Defiant: Chapter Nine
I’ve made a new goal for this draft of Book #2 – finish it by 9/13. That’s when I go on the Writing Excuses Retreat, Conferene, and cruise, and a perfect breaking point between drafts. Now to just do it!
We’re to Chapter Nine of Defiant. I hope you enjoy!
Aida clambered over a boulder set in the ground and avoided the thorny bushes to its side, following Sienna as she led the way south. Her back itched from the sweat as it ran down her back, under her pack, and pooled above her waistline. Nausea threatened her stomach, and the pain in her jaw radiated into her eyeball.
The shivering cold of her fear was gone and replaced by the confining warmth of the tightly packed trees. She studied each trunk as she passed, and counted the walnut trees to keep her mind off the vision of Ferran as she flung him off the cliff.
The few hours since the fight had been a confusing, silent blur. Luca and Sienna picked up their packs at the base of the hill in silence. An hour later, they dug through their gear to hand Aida her bag and items to carry. Everything was organized and tidy, unlike any of their thoughts. They set off again, still without speaking.
Luca followed the two women, head down. He had wiped off his sword before he sheathed it after the fight but he was otherwise as filthy as he was when they left her family’s site. His lip, still caked with blood and dirt, swelled on their walk. His left eye started to bruise and wouldn’t open fully. Blood stained his shirt, trousers, and boots. When Aida glanced back at him, he only glared at her.
She took several deep breaths, trying to focus on the smell of damp, dark earth and the nearby cedars. Instead, she caught a whiff of skunk. Aida closed her eyes and willed herself not to retch.
Splashes ahead announced a creek, though dense, tangled underbrush and twisted, interlocking trees created a wall which blocked their path. Sienna knelt to pluck some early-berries on their side of the obstruction while Luca wandered east, looking for an easier way through to the water.
Aida absently tracked a ladybug as it crawled up a nearby branch. It must be nice to walk through life without thought. The ladybug would never murder anyone. Would never drag its friends into danger. Nobody would die for the ladybug.
“Is anyone following us?” Sienna picked berries without raising her head.
Aida looked over her shoulder, though there had been no trace of the Kort since they walked out of the range of Ferran and Chandi. The two hadn’t moved from the hill by the time Aida stopped sensing them as she and her friends walked away. “Not that I can tell.”
“Are you going to take any berries?”
Aida didn’t want to eat, but her stomach growled at the idea, distracted from the terrible smells and feelings. She had not eaten all morning and had little on her journey south. She sighed and plucked some berries from higher on the bush. “Why did you follow the Kort? How did this all happen?”
“We went back home to pack and tell Zara, but Dylan and Nathan were already there.”
Sienna set aside the cloth bag of berries as she leaned back on her heels. “He was unhappy about whatever deal Evan made, and was upset he’d canceled the scouting party. He said the Kort were all around by then.”
The Kort knew she would run. They’d been waiting on her.
“Dylan was furious. Nathan couldn’t even get a word in.”
Luca called out from down the line of brush and trees, “There’s an opening down here.”
Sienna closed her bag and tied the top before she attached it to her belt. She rose and brushed off her knees. “When we had everything packed, Dylan used the scouts to create a diversion so we could leave.”
“You followed them?”
“Once we found them, then we tracked them. It was a good thing they were trying to go fast; that one woman fell off a cliff in the night.”
“Chandi?” That explained why the woman was injured and her clothes torn.
Sienna nodded. “Made her slow in the fight.”
“Why did you do this? It was dangerous, you could have been caught.” They could have remained in the village and avoided the Kort. The Warriors would have left once Aida fled. They would have been safe, instead of on this ridiculous flight.
“We wanted to make sure you had supplies. We wanted to help.”
“Zara didn’t argue with you?”
“She’s the one who packed the bags, Aida.” Sienna turned away and walked toward Luca’s break in the trees. “You’re family.”
