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Chapter III - Cellmates

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Weeks had passed. Or Months. Or Days. It didn’t matter. Senfra’s fortune was gone. He’d saved the world from a power-hungry transmuter, and as a reward, he was thrown into prison. Maybe it was years. He didn’t know how long he’d been here. His cellmate might have been keeping track of time, but he was snoring in the far corner. The lucky dog could sleep through anything. Senfra wanted to yank his beard to wake him up but instead sank onto the floor by the bars, holding his angry stomach.
“Isn’t it time for breakfast?” he called out. “I’m starving. Doesn’t anybody care?”
Of course they didn’t. They didn’t even realize he was directly responsible for saving their pitiful lives. If someone hadn’t stopped the evil transmuter, he would have sent his army of strange beasts from an island in the Cold Ocean onto the mainland to overrun Kroflund. Senfra should have been praised for his efforts, not punished. Without his selfless deed, even this prison would have been in ruins. Actually, it had been in ruins after the Great War, and for some reason, the citizens of Kroflund had chosen to rebuild it before the rest of their homes. Why waste their time on a prison? Because he’d taken a few pieces of gold from some nobles? They were so wealthy they probably never knew it was gone. He should have let the transmuter take over the world. Maybe the old wizard would have appreciated him more than these ingrates.
“I bet you didn’t throw Toth in jail,” he shouted. “Ask him. He never could have succeeded without my help. How would you like to be part dog? Or part monkey. Hisvii would have turned you all into monsters if it weren’t for me.”
“Enough already.” His cellmate, Balsun, pushed himself into a sitting position and shook the dust and pebbles out of his beard. “How do expect anyone to get some rest with all that noise?”
“I don’t expect you to rest for one minute,” said Senfra from across the cell. “I certainly can’t when I’m so hungry.”
The cell reeked of urine and mold, but the foul odor didn’t spoil his appetite. It felt as if it had been a day or two since his last meal. He kicked the bars until his foot was sore.
“What do you suppose it’ll be today?” Balsun scratched his chin through his whiskers, a move that had annoyed Senfra ever since they were forced to be cellmates. “Fresh bread and a tankard of ale or some salted black cod with a hard biscuit? I can smell it now.”
He breathed in the nonexistent scent and gave an irritating sigh of contentment. Did he actually think pretending he was in a classy tavern instead of a rank cell was still funny after all these months? The only sane reason to keep doing it was to bother his cellmate, and it was working well. Balsun’s lips curled into a creepy smile, amused at his own joke.
Senfra missed good food. He even missed bad food. The slop they served here was disgusting, barely edible. If he’d had any gold left, he’d trade it all for one meal at the Gray Dog Inn in Luceville. The old innkeeper was both a good friend and the best cook he knew.
Why did he ever think he could buy his way into nobility? It had been a silly childhood dream and an even sillier plan. Bring his stolen gold to Kroflund, return it to many of the people he’d taken it from, and expect to be rewarded with a mansion and land. Too late now. He had to live with his mistake. If he could do it again, he’d take his earnings to a different city and start a new life, but that would never happen.
“They’ll bring us trash as usual,” he said. “One step better than eating our own vomit.”
Balsun jumped up from his spot against the corner. “If you find the food so objectionable, I’ll take your portion. I’m hungry enough to eat anything.”
He moved toward the bars, presumably to grab more food at the next meal, but Senfra blocked his path in the center of the cell. Balsun’s foul breath reminded Senfra of a stable that hadn’t been cleaned in a month. It was even worse than the surroundings, but Senfra knew he didn’t smell any better. How could he? The jailers never gave them new clothing, and only removed their waste every so often.
“I wouldn’t mind starving to death,” said Senfra, “except that I’d never give you the satisfaction of outliving me. If anything, you should give me your food.”
“Because you’re the big hero.” Balsun pushed against his chest, but Senfra held his ground. “Why don’t you tell me how you saved everyone for the hundredth time?”
“I did save everyone.” Senfra stepped close enough to feel Balsun’s heart beating. “It was on the Cursed Island. Toth can tell you. I was there, and without my help, he never would have defeated Hisvii. You’d be part animal by now, not that you don’t seem like it already.”
“Toth, Toth, Toth,” said Balsun. “Admit that you made up the name and that you’ve never met a necromancer or any other wizard. You’re a common bandit who was caught and punished, no better than me…actually worse than me. I admit I’m no good.”
He pushed Senfra again, but this time Senfra grabbed his arms, pulled his upper body down, and sent a strong knee into his face. Balsun reeled backward and hit the floor. Senfra dove after him, reaching for his neck. He was one headlock away from ridding himself of an annoying cellmate forever.
“Stop making such a commotion, or you’ll skip this meal.”
Senfra pulled himself away from Balsun and looked up. The jailer strolled down the steps with a single tray of gray mush. It looked as if they’d have to share yet another meal.
“That’s better,” said the jailer as he slammed the tray into the iron bars. “Enjoy your breakfast.”
The food splattered across the ground and onto Senfra’s tattered clothing. It should have been steaming hot but instead was lukewarm, probably leftovers from the jailer’s meal.
“Try not to make a mess of it.” The jailer chuckled and returned upstairs.
