With a theme of “secrets”, Celeste Hayden’s short story I, Writer took 1st prize in the Grade 7–9 division of the 25th addition of the Muriel Collins Writing Contest. Read her winning story below:
The sword flashed in the air, wet with that morning’s mist and fresh blood. His richly coloured cloak swirled around him as he turned more rapidly than the wind, the weight of armor on his back, and it thrilled him beyond imagination. Enemies fell, their bodies a gruesome carpet for him to walk on, his path to the glory that awaited him. Oh, the glory, the unfathomable glory!
Suddenly, with a harsh jolt, reality returned. The familiar clank of the chains affixed to the desk and snaking around his wrists confirmed that.
The man blinked his weary eyes, staring at the metallic walls of his cell. He sighed at the bitter familiarity of their cold, unimaginative surfaces. How he longed for sun! Then again, he might burn up for the warmth his skin was so unaccustomed to. Perhaps it would be wiser to not entertain that thought.
It occurred to him that his pencil’s tip had broken—surely the reason why he’d stopped writing. He reached for another, but there appeared to be none left.
Irritated, he pressed his finger to the button on his desk. He’d have to wait to once more relish in his elaborate dreamworld.
“Yes, Great Ritter?” The heavily accented voice came from a speaker on the ceiling.
“I need more pencils.” He didn’t bother to correct the voice’s fault, though he was by far the most familiar with it.
“Also, I’d like to have my allowance in literature.”
“Yes, Ritter. They shall be brought to you momentarily.”
He waited. After a short period of time, he heard voices approaching the room’s door.
“…pseudonyms necessary?” a new voice, one that he didn’t recognize, was asking.
“Nonsense!” barked the accented voice he’d heard from the speaker. “Of course they’re necessary! If the public knew that there was only one, there’d be absolute pandemonium! Better to just keep the secret.”
“But if we hired more…” the other voice suggested tentatively, “ We’d get more royalties, and—”
“Hire?! HIRE?! Fool! They are not hired—have you learned nothing?! And if we had more, their ways of using words, their intelligence, disposition—it would all have to be taken into account. They are the biggest liars in society, and that was once their life’s work—they were paid to do it! Better to have the one descended from a line of ones practically bred for their unquestioning obedience and skill—and locked up to boot—than to gamble on several free ones and risk them spreading propaganda through their work and razing the government from inside out!”
He had to smirk at this. The biggest liars in society? Perhaps, next to, of course, those who worked for the government.
He heard a series of beeps as both of the men outside had their fingerprints and irises scanned by a mechanism on the door. There was a buzzing noise as the final obstruction was mechanically undone, and the door swung open.
The two men walked into the room. The first to enter was muscled, dark-haired, and had a commanding set to his jaw. The second was much younger, with blond hair—a newbie. The first carried a simple metal box.
“Ritter.” Both men bowed stiffly, the younger a moment later than the elder.
“Gentlemen.” The man folded his hands in his lap.
“I present to you your demanded pencils, and your allowance in literary inspiration.” The guard removed a book from the box. “The book that you are to read is ‘Moby Dick’, by a certain Herman Melville.”
The younger guard snickered. The elder gave him such a glare that he flinched slightly and took a sudden interest in the badge on his uniform.
“You are to read this during your spare time,” the guard continued. “In your sleepingroom. If you are caught reading it at any other time… the Protagonist will be administered.”
The man in the chair barely paid attention to his words, as ominous as they would sound to anyone that knew what he was talking about. He opted to instead watch the younger guard pick apart the red, white and black threads of his badge.
Picking apart the threads of government… yes, I could use that. If only they’d let me write such things…
“Idiot!” the elder guard yelled abruptly.
The other two men in the room started.
The older guard slowly walked up to the latter, his face suddenly contorted with contempt and malice.
“Did you hear me, scum?” he snarled. “I said that if you were caught reading that book, you’d get the Protagonist… you’d die.”
The one called Ritter, only mildly surprised at the guard’s sudden change of demeanor, did not respond.
“That’s what’s going to happen anyways,” the guard whispered, giving him a crooked grin. “Isn’t it? Someday, you’ll take too long to write, or you’ll try to rise up against those who cage you, like the mere animal that you are. And then you’ll be finished, scribbler.”
All was silent for several moments. The guard’s words reverberated across the metallic walls.
The chained man smiled pleasantly. “Sir, I believe that you’ve forgotten that there are many electronic eyes and ears in this room. And I’m afraid that you’ve spoken out of turn.”
At once, the guard went as white as a sheet. After another, briefer pause, he gave another stiff bow.
“I apologise, Great Ritter. I meant no disrespect.”
“I accept your apology,” sighed the man.
After yet another uncomfortable silence, the guard began to speak once more.
“Great Ritter, it has come to my attention that your latest book-“ he spat out the word with contempt, “—under the pseudonym ‘Barb Penniths’ is not yet completed.”
“If I could just have two more days—”
“Two more days?!” exclaimed the guard in astonishment. “Then you will have had two weeks to work on that bloody book!”
