Defiant: Chapter Five

Work on my second novel continues, and I’m even working on some ideas for the third one.  It’ll be set in space!  In the meantime, we have Chapter 5 of my first novel, Defiant.  We learn more about the magical powers of the Kort while Aida tries to get information.

You can find all earlier chapters here.

Chapter Five

Aida plodded down the path toward the crossroads, boots pushing down against drying lumps of moist dirt. Her dark pants were damp, but not as muddy as she had feared. Sword at her side and dagger in her boot, she thought herself prepared for battle, even if she came only for conversation.

Her jaw throbbed, but the piercing pain in her ear diminished to an aggravating, if faint, ache. Aida’s legs grew heavy and weak as she walked, her chest hurt, and her stomach churned against nothing. She should have eaten something.

She stopped walking to focus on her breathing. The shrine and hall rose ahead of her, and the sounds of the soldiers on the green floated down the path. Warm light from the mid-morning sun, no longer blocked by the earlier clouds, bathed the village.

“Morning.” Dylan’s gruff voice arrived a second before the councilman passed her. He featured none of the same marks of age or inactivity as the council leader, Evan. He had appeared at the hut frequently after the death of Zara’s husband, Dominic, to make any necessary repairs. Taller than any in the village except Aida, she’d often wondered why he was only a council member and not leader. Zara said others found him too quiet for the job. The leadership of the scouting parties was a better match for him. He headed toward the hall to greet the last shift of scouts and send the next group into the woods.

Luca was already there with Grady, who lacked control of his mind. He is too excited about scout duty. Sienna shouldn’t worry; the ikast is going to have a dull day. She let out a breath and strode toward the green, rolling her shoulders back and trying to appear confident.

Aida stopped again at the crossroads and watched the small camp bustle with activity. Two soldiers managed the mules while others tended the dwindling fire and tents. Several more unloaded wares from the tarp-covered carts, checking for rain damage. All wore the same forest green tunics of the Kort, along with mail and swords. Dressed like soldiers, they acted just like traders.

Kezia and the other Warrior weren’t visible, but they were somewhere nearby. Aida closed her eyes and tried to focus on them. They were easy to pick out against everyone else. The soldiers were like the huts in the village, the Warriors were like the hall and the shrine. Both groups were stronger in her mind than the Calas, who seemed like the gently blown grass on the green in comparison.

Two Calas recruits helped the regular Kort soldiers. The Kort had recruited some as they traveled south. A young man and woman, both younger than Aida, tended the cart to her far right and nearest to the camp. The armor weighed down their small frames, mail hanging against thin bodies. She thought of Luca joining the Kort and these Calas soldiers and shuddered.

Ian and Kezia ducked out from inside the largest tent, talking as they walked toward the nearest cart. Aida’s breath caught in her throat.

Ian stood next to the Calas recruit, giving instruction, and pointed at his own belt as an example. She nodded and shifted her belt to match his. He inspected the man as well, pointing at his sword hilt and saying something before clapping him on the shoulder and smiling. He asked the woman something, then leaned in as he listened to her response, hands clasped together behind his back. Ian met her words with an easy smile and nod. Unlike the day before, Ian wore mail under his tunic.

Kezia stood upright and commanding, with little to say to the soldiers. She wore the same forest green tunic and sword. The Tengarper master did not wear armor like Ian.

She knew she should go to the Warriors, but Aida’s feet refused to move from their spot on the path. The anxieties of the prior day raged within her, and she held her breath. Her shoulders tensed and she clenched her fists and jaw as another wave of pain went through her right cheek. Panic welled in her chest, and she considered returning to the hut.

I need a map, and I want to know about my mother.

The two Warriors turned and moved toward the second cart. Aida willed her left foot forward, and then her right. Suddenly she was in front of Kezia and Ian and realized she couldn’t remember what to say.

They stood between the two carts, studying Aida on the path. She felt out of place; feeble. Aida struggled to remain still, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. Her eyes fell to the ground, avoiding their judging stares. Blood rushed in her ears, and she couldn’t hear anything but her too-fast heartbeat.

“It helps if you breathe.” Kezia’s voice was hard and contained. The statement lacked contempt, but she didn’t sound kind.

