It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Jackie Castle graduated from UT Southwestern Medical Center of Dallas. She is a published freelance writer, storyteller and elementary educator. She lives in Texas with her husband, two teenagers, and her dog, Ginger (aka ginger-roonie). When she’s not teaching, she is traipsing through the worlds of Alburnium or Fae in search of another story.
She looks for the extraordinary in the ordinary in everything she experiences.
Visit the author’s website.
Alyra, mockingly known as Princess, was captured at an early age by the evil ruler, Darnel, and brought up in the dark land of Racah. At the age of seventeen, she considers herself nothing special. She has no recollection of who she is or where she came from. Her hope of ever finding freedom dims.
Until the messenger arrives. Until he brings to light the meaning behind the medallion she’s kept hidden. Until she accepts the blinding truth.
Now she flees for her life.
Alyra’s journey leads her down a narrow road with strange traveling companions. Together, they encounter a kingdom where nothing is what it first seems.
List Price: $11.98
Paperback: 338 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (December 5, 2012)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Winter’s grip on the mountain realm crept along the stony dungeon floor and seeped through the girl’s thin slippers. A biting chill encircled her legs, as gooseflesh spread up her back and down to her chapped hands. Shivering, she wished spring would hurry and show itself.
She pitched fresh hay into what were once stalls for horses and other livestock. Now King Darnel, ruler over the city of Racah, used the area to hold new slaves captured from the neighboring towns his forces had overtaken.
Her hand slipped over the weathered handle. A sharp jab sent tears welling in her eyes. She dropped the pitch fork, sucking at her splintered palm, covered in scrapes and scabs from previous injuries. To think, she’d traded a life of fine warm clothes and leisurely work for this. She picked the sliver from her hand. Every last injury was completely worth it.
She spun toward the voice. Tarek stood in the doorway. Four pheasants hung by their legs from a strip of leather tied around Tarek’s belt. He wore the customary gray trousers and black shirt of the kitchen help. A spiteful grin crinkled the edges of his green eyes as he took in her work. Long, wheat-colored hair fell in his face and over the collar of his tunic.
At nineteen, he towered over her by nearly a foot in height and possibly two years in age. She had no memories of her past, including when and where she was actually born, or even more disturbing, her real name. From what little she did remember, she placed her own age somewhere around seventeen summers.
Darnel, who’d somehow managed to steal her memories, had ordered everyone to call her Princess, and they did so with much snickering and laughter. His little joke, she was sure.
Tarek pushed open the sliding door. A wave of cold air swirled in, stirring up dust and flecks of hay. “Ben wants you to bring a bucket of water out to the new arrivals. Right now.”
She replaced the tool on its peg, then grabbed her thin cloak before heading outside.
Tarek blocked the exit, leaning against the frame with arms crossed over his strong chest. While she spent most of her time cleaning, taking care of Ben, her overseer, or searching the various tunnels worming beneath the mountain fortress, he hunted outdoors or chopped wood. Her pale white skin stood in complete contrast to his darkened sun-kissed color. Oh, what she’d do to trade places with him. Yet she’d not complain. Her job in the dungeon was much more preferable to the one she previously held.
“Looks like this group came a long way. What a wasted bunch of bones. Though something about them must be important, if you ask me.”
Wanting to get away from him, she darted around and hurried toward the pump. The charcoal-gray castle towered hundreds of feet above, the stone walls blending into the cliffs. Below, nestled amongst the crags and plateaus lay Racah, consisting of stonework buildings and forlorn homes surrounded by high ramparts and steep peaks that circled the city.
Tarek trailed her like a lost puppy. “That Baykok Captain, the creepy one they call Bezoar? He brought them in himself.”
She froze, her gut twisted. She had no desire to meet the inhuman creature-man today. Grabbing the pail, she set it under the spout. Her splintered hand burned when she grasped the lever and pumped.
