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The rope around her waist bit deep as the guards lowered her into the murky darkness of The Abyss. For a moment, everything went black as her eyes struggled to adjust, and all she had to focus on was the overwhelming smell of unwashed bodies and the reek of desperation. Shouts filled the air, the words unintelligible as voices echoed around her. The guards had taken pity on her, tossing in the day's bread before lowering her down, and it sounded as if a battle was being fought below her.
The ground arrived without warning, jarring her body in a sickening jolt. She didn't want to untie herself, but the guards had promised to cut the ropes if she didn't untie them herself. With shaking hands, she undid the knots. Then as fast as she could, she crab-walked back into the shadows, her breath high in her throat as the fear washed over her, not stopping her scramble until her shoulder hit the cave wall.
Around her, the prisoners fought for half-loaves of bread, with a fierceness that told her food was scarce.
It took her only a heartbeat to realize she might not survive the night. The dank, slimy darkness was broken only by a series of torches lit at intervals around the main cavern. Numerous bodies filtered through the murk, although a large majority of the prisoners were currently fighting in the middle of the cavern for their rations.
The torchlight danced as a chill wind whipped by, giving her a sharp warning of doom. The series of caves were inescapable. Once a month, the King sent down a patrol to make sure none of the small fissures that supplied ventilation had widened into an escape route.
But ventilated or not, Caelan wanted out. Within ten feet of whereshe huddled by the wall, a man the size of a troll smashed a smaller prisoner's head against the rock floor, then took the bread from his grasp. Groups chased people into the darkness. Shouts and cries of pain filled the air. A metallic tang of blood wafted past her on the icy breeze.
Twenty-five feet above her head, the grate shut with a clang, locking her in with a finality that drove terror through her veins. She had to survive a day.
A sob of panic tried to climb up her throat, but she tamped it down. She'd stay right here, near the grate, hiding in the shadows. She wouldn't move a muscle. Then tomorrow, she'd tell Useph anything he wanted.
If she was still alive.
"Well, well, well, lookie here," a voice said in the darkness, the words filled with anticipation and excitement that had Caelan's stomach twisting with a new surge of fear. "Fresh meat." She could only see his outline but thought it might have been the small man whose head had been smashed against the ground for his bread.
Using the cave wall for support, she pushed to her feet, her legs wobbling so badly, she almost fall down again.
"Hey, Rolf," the man shouted. "We've got a fresh woman!"
Almost as one, prisoners stopped fighting and turned, the action in slow motion as if they couldn't believe their good fortune.
The men shifted to let a tall, lanky shadow swagger into the torchlight. "Don't worry, boys. All of my followers will get a chance at her." In the dim half-light, Rolf appeared to be the Harbinger of Death, a childhood nightmare come real.
He smiled, a feral show of teeth.
His evil grin broke something inside her, goading her into a panicked dash, like a baby bunny before a rabid wolf. She ran from him, without thought, without planning, just an instinctive sprint for her life away from the thing which terrified her.
Fast as her shaking legs could take her, bounding over the uneven ground, pumping her arms for more speed.
She realized immediately she'd made a mistake but didn't stop. Couldn't now. Men who hadn't yet seen her swarmed in pursuit, her flight drawing their notice. Worse, she was in their territory, completely lost in the murky gloom.
She'd heard whispers when she was a child of drop offs where a prisoner would fall forever. One glance over her shoulder had her wishing for death. She had a trail of fifteen men behind her, their faces twisted in the dim light.
Run Caelan. Run. Falling down a pit forever would be better than what they have in store for you.
She rounded a corner at a speed she'd never achieved in her life.
And ran straight into a dead end.
Spinning to face her death, she backed into the wall, only the sound of her own harsh breathing filling her ears.
It was darker here, the air a gray sludge, the room filled with frightening shadows.
The men formed a half circle but for some reason held off from bringing her down. She had no idea why they hesitated but tried to calm her chugging breath enough to think.
"Come here, girlie," Rolf coaxed in a parody of a gentle singsong. "I promise you'd rather be with us than him."
Him who, she wondered, inching along the wall to put a large rock between them. It wouldn't give her much protection, but she was out of options. Fight for once, Caelan. If you're going to die anyway, die with blood on your hands and a snarl on your lips. What has being the peacemaker ever bought you anyway?
"There he is," someone hissed and as one, the group shifted back a step.
Caelan tried to figure out who they were talking about, but she was alone on this side of the cavern. She had to put herself behind the slight safety of the waist high rock. The wall dipped behind it, folding in on itself, giving her a place where she'd be surrounded by stone on three sides.
Sliding into the crevice, she kept herself facing the men, feeling for the wall behind her with her hand.
Except she didn't feel a wall anymore. She felt the strong planes of a man's tight, flat stomach. He towered over her, his body a massive presence, making the man who looked like a troll earlier seem small now. Whoever stood at her back was a giant among men, certainly much bigger than her own five feet, three inches.
A strange premonition blew through her, a tingling running along her skin, her breath hitching in her throat.
Once, when she was a small child, the cook had told her a story about a young man who made a deal with an evil spirit to save himself from death.
Caelan knew in that moment that she'd only live to see tomorrow if she could convince the giant at her back to save her. Her pursuers were clearly scared of him. He might end up being a monster, but there was only one of him and fifteen of them.
But what could she use to pay for his protection? She only had her healing skills and her body to offer, and she doubted he was injured. Well, she'd been married, her arranged husband dying in one of Useph's endless wars soon after they'd wed. Her body had felt the weight of a man before, and while she found the act unpleasant, she wouldn't die from having sex.
Girding herself, she kept her eyes on the half circle of men and whispered, "My name is Caelan, and I'll trade you anything you want for your protection."