nope. This be mine, you can have that one.” Forty Six pointed to his old set.
As I reached for it another prisoner snatched it, down it went until I ended up with a filthy lumpy thing that had to be infested with colonies of fleas and lice. I had a half a blanket that looked like rats had taken large portions of it to build nests.
I ended up lying furthest from the door, which brought in less stale air for one to breathe.
I was tired but found sleep very hard to come. Most of the prisoners had fallen asleep rather quickly, but I worried that as soon as I slept Thirty Three would shove something through my ribs.
Eventually my eyes became heavy and I couldn’t fight the fatigue any longer.
I found myself flying, soaring above the clouds. The stars beautiful jewels, sent their light across mind boggling distance to shine upon our home. My arms were covered in feathers, I could feel the leather straps on my legs above my talons. On the earth below a heard of buffalo lazily wandered eating grasses. Despite being so high in the air I could see them as if I was but a few paces away.
The stars melted away as the sun rose. A sick buffalo was having a hard time keeping up with the herd. I folded my wings and dove dropping from the sky like the weapon of a vengeful god. Warm blood filled my beak, yum salty!
I awoke as something struck my ribs. “Two Ten get yer sorry carcass up!” It was Forty Six, was he going to administer my beating now?
His hands roughly pulled me to my feet. “Stow yer bed now!”
I shook the sleep from my eyes and stacked my “mattress” up on the pile and tossed the blanket on top. I reached for my boots, they were gone. Thirty Three was wearing them.
“Scrawny little bastard!” I yelled as I charged the smaller man, he looked up just in time to see my fist connect with his eye. He fell squealing like a little girl. I leapt on top of him and put my fingers around his throat.
Meaty arms pulled me off Thirty Three. I struggled but couldn’t break free.
The scrawny man got up and slammed his whole body into my stomach. I nearly vomited but somehow managed to keep what little was in my stomach down.
“Halt right now!” Forty Six yelled as he grabbed both of us. “Two Ten, you slept too long and lost yer boots. Buggered luck is all. Most of us aint got no foot wear.”
“He hit me! Cursed smoke poler dared strike me!”
“Shut it both of ya guards are comin’.” The big man said as he struggled to keep us apart.
As soon as the guards appeared everyone snapped to attention.
“Good mornin’ Crew three!”
“Good mornin’ Overmaster Perry!” my cell mates replied with false enthusiasm.
He was looking down at a clipboard and scribbled something with a very expensive regenerative quill. The magic ink symbols on the feather made a continuous supply of regular ink, no clumsy ink pot required.
“I see you’ve got a new cell mate… good I’d like him to survive for at least a year please.”
Whoever this Overmaster was he was slimy but he knew how to manipulate men. His prison officers uniform was crisp, freshly pressed deep blue with not a speck of lint or dirt to be found. His tall boots shined and his truncheon probably had never been applied upside a man’s head.
“Two Ten, up front.” He ordered.
I moved up to the gate blinking in the lantern light held by the guards flanking the Overmaster.
He looked me up and down like someone sizing up a side of beef hanging in a meat market. “Hmm you’re not like the prisoners I usually get. Let me see your teeth.” He spoke with a voice that had been trained and cultured.
I grimaced showing him my teeth, I felt like a horse.
“Very nice, well I’m sure in a year or so Two Ten will have teeth like the rest of your cell mates.” He tucked his clipboard under his arm and clicked his heels together. “Welcome to your first day in the mines. Do whatever Forty Six tells you to do, understand.”
“Good.” He turned on his heel and was gone.
The regular guards began hooking up our ankles to the chains. I was surprised to find the anklets were padded.
We were handed a crusty roll and ate on our way to the work site. In a few moments we were outside breathing fresh early morning air. Dawn was a few minutes away. It felt so good to breathe again.
“Take advantage o’ the air when you can.” The prisoner behind me said.
“Cuz yer gonna breathe rock dust for the rest o’ the day.”
We walked chains clanking toward an ominous hole in the mountain.
“Welcome to the Vassar Iron Ore mine, average life expectancy, three ta five years.”