Chapter no 17 – FROZEN

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

Isla spent the next day with her arm wrapped in ice. Ella had fetched a bucket of it from the kitchen and replaced it regularly, without question. The burns still hurt. But not as badly. She alternated the ice with her Wildling elixirs. The faster the skin fully healed, the less it would feel like a layer of herself had been sliced away.

Later, the lingering pain—and perhaps the equally pestering thoughts of the Nightshade—had made her restless. Instead of trying to find sleep that wouldn’t come, she roamed the halls, doing her typical snooping.

That was when she noticed the commotion around the wing of the castle that held the arena.

They were setting up for a demonstration. Dozens of islanders milled around, yelling orders. She tried to get as close as possible, to get a hint of what the trial might be. But there were too many people. It wasn’t long before her arm flared in pain again, calling for its ice.

Her efforts hadn’t been fruitless, however. The vast majority of those wandering the halls wore white. Moonlings.

She shouldn’t have been surprised when Ella knocked on her chamber door twenty-four hours later, in the dead of night.

Her skin still burned, but not as sharply. She had tried her best to speed up the healing process after seeing the signs of a trial being set up, doubling her creams and taking other elixirs by mouth. Still, she thought she’d have more time. Only someone as cruel as Cleo would plan their demonstration to happen at midnight.

“A test of desire,” the Moonling ruler said, hands pressed together in prayer. She stood in the center of the arena, which had been transformed into a maze of waterways. Each of the rulers stood on points of its perimeter. Once they dove into the lanes, they wouldn’t be able to see each other anymore, thanks to walls of ice that made the confines of the labyrinth.

There had been no warning. No time to change. That was how Isla had ended up in the freezing snow globe that the stadium had been turned into,

in nothing but a tank top and tiny shorts. Surely, she would freeze in the water. The rest of the rulers weren’t in their typical capes and elaborate dress. But they also weren’t in sleepwear. Somehow, they had managed to put on clothes that would fare well in the water. Did something in their powers allow them to do so? Or had they insisted upon the time to change, while Isla had blearily followed Ella through the castle?

“A true ruler must deny the selfish wants of their heart, for the good of their realm. You will be guided through the maze by your own heart. It will lead you to what you desire most. The winner will be decided not by their desire, but by who can reach it first. For worse than desiring something above the good of one’s realm is not being sure of what you want at all.”

The king stood just a few feet away, eyeing the water like it had personally offended him. He wasn’t wearing dainty pajamas. He wore gold trousers and a shirt, with sleeves he now carefully rolled up his wrists.

A patch of skin on his hand was slightly swollen, a rash forming. “Giselroot, nasty thing,” she said quietly, almost to herself.

He stiffened. Looked at her, as if it was the first time he noticed she had been positioned in the lane beside him. “You know what this is?”

She shrugged. “Of course. Plant with five points? Green spots? Yellow buds?”

Oro nodded slowly.

“Giselroot. Poisonous. Causes a rash, and bad dreams.” He blinked at her.

“All right, the bad dreams might have just been a tactic by my guardians to keep me away from them.” Giselroot grew in the forest just outside the loose pane of her window. After Poppy and Terra had it sealed, they had warned Isla against the plant, lest she find another way out of her room. “You’ll want to treat that with an elixir of milk, tomato paste, honey, willow bark, pasted ash, and crushed mulberries.”

Oro’s lips pressed together before he said, “Thank you.” Like it was a very hard thing to say.

She narrowed her eyes. “Giselroot only grows deep in the woods, where the trees are close enough to touch. What in the realm were you doing in a place like that?” Her tone said, Don’t you know how dangerous it is?

Oro fixed her with a strange look. Isla stared back. Without warning, a bell sounded.

And Isla was forced to jump into her lane.

The water was a thousand needles piercing her skin. At first, the cold was almost welcomed against her raw arm. But it quickly sharpened, becoming too much, making it hurt even more. She immediately gasped for air, her chest a block of ice, the tips of her fingers and toes already numb.

Hundreds of islanders greeted her above, yelling, relishing in her weakness, jeering at her, cheering for their rulers.

Keep going, a voice in her head said, though her body screamed to get out of the water. She was surely at a disadvantage, coming from a place like the Wildling realm, which never saw a winter.

But she had been tested in the elements before.

Terra knew some of the trials might involve harsh weather conditions. When Isla was seventeen, she was left blindfolded in the middle of the woods, during a hurricane.

By the time she tore the fabric from her eyes, her guardians were long gone. The trees were bent in grotesque shapes from the wind, dirt and leaves stuck to her skin, and bugs had already started gnawing at her ankles.

Forests were deadly to those who couldn’t control them. It was why the king’s choice to venture into them was so shocking.

It took her three days to get home. In that time, she drank spoiled water and sat shaking beneath a hastily made canopy of palm fronds, the fever in her head like a bell, ringing over and over. Knowing she would die if she stayed, she forced herself to walk, remembering her survival lessons. She hunted for food with bows and arrows she made herself, using the dagger she always kept strapped to her thigh.