Face reddening, Aida took a breath, and then another. The blood stopped roaring in her ears, though the jaw pain resumed with renewed intensity. Her head rose, and she met the eyes of the two Warriors. Kezia’s face was neutral.

“It is good to see you, Aida.” Ian offered a friendly smile. He stood almost as tall as Kezia but was more muscular. Away from his master Cugat, his size was even more impressive.

“Anxiety is a common problem for Tengarper Youth.” Kezia crossed her arms. “As their power grows, it can be overwhelming.”

At least I’m not alone. “What do they do in the West for it?”

“We tell them to breathe. It is the only thing that works before training begins, but it is effective at all ages. I still control my breathing. It becomes less conscious as you age.”

“I didn’t know.” Aida felt foolish.

“I imagine not.” Kezia paused. “It gets easier with practice.”

Easier with practice or easier when they become ikast? She didn’t dare ask, and the silence continued. Again, she thought they were judging her; testing her somehow. She was failing. Soldiers chatted on either side of them, and she heard the villagers working behind her, but she could think of nothing to say.

“Quite some storms we had last night.” Ian rested his hands on his belt and gazed at the sky. “Evan said the village sees flooding occasionally.”

Thankful Ian broke the silence, Aida tried to think about the rains. The lake waters rarely rose enough to overtake the banks, but enough rain did cause large pools to form at various places on the paths. “Yes, though we didn’t last night.”

Kezia’s eyes bored into Aida. “You must get your anger from your father. Your mother didn’t have any.”

The Tengarper sensed her feelings. She knew of my anger while I was still in the hut. How do I stop her?

Ian opened his mouth like he might speak, but closed it as he glanced at Kezia. He moved his hands from resting on his belt to behind his back and rocked on his heels.

Kezia sighed. “Passion can be a positive trait.”

Sweat trickled down Aida’s back. How do I keep her from doing that? Desperate, Aida hoped to change the subject. “Cugat said you knew my mother.”

“I knew Kendra, as well as her ikast, though I was but a Youth at the time. You look like her.”

Aida started to reach up and touch her hair but stopped. She remembered her mother pulling hers back. Her father had thought long hair a liability in battle like most Venkri, but her mother retained the Tengarper custom of long hair, as did her female ikast. “Thank you.”

Kezia’s voice softened some. “I knew her ikast better. Sosanna was over ten years older than me, but she was always considerate.”

I watched Sosanna die.

“Are you well?” Kezia didn’t appear concerned.

She died for me. Aida took another deep breath and tried to push the memory from her mind and focus on the Warriors. “Yes, sorry.”

“Your mother and Mather were also kind, but they were much older and I saw them less.” Kezia smiled. “Your mother did correct me once. She and Mather were working with Sosanna on using her skill to move a stone around the training courtyard. Your mother had that gift, and to a lesser extent so did Mather. She may have developed it later, but at the time Sosanna could barely do it.”

Her mother’s first ikast, Mather, had a weak gift for moving objects. Her second ikast, Sosanna, had never developed that skill. Romella, her mother’s third and final ikast, was even more talented than her mother. It was rare among the Tengarper. Can Kezia do it?

“I wasn’t supposed to be watching as training is forbidden,” Kezia said. “I’d figured out how to sneak into the courtyard by then though and was quite proud of myself.”

Aida hid her surprise. She thought all the Youth to the West would follow that rule without question. The story also earned a curious look from Ian.

Kezia uncrossed her arms. “Like most Youth, I wanted to know more and snuck around trying to watch the younger ikast in training. On that day, Sosanna had problems and grew frustrated. Your mother was ever patient, but Mather grew irritated and offered a lot of extra commentary.”

Ian laughed. “Sounds like you.”

Kezia ignored him. “Sosanna had enough of his ‘help,’ and grabbed the rock with her hand and threw it at him. That angered him. He probably would have had it out with her, but your mother was there to stop him. She also overheard me laughing at the whole scene.”

“What did she do?” Aida asked.

“I ran off.” Kezia chuckled. “She walked after me, using her skill to halt my run and pull me on my backside. I was terrified, and never returned while she was there.”

Aida smiled at the story, in spite of her anxiety. I miss my mother.

