Defiant: Chapter Ten

I mentioned last week I had a goal to finish this draft by mid-September.  Well, I did it this week.  I realized my vision of a completed draft included a lot of edits that probably belong to the next draft.  There’s no knowing if I am labeling these drafts correctly, but it is my book so who cares.  So, second draft is done!

While I let that draft rest a bit, I’ve started planning a third novel, unrelated to either of the first two.  I’m having a lot of fun world building.

But let’s return to the land of my first novel – Defiant!

“Someone is coming.” Aida clutched Luca’s arm as he led the three east along the path they’d found the day before. “We need to get off the trail.”

Sienna stopped as well. “Kort?”

“No,” Aida whispered. “Calas. Which means they’re close.”

“Is it the village?” Luca crouched as he moved off the right side of the path.

“No, they’re moving.” Aida followed Luca, and Sienna trailed behind. The robins continued to sing above, and Aida felt none of the dread of the past few days as the Calas approached. Still, it seemed wise to hide from anyone unknown in the woods until they found the village Nathan had mentioned.

Blackberry bushes blocked their way, and Luca moved to their side to avoid the stickers. He scurried through on some exposed rock poking through the soil as he glanced east. Once past the berries, Luca crawled over a massive fallen black oak and scoured the ground for snakes before he knelt behind the cover.

Aida and Sienna scrambled over the trunk and dropped to the other side with Luca. All three ducked into the thick grass.

They had expected to run into someone sooner as the trail showed more signs of wear with each hour, which helped as they were all too tired to work too hard at following it. During the last four nights, none of them had slept very well between the cold air and the lack of food. They didn’t want to attract another beast, so they picked berries along the way instead of cooking.

“How long?” Sienna poked her head over the log and then knelt again. She winced and pressed her ribs; the fall after the beast left a mighty bruise.

Aida shook her head. Calas were so difficult that she usually could only sense them at short distances.

Aida crawled along the trunk to where it rested against its stump, leaving a small clearing underneath. She lay flat on her stomach. Grasses and other underbrush blocked her view of the trail, but if anyone came toward the tree, she would see them as they approached.

A young woman’s giggles floated down the path.

“Why do we scout this way? Does anybody use this trail but the hunters?” A male, likely no older than Luca.

The young woman’s voice was light and flirtatious. “Well no, nobody ever comes this way. That’s the point isn’t it?”

“Oh, I don’t mind when I’m with you. I just think it is silly they send us this way.”

Aida rose up on her elbows as she looked down the length of the fallen log at her friends. Sienna raised her eyebrows and Luca shrugged.

The two on the path passed the friends behind the tree and continued down the trail. Aida risked a look over the log and found both the girl and boy too distracted with each other to notice. The girl nearly tripped over a rock as she gazed at the boy. “And besides. You never know what may be in the woods.”

The boy drew his sword from its sheath in a grand sweeping motion. Aida tensed, worried he might accidentally hit the girl with his enthusiastic swing. She slowed just in time. “I will defend you from the evil of the woods.”

They walked down the trail, as the boy manfully displayed his skill with the blade against invisible opponents and the girl giggled with each show of bravery. The three behind the tree waited until their voices had faded away before they stood.

“Their scouts seem younger.” Luca lifted his head above the tree. He’d been less angry in the four days since the beast attack, but this was the first time Aida had seen him smile.

“I think we must almost be to the village.” Sienna remained focused on the journey. She’d not mentioned the fight with Ferran. “Those two wouldn’t wander too far away from home.”

Aida led the way back to the trail, and they resumed their path east. The ground was worn all the way down to the rocks below and made for an easy walk.

“What are we telling them when we get there?” Luca cast a glance over his shoulder as he followed the two women. “We don’t have a good reason to be here.”

“I’m not going to mention I’m a Warrior.”

“Good idea.” Sienna nodded. “Let’s say you two are going with me on my journey to the Temple.”

“We should be going to ask about the Temple guard.” Luca followed the women on the trail. “Then we would all have a reason to be going there as armed as we are.”

“I thought you didn’t want to be in the guard,” Sienna said.

