"Hard As Steel" BOOK EXCERPT (Beyond The Merillian Book 4)

Updated: Feb 17


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For the rest of the night, I was surrounded by laughing, drunk, smelly nobles who poked fun, reveled in their winnings, or wallowed in their losses. I was less than engaged so when the man in white came through the tired crowd, I was more than eager to get on with my night. Snout, who was too drunk to notice what I was doing, paid no mind and I had to assume he made some kind of deal with the man in white considering how he’d thrown me into the pit like it was some big plan. If he wasn’t intoxicated, I would have expected a lot more demand from him, so I was thankful something was going right.


“So,” the man in white said as we walked through the stumbling crowds. “You have a fetish for the beasts, do you?”


I turned to him, conjuring a shameful look that made him laugh.


“It’s unladylike to—”


“To come to the pits?” he cut me off. “You need not pretend with me.” He leaned in, lowering his voice like what he was saying had suddenly become a secret. “But if I allow you access to your dirty obsession, I expect something in return.”


They always did.


I leaned into him, sliding my hand around the inside of his robes. “Should I visit your rooms after?” I said with a smile.


“After bedding that filth? No. But I can think of—”


And with that nonsense, I reached into the bust of my dress and pulled out the pouch of coins I’d been carrying. It was half my life’s savings, but all I had to do was think about Sage and I handed the pouch over without a hesitation. The man looked at it with a raised brow at first, then took it, weighed it in his palm, looked inside, and gave me a sly grin.


“What was your name again?” he asked.


“Why do you need to know it?”


“A woman without a man’s arm to cling to and a pouch of coins like this is more likely a thief. Or a widow, perhaps? A countess I’ve never heard of with a husband who might be very angry if he ever found out about your hobbies?”


“I’m plenty of things and you need not know about any of it,” I said with another smile. “But I do have cravings.”


He took another look at the coins. “Then I have no further questions.”


We walked through the entire basement dwelling, which was much larger than it looked when it was packed with moving bodies, and came to a metal gate leading to a wide hall lined with torches. It smelled like sweat and grime and on the walls were the various fighters chained like they were earlier that night prior to the fights. Some were wounded and others were sleeping. There were a couple of cells further down that were small but separated. In the very last cell was the elf, lounging on a small cot with one hand on his bare stomach and the other draped over his eyes. When my escort and I arrived at his cell, he turned his head, peering at me through the bars.


In the dim firelight, I could barely make out his features. Only that he was still filthy and a little cut up. My heart started to race as he stood off his cot, unfolding his long body into something that barely fit under the roof of the low-hanging ceilings. I could hear the metal of chains dragging and realized one of his ankles was cuffed in irons.


The man in white reached around me, sticking his key into the gate’s lock. He gave my neck a little sniff before he swung the gate open, allowing me to enter.


“Just wanted to smell you before the beast got his filth all over you,” he said.


I walked inside, unsure which was worse. The nosy announcer or the murderous elf. I chose the latter. When the gate latched behind me, I waited for the announcer to leave, but he lingered as if I was going to give him a show. I glanced over my shoulder a him, closing my arms around myself.


“I’m shy,” I said.


The man hissed and dragged himself away. I watched him go and when he was out of sight, I listened, waiting until I couldn’t hear his steps anymore. When I turned back, I was met with a hand around my throat. I would have gasped had the elf not immediately put pressure on my windpipe. He slammed me back into the bars, the sound echoing down the hall, and would have pressed himself against me, no doubt, had his chains allowed him to get closer. I grabbed at his wrist and was relieved to feel him ease up on his grip a little.


“Please,” I muttered softly.


“What are you doing here?” the elf growled.


“I’m your prize, remember?”


He released my throat, pacing back toward his cot before turning to look at me again. When he did, I was doing my best not to rub the new soreness off my neck as I took a step toward him. he towered over me, which wasn’t exactly comforting for a woman who was used to feeling tall.


Looking up at the elf, I slowly reached up to the low neckline of my dress and undid the two rows of lacing that bound it. the garment loosened and with a little finagling, I wriggled out of it, letting it drop to my feet. The elf watched me, no readable expression on his face, until he realized I there wasn’t a naked body underneath. His brows furrowed as he skimmed my leather leggings and knife-filled cincher.


Without saying a word, I slid one of the thin knives from my bodice and moved boldly closer to my new elf friend, kneeling on the ground to get to work picking the lock on his irons. He didn’t talk either. My guess was that he was really eager to get out of that hell hole and even if he didn’t know my plans, I was his best bet at doing that.


I was out of practice, so picking an old cuff lock took a while, but when that victorious click loosened the irons, I had to withhold a prideful smile. I moved the chain from the elf’s ankle and stood coming up closer to him than I thought. We were practically touching and when I looked up at him, I felt all of my limbs stiffen. I wasn’t sure what it was. I wasn’t the type to freeze in the face of danger, but he sure made my feet stick to the floor.

Taking a deep breath, I turned to the gate, took a look around, and then reached through the bars, sliding my thin pick of a knife into the lock.


“So,” I said softly. “How does this work? Will they be coming to check on you soon or can I expect to have all night?”


I didn’t get an answer to that. Instead, I felt the hard touch of the elf’s chest against my back and ceased all lock picking.


“What are you doing?” he whispered, his hot breath sliding down the side of my face.


“I’m leaving,” I whispered back, turning toward my shoulder to look at him. “With you, if that’s

alright.”


“Why?”


“I have my reasons. So how long do we have?”


“They’ll leave you here overnight.”


“That generous, huh?”


“That cruel. They expect I’ll hurt you.”


I scoffed, shaking my head. “I’m not surprised.”


“What makes you think I won’t?”


“Because you haven’t.”


When the gate lock clicked, I paused, gently pulling my knife away and sliding it back into my bodice. Turning around, I could feel the heat lifting off of the elf like I was standing near a warm fire and it made me shiver. I swallowed hard, taking long, deep breaths.


“Come with me or don’t,” I said. “But you’d be really stupid not to.”


He narrowed his strange eyes at me, but his silence was an agreement. I told myself it was. Pushing past him, I grabbed the blankets off his cot and tossed them at his chest.


“You definitely don’t fit in,” I said. “Cover up as best you can.”


“Give me a weapon. Unbound, I can fight my way out of here.”


“I know you probably want to kill a lot of those people out there, but less attention makes escaping a lot easier. Can you just follow me?”


He hissed low, throwing the blanket around himself like a hooded cloak. As we walk out of the cell, I took out my little pick again and tossed it at the feet of another fighter chained to the wall.


“You don’t happen to know how to pick a lock, do you?” I said.


The man immediately grabbed the pick and started going to work. Meanwhile, I moved through the hall with my elf close in tow, glancing out into the slow-moving crowd of drunk betters and stupid nobles. The man in white was nowhere to be seen and Snout was practically passed out while his scrawny friend flirted with the half-dressed bar wench.


“Do you even have a plan?” the elf asked.


“Yeah,” I said. “We walk out. Quiet and fast.”


“That’s the worst plan anyone has ever had.”


“Do you see guards? No. Because the guards are outside making sure no one gets in, but they’re not concerned about people leaving because at this point, you should be locked up and all these people are about to take a good long nap. So? We walk out.”


“On your lead,” he said with a sigh.

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