Fiction Exercises, part 1

I decided to place on this blog a few writing assignments from a writer’s workshop that I attend weekly. I’m starting with one from tonight’s meeting. It has been revised and expanded. I hope you enjoy this offering, and any comments or criticisms are more than welcome. So, without further ado, here is the first entry.

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How long had it been since Orna last slept? She knew a few nights and days had traded off outside her cell’s window, but she had a hard time deciding between five and six sunrises. The round portal had been placed so high the little girl could not even stretch up to look at the trees and pond just past the prison’s moat. The blue-gray stone, scoured clean since its last occupant had died, marked the bounds of her whole universe. She curled up in a lice-ridden sheet of burlap, one that stank of sweat and urine and passed for a blanket on those cold, merciless nights. She did not have the will to cry, all of her tears long dried up.

There was a long, narrow pillow in the far corner, stained with what she hoped was blood and not something worse, next to the bucket for when she had to “go”. And that was it. No chances to meet with her parents, none of the books she loved to read at the Society, none of the little birds in wire cages that she could feed while listening to their tunes, and no one to talk to, except when the guards came by to feed her. She envied the birds. At least their cages had a nice view.

And now she couldn’t even escape from it by dreaming. What had tantalized her mind and fueled a growing imagination every night now seemed as distant as paradise. Orna sniffed the clay cup a guard had given to her for water. If they had added any elixirs to drive away slumber, they were well-hidden. She knew of at least five such liquids, having learned them at the Society of Magic-Workers, and could not find any of the characteristic scents or stains within the little red vessel. Was the constant wakefulness extra punishment, or was it her own body beating itself as bewilderment and guilt sank further and further in?

She had not meant to kill the boy. He had just gotten in the way when she tried to do a spell. He always got in the way, teasing her and trying to throw off her concentration. “Nobody your age can do magic,” he would insist. “No one learns that early, never ever.” This last time, he learned the hard way that she was not faking.

She truly didn’t mean it. But because he was a commander’s son, and a firstborn at that, apparently that meant a girl of ten needed to be caged up for life. Her parents had begged for a pardon, but the commander’s grief would not dislodge, no matter how stupid and blind Orna’s imprisonment was. Legal or not, she was convicted, expelled from the Society, and tossed in here.

What she thought was a hammerstroke thudded against the walls of her cell. But it was just the sliding section in the door that allowed food to be given. One of the guards had opened it, and Orna had been so quiet that it sounded louder.

A hairy hand slid through the narrow opening, offering a plate of dry chicken and a slice of bread. “Thank you,” Orna said quietly as she accepted the dish. She wasn’t as hungry as she thought she would be, so she just nibbled away at her meal.

“Don’t you want water, too?” the guard asked. He had a smooth, warm voice, tender like her father’s.

“No, thanks,” Orna said. She wouldn’t take chances for now, and would see if sleep might come tonight.

“I guess you’ll be back in a few minutes to collect the plate,” she said. She had tried talking to the guards, but they always walked off before any real conversation could start. It was against the rules to converse with prisoners, they told her.

“Actually, I need to speak with you.” He kneeled down so that wide green eyes showed through the slot.

Orna sat up, alarmed and then delighted that someone wanted to talk. “Oh, I have lots of things to talk about!”

“And for now I only have one,” the man said. His eyes turned left and right, to either stretch of the corridor they had dragged Orna through on her arrival. “Escape,” he said in a whisper.

“Escape?” Orna repeated. She dared to hope for it, just for a moment.

“What Commander Qwen did to you was monstrous,” the guard said. “I’m getting you out of here tonight, and your parents will wait for us.”

Orna’s heart leaped at the thought that she could see Mother and Father again. “Of course! Yes. Are we taking anyone else?”

“Keep your voice down,” the guard said urgently. “No, it will just be you. All the other prisoners earned their time here. They did things that they need to be punished for. But this is something I can’t stomach.” His voice started to break, so slightly that Orna almost missed it. “I had a little girl like you, once. My wife and I lost her when she was half your age.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry.”

The guard shook his head from behind the door. His eyes were wet. “No matter. I can’t do anything about that now. But I can do something about this. You’re leaving the country with your parents, and none of you can ever come back. But it has to be tonight.”

Orna stood, discarding the burlap blanket. “I’ll be ready, sir. And thank you. Thank you so much.” She meant it, more than she had meant anything in her whole life. She would be free again, and able to rest and love again.

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