On Mountain High – Chapter Fifteen

Chapter 15 – Iona

I didn’t mean to pick up the wrong backpack, I didn’t mean to go snooping for secrets. It was an accident. That’s all. All I’d done was look for my water bottle. That’s it. But instead of my bag, it was Kalliope’s bag. Gods forgive me for that. And instead of my water bottle, I’d found…

My mind races as we hike through the woods. What is she hiding from the rest of us? I slow my pace and allow myself to fall to the back of the group, so I can study her as we travel toward the Consecrated Dwelling. She doesn’t look particularly deceitful. That’s part of what’s shaken me up so badly. If she’s lying to me – to the group – who knows who else could be, too.

I’ve gotten too comfortable around these people. I have to remember that I can only trust and depend on myself. I must trust no one. My mother’s life depends on it.

“I’m tired,” she calls from her position ahead of me. “I wish we could’ve stayed in the lake all day.” I realize she’s talking to me.

“Yeah,” I call back, voice flat. “Me too.”
More silence. Just me and the confusion between my guilty conscience and newfound suspicion bringing up the rear.

My mother always taught me to be honest, for no reason other than it was the right thing to do. When I was little, I’d lie to get out of trouble. But she always seemed to know. “The truth will set you free,” she’d say, and I’d confess the whole truth. Thanks to her, I’m a horrible liar.

I briefly consider whether not sharing the information that my mother is sick so that I don’t appear weak is remotely on the same plane of wrongness as hiding a recording device and detailed notes about your competitors in your backpack.

I decide that it isn’t.

“You okay back there? You’re awfully quiet.” Kalliope asks.

“Fine,” I reply. “Just thinking.”

What am I waiting for? She’s the one that has something to be embarrassed about, not me. I should just ask her.

“Kalliope,” I call before I can think better of it.

She turns back toward me.

“I have to ask you something.”

“Okay,” she says, seemingly unaware of my rising anxiety. My heart beats louder than thunder. It’s a miracle that she can’t hear it.

I stop in place, and she furrows her brows, glancing forward at where Jagger, Matteo and Ronan continue walking. They don’t know that we’ve stopped.

She gestures out to them, like she wants to call for them to stop. “No,” I say. “This will just take a minute.”

“Iona, what’s going on? We’ve got to keep going. They’re going to leave us behind.”

“Why do you have a recorder in your backpack?” The words blurt out of my mouth so fast I can’t stop them. I’d meant for the question to come out more gracefully, less like a crazed idiot, but I continue anyway. “And notes about us? About all of us. Me, Jagger, Ronan and Matteo. Are you spying on us? Reporting on our progress to another group of Seekers?”

Her eyes widen. “You went into my backpack?”

“By mistake, I thought it was mine. I’m sorry. But that doesn’t matter, I’m not the one spying on the rest of the group. Who do you think you are, exploiting our privacy like that?”

She sighs and casts nervous glances around us, then speaks in a hushed tone. “I’m not spying on you, you’re my friend. I’m not spying on anyone. I work for the newspaper, you know that.” She pauses, as if to let me reach her meaning on my own. When I don’t, she continues. “I’m kind of…undercover. I volunteered as a Seeker because no one has ever…you know, no one has ever survived the Hunt to tell what it’s like from the inside. I plan to report on the Hunt with firsthand experience.”

“Old Sam survived. And we’re all looking pretty damn alive, if you ask me.”

She rolls her eyes. “Iona, be serious. Old Sam is insane, you can’t get a single lucid word out of the man. Besides, this is groundbreaking. No one’s done it before. My editor and I are going to be the first to tell the full story.”

As I consider this, she looks vaguely like she wants to say more. She opens her mouth, pauses, and then closes it again. She says nothing else.

“You’re not going to betray us?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “No, Iona.”

“You’re not working with other Seekers to steal our information?”

“No, I’m not.”

“What if I tell the others?”

“I wish you wouldn’t, I don’t want their behavior here to be anything but what comes naturally. If they know I’m watching, really watching, they might act differently. I want an honest and true inside perspective.”

A new thought dawns in my mind. “You work at the Daily Gazette…the newspaper runs an article every other day about a new body found in the Whispering Mountains. You of all people should know how foolish it is for you –for any of us– to be out here.”

“I guess I just like to live dangerously.” She smiles, then shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot when I don’t smile back. I get the sense that she still isn’t telling me the whole story. Or maybe she just is uncomfortable with the reality of my statement. “Please don’t tell the guys. I don’t want them to stop trusting me, or think of me any differently. It doesn’t really matter who I work for, I’m here and I’m helping track down the treasure. Right?”