In the haze, she cut her fingers, and the blood smeared her weapons, acting as a siren call to even more insects, which feasted on her flesh as if she was already dead.

By the time she collapsed outside the Wildling castle, she was so sick, it took their best healers weeks to bring her back to health.

You could have killed me were the first words out of her mouth once she could speak again, directed at Terra.

Her guardian had only smiled. The only way not to fear death is to meet


Isla knew what dying felt like. This wasn’t it. So, she kept going,

pushing, though the needles sank deeper, until they clicked against her

bones, her entire body overcome with cold.

Ahead, there was a split in the maze. Isla wondered which route to take when she felt a faint pull in one direction.

Then, a pull in the other.

She stopped, angling her head to take a deep breath.

One direction felt like home—Poppy and Terra. Her people. The other felt like more.

She couldn’t quite make out what it meant, but the emotions were powerful. Intoxicating. Startling.

Cleo’s words played back in her mind. Her heart was supposed to guide her. Why was it so undecided?

Time froze over as she treaded water. Had it been a few moments?

Or minutes?

Or longer?

Snap out of it, a voice in her mind sounded. She wanted freedom, that was for sure.

But was that truly all she wanted?

A whistle sounded somewhere, breaking her out of her thoughts. The first ruler had reached the end of their maze.

Isla was so far behind. It was time to make a choice. To follow her heart.

She chose a direction and swam, reinvigorated, her chest full of frost, white plumes coming out of her mouth each time she gulped for air.

Her hair had divided into thick, frozen strands; her clothes did nothing to keep her warm. Her skin felt too stiff, her muscles fighting to flex in the unrelenting temperature of the water.

Just a little longer, she pleaded with her body, knowing it had been through worse. She had trained for this.

Her lungs began to shut down first, choking with water that had somehow broken through her mouth.

Another turn.

The maze seemed to be closing in around her; each time she went up for air, the crowd became blurrier. Their cheers farther away.

Was she even moving anymore? She couldn’t feel her arms.

Everything became colder. Her lungs lurched.

Her eyes fought to blink open, one more time, and all she saw was light, retreating.

She was sinking.

If the trial killed her, she wondered if part of the prophecy would be fulfilled. Perhaps the Moonling ruler had chosen this trial, knowing it might kill one of the weaker rulers for her, without having to break the rules. At least, in that scenario, Celeste would live.

But her people wouldn’t. Terra and Poppy wouldn’t.

This was not death. This death was too quiet. Too much like slipping into sleep.

She wanted all life had to offer. The long life of a ruler with powers, exploring all Lightlark, a lifetime of friendship with Celeste, perhaps even

. . . love. Something she had judged others for. Including her own mother. Something she had always seen as reckless. She wanted, wanted so strongly, selfish things beyond just saving her realm and breaking the curses

Slowly, her fingers uncurled from their fists. A groan sounded in the back of her throat, and she fought the urge to keep her eyes closed, willed her limbs back to life.

She clawed through the ice-cold water like it was the only thing standing between her and everything held in her heart.

Her vision went in and out, but she felt the end of the maze. She grabbed the glowing tablet of ice waiting there and hauled herself out of the water with all her remaining strength.

Isla didn’t see what was written on the slab, didn’t hear the crowd. All she felt was something warm washing over her body. Ella. The Starling draped a towel across her back.

She was shaking, her vision going in and out. “Please, get me to my room,” she managed to say.

Isla owed Ella far more than pain cream, she thought as her attendant rushed her out of the stadium, using the cheers of the crowd and the crowning of Cleo as the winner as a cover. The Moonling had clearly chosen her trial to showcase her superiority over the others.

She might have been more concerned that Cleo was now tied with the king, and could potentially be choosing their matches, if she didn’t feel so weak.

Ella was small but stronger than she looked, holding Isla up as they slowly made their way through the empty castle. Water dripped an endless puddle behind her. The rest was frozen. Her lungs ached, two buckets of ice in her chest.

“I’ll draw a bath,” Ella said when they finally made it to her room. “And get tea.” She rushed out of Isla’s room.

Isla was going in and out of consciousness. Her body had gone numb. Her mind was full of her mission.

She needed to find the bondbreaker.

For so long, she had denied her desires. Pushed them down. Her guardians’ warnings were always on her mind. Saying her life didn’t just belong to her. Teaching that wanting anything but saving her realm was selfish.

Now, she couldn’t lie to herself any longer. She wanted many, many things.

And she was willing to do terrible things to get them.

Not just for her. Her desires made her understand her people more than she ever had before. They deserved to have what they wanted. So did Celeste’s people—including Ella.

I promise, she might have said aloud, or maybe her words never reached her mouth. Ella had helped her into the bath, and the hot water scalded her frozen skin, made her scream out, too dazed to hide her pain. I’ll find the bondbreaker. I’ll break the curses.

Even if it means breaking myself.

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