Aida followed slowly. Family. Her eyes glistened and she felt loved, but then remembered her first family had all died for her. They’d fled because of her and then lost their lives to save her. And now, a new family was doing the same.
“Why didn’t you run away?” Sienna adjusted the pack on her shoulders. “You must have known they were coming.”
“I didn’t know how they tracked me.” Aida sped up to draw even with Sienna. “I thought they must have kidnapped you or Luca.”
“So you wanted to help us.” Sienna smiled. “Family.”
Luca knelt over the water as Aida and Sienna climbed over the fallen trunk that had crushed the foliage on the side of the creek. His pack, sword, and shirt lay to the side on the gravel bank as he splashed water across his face and torso, cleaning himself of Grady’s blood mixed with his own.
Sienna lifted his shirt from the pile and moved to his side, leaning down to dip it in the cold water and rinse out the blood.
“Don’t touch that.” Luca grabbed the shirt. He threw the crumpled garment to his side and leaned forward to the creek again. “I’ll clean it myself.”
Sienna stared down at him for a moment and bit her lip before she looked left and right along the bank. “We can follow the creek east. The gravel bar will make it harder to track us.”
“Where are we going?” Aida asked.
“To the Temple.” Sienna stepped up the creek a few steps and examined the rocky path.
Aida turned upstream. “I want to go west, to the mountains.” She still kept her plan to seek out Isma. Aida could lose the Kort in the mountains and still accomplish her goal.
“Nathan wants us to go to the Temple.”
Sienna turned. “The things Ian said, about the Writings…”
The gods didn’t care about Aida, much less include her in the Writings.
“He said there are some at the Temple who thought the same thing when you arrived.”
“What? He never said anything.” Aida took a step toward her friend.
Luca grunted to her side as he brought more cold water up into his hair with his hands. He snatched the shirt from the ground next to him and held it under the water. “Yeah, isn’t it nice of him to mention that now.”
Sienna shifted her weight, and she looked down. “He said nobody else believed it at the time. It isn’t true.”
“Then why does he want us to go?” Aida asked.
“They have more information. And the actual Writings. You’ll be able to see for yourself.”
“Great,” Luca said. “We can walk for weeks so she can read Writings that supposedly don’t apply to her.”
“They’ll protect us too, from the Kort.”
Luca laughed as he rose. He held the dripping shirt in front of him as he inspected it with his one open eye. “The Temple that does nothing will protect us from the invading Warriors. Sounds unlikely.” He threw the shirt on top of his pack and retrieved his sword. The blade shone clean under the sun, but Luca wiped it repeatedly.
Aida’s feelings consumed her, yet she still sensed Luca. Full of pain, anger, and fear, the young man reeled from the battle. He wasn’t mad at Aida; he was just mad. And his sister didn’t see it, or didn’t know what to do with it. Aida didn’t either.
Sienna stared at Aida. “I think it is a safer plan than going to the mountains. You can always return; they won’t expect that.”
Aida’s headache grew as she considered her friends. The mountains and Isma meant death for Aida, though it was an escape from the Kort. Luca and Sienna would never make it over the range. If they went to the Temple, she could leave them there. They’d be safe there.
She knew she wouldn’t be safe at the Temple. Zara might think of her as family, but the other Calas did not. The Temple couldn’t stand against the Kort. Cugat would find a way.
The mountains and Isma could wait. Sienna didn’t think Aida would return, but that was now Aida’s plan. She’d take her friends to the Temple, and then she would return. “Do you know how to get to the Temple?”
“Nathan said there’s an ancient path south of here. We can follow that east. There’s a village that way too; he knows the priest there.”
“And I suppose this priest knows about me, too?”
Sienna shrugged. “There’s no other place to go. At least we’ll be safe at that village.”
Luca sheathed his sword and snatched up his shirt again. He wrung out the water and tied it to his bag to dry. Then he put on his sword belt and hauled on his pack. “Are we going now?”
