It wasn't our responsibility to judge prisoners, only hold them and, at times, punish them if ordered. Even then, it was rarely our duty to bring those we watched to book. Prisoners were, despite their crimes, citizens of our city. They remained in their rights, though some might have been stripped.
Without such nuance, guards would not have cared for those we looked after. We would never have fed prisoners or gone through the trouble of ensuring they survived their sentence time without first recognizing they were people with souls. And yet, I was chastised for my willingness to befriend those who sat behind bars. My superiors saw it as a flaw, but I might have wished for alternatives.
Regardless, time proved most cruel in its deliberation.
"A book? Am I worth the pages to you?" Quill remarked as I tried to slide him an old work of fairy tales through the thick bars of his cell.
Our game of insulting jokes was childish but friendly. I thought even if we were unlikely friends, perhaps we were acquainted. If nothing else, we saw one another nightly, and I spoke to Quill more than any other prisoner.
My Block had been otherwise vacant for some days, aside from my usual prisoners. Brisk, an older man with a habit of public indecency. Prim, a local whore who often found herself in the arms of married men. And Quill, the boy who intentionally allowed himself to be captured weekly. They weren't our city's only repetitive offenders, but according to my superiors, they were the softest.
As usual, Quill and I spent much of the night conversing to pass the time. Perhaps it wasn't our usual just yet, but it grew further common.
"I've gone a great distance to bring you this gift," I said.
"And why would a guardsman do that?" He asked.
He stood opposite me on the other side of the cell but refused to take the bound pages.
"There's no rule against it," I argued.
Still, without a rule, I knew not to let another guard find me being so friendly.
"Still, it's odd. Have you considered that I don't know how to read?" Quill suggested, and honestly, it hadn't occurred to me.
"Keep your book, and spare us both the embarrassment. Your kindness is a weapon I needn't suffer."
He returned to his bed, and I to my seat. Could he not read, or was he afraid of my gift? Perhaps both answers were accurate, but one felt more likely than the other. Quill had a tongue I found, perhaps not silver, but sharper than most. Surely he could understand written language, no?
Shift change came in an hour, at dawn, as it always did. Before my superior arrived, I hid my books in a satchel I dawned over my shoulder. Such a shame I had to sheath knowledge, but many guardsmen were illiterate. I wanted respect, and proving skill was a way to earn it. Still, reading might have distanced my feet further from those who were less fortunate and unable.
"Report?" Gallo, my superior and commanding officer, spoke as he entered the corridor.
I had only just approached the door when he opened it
"All prisoners accounted for," I told the scarred face of a man.
Gallo was the closest thing to a knight the Salt Barrel had, but I doubt even he could read. His skills were more outstanding than my own and others, regardless. He fought in two wars, The War of Sand and Fire and The war of Wood and Seas. Alongside men I could only dream of meeting before the endless sleep, he proved himself near unkillable. And many men tried the dare. Gallo's body, from his eye down to his boot, was littered with reminders of his service. Rumor had it that he nearly lost a single battle when he dropped his spear mid-combat. Determined to protect his kingdom, Gallo strangled his rivals to death and earned victory. He won a war with his bare hands, so my superior's story was told far and wide.
My father told me of him.
They fought together for a short while, my father, Gallow, and many warriors who retired to a life of guardship. But they were warriors before they became what life made of them. As wasted as I felt in that place, I knew Gallo was a treasure rusting in wait.
"Any penalties or binds," he asked as I stood ready to give him my keys and take my leave.
"No, Sir," I said.
As light crept through the small rounded windows of the corridor, candlelight was replaced by stronger beams of warmth.
"You can go, Boy. Tell your mother we appreciated the bread. Softest we've had in a while," He finally broke his act and offered a grin before holding out a hand to take my keys.
"Yes, sir," I said as I passed the metal and stepped beyond the reinforced door to find the spiral's steps on the other side.
My descent was short-lived since my block was four stones up from the Barrels spout. As I left the structure, sunrise gave life to the city turning blue to vibrant hues of green. The sight never grew old, and still, my eyes strained.
The day had only just arrived, but I had been worn for many hours.
My walk through pebbled streets was lonesome with crowds having been thinner at the hour. Regardless of my drowsiness, I knew sleep was far and away. At least Lord Jordan's Castle acted as a guiding monument. Without any thought, I could chase after the obscene mission with heavy steps. Though I never lived in his lavish forms, my family had always been close. Sitting in the shadow of Jordan's tallest wall, we lived in a two-stone cohidres.
The two-floored structure held three families on each level. My Mother, Father, Brother, and I were lucky to have the larger space of the divided second level, but it was small all the same.
In the constant shade of our lord's domain, even on the brightest day, our home was melancholy. Wooden floors creaked even under thick rugs as I walked inside. Father was lying in bed as always, while Mother stood at the stove stirring something in a pot. My brother was nowhere to be seen, so it appeared I'd have our bed to myself.
"How was he," I asked my mother as I came up from behind to offer a hug after my long night and the start of her long day.
"Same as always, I'm afraid. Though, there was less blood," she told me.
"Your brother went in early. His apprenticeship is nearly done, you know?"
"Then he'll earn better coin than me soon," I joked as I sat at the table.
Our home was but a single room. To my left was Mother and Father's space. To my right was mine and Lyle's. We used curtains to separate the areas from the kitchen that sat in the middle.
"It's a blessing what you've done for him. He knows what you sacrificed to take care of us all," Mother went on as she brought me a bowl of eggs and rice.
"You take care of us. I only help where I can," I said, and it was the truth.
Mother worked as a cook in our lord's great house. Her earnings kept the roof over our heads, while my earnings kept our pantry full and our socks stitched. In our city, peasant work was too cheap for our family to survive on the back of one.
"How are the cells," She asked while gathering her things to leave.
"Gallow and the men sing of your bread," I said.
"I'm glad, but you know what I ask."
"It's a living Mother, nothing more, nothing less," I remarked.
"You know when your brother ends his apprenticeship, he'll have to find clients of his own. But after that," Mother pondered aloud.
"It's too late for my dream. There will never be an opportunity like the one I've passed. But I've made my peace with it."
I lied to save us the grief of truth.
Mother, standing at the door with her bags, looked at me with pity. What else could it have been? Guilt perhaps? But it wasn't her fault.
I knew three languages, but more than that, I was well versed in cultures beyond our shores. For years I prepared to travel and see the farthest corners of the globe, but I gave that up when Father became ill. Family came first; father taught me that before he lost the use of his tongue. How could I have ever abandoned those who fought to grant me an education? They spent a fortune, Father's gold from his time at war, to give me an education befitting a lord. How could I leave them?
Though, Father's sickness wasn't my only reason for dead dreams. Even if I hadn't chosen to stay, a crucial element was missing. I no longer had a witch to travel with. And only a witch could pass the oceans divide. Only a witch could open the water steps.
The Gods had trapped us in their territories. Ships could only travel so far before hitting what we came to know as an ocean's divide. They were large gaps between territories, between oceans, with the sole purpose of keeping mortals dependent and loyal to their Gods. If a ship tried to cross the gap, it simply fell off the water's edge into a black void of seemingly nothing. No one knew what existed in the void, and no one ever returned from its abyss.