Defiant: Chapter Three
I’ve discovered posting these chapters is encouraging for my current project. I’m in the midst of revisions, which is somehow both exciting and a slog at the same time.
By revisions, I don’t mean editing for grammar and spelling. That will come much later. I’m going through and adding bits here and there to develop character arcs and fix plot holes and add all the emotion and detail I’m told readers want. I spend at least an hour a day working on it, and I think I see progress. It is just slow going.
In other news, someone asked me about my publishing plans. The very simple answer is I’m aiming to traditionally publish. The other option is to self publish, and those folks are amazing, but I’m not good at all the things one needs to be good at for that task. When I finish this next novel, after the revisions and beta readers and the boring grammar and spelling, I’ll query agents to see if they’d like to represent me. If someone agrees, then they’ll approach publishers to see if they’ll buy the book. It takes a long time.
I’ll keep posting this first novel while we wait. You can find all the previous chapters here.
Aida rubbed her thumb and forefinger against each other in tiny circles as she led the other two women toward the green. Her legs each weighed as much as a beast’s, and each step grew more difficult than the last. She wanted to bolt between the empty huts as they passed, taking refuge for a moment before running away.
Instead, Aida held her shoulders back and her head high. Warriors should always be in control. Which one of her parents’ ikast had told her that?
The only stone building in the village stood on the busiest corner. Rocks of various shades of brown, hauled from the lake’s edge, formed the thick walls leading up to the roof. Rising to at least three times the height of Aida, it was the tallest building anywhere in the village. Every Calas village had a stone shrine, Aida had been told. Only the best to honor the gods and wood wouldn’t work.
Across the path to the south, the villagers maintained a sizable wooden hall used for meetings and other activities. The shutters were all open, but the building was empty. Aida looked inside and remembered the first meeting she’d attended there; the meeting when they decided she could stay. Now I want to leave, she thought as she slowed between the two buildings. Tymon, be with me.
The trail went north from Zara’s house before turning west and running through the tightly packed huts of the center-village. After passing between the shrine and village hall, it stopped at the main trail going north and south. A grassy field a quarter the size of the whole village lay open west of the path there; the village green.
Aida, Sienna, and Zara paused near the dirt crossroads as they took in the scene before them. Ten newer wooden carts in a tidy line stood on the other side of the path, and two or three soldiers were near each, wearing matching green tunics over mail. The mix of skin tones reminded Aida the Kort recruited from across all of Pival; Tengarper and Venkri house soldiers and servants from across the lands to the west traveled north to the youngest house’s lands.
“Where are these boots from?” Dylan’s wife Ruby poked her head into the cart nearest the intersection.
The soldier next to the cart looked inside as well. “I believe those are from Russic. We have some from Broden somewhere; I can find them once we get set up.
Her father and his ikast, Biel, were born in Russic.
The conversation faded as she noticed a Tengarper Warrior staring at her from the third cart to her left. Aida’s heart raced again. Breathe.
Would she attack? The woman’s hand did not stray toward her sword hilt, but Aida realized hers did, and she restarted her breath pattern. She dropped her hand from her blade. The woman raised her eyebrow.
Dark, curly hair like her mother’s cascaded down the woman’s back to her waist. Her forest green tunic, made from fine fabric, fitted her well but appeared made to allow movement. The sword strapped to one side of her belt matched the design of the dagger on the other side.
Aida sensed nothing from the woman. Many Tengarper could block the efforts of others to read anything more than their presence. The Venkri had no such skill.
A young Tengarper ikast stood next to her; perhaps she was his master. His clothes were of the same material though he lacked the dagger. Aida sensed some curiosity from him; he wasn’t powerful or skilled enough to hide his emotions yet. He followed the woman’s gaze to Aida but did not linger.
The woman nodded to Aida and then moved away around the cart. Her ikast followed.
“What was that all about?” Aida jumped at Sienna’s voice.
“I’m not sure. She’s one of their Warriors.”
“Is that her slave?”
Aida let out a breath and continued her observation. On the other side of the carts on the north side of the green, another group of uniformed soldiers set up a small camp. At least four were Calas; new recruits from the Kort’s journeys east of the mountains.
Seven Warriors stood nearby, talking with the soldiers and villagers. Dressed in green like the soldiers, they lacked the armor but carried swords. They were all massive by comparison; the Tengarper tall and thin, the Venkri broad and shorter.
Luca chatted with one, a Venkri only a little older than Aida. A new ikast.
Bile rose in her throat at the risk to her friend, but she sensed no danger. Luca would win a fight with an ikast that young anyway.
Aida stared hard at the group, attempting to discern more. The five Venkri were bored, but she felt nothing from the two Tengarper. What were they planning? Could they be hiding an attack?
