In his interview with me for the Amazing Stories website, David Moore of Abaddon Books said that fiction on blog posts and all the self-published books out there were “essentially just a huge, huge slush pile”. In the same week, Neil Gaiman talked about how an aspiring author today needed to be like a dandelion, casting its seeds to the four winds and hoping, just hoping that one of them might take root in fertile ground.
Well, I haven’t posted any segments from my Low Fantasy novels for a while, so here’s another segment from the first novel, The Adventures of Siskin and Valderan, where one of our heroes find himself in the nick.
Will these words sink in the slush or cling to one of those tiny patches of earth that exist between the cracks in the rocks? Only you can tell…
Locked up in the dungeons of the City Watch, Siskin was starting to feel better. After the best part of the day left alone to rest, he had begun to recuperate. His strength was returning, a development he had greeted with hard jerks of his legs and arms. At the same time, the haziness had left his mind. He could think clearly again. The pernicious influence of the frogs had gone. In its place came a deep feeling of wretchedness, at the thought that a man of his ilk could be waylaid by simple functionaries of the state.
Along with the madness, the frogs had left a strange spicy taste that had burned his tongue and irritated the roof of his mouth. That too had now gone, so that even the prison bread tasted good, though it was so hard that it nearly ripped his teeth from his gums. Had he had a looking glass, Siskin was sure that his eyes would no longer be bloodshot, and his pupils back to normal. Earlier, they had been so wide that they all but blotted out the colour.
In his cell, there was little furniture of any kind. He was in a square room, four paces across by six paces long. The floor and walls were of the yellow Liraran stone, worn smooth by many years of rubbing hands. They were scarred too by gouged names, odd symbols and crude little rhymes. Siskin had not bothered to read them, and he was sincerely hoping that he would not be staying long enough to find their diversion attractive. A pile of bound straw had been dumped against one wall as a bed, and Siskin had been less than pleased to find that it had already been slept on. By the door, there was a foul-smelling earthenware chamber pot, as yet unused, and a jug of water on top of an empty plate. Siskin was pleased that he had got to the bed before the cockroaches, although it had been a close run thing. “It’s every bug for itself,” thought Siskin, “when you’ve been flung into the bowels of the earth.”
Like many prisoners, he had spent his first couple of hours lying on his back, barely believing that it was all happening. Still unwell, he had dozed for a time. Once he awoke, his thoughts turned to escape. From the little light that sneaked in from the cell’s curved ceiling, he had seen that the door was thick, old and strong. It had not yielded to the kicks, punches, bashes, beatings, and, Siskin suspected, head butts that had been levelled at it over the years. He quickly discounted any chance of his breaking out, and for the first time ever, he missed the company of one of his old comrades in arms: ‘Unlucky’ Hobson, the best lockpick he had ever known. Hob was long gone, and Siskin was alone. He peered around the corners and pushed at stones, but none gave way.
Feeling the first waves of despair, he frowned at the sole opening he had to the world. The cell was below ground level. Only a grill in the ceiling connected him to the street outside. Jackanapes could have used it to escape, but it was no method of flight for him.
While he was lost in these thoughts, a wooden panel slid back in the doorway to reveal a pair of questioning eyes.
“How are we?” Asked the gaoler cheerfully.
“Rank. At the lowest point of my life,” said Siskin. “You?”
“Can’t complain. Mustn’t grumble,” said the warder, still peering through the eye slit. “You learn to count your blessings in this job.”
“I guess you can’t count your pennies. I wager they don’t pay you too well for this lark.”
“Don’t be like that,” the voice replied. “The wages are poor, that’s true, but you’d be amazed at what you can pick up on the side.”
“Bribes, you mean?”
“Not a word we use here,” said the voice. “It’s like mentioning mutiny on a ship. You know what I’m talking about, outlander, coming from the Sea Kingdoms, as you do.”
“My name’s Siskin.”
“I know that. Everyone knows that. You’re famous, you are.”
“Why don’t you use it then?”
“It’s all part of the degrading experience, outlander. Have you never been in gaol before?”
“Not for a long time. I was never convicted.”
“No, well, that’s the same here too. No one’s ever convicted in Lirara. Not foreigners anyways. They just throw you in here. Job done.”
“Gods alive! So how much do I have to bribe you to get me out?”
The warder gasped. Siskin immediately realised he had made a mistake. With fingers wrapped around the panel, the man was just about to pull it shut, when something changed his mind.
“Honestly, what kind of a city do you think this is? You can’t expect me to get you out, when it’s my job to keep you in. You’d have to go to someone much higher up than me to do that. And I warned you about using that word. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.”
“What do you like?”
“I don’t know… a few pieces of copper, if you don’t want to be chewing that grubby bread for the rest of your time inside.”
Siskin thought for a moment.
“How much would a roast capon cost, and a jug of mulled wine?”
“This isn’t the world outside, you know! I’m doing this as a favour,” added the warder.
“All right, all right, a ducat. I’ll need to touch my visitors for it when they arrive, since the City Watch have already robbed me of every penny I was carrying.”
“Gaol policy is to take all metal objects from prisoners to ensure that they don’t harm themselves.”
“So where are my metal objects now?”
“Oh, you know, things get mislaid in a big place like this.”
Siskin’s eyes blazed and his hands trembled, but he kept his temper in check.
“You needn’t worry, outlander. In your case, you can have your capon and mulled wine on tick. Juts remember though that you’ll need to keep your guests informed of what’s expected of you.”
“And one more thing – ” shouted Siskin before the panel closed. The warder raised a single eyebrow.
“I want some gravy.”
“That’ll be another tuppence.”
“Stick it on my tab,” Siskin replied.
As the panel slammed shut, he curled up on the straw and closed his eyes. The capon would take some cooking, so he might as well pass the time asleep. All in all, he wasn’t feeling so unhappy. He hadn’t had roast capon in gravy for a very long time.
(c) Alastair Savage, 2013