“I’m not going to be in the guard. Aida certainly isn’t. We’re just saying that.”

“Right.” Sienna nodded. “We’ll have to tell the priest the truth, but everybody else we meet can hear that story.”

“Why must we tell the priest?”

“We can’t lie to the priest, Luca.” Aggravation crept into Sienna’s voice. Though she pretended to ignore the stress of battle, she’d grown short with Luca and Aida on the way. “I can’t tell him I’m going to the Temple to study.”

Luca started to argue, but Aida cut him off. “We’re definitely getting close. I can feel them.”

An hour later, the path widened as they approached. More narrow trails led away from it and marked the way for both hunters and scouts.

As the oaks started to thin, the fields became visible, and Aida made out tiny huts on the horizon. Seventy or eighty structures lay about the clearing, or about half the size of their home village. The shrine stood tall in the center amidst the tiny huts.

They walked out of the woods along the path. A few villagers in the fields noticed them, and they watched patiently. No one raised an alarm, but everyone stopped their work to track their approach.

“They’re probably staring because it looks like we got attacked by a beast.” Luca was right. His eye remained swollen, and his face held a variety of bruises. Sienna’s shirt barely stayed attached at the shoulder where it had ripped during her fall. None of them had packs; only weapons. “We should just be happy I changed out of my other clothes.”

Fields lined the path, like at home. The only difference Aida identified in the village was its size and lack of a lake. These villagers would be dependent upon their farmers and their hunters, and whatever trade came from other villages like her own.

“Let’s head to the shrine.”

Aida nodded, and they continued under the watchful eye of the waiting villagers until they came even with the first set of huts.

An older man moved toward them slowly but was not stooped as many his age found themselves. “Hello! What brings you to our village?” He eyed the path behind them for a second before he returned his gaze to them. It wasn’t the usual route to town.

“I bring word from Nathan, our village priest. Does your village have a priest?” Sienna pointed to the shrine.

“Nathan?” The man paused. “Isn’t he from a village to the northwest?”

Sienna looked back west at the trail. “Yes. He is. We made another stop before we got here.”

“Another village that way?” the man questioned.

“There’s a small one,” Aida lied, “on the east side of the lake.”

The man grunted and stared at them for a moment. “We’ve heard odd rumors of late. I want to make sure there’s nothing strange going on, though I guess you look friendly enough.”

Sienna said, “Understandable. No harm done. I’m Sienna, and this is Aida and Luca. We’re on our way to the Temple.”

“The Temple?” His eyes dropped to their swords, and then he shrugged. “I’m Morgan. And again I apologize, Sienna. You said you wanted to see our priest. I can take you to him.” He left his shovel against the doorpost and stuck his head inside to tell someone he’d return soon.

The outside of the hut was clean and unweathered, and the thatch roof appeared unworn. The whole section of huts on this end of town couldn’t be more than a few years old. “How old is your village?” Aida stepped to the side as he joined them on the path.

“I’m not sure.” He waved his hand around at the nearby huts. “But it looks new, doesn’t it? A few years ago, lightning struck young Callum’s house, and the whole area went up before we could contain it. It was a dry year.” He nodded toward the village center and led them up the path toward the shrine.

A girl jumped out ahead of them from behind a hut. A smaller boy followed. Both bore stick swords and stuck them out at the visitors. “Are you from the West?” The girl shuffled back, still with her sword high, as the adults didn’t stop for the inquiry.

Sienna smiled. “Northwest. Not over the mountains west.”

“I want to be a Warrior,” the boy said. He looked at each of their swords in turn as he ran next to them and then gazed up at Aida. “I’m going to join the Kort.”

How do they know of the Kort?

Morgan waved his hand at the two. “Go on you all. They’re no enemies.” The children’s faces dropped, but they retreated with their swords behind the hut. Footsteps and giggles told Aida the children followed them after they passed.

The adult villagers didn’t approach but stared at the visitors. Most returned to their work, and the others who watched said nothing. “They’re all just a bit nervous, you understand.” Morgan wiped off his forehead as he lumbered toward the shrine.

“Why is that?” Sienna asked. “Expecting trouble?”