Eight breaths in, ten breaths out. Aida concentrated on breathing with such intensity, she jumped when Sienna spoke again.
“I’ve never seen so many mules before,” Sienna said. “Look, they have twelve of them!”
Aida spared a glance toward the mules lined up near the Kort camp. Rampant disease made it difficult for most to keep the animals. Few could afford the care and time necessary to keep them healthy. All twelve of the mules appeared hearty as some soldiers fed them. The Kort were wealthy.
Two more Warriors were in the middle of the green. Evan stood in the center with them, speaking with the older of the two. The Warrior’s distinguished stature dwarfed the Council Leader, and Aida felt nothing except his existence when she probed, even though he looked like a Venkri.
Venkri Warriors weren’t able to hide their presence like the Tengarper, or at least that’s what her mother had told her. Yet this man left little mark on the sea of her mind. It was if he was a Calas, too weak to find easily, or a Tengarper, who could hide with their gift. The oddity scared her.
He stood as her father did once. The clear leader of the Kort present, the man smiled broadly as Evan spoke, letting out a booming laugh as Aida watched. Wearing no mail and no sword, he still gave the impression of being the most dangerous man on the field. He clapped Evan on the shoulder and turned to a young ikast standing nearby.
The second Warrior on the green smiled politely at Evan and nodded at the leader. Aida felt the connection there; the younger Venkri was definitely the man’s ikast. A hand taller than his master, he lacked the same bearing though he remained more dignified looking than her father’s ikast had been. Short, dark curls framed his serious face.
Unlike his master, he was easy to read. There was a sense of melancholy about him, though he wasn’t unhappy or bored. He appeared attentive to his master and Evan, but his mind was elsewhere.
“Can you tell which ones are the slaves?” Sienna asked.
“They don’t have slaves. These are all ikast or soldiers.”
Sienna crossed her arms. “Ikast are nothing more than slaves.”
“You don’t know anything about Warriors.” Aida felt her neck warm. She didn’t need her friend here if she was going to make Aida angry.
“Ladies,” Zara warned. “Now isn’t a good time.”
Aida sighed. “All the Warriors here besides the one talking to Evan are ikast to somebody here.”
“Is that cute one you are looking at an ikast?” Sienna nodded toward the Venkri.
Cute? “He is an ikast.”
Aida’s head pounded and she thought about returning to the hut. She had seen the Kort, and they weren’t what she feared. Perhaps they wouldn’t notice her or miss her. They would be here for a few days; she could always return when it wasn’t as crowded and ask about a map then.
“Can you sense them?” Nathan shuffled up behind them from the shrine, frayed blue robes swishing against the path as the cloth collected more dirt. Fine wisps of gray hair floated up in the slight breeze before settling again on his head. He paused to cough several times before coming to rest on Sienna’s arm as he smiled at the three women. Nathan appeared shorter with each day.
“The Kort?” Aida asked. She’d never discussed her skills with Nathan, but he was well versed in Calas lore regarding the Venkri and Tengarper. Rumors said that after his studies at the Temple as a young man, he even went to Lortun in an attempt to convert the Venkri house away from Tymon. As an expert in the Writings, he surely knew all of her potential abilities.
“I hoped you might be able to.” Nathan paused as he looked at the nearest Warrior on the other side of the carts, the Tengarper woman Aida had exchanged stares.
“Has the Temple sent word?” Zara asked.
“They worry.” He returned his gaze to the three women, pausing on Aida. “They always do. That is all they’ll accomplish until something terrible happens.”
Aida looked at the Warriors on the field. “I don’t know what I feel, but they don’t seem to have dangerous plans right now.”
Nathan grunted. “These ones will be peaceful. We don’t need to worry about an attack. But what are they plotting in the future? Tymon won’t allow for peace.”
Aida didn’t respond. Her father had called the blood god and his magic the foundation for all Pival civilization, but the Calas priests named him a demon, responsible for all disease, famine, and war. Her parents had worshipped him and offered him sacrifice, and Aida would do the same if she could. She suspected Nathan knew her beliefs but didn’t pressure her to change. He had always been kind to her and was one of the reasons she was allowed to remain in the village.
“Well, keep trying, if you would. I suppose you could call it practice,” Nathan patted Sienna’s hand. “Sienna, would you be so kind as to track down their princeling Hinir? I’m told he’d like to speak with me, but I don’t feel like finding him.”
“Princeling?” Sienna asked.
Nathan chuckled, highlighting fine facial lines develops after decades of smiling. “I made that up. I don’t know what the ones between the top master and the bottom ikast are called. He reports to that one in the middle of the field there, but has his own slaves. Do you know what the term is, Aida?”