The smell of roasting meat woke Aida from her slumber. Sienna knelt in front of a fire she’d built in an indentation in the ground. The flames rose to almost the bottom of a rabbit on a spit; at least one of the night’s snares had been successful.
As the last person on watch, Sienna was dressed and ready for the day. She wore Dominic’s sword on her side and her bow on her back. Aida hadn’t seen the blade the day before; she’d been too distracted. It was a fine weapon, and she was glad Sienna still had it.
Dominic’s sword made Aida think of Zara. The woman had taken Aida in, and would wake alone as her two children left to help the outsider. She asked Tymon to protect Zara from the Kort.
Aida rolled over to her back and stretched as she gazed through the growing leaves at the pink sky. Robins hopped between branches as they sung their morning songs. A squirrel darted across a limb and paused to look down at Aida and Sienna before he scurried up the tree. Nature remained oblivious to their troubles.
Luca had taken the first watch of the evening, but Aida turned from side to side, unable to get comfortable on the rocky ground. The battle repeated in her mind, especially Ferran’s fall. Luca’s emotions didn’t help, as they rolled over her, alternating between fear and anger.
After she sat the second watch, she had fallen asleep immediately. Violence filled her dreams, though. She was happy to be awake, even if she didn’t want to rise.
Her stomach reacted loudly to the scent of breakfast, and she rolled her wool blanket back far enough to sit up comfortably. “Where’s Luca?”
Sienna shivered as she rotated the spit. “Getting water.”
They had encamped on a level spot on the side of a hill, facing away from the wind. A creek ran along the bottom of the rise, though the climb was steep. Bushes, thankfully free of thorns, clogged the pathway down. Tiny baby cliffs dotted the descent but were easy to avoid.
Aida rose and shook out the blanket, which sent drops of dew airborne. She laid it over her bag to dry out as she stretched her legs and put on her sword belt. Sienna had already packed away her blanket. “Do you want my blanket?”
“I’ll warm up.” She stared into the fire. Sienna had still been awake when Aida took the second watch and had cried intermittently under her blanket when she didn’t think Aida was nearby.
Aida didn’t know how to help her friend after the battle with her emotions, but she could look out for their needs. Sienna and Luca would be colder than Aida, and she’d need to think of their needs as they traveled. A Warrior could walk longer with fewer supplies than any soldier or servant, and she assumed, Calas.
“Aida,” Sienna said, “do you think I was right to kill that Warrior?”
Estel. The vision of the woman’s neck, ripped open from Sienna’s arrow, had repeated as part of Aida’s nightmares. “I would be on my way to Cugat this morning if you hadn’t.”
Sienna nodded and turned the rabbit again.
“Luca said he wished we’d done something different, before he left for water. And I couldn’t stop thinking about her all night.”
Aida’s eyes fell.
“I just couldn’t think of anything else to do at the time to stop her.”
“I don’t think there was anything else to do.” Aida hadn’t considered Sienna shot the woman before anyone had attacked. They wouldn’t have killed Aida; just taken her captive. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know if I am. They would have forced you to go to Cugat, and then he would have taken you. For Tymon.” She shook her head. “If it was the right thing to do, why would I be sorry? But why do I keep thinking about her?”
“It will pass with time.” It was a lie. Even if Sienna was justified in killing Estel, she would never forget the scene.
Luca grunted halfway up the hill and Aida peered over the edge of their camp. He dropped one of the water skins balanced in his arms as he tripped over a tree root.
Aida started down after him. “I can help.”
His head snapped up, and she felt his anger flare, but it calmed in an instant. The bruises around his lips and eye were darker, though he was cleaner. He nodded as she took two of the skins from him. “Sorry. I didn’t sleep well.”
During her watch, he had struggled to lay still, finally succumbing to sleep as Sienna took Aida’s place. “How are you this morning?”
“My face hurts.” He handed her two of the water skins and climbed up the hill.
She looked up at him for a moment before she followed, and stepped over another hidden tree root to avoid a fall. The Calas didn’t settle in this area as there wasn’t any good farmland, only hills, forest, and rocky ground.
