Defiant: Chapter Eight

It was a busy week here in Julie Land, so let’s start with the most important thing: I posted my cheesecake recipe a few days ago.  People always ask for cheesecake from me, and now you too can perform this incredible feat of magic by following this extraordinarily simple recipe.  Seriously, it isn’t a big deal.

The other big news is I attended the Realm Makers Conference.  It was a fun and very well-organized event and had the best banquet steak I’ve ever tasted. I have several pages of notes, but the thing that I keep going back to is the live editing class by Lisa Mangum.  You can see a similar class with her from LTUE here.  It was eye-opening, and also a little concerning.  She aims for ten pages an hour when editing, which is forty hours for a book like mine.  I’m no editor, but I do have to edit my own work before I try to get someone to buy it.  That means there are at least forty hours after I get done with what I’m doing now if I’m aiming for high quality.  It may be longer since I don’t know what I’m doing!  I may have not spent that much time on Defiant…  Writing is hard, y’all.

Speaking of Defiant, we are on to Chapter Eight!  On this reread, this is my favorite chapter so far!

Aida stared northeast, aware the hills and trees blocked any view of the Kort Warriors as they approached. Still, she looked; taking in the steep incline as it dropped to the water below, the opposing rise covered in dense oaks and small cliffs, and the sun as it climbed the eastern sky. The spring filled the morning with the sound of rushing water as it fled down its path and into the lake to the west, but the peaceful scene did nothing to abate her panic.

The journey southwest to the site of her family’s old home had been uneventful once Aida escaped her pursuers near the village. She traveled all day, quickened by fear and aided by no pack. The night was clear, and she slept for a few hours before she continued, arriving at her former home in the early evening. Early-berries still grew where they once did before the attack on her family, and a squirrel wandered into one of her snares overnight.

She studied the dead carcass at her feet. Aida had started to clean him before she felt the Warriors enter the edge of her range. They marched directly toward her, though the terrain slowed them. She might have an hour, perhaps less, before they arrived at the base of the hill below.

How do they know where I am? The question repeated in Aida’s mind in between thoughts of escape. The land worked in her favor if she wanted to leave. Tall oaks packed the ridge to her west, with little undergrowth to slow her. A turn south when the trees opened followed a gentle slope down into the milder hills below.

Were more Warriors there? They had been during the attack on her family. A force arrived from the east, which prompted her family to flee to the south. Another group, with fewer Warriors to draw the Tengarper’s attention, waited for them on their escape path. They had no choice but to fight.

Aida sensed nothing from the south, but her mother hadn’t either. They could still be there, hiding. If the Calas of the village supported the Kort, then she might not sense them until they were too near to flee. She didn’t feel safe staying or leaving.

She gazed up through the scattered branches at the blue sky, dotted with a few white clouds and the occasional passing bird. Tymon, help me.

Aida returned to the question of how the Kort followed her. Only Zara, Sienna, and Luca knew of her plans. Only Sienna and Luca could tell the Kort the location. If the Kort could find Aida, then they had forced her friends into sharing the information.

What if they threaten my friends? They’d been so kind to her; Zara was like her mother now.  Aida knew the answer. She would surrender and become Cugat’s ikast. Her head throbbed in pain at the thought. Flinging herself off the cliff held more appeal.

Small chunks of charred logs were all that remained in the camp. If someone visited the site for the first time, they wouldn’t be able to guess where each building had been. She lingered in the center of the remains of her father’s hut. It was her favorite place to hide as a child, though she later understood her parents and all their ikast knew where she was at all times. It offered no protection now though, and she stepped through where the door once opened.

A cliff dropped to the spring below on the north side of the camp. Outcroppings dotted the gray rock wall, and her father’s ikast, Ilder, had once suggested climbing down as a valid escape route. She peered over and wondered if the fall was far enough to die.

Straight south, her ridge fell into an incline as steep as the one to the east, covered with thorny shrubs and bushes too thick to traverse. While it prevented travel down from the top, it also kept enemies away from climbing.

The best path to escape led west, up higher on the hill through the oaks, and then south along a more gentle slope. A clearing marked the highest point in the area and offered an all-around view of the nearby hills. Her parents and their ikast fell there, for her. Aida had left them there, to die. Aida would not go that way unless necessary.

I need to find out about my friends.