Tarek leaned closer until his tanned face was inches from hers. “And,” a taunt hid just below the surface of his words. “You’ll be happy to know your father is out there to greet our new guests, as well.” He bit his upper lip, keeping the mocking grin in check.
She gave the pump two more good pulls. “Aren’t you suppose to help cook for tonight’s banquet? Wonder what Darnel would say if he found out you were shirking your own responsibilities to play messenger boy?”
His annoying grin grew slack. Brows furrowed, he spat, “King Darnel. And I work hard. Even his majesty has bragged on my hunting skills. Unlike you, I appreciate my position and only want to serve my King to the best of my ability.”
“Such a good little lap dog you are. Why don’t you go fetch a bone or dig a hole and leave me to my own work?” She took up the pail handle and made her way toward the front of the prison where Ben would be waiting.
The weight of the bucket lightened as Tarek held the handle from the opposite side. She glared at him, despite being somewhat grateful for his help. He said nothing more as they walked. When the group came into view, nearly fifty people dressed in dreary, ragged clothing, she stopped a moment to gather her wits and steady her panicked thoughts. Just as Tarek said, Bezoar and Master both attended this group’s arrival.
“He’s not my father.”
Tarek’s brow arched.
“I wasn’t born to him.” She met his narrow-eyed gaze. “I wasn’t. I came from another place, like them. And like you. This isn’t my true home.”
His chest rose with a deep intake of breath which he slowly blew out. “Perhaps, Princess, we are better off here in Racah. I am. My family now has work, food to eat, decent shelter. Where we came from, nothing grew. Everyone was starving.” He brushed away the blond bangs from his face with his free hand. “Look at them. Their clothes are torn, ragged. Bet they will be glad, as well, once they see the King means them no harm.”
Princess shook her head. Tarek had no idea the evil Darnel was capable of. She hoped he’d never find out.
When Tarek left her, she paused needing to completely clear her mind. Humming a silent tune, she headed for the gathering.
Bezoar sat upon his huge black steed. He resembled a living skeleton with grayish skin that clung to his thin body like a grubby, wet sheet. His long, boney fingers hooked around a leather whip hanging from the saddle horn. Deep-set, yellowed eyes peered from beneath the hood of his black cloak.
“Sire,” the Baykok hissed, pointing to a man thrown over the back of a packhorse. “The messenger was a bonus. He’s been spreading his propaganda amongst the towns. I ordered his life spared for the time being. You did request I bring such filth to you when we found them.”
Lord Darnel chuckled with satisfaction. “Yes, that is a bonus, my good captain. Anytime we can stop such liars is indeed fortunate.”
Keeping the silent melody playing, Princess moved toward the group, making sure the dungeon master Ben was between herself and Master Darnel. Ben wore his colorful robes, the purple, red, and yellow striped fabric billowing in the breeze. As she approached, she noticed his hand gripping his cane so tight his chestnut-colored skin paled. Though Ben was known to have a terrible temper, age and arthritis had tamed his angry outbursts. Since she’d taken over many of his responsibilities, he generally treated her decently. More importantly, he ignored her long disappearances while she searched new tunnels for a means of escape.
Ben nodded toward the chained group, then ordered in his deep, throaty voice, “Give ’em something to drink, girl.”
Behind the messenger’s horse stood a long line of men, women, and children, all thin and haggard. Their condition most likely resulted from their trek across the barren land that surrounded the mountain. The castle itself, built into the heart of the cliffs, was nearly impenetrable, as well as inescapable. Climbing the only road leading into the city was difficult on horseback… and even more-so on foot. No telling how long they’d gone without food or rest. Bezoar didn’t concern himself with such human needs.
The prisoners clustered around her, eager to quench their dry mouths. They grasped the ladle greedily in their scraped, bloody hands. Princess avoided the scared expressions on the children’s dirty faces as they gulped the cool water. Yet one dark-haired girl, about the age of five, reminded her of the first time she’d entered this forsaken city. Had the same look of terror been in her own brown eyes?
