Defiant: Chapter One
Last summer, I accomplished my goal to write a novel. I loved the process so much that I’m doing it again! In the meantime, my first novel has been hanging out on my computer as I don’t intend to publish it anywhere else. Some have asked to read it, though, so I’ve decided to post it here on the blog. Each week, I’ll upload another chapter.
Admittedly, this is a little awkward for me as my writing has improved and I know the next novel will be a much better read for you. But this is still a fun little story, and I hope you enjoy!
Aida crouched next to the cliff and jammed a foot against a stone embedded on the steep incline. She cringed as gravel clattered behind her, announcing her flight down between two of the scattered limestone rock faces. Aida had called the common formations “baby” cliffs as a child; high enough to fall off but not kill, at least for Warriors.
Her shoulder pressed into the cold rock, and her wool shirt gathered moisture from the damp surface. She closed her eyes and let out a breath as she focused on the slowing rocks which fell behind her. They suddenly halted, their momentum stopped. Aida smiled, pleased with the effect. Only a few continued their slide with gravity after she let go of her concentration, and then just the natural noises on the hill remained.
Eyes still closed, she scanned for her friends. They seemed like two tiny, moving fish under the sea of her mind. Aida couldn’t pinpoint their location precisely but had a good idea. Sienna and Luca approached with caution as they climbed up the other side of the hill, slowing near the top.
Thank you, Tymon, for these thy gifts… Her mother’s prayer sprang to mind as she made use of Tymon’s blessing upon the Warriors of Pival. She smiled at the memory, lost for a moment on the ridge overlooking the bubbling spring of her childhood.
Would her mother be proud of her skills? Did her power even match those of full Tengarper? Or did the mixed blood of the Venkri dilute her ability? She shook her head. It didn’t matter on this side of the mountains. Her parents were gone and she would never know.
The siblings split up before they reached the crest. Luca would follow the noise and make quite a bit of his own. He lacked the natural grace and stealth of his sister, and Aida didn’t need her Tengarper skills to keep track of him. Instead, she focused on Sienna. Her friend stopped somewhere before she reached the steep drop above Aida.
She opened her eyes and considered the terrain in front of her. Damp leaves, washed from above by yesterday’s storm, threatened to slide beneath her if she left too quickly. Could she move and hold them down with her mind at the same time? Her power had grown so quickly she didn’t know what she might be able to do. At least her Venkri side would protect her if she fell before she reached more cover.
Full pink sunlight was not yet on her side of the hill, and the cliff cast a deep shadow over Aida as she waited for Luca to move down. The morning breeze was cold, particularly in the shade, but Aida did not shiver. A gust of wind whipped her wavy black hair, pulled back behind her head, into the stone wall beside her. She inhaled deeply to focus her mind, enjoying the mix of moist earth and rock.
Aida would ask Zara about the garden today. It was time to plant. Left with too much time to think since Dominic died, the widow focused on her garden. The old woman loved planting season, and Aida loved Zara. So she tended the garden with a learned care. In the early mornings when none of the other villagers were out, Aida removed rocks from the little plot using her mind. It was good practice.
Gravel crunched near the top of the pass behind her. Aida raced forward, holding the hilt of her sword so the sheath wouldn’t bounce against her leg. The slick leaves remained in place for a moment as she pressed down upon them with her thoughts, but she lost control as she ran. Her feet flew out from under her, and she slammed on to her right side. Pain shot through her hip where her sword hilt rammed into it, but she slid very little before stopping.
She’d need to work on that. Aida rolled forward and crawled the remaining distance to a dense pine, scurrying under its branches to hide. She turned in time to watch her pursuer.
A wave of rocks cascaded behind her, followed by Luca. He grunted as he ran past the cliff, gangly legs trying to keep up with gravity. They failed, and he fell back, sliding several more paces.
Aida stifled a laugh. Zara will be unhappy if he rips his pants.