If forced to help, Sienna and Luca would lead the Kort to the difficult climb on the east side of the hill. They weren’t aware of the more gentle path as Aida had never taken them. Their ascent would be slow, and Aida could prepare for their number.

The sun continued to creep up in the sky, spreading warmth down on Aida and the camp. She started to shiver from fear. Pacing did little to help as the wait proved agonizing.

Breathing grew almost impossible. Her chest hurt, but she didn’t know if that was from her lungs or her heart. Dominic once said people died if their heart raced too fast; perhaps she would die before they arrived.

Thoughts tumbled in and out of her mind. What if they followed her another way, and her friends weren’t in danger? She turned and walked the other way.

The path to the west still ran up a little gully on the rise, which had changed little since the night of the attack on her family. She stared at it, remembering one of the last conversations she’d had with her mother. Aida had fallen up the ditch then, clumsiness born of both fear and the inability to see clearly beneath the trees that filtered the starlit night. The loose gravel had given way, and she slid on her side back down to her mother’s feet.

“Go up the left side this time.” Her mother had forced a smile with her whisper, but anxiety washed over Aida. Or was it impatience?

Aida breathed in her pattern and turned again to face northeast, away from the memory. Four Warriors moved toward Aida’s hill. She counted as they drew near, but couldn’t tell if they brought soldiers with them. They would be difficult to detect over the Warriors unless she was calm, and she was not calm.

How many villagers had turned against Aida for the Kort? Evan must be involved; he’d never liked her and would be happy to be rid of her. Giving her to Cugat might even be a good political move to the scheming man. Only Nathan had prevented the Council leader from insisting she leave seven years earlier.

Wild and uncontrolled, the Warriors’ energy surged as they drew near the bottom of the slope. Only Venkri would be so excited. If there were Tengarper among them, she hadn’t felt them.

She stared down and hoped to see movement. The lush green of the woods blocked her view, though. Aida felt two Warriors stop at the base of the hill while two continued south.

Aida’s heart raced, and her stomach sank. She thought about the terrain and the Kort’s direction. They encircled her position, just as Isma had done to her parents before. If she hurried, she might take the path and dart south before the two Warriors made it that far. Unless there are soldiers there. Or villagers. And what of my friends?

Indecision and fear stopped her from choosing. Her legs refused to move, and she sat in the dewy grass to wait. The ground sucked any remaining heat from her, exacerbating the cold that already consumed her. The sun shone too bright, the birds called too loud, and the world moved too quickly. She was running out of time.

Aida closed her eyes and tried to breathe, but it wasn’t enough to calm her thoughts. The four Warriors loomed in her mind, and their aggressive presence overshadowed anyone else that might be in the area. She couldn’t tell if more soldiers, other Calas, or her friends approached with them. She wouldn’t know until it was too late.

The two Warriors moving south turned west along the southern edge of the steep side of the hill. A large flock of birds squawked as they took flight ahead of the Warriors. When Aida had brought Luca and Sienna before, they’d always gone the more difficult route to the east. She always avoided the way she’d come down on the night of the battle, even though it might be an easier path to the top. How did the Kort know about that trail?

She stood and resumed her pacing as she waited for the four Warriors to make their move up the hill. They don’t want me dead, so I’ll have some time to find out about my friends.

Sweat drenched her clothes and she shivered. Aida wiped her hands on the front of her trousers, and then wrapped her arms around her chest. She kept walking around the camp as the moving Warriors turned north, up the gentle rise toward her position. They would come up the same path she’d fled down as a child, and through the same place her parents had died.

A horn blared from the west announced their ascent. The two Warriors at the bottom of the hill started to move up, though Aida’s panic made it difficult for her to track them well. She rubbed the birds on her sword’s sheath and drew the weapon. Near-perfect metal glinted as Aida stared at the blade and wondered how many it had killed seven years earlier.

Her sweaty palm was weak as it held the weapon, and she eyed the cliff’s edge as she moved toward it. She intended to keep it at her back to prevent anyone from getting behind her. Aida could also jump down, either taking a risky descent or ending the chase with her death if her encounter went poorly.

Anger and excitement preceded the Warriors, especially on the western side. The energy came like a swift storm, up and over the flat where her parents had died and into the trees leading to their camp. The Warriors on the steep eastern slope would not arrive at the top at the same time, but they still effectively blocked Aida’s escape. Trapped. Like my parents.

