Friday, July 26, 2013

The King’s Ransom by Devorah Fox, an excerpt

Yesterday we met Devorah Fox, author of The Lost King and The King's Ransom. Today read a sample from her work. If you like the work, be sure to comment and buy the book.

About The Lost King

When all you have owned, everyone you have loved, and everything you have done are gone, who are you? In Book One of The Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam, King Bewilliam awakens one morning not in his castle but in a cow pasture. He has been inexplicably transformed from a beloved and respected ruler, husband, father, and dragon slayer of renown to a homeless vagabond. What mysterious spell so cruelly reversed his fortune? Who cast it and why? In his quest to uncover and break the curse that plagues him and regain his kingdom he journeys to strange lands where he finds adventure, danger, romance...and himself.

About The King’s Ransom

Book Two of "The Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam" finds Robin, the hero of The Lost King, at sea both literally and figuratively. At first directionless and purposeless, he determines to reunite with his sons and with them restore his shattered kingdom but Fate has different plans for the lost king. Driven far from his home in the Chalklands, Robin pits his will against a dragon, a fortress's duplicitous and deadly guards, high winds on the open water, and a horrifying sea monster only to meet his most formidable opponent.

The King's Ransom, excerpt

The clammy dungeon smelled of mold, rotted wood, and yes, of despair and death. Its dirt floor was damp and cool under Robin’s butt but not as cold as his heart. Lit only by whatever light filtered through a barred opening high above at ground level, the room was dim but his mood was darker. His death was certain. Without anything like a trial or even an inquiry, he had been taken for a sorcerer when he feared magic as much as did the guards.

Did they know who they had in their dungeon? He was a head of state, Bewilliam, King of Bell Castle, ruler of the Chalklands, and their treatment of him was a capital offense. Were it not for exhaustion Robin’s anger could have burst into flame. When he got out of here—

Robin looked about. How would he get out of here? There appeared to be no way to leave except to die. The only question was how soon would he die and by what means? How did they deal with witches and sorcerers in this realm? Drowning? Burning?

Or did they mean to leave him here to die slowly of thirst or hunger? He hadn’t eaten or drunk since last evening. He noted that his stomach ached and his mouth was drier than dust but the pain he felt most acutely was heartache. Poor Meeyoo! What would become of her? Was she still within the city’s walls or had she escaped to the wood beyond? She knew no more about her new surroundings than he did. Would she find food and water? Robin reminded himself that she was a good huntress and reassured himself she would not starve. But what about shelter? Would she find a safe place to hide? And hide she must because now Robin was more certain than ever that this domain was bewitched. Why else would the guards be so quick to assume that he was a sorcerer and that Meeyoo was his familiar? Meeyoo was canny but could she defend herself against magic?

Robin shivered although the temperature of the underground room was actually a comfortable respite from the heat of the outdoors.

And what of Thief? Robin hoped that the horse would find his way back to the last creek that they had found. Would Thief know to nibble on those sage-colored bushes? And what then? Would some journeyer or peasant find Thief and take care of him, an old horse? Robin didn’t want think about the alternative.

He propped his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands.

He could do nothing for either animal except feel guilty about its predicament. It was his fault that they were in peril. Had he not taken it into his head that he could reclaim his kingdom, he would not have accepted this dragon-slaying mission. Eian of Sweet Water was mistaken. It was wrong of Robin to have tried. He had failed and would die for his presumption, and two innocent lives would be lost.

Meeyoo and Thief trusted him. It was his responsibility to rescue them. Figuring out how to do that was a much more interesting line of thought than pondering his fate.

He studied his prison. Could he chip and tunnel through the masonry walls? With what? He had nary a tool at hand. The guards had taken his knife, and sword, his purse with the money that had been advanced him to kill the dragon. No doubt they had his pack too. Robin wondered what they would make of the ermine pelts buried in the bottom.

Without even a cup or spoon, how could he hope to make even the slightest dent in the bricked walls, especially as he had only one truly free hand with which to work? The other hand was shackled to a chain hanging from a ring bolted to the wall.

