Hold on to your tunic and truncheon in this action-filled adventure. - Kirkus Reviews
ESCAPE TO PONTI
Antonio Javier Caparo
Hold on to your tunic and truncheon in this action-filled adventure. - Kirkus Reviews
Antonio Javier Caparo
433 pages, 22 illustrations
For lovers of adventure, 10 years up
Red Deer Press/Fitzhenry & Whiteside
Winner of the CANSCAIP Writing for Children Competition (MG) 2020
Fourteen-year-old Bec learned a lesson that day. Be careful whom you rob. A slave on the run from his vicious master, Bec is desperate for money. But when he mugs Tien Nu, he gets more than he bargained for. Tien Nu isn't just a superb acrobat and kung fu wizard. He also killed his father - or so he thinks. As the paths of the two boys intertwine with the journey of a mysterious knight, mayhem ensues when they head cross-country toward the safety of Ponti, with Bec's slave master in hot pursuit. A fantastical adventure in the medieval Kingdom of Italia.
Escape to Ponti is a splendid medieval adventure about two boys running from danger in search of themselves. Brian Slattery is an expert storyteller. His plot races as fast as the eye can read, with a cliffhanger at the end of each short chapter. And his dialogue is as clean and natural as his prose is light and agile. A perfect book to hook the most reluctant Middle Grade reader. —
Allan Stratton is the internationally award-winning author of The Dogs and The Grave Robber’s Apprentice
The battles come fast and furious in this picaresque story. Teen-aged Bec is a boy determined to escape from his evil slave master, and with the help of a kung fu wizard, and a mysterious knight, the author provides all the key ingredients for a rollicking good adventure. —
Christine Welldon is the acclaimed author of Knight of the Rails and Kid Sterling
What a gripping beginning! The high stakes, visceral description, fast pace and instant connection with the main character set the stage for an exciting story ahead. —
The writing is compelling, with effective and exciting action scenes. There's a great mix of character development and action that hooks the reader right away. —
Anonymous evaluations in the 2020 CANSCAIP Writing for Children Competition.
Hold on to your tunic and truncheon in this action-filled adventure. A boy in medieval Italy flees his cruel master and strikes out for freedom. Faced with being publicly branded by Malaspina, his bad-tempered master, 14-year-old Bec musters his wits, strength, and agility for a daring escape to the forest, planning to make his way south to Ponti. Bec, whose mother has died and whose father is unknown, counts horses and dogs as his best companions and is prepared to make the perilous journey alone. But a chance encounter with a black-haired boy wearing a gold earring results in the two renegades deciding to travel together. Tien Nu, whose Chinese father came from Samarkand and whose mother came from “Alessandria” in “Africa,” is an entertainer who juggles and tumbles—and he carries a heavy secret. Tien Nu teaches Bec some tricks of his trade as they get lost in mysterious tunnels, perform acrobatics and illusions at a wedding, and stay just a few steps ahead of Malaspina, who’s placed a bounty on Bec’s head. Short chapters keep the story moving, with narrow escapes, a dead body, and several bloody battles along the way, while family mysteries are untangled more gently. The characters speak in a casual, modern style, which occasionally distracts but overall reads well. Caparo’s beautifully detailed graphite pencil and digital illustrations add to the enjoyment. —
Kirkus Reviews, 5 January 2024
The branding iron hissed and spat in the burning coals, giving off angry wisps of smoke. Bec shrank into the corner, the bonds on his wrists and ankles biting into the skin.
The blacksmith drew the iron from the flames and held it up, then shook his head. He tapped it against the forge to knock off the crust and slid it back into the fire.
“Not ready yet?”
The blacksmith looked at the lean figure lounging by the wall.
“How hot does it have to get?”
“White hot, milord.”
Malaspina’s gaze shifted to Bec.
“Why? He’s just a boy. Tender skin.”
“If it’s not hot enough, it will take too long.”
“The longer the better. Let him feel it.”
“But it has to be quick, milord. Otherwise, the slave will thrash around and spoil the brand.”
Malaspina stared at the blacksmith, the flames from the forge flickering in his eyes.
“All right,” he said softly. “Have it your way. Just get on with it.”
The blacksmith gave a word to the man working the bellows and waited as the forge rose to a steady roar. Waves of heat rolled across the room, but Bec felt deathly cold.
The smith took another look at the branding iron—now an incandescent white.
“And about time.” Malaspina nodded to his bodyguard. “Take the boy outside. Everyone’s waiting.”
Nozzo released the bonds on Bec’s ankles and dragged him upright. His feet were like blocks of wood. He stumbled on the uneven floor and pitched forward, hands tied behind his back. He came down hard, his head striking the flagstones.
He lay there unmoving.
“Get him up,” said Malaspina, pointing with his cane.
Nozzo glanced at his master. He untied the ropes on Bec’s wrists and rolled him over, shaking him by the shoulder.
Bec let his head loll to the side, tracking the man through half-closed lids.
The bodyguard knelt down and held a hand in front of the boy’s mouth, then sat back on his heels, rubbing his shaved head. “He’s not breathing.”
“Slap him about.”
As Nozzo raised a hand, Bec rolled away and scrambled for the door.
The courtyard outside was packed with people summoned for the branding—servants, stable boys, slaves. They fell silent as Bec stumbled through the doorway. He plunged into the crowd, which parted to make way, then shuffled back into place, hiding him. Bec fell to his knees and crawled through the forest of legs, heading for the castle gate.
He heard Malaspina shout: “Drop the portcullis!”