Matron, give me wisdom. I turn the idea over in my mind, and hesitantly agree. “All right.”

Gratitude floods her eyes. “Really? Gods, thank you. Look, it’s still the same me. You know that I’m on your side here, right?”

After a long moment I nod. “Yes. I know that. You scared me, is all. This is a new situation for all of us. I’m up here in an unfamiliar place with complete strangers, scared out of my mind that I’m going to do something stupid and get myself killed, or that the curse is real and I’m going to wind up just another tally in the Whispering Mountains’ body count. The last thing I need is to be worried about who I can and can’t trust among people I thought I’d befriended. So don’t you dare give me something else to worry about.” I realize suddenly that I am yelling. I also realize that I meant to.

She says nothing, just stares back, like she doesn’t recognize me anymore.

“No more lies, okay?”

Her voice is timid in reply. “Okay.”

Stepping around her, I push forward to catch up to the guys. I don’t turn to see if she’s following me.

I can’t believe my tenacity. Never in my life have I spoken to someone the way I just spoke to Kalliope. It felt bold. Brave. Dangerous. It felt…good. I deserve the truth, and I’m going to find it. Just like I’m going to find the treasure, and I’m not going to let anyone get in my way. These mountains – the Hunt – are not going to be the end of me.

My brain still can’t decide whether it would be foolish to trust Kalliope again. She suddenly seems so unlike the girl I roasted marshmallows with just nights ago.

In ten minutes I catch up to Jagger, Matteo and Ronan. This time I do turn to see Kalliope behind me.

“Where’d you and Kalliope go?” Matteo asks.

“Ladies’ room, thank you very much. Can’t some girls get a little privacy?” I joke casually. Regardless of my newfound trust issues, I will keep my word and I will keep her secret.

***

 

The Consecrated Dwelling is a vast wall of antiquated living spaces carved into the northward facing wall of a mountain. Built straight into the rock, the mountain wall holds numerous structures and rooms, varying in size. Their ceiling is an overhanging cliff, a part of the mountaintop looming hundreds of feet above. Off in the distance miles away, I can barely make out the Tower of the Gods jutting upwards into the sky. The noontime sun reflects in every direction, illuminating everything around us and making the rocks on the cliff dwellings glow a dazzling shade or fire red. The air is crisp, and carries an aura of mystery. This place is enchanting. How appropriate that this heavenly place lies so high above the danger and turmoil of mankind below. I understand why the gods would want to live here. It’s certainly much more beautiful than the cramped, mildew-filled apartment I share with my mother.

Standing in awe, the five of us take in the fullness of the sight. After a few moments, Jaggers’s voice reminds me that I’m here for something greater than a simple sightseeing excursion. “Okay, let’s split up and start searching for clues.” He says. “Iona, you’re with me. We’ll go north. Matteo, you take Kalliope and Ronan and head around the south half and perimeter.”

Jagger certainly knows how to take charge. His quiet authority, the obvious respect the group has for him impresses me. Without a word of disobedience, the group divide and start walking.

I fall into step with him as we begin walking. “Do people usually do what you tell them to? Or are you capitalizing on our vulnerability?” I ask with a sly grin.

His tough demeanor holds strong, but a smile cracks his lips. “Well of course, everyone always does exactly what I tell them to. I’m clearly the smartest one in the group, why wouldn’t they?” The devilish grin snakes its way up his face, reaching his dark eyes.

“I see someone thinks rather highly of himself,” I volley back.

He laughs, then says, “I guess it’s part of my training, working in Temple security. We’re taught to take action if no one else does. We get things done. People get caught up in bureaucracy, standing around talking about all the different ways to solve a problem. I just solve it, and let everyone else catch up later. Sometimes it’s best to just do. Stop thinking, and just do. It’s worked for me so far in life.”

He has a point.

“And it’s worked for you so far on the Hunt,” I add.

“That it has,” he concedes. “But in this situation, we’re all working toward a common goal: finding the treasure. So anything any of us do should benefit the group, really.”

I think of Kalliope. Of her recorder and notebook.

Should,” I repeat.

“Well,” he laughs a little. “There’s no accounting for Ronan.”
His smile warms me. I laugh now, and I feel it down to my toes. How can he be so impossibly handsome, so smart, so brave and funny? I don’t stand a chance against that combination. I steal a sideways glance into his eyes, wondering about his life. Where does he live? What does he like to do in his time away from work? Who does he spend time with? Does he believe in the gods, truly believe? I wonder what it would be like to lean into him, to stop thinking and do –like he said– and plant a tiny, gentle kiss on his those mysterious lips…

Gods, no. Help me stay focused. I cannot be distracted by him.

