Chapter 24 – Iona
I wake from a deep, oddly restful sleep sometime later, eyes fluttering open to find myself inside the great rocky cavern. It takes me a moment to remember where I am, all that has happened, then everything comes flooding back at once. Matto, Kalliope and– a warm, pleasant blush spreads across my cheeks when I’m struck by the memory of Jagger’s skin on mine. Yes, how could I have forgotten that even for a moment? Tucking a stray lock of hair behind my ear, I notice Jagger isn’t laying beside me as he was when we fell asleep. How long ago was that? It feels as though days have passed in this cavern, though the warm glow from outside the cave tells me it’s sometime in the late afternoon – only a few hours have passed, in truth. I prop myself up on an elbow and scan my surroundings, finding Jagger leaning against a small boulder about ten paces away, his gaze fixed intently on me.
“Hi,” I say through a shy smile, suddenly nervous and timid under his intense scrutiny.
Jagger returns my smile, and I begin to make out the dark trouble brewing in his mysterious eyes. “Hey,” he says. “Listen, I’m going to go for a walk.”
“Okay, I’ll go with you–”
“Alone,” he cuts me off, then adds more gently, “I just need a few minutes. Do you mind?”
I nod no, and curl around my makeshift backpack pillow. Something is wrong, but I do not press him for details.
“All right.” He crosses to me and gently kisses my forehead before standing. “I’ll just be a few minutes.” And with that, he turns and walks out of the cave entrance.
Okay, I think. What got into him? Did I do or say something wrong? No, he wouldn’t have kissed me before leaving. Such strange behavior, I wonder what brought it on. Surely it wasn’t me, wasn’t us? No. It couldn’t be – he wanted it as much as I did. More, even, if my memory serves me correctly. I could spend my whole day guessing what’s going on inside his head, or I could use my energy on something more productive. I decide not to let myself worry about that and turn my mind over to other things. More pleasant things.
Like the feel of his skin on mine.
I let out a satisfied sigh, my body warming all over at the memory of his touch. How he’d made me feel beautiful and wanted and safe, even out here in the dangerous wild. In those moments together, everything around us ceased to exist. There were no thoughts of the Hunt, of our lost friends, of my sick mother…just us. Thank you, gods, for bringing him to me.
But…did the gods really even have anything to do with it? Have they had a hand in anything that’s happened to us so far? Would the gods have allowed Matteo to die?
Matteo. The riddle in his backpack –not to mention the horrible cracking sound of his head colliding with the boulder in the river– still haunts my thoughts. It had no name on it, nothing to denote who or where the words came from. But aside from the Stone of Sacred Promise and all the long-held speculation as to the treasure’s location, I’ve never heard an actual clue as to its whereabouts. Contemplating, I turn the riddle over in my mind.
“Seek for days, yes the treasure is nigh,
Not down below, nor on mountain high.
Go ahead and look, ‘til the end of your days,
For I know where lies the prize that leads to your grave.”
It’s near, but not down below? That could mean anything. It’s not hidden underground, or in a valley, perhaps? But it’s also not hidden “on mountain high.” Hmmm. The rhyme taunts, and obviously references the curse and alleged haunting surrounding the Hunt. If I’m being honest with myself, given Matteo’s death, Kalliope’s disappearance and Ronan’s slow descent into madness, that idea doesn’t seem quite as laughable or outlandish as it once did. I try not to think about any of them. I can’t.
“Not down below, nor on mountain high.” Does that mean that perhaps it’s not out here at all? What if there’s no treasure at all? Could the entire tradition of the Hunt be a sick mind game the gods devised? Or the twisted entertainment of The Order and its leaders, meant to…manage the population?
No. That couldn’t be. I shake the thoughts from my mind. If The Order knew I so much as even considered that idea, they’d kill me. Obey The Order. Man is meant to obey. To serve the gods and their servants here on Earth.
But what if…
No. The treasure is out there. I feel it.
Suddenly I hear the shuffling of feet behind me, and someone taking heavy, deep breaths. I turn to see Ronan. He looks wild, raw, animalistic. Dirt stains his face, clothes and hands, and his shirt is torn in several places across the front. The look in his eyes is electric with malice.
“Hello there Iona,” he whispers. “Looks like your boyfriend left you all alone.” He takes a slow step toward me, and something in my gut tightens. I take a step backwards.