She sought for signs of soldiers, villagers, or her friends but found nothing but the oncoming might of the four Warriors. Aida stared at the break in the oaks at the top of the rise to her left and waited for the two Warriors to come for her down the gully.

The Venkri woman who had chased her came first. Her blank eyes bored into Aida as she limped down the small hill and halted outside where Aida’s mother’s hut had once stood. Just like the first day on the green, the woman bore a sword but no armor. There was a lump on her forehead the size of an egg, ascending into her short hair. Her green tunic lacked a sleeve. A tear up the side of her pants revealed flashes of skin below, though the leg was as dirty as the trousers.

Aida briefly hoped one of her friends had managed to hurt the woman, but dismissed it as almost impossible. A Venkri such as this woman could easily take on several villagers at once and walk away unscathed.

Her master waited on top of the hill for a moment, lingering in the trees as he studied Aida. The Venkri appeared to be in his sixties and at the prime of his power. His unblemished green tunic stretched across his broad chest as he scratched his shaved head. He controlled his descent into the clearing carefully and glanced around the area. “Where are your friends?”

She blinked. How did he find this place if he didn’t know where they were?

He raised an eyebrow. “You must not know either.”

Aida’s eyes moved between both Warriors, and then to the drop to her left. The other two Warriors were almost at the top of the hill.

“We’ll watch for them on the return trip,” the woman said.

The man nodded, unconcerned. “I’m Ferran, first of Cugat’s ikast. That’s Chandi.”

Chandi continued to stare at Aida as if she didn’t hear her master. Cold, blank eyes met Aida.

“You made a nice run for it. Why stop?” Amusement lined Ferran’s words.

Mouth dry, Aida took a step back toward the edge of the cliff. “How did you find me?”

Ferran moved sideways so he was to Aida’s right and examined the spring far below. “Isma found this place. It isn’t hard.”

Ferran was from Isma; the house likely had good relations with the Kort. How could I be so foolish? My friends were never involved. I could have run. Aida’s stomach churned, and her sword hand trembled.

Chandi moved into the clearing and across from Aida. To Aida’s left, the two Warriors finally crested the hill. Both wore Kort green, and like the other two carried swords but didn’t wear armor. They didn’t appear injured. One of the Warriors was a Venkri, younger than Chandi but older than her companion, a young Tengarper ikast.

Grady, Aida assumed. He panted following the climb. She hadn’t been able to identify him as a Tengarper because of his inexperience. The Warrior shuffled from one foot to the other and shifted his gaze between Aida and his master, Ferran.

“This is where you lived with your parents.” Ferran didn’t ask. His eyes tracked across the remains scattered about the clearing. “Seems like a nice place. Too bad Isma had to burn it down.”

Aida’s hand shook more than she could control, and she pressed her elbow into her side to steady her arm.

The woman to her left, next to Grady, smiled at Aida’s sword as she crossed her arms. “You’re going to drop that.”

“My ikast, Estel, is impatient.” Ferran took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders. “I’m willing to let you stand there all morning.”

“What if she jumps?” Estel looked over the cliff. Her short hair matched Chandi, but she held none of the same anger.

“She won’t. She’s too scared.”

He’s right. I should jump or fight, but can’t do either. What would my mother do? Aida’s eyes darted between each of the Warriors. Grady was the only one who wasn’t bored. She would tell me to breathe.

Against the panic of her inevitable defeat, Aida started to control her breaths. She couldn’t breathe in for eight counts, so she only went to four, and then released for six.

Her hands and knees quivered, and she still shivered against the invisible cold. Aida’s stomach continued to hurt, and her heart might burst out of her chest. She was still terrified, but the breathing helped. The Warriors became distinct in her mind; their feelings more apparent.

Ferran enjoyed watching her squirm. He smiled as she perceived his emotion. Disgusted, she realized it aroused him. No wonder he didn’t mind waiting.

To his right, across the clearing from Aida, Chandi flung anger and hatred everywhere. She seethed at Aida. I bet she would be happy to throw me off the edge.

Estel was the calmest of the group, though she did indeed grow inpatient. Grady’s anxiety flashed in great bursts. His first “battle?”

She studied each of them again as she continued to shake. They all waited on Ferran’s command. Aida extended her breath count to five and seven.

