To celebrate the release of my new novel, Contained, I will be posting regular chapters from the prequel to the Fractured Series, The Contract.
The blood-thirsty cries of an impatient audience filtered into the room, setting Maddison’s nerves on edge. Her mind whirled at the thought of what rested on the fight. Win or lose, she was going to pay. Her opponent, a dwarf who’d had the misfortune of gambling on the wrong person, had found himself indebted to the clan. This debt was paid in the arena. The problem was, the dwarf also happened to be Grendel’s younger brother, so killing him would seem like a personal insult. Now she knew why Grendel had been so twitchy. If the dwarves had offered refuge, the Nrikabats might have taken their frustrations out on his brother. It wasn’t logical, but the dwarves were rarely logical when it came to family.
If she didn’t know any better, she’d suspect the clan leader was aware of her personal history with Grendel, that he’d chosen Gobowin purposely. He had introduced a new rule in her honour, after all. No magic was allowed in the arena, meaning the odds were in Gobowin’s favour and, since it was his last fight, he had a lot riding on the outcome.
“Want to go to plan B,” she heard a voice from the doorway.
She turned to Tobias, eyes narrowed. “What’s plan B?”
“Grab the merchandise and run like hell.”
A small smile cracked the corner of her mouth. “Tempting, but it’s too late to back out now.” She watched him walk across the cell towards her. “How come you’re here anyway?”
“I’m incognito,” he said, morphing to demon form. “This way I get to keep my eye on you.” He reached forward to brush a strand of hair from her face.
Maddison moved on impulse, tucking her right foot behind his and knocking him on his ass. The sound of his rich laughter shouldn’t have amused her, but it did.
“I suppose on the ground is better than in it,” he said, grinning. “You’re warming to me.”
Her eyebrows shot up when he returned to his own form. “Want to test that theory?”
“Not right now.” He got to his feet, making sure he put a little distance between them. “I did a little recon, and I have an idea about how you can win, while saving Gobowin.”
The statement surprised her. She’d expected him to push his advantage.
Points to the half-blood.
He took a cautious step forward. “If Gobowin dies, his family are permitted to take the body as soon as the fight is over.”
Maddison’s forehead scrunched in thought. “So all I have to do is convince them he’s dead and he’ll get a free ride out of here.” She shook her head. “It would kill him to lose dishonourably.”
His eyes gleamed with triumph. Of course he had an answer for that too. “You can challenge him to a rematch with a new set of terms. That way you won’t have to fight to the death, and if you win he won’t lose face.”
It made sense. She liked to win, but had no problem losing a fair fight. Not that she intended to lose.
“There’s just one small problem,” Tobias said.
“He won’t agree to it, and I’ll need his cooperation to get close enough.” She knew the anatomy of most species. It was part intuition, part training. Her knowledge of the five external elements allowed her to control the opposing forces in a body and use them to disable her opponents. She would be able to knock Gobowin unconscious. “If I see a chance, I’ll use it. It’s better than taking the life of Grendel’s brother.”
He turned his head in the direction of the door. “I think it’s show time,” he said, crossing the room. “Do me a favour, okay?”
“Make sure you win.”
He was gone before she could reply.
Tobias pushed his way into the cell, his stomach churning at the rancid smell. He didn’t need to see the pit to know it was there. Those who survived the arena rarely gained their freedom. Instead, they found themselves in a hole in the ground, in a cell like this one. Dark and cold, it evoked a memory he would sooner forget. To think of Maddison in a place like this made him sick.
Like the poor souls whose bodies had been pushed into the shallow, open grave, he knew what it was to live with death and horror. If depravity had a smell, this room would reek of it.
‘You good, Sire?’
Even in his head, he detected a note of concern in Marcus’ question. His guard had insisted on joining him, and since Marcus could change his shape at will, he’d seen no reason to refuse. ‘Good might be stretching it, but I’m okay.’
With the sound of Marcus’ grunt echoing through his mind, he stepped forward. The closer he got to the pit, the angrier he became. He had to remind himself that, though their decomposing bodies still lingered to haunt new prisoners, their souls had returned home.
Reaching for a torch on the wall, he cranked the dial. “Donovan?” he called, watching as a harsh glow spread across the cell.
“Who are you?” a raspy voice spoke from the shadows.
Tobias swung his gaze in that direction. “Who I am isn’t important.”
After a moment the voice came again. “What do you want?”
