Remember that one time I promised to post a chapter every Monday? And that other time it was a Monday and I forgot? I apologize. Adulting is hard, and sometimes I’m forgetful. Please love me still.
Chapter 8 – Iona
When I was a little girl, I tried to climb everything. I learned to do it much faster than other kids, and loved to show off my special talent. My mother hated it, though – she worried endlessly that I would get hurt. But like most things in the world, kids don’t care about danger, so climb I did. When I was still small it was to the top of the spring-pocked old couch in the apartment my mother and I shared. When I was a little bigger it was the maturing trees dotting the meadow near the Temple with other girls from school. Bigger trees as I grew older. Until one day, when I was twelve, I fell from fifteen feet above the ground as I dared to show off and flaunt my climbing talent in front of the other kids. The fall broke my right arm and two ribs. My treatment would cost my mother four months of food rations; she only shook her head and helped me home. We scavenged for scraps and lived off the generosity of our neighbors. That was when I learned the reality of danger, the virtue of humility and the fear of falling.
All that childhood climbing, though, did little to prepare me for the strenuous activity of the Hunt. Last night we spent our first evening on the Hunt at one of The Order’s official checkpoint stations, as instructed. Making our way toward the place, which turned out to be a utilitarian outpost of exposed steel and concrete bored into the mountainside, my legs ached with every step after a long first day in the mountains. As we passed through the checkpoint’s tunnel of an entrance, we were greeted framed, haunting faces – hundreds of their photographs lines the walls. We later learned that they were photos of the many people lost to the Hunt. They called it the Hall of the Departed.
“Creepy,” I decided, and expelled a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding in.
Matteo, behind me, murmured in agreement.
After passing through the watchful eyes of the dead, we were greeted by the equally empty faces of many men and women met us as we entered. The checkpoint staff did not smile or speak, simply ushered us into the unisex dormitory room where we were to sleep.
Over a dinner of roasted chicken, potatoes and greens we discussed the day’s actions and progress. We hadn’t done any intensive searching, but rather focused our efforts on gaining ground and climbing closer toward the Tower of the Gods. Today we’ve only about six miles left to travel. But of course, it will take us much longer to travel that distance in the treacherous mountains than it would in the city.
Now, with the sun nearly blinding me, I stare up the steep incline that we’re about to ascend. I wish I could instantly wish my old climbing talent back into existence. Or at the very least ebb away the fear I feel slithering in my belly so I don’t feel so vastly unprepared and inadequate. It is the second day of The Hunt now, and while my resolve is steadfast as ever, I can feel my body complaining with every step. I will get stronger. I don’t have a choice.
Rocks crunch behind me as Jagger approaches. “Ready to go?” I don’t reply, and he presses again. “Is everything okay, Iona?”
“Fine,” I snap, surprised by my own harsh tone.
His eyes study me carefully, as though I am a coiled snake, taking me in. “Sorry, it was just a question. I’ll leave you alone.”
“I’m sorry,” I sigh as he turns to leave. “It’s just that I’m a little nervous. This trail is steep and I’m, gosh…” I don’t want to tell him, but I bolster my courage and say, “I’m afraid of heights. I don’t usually spend much time climbing jagged cliffs for fun.”
He laughs, his smile easy. Too easy. Forced? There is an unspoken darkness in his eyes, something far away and pained. But it is gone as quickly as I spied it, and his smile is back. “You’ll be all right. Just stay on the trail.”
As if there is another option. My mother is counting on the fact that I will be all right.
But what we are about to climb is not a trail at all. It is a steep hillside, made of sharp shards of rock, surrounded and sometimes obscured by dark, menacing boulders. To the north, the peak looms overhead, a rocky, jagged bluff that looks about as easy to climb as it does forgiving. I do not want to hike this. In the surrounding mountain peaks I can just make out the Throne Mountain, a rock formation famous for its infamous shape like that of a throne from all those centuries ago, back in the Old World. They say the gods themselves rested there.
Trying to channel the gods’ holy peace and shake any remaining trepidation, I say a silent prayer to the Matron for safekeeping and favor. I knew what I signed up for, and if I want to stick with the relative safety of our group, I have no choice. Swallowing down the unease threatening to rise like bile in my throat, I force a brave smile. “Let’s go.”
Jagger smiles. His hands hold steady the thick black straps on his backpack, his muscular body easily supporting its weight. The trail is only wide enough for a single person, so he hikes behind me. I can feel his eyes on my steps, watching closely. I can’t decide whether his gaze feels protective or threatening. Who is this quiet stranger? Why does he make me so uneasy? Can I trust him? Can I trust any of these new people?