Moving away from Jagger, I pass under a natural stone arch and make my way into one of the dwelling spaces. I can still feel the presence of the gods in this place, it’s as though they were just here. It is a small enclosure, no more than fifteen feet wide. In the middle lie the remnants of an old fire pit, the rocks now brown from many years of dirt accumulation. A makeshift ladder was long ago carved into the side of the room’s wall, its precarious footholds and arm holds leading up to another floor of rooms. This whole place is like a carved maze, a jigsaw puzzle of enclosures and rooms. Looking around to remember where the entrance is, I hoist my backpack up and step onto the built-in ladder, climbing up to the next floor. Loose dirt and small gravel tumbles to the ground below as I step, and I hear coughing from below.

“Jagger?”

His cough grows louder in reply.

“Are you following me?

More coughing, then, “You think I’m going to let you go off on your own in some unfamiliar, possibly dangerous place? Not a chance. Now watch where you step, I don’t want another mouthful of dirt if you don’t mind.”

Warmth floods my cheeks, and I ask the gods silently now to save me from the distraction that is Jagger. Rounding the top of the in-wall ladder, I step aside to make room for him as he clambers up onto this new floor. The higher vantage point gives us a spectacular view of the surrounding cliff faces and mountain peaks, and I can even make out lakes and streams in valleys below us. Stepping forward into the new room, I begin making my way around and exploring the space.

Just as I lift my foot to walk through another arched doorway formed of natural rock, an arm comes shooting out in front of me, pulling me back where I came from.

“Watch it!” Jagger’s usually placid voice is overwrought with panic. “Don’t step there, hold on.”
“Let go of me, I’ll step where I want to. I don’t need your permission.”

“You want to get yourself killed? Be my guest.”
I swallow the lump that forms instantaneously in my throat. “Killed?”

He nods, and pointing at the ground on which I was about to tread, says, “It’s a trap.”

I follow his gaze and stare at the ground where he points. Dry bits of grass and leaves cover the area, but with the Consecrated Dwelling’s open cliff face I assumed only that the wind blew them there. Until, that is, I watch as Jagger picks up a rock the size of a closed fist and flings it onto the ground. The entire floor beyond the room’s arched entrance gives way, falling inward on itself. My jaw falls open. He turns to me, and all I can do is stare stupidly back at him.

“Believe me now?” He sighs in relief.

My staring continues. “But…how…how did you know?”

He shrugs. “Pine needles were too green. If they’d really been blown in by a mountain wind, they’d be dead and brown.”

I take a few tentative steps forward, testing the ground with my toe before giving it my full weight. I notice Jagger is closer than ever, my new shadow in this place of the unknown. Peering down I find the room’s sunken floor to be a deep and hollow pit. Twenty feet deep, I would guess, with perfectly smooth walls. Not a single notch or foothold in sight. A lone Seeker could fall down there and never get out. Fear settles over me as I realize how close I just came to danger.

“Thank you,” I whisper. “For protecting me.” His answer comes in the form of a warm hand landing gently on the small of my back. Gods, help me. “But how did this get here? Who put it here?”

He cocks a dark eyebrow, thinking. “Someone doesn’t want us here. We need to be careful.” And with that he takes me by the hand, pulling me behind him as we move away from the booby-trapped pit. We descend the ladder in the wall and stand in silence for several long moments.

“Let’s get back to work,” Jagger finally says with a reassuring nod of the head.

And we do. For several hours we search –carefully, very carefully– each new room, under every rock, in every corner. Slowly we weave our way through the maze toward the Consecrated Dwelling’s north end.

Finally I decide I’m recovered enough to talk again. “Jagger, can I ask you a question?” He grunts in reply, still on the ground looking for clues. “Do you think we’re going to find the treasure?”

I’m met with a pensive silence. Then he sits up, leaning back on his heels and says, “Yeah, I really think we could.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Gods Iona, you’re like a dog with a bone today. What’s gotten into you?” He asks.

I consider the question, thinking again of what he said about thinking versus doing. “I’m tired of being a passive bystander, of letting life happen to me. The gods gave me free will and a brain for a reason, right?” I take a bold step closer to him. “I’m ready to do. Ready to make things happen.”