Sienna remained above the cliffs higher on the hill, perhaps even on the hilltop itself. Curious, Aida crawled away from Luca around the tree and eyed the steep gully between two of the ledges ahead of her. Light crept over the ridge and through the trees above, spilling down through the narrow passage. There was no sign of Sienna, so Aida scurried back around the low branches in time to see the boy struggle to his feet and continue down the hill.
Tall as any man in the village, he’d recently volunteered for the scouting party. He had trained with Mason and now carried the dead Temple guard’s sword. Dark, scraggly whiskers threatened to grow into something like a beard soon. She should probably stop thinking of him as a boy, but she knew him too well to view him as a man just yet.
Aida returned to the other side of the tree and looked for movement at the top of the gully again. It seemed her friend hid out of sight above the ridge, but if she was any closer, she might spot Aida as she climbed.
She decided to risk it. Aida sprinted to the break in the cliffs. The loose rocks scattered beneath her, but she didn’t bother trying to stop them. She sped up to keep her momentum going forward. A large rock tumbled from its place, crashing down into the gravel and dislodging more as it rolled. The steady stream of pebbles flowed down to the hill below. She abandoned the idea of silence as she continued her run and ducked behind a boulder at the top to catch her breath.
Aida was familiar with the area; there were plenty of white oaks and shortleaf pines to hide behind, and bushes to hide in if one didn’t mind a little dirt. Sienna could be anywhere. A perfect challenge for her growing skills.
She tried to focus but could only tell Sienna was nearby. Her presence weighed on her but lacked detail. Luca remained behind her and to the right, though she knew he had heard her noisy ascent. He would soon follow.
While her friends were easier than the rest of the Calas to sense, she still couldn’t identify a specific location. Was it different with Warriors or soldiers from the West? It had been with her parents and their ikast, but she didn’t know any other Venkri or Tengarper Warriors.
Movement to her left drew her eye, but it was only a squirrel as he foraged beneath a patch of blue wildflowers. He wasn’t the only forager in the area as there were fresh beast droppings a few paces away from the flowers. The Calas first encountered the beasts during the Departure as they migrated east, and stories told of the fearsome, carnivorous animal as it tore through the first settlers. Naturally, they blamed Tymon. Attacks now were few as the beasts tended to avoid the Calas villages and hid from hunters and scouting parties, and Aida doubted the veracity of the original tales.
Returning to her hunt for Sienna, Aida closed her eyes. Nothing had changed, and her friend remained elusive.
She scanned the tree trunks and grasses from left to right, stopping her search on a dense cluster of flowering vines. Not one to get scratched up or dirty, she considered perhaps Sienna made an exception to beat Aida this time. She crawled to the vines, veering right of the beast droppings.
The white flowers were still budding, but the cluster was too dense to see too far inside. It didn’t move, and nothing appeared out of place. If Sienna somehow hid in the plant, she deserved to surprise Aida.
Always remember to breathe. Another of her mother’s sayings.
She took one breath, counted to eight, and let it out for ten counts. She calmed as she repeated the pattern and her breathing and heart slowed.
Something changed as she turned. Up? She paused and ducked down further out of instinct while she craned her neck to stare at the canopy overhead.
Aida found her grinning friend sitting on an oak tree’s branch well above her head. It was good Sienna wasn’t genuinely hunting her, as the woman would have killed her quickly at this distance with her bow. “How did you climb up there so quickly?”
“Quickly?” Sienna raised her eyebrows. “You took forever to find me. Did you fall on the rocks or just kick them down to confuse Luca?”
“I didn’t fall,” Aida said. “Luca did though.”
“Hope he didn’t rip his pants again.” Sienna wrapped her legs around the branch, swung under, and let her legs go, dangling from her hands before she dropped. She bent her knees as she landed gracefully and brushed off invisible dirt from her shirt. With long, dark hair and composed demeanor, Sienna would have fit in well with Aida’s mother and her mother’s ikast. Her ice-blue eyes and somewhat lighter skin didn’t match the Pivals from the coast, but she carried herself with the same dignified air as a Tengarper master.
