The scream tore through my body, escaped from my mouth, and yanked me into consciousness. I gasped as I awoke, the sounds harsh in the silence. My hands curled into fists and I focused on my breathing. In through my nose, out through my mouth. It did little to calm me; underneath my body was still the cool, moist rock. This punishment was my reality.
I opened my eyes to the pitch blackness. I could feel the involuntary way my eyes searched for light, hoping for a speck or sliver. But there was nothing. There was always nothing.
I scooted into a sitting position, my body aching, and leaned my back against the wall behind me. I had no idea how great the cavern was, but mingled among my many fears was the one that I would wander away from the wall into a never-ending blackness. The thought tightened my throat, and I tried to swallow it down.
Breathe. In through my nose and out through my mouth.
When I finally calmed down, my ears tuned to the sounds of the cave. A drip to my left and somewhere in the distance created a muffled, quiet rushing sound. My eyes strained to see a glimmer on the rocks, but even my hand hovering against the tip of my nose was undetected. My eyes already felt weaker. It had been three days in this desolation, and I knew before long they would give up their search for light all together. After that, I’d be totally blind.
That is, if I didn’t starve to death first.
I sighed and leaned my head against the rock. Where was I? We’d been so close to home. Even now, was the town bustling and humming above me? The ache to be with people again brought tears to my eyes and I had to remind myself to breathe.
The dank air whistled through my mouth, parched and dry. There had to be water close, water dripping. I felt along the wall behind me, crouching and easing my way. My fingers brushed over jagged and smooth rock that seemed to go on forever.
My hand curved along the wall, and the dripping grew ever so slightly louder. I turned to face the wall, using both hands to feel now. The liquid seemed to be coming from a crack in the wall. I wondered how far the fissure ran, and if anything might be living inside. The thought that some creature might be staring back at me from the crevice sent a shiver up my spine. I suppressed the urge to stumble backwards.
The pounding of my heart seemed to echo in the silence of the cave. I licked my dry lips and slowly pushed my hand further into the crack. My hand plunged into a soft, wet substance with a squelching sound. I yanked it out in revulsion, my knuckles scraping against the side of the rock. A putrid, decaying smell met my nose.
At once I wiped my hand against the rock in an effort to remove the clinging substance, But before I succeeded in cleaning my hand, my ears picked out a sound. It wasn’t close. In fact, it was so distant that I almost didn’t hear it at all. But panic welled within me, hot and urgent.
Prayers ran into each other in my mind. Was it a human? Or had that been an animal? And how could I hide in this darkness?
How could I have known the men we met on the road would turn out to be wealthy? I most certainly would have turned tail and run. But they’d waved around that sack of gold like they wanted me to take it. I was clean too. I hadn’t killed a man, nor even robbed anyone since I was just a kid. None of that mattered now, though. I was trapped in the great belly of some giant cave without any hope of escape.
A growl issued forth in the darkness and this time it was closer. The hair on my arms rose over a layer of sweat.
It had come from the right. I strained my eyes until they hurt. The humidity was so absolute that nothing would spark into a fire, even if I did have kindling or still had my flint. But the men, it seemed, had been through in their punishment.
A second growl, this time accompanied with rattling breathing and a scraping step that drew closer. Blinding panic congealed my blood and froze the scream in my throat. I stood, pinned against the rock wall, body rigid with fright. I bit down on my tongue and the taste of blood filled my mouth.
Hot breath touched against my face, stirring my hair. The stink of its breath smelled like rotting flesh and I realized at once that I had not been exiled at all, but I’d been condemned as a meal.
The scream broke itself loose, echoing through the cavern. Before my mind flickered out, I thought I glimpsed the gleam of the creature’s eye.