The exercise yard for prisoners awaiting trial was ringed with faceless, unforgiving stone. Though it was winter, the warmth of spring tinged the air already; the beams of sun that touched the yard were the only place in the prison that knew this. The rest of the building may as well have been in a perpetual winter, an arctic winter of unending darkness and shadow. The gaol's size obliterated light, warmth, sun, and air; its corridors too long, its walls too thick, its windows too small. The air sat frigid, and wet and stinking in the cells. It pressed close. It cloaked you and stuffed your throat like death. There was a sense of being slowly, endlessly, suffocated, of being buried alive.
The yard was the only place you could breathe again. The taste of life there made every prisoner crave it worse than food. The guards never had any trouble with them during their allotted half hour's daily exercise. No one wanted to risk being left behind in the cells. No one could bear having their breath stolen from them for another 24 hours. You could only go without breathing so long.
At one corner of the yard, the iron railings, a continuation of the wall along the street, met the stonework with a generosity of three railings extra to the prison side. It was at this space that prisoners arranged furtive meetings with their loved ones and business associates on the outside, with a coin for the guard to look the other way. It was a system that kept peace within the cells, and lined the pockets of the guards, so no one saw any reason to change it.
It was at this space that Hannah waited. She stamped her feet and jigged while Ellick's name was whispered in a cloud of chilled breath from mouth to ear until the man himself appeared before the gap.
She was used to the stench and filth of such places, for the workhouse was no better, but it still froze her words a moment to see his clothes dark with grease, his close cropped hair grown matted, sores trailing from his face into its putrid dankness. Had it only been a month? For a man so given to cleanliness, she knew this would be doubly torturous. The lines that had flanked his mouth were hammered in now, redrawn several times over. His skin hung haggard and white, like the hangman had stolen his life breath already. Her own breath stalled in her throat.
So though she'd meant to start with an apology and follow quickly with bright and bubbliness to raise his spirits, it was he who had to speak first.
"You never told me it was a toff's tippler," he muttered.
"You didn't ask," she replied, sharpish, then swallowed her smarts. It was her flask that had gotten him thrown in here, after all. She should have known that toff would be a vindictive bastard. He'd paid off squealers at every fence and uncle in the borough. Ellick hadn't stood a chance. He was nicked as soon as he pulled the flask from his pocket.
Hannah sniffed, kicking her boot into the wall. "I'm sorry."
His hands gripped the bars. "Not your fault."
"Should've been me," she went on. It was she after all who'd slipped the flask from Goff's pocket. She'd stolen it, not him. She should be bearing the brunt of the judges' retribution. "It was that Pike prick wasn't it? The Judge. By God I hate 'im."
He turned away, and she knew in that motion she was right. Pike. The word snarled in her mind, but a morbid satisfaction weighted it down, sinking her hatred below it. Her lips smiled.
"Is that all you got for me?" Elick grunted. "Self recrimination?"
"No, I bring you tidings of joy," she said, beaming up at him.
He shook his head ever so slightly, as if chiding himself for expecting something else of her. "Bring me a knife next time."
But she was untouched by the cutting barbs in his tone. Her eyes positively sparkled. "It was Pike, and-"
A short, hard cough of exasperation severed her phrase.
"So what if it was?" Ellick said, arms crossed, blocking out her hope. "What's done is done."
Hannah was almost wriggling with pleasure. She leant forward. "I'm going to undo it."
His eyes snapped to her. "What the devil do you mean?"
Hannah grinned at him. His hands encircled the bars.
"Hannah," Ellick growled.
"He's holding you hostage here, and he couldn't care less as to your innocence."
He gave a low laugh. "I'm not that innocent."
"Besides the point," Hannah replied. "I'm going to make him feel his work a little closer to home."
Ellick stared into her eyes. She didn't waver. "Hannah, don't be stupid."
"Stupid?" Her grin bloomed. "Far from it. It's almost clever. I'm going to take his fancy Victoria hostage." The thought of having his cherished daughter at her mercy was almost worth it just in itself.
Victoria Pike, who was so spectacular that her father had not the slightest qualms in saving all his mercy for her, and couldn't spare the least shred for Hannah's family. That that bitch lived while Hannah was left to die had always been a thorn in her side.
After a moment of staring in disbelief, Ellick rested his head on his fists. "How in god's name is that supposed to help anything?"
She lowered her lips closer to his ear. "It will help, my dear Ellick, because when our beloved judge is searching frantically everywhere for her, you will let him know that you have information on her whereabouts. Her freedom can only be secured by yours."
"Hannah, you're a fool," he whispered. His lips moved in a space framed by his fists, the rot of his hair, and the rusted prison yard railings
She laughed. "Don't worry about me. You're the one living with murderers." Behind him, she saw the prisoners being rounded up and herded back to their cells. "Look, it's time, you better run."
But in the end it was she who skipped off before he had moved an inch. Gripping the bars, he stared after her into the empty street. The yard was barren behind him. The smack of a guard's truncheon on his ear convinced him to let it go, and shuffle back into their frozen hell.