Aida took more after her Venkri father, both in looks and temperament. She never could manage the elegant movements of her mother.
Luca panted as he pulled himself up the same pass Aida had climbed, using one hand to grab at the rocks and the other to hold his sword off the ground. He still slid twice, but finally arrived at the top. His broad smile highlighted his dimples as sweat dripped down his face from his short, dark hair. Dew, mud, and gravel stuck to his pant legs. “I heard you.”
“I was hard to miss.”
Luca adjusted his belt and sword. He’d trained with the blade but not worn it full time until he joined the scouting party, at Zara’s request. It seemed too large for him still, too awkward. He wiped the worst of the muck off his pants and dusted off his shirt. “Ma said you were up early this morning.”
“And you didn’t come to the shrine,” Sienna said.
Aida shook her head. “I wanted to practice. I’ll apologize for waking her.”
“I don’t think she’s upset.” Sienna brushed a stray piece of grass from her trousers.
“I didn’t mean to disturb her.” She’d had nightmares when she first arrived in the village; visions of the battle before, the sounds of commands and screams, and the smell of the soldier’s warm blood. They’d gone away with time but returned when Evan announced the Kort were coming to visit. The council leader was confident of their disinterest in Aida, but sleep evaded her most nights. She hoped the nightmares would pass in a few more weeks after the Kort left.
“Didn’t bother me,” Luca said.
“Nothing ever does.” If the gods stepped on their hut at night, her brother would sleep through undisturbed if nobody personally roused him.
“Too excited for sleep.” His bright eyes matched Sienna’s, though they twinkled more with mischief. “So I had to sleep in.”
“You always sleep in.” Sienna didn’t ask why he was so excited. She never took the bait. Instead, she turned to Aida. “You’re always welcome at the shrine.” Sienna departed for the stone structure in the middle of the village every morning well before dawn. She prepared the building for the day and then said her prayers before the priest, Nathan, arrived. Aida frequently joined her, offering her prayers to Tymon under the guise of proper Calas worship.
“You haven’t gotten all religious, have you?” The question was for Aida, but Luca meant to taunt Sienna. Four years younger than the priestess in training, his apparent assigned duty most days was to torment his sister.
“There’s nothing wrong with honoring the gods,” Sienna said. “You could stand for a little more time spent in prayer.”
“It is warm there.” Aida started to walk north hoping to avoid an argument between the pair. “This morning I wanted to practice.”
Aida trained more often than the siblings guessed, as she worked on her sword forms and on throwing her knife and other objects anytime she was alone. Dominic and Zara had warned her against making a display of her skills, even with her friends. The village might accept a helpless young girl, but they would soon fear a mighty Warrior Youth from the West.
When she trained with Luca and Sienna, she was careful to hide her abilities. It grew more difficult with each day, however, as she continued to grow stronger in her Youth. They’d started to notice.
Luca passed Aida and took the lead. Bright morning light shone as they made their way down, back toward the trail to the village. He picked a path between the rocky cliffs and avoided anything too steep, though he walked right through the clusters of tall wet grass and added more debris to his pants. Aida and Sienna found a less direct, but cleaner route.
“I still don’t know how you can throw that knife so well.” Luca grabbed a low-hanging branch as he passed. He held it for a few seconds before letting go and sending it flying backward. Leaves fell and scattered as Aida ducked. The boy was oblivious to his surroundings.
“It’s a gift.”
Sienna grunted behind Aida. The woman probably knew why Aida could hit the target so often but had never mentioned anything she’d learned from Nathan about the Tengarper or Venkri. Instead, she asked, “Why can’t you sleep?”
Aida let out a long breath. “I’m anxious about meeting the Kort.”
“I don’t know why.” Luca kicked at a rock. “They’re not the same ones that attacked your family are they?”
Sienna let out a sharp sigh at her brother’s lack of sensitivity.