“Most masters wouldn’t have been able to stop me like that,” Kezia said. “Few study that art anymore, but I took an interest in it because of your mother. Sadly, I’m like Sosanna and don’t have the skill.”

“Is that something you can do, Aida?” Ian asked.

“I don’t know.” She lied. “It isn’t something I’ve tried.” Her heartbeat sped up again. He’s just curious.

“Have you been able to train here?” Kezia was still smiling, but Aida grew tense at the question. Youth were not allowed to train. They could get away with tales such as Kezia’s, but serious training was punishable by death for the family.

The law didn’t stop Aida’s parents from starting her training as soon as she could walk. Her father’s Venkri ikast taught her how to fight, unarmed and with a dagger. Her mother’s Tengarper ikast shared with her how to breathe, how to seek out the enemy, and how to control other items with her mind. She was too young then to do much of it, but she learned. The Calas didn’t have such a rule, and she learned all she could from their hunters and scouts as soon as she was able. She’d her entire life training to fight, but she didn’t want the Kort to know.

“It would only make sense for you to train here.” Ian gestured toward the woods on the other side of the fields. “I wouldn’t blame you at all. This isn’t the West.”

“I hunt for food.”

“That’s an appropriate skill to have here.” Kezia nodded at Aida’s side. “That isn’t your mother’s sword. Do you often carry a weapon?”

Aida reached down and touched the hilt. “This is Dominic’s. Zara’s late husband.” She had left her mother’s sword at the hut. She felt more comfortable with Dominic’s blade. There would be time enough to practice with the new sword after the Kort departed. Realizing she hadn’t answered why she wore it, she hastily added, “I like having it in the woods, just in case I run into a beast.”

“Do you hunt the beasts?” Ian’s eyes lit up. “We saw three last year. They fled at our approach.”

“No,” Aida said. “We don’t hunt them. They avoid the village, or the scouts drive them off. Still, it is best to be prepared.”

“They are magnificent!” Ian’s enthusiasm covered any hint he doubted her story.

“Do you have any other stories of my mother?” Aida attempted to change the topic.

Kezia thought for a moment and then said, “A few years later, when I was closer to fifteen or sixteen, we had an unbearably cold winter. Wind off the ocean caused damage to all the houses and huts. It was miserable to be outside.”

She stopped talking as a soldier walked past to the next cart, followed by two women. He motioned to the stacks of material inside. “Lots of red and patterns to view here, ladies.”

The two chatted, distracting Kezia. The Warrior paused, staring at the soldier and two women, lost in thought. Her eyebrows furrowed and her smile faded. Something unsettled her. It was a flash of feeling, nothing more, but something bothered the Tengarper master.

“Let’s walk,” Ian suggested. He motioned toward the center of the green with his arm. Kezia stopped looking at the scene and nodded, leading Ian and Aida across the grass.

Kezia held a leisurely pace, and they walked out of earshot of the cart. “Your mother was outside. I don’t remember her ikast, but she was talking to one of the soldiers. It was a younger woman, not that much older than I was at the time. I overheard her encouraging the soldier. She apparently just started at the keep. The cold made her miss her duties as a servant. Your mother was kind to her.”

Ian walked behind Aida and Kezia. “Do you know what servants are in the West?”

“Servants are everybody that isn’t a Warrior or a soldier, right?” Aida didn’t want to sound overly knowledgeable. Her parents hadn’t brought anyone but their own Warrior ikast with them when they fled. Their servants wouldn’t come.

“Yes,” he said. “We like to keep the names simple.”

Aida smiled. There was something about him that didn’t feel right, but he was so friendly. Friendly yet sad. “What was Sosanna like then?” Aida looked at Kezia.

“She was short for a Tengarper. Mather teased her about that, but she made up for it with skill. I heard she was very good at shielding her thoughts from others, especially for her age. I was only seven when your mother took her as an ikast though so I don’t remember much of what she could do.”

“And Mather?”

“I’m sure he was kind enough, but I was very young.”

Mather had always been the most stoic of her parents’ ikast. She knew he cared, however, especially when he trained his own ikast, Corvina. He was a dutiful master. She wondered how he died.

They stopped walking near the center of the green. With the sun unhindered by the clouds, the morning grew warmer. A few villagers worked the dirt west of the field, sleeves rolled up and sweating. She turned to find Ian wiping sweat from his brow as well. He and the soldiers in mail would be warm by noon.