What did he want? Now there was a loaded question. “I want to see if you’re worth dying for. She clearly thinks so.”
The shadow moved and a tall, slim man stepped into the light. The moment he saw Tobias he fell to his knees. “Your Majesty.”
A searing hot shaft of guilt pierced his heart. He didn’t deserve the honour, not when he had allowed so many to slip through the cracks. “If I thought it would help, I would destroy every member of this clan for what they did to you.”
Donovan’s head remained bowed, but Tobias could feel the tension vibrating around him. “I believe I would like that honour.”
“Yes,” he said, chuckling. “I believe you would.” Bending low so that Donovan could see, he held out his hand. He felt Donovan’s eyes on his outstretched palm.
“I have an empathic ability, Sire. If I touch you-”
Tobias clamped the hand on his shoulder and connected them mind to mind. What he saw saddened him. There was so much pain. He wasn’t sure how Donovan could survive it, and if he didn’t, Maddison would take it as a personal loss.
After a few moments he broke the connection. This time when he offered the hand, Donovan took it. He saw the question in his eyes, was surprised by the intensity of it. “Ask.”
Donovan gave a slight bow. “I saw a woman… Maddison, I saw her in your mind. Is she why you’re here?”
He didn’t like the fact Donovan had seen anything at all, but he didn’t say so. They were running out of time. “She’s the reason I didn’t tear a hole in the clan leader and get you out myself. Maddison wants to fight to win your contract.”
“In the arena?” Donovan staggered back, overwhelmed. “Why would she do that?”
“Why do you think?”
After another long silence, Donovan stepped forward again. “I’m not worth saving. She’s wasting her time.”
A surge of anger shot through Tobias, a fury he was barely able to control. “I know you were linked to her, I felt the echoes of you in her head. I’m here because I want you to fight for her too.”
“You think she’ll win?” Donovan asked, his eyes watchful.
“The day she doesn’t will be the day I lose my soul.” He paused to let that sink in. “Fight for her, Donovan. If you can’t fight for yourself. Fight for her.” He turned and walked away. He’d almost made it to the door before Donovan spoke.
Tobias didn’t turn, for a moment he couldn’t even speak. “That’s all I ask,” he said finally, and pushed his way out of the room.
‘Do I need to remind you again that it’s not your fault? Marcus asked when he joined him in the corridor.
‘Then whose fault is it? They’re my people, Marcus.’
Silence in his head, a silence he knew meant his guard was working to temper his response. He waited it out, morphing back into a clan member and turning in the direction of the arena.
He felt pressure in his mind a moment before Marcus said. ‘What of the countless lives you’ve saved? Of the work you do in the League?’
Tobias turned to him, meeting his determined gaze. ‘It’s not enough. Not by a long shot. But I’m going to find a way to stop those who abuse the system.’
‘As long as you don’t offer yourself on a platter, like your witch.’
His witch. He liked that. “Here we go,” he said, pausing to gather himself. “If the shit hits the fan, remember what I said – she’s your priority.”
More silence, which meant Marcus wasn’t happy. Not that he would disobey the order, or try to fight against it. He was loyal to a fault.
As Tobias strode into the arena his control slipped a fraction. Somehow he managed to ignore the crowd, shut out the smell of blood, both old and new, to focus on the cage. The sound in the room clamped around his skull, persistent to the point of pain. Maddison was behind the glass, eyes fixed on her opponent. He couldn’t see her physical injuries because of the elfin suit, but her face spoke volumes. She was hurting and, bond or no bond, he felt her pain as surely as if it were his own. Her hair was fastened in an elaborate binding to restrict the dark tresses. It was odd to see her fighting without it, even knowing the no magic rule.
Tobias’ eyes went to Gobowin, who was large, even for a dwarf. He wore his satisfaction like a suit, revelling in her misery. Clearly he knew about the incident with his brother. It was a story Tobias hoped she’d share with him, even though she wanted to keep the darker memories to herself. He understood the desire, rarely sharing his own. Yet the very fact she had given him her trust, offering him one of her most guarded secrets, gave him hope.
It soared even higher when she turned to meet his gaze. He saw steely determination, beneath a familiar sheen of confidence. She wanted him to know she was holding her own. So, despite his concern, he found himself grinning. Because he mattered to her, and if their situations were reversed, he knew she would struggle too.
Thanks for stopping by.
Until next time.