Cellblocked: The Warden's Tale
With one stroke of my finger I drew a single line in the dirt of my cell floor – day 100. Time had moved at such a strange pace for me since I arrived, it was hard to believe it could have possibly been so many days since I last saw the sunny fields of Meridell. One hundred days since I lay in the grass, feeling the blades between my toes. One hundred days since I had slept in my own bed. One hundred days since I had eaten a warm, home-cooked meal. One hundred days since I was wrongfully accused of a crime against my own land.
It was a strangely foggy morning; the sun had yet to peak through the clouds over Meridell. I was taking my daily walk from my little shack out to my job at the Mini Acres Farm. Running the Rubbish Dump was never my dream, but it was a job I fell into and never managed to leave.
Honestly, compared to where I was now, it seemed like paradise back at that dump.
When I arrived from my walk, my boss, a grumpy blue Kacheek named Ronald, sent me immediately to the fields to start shifting through the garbage. Not every item that we find can be resold to the local shoppers. We have to be very careful that no food has gone bad (at least, that we can identify) and that items aren’t too broken.
I plunged my hand into a particularly smelly pile of trash, trying to discover any salvageable finds, when I felt a strange item in my hand. I tugged and tugged through the pile covering it until I was able to pull it out, and when I did, my heart sank. The sword was large, heavy, and solid gold. It wasn’t just the fact that I had pulled a sword from a pile of rubbish. It was much more than that. Smack dab in the middle of the handle was an unmistakable badge. The crest of Meridell glistened with a red and blue checkered pattern and I knew right away that this sword was of immense value.
I dropped everything else and ran back to Ronald. Out of breath I shook my find at him, “Look…..what…I found!”
Ronald’s eyes went wide at the sight of the sword. The greedy Kacheek was surely already imagining the value of a solid gold sword. He reached his grasping fingers for it and snatched it from my hand. “You found this in the rubbish? What a find! This is assuredly worth more than my whole farm!”
Finally, I caught my breath, “I couldn’t believe it myself! What should we do with-?” Before I even finished my sentence, Ronald was halfway across the farm headed straight for the castle, so without hesitation I took off after him.
The throne room was more impressive than I could have ever imagined. The ceilings were high and large banners bearing the Meridell colors hung tall and proud. We were sat on a bench a few feet from the throne, and I could feel goosebumps running up my arm. “Can you believe this place?” Ronald nudged my arm. "We’re in the presence of royalty!”
I couldn’t shake a bad feeling in my gut, “Yeah, but we’re here for an item appraisal. Why do you think they’ve taken us to see the King himself? Doesn’t that seem odd to you?”
Ronald had already stopped listening and I decided to quell my nerves for now. Suddenly the large ornate doors swung open and surrounded by his soldiers, King Skarl strode in. He was old and grumpy. The royal Skeith had looked much more youthful and kind in photos I had seen in the past.
He shuffled his large belly as he sat on his massive throne and beckoned to one of his advisors. The nervous man rushed to the King's side only to hand him a turkey leg. Skarl took one enormous bite from the leg before looking our way. I immediately bowed and shoved Ronald when he didn’t.
Ronald shoved past me with a grin, “Hello, your Highness, my name is Ronald. I own Mini Acres Farm-“
King Skarl raised the hand not currently supporting the turkey leg (or what was left of it, that is) and silenced the Kacheek. “Do not speak unless spoken to. You have been found in possession of a sword from my own royal collection. This act of thievery will not go unpunished.”
Both our mouths dropped at once and against my better judgement I stepped forward, “King Skarl, I assure you we did not steal this sword from you. We would never... It was merely-”
Ronald shoved the sword into my arms, “It was HIM, King Skarl. He stole the sword! I only came once I realized what he had done in order to ensure it was returned to you as quickly as possible! This thief has of course lost employment at my farm due to this act and I’m sure you will dole out any other necessary punishments as you see fit.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I tried to speak up but was immediately grabbed by several guards and shoved out of the throne room. I knew there was only one place they would take me for this crime and as that realization dawned on me I felt my blood run cold – Darigan Citadel.