“No. That was another house,” Aida’s chest burned at the thought. If she thought Isma was coming to the village, she would make plans to kill as many as she could, not play in the woods with her friends. She killed their soldier every night, even in her ordinary dreams. It was a memory of her single, lucky action during the battle. Aida checked her hands for blood many mornings.
She’d find them soon enough. Aida had considered leaving before the Kort arrived, but she hoped to find more information. Isma’s territory lay somewhere on the other side of the mountains, or at least that was what her father said as he described the geography and politics of the West when she was young. She didn’t have a map now, and none of the Calas remembered what remained on the other side of the range. The Kort might prove useful.
Luca reached the path and turned toward the village. He stopped and waited for Aida, bouncing on his feet slightly as he raised his eyebrows. “Dylan said I’m not supposed to tell anyone this, but-”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t,” Sienna interrupted from behind. Dylan was on the village council and responsible for the scouting party. “You should do as you’re told.”
“You’re going to find out today anyway,” Luca scowled over his shoulder as he walked away. He enjoyed sharing news, especially stories he shouldn’t have or share.
“Luca,” Sienna warned.
“The Kort are coming this afternoon,” he blurted out. “We got a messenger last night.”
Aida’s stomach fell and her breath caught. The sun was suddenly too bright.
“I thought it was going to be another two weeks?” Sienna strode between Aida and Luca.
“They’re early.” Delighted, he skipped ahead several steps. “So I volunteered for the scouting party today so I could meet them on the path.”
“Is that safe?” Aida asked.
Luca turned to look at her. “What? We always meet traders on the way. Then the scouts come back and tell everyone they’re coming.”
“They’re not traders,” Aida said. “They’re Warriors. From the West.”
The three friends approached the end of the wooded area southwest of town. Fields opened in front of them, and farther down the path, smoke rose from huts as the Calas stoked their fires at the start of their day.
Sienna put her hand on Aida’s shoulder. The connection gave Aida insight into her friend’s mood. She was content and lacked any of the worry plaguing Aida. “They’re traders. They’ve been coming into Calas lands for a few years now without any problems.”
“They attacked Lortun,” Aida said.
“When?” Sienna’s face scrunched at the news. Something new to report to Nathan. “Recently?”
“A few years before…” Aida trailed off. She didn’t talk about the attack.
Sienna’s eyes dropped as Aida remembered her father’s ikast Biel returning from a trip to the Lortun stronghold for trade and news. He was disgusted by word of the attack and spent several days ranting about the Kort, taking a Youth as ikast unwillingly, and intermingling Venkri and Tengarper masters and ikast. No one had commented on her parents’ mating choices, though eventually he remembered and didn’t mention the Kort again.
“That was a long time ago, and between Western houses,” Sienna finally replied. “They haven’t attacked any village here while they trade.”
Aida stopped at the tree line. Her friend was right, but she was still uncomfortable. “What do they trade?”
Luca and Sienna both stopped, bewildered. “Clothes?” Sienna offered. “And boots, maybe swords. Nathan says normal items traders bring from the West through the pass.”
Mountains separated the Tenarper and Venkri lands to the west from the Calas lands to the east. There was one break in the range, far north of the village. The Venkri house of Lortun built their stronghold in the mountains just south of the pass. The Kort came from beyond the pass, though she didn’t know where. Why trade with the Calas?
Aida’s chest was tight. “We have traders already. The Kort come for something else.”
“Diplomacy,” Sienna said.
“I know that’s what Nathan said. Do we really know? Why befriend the Calas?”
Sienna sighed. “I think if they were going to attack anyone, they would have by now. And probably a larger village or town, closer to the pass.”
“You don’t want them in Calas lands,” Aida knew Nathan didn’t like the Kort’s encroachment on Calas territory, so neither did Sienna.
“No, but that doesn’t make them dangerous to the village.”
Luca looked between the two women. “But they are dangerous, aren’t they Aida? Even if not to us?”
