Chapter 23 – Jagger
Iona’s dark brown curls fan out behind her as we lay together, my fingers gently tracing over the smooth skin of her belly.
I drink her in, wanting to remember every piece of this moment. The way her chest rises and falls with every soft breath. The way her eyelids drift slowly closed, then flutter open again, trying to stave off sleep. The way her small, lithe frame curls up and fits perfectly against my larger one.
She is beautiful.
I think of Merritt and a pang of guilt pierces my heart. It isn’t as strong as it once was, I notice. I am beginning to think that there may indeed be room in the hollow cavern of my heart and mind for the both of them.
Iona has given into sleep, I notice. Her breathing slowed, her breaths deeper, her eyes still beneath their lids. Her head rests on her backpack, her back curled into my chest and stomach. I softly wrap my arm around her, careful not to wake her.
I wonder what brought her here. Not to this moment specifically, but to the Hunt. She must know the danger, we all do. What could make someone so innocent and pure actively choose to enter into a world so dark and ugly? Perhaps she is like me. She lived peacefully until the Order brought her injustice. Maybe she is motivated by her own needs, though her natural sense of compassion for others leads me to think differently. No, she must want the prize to help someone else. But who? A parent? Friend? Boyfriend?
The jealousy I feel at the thought of Iona having a boyfriend surprises me.
Watch yourself, Jagger. Do not become emotionally entangled.
But it is too late.
I wonder what Iona would think if I told her why I was here, who I work for. Would she think me a terrorist, as The Order has labeled Havok and its members? Or would she see me as a vigilante purveyor of justice, an activist for equality and compassion for fellow man?
These are the thoughts that color my world as I drift into sleep with a woman beside me for the first time in so many years.
My dreams are short. Jagged. Episodic. In the first, I watch Merritt march blindfolded into a beautiful grass field, blanketed in wildflowers. She is clothed only in The Order’s boxy, lightweight prison garb. The sun shines behind her, illuminating the curves of her breasts and hips beneath the shift. I shiver, as if feeling her chill. She didn’t mean to break The Order’s law, I scream. No one seems to hear me. Let her go. Let her go! Then I watch her graceful dance as the firing squad’s bullets rifle through her lithe frame. The Killing Field has claimed another victim.
My eyes bolt awake, and my breaths are ragged. It takes me several minutes to calm down to the point of falling back into sleep. But I do, with Iona still tucked under my arm. This dream is for her. In my cloud of sleep I see her on the Temple steps that day at the Seeker Ceremony. Gods she was so beautiful. In the dream she stands alone on the steps, the sole volunteer. Somehow I know that all the other Seekers have died, claimed by the Whispering Mountains’ curse. Where am I? I should be there with her. But I am not.
Tossing slightly though still asleep, my head lolls back onto the dusty cave floor. Now I am alone in the cave, Iona is gone. Where did she go? Why would she have left me here alone? Did she get taken? Questions race through my mind and I want to get up, to look for her but I find I cannot. My body lies paralyzed on the cave floor, twisted and heavy with sleep. I feel the panic rising in my chest and force myself to take in even, steady breaths, the way Havok taught me during training. I am nearly calm when I see him. A tall, muscular man clad in leather garments, his hair decorated with bone fragments and feathers the color of freshly fallen snow. Dirt smudges his face. He looks angry. I see him see me. I get the feeling that he has been seeing me now for quite some time. Is this the man that Iona saw? One of the men who chased Ronan? The man who trailed Kalliope? I can’t be sure. A chill goes down my spine – this man does not appear to have friendly intentions, and he is striding toward me with an alarming speed. He arrives at the spot where I lay motionless on the cave floor, unable to make a move to defend myself and Iona if I need to. Slowly he leans down, until his hard, weather-worn face is inches from mine. I cannot slow my furiously beating heart, but I will not let this man see that I am afraid.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he growls in a voice full of gravel and pain. “This place brings nothing but death.” He is so close that I can make out the faint scar tracing a path from his forehead down over his eye. I smell the leather of his archaic garb. His breath is that of the dead.
I find that even my mouth is frozen. I cannot speak in reply.
He growls again. “Escape with your lives, while you still have the chance.”
I blink stupidly, hating that I am unable to do anything else.
“Leave. Go now, and do not ever come back. You will not be warned again.”
And with that, the wild man stands and turns, striding away as swiftly as he appeared.
I startle awake. My breath catches in my throat and I cough, choking on sheer terror and nothing at all. Rubbing my eyes I talk myself into calm. That was just a dream. It was a dream, Jagger. I rub my eyes to erase the frightening image. I’m anxious and a little unhinged from the events of the Hunt, that’s all. That wasn’t real. Nothing to be afraid of.
It is then that I notice the soft, white feather on the ground by the spot where Iona lays sleeping. My blood runs cold.