Princess dared a glance toward the man strapped on the horse. He raised his bruised head. A long cut tore down the side of his cheek. With his one good eye, he stared at his surroundings in defiance. A gold medallion hung from his neck.
Her breath caught when her heart lodged into her throat. Forgetting the prisoners, Princess stepped closer. Water sloshed over the rim and onto her feet. She steadied the bucket, then handed it to the eldest man in the group to hold. She had to see that pendant.
The messenger’s face softened when he caught sight of her staring at him. She quickly turned, not wanting him to know she’d noticed him.
She chanced a glance at Master Darnel, surprised he wore his finest attire to greet a bunch of shoddy prisoners. He stood tall, a smile plastered on his smooth, handsome face. His deep purple button-down coat was trimmed in silver thread. Upon his head sat a silver crown, inlaid with rubies and emeralds, which had been collected while digging the tunnels throughout his mountain lands. His polished black boots stopped just below his knees.
Several large, brutish men flanked Darnel. She’d heard the newly appointed governors, who would run the new towns, were being presented at tonight’s banquet.
She shuddered when one of them grinned at her and elbowed a trollish-looking man, who stood beside him. They whispered something, then broke into chuckles, all the while never taking their eyes off her. Princess’s gut twisted, wondering what they found so humorous. She took the bucket from the elder and stood to the side, searching Ben’s face to see if he’d give her the go-ahead to take them inside.
Ben remained a statue.
Darnel motioned to his men. “Release the messenger so he may stand with our other guests.” His mocking smile widened.
Two soldiers untied the messenger’s hands and feet and shoved him off the beast headfirst. He crashed to the ground with a loud groan. One man grabbed the pail from her and tossed the remaining water in the man’s face. He staggered to his feet.
His nicely tailored clothes were bloodied and torn. Dirt caked his beard. The medallion hung outside his shirt, the symbol of a horn glinted in the morning sun.
The disk was different, yet similar. What could that mean?
Darnel stepped closer, scanning the group. She felt his stare and despite all attempts not to look, her eyes finally met his cold blues. His hateful laughter sounded inside her head. Think. Fill your mind to keep him out!
“How fortunate-” Darnel addressed the crowd, “-for all of you to be brought here at this exciting time in the history of my empire. We are, this very day, in the process of establishing new cities and villages in the western frontier. And you, most fortunate ones, are to be the first to inhabit them.”
Now she understood why Bezoar and the governors were there. This group would be forced to build those cities. Maybe that was the reason behind his increased attacks on the border lands. He needed more slaves to send out west where he hoped to increase his kingdom. She gazed toward the rising sun, knowing something hindered his progress in that direction. Something that plagued her dreams and pulled at her heartstrings.
“My territory is expanding. My governors and I-” Darnel waved to the beast-men standing behind him, “-are discussing how best to achieve this. We petition you, good people of Racah, to listen to our ideas and consider joining the quest to revive these lands under my rule.”
Princess shook her head and muttered, “Working as slave laborers.”
With a gasp, she snapped her mouth closed. Those standing around her whispered to each other. They’d heard her! An outburst like that might result in more lashings. She chewed her lip, daring a glance at Ben whose brown eyes narrowed on her in silent warning.
The messenger’s voice boomed over Darnel’s speech. “Lies! Do not fall for this imposter’s deception.”
The closest soldier shoved the butt of his spear into the man’s gut. “Shut up, fool!”
The man fell to his knees wheezing.
Princess gaped at him. He’d be the dragon’s supper if he didn’t quit.
The messenger took in a winded breath and continued, “Resist him! For the army of the true King is at hand! Do not give in to this evil traitor and his ways! Stand firm while time remains.” He leaped to his feet and darted out of the soldier’s reach. His steel-gray eyes scanned the frightened prisoners.