He stops in his tracks and turns, blocking my path with the solid, muscular mass that is his body. The swift motion catches me off guard, and my breath catches in my throat. I wish I wasn’t so small, as he towers above me. His eyes bore deep into mine, and I feel the intangible tension of unspoken words between us. I want to move into him, to have him wrap his arms around me and close the gap between our bodies, but I say nothing. I simply hold his gaze, waiting to see what he will do. A silent challenge I want desperately to lean into.

He breaks our stare and his eyes travel over my body. Down my face – did they linger on my lips, or was that my imagination? – and beneath my chin, passing over all my curves and angles, all the way down to my toes. I think I see his hands twitch in their position at his sides.

His exhale comes out as a hearty sigh. “Ready to make things happen? All right then. Let’s keep going.” He turns away and starts walking again.

I stand in place, bewildered and still trying to steady my breathing. What was that all about? Was he challenging me, sizing me up? Or could it be that he feels the way I do? Would he ever want me the way that I want him?
The idea is far easier to dismiss than to entertain. Someone as strong and wonderful as Jagger would never want someone like me. I mentally chastise myself for even considering it. We are here to find the gods’ treasure, and nothing more. This is a business partnership, and nothing more. And so it shall remain.

Part of being strong is being realistic.

Forcing these thoughts from my head, I see that Jagger has continued the search. Not wanting to draw attention to myself in this moment, I follow his lead and begin maneuvering through the fallen boulders and tall grass, turning stones and removing vines blocking the hand-carved walls. We search silently, but together, turning over every rock, entering every room, digging at the base of every tree, and climbing up to every ledge. We’re near the far northeast end, almost ready to return and meet the other group when I see it.

A small, but steady plume of smoke rises from one of the cliff rooms.

“Jagger,” I say, my voice a whisper, as I grab his arm in a vice made of my fingers. I point.

I hear him inhale sharply. “Gods, what the…” He pauses, thinking. “It could be other Seekers,” he says finally.

“…but why would they make camp here? Why not head to a checkpoint where there’s food and water and a soft bed?” I finish.

“I have no idea.”

“Do you think it could be whoever dug the pit?”

“I’m not sure. Stay close behind me, come on.”

He grabs my hand again, pulling me so closely behind him that I can see the hairs on the back of his neck are standing on end, and we tiptoe closer and closer.

The room next to the smoke’s source offers some cover. We stand, backs against the cold rock wall, both breathing shallow, silent breaths. I notice him reaching a hand behind his back, then moving it forward again. I didn’t know Jagger had a nervous tick. We listen for what feels like hours, but in reality is seconds.

“I don’t hear anything,” his whisper is so faint I can barely make out the words.

“Me either.”    He strains his head around the corner, checking left, right and all around for any signs of life. I try to remain silent and calm, and take care not to allow myself to consider the notion that we may be nearing an ambush.

Jagger draws the Order-issued knife from his back pocket and flips the blade open with silent ease. I immediately wish mine wasn’t in my backpack, I can’t afford the noise retrieving it would make. I just have to hope no one wants to kill me today.

He turns toward me and bobs his head in the direction of the smoke, indicating that he’s ready to move. I nod yes. He steps silently forward and I follow, my heart in my throat.

In a single fluid motion we round the corner and step into a room that looks deceptively identical to all the other empty rooms we’ve just explored. Red walls, the floor a mixture of stone and dirt, and an open ceiling hundreds of feet above. The only difference is that in the center of this room, someone has recently – very recently – made, and then extinguished, a small fire.

No one is in the room. Back-to-back, Jagger and I dance a slow circle around the rock room. No one is watching us. At least, no one that we can see.  We step closer to the fire pit.

Small rocks encircle the smoldering embers, limiting the fire’s width. Bones of some kind, I don’t know what, lay discarded in the smoke. The ash holds no signs of what animal the bones belonged to.

I turn to Jagger. His handsome face is folded into a frown, and he steps toward the smoking pit. Leaning down, he reaches for something on the ground on the far side of the fire. I strain to see what it is.

He stands, and I do see. He holds a tiny pair of what look like kitchen tongs. The white bone has been pounded and carved into flat ends, and the apex of the set is tied together with some kind of rustic leather strap. A slingshot. A slingshot a person might use to fling a rock at Ronan’s back that day he fell into the river.

Our eyes meet.

“Someone was here,” he whispers. “Within an hour, I’d guess. Iona, this isn’t something the Order gave any of the Seekers. And I think you’re right, no Seeker would stop here to make camp when there are checkpoints available.”

Ice-cold terror ripples down my spine.

He gulps, and I reach the same conclusion as he speaks the words.

“Someone else has been here. We don’t know who they are, or what they’re doing out here. All we know is that they don’t want us in this place. And they could come back any minute.”

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