3rd round entry for NYC’s Flash Fiction competition. The set up was a romance set in a prison and featuring a flag.
The Snap and Flutter of Freedom
Cheek rolled the ball of bread, pushing it with his nose.
Jowl waited at the edge of the strip of light, until Cheek had delivered his gift. As he stepped back she shuffled forward and nibbled delicately at it.
It seemed to Ben the two rats played out their romance just to entertain him. The thin rectangle of light that fell into his cell was a stage on which they measured out their courtship. An inch or two to either side and he would have been blind to it; the scratching of their feet and the brushing of their fur would have been another unknown horror in the dark.
He broke another piece of bread and dropped it at the edge of the light. Cheek scampered back to claim it.
Sometimes Ben wondered if this was normal behaviour for rats, or just the product of his fevered imagination, a delirium born of pain and darkness.
The Princess had come to him to mend a broken buckle on her saddle. Her face was flushed and hair wild from a gallop; her stride long with the confidence of one who knows the world will bend around her whim.
She was his forge made flesh, wild, fiery and radiating a fierce attraction. He was soot stained and sweaty, everything she had never seen: potent, capable and anchored.
When she left he laughed at his own drop-jawed infatuation. She looked back twice as she mounted her horse.
She returned the next day to thank him, and then to commission new brackets to hang the lamps in her chambers. He drew designs with charcoal on scrap pieces of wood; she leaned close to add details. There was a febrile edge to the burned air from his forge each time their heads drew close.
He made her a gift. It was a jeweller’s work, not a smith’s. His thick hands cramped over the delicate effort. Her fine long fingers brushed slowly over the bright metal, a flag brooch. As she took it her hand stayed in his for a moment longer than necessary.
She gripped the precious token in one hand and trailed the other over the grimy surfaces of the smithy, then touched her fingers to the pale skin of her neck. Black spots of his world close to her heart.
Neither knew enough to fear the detail in the brooch, their nation’s flag, her father’s flag, curled as though it snapped and fluttered in the wind. Inadvertently when shown thus in motion, it was a symbol of rebellion.
The brackets were also decorated with the curled flag motif, something they had shyly agreed on. He went to the palace to fit them himself. There was a moment, an intake of breath between heartbeats, when they were alone together and her hand had crept into his. That was how they were found, and his craftsmanship presented as evidence of subversion.
He had no stomach for insurgency, but as the guards gripped his wrists, he learned he could not tolerate captivity either. Ben had burst free with the strength of his hard labour only to be felled with a poleaxe. He did not recall the second blow, only her cry that echoed into his imprisonment.
Jowl was dead. Cheek nosed curiously at her lifeless body, trying to rouse her and failing to understand the stillness. He nibbled at the bread as he wondered what to do. His whiskers brushed against Jowl’s whiskers, and then life left him in a single quiet exhalation.
Ben watched the two dark forms on their little stage of light, surrounded by a confetti spray of crumbs. He sniffed the remaining hunk of bread on his pewter plate, but his senses were too far dulled to find any hint of addition.
He ran his remaining fingers around the edge of the plate, trying to assemble an interpretation. His mind raged against the dullness imposed by his weakened body, but the lethargy wrapped around him like a blanket.
There was an imperfection in the plate, a scratch under the rim. Ben dismissed it as damage or apprentice work, but it drew his fingers again and again. The ache in his hands reminded him of the flag brooch. He had made it snap and flutter in the breeze to mimic her windblown hair the first time he had seen her. Perhaps this was a crudely scratched image curled like their flag, the symbol of their love, and coincidentally the symbol of rebellion.
He heard a distant bell, out of sequence, out of time. He counted the uneven cadence; a royal death. For whom did it toll? His eyes fell on Cheek and Jowl. The Princess had gone before him. Her father had finally sentenced him to death, and she had gone before. Perhaps the bread was her last gift to him.
Or perhaps the bread was from the King, a mercy on his daughter so she would not see her lover hanged, and the bells tolled only in his head. In the end it did not matter. She was a princess and he was no longer a blacksmith, but a broken, wretched thing.
He broke off a piece and put it to his lips.
Silence was a heavy shroud over the royal bedchamber. When she rose from her father’s side it was with a confusion of sorrow and relief. She summoned a scribe to write a pardon and the captain of the guard to release her love.
She played with the brooch, the snapping fluttering symbol of the freedom she had been denied and would now claim. The captain’s returning step at the door of her chambers was heavy and slow. The stem of the brooch pierced her finger. Her chin dropped, resting where she had once marked herself with soot.
Her dream snapped and fluttered free for a moment, released from her father’s cruel edict, only to be lost on the wind.
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