The next day marked a week of captivity for Joshua and Celeste. Stumbling over their own feet, the two of them slogged through the mucky jungle, unable to shoo away mosquitos or wipe their sweaty brows as they were led like dogs by a leash. The cries of the beasts of the jungle still serenaded them, but Celeste mostly focused on her legs and feet now, forcing them to move just one more time, then just one more time, over and over and over again.
Around mid-afternoon, Kailak called for a halt. Celeste immediately and gratefully sunk to her knees, Joshua beside her. Fighting to catch her breath, she asked, “What are they doing?” She hoped whatever it was lasted a long time. “Why are we stopped?”
“I don’t know,” Joshua replied. They watched as Kailak dismounted his horse and pulled a scroll from his pack. He unrolled it, laying it out and withdrawing a compass. “It looks like,” Joshua said, “Kailak is referring to a map. It seems I know this jungle better than he does.”
Aghast, Celeste stared at him, “You know where we are?” The gnarly trees and vines and muck surrounding them looked all looked the same to her.
“Yeah, I know where we are. I’ve had to hide out in this jungle more times than I can count. A lot of that time was spent exploring and memorizing the territory. Right now, we’re near a town called Akin.” Joshua paused to raise his tied hands and brush a mosquito from his neck. “I sneaked into the town a few times.”
“To learn information?”
“I occasionally discovered a useful tidbit, but mostly I just sneaked in to get out of this dratted forest.”
Kailak called two of his men over to consult with him over his map. Celeste recognized one of them as the man who had found Celeste and Joshua at the Tipsy Tankard. It took her numb mind a moment to recall his name—Alexius. The other man was one who got especially rowdy after he had been drinking. Celeste also knew him, and she hated him. He was the one who always drew the other men’s attentions to Celeste, and he was the one who taunted her the loudest. She thought his name was Cormack. His hair was dirty brown, and he had an ugly scar on his cheek that looked as if it had been deep. Celeste hoped it had been painful too.
Kailak, folding the map and returning it to his saddlebag, said loud enough for everyone to hear, “There’s a town called Akin a short ride from here. I’m going there to send a messenger to his glorious majesty. I’ll be back in the morning. Alexius’s in charge.” Kailak, a man of few words, mounted his horse and rode from the group. A wave of relief swept over the bone-weary Celeste, and she drooped, thinking how nice it would be to not have to walk anymore. With Kailak gone, the others would set up camp and- and then Celeste jerked up straight realizing that Kailak would not be here to tell his men to leave her alone. What might they do to her?
Joshua slid nearer Celeste and bumped her shoulder with his own. “You’ll be ok. If it gets down to it, I’ll think of something. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” Celeste wished she could believe that Joshua would be able to escape his bindings and fight off ten men to protect her, but she just couldn’t.
Two men dragged Joshua and Celeste and tied them up as usual. Joshua groaned quietly as his aching back was shoved against a tree before his arms were pulled back and tied to it for the seventh night in a row. His throbbing shoulders screamed at him, and he silently apologized, telling them he would do something if he were able. Then his right hand bumped against something. He stretched his fingers desperately and managed to grasp a rough rock. Bending his hand a way it really didn’t want to bend, he began sawing at his ropes.
Although the day was yet young, the Korelians began to drink from their bottles as soon as their horses were tied and their fire was lit. Celeste fought to ignore her pain, fear, and helplessness as the day wore on. Her eyes sought out Nutmeg as they had done every night, and a wave of grief, followed instantly by a stronger wave of hatred washed over her. Her beautiful horse was weighed down with a load of excess supplies—mostly liquor Celeste assumed—and covered in muck from their journey through the swampy jungle. His tail, which was flicking back and forth as he tried futilely to keep the mosquitoes at bay, was full of knots. Celeste wanted desperately to go to him or at least talk to him and give him some kind of comfort and reassurance, but on the other side of the camp, he wouldn’t hear her unless she yelled, drawing everyone else’s attention also. Silently, Celeste prayed a prayer that Nutmeg, at least, would get out of this alive and someday see Forellia once more.
Daylight faded to twilight, and the Korelians were laughing rowdily. Celeste, weary and aching though she was, could not take her eyes off them for fear. They were growing more wild with every sip, and before the day was up, Celeste knew that something unpleasant was bound to happen. She felt it coming like an omen.
An hour before dark, Alexius stood, saying, “You’ve convinced me, comrades. If Kailak can go to Akin and have a decent meal and find a woman to warm his bed tonight, than why can’t we?” This was answered by a roar of “Yeah!” and “Why not us?” Alexius went on, “We’ve been in this wretched jungle as long as he has! We deserve a night of fun!” Celeste’s heart was pounding. Was this a good thing? What would happen to her and Joshua? “There’s just one problem,” Alexius said, stopping everyone with an outstretched hand. “Somebody has to stay behind to watch the Forellians.” His finger pointed directly as them, and Celeste shivered at the snarl on his face. “Do we have a volunteer or shall we draw sticks?”