“Ronan, umm…it’s good to see you, we were so worrie–”
“Shut up!” He shouts, and the look in his eyes terrifies me. “You’re lying. You and Jagger never cared about me. I was always an inconvenience to you. To everyone. I’m nothing but a bother.”
He is different, something has happened to him. Something has come unhinged. He towers like an angry Grizzly, awoken from hibernation in a fit of rage.
“You aren’t at all,” I try to placate him, still while maintaining my distance. “We’re safer with greater numbers anyway, you can rejoin Jagger and me. We think we found a significant clue, you can help us investigate.”
“You don’t really want me here. No one ever does. You know what? I’m tired of not being wanted.” He rushes forward and grabs my arm before I can escape his reach, pulling me into his body. “Don’t you want me, Iona? I saw how much you wanted Jagger. Why not me? Am I not good enough for you?”
I do not know what to say. His grimy hand gropes my hair, slides down my neck and forces its way into my shirt, squeezing too hard so I cry out in pain. “Ronan! Stop. This isn’t right, can we please just talk for a while?” I’m scared of him. He is brutal and wild, and despite my strongest struggles against the weight of his arms, they do not loosen their hold on me.
I am trapped.
“I’m not interested in talking, you little bitch.” He throws me down onto the cave floor, pinning my legs under his own. His hands hold mine above my head. I try to free my leg, to kick him, but I can’t move. He has me pinned. I pray to the gods for help, a way out of this horrific scene.
He frees one of his rough, callused hands, still holding my two effortlessly with just one of his. The free hand gropes again, moving down to touch every place I do not want him to. He forces his mouth onto mine, his tongue pushing its way inside. I bite down, hard, and he slaps me, hard. I begin to cry. “Ronan, stop it. Please, stop!” I wail through fearful tears.
“Get the hell off of her,” Jagger’s voice growls through the cave walls.
Ronan bolts upright, but does not release his hold on me. I see Jagger taking slow, deliberate steps toward us. “What’s the matter Jagger Boy, don’t like sharing your girlfriend? We’re all friends here, right?”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me. I said get off of her.”
“Why don’t you come down here and join me, I bet she’d like it better if you were here.”
“Ronan, I’m warning you. This is your last chance.”
Ronan shakes his head. “Fine. Wait your turn then.”
Jagger’s face twitches and his body rushes forward in a sprint of shocking speed. With one fell swoop Jagger lunges, driving his shoulder into Ronan’s chest, knocking him off of me with a horrible cracking sound. I scramble up off of the floor, wiping the tears from my face. I will not let him make me cry.
The two men are a tangled mess of punching, kicking, fighting limbs on the cave floor. I hear the hollow sound of fist connecting with flesh, low grunts of effort and the rush of wind. Then Jagger is up, Ronan pinned beneath him not unlike the way he pinned me only moments ago. I see blood on Jagger’s face, though I have no way of knowing whether it is Ronan’s or his own. He lands a hard blow, fist colliding with Ronan’s jaw. Jagger raises his arms together in a conjoined double fist above his head, then drives it into Ronan’s chest. I think I hear ribs crack.
I do not feel sorry for Ronan.
Jagger is driving fist into face over and over and over again. Blood sprays with every blow, and after a while Ronan’s body goes limp.
“Jagger,” I call. “Enough! He’s had enough.”
He stops, mid-blow. I see him take in what he’s done, the bloodied pulp that was once Ronan’s face. I hear the sharp, ragged inhales and I cannot tell which man they belong to.
“Let’s go,” he says, using Ronan’s body as a pushing off point, eliciting a deep groan of pain from my would-be attacker.
“Just a minute.” I step carefully toward the place where Ronan lays on the floor, as if he might spring back into action like a Jagger-in-the-box toy and grab me again.
I lean down to his face. “You deserve this,” I whisper venomously. I position my foot over the soft bulge where his thighs meet, and stomp down with every ounce of force I can muster. I was taught it is wrong to do violence maliciously, but I don’t care anymore. He attacked me. And I’m done being weak.
Jagger takes me by the hand, pulls both our backpacks up from the cave floor and leads me through its mouth. Neither one of us turn back to look at the bloody mess of a man lying where Ronan once was.