Defiant: Chapter Seven

Writing news this week: I’m off to the Realm Makers Conference next weekend.  Are you also attending?  Let me know and we’ll chat!

In this chapter of Defiant, we have a chase scene and combat.  Aida is in a lot of trouble!

Aida’s feet pushed down into the dirt as she walked, following the same path east Ian had taken moments before. The pause had been temporary as she thought through all the information. Ian’s face as he pleaded with Aida haunted her. He’d never wanted to be Cugat’s ikast, and now he had to help make Aida join his master. How many of Cugat’s ikast were unwilling?

She rushed down the trail, as her friends tried to keep up with her. Aida examined bushes and trees on each side, heart racing as she expected an ambush. Her hand found her sword hilt as her eyes cut right at a sound; only a small animal digging.

Her stomach threatened to empty itself. Cugat’s unwilling ikast. The Writings. Ian’s fear. It was too much. She couldn’t do this. She needed to leave. “I’ll go south at the woods’ edge; they won’t expect that. They’ll think I’ll to return to Zara’s.”

“Why can’t you go home?” Luca trotted to keep up with her pace.

Sienna ran next to Aida on the other side. “It isn’t safe, for her or the village.”

“He’ll find me. He’ll take me as an ikast.” Aida’s jaw muscles worked against the idea, and the start of a headache crept up the side of her head. There was no time for that now. Another flight lay before her, but this time, she knew enough to be genuinely terrified.

Luca sped up to draw even with Aida. “How can he take you as an ikast if you don’t want to?”

“I don’t need to agree.” It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. It shouldn’t be happening. “It makes for terrible ikast, or at least that’s what my parents said. It hasn’t been allowed since the War of the Youth.”

Sienna put her hand on Aida’s shoulder, slowing her some. “You’ll need supplies.”

Aida shook her head. There wasn’t time. “I can’t go back to Zara’s. I need to leave now.”

“Maybe I can talk to Grady.” Luca spun and backpedaled in front of Aida.

“He can’t do anything,” Aida snapped, then more softly, “He doesn’t have a choice.”

Did Grady have a choice when he joined Ferran? Or was the boy an innocent Tengarper, dragged into the Kort like Cugat would drag her?

“But we’re friends.”

Aida frowned. “It doesn’t matter, Luca.”

Luca’s face fell, though he couldn’t possibly understand why Grady couldn’t help Aida. Only those from the West truly knew the power of a master over his ikast. Her parents’ ikast had died for her due to this power. There was no question Grady would capture Aida for his master.

“Supplies,” Sienna repeated. “You’ll need them even if you don’t go back to Zara’s. We can get them for you.”

“I can’t wait. I think I feel them around the village now. I can’t tell.” Aida was too stressed to sense much other than her panic.

“We can meet you somewhere. We’ll talk to Nathan and Zara, and then find you.” Sienna’s face matched her brother’s as she thought through her concerns.

“I don’t want anyone to find me. You need to stay here and be safe.” The safety of the village, her friends, and of Zara compelled Aida forward, against her fears. More people couldn’t die for her. Not her new friends; her new family.

Luca turned again and sped up as Aida hastened ahead. “Where are you going? We can meet you there later.”

“It doesn’t matter. You’re not coming.” Aida didn’t know where to go. She might go west to attack some Isma Warriors; dying in the mountains or battle would be better than becoming Cugat’s ikast. Wherever she went, it needed to be away from the village. If Cugat could take on a Venkri stronghold like Lortun, he would have no issue with the small Calas village.

Aida, you need supplies.” Sienna breathed heavily as she struggled to keep up and talk at the same time. “And you’ll need to know what Nathan says.”

She shook her head again.

“Your family’s camp,” Luca offered, eyes brightening some. “Go there and we’ll follow as soon as we can.”

“You can use the time to think,” Sienna added. “Aida, please. We can meet up there and give you supplies and then return.”

The camp was a good idea. Sienna and Luca had traveled there with Aida three times since she joined their family and would be able to find her later.

“We’ll wait until they’ve gone,” Sienna said. “You could stay there until we arrive. You’ll have a good position.”

Her old home was also the site of a trap. It might not be safe. Aida tried to clear her head. The trap only worked because her mother and her Tengarper ikast detected Warriors so well. A vision of her mother on the ridge, informing her father of the situation, entered her mind. She watched Sosanna face the Warrior before she fled. She felt them all die, again, and her heart sank.