“I’ll watch ‘em,” somebody purred. Celeste’s eyes darted among the faces, wondering who would have volunteered until her eyes landed on Cormack. She stiffened, an inadvertent tremor running up her spine. Please no she begged in her mind.
Alexius slapped him on the back, saying, “I thought you just might take up that opportunity.” His smile was malicious as he said, “Just don’t damage her too much.”
Cormack’s eyes never left Celeste’s as he replied, “I’ll make no promises.”
Alexius howled with laughter and joined the others as they mounted their horses and made a hasty departure to Akin.
Cormack made no immediate move. He continued drinking, staring at Celeste until she felt like a mouse being played with by a cat. She was trembling so hard she felt that the ropes restraining her were the only things keeping her together and without them she’d simply fall apart into uncountable pieces. “Joshua,” she hissed, just trying to feel that she wasn’t so alone. Cormack stood, dropping his now empty bottle of alcohol and coming towards them. Celeste closed her eyes, trying to calm her panicked senses. She had to fight back, and she couldn’t do that if she was shaking this hard. Cormack pulled a dagger from his belt.
Beside her, Joshua snarled at Cormack, “Don’t you dare touch her.”
Cormack glanced at him, “And what will you do when I do touch her?” His speech was slurred from drink. “Spit at me? Curse me?” He smiled smugly, “You go right ahead and curse away.” He bent next to Celeste, the dagger held to cut her binds. Joshua’s ropes finally snapped. He didn’t wait a moment. Powered by adrenaline, he leapt at Cormack with a roar, catching him by surprise, and they both went down. Scrambling in the dirt, Joshua somehow regained his footing first and grabbed Cormack, throwing him to the side. Trying to retain his advantage, Joshua went to Cormack before he could stand and kicked him in the side. Cormack cried out in pain and anger, and when Joshua tried to kick him again, he grabbed Joshua’s leg and pulled him down. Joshua hit the ground hard and groaned. Cormack stood, slightly hunched over the side Joshua had kicked. Weakly, Joshua was trying to stand, but Cormack, furious, grabbed Joshua’s head and slammed his knee into it. Celeste yelled, “No!” an unbidden tear falling down her cheek as she helplessly watched. Dazed, Joshua swayed on his knees, but Cormack had retrieved his dagger and, before Joshua could react, slammed the butt of it on his head. Joshua sighed and fell face-first to the dirt, unconscious.
Celeste cried, “No! Joshua!” staring at his prone form and praying he was still alive. Then Cormack, breathing heavily and very angry, turned to Celeste. He cut her bonds, dropping his dagger and grabbing her wrists to wrap a rope around them as she struggled uselessly. Cormack seemed to have the strength of a bear, and Celeste, weak as she was, felt like a child in his vicelike grip. Her wrists bound, he took hold of her arm and dragged her away from the camp, away from Joshua, into the jungle.
She twisted and yanked, trying desperately to slip from his talons, but Cormack only growled and dug his fingers into her arm. Celeste whimpered in pain. He pulled her forward deeper into the jungle until it was so dark, Celeste could only see by the light of the moon through the trees’ leaves. Gracelessly, Cormack threw Celeste to the ground in front of him.
Celeste growled, crawling to her hands and knees as she felt something inside of her, like her gut was twisting, and she realized was it was: cold rage. The past week of being dragged behind these men like she was nothing, being captured in the first place, all the pain from her wrists and legs and back, the taunts, the fear and terror of this moment, and what this man had done to Joshua— all of it melted and simmered into one pure emotion. Rage. In that moment, on the dirt while Cormack was standing over her, she didn’t think it was possible for her to hate an individual more than she hated him. The anger surged through her veins, making her cold all over. Before she knew what she was doing, she shrieked like a banshee and launched herself at Cormack, her bound hands open, her nails pointed like a cat’s claws as she raked them across his face. Cormack stumbled back in shock, clutching the bloody streaks across his face. Celeste grinned like a demon in the moonlight, wanting in that moment nothing more than this man’s death. The cold wafted from her like mist, and the Stone around Celeste’s neck suddenly grew intensely cold, glowing in the darkness. Instinctively, Celeste grasped cold and the rage and the energy and directed all of it straight at the man before her.
Cormack had removed his hands from his face and was staring at Celeste with an expression of loathing when he suddenly stiffened, surprise flickering across his face as a blue pallor touched it. He let out one misty breath in the air before ice particles froze him where he stood. The ice spread over his clothes from his head to his feet in an instant, icicles growing from his fingertips and hair, that expression of surprise literally frozen on his face.
From the trees, Joshua, holding Cormack’s dagger, burst forth, and looked on in wide-eyed shock as the last layer of ice covered Cormack. The frozen figure stood there for a moment, a blue statue in the moonlight. Staring at it, Celeste tilted her head, and the statue shattered like glass, raining down in tiny pieces to the grass.
With Cormack gone, Celeste’s rage dissipated, and so did her strength. Swaying, she found herself unable to continue standing and collapsed, Joshua catching her just before she hit the ground.