“No.” Aida’s parents had two ikast in that situation, but there weren’t special names for them. “I’ve heard of high masters in the cities though, which implies something else for the others. They also don’t call the ikast slaves.”
“Obviously. That would give too much away.” Nathan turned his head to the side, bending to cough several more times. He let go of Sienna’s arm to hold his side as he continued to cough. Once done, he rose to fully standing before smiling, face red from the exertion. He nodded to Zara and turned to the shrine, returning somewhat more slowly than he arrived. “I think I’ll go sit for a bit.”
“Wonder why one of them would speak to the priest,” Zara said.
“I don’t know,” Sienna said, “but I bet he’ll try to convert him. Guess I’ll go try to find this Hinir.”
As Sienna left, Evan turned and faced toward Aida and Zara. Balding and “snug about the waist,” as Dominic had said, the council leader made eye contact and smiled widely. Evan thought this trade deal would bring more influence to the village, and by default, him. His mood had been high for several weeks, and Aida had avoided him.
“He’s going to ask you to go introduce yourself,” Zara whispered.
“Aida!” Evan waved from his place next to the leader. The Kort leader turned to look at Aida, offering the same smile he’d given Evan a few moments earlier. She still felt nothing from the man. “Come meet Cugat!”
She wasn’t sure she wanted to meet Cugat, or any of the Warriors. But she had come to the green, and they were not threatening anyone even if she felt frightened. Aida needed to go.
“Do you want me to go with you?” Zara asked.
Aida did want Zara to be with her, but thought it might make her look weak. She didn’t want to look weak in front of Evan, Cugat, or any of the Warriors. She needed to go by herself. She shook her head and stepped off the path.
“Please remember to breathe, Aida.” Zara’s voice faded at the end as Aida walked across the grass. The field seemed larger than the day prior, and her legs grew heavier.
“Aida, so glad you could join us!” Evan’s cheeks bounced as he smiled. “This is Cugat, the leader of the Kort.”
Cugat gave a slight bow towards Aida. “Just the leader of this trade delegation, my friend. There are other high masters in our house.”
Aida’s stomach and chest hurt again, but she remembered to breathe. She managed a nod at the master. This close, she expected to sense something from him more than a presence. Venkri weren’t supposed to be able to block Tengarper abilities. Perhaps her nervousness prevented it. He was a high master, after all.
“And this is his ikast, Ian,” Evan said as Ian also bowed. “Did I say that right?”
“Yes, Ian is my ikast.” Cugat nodded at Evan. Now standing with his hands clasped behind his back, Cugat appeared even more regal. Ian was even taller and appeared more muscular than his master. Sienna was not wrong about his attractiveness. “Ian, please go gather our gift for Aida.”
The young Venkri Warrior quickly walked away toward the small camp on the side of the field. His mood never changed.
They brought her a gift? She wasn’t sure what she should say so was relieved when Evan spoke. “I hate to be forward, but I notice Ian and Aida aren’t that far apart in age.”
Aida flinched at the implication, feeling her ears burn red. What was Evan trying to accomplish? Warriors didn’t court Youth, no matter how much Evan wanted to be rid of her. Ian didn’t turn, too far away to hear the Council Leader.
“Less than ten years, yes.” Cugat’s smile reduced visibly, before he returned his gaze to Aida. “No need to ponder that now of course. Evan says you arrived here seven years ago. I’m glad you found a safe haven.”
Still confused by Evan’s implication, Aida was grateful for the change of subject. Breathe. “Yes, they’ve been very kind to me.”
“Sometimes she goes with the scouts,” Evan offered, “like the ones you met today. I’m told she’s excellent in the field.” Why was he bragging about her?
“Oh, very good.” Cugat nodded at Evan again and paused briefly. “Aida, my Tengarper informed me our arrival might be overwhelming for you. I’m so glad you came to meet us though. I’ve directed that our camp be set up far enough away it shouldn’t disturb you. Although I need to leave a few soldiers here with our wares overnight, my Warriors will withdraw.”
It explained the small size of the camp, but how did they know she would be overwhelmed? Was it normal for a Youth?
“You won’t be joining us in the evening?” Evan apparently wasn’t aware of the plan, and glanced at Aida as he spoke. “We are happy to provide meals for all of your Warriors. I’m sure Aida won’t mind.”
“Ah, but I trust my ikast,” Cugat said. “Based on what they told me, I’m impressed she came today at all! Well done.”
Evan shuffled from side to side, no doubt wondering how to convince Cugat to change his mind. Traders often dined with the council in the evenings, sharing news from other Calas villages, and Evan loved such news. Cugat appeared far more interested in Aida’s comfort than anything Evan had to say, however.