Something else moved into Aida’s periphery, something familiar. She dared not look to her left, but two Calas crept up the hill behind Estel and Grady. Hidden behind the might of the Warriors, Luca and Sienna had snuck past Aida’s ability to detect them as they followed Aida’s pursuers.

Estel’s stomach growled. The noise gave Aida reason to glance to her left, but the hill’s crest and the trees blocked any sight of her friends. She prayed they remained hidden.

After they packed things for Aida, they must have followed the chase. They now joined the crowd waiting for Aida to act.

Grady turned around to stare down the hill. Did he hear them? Does he sense them? If they were close enough and he was strong enough, he might feel flickers of something unknown. Even a young Tengarper ikast had some skills.

She swallowed. She needed a distraction. “I am not going with you.”

Grady turned again to face Aida, abandoning the hill and her friends below.

“I’ll fight you.” Aida held her sword out a little farther and faced Ferran.

“Of course you will.” He sighed, and then nodded at Estel. His game was over.

Aida spun to face Estel. The Venkri Warrior approached Aida from her left. Her eyes alternated between the edge of the cliff and Aida.

Estel drew her sword. “This will be easier if you surrender.”

“No.” Aida planted her feet in a fighting stance and wondered when the ground had grown soft.

Estel stepped forward. At the start of her movement, an arrow flew from the woods behind Grady and hit Estel in the back of her neck. The arrowhead popped through the front, spaying blood forward. Estel lost her footing at the impact, face full of surprise as death claimed her. Her momentum sent her over the edge.

Sienna. Aida’s friend appeared through the oaks to Aida’s left as she shot another arrow, this time at Grady.

Grady lunged toward Estel, too late and too far away to stop her body from falling. His movement sent him under Sienna’s attack, and he ducked further as the arrow whizzed over his head.

At the same time, Ferran shouted, “Rush the girl.”

Chandi hobbled toward Sienna and darted behind trees for cover. Aida started to scream for her friend but Ferran tackled her from the side. She dropped her sword on the impact, reeling from his weight and the overwhelming amount of anger he released at the death of Estel. He grabbed her and hauled her to her feet, putting her between him and Sienna.

“Probably won’t shoot you, now will she?”

Grady, recovered from the initial attack, also turned toward Sienna and darted behind a tree. Aida’s friend now faced two Warriors. Where is Luca?

“Run, Sienna!” She wasn’t loud enough, as Ferran made it too hard to breathe. Aida struggled against his arms, wrapped around her in a hug, just like the soldier two days prior. Ferran was no ordinary soldier though and much stronger.

“Grady, I want you to kill that girl.” This close, Aida could feel Ferran’s aggression and wrath as his hot breath whipped over her ear. He dragged her closer to the edge to look over at his mangled, dead ikast far below. “Chandi, you help, but I want him to kill her.”

Training. Even in the midst of battle, the Venrki master trained his youngest ikast. Would this be Grady’s first kill? Aida pushed off from her toes and attempted to throw Ferran off balance and send them both to join Estel. He wrenched her back, away from the edge.

Sienna backed down the hill some, out of Aida’s sight. Grady stuck his head out from behind the tree and swiftly returned it as an arrow flew by where his head had been. He charged forward to the next tree during the time it took Sienna to loose her next arrow.

Luca rushed from the left as Grady stopped. He tackled the young ikast, and both fell to the ground.

Ferran’s roar of aggravation startled Aida as she renewed her effort to break free of his hold. This close, his wrath hit her like a massive wave. She leaned back and tried to slam her foot down on his foot or shin, but missed both in her confusion. Aida twisted and turned, but to no effect.

Chandi still moved forward toward Sienna as Luca and Grady rolled out of sight. Soon Chandi was over the hill crest as well.

“They’ll kill both of your friends,” Ferran grunted. “Then you’re going back to Cugat. He didn’t specify in what condition.”

He lifted Aida off her feet and flung her to the ground. She thought she heard Luca yell, but lost track of everything as Ferran’s boot connected with her stomach and flipped her over to her back.

“I hope Chandi takes her time with your friend.” Ferran leaned down and grabbed her by the front of her shirt. He dragged her to stand, and then backed a step to swing his fist.

Aida ducked. Even though in pain and confused, years of training informed her movement. She went under his arm and flung herself to the side, away from his arms.

She tripped and realized she couldn’t breathe. Sharp pain met her lungs’ attempts, and her view grew dark. Still, she crawled away from him, toward her friends on the hill. I need to help them.