“Why the armor today?”

Ian seemed to grow taller, and Aida sensed pride. “We never wear it the first day, as we don’t want to intimidate our hosts. But I find the soldiers respect a Warrior more if he is with them in things.”

It was a Venkri attitude, one shared by her father and his ikast. Always prepared for battle. Always willing to lead. He’s so much more refined than my father’s ikast though.

“You haven’t mentioned Romella,” Aida said, trying to distract herself from thinking of Ian. She wondered if Kezia could tell where her mind had gone.

“She must have become an ikast after I left,” Kezia said. “I don’t remember her at least.” She crossed her arms again.

“Oh,” Aida said, aware of some discomfort from Kezia. “When you became an ikast?”

“Yes.” There would be no further details of Kezia’s move to the Kort.

“Where is your ikast?” Aida asked.

“He has a black eye,” Ian said. “Didn’t feel up to showing it off.”

“Ian,” Kezia warned.

“He got in a fight. Young ikast do that. He won.”

Kezia scoffed.

Ian appeared to have a good relationship with Kezia, even though she was much older. They were friends, like her parents’ ikast. Would they still be friends if they didn’t share the same master? Venkri and Tengarper didn’t get along, normally.

“Where are your friends?” Ian glanced back to the shrine.

Aida pointed north and said, “Luca is somewhere that way. He’s on scout duty this week. Grady is with him.”

“Ah, yes he mentioned he was coming for that.” Ian held a lot of anger at the mention of Grady. “I like a man who does his job. Luca could visit us at our camp if he’d like to talk.”

Sienna would hate that. “You’re recruiting, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps.” Ian smiled. “What of your other friend, the one who helped Hinir find the priest?”

Aida thought of the argument with Sienna. She regretted her anger. “She’s at the hut with Zara.”

“Have you stayed with her since you arrived here?” Kezia’s annoyance abated somewhat.

“Yes, with Zara and Dominic…” Aida trailed off. After the attack. Before Dominic died. “They took me in like another child. I’ve been with them since I came here.”

They didn’t ask for more information, and the three stood in silence, watching the soldiers interact with villagers at the carts. The two women purchased some fabric from the north, using homemade items as barter. Aida noticed how little the soldiers took; the villagers had the better end of each deal. Diplomacy.

Aida thought about the Kort in front of her. Ian’s presence remained sharp and clear, which she expected since she was so close to him. Now that she focused, she thought she could distinguish more about Kezia as well.

Kezia studied her. Does she know what I’m doing?

“Why come all the way down here to such a small village?” Aida avoided Kezia’s gaze. “We can’t possibly buy enough to make it worth it?”

“No,” Ian said. “This isn’t profitable in that way. We’re mostly trying to establish relations with the Calas. It has been centuries since there has been any attempt to reconcile the two groups. Visiting more Calas villages helps to show we aren’t dangerous and build trust.”

Aida thought the answer sounded rehearsed as if he’d given it many times. He probably had as she couldn’t be the only to ask why the Kort were interested in the Calas. “But why build trade?”

“Cugat wants to develop trade for the stability of the Kort house,” Kezia said. “Do you know where our stronghold is?”

Aida shook her head. “Somewhere west? This could be the ideal time to get a map.

“It is somewhat west,” Ian said, “but mostly north. It is almost straight north of Lortun.”

“I know where Lortun is but don’t know anything else West of the mountains,” Aida said.

Ian glanced around at the ground, first to his left and then to the right. He dropped to a knee in a nearby grassless patch. “Here. I’ll draw you a map.”

That was easy.

He started with a line running north and south, with a break near the top. “Here are the mountains. I’m from here,” he pointed to the south side of the pass, “Lortun.”

Aida knelt as well, and put her finger far south and east of the pass. “Are we right about here?”

“Close.” He took her hand and shifted it a few fingers’ distance to the left, closer to the mountains.

His hand felt warm to the touch and calloused from weapons training. Or actual battle.

The contact made it much easier to read him, and she found he was excited about the map. Excited to be helpful? She focused on the map again as he moved his hand away and to the northwest of the pass.

“Kort is here.”