Jagger’s watchful eye in mind, I’m careful with my foot placement on this crumbling trail. The big rocks up top must have broken down through the years into these smaller rocks that make up our path, and it seems anything but stable. With each step, rocks crumble and go sliding down the steep terrain below us. It is too dangerous to look anywhere but down at the ground in the spots where I place my feet. I settle my right foot several inches in front of my left, testing the ground’s stability before delivering my full body weight. I repeat this process with my left foot. Every step goes this way.
I am not the only one; we climb in silence, all focused on our steps. Ronan is at the front, followed by Matteo, then Kalliope, then me, and Jagger brings up the rear. Even after half an hour we have only ascended a couple hundred feet.
Confidence surges through my body like white hot electricity, and I think how proud my mother would be to see me doing so well. Looking up quickly, I take in the beautiful mountain tableau surrounding me, trying to memorize the scene so I can describe the beauty to her later, if I make it home.
When I make it home.
Someone is shouting my name. Before I can register the direction from which the sound is coming, I realize that my foot isn’t on the ground. My foot is sliding. I am sliding. Falling. Faster than lightning I’m going down, but yet slower than a flower’s bloom. Shaken from my instantaneous daze by the reality of the imminent danger, I feel my other foot slip loose beneath me, sending several rocks tumbling down the steep, rocky incline. I am powerless to stop the fall. I scream as I go down, my hands desperately reaching for something, anything, to grab onto to break my fall, but find nothing. Sliding for what feels like an eternity, I land hard on my hip and sharp pain shoots through the side of my body. I feel rock meet bone.
Just as I start to slide further down the trail, Jagger’s strong hand clasps firmly around my forearm and stops my momentum. I am suspended, hovering above the rocky ledge leading down the treacherous slope, my demise prevented solely thanks to Jagger’s strength.
I’m all right. I’m all right. I’m alive. I’m all right.
I feel a wet, hot tear make it’s way down my cheek as my heart begins beating again. Jagger pulls me up, back onto our dangerous path. Back to safety.
“Are you okay?!” Kalliope shrieks from her position of safety up the trail. “Gods, what the hell happened? Jagger, is she okay?”
Kalliope and Matteo look back in my direction with concern, but I am too busy trying to regain a steady pace of breath to answer her question. Up ahead, Ronan looks bored.
“Lost her footing and slipped. She’s okay,” Jagger calls out. He looks into my eyes and repeats softly, “You’re okay.”
I hold his gaze, willing it to be true. I test my weight, and remember the sharp, bone-deep pain from the day with the broken arm. Though my right hip aches with pain, nothing feels too badly damaged. I feel a stinging in my palms, and upon inspection I find them both badly skinned. Jagger leans toward me and delicately lifts the corner of my threadbare shirt to inspect the injury to my hip. My breath catches when his fingers brush my skin.
“You’re a little banged up, but you’ll be good as new in a couple of days,” he says flatly. I search his eyes for any feeling, finding nothing but neutral scientific concern. “Can you make it to that boulder over there? I’ll help you get cleaned up.”
All I can do is nod, and I refuse when he offers me his shoulder for support. I can get there on my own, thank you very much. I am strong.
“You guys go ahead, I’m going to clean her up and we’ll catch up with you in a little bit,” Jagger shouts to the rest of the group.
“Be careful. Really careful,” Matteo heeds.
“Take good care of her, Jagger.” Kalliope.
“If she falls again, leave her behind. We don’t have time for this.” Ronan. Of course.
Kalliope throws a stray rock in his direction, narrowly missing his beefy chest. “Shut up Ronan, don’t be such a jerk.”
“You sure?” Matteo asks. Jagger nods yes, then Matteo says “All right, we’ll wait for you at the summit.”
Perched atop the boulder, I bite my lip against the pain coursing through my hip. I fold down the top band of my pants and pull up the tail of my shirt, which now sports a tattered new hole, and study the place where the rocks tore into my skin. I think about how close I just became to being another one of the Whispering Mountains’ horror stories, and fight back a fresh wave of tears. I must remain calm. Eyes landing again on the peak of Throne Mountain, I take a deep breath and offer a mental prayer of thanks for escaping danger relatively unscathed.
Jagger sets his backpack on the boulder and pulls out the first aid kit. Gently he places his hands on my hips, tilting the injured one into a downward angle. I let him maneuver my body, trying not to like it. Our eyes meet.
“This may sting a little,” he warns before pouring some water from his bottle over the wound.
I wince and inhale sharply, then sit quietly as he applies a healing salve to the area, covers it in lightweight gauze and seals the edges with medical tape. He gives the same treatment to my blood-stained palms. I am thankful he can’t hear how quickly my heart is beating.
“Thank you,” I murmur through a teary sniffle.
“No problem,” a friendly smile warms his face. “You feeling better?”
