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A Key for a Key

"A script I'm currently working on is eluding me, so I wrote the following to try and work around it."
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Abigail gritted her teeth. Why couldn't her father ever, not once, manage her full name? She was simply a sound, a noise emitted from between filthy lips when he needed to refer to her. The screech of her first initial was his calling-cry when he wanted her, or a whine when she wasn't good enough.

"Coming, Father." She picked up the tray, heavy with ale and meat, curling her skeletal fingers around the oak handles and lifting it with a grunt. But the hardest part of the journey was yet to come - walking the four hundred yards between the pantry and her father's office between two long lines of cages, each packed with filthy, hungry animals that snarled and spat until she reached the relative safety of the study.

Though she hated and almost feared them, Abigail could not find it in her heart to blame the poor buggers. Half-starved, never washed and without a thing to do day after day, they could hardly be blamed for the almost feral creatures they had become. And yet still they made her skin crawl with their whistles and spits, and her skin prickled as she braced herself for the walk.

"Ayyyyy? What's taking you so long?"

"On my way!"

She sucked in a deep breath and braced herself. Then, placing her back against the heavy oak door, she pushed with all her might and entered the cells.

For a few blessed moments, all was silent. And then it began.

"Hey hey, here she is!"

"Come on, beautiful, let's have a look at you. Let's see those pretty paps, ey?"

"You want some, sweetheart? You only have to ask, old Hal's here for ya!"

No matter how many times she walked the corridor, the whistles never stopped. She could not even remember when they had begun; even as a child, holding tight to her father's hand, she had seen the lecherous glances at the neck of her blouse, and the eyes of a greedy man already undressing her in his mind. They did not intimidate her, though, they never had.

She refused to be hurried. Though they made her skin crawl as they joked about the sweetness of her non-existent breasts, she walked in a steady, reassured pace to the office, responding to their lewdness with sneers and spits of her own. Her chin never once wavered from its petulant poise. She was, as the men never failed to remind her, an icy-hearted wench.

"Father?" She knocked with her elbow and took his grunt as indication that she should enter.

He looked suspiciously at the meal she placed in front of him. "What's in the pie?"


He cut himself a large slice and nodded approvingly through a mouthful of crumbs. Abigail took advantage of his momentary distraction to grab a sheet of newspaper from the counter and stuff it into her petticoat pocket, before sitting down to join him.

Perhaps their cries would not be so cruel, Abigail mused, as she caught sight of her reflection in the pewter water jug if they had any ring of truth. She was not beautiful. Smallpox had scarred her face, even her lips, and her eyes were large and wide set, giving her the appearance of a toad. Though she was not yet out of her teens, her flesh hung loosely on her skull, falling into lines that made her look forty.

"Ayyy! What you staring at? Vanity's a deadly sin."

Silently Abigail turned from the jug and tried to focus her attention on her father. He could not have been more different from his daughter - a pot belly swelled beneath his leather apron, his greying beard desperately attempting to disguise a plethora of chins. But despite his grossness he was a man of iron, whose fists could beat a man to a pulp within minutes, and frequently did. Perhaps one day he would end up behind his own bars, but the joy of being a gaoler was the liberty to ignore the law without risk, for who could be found to imprison a gaoler?

"Any news?"

Her father laughed coarsely. "Men kill and rape and steal, and they wind up in here. The same world and nothing changes. Did you expect any?"

"Not really."

He frowned as she took a sip of her ale. "Aren't you going to eat anything, A?"

Abigail shrugged. Eating meant flesh, flesh meant curves, and curves meant more lecherous glances. Her bones kept her safe, for though they were brave enough in the safety of their cells, men now cowered back when she unlocked them, not even making an effort to make a grab for her. If you had asked the men why the made no move, they would have sneered, black lips curling back from yellow teeth, and spat that they didn't want a scrap like that, they wanted a real woman.

But Abigail knew the truth. They had all been there long enough not to be choosy over their choice of whore. No, they stayed back because of the cruel whip that played between Abigail's fingers, and the sharp bite of her eye that promised that she lusted to use it.

Under her father's stern glare, she cut a wafer of the pie and nibbled at a corner of the pastry.


His whine dragged her back to the present.


"Cut me another slice of pie. And wake up a little. You're miles away today."

Not miles away, she reflected, as she cut her father another generous slice. Just a few feet. She stared at the wall that divided the office from the final cell, the only single cell in the entire gaol. The only cell from which she had never heard so much as a word.

After letting out a generous belch, her father dismissed her. With a sigh of relief, she picked up the tray, stuck her back defiantly to the door, and raised her chin once more.

When the cacophony of groaning men had at last died down and the last dish was dripping on the rack, Abigail pulled out the filched piece of newsprint and laid it out flat. Lines and crinkles had smudged the text, but it was still possible to identify the letters. She began examining them, one by one.

After four hours, she sat back, rubbing her eyes. As far as she could tell, she had advanced no further and gained nothing but a headache and a sore arse. She had counted twenty-four different letters so far though she had no idea how you made the funny black lines into sounds or anything that made sense. She also had more than neglected her duties - supper for the prisoners was due in an hour, and she hadn't begun - and yet she knew that her father would neither notice nor care if they went unfed.

Not for the first time, her mind drifted to the single cell. He could write, she knew - she had herself delivered his letter to the post office. Maybe if she took this to him?

Unconsciously, her fingers went to her belt and found the key to his cell. She almost envied him. The key to his freedom was of iron, it existed, it jangled as she moved. He could reach out and take it when she entered his cell to serve supper if he so wished. If he were unafraid of her whip.

Her key did not even exist. Though she had done no wrong she, too, was as much a prisoner as any of the men. The keys at her waist did not include the great one for the outside door. Long had she dreamed of pinching it when her father was drunk, or never returning from one of her trips to market. But she was too ugly to be accepted by any as a maid, and without understanding of the magical language of black print on white, how could she earn her bread?

He might help her, but not for nothing. She clenched her fist tightly at the thought of what he might ask in exchange for her freedom.

The little iron key dug into her hand. Slowly, she uncurled her fingers.

A freedom for a freedom. Liberty for liberty. A key for a key.

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