She wouldn’t have the same problem. If attacked, Aida was just one girl and could slip away, as she had done that night.

They approached the edge of the trees, and Aida slowed. Her friends panted as they stopped. She reached down to verify she had her dagger and touched her sword.

Sienna started to unbuckle her belt, and the “L” on the hilt reflected the light falling through the branches overhead. “Do you want my father’s sword?”

Aida glanced at the weapon and then back at her mother’s blade. She ran her fingers down along the birds on the sheath again and wondered what her mother would do. “No. You may need it. You have to stay safe. I’ll take this one.”

She turned right and stepped off the path, breathing deep in an attempt to calm herself and focus. Her heart pounded, and her stomach hurt, but suddenly she sensed her friends. The worry and the concern.

“Aida,” Sienna’s voice caused Aida to turn. “Be careful, and stay at the camp. Wait for us.”

Aida nodded. “I will. And tell Zara…” Memories of the old woman flashed in Aida’s mind; from the night she comforted a cold, scared, lost little girl to the last few weeks when she’d lost sleep to be with the same scared young woman. She choked back a sob. “Tell her thank you.”

Aida knew they waited for her as soon as she left the village. Number and location were hard to determine as she snuck beside the little ridge that followed the lake, but they pressed against her in her flight. Soil rose in a vertical wall to her right. It blocked her view, but hopefully also prevented anyone on land from seeing her. The fishers would see her if they looked, but she hoped everyone else expected her elsewhere.

The ground dropped in a steep incline to her left, and she fought to stay balanced lest she fell into the lake below. Bright morning sunlight reflected off the water, blinding her to everything north or east. Wind whipped off the surface, and she heard nothing but the air and waves.

She dropped to a knee in the damp dirt and rock, winced against the sharp gravel as it dug into her skin, and breathed to calm her head. It didn’t feel like there was anyone ahead, but she didn’t trust herself while she was this anxious. She closed her eyes and steadied her breathing as she followed the familiar pattern of ten counts in and eight counts out. The world slowed around her as she calmed, and she envisioned the landscape around the village.

The lake’s edge ran southeast for a time and then turned east. A wide strip of shorter grasses grew between the edge and the woods she had left behind. At the bend, the oaks crept out to the ridge, joined by tall grass and weeds. It was the perfect place to duck back into the tree line, away from any path to the village.

Still not calm enough to concentrate, Aida kept moving. Her heart pounded as she continued, and she focused on the ground in front of her instead of peeking over the hill. Ian had said Cugat would come later, but there were already soldiers nearby.

She gasped at the sudden, violent intrusion of a Warrior into her periphery. Aida’s foot slipped on the loose gravel, and she slid down the incline toward the lake, digging her boots into the mud to stop before she fell completely into the water. Her mother’s sword caught on the ground and pulled back up, forcing the hilt into her side. She withheld a yell against both the surprise and pain, settling into a stop at the lake’s edge.

Aida scrambled to her feet and adjusted her belt and sword. She checked on her dagger, to make sure it remained in her boot. The thought of using either weapon made her head spin, and she steadied herself against the embankment. She strained against the roar of the wind and waves but heard no noises above her on the ridge.

Instead of climbing back up, she decided to stay near the lake as she traveled. She made good progress at first but soon ran into a pile of driftwood. Some unseen animal scurried underneath as she crawled over the unstable heap. Aida hastened down the other side and continued her flight up the narrow shore.

The lake wrapped left in front of her, marking the spot nearest the trees. She crept the dirt wall of the embankment and gazed over the crest in both directions and into the woods. The Warriors pressed against her mind but seemed no closer than previously. The soldiers hovered somewhere in the woods, but she couldn’t find them.

She scurried into the oaks and knelt again to look around. Birds cried and took flight in the distance to her right. The Warriors must be there. Strong, fast Warriors. Warriors who could easily defeat Aida.

They’re going to find me and take me to Cugat. He’s going to make me be his ikast. The terrible image grew, and she closed her eyes against the fear as she gripped the hilt of her sword so tightly her fingers hurt. Zara’s admonition to breathe floated at the edge of her consciousness and she struggled to grab it before she forgot entirely.