“My ikast Kezia is behind you near that cart. You passed her on the way here.” Cugat said before Evan could speak again. “She’d like to talk with you. She knew your mother and has fond memories of her.”
Aida blinked. Someone knew her mother? “How?”
“Kezia was born in Farnes. Before she became my ikast, she was a Youth when your mother was a master there.”
Aida turned around to look at Kezia again. Was that why she stared at her before? Was she looking for her mother in her?
Farnes was one of the coastal cities, far to the West. Aida’s mother had described it as one of the largest of the Tengarper cities, perhaps the largest. It was certainly one of the oldest. Farnes was as far away as Aida felt you could get on Pival, as her mother said it would take at least four months of unhindered travel to walk there. She was shocked to learn someone else from that house had made their way to this corner of Calas land.
“There’s some happy news,” Evan said. “All the more reason to stay for dinner.”
Cugat laughed. “Very persistent, my friend. But I have already decided.”
Ian returned, carrying an object. Due to the size and shape, Aida assumed it was a sword, wrapped in a linen cloth. He handed it to Cugat and returned to his place next to his master.
Cugat unwrapped the bundle. “When I heard you had survived, I sent for something from Isma.”
She gasped. The name of her parents’ killers almost toppled her over, but Aida focused on the sword as the final piece of cloth fell away. Cugat handed the wrapping to Ian while Aida stared at the hilt, and then the sheath, speechless. Though old, it remained in good condition, perhaps unused since its last battle seven years before. My mother’s sword.
“I hope you don’t mind.” Cugat held it out to her. “They claimed they had lost your father’s, but I bet one of their Warriors is running around with it still. I have no doubt he had a fine blade.”
She reached out a hand to touch the leather encasing the sword, covered with designs of birds from the coast. Her had mother said the birds would linger on the walls of her home stronghold, and that she’d spent many hours studying them. They were a symbol of her house.
“It is yours now, though I see you already carry a weapon from Lortun.” He looked like he might say something else about Dominic’s sword, but stopped.
Aida took her mother’s sword with her left hand and grabbed the hilt with her right as Cugat released it into her grip. She pulled it free of the sheath, just a hands-width, and admired the gleaming blade. Thinner, lighter, and longer than Dominic’s sword at her side, the Tengarper blade was just as strong.
A thing of beauty and grace, she remembered the words Biel the Venkri blade-master had used for this very weapon. Rarely impressed by the Tengarper, he’d made an exception for her mother’s sword.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Ian here made sure it was cleaned up.”
“Thank you.” She didn’t know what else to say.
My mother’s sword.
Evan was talking but she didn’t listen. She brought the sword closer, holding it against her chest. Memories flooded her mind. The time she decided to play with the sword and almost sliced off her finger. The day her mother let her use it in practice, even though it was too large for her. The reflection of the moon on its surface the last time her mother drew it for battle.
Her heart sank at the last memory. This was the last thing her mother had touched before she died. The sword had remained with her even when Aida fled. It had killed far more from Isma than Aida might ever meet.
What does he want for such a gift? She looked up at the Venkri master with gratitude, but also suspicion. He looked sincere, even if she couldn’t tell his emotion.
“You probably didn’t know this,” Cugat said, “But I met your father a few times when we were much younger. I also knew Biel from Chusen. Both were good men.”
Aida’s chest burned from withheld emotion.
“Truly, I was happy to hear of your survival. The attack was,” Cugat paused, “unfortunate. I know this won’t bring your parents back, but I thought you should have it.”
I need to leave. Emotions overwhelmed her and she didn’t know how long she could continue on the green.
“I know this must be hard for you. None of us will be offended if you don’t remain.” Cugat’s face was gentle and caring. He seemed kind and empathetic. “Kezia will return tomorrow, along with Ian here. She’ll be happy to talk to you then?”
“Not all of you?” Evan asked.
“No, it only requires two Warriors. We have found the Calas feel more comfortable trading with us if there aren’t as many.” Cugat clapped Evan on the back. “You’re welcome to come visit us in our camp though.”
“Yes, I would enjoy that.”
“Will we see you tomorrow, Aida?” Ian asked, the first words she’d heard him speak. Slower and deeper than Cugat’s voice, Ian’s words rolled out much more gracefully than Aida would have imagined possible from a Venkri.
“Yes, I’ll be back tomorrow.” She bowed to Cugat, though she glanced up at Ian. His serious gaze met hers. “Thank you for this incredible gift.”
Cugat returned her bow. “It is my pleasure.”
She turned and retreated back to Zara on the path. Kezia, to her side, nodded again as she passed, an eye on the sword Aida held.
Continue reading Chapter Four.