Kezia said, “It is too cold there to grow all we need.”

Aida nodded. “So you need trade.” She doubted they needed all this trade from the Calas, but remained more concerned about finding Isma. Her eyes followed the west side of the mountains south. “Where are my parents’ houses?”

“Yutta is here.” Ian moved his hand to a point west of the mountains, just south of being even with the pass.

Kezia knelt on the other side. “We need a coast for scale.” She drew another line, roughly parallel with the mountains. “There’s the ocean, and there’s Fouch.”

“Down here,” Ian said as he marked another line on the bottom edge between the coast and the mountain range, “is the Southern Range.”

Aida knew little about the southern-most range, except it was home to the original Pival Temple. She didn’t need any information about it to find Isma, though. She glanced where Isma must lay again. “What of their birth houses? Russic and Farnes?”

“Russic sits between Yutta and the mountains.” Ian pointed to the appropriate spot. “And Farnes is the northernmost city on the coast. Right, Kezia?”

“Yes.” More discomfort from the Tengarper Warrior, but she hid it almost immediately.

Aida rocked back and sat on her heels. “My father told me some of this, but it has been so long.” How do I get them to tell me about the other houses?

“Isma is straight west of here.” Kezia raised her eyebrows at Aida, leaning forward and putting her finger on a spot even with the village, but on the other side of the mountains. “You kept looking at it.”

And thinking of it. Aida’s cheeks burned red. This close, Kezia might be able to tell any number of things about Aida’s thoughts and feelings. She’d been too busy thinking of the map and forgot Kezia’s skills.

“I don’t blame you,” Kezia’s voice had a tone of certainty. “I would want revenge too.”

Ian said nothing but nodded as he stared where Kezia had pointed. Sadness overtook the excitement he felt as he looked at Aida sympathetically.

Aida’s anger with herself increased. She couldn’t do anything without giving herself away. It seemed she was too afraid to make a good Venkri and too undisciplined to be a good Tengarper. She rolled back up to her feet and stood, glaring at the map in the dirt.

“Unfortunately,” Kezia stood, “they’re a strong house. I don’t think anyone will be getting revenge against them anytime soon.”

I want to block her. Kezia only did what Tengarper do by nature, but Aida was aggravated, with herself and with the Warrior. She stared at the line on the map for the mountains and envisioned the peaks she could see from her family’s camp. She thought about her breathing. Ten counts in, eight breaths out.

“I’d like to go west of the mountains someday,” Ian said, tapping the map in the center of Venkri and Tengarper land. He rose and faced the distant range. “Somewhere warmer than the Kort stronghold at least.”

“It isn’t much different than here.” Kezia stared at Aida as she spoke. “With less friendly Pivals than these Calas.”

Aida didn’t make eye contact with Kezia but tried to look beyond her, past the fields and the hills and the trees, all the way to the mountains blocked by the horizon. She let the anger she held for Isma go for a moment and only thought of blocking the Tengarper.

“I don’t think I’d like Isma. I don’t like their Warriors.” Ian didn’t notice the two women locked in their own, silent conversation.

Kezia’s stare grew in intensity, but she answered, “You shouldn’t judge them all for Ferran. He’s probably not their best representative.”

Aida suppressed a reaction. Ferran, Grady’s master, was born in Isma. It made sense some would be from Isma. Almost all ikast came from other houses in the West. Still, she hadn’t expected to find someone from Isma among the Kort.

“He wasn’t involved in the attack,” Kezia added. “That was after he left.”

How did she know? The only way to make sure she can’t read me at all is to put distance between us. The farther Aida moved away from Kezia, the more difficult it would be for the Tengarper to overcome whatever block Aida had in place, weak as it may be. “I think I’m going to check on Zara. She probably needs help in the garden.”

“Well, it was wonderful to talk with you more,” Ian said. “Hopefully you’ll join us again later. We’ll be here for two more days.”

“Of course.” Aida lied again. She’d already decided she didn’t want to meet with them again, especially Kezia. They told her where to find Isma, and that was all she needed. Kezia likely knows I’m lying too. It can’t be helped. Aida bowed to Kezia first, and then Ian. They both returned the gesture, Kezia more stiffly than Ian, and then Aida strode away.

Continue reading Chapter Six.

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