“Remember,” he added quickly,” the consequence, as it has always been, for not finishing the book in time will be-“
“The Protagonist. Yes, I know.”
The elder guard raised his arm in a salute. The other copied him.
“All Hail!” he cried. It had been the country’s standard farewell for many years. It had once a long title tacked onto the end, that of the country’s leader, but it had been abbreviated, as most common phrases eventually are.
“All Hail!” mimicked the younger guard.
“All Hail,” said the one called Ritter wearily.
The guards exited. As they did, the man at the desk saw the blond guard look back at him. His expression was one of pity… and awe.
The door closed.
The one called Ritter blinked, shocked at the sight. Never, in many, many years, has one of his line ever been given such a look! It was unheard of since the days where his kind roamed abundant, free. Equal to those who now caged him.
Pity and awe.
He was immediately reminded of the English definition of his title. Yes, a knight was deserving of those. But he?
The one who was treated with supercilious honor and respect, locked up like a wild creature?
The man smiled. Of course, they had reason to lock him up. They feared the power of his words. The same passion that could bring a reader to another world of his own creation could easily turn the tables on then government, coax a once- peaceful nation into rebellion against their so-called ‘leaders’.
But, he reasoned as he picked up his pencil, they also needed him. Since the dawn of language, humankind had slowly acquired a thirst for tales to inspire, inform and entertain. No matter how it strained the economy, no matter how much dangerous, unchained power it held, the practice of putting pencil to paper and creating one’s own small universe could never be snuffed out. Even the government knew this.
Hence, his existence.
He continued the story he’d been working on before the interruption.
There was a visible change in the chained man’s demeanor. His breath slowed, his previously tensed shoulders relaxed, and the premature lines around his eyes grew less defined.
He could hear the maiden’s terrified words, whispered from inches behind him, the movement of the horse beneath him, its back damp with perspiration as he urged it to go faster still. He swung his sword in a show of indomitable might, obliterating any enemy that dared step into his path before they could semse his approaching. Sprays of red- bright shocking crimson that was more vividly coloured than his own cloak—coloured the air.
He was, indeed, a knight! A great and powerful Ritter before whom all bowed, whose strength had no equal and whose bravery shocked all opposition into silence! He would triumph over his enemies and see them on their knees! He would be nothing short of a king… a god! He’d—
He stopped short.
No no no no no. He erased the entire paragraph in a frenzy of near-terror. He mustn’t allow himself to put down—or even think—such things, not even in a story. What if they found out?
As he erased, he resisted the urge to look up at the object that his fear was directed towards. But as, perhaps, all of us would, he eventually did.
The Protagonist was a mechanism fixed to the ceiling directly above his head. At first glance, it seemed non-complex and quite harmless, but the one called Ritter knew far better than to think so himself. It was a conical machine that appeared to be extendable, with several sensors carefully tracking his movements set around it. A green light pulsed gently next to one of them. The one called Ritter had had many a nightmare where it had turned red… and for good reason.
At the very tip of the cone, there was a long, cylindrical piece of metal, shaped much like the business end of an electric drill.
The man below it looked, his expression unreadable. After a moment’s passing, he gave a bitter smile.
He knew not why they had chosen to call the horrible instrument ‘the Protagonist’, not for sure. Though he suspected that it was to remind him that he was not important—merely a ‘supporting character’ to this deplorable government. Less relevant than a mere machine.
Yes, he knew better than anyone else the power of names and words. Oh yes. But so did the damn government.
The one called Ritter sighed and resumed writing.
On a whim, he wrote,
He tilted his head and studied the words. Though he knew it was extremely dangerous, it gave him a little pleasure to see them on the page.
I. A word he’d rarely used, someone whose opinion didn’t matter.
Ritter. The German word for ‘knight’. What had come to be his title- he’d suggested it. A word that both replaced and rhymed with another, more important one that had been banned.
Will be brave, he added on impulse. And make my fellow knights proud.
My fellow knights. My fellow ‘Ritters’.
There were surely others. He couldn’t be the only one.
His heartbeat quickened. If these words were ever found, he’d surely die.
He looked at the Protagonist. Then he looked at the words. They gave him courage.
He’d be just like the knights of old: he’d commence the rebellion against those who governed so unfairly, and bring justice with his glorious, glorious words! And if he died… he’d have died with great honour—honour a thousand times greater than that of the title of ‘Great Ritter’—which was, in fact, not a title at all.
He moved one arm over the words, obscuring them from the view of cameras.
And the one called Ritter, the government’s greatest secret, began a new tale—one that began with a word that had been outlawed and replaced long ago. A word that was his genuine title, and the last story he’d ever produce.
Each year the Grande Prairie Public Library encourages writers both young and old to explore a theme in a short story for the Muriel Collins Writing Contest. When the contest is done, the winning entries are bound into a book, the cover of which is designed by imageDESIGN. Those wishing to try their hand at this year’s theme of “time” can enter before February 28th at the library or online.