“Yeah, just a little embarrassed.” Another sniffle.
“Embarrassed?” His eyes capture mine, ablaze with inquiry. His body is tense with something that looks like concern.
I’m quiet for a while, then my bottom lip betrays me with a sudden quiver. Wiping away a stray tear, I finally admit, “I told myself I was strong enough to handle this.”
“This,” I reply, gesturing to the mountains in a wide circle with my newly bandaged palms. “All of it. Everything. The Hunt.”
He exhales deeply, thinking for several long moments before speaking. “And you are. You slipped, that’s all. It could have happened to any of us.” With one smooth motion, he places his hand on my arm. I struggle to conceal the shiver that runs down my spine.
He sits next to me as I rest for a few more minutes, calming down before we ascend again. When we do, I ignore the pain in my hip and press on slowly, more determinedly than before. He is right behind me this time, and I can feel his watchful eyes on both our footsteps.
Two hours later we find the rest of our group relaxing near a small lake surrounded by tall pines. Rugged mountain faces and peaks tower over us in every direction, their sharp edges cutting through the gray sky. The ones furthest away appear almost purple in the distance. The lake’s water is crystal clear, its outer banks marked by boulders large and small, its surface peaceful with a quiet serenity. The sheer beauty of this place is incredible.
Surrounded by towering mountain peaks for three hundred and sixty degrees, I feel that the Whispering Mountains must go on forever. They are infinite, and I am very, very small.
Kalliope strides toward me and gently takes my backpack, ushering me to a grassy spot where I can sit and rest. I’m not sure why this act of kindness surprises me, but it does. Pleasantly.
“That took long enough. We’ve been waiting on you for almost an hour.”
“I’m fine, Ronan, thanks for asking.” I mutter just loud enough for him to hear.
Jagger stifles a snort.
“How’s your hip? Did you have any other…issues on the rest of the climb up?” Kalliope retrieves my water bottle and hands it to me, a silent command.
I shake my head. “No.”
“Good,” Matteo chimes in. “We were worried.”
I look at Jagger, hoping for something – though I’m not sure what. A vote of confidence, perhaps? The tiniest bit of reassurance? So much as a passing glance? But no. He won’t look back at me. My heart drops. He doesn’t care about me, like I hoped he did down there on the hill, he cares about progress. I hindered that progress. Helping me was nothing but a means to an end.
That’s fine, I decide. I don’t need his confidence or reassurance. I don’t need Jagger. I muster my bravest smile for Matteo.
A quick scan of my surroundings confirms what I already knew: we are absolutely alone up here in the mountains. Aside from our town which looks almost miniscule from my position at the top of this peak, my eyes find only other, taller, more menacing mountains for miles in every direction. In an eerie way, it’s almost as if the mountains are watching us.
The wind kicks up, blowing a tangled brown tress into my face. I tuck it behind my ear.
“So, where now?” I ask.
“That’s what we were waiting for, genius,” Ronan’s voice drips with sarcasm and he rolls his eyes in an exasperated, patronizing expression. “Jagger has the Stone of Sacred Promise etching – we had no other option but to wait here for you to catch up.”
I want to hit him. That would wipe that smug look off of his face.
“Hmmm,” Jagger compares the etching to the standard edition map of the mountains that we all have in our backpacks. “All I know for certain is that we’re approximately three miles from the nearest checkpoint.”
He looks up at the sky. “If we hurry, we can make it by nightfall.” He stares pointedly at me on the word “hurry.”
I nod in agreement. “Let’s go.”
All of a sudden I am overwhelmed by the unmistakable feeling that someone – or something – is watching me. Probably animals hiding in the forest, hiding just out of sight. But the feeling persists.
That’s when I see them. At first I think surely my eyes must be playing tricks on me; I’m still shaken up from the fall. But I know that isn’t true. Paralyzing terror pulses through my veins. This cannot be real.
Two dark eyes stare, fixed unyieldingly on mine from across the lake. They belong to a tall man dressed in scant, tattered clothing that looks as crude as the rest of him. He isn’t dressed like anyone I’ve ever seen, and his face is not one that I remember as a fellow Seeker. He is well hidden behind a group of trees, but he is definitely there.
I have never seen this man before in my entire life. I have no idea who he is, or what he might want from us. I can’t tell his intentions, I can barely tell whether he’s real or a figment of my imagination. Am I crazy? I can’t be. Is this the curse? Are the mountains truly haunted? All I know for certain in this moment is that he is staring at me with a scowl so menacing I feel as if it’s pinned me into place where I stand.
It takes me several seconds to realize that the harsh, faraway-sounding scream echoing in my ears is my own.
Miss the other chapters of my debut novel, On Mountain High? Here are the handy dandy links!