“I don’t know why my master wants you.” Ferran followed Aida. “You’re weak. Your parents were weak. Your friends are weak.”

Aida’s stomach relaxed again, and she took short, gasping breaths as she fled. She couldn’t crawl fast enough, and he grabbed her from behind. He jerked her upright and tossed her away from the hill and her friends.

She squirmed backward and to the side so that Ferran stood between her and the cliff. Luca’s wild yells came from her right.

Ferran took two steps and was in front of her again. “You’ll get along great with Ian and Kezia. They’re cowards too.”

He bent down to seize her again but rose at a gurgled yell from the hill.

Luca or Grady?

“Chandi!” Ferran turned and took a step, leaving Aida panting on the ground while he called his ikast. He glanced at Aida and took a few more steps. Another roar of pain rolled over the hill from below; this time a woman.

I need to stop him. I need to stop him so I can help my friends. Her breaths still came in ragged gasps, and each sent sharp pain like a knife wound through her ribs, but she tried to control them anyway. It is my only chance. I have to get up.

She pulled her knees under her and put one foot out to rise. Aida paused there, on one knee, as she watched Ferran.

Unwilling to leave Aida, his master’s priority, he still focused on his ikast. He wanted to go down the hill as badly as she did. His ikast should win against two simple villagers, but Grady’s youth worked against him. Luca was probably as strong as the young Tengarper, and might be better trained. Chandi was stronger than Aida’s friends, but she was injured.

Always remember to breathe.

Aida sucked in air as steadily as she could, and the time seemed to slow. She thought of Romella during the last battle. Her mother’s third ikast found reading others more difficult than using her skill to move them. She’d done it for Aida at the end; her final act before death. I need to do that now.

She closed her eyes. It isn’t any different than the rocks in the garden.

“Chandi!” He stood just a few paces away from Aida, and several paces in front of the cliff’s edge.

She opened her eyes and concentrated on his chest. Aida envisioned it as a flat block, waiting for her to push. She inhaled deeply, welling her pain and anger and fear within her, and then shot it all out toward Ferran.

He jerked, head and feet flying forward as his torso launched backward. The force took Ferran almost to the cliff’s edge before he fell and bounced off the side, screaming the whole time. His yells did not stop when he came to a halt. He didn’t die.

Aida gasped in exhaustion and pain. Her ribs felt like they pierced her lungs with each breath. The leaves above her spun as she tried to regain her balance as she fell to the ground.

Chandi limped up the hill; a broken arrow lodged in her thigh. Blood dripped down her forearm from a fresh cut at her elbow. She slowly walked to the side of the cliff and leaned over the edge, unconcerned about the attackers behind her or her injuries. Ferran continued to yell, calling for Chandi or Grady to rescue him from his fall.

Aida pulled herself up to sit, unsure if she could repeat the throwing action on Chandi. Tired, so tired. Moving rocks didn’t take that much energy. She studied the Warrior. Chandi still pulsed anger, though now there was also disappointment or sadness mixed into the rage.

The Warrior turned to consider Aida. “Cugat will find you.” Chandi dragged herself to the edge of the clearing, up the gully and into the trees. She didn’t look back.

Sienna crept up the hill seconds later, bow at the ready. She was out of breath, but otherwise unmarked. “Where did she go?”

“Her master is still alive. She went to him.” Aida crawled to her feet as Sienna went to the cliff’s edge.

“I don’t understand. Isn’t she supposed to be after you?”

“Cugat isn’t her master. Ferran is, and he needs her help. Where is Luca?”

Sienna glanced back. “He’s fine.”

Luca appeared at the top of the hill. He dragged his feet though he didn’t limp. Blood dripped from his nose and mouth, and drops also fell from the knuckles of the hand holding his sword. The blade also ran red. He joined Sienna at the cliff’s edge, shoulders sagging while he panted.

“Grady?” Aida asked.

Sienna remained at the edge, but Luca glared at her as he turned to Aida. “Dead.”

“We should go,” Sienna walked away from the ledge. She glanced at Luca before she dropped her eyes at his stare. “Can you walk?”

Aida nodded, confused by the last few moments and still out of energy. Sienna led them west again, down the hill and away from Chandi. Aida saw Grady’s slumped body as they started, but stared instead at Luca as he pushed by both women in a rush to bypass the ikast.

His first kill.

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