Senfra was too hungry to be upset or ashamed. He scooped up handfuls of tasteless porridge and shoved it into his mouth, while Balsun did the same. Their feud would have to wait until every morsel was gone. Senfra crunched onto something hard, causing a searing pain within his mouth. He spat out a tiny pebble and continued his meal, eating as fast as possible to get more than his share of the nourishment. If he ate fast enough, perhaps Balsun would starve to death eventually. Beside him, Balsun was clearly pursuing the same strategy.
Within a minute, there wasn’t a speck of food left on the ground. Balsun wiped his mouth on his shirt and ran his messy fingers through his beard, irritating Senfra. He felt like tearing the hairs off his cellmate’s chin, a task that Balsun should thank him for. There were probably thousands of parasites growing fat on all the food stuck in there. Senfra reflexively scratched the thick mat of hair on his head.
“We should escape this prison,” said Balsun. “How many guards do you think they have up there? Two or three? Everyone’s still busy rebuilding the town. I can hear them sawing and hammering all the time.”
“There’s no point leaving,” said Senfra. “I spent my entire life amassing a small fortune, but it’s gone now. All that gold–I could have bought a kingdom and instead I’m stuck in this filth.”
“You did it once.” Balsun edged closer with his bloodshot eyes trained on Senfra’s face. “Why couldn’t you do it again?”
Senfra swallowed over the bile rising in his stomach at the sight of Balsun's peeling skin, gagging on the noxious odor that emanated from his tattered clothes. His skin itched just from being within an arm’s length of the revolting creature. He casually wandered to the far end of the cell.
“Because it would take too many years. I’d die of old age before I was done.”
He continued avoiding Balsun until they settled into opposite corners as usual.
“It’ll be easier to become wealthy this time,” said Balsun. “There are no armies left, and there are fewer guards. Fewer nobles, fewer merchants, yet none of the gold disappeared. The Ferfolk didn’t care about riches when they destroyed the kingdom, so where did it all go?”
“The bottom of the sea?”
“No, it’s all still around, waiting to be taken by a couple of enterprising young men.”
“You don’t look so young.”
“But I feel it.” Balsun peeked through the bars at the staircase, presumably to make sure they were alone with nobody else listening.
“I have a plan to escape,” he whispered, “and it shouldn’t be difficult–even for someone of your limited intellect.”
“So do it yourself.” Senfra folded his arms and sank further into the corner. “Don’t even tell me about it.”
“You keep saying that, but you don’t mean it. Do you?”
They couldn’t have found a worse cellmate for Senfra. Balsun seemed to know every possible thing that annoyed him and enjoyed taunting him whether awake or asleep. He certainly would never agree to helping such a vicious person escape. Balsun was probably a murderer or worse. He belonged in this prison, not Senfra.
“We could be free men within a day.”
“Haven’t you noticed,” said Senfra. “The guards never open these bars. They probably don’t have keys with them. Even if we caught one of them, it wouldn’t help.”
Balsun gave him a patronizing laugh.
“Who told you keys were part of my plan?” he said after finally settling down. “The proper belt buckle would be good enough, and the food tray would make a nice shield in case we encounter any armed guards upstairs.”
Senfra turned away from him. He’d heard the same plan too many times already. Every few days, Balsun brought it up as if it were completely new, yet somehow he felt Senfra had limited intelligence. What a hypocrite. Did it even matter if the plan could possibly work? Senfra didn’t care if he stayed in this prison or found another one to live in. A small shack on the river or a cave in the mountains were no different from this room. Without gold, freedom was pointless. Besides, if he stayed here, he’d have the satisfaction of watching Balsun die at some point. Then his life would be complete.
He spent the rest of the day avoiding interaction with Balsun except at mealtimes, when they fought over the meager scraps of food. According to the jailer, afternoon had come and gone, but it all seemed the same to Senfra. He was either eating, sleeping, or glaring at his cellmate. A loud snore came from across the cell, disturbing his thoughts. Senfra could never sleep through such noise and meals were done for the day. He was tired, hungry, and growing more frustrated every minute. Life wouldn’t be better free from this prison; it would be better free from Balsun. Why should he have to wait another moment?
It was almost too dark to see anything, but a dim glow from the top of the staircase was enough to outline the sleeping figure. Senfra tiptoed from his corner until he was straddling Balsun. All he had to do was put his annoying cellmate into a headlock and squeeze until he stopped breathing. It was nothing he hadn’t done to other deserving people. This time he’d relieve Balsun of his pointless life. He had no reason to hold back. What could the people of Kroflund do to him that would be worse than this torture?
He stared into the darkness for several minutes, preparing for his liberation, while Balsun slept blissfully through it all. Senfra had killed many men before but never anyone in their sleep. Something was different when his opponent was unarmed and unprotected, but it still had to be done. He reached down to his victim’s neck and stopped an inch away. It would only take a minute to be free. He willed his hands to move closer, but they refused. He couldn’t murder his cellmate. Either he’d grown a conscience, or he’d changed his mind about helping Balsun escape. It was a simple plan, but it might be effective if they worked together.
Maybe freedom wouldn’t be as bad as he imagined. He could return to the Gray Dog Inn and live the rest of his life among the fishermen of Luceville. They’d never throw him in jail for saving their lives, and the innkeeper would surely welcome him. Before coming to Kroflund, he’d left the innkeeper enough gold to pay for his room and board for a hundred years. He might even be able to borrow a few coins to buy a good boat.
“Wake up.” He kicked Balsun in the side. “We’re getting out of here.”
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