Bec came to a halt, biting his lip. He’d never reach the gate in time. He reversed course and made for the lord’s living quarters on the other side of the yard. He didn’t know that part of the castle well, but it was his only chance.
“Where’s the slave?” called Malaspina.
“Over there! There! There!” People pointed in all directions except the right one.
Bec spotted a wall ahead, then a narrow opening. He scuttled inside, finding a staircase that wound upward in semi-darkness. He climbed for what seemed like an eternity. At the top, he pushed open a door and entered a day-room—polished table, carpet, tapestries. A small book lay open on the table. The place was deserted.
Across the room was an open window, white curtains fluttering in the breeze.
He climbed onto the windowsill and leaned out, one hand gripping the side. Far below, dark shoals of sewage drifted in the moat where the privies emptied. The water was shallow—just a few feet deep—not enough to break his fall. It would be crazy to jump.
He turned his gaze upward, scanning the wall that rose to the battlements above. The castle was made of fieldstones, fitted roughly together. In places, the mortar had crumbled, leaving a network of cracks and crevices where the swallows flitted in and out. He wondered if he could climb all the way up. If he slipped, he’d be dead.
He recalled the branding he’d seen last winter—an old slave who had shrieked and struggled as they’d pinned him down. The smell of burning flesh still gave him nightmares.
Bec wedged his foot into a gap in the stonework and pushed himself upward, grasping the narrow ledge on top of the window. He manoeuvred around until his knee found the ledge. He teetered there, grimacing as the rough stone pressed against the bone. A gust of wind caught his tunic and almost threw him off balance. He clung to the wall, breathing hard, then hoisted himself into a standing position on the ledge.
Behind him, he could sense a vast open space, billowing out across the valley. It sucked at his body, tugging at his limbs. The backs of his thighs tingled, as if a thousand ants were crawling there. He closed his eyes and held on grimly, while the wall seemed to sway back and forth.
Taking a deep breath, he groped upward and came across a hole with a bird’s nest. He pushed the nest further inside, setting off a storm of cheeps. Baby swallows.
The mother swallow attacked him so suddenly that Bec yelped and nearly let go. The bird swooped around, making piercing cries, diving at him again and again. Bec hunched his shoulders as the wings thrashed against his head. He gently swatted at the bird, until she gave up and flew away.
That was better.
Bec wiped his palms on his tunic, one by one, then muttered a prayer and started dragging himself upward. His hands moved shakily from gap to gap, the muscles in his arms straining.
An outcrop crumbled under his right foot. His body dropped and his legs swung free. He hung from his fingertips, his feet flailing around.
A crack in the wall—just big enough.
God and all the saints! That was close. He flattened himself against the wall, chest heaving.
A head emerged from the window below.
Bec held his breath. The man leaned out, looking down toward the moat.
There was still a chance. Bec eyed the dense patch of ivy that separated him from the battlements above. Quietly he slid his hand into the leaves and felt around for something solid.
Sweat streamed down his forehead, making his eyes sting. He blinked the sweat away and tugged at a thick vine. The branch lost its moorings and Bec swung out, almost falling. He clutched another vine, which held. Some leaves fluttered down into Malaspina’s field of vision. Bec scrabbled for a foothold and thrust himself upward.
Bec grabbed the edge of the battlements and hauled himself over, tumbling onto the inner walkway. He crouched there, thinking feverishly. He could hear Malaspina shouting as he raised the alarm.
The stables in back. His best chance.
He raced along the battlements to the rear of the castle enclosure. A wooden staircase on the inside of the wall led to a platform halfway down. He paused there, gazing about.
Not a soul in sight. Everyone was up front for the show—the branding of the slave. But there wouldn’t be a show today—not if he could help it.
He lowered himself over the edge of the platform and dropped onto the roof of the kennels. Crawling to the front, he peered into the pen below. The dogs were pressed against the outer fence, yapping and baying, roused by the shouts spreading through the castle.
“Hey fellows,” he said. “It’s me.”
The dogs stopped barking and turned to look, ears raised.
Bec leapt down into the pen. The dogs gambolled over, ready to play, licking his hands, pawing at his legs.
“Not now, my friends. Not now.”
He pushed through the dogs, ruffling their fur.
“Good dog, Apollo. Down, Lupo, down.”
He slipped out the gate and dashed across the narrow yard to the stables, where he eased open the door and peered into the long dim space.
No one there.
The horses nickered as they caught his scent. He crept past the stalls, quietly calling out their names.
He opened the shutters at the end and clambered onto the windowsill, gazing at the scummy surface of the moat a few feet below.
The door creaked. Bec spun around.
A figure stood there, black against the sunlit yard. A blade glinted in his hand.
“Don’t move,” said Malaspina. “Or I’ll cut you down.”
Bec stared at the man, momentarily paralyzed. Then a horse whinnied and kicked at its stall, and the spell was broken.
He sprang out over the moat, limbs splayed like a frog. There was a huge splash as he landed on his belly in the filthy water. Gasping for breath, he struggled to the other side and hauled himself up.
The forest was only yards away.
I've lived all over the world, including Dar es Salaam, Oxford, and Hong Kong. But I grew up in Montreal and now call Toronto my home. The martial arts are a passion of mine and I hold a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, although I'm still basically a klutz. My other passion is long-distance hiking and I get off on all the crazy things that happen along the way. My current adventure is a multi-year trek along the Via Francigena - from Canterbury, England, to Rome, Italy. This year I finally struggled across the Alps, with 750 km left to reach Rome. For more on the trek, check out my blog: brianslattery.blogspot.com.