And here I was, one hundred days later, drawing my hundredth line in the dirt of my cell floor and wishing I could go back and change it all. I glanced out my barred window and saw only dark night staring back at me. There was no view of Meridell from this Citadel, that was one of the first things I had come to hate. I now only remembered what it looked like from my own memories. My cell was small and unforgiving, always cold with no way to possibly warm up. My feet hung off my tiny bed and the food was barely above the rubbish I used to dig through at the farm. One hundred days had passed and I was anticipating a hundred more when the unexpected happened.
I heard a pound on my cell door and scrambled up to the tiny window in the middle to glance at my visitor. As the window slid open I was eye to eye with one of the guards I had come to know as ‘Tall Lupe with a Mustache’ or TLWM for short. TLWM looked particularly unimpressed today and I waited for my dinner to be placed in the lower slot of the door but nothing happened.
“You’re comin’ with me,” TLWM murmured as he undid the locks on my door. I couldn’t have been more confused. I had never been able to leave my cell unless it was time to work and it was much too late at night for that. Nevertheless, I nodded and followed him into the hall.
We walked down many winding hallways and up several staircases before we reached a long narrow walkway that lead to a single dark purple door. Candles lit our way as we walked, but it was still too dim to make much out. I saw a sign above the door but couldn’t make out the words until TLWM was already knocking – ‘The Warden’s Office’.
Panic set in immediately: what had I done wrong?
After three swift knocks, a pause, and one final knock, the door opened and I was led inside. The office was dark and dreary like most everything in the Citadel but it had a few personal touches. Torches and candles lit the room as well as they could, and I could see that a large desk sat in the middle of the room. A bed was tucked in the back corner and some small food items were in cabinets to the left. At the desk sat the warden, a particularly menacing looking Mynci I had only ever heard stories about. He had a large scar running through his right eye and sat slouched over his desk with a strange grin.
I couldn’t have felt less comfortable, but I was beckoned to take a seat across from him. I hesitantly moved forward and as I sat the guard closed the door behind him, and suddenly the warden and I were alone. He smiled and spoke in a voice that was powerful but somehow very soft, “Welcome, prisoner, to my quarters. I have invited you here this evening on the one hundredth day of your sentence to play a game with me.”
I must have been hearing him wrong. He could sense my confusion and continued to explain. “This game is of my creation and if you win, I will shorten your sentence and let you leave…. tonight.”
This sounded too good to be true but the excitement of the notion of freedom overcame me and I nodded, “I understand. What is the game?”
His smile grew, “The game is called Cellblock. We each take a turn placing a token on the board before you. If you successfully align six tokens in a straight or diagonal line you will win.”
“I see,” I raised my eyes to his, “and what if I lose?”
Now I was sure his smile couldn’t get any bigger. “You stay here, forever.”
The incentives were on the table and I knew what was at stake so I reached forward and picked up a token with the Meridell emblem on it. The same emblem that saw me arrested and thrown into the Citadel was now my only chance at getting out. I exhaled and reached out to place my first token. The game had begun.
My first move was, in all honesty, completely random. This was a new game for me and if there was a strategy to win, it was lost on me. We had both started with two tokens on the board, diagonal to each other. I placed my token next to the matching one on the board. Vex placed a Darigan Citadel crest token opposite mine. We now both had two in a row. Another random placement on my part went on the board and his move followed. I was about to place another when it became clear that he had created himself a surefire win. I caught it just in time and placed my token to counter his win. I heard a small grunt as he shuffled in his seat.
The game continued this way for a while. I never got myself ahead but I was able to continually block his victories. I could feel his mounting irritation as neither of us moved any closer to winning the round. Soon there was only one spot left on the board and it was mine. The board was full and there was no winner to be found.