Don’t listen to the ranting of a fool, daughter! Darnel’s voice rasped in her head. She flinched, and tried once again to control her thoughts. The man continued talking, but she couldn’t separate his words from Master’s.
“The time of this evil one’s reign….”
Foolish girl, have you not learned your lesson yet? Darnel stood still as a statue, an amused look on his calm face. His cruel eyes flicked in her direction. I would be prepared to forgive your insolence and restore you to your rightful position.
Her head pounded from trying to block his thoughts.
“…his army approaches as I speak.”
The snap of Bezoar’s whip cracked the air as it tore into the messenger’s back. He flicked again, and another streak ripped open his shirt and skin. The man bowed over, going down on his knees in the mud.
“Enough,” hissed Bezoar, drawing his sword from the sheath. “I’ll take care of this, Sire.”
Heart racing, Princess stepped between the dark hooded creature and the crouched man. “The dragon hasn’t been fed in awhile, Master.” She met Darnel’s arctic glare.
Her mouth went dry at her own audacity. She’d have been better off staying out of the way and as quiet as possible. But she couldn’t let them kill the messenger. Not yet.
“The dragon doesn’t care if he’s crazy or not. She’ll eat him all the same.”
The people standing around her gasped.
The eldest prisoner spoke up. “Perhaps we should listen to the Messenger.” He pointed a dirty finger at Darnel. “That tyrant ordered our towns to be burnt to the ground, then says he wants us to help rebuild? Shoulda left us alone in the first place if you ask me.”
Darnel closed the distance between himself and the old man. His hand clamped around the prisoner’s neck. “I did you a favor. You’re homes were crumbling, you had nothing to eat—”
“That’s ’cause you’ve stripped this land of all that’s good. I remember what it was like. I remember when we followed King Shay—”
With one quick movement, a dagger appeared in Darnel’s hand and swept across the man’s neck, splattering the bystanders in blood. The old man crumpled at Master’s feet, red puddling into the ground. Darnel, ignoring the screams coming from the on-lookers, turned to Ben, his blue eyes flashing with rage.
“I’ll expect you to convince them to accept my offer. If there are others who wish to join the messenger at my dragon’s dinner, don’t hesitate to comply.”
Ben nodded, then motioned for a couple of soldiers to escort the remaining group inside. Bezoar ordered the body to be dumped in the pit and the messenger to be taken to the holding cell until the dragon’s feeding time.
Princess moved to follow Ben when a strong hand clamp down on her arm. Darnel yanked her around so she was face to face with him.
“It’s your fault that man died.”
She started to protest that he had the dagger not her, but he cut off her words.
“Stupid child. When will you learn that I mean to sever anything or anyone who denies my authority? If you refuse to serve me, I will find other means of curbing your disloyalty.”
From behind her, the messenger yelled, “Don’t give in, freedom is at hand!”
She watched as the soldiers dragged him to the dungeon.
Darnel gripped her chin, his fingers still wet with the man’s blood. He turned her face back to his. “You are running out of time, daughter. My patience with you wanes.”
“Will you also feed me to the dragon, Master?” she asked, emboldened by the messenger’s chants of Freedom! filling her heart.
“I’ll not give you such an easy way out, my dear.” He shoved her away, then strolled toward the castle with his governors following. The troll-man kept looking back over his shoulder at her, smirking.
Princess reached into the inner pocket she’d sewn into all her skirts and pulled out a small golden disk which fit perfectly inside the palm of her hand. A tree had been engraved on one side. The other side had a fire flame surrounded by what might be a burst of light. Her medallion was similar to the messenger’s yet different.
“For freedom!” He continued to chant. Suddenly, the sound of a loud smack brought complete silence from within.
There wasn’t much time. She needed to hurry.
JOJO’S REVIEW OF ILLUMINATED BY JACKIE CASTLE…
***received this book FREE from the author via FirstWildCard for an honest review***
More on this author…