The cell had two openings. One was the heavy locked door. The other was the barred window a couple of feet over his head for which he was grateful even if he couldn’t reach it. The iron bars were set not in a frame but directly into the wall. Even if he could free himself, somehow reach the window, and remove the bars, the opening was too small. He would not be able to fit through it.

Before he could even attempt any escape he would have to free himself from the shackle. Why the guards had bothered to chain him to the wall was a mystery. Were he truly a sorcerer, chains and locks would not defeat him. But he was merely a human. Chains and locks were formidable impediments.

Robin studied the heavy iron padlock that kept the shackle fastened on his wrist. Now that, that had possibilities. Robin smiled. He knew a little something about locks. As a young prince curious about the working of things, he had spent a rainy afternoon with the castle’s locksmith. It had seemed to young Robin that locks were long on intimidating looks but not all that daunting as security devices. He was confident that he could pick the one that held his shackle fast, if he had the right tool.

Or any tool. Would that he had his purse. Maybe he could employ his steel as a tool. Even his belt would have been helpful. He might have been able to use the prong, but the guard had taken his belt as well. There was nothing in the room or on his person that would be of any use. His clothes were all made of soft fabric; nothing stiff or sturdy enough from which to fashion a pick. The instrument had to be rigid but it didn’t have to be very big. Something the size of his little finger would do.

His little finger. In the twilight he regarded his hands. If he could get down to the bone, the bone of his little finger might work. The prospect of pain and dismemberment did not discourage him. Animals escaped traps by gnawing off limbs and they survived. He probably wouldn’t even feel the pain, Robin thought. He was already numb with despair about the fate that was likely to befall Meeyoo and Thief if he didn’t find them.

He poked his little finger into the lock’s keyhole. Indeed, absent of flesh the finger bone would be the right size.

Robin slipped his finger into his mouth, tasted salt and dirt. He pressed his teeth against the finger and felt pressure but not pain. He clenched his jaw tighter. His finger throbbed and stung. He bit down harder but before he could break the skin, his finger’s weight on the back of his tongue made him gag. He took his finger out and rubbed it, thinking this was proving more difficult than he had expected. He didn’t want to bite off the finger, he wanted to skin it. Were his teeth sharp enough?

His desperate ruminations were interrupted by the sound of a voice.

“Me. You.”

The hair on the back of Robin’s neck rose. He lifted his head and looked around. The gray light cast shadows on the walls and floor but he saw no one and nothing else in the room. Yet he distinctly heard someone speak.

“Me. You,” came the voice again. An unusual voice, not quite human yet the words were clear, unmistakable.

Robin shook his head. He must be hallucinating. The hunger, thirst, shock of his arrest, and fear of imminent and painful death must have loosened his mind. All this talk of sorcerers and familiars had planted ideas in his head. Still, he was certain he had heard someone speak.

Robin’s mouth twitched in a small smile. “Me, you,” had been his cat’s first utterances. Then but a tiny kitten, she had camped out one night in his boot. From then on she stayed near him by day in his quarters, sleeping on his chest at night. When he made to go and leave her behind, she told him that she was going with him. 

“Me. You,” she had said in no uncertain terms.

Robin heard it again. He looked up. A movement at the window caught his eye. Silhouetted in the fading light he saw a familiar shape against the bars.

“Oh, Meeyoo!” Robin replied. His heart swelled in his chest. “How did you find me? Are you all right?”
“Me, you! Me, you!” came her excited reply.

Robin took the first deep breath he had breathed since first being approached by the guard. “Oh, my faithful friend, I am indeed in a sorry predicament and I have yet to find a way out.”

Aloud, Robin reviewed the escape strategies that he had entertained and rejected. “I think they mean to leave me to starve and wither away from thirst . . .” He stopped in mid-complaint. “I’m going to keep trying, Meeyoo, I haven’t given up. I will fight with all the fight that I have left in me. Meanwhile you need to look out for yourself. The people in this fortress are not friendly to cats. You must get yourself outside these walls. Escape. Go find Thief. The two of you, make your way back to Sea Gate Fortress. You were welcome there.”