"Again," he said abruptly, shoving the tokens off the board with his arm and dividing them up. I nodded. I was starting to get the hang of this game and growing faintly confident that I could even possibly win. As he sorted the tokens, I looked around his quarters in curiosity. Hanging on the wall over his bed was a massive Darigan Citadel banner boasting black and purple colors. Everything was expectedly dark and uniform except one item on his nightstand.
It was partially covered by candles but I could faintly make the item out. Despite my better judgement I turned to Vex, "Why do you have a Meridell Army pin on your nightstand?"
Master Vex seemingly froze in place and he slowly looked up at me. "What did you say?"
"I can see it over there, I recognize it. What I don't understand is why you have it. Did you steal it off a solider you imprisoned here?" I'm not sure where my boldness came from, maybe from going so long without speaking with others had caused me to lose my social graces.
He snarled at me, "How dare you! I didn't steal it. I'm going first this round."
He reached out and placed his first token. I smiled and placed my token down. "Why do you have it then?"
Vex seemed to hesitate before answering and immediately I noticed a shift in his demeanor. He sighed, "It belonged to my friend. During the war he...."
As he trailed off he halfheartedly placed another token. I matched his, blocking a possible win. "I'm sorry to hear that, but you really expect me to believe you had a friend in the Meridell Army? They hate those who took over the Citadel."
He shook his head, "We were friends before the army. When it came down to it we chose different sides, and it tore our friendship apart." He seemed genuinely sad.
Placing another token, he appeared to realize he was oversharing and straightened up in his chair. He snapped, "Your turn."
Another block on my turn, but I was not ready to give up on this topic. It had been so long since I'd spoken to someone and I for some reason enjoyed watching his emotions hit him like a wave. "I can see why it would. Your people tried to take what wasn't yours, following a madman and throwing regard for others out the window."
I nearly jumped as Vex shot out of his chair and slammed his fists on the table. He raged, "You don't know ANYTHING. Stop speaking about my loyalties and those I have lost!"
I was taken aback. He caught his breath and slowly sat back down, seeming even a little more vulnerable than before. He quietly placed his next piece and then locked eyes with me. "The friend that I lost, his name was Johan. He was a brave fighter, and a good Petri. We took different sides because I thought I was fighting for the right thing. As did he. But I.....I was wrong. Seeing him struck down on the battlefield was the worst moment I have witnessed. I only managed to sneak his badge into my pocket moments after."
The mood in the room had changed and suddenly I couldn't remember whose turn it was. I was engrossed in hearing Vex's story. The war had ravaged both the Citadel and Meridell and it was easy to forget that not just one side had losses. He crossed his arms and looked at me with genuine exhaustion as he said, "This war was never what I wanted for Meridell or Darigan. I made a mistake believing in Kass and I know that now. Sadly, I found out too late. This game, giving people the chance to be set free, sometimes it feels like the least I can try to do to atone for my mistakes. Unfortunately, no one ever wins, either in this game or war."
It was when he said this that I realized we were not so different. We both did what we thought we needed to do to get by, and trusted in our leaders despite them taking advantage of us. I smiled at Vex. "I'm sure Johan would understand. He fought for what he believed too. I don't think he would hold any of this against you, and honestly he would probably be proud of you for trying to make things right."
For the first time I saw a pure smile on Master Vex's face. He thoughtfully ran his finger along the scar on his face and I saw tears well in his eyes. "Thank you," he said, "It's your turn."
It took me a minute to realize what he meant and I looked down at the board. I had a clear victory sitting before me, how could that have happened? I looked at Vex puzzled, had he let me win? I placed the token down, completing a row of six tokens. Vex stood up, "You won. You're free, so make the very best of your life out there."
Before I could say any more, the guard entered the room and took me by my arm. I wasn't sure what to say to the man who had set me free, and all I could muster was a weak "Thank you."