Always remember to breathe. Ten in, eight out. I will run as hard as I can and as far as I can. I will not be caught cowering.

The fear withheld for the moment, Aida bolted into the oaks. She took only a few steps into the trees before she felt something else, not as strong as the Warriors. Soldiers. Shouts erupted from to her left. Too close.

“There she is!”

Aida continued to run forward, unsure of what other direction she might take. Branches snapped, boots thumped, and the soldiers cursed behind her. Would the villagers hear the shouting or was she already too far away for their help? Would they help? Ian had said the Council agreed with Cugat. They might chase her as well.

She ducked under a low branch and turned her head to look back. The motion threw her off balance, and she lunged right to regain her footing. The soldiers seemed to be catching up.

Aida faced forward again as she dashed into some brush. She tripped on a root and rolled. Thin, dense branches grabbed at her clothes, hair, and sword. They tore through her right shirt sleeve and snagged on her skin. It was just like before, when Isma had chased her into the wood. When Sosanna had died behind her.

Always remember to breathe. She fought ahead and crawled through the other side before she climbed to her feet.

“Almost got her.” The voice from behind was far too close. Panic pooled in her stomach, competing against the breathlessness she felt from running. Over her shoulder, she saw eight soldiers in the chase. Two ran in front, perhaps only thirty paces behind her as they’d avoided the brush.

Calm down. She couldn’t breathe in for eight counts and out for ten, but she counted to those numbers as she fled. Aida could outrun the soldiers; she was a Warrior Youth after all. She had to avoid falling and needed to keep an eye out ahead for more soldiers or those Warriors.

Her boot sank some in the ground as she moved down a slight hill, and both feet splashed into a puddle at the bottom. A frightened squirrel sat frozen at her approach, darting away at the last possible second. An upcoming hill rose tall and steep, extending too far in either direction to go around. Baby cliffs dotted the face, and some sections were almost vertical. It would be a terrible climb at a sprint. The perfect opportunity to outrun the soldiers.

She ran into the incline at full speed and then veered left to avoid a small cliff ahead. Boots splashed in the puddle behind. After passing the ledge, she leaned right again to take on the hill directly. She sucked in air as fast as possible but her lungs still burned. Her legs screamed against the effort, and a cramp threatened her right side.

The soldiers behind her grunted, and their footfalls became less frequent and farther away as she climbed. No mere soldier could catch a Warrior Youth in a sprint. Aida kept her head down as she neared the top of the hill. She breathed so hard she couldn’t hear anything, even her own pounding heart. The edge of her view grew fuzzy as she reached the limit of her enhanced stamina, and she slowed to regain her strength.

As the ground leveled, Aida’s head rose in time to see a soldier rush down toward her from the top. She recognized him from the trade carts. Older than most of the other Kort troops, she thought he must be a sergeant. Gray eyes hardened as he rushed forward to meet Aida.

I can beat him. She closed her eyes but didn’t slow down as she plowed into him shoulder first. The impact threw both of them to the ground, and they landed a few feet from each other.

Her head buzzed, but she moved to her hands and knees, unused sword dangling from her belt. She drew her left leg between her hands to stand, but another soldier slammed into her from her right side. A flurry of hair, armor, and hands flashed in front of Aida before she crashed into the ground.

Aida grunted in pain as the hilt of her sword rammed into her ribs again. She turned her head in time to take the woman’s fist to her cheek. It hurt, but the woman’s yelp when it connected told Aida the soldier wasn’t prepared to fight a Warrior. Aida grabbed her shirt as she tried to back away, pulling her close enough to ram her forehead into the woman’s nose. She threw her off to the left.

By the time Aida scrambled to her feet, the sergeant was also standing. He hugged her from behind and wrapped his arms around her arms and chest. With her superior strength, she pushed his arms away from her and spun before bring her elbow around into his chin. His head snapped back and he fell.

Aida turned to find the second soldier as she struggled to her feet, and she kicked her in the gut. The woman flipped over and landed awkwardly on the base of a tree, and Aida was unsure if the sound of snapping came from bones or sticks below.

Both her opponents lay unconscious or dead, blood flowing freely from their faces. So much blood. Just like before. Aida paused too long as she considered the bodies. Grunts and clattering gear on the soldiers still on the hill startled her into action, and she charged down the other side.