After Evan announced the Kort were coming to visit, Luca became obsessed with the idea of Warriors and their soldiers. Why wouldn’t he be? Nobody here has ever seen a Warrior, Aida thought. They don’t think about Warriors when they see me.
Aida walked by Luca. “Yes. They’re all fighters.”
“Will I be able to tell which ones are the Warriors?” He fell behind Aida as she stalked toward the village.
“They’ll be bigger than the soldiers, and probably dressed differently.” Warriors were the nobility of the West, their bloodlines blessed by Tymon.
“Do you think they’ll spar with me?” Luca drew next to Aida as he grabbed his sword hilt. She glanced at it and noticed again the beautiful work on the guard. Her blade was of strong Venkri steel, but the Calas Temple’s weapons were almost a match in craftsmanship.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Sienna said. “You might get hurt.”
“But Aida doesn’t hurt me.”
Aida realized she didn’t have control over her breath. Always remember to breathe.
“How will I tell the Warriors from their apprentices?”
“The masters are older,” Aida said, “and the ikast are younger.”
“Or you could ignore them,” Sienna said.
“Will you apprentice to someone?” Luca ignored Sienna. “Maybe somebody on the permanent scouting party?”
“Luca,” Sienna said, “the Calas do not take ikast.”
“I can be someone’s apprentice.” Aida clarified. “It isn’t the same as the Warriors from the West though. Apprentices aren’t the same as ikast.” Apprentices could quit.
“You should think about joining the scouting party. You could go today and meet the Kort with me.”
The permanent scouting party was about the only thing Evan might allow Aida to join. She was skilled in the woods, and it would keep her out of the village so he didn’t see her. The scouts permitted her to join them anytime she wanted to anyway, so it would only be a matter of making it more formal.
She shook her head. Today wasn’t the day for her to be a scout.
They passed the first thatched hut on the southwest side of the village. It was abandoned; the owner dead from the Wounds two years prior. Overgrown with crawling vines and occupied by several families of rodents, Aida wondered why they didn’t burn the wattle and daub structure down.
Aaron and his sons lived in the next hut, many paces beyond, and his two boys argued over chores inside. The lake loomed ahead.
What if they do attack? It was the question that awakened her every morning. She tried to ignore it; they came as peaceful traders. Evan had met them the year before on a journey north with the council. In Calas lands for over four years, the Kort appeared peaceful. Aida talked herself out of the fear each time she thought of it, but the news they were coming that day sent her back to the question.
They turned right at the first fork in the path. Huts were closer in this part of the village. Calas went on their way to the wells or gardens, starting the day without glancing at the three friends.
If the Kort came to trade, they could be helpful. They might have a map. She needed to remain unthreatening, both for the villagers and the Kort. Aida could pass off her desire for a map as wanting to learn more about her parents’ home, and then otherwise appear a harmless villager with the rest of the Calas.
Aida slowed and looked at her friends. “Don’t tell them I train.”
“The Kort?” Luca asked. “Why not?”
“Youth aren’t allowed to train in the West.”
“I didn’t know that.” Luca’s interest in the Warriors of the West was recent and based more on daydreams of battle than any knowledge. “Why?”
“Too dangerous, right?” Sienna waved to Imogen as the elderly woman hobbled from her hut. Her husband had died the same season Dominic passed.
“There was a war,” She didn’t want to explain the history. Sienna might argue, taking up whatever position Nathan had taught her. She might even claim support from the Writings. It didn’t matter. Aida’s parents hadn’t followed the rules when they had her, so she didn’t feel compelled to follow the rules prohibiting her training. Revenge required skill. “Just don’t tell them.”
Luca shrugged as he turned north. “I’m going to the hall to leave with the scouts. Will you come up when they get here?”
Aida stopped and stared across the field at the line of huts facing the lake. Most of the fishers’ huts stood on the path running parallel to the water, and Dominic had built one for Zara when they married. The fishers prepared to push off for the morning catch at the dock to the north. Her stomach churned at the thought of the Kort, but they were a route to find Isma. “I’ll be there.”