Being first a country kid, then the shadow of a princess, I never actually saw the prisons, the root of the castle. These were the dank dungeons set in the crevice of an ice cave that I had imagined being sent to; however, I had dreamed there would be a crack above my head, a way I could catch a sliver of the moon or the sun so I could tell the days. There was no such crack. Even the door fit snug when the guards took my uneaten bundle and shut out the sputtering torch light. A rather large part of me lived for those precious seconds when the man would grind the key in the lock, heave against the wood swollen into its stone frame, and scrape open the door until the orange light showed on my untied handkerchief. Then he would sigh, collect the bundle, and tell me he was giving it to the less fortunate. With a muffled slam, the light would be gone with the temptation.
These last few meals—I guessed the guards gave me one a day, but time was lost to all but those few seconds when I could see freedom—had been particularly fragrant, and made my hunger strike all the more challenging. Water from a freely trickling corner in my cell no longer quenched my hunger. I was not on a perfect strike to begin with—I snuck in two bites of bread every other meal, just to keep myself alive as I didn’t know if anyone cared about my well-being.
I was almost ready to give in, to eat the feast before me. It had chicken and cheese and herbed bread, I could smell it. The mini-loaf was unbroken, and I would not be able to scrape off crumbs without being obvious. I would not be obvious.
I wondered how my hound was, and my bet was that she was being an absolute pain in the butt for Hunter, and I was glad. I was counting on it. I hoped she made him want to beat his head against his overly large, egostical pride.
Yells vibrated my cell wall. There was the guard; he was calling, not ordering. His voice was not the angry shout he gave to an unruly prisoner or to Wailing Willy, but was singsong soft. I wondered if someone touched in the head had gotten loose.
Then I heard the bay.
It was Belle.
Head swimming with fatigue, I bolted on all fours to the door and called through it. The bay sounded right outside four inches of solid wood, and I heard whimpers and scratches.
I beat on the door, adding my own frantic shrieks to hers before I regained some control over myself and crawled back into my usual corner. Belle knew I was here now, and she was not going to leave. I needed strength in case I had some negotiations to attend to; I did not believe it had been long enough for her to have had a litter yet.
A few hours passed, or at least it seemed like a few hours. The guards could not walk past Belle to do their usual pick-up round, and I heard three growling skirmishes before the guards gave up on moving her. Then I heard a clear voice ring through the dungeons.
“Call off Belle. We will talk.”
I believed him the way I believed ice would hold cargo in the late spring. I whistled three quick bursts.
Belle snarled, and I imagined her crouching low and hackling.
“Take my offer!” It was not a concerned or angry voice, but commanding. As much as I did not like being told what to do, I knew it would not be excessively difficult to capture a dog in such a confined space. I whistled for Belle to stand down.
I heard keys clank on a chain, one of them grind into the lock, and then the door came open in one smooth pull. Framed in the doorway, Hunter stood as a silhouette with torches held behind him and Belle pointing at him, a low rumble emitting from her throat as she pointed at him. She had broken command by standing up, but I was grateful for her intelligence rather than disappointed by her disobedience.
Faking strength, I climbed to my feet with a careful grace and strode into the dungeon isle. Belle ceased her growl when I placed a hand on her neck; her tail swished once against my knee, then she resumed growling. Her ribs formed ridges under my fingers when I stroked down her backbone, and I knew she had been on a hunger strike as well.
I handed her the chicken breast and she swallowed it with a snap and a very forced gulp.
“We will talk in the herb garden,” I said, hoping that the new king had not demolished the grounds. The herbs were kept trimmed lower than the other formal gardens and I would be able to see if he had posted extra guards. I also had the best opportunity for escaping there, providing that the hops vine still grew over the mouth of the cave.
“That sounds like as good of a place as any,” Hunter said and motioned me ahead of him in a chivalrous gesture.
I was not going to walk in front of him, but my mutt lead the way. I sighed and followed her, reluctantly permitting Hunter to take up the rear.