At the window, Robin heard Meeyoo purr followed by a rustling. The shape of the cat vanished from view.
Robin’s heart sank in dismay. He had sincerely meant that Meeyoo should go, save herself, only not so soon. He would have liked to have her company until he could see and hear no more.

He slipped into a torpor until a rustling overhead startled him alert. Again he saw Meeyoo’s dark shape against the bars. He wondered if it was a dream or if it was an image conjured by wishful thinking, but then the form moved. Meeyoo poked her head between the bars.

“No! Meeyoo, stay out of here,” he cried. “Run away!”

An object fell from her mouth, hit the floor, and bounced halfway to the door. He made out a shape the size of a sparrow. A dead bird. Tears stung Robin’s eyes. Meeyoo had done it again, had heard of his need for food and had answered his plea. This time he thought that he just might be desperate enough to eat.

He stretched out his hand toward the bird but could not reach it for the chain. He felt his head and shoulders slump and sighed, even this last relief denied him.

No, wait, there might be a way. He stretched out on the floor to the full extent of his arm, torso, and legs. With the toe of his boot, he scooped the bird and dragged it within reach.

Robin sat upright and studied the tiny prize. He tugged at the sparrow’s feathers but they would not loosen. He recalled with dismay the time that he had spent satisfying his youthful curiosity in Bell Castle’s kitchen. Kitchen maids had dunked fowl in boiling water to loosen the feathers before plucking.

He had seen Meeyoo devour a bird more than once. She ate every part, feathers, feet, beak, and all. He tried to do the same and bit into the bird’s side but ended up with only a mouthful of down for his efforts.
He looked up at the windows where Meeyoo lay against the bars. “Thank you, Meeyoo. I’ll . . . eat this later,” he said. Perhaps later after the kill was not so fresh the feathers would loosen and he could get to the meat. He laid the bird beside him.

The dead sparrow made a dark spot against the gray earthen floor, its eyes dull as coal, its bony feet slightly curled.

Bony feet. Bones. Robin took up the sparrow again and studied the feet and legs. The scaly legs were about the size of the bones of his little finger, the tiny talons curved with sharp tips.

Bird in his right hand, he cradled the padlock in his left, and poked the bird’s talon into the keyhole. It appeared that with some modification, the bird’s feet and legs had potential as a lock pick. He bent back the smaller toe. The leg made a straight handle while the front and back talons made hooked picks. No serious burglar would ever attempt a hurried break-in with such a clumsy tool but Robin thought he might have the advantage of time. Since his incarceration, not a single guard had come near the cell. Sorcerers apparently didn’t merit even token human kindness, or perhaps the guards were simply too afraid to render it.

Robin set to work in the dark, relying on his senses of sound and touch. With deliberation he wiggled the improvised pick slowly, feeling his way through the lock, moving tiny unseen wards aside to their unlocked position. He made several false starts. His improvised tools proved to be frustratingly flexible and the ward kept slipping back onto place. Cursing he kept wiggling the tool until he found just the right size and configuration of bone and claw to keep the repositioned wards in place while he tackled the next.
At last he moved the final ward and slid the bolt that clamped the shackle in the lock’s body. The lock opened and he removed the shackle from his wrist.

“Oh, Meeyoo, we did it!” he cried.

From her perch at the window, Meeyoo let out a congratulatory cry.

Now to tackle the iron lock that secured the door. Robin crawled across the room, sat beside the door, and studied the keyhole, outlined by illumination in the corridor. Would that the guard had left the key in the lock. Robin might have found a way to jostle it loose, snag it with a bird-bone hook, and slide it under the door, but no, the keyhole was empty. The lock was large and Robin suspected it was much more complex than the one he had just sprung. His examination was interrupted by a metal-on-metal sound on the other side. The keyhole went dark. Someone had inserted a key into the keyhole and turned the lock.

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