Sienna continued to spin the rabbit. “We should be close to the trail. Nathan thought it was about a day south of your camp.”
Luca stood on the southern edge of the clearing as he stared down the hill below. Shoulders tight and arms crossed, he looked much like his father did in the weeks after Aida’s arrival. A man with much on his mind.
He had pulled the one clean set of clothing from his pack the night before and changed, and then he washed his bloodied trousers and shirt again in the stream. They would likely never be clean.
Aida turned at a sound from the north side of their camp, where the clearing ended, and the oaks and thick brush began. They hadn’t worried about an enemy approaching from that direction, as there was no way to move through the dense bushes silently.
There was a grunt from the shadows. Then thumps. The birdsong stopped. A cold fear swept over her, and she held her breath for a second to listen. “Weapons.”
Sienna and Luca glanced up at her, but their confusion faded as breaths and footfalls grew louder. She drew her sword. Something approached camp. It slowed to a pause, and then the woods erupted in sound. Branches snapped, bushes tore, and the grunt turned into a growl as a beast crashed through the trees and landed in the clearing.
It rose to stand on its hind legs, and it towered over all three of the friends. Thick, dark, brown fur covered its body, but all Aida could focus on was its teeth. They were the size of her hand at least and appeared sharp as her sword. The beast’s mouth opened in another growl as it exposed the full set of teeth to the three for inspection. At the same time, it flung its arms back wide as it extended its massive claws.
Aida took a step forward, hopeful to distract the beast from her friends. An arrow whipped by her ear as she heard Sienna’s bowstring release. It found its mark, sinking into the beast’s abdomen below its ribcage. The beast snarled as it fell forward onto all fours as another arrow flew over its head.
It reached under its chest with a paw and smashed the arrow to the side, ripping it from its flesh. The beast raised its head and roared. This was not one of the smaller, frightened creatures that occasionally wandered too close to the village. This was a beast of history, one of the ones which had harassed the Calas during the departure. It could eat all three of them easily, without leaving a trace.
“Run!” Aida turned and grabbed Sienna’s shoulder as she prepared to fire another arrow at the beast. They ran south to jump off the edge of their flat campsite, followed closely by Luca.
Aida landed on the decline and sprinted forward as she tried not to fall, but her foot caught a rock and she tripped. She rolled and dropped her sword, sliding to a stop as gravel and leaves continued past her. Spitting out dirt, she sat and looked for her sword.
As she reached for the weapon, she glanced up the hill. The beast stood on the edge, growling. Luca rushed past her, and she stood and ran.
Ahead, Sienna attempted to stop before she fell off a small cliff. She hurtled off the side and landed with a thump just as Aida and Luca came to the ledge.
Sienna rose quickly but winced in pain as she clutched at her side. “Let’s go,” she said.
Luca and Aida skirted around the cliff and slid down a gully next to it before they joined Sienna in the race away from the beast. Luca ducked to the side to avoid colliding with a tree, and Aida followed him. A roar from behind told them it remained on the top of the hill.
“I think he wanted the rabbit,” Luca said through labored breaths. Both he and his sister ran as fast as they could down the hill and took huge, unmeasured gasps of air as they fled.
“The rabbit was easier.” Aida slowed intentionally to remain behind her friends, between them and the beast. “Easier meal.”
They ran on to the level ground below, and Luca collapsed in a heap. Sienna doubled over from the exertion as Aida turned and stared up the incline. The beast had retreated to their fire and she couldn’t see it, though the grunts drifted down to the three.
“We need to keep moving.” Aida sheathed her sword. Her friends were breathless and glared at her. “Even if all you can do is walk, we need to get away.”
“What about our packs?” Luca sat up and looked toward the clearing.
“Maybe we can come back for them,” Aida said, “but for now we have to leave them. How far away did Nathan say that village was, Sienna?”
“Two or three days, once we find the trail.”
“Then we better look for that trail.”