The downhill dropped off more steeply than she anticipated, and Aida struggled to check her speed and avoid obstacles. She looked over her shoulder and found only two of the soldiers followed. As she faced forward again, she saw a cliff too late. Aida dropped to her right side as she held her sword against her left thigh. She slid over the lip and then turned straight in the air before she landed in a run.

As she neared the bottom of the hill, a scream cut off behind her announced at least one of the soldiers fell off the drop. The fall was likely too far for them to escape uninjured, but Aida didn’t turn again to check.

The ground leveled before her, and she slowed some to regain her breath. Aida splashed through a small creek and to the left of a patch of brambles. She ran in a valley between several hills; any direction would require more climbing, but also represented an opportunity to lose the final soldier. Even the fittest would only run so far, especially weighed down in armor and with weapons. She inhaled deeply as she realized she would lose the last soldier.

She felt something new then; something to her right. A Warrior pressed down into the valley from the softer incline to the west. Aida glanced over and found a Venkri on a course to intercept her. She’d missed her in the panic of the chase and fight on the hill before.

The woman had been on the green when the Kort first came. She’d been on the north side of the field. One of the bored Venkri. Aida groaned. Tymon blessed Venkri Warriors with more speed than their Tengarper counterparts. The Warrior was fast, strong, and angry. Even over her rising panic, the anger emanating from the woman washed over Aida.

Aida leaned left and raced forward, scrambling to get away before the Warrior caught her. All control of her breathing gone with her fear and she sucked in air like the soldiers on the hill before. Was a trap waiting for her? Where were the other Warriors?

The thought of a trap weighed on her mind and reminded her of the ruse that had taken her family, pinning them against a steep fall and forcing them to fight. She lost her concentration as she recalled that night, and she tripped almost as soon as the rise of the next hill began. Aida landed on her hands and scampered forward on all fours for a few paces.

A look back as she struggled to her feet showed the woman gained ground. Now that she focused on the Warrior, her presence crushed against Aida’s mind. Aida could barely think as she clambered up the hill more slowly than she wanted.

Aida grabbed the top of a small cliff as she neared the crest. She jumped and pulled herself up, digging into the rock face with her toes for traction and finally rolling over the ledge onto almost level ground. There were no soldiers or Warriors to greet her, and she gasped for air as she crawled forward into a run. Aida felt and heard the Venkri Warrior behind and to her right.

She jumped over a fallen log and slid on the leaves, and almost fell again before she regained her balance. She couldn’t stop and fight. She’d never win. Aida needed to outrun her.

The footfalls behind her seemed to grow closer, though it was difficult to hear anything over her own heart and labored breathing. There was so much anger. She felt it now that the woman was near. Waves of rage came off the Warrior as she chased Aida.

Maybe she’ll kill me. That suddenly seemed preferable to being an ikast. Death would be better than joining Cugat, forced like Ian to serve the Kort master.

She told herself to keep running as she crested this hill and began her descent. A rock ledge loomed ahead of her, but she saw it in time. Aida made a full left turn at the cliff’s edge and ran parallel to the drop. Behind her, the Warrior grunted as she turned as well.

The ridge appeared to go on for some distance, and Aida briefly considered a jump off the edge rather than face the trailing Warrior. It was too far; she’d just injure herself.

A gap opened in the ledge ahead and to her right, and she jumped down before she saw the bottom. She bounced against rock and hard earth during the long slide, but she landed before rolling several times. Aida scrambled to her feet and darted down the hill as she adjusted her sword on her hip again. No sounds followed her descent.

Level ground awaited her at the bottom and she picked up speed, ignoring the sharp pain in her knee from the fall. Her stomach burned against her effort and she pumped her arms against the fatigue, hoping to outlast her pursuer. Aida allowed herself a glance back after a moment and found the Warrior far behind, and losing ground. She must not have wanted to slide.

She darted right after she cleared the top of the next small hill, hoping to lose the Warrior entirely. The crest was mostly level and only spotted with the occasional tree. Running was easy, and the anger from the woman dissipated as the distance increased.

Aida took a deep breath in relief as she realized she was going to outrun the woman. She didn’t want to run into other Warriors, so after several minutes on the hill, she turned left again and resumed her course south. Aida didn’t stop again until an hour after she last sensed the Warrior.

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