“I’d best let Kian explain it to you. He knows more anyhow.”

The shrine rose before them as they walked. The craftsmanship was excellent, and recent. Sienna eyed the new wooden building with a critical glare.

Morgan swung the door open and gave it an extra push over the floor where it stuck. He bowed before he continued. The three friends followed and bowed as well. The single stone idol at the front of the room seemed out of place in the rural structure, and Aida didn’t recognize her. An uneven dirt floor offered the only seating in the building.

“Hello.” Aida turned at the calm voice to find a man in blue robes like Nathan, but much younger, perhaps in his thirties. His short hair and beard were well kept, and he stood perfectly straight like Aida assumed Nathan did when he was younger. A kind smile lay on his lips, and his eyes twinkled in the light from the door.

“The goddess of fire,” Sienna looked between the priest and the goddess.

“Our last was of Kern.” He gestured toward the figure. “Sadly it was wood and did not stand the fire. We thought it fitting to honor Jamilla as no one was taken in the blaze. I am Kian.”

Sienna bowed. “I am Sienna. This is my brother Luca and my friend Aida. I come on an errand from our village’s priest, Nathan.”

“I know Nathan.” He took a deep breath. “Morgan, thank you for bringing them. Could you bring up some bread? They are no doubt hungry.”

“Of course,” Morgan bowed to Kian and Jamilla as he left.

Kian waited for him to leave and then nodded at Sienna. “I hope you and your friends will join me. I’m sure you’d like some food and rest after your journey.” He returned his gaze to Aida as Sienna agreed and they followed him out of the shrine.

His house was behind the shrine; a plain but comfortable hut. The hearth was empty, but the closed windows blocked the spring air. It was tidy and practically devoid of any personal items aside from a modest chest at the foot of the bed.

He gestured to the small wooden table, and Aida sat on one of the small but sturdy stools. Sienna did as well, but Luca remained standing.

“I think I know why you are here. We’re all aware of the Kort incursion on Calas lands. I assume that’s why Nathan sent you?”

“Incursion?” Sienna asked.

“Our long lost cousins claim to come seeking trade and relationship, but all I see is an expanding empire. They do not need friendship with the Calas. And we have no need for friendship with them.”

Sienna leaned back. Aida knew she agreed; it sounded a lot like Nathan’s thought but less friendly.

“Nonetheless, many of our young Calas wish to go join them. To visit these Warriors.” He glanced at Aida. “They have been difficult to dissuade. It has caused tension.” He grew silent as he at the table.

“You said you know Nathan?” Aida asked.

“Yes. I hope you’ll be able to take back this news to him, though I hope you’ll stay the night.”

Sienna looked at Aida, and then back at Kian. “We’re not actually heading back to the village anytime soon. The Kort are there.”

His eyes widened in surprise. “They have come south very quickly this year, and to such a small village. They grow more aggressive.”

Kian rose at a knock on the door. The smell of freshly baked bread preceded Morgan into the hut. “Fresh from this morning.” He smiled at the three. “You all are more than welcome at our table this evening; Kian, you as well.”

“Thank you, Morgan. If it isn’t too much trouble for Fran, that might be lovely for our guests.”

“It isn’t a problem at all.” Morgan bowed and then retreated from the hut, leaving the basket in the priest’s hands.

“And what did the Kort state they wanted at your village?” Kian sat at the table and passed the basket to Luca. Hesitant of the priest as he was, Luca’s time in the woods and youth left him unable to resist the fresh bread.

“What you described,” Sienna said. “Trade. Friendship.”

Kian raised an eyebrow. He knows more. “And me as an ikast.”

“Ah,” he closed his eyes and leaned back.

“You aren’t surprised?”

“I am surprised they came to your village and yes, surprised they want you as an ikast. That does explain their fast movement south though.”

“You knew who I was when we arrived.”

“Yes. Remember, this is not the first Warrior incursion into our lands. First, there were your parents, though their reasons seemed plain enough and honest. Second, the attack over the mountains on your group. Again, the reason seemed plain enough, even if it was disturbing.”

“You seem to know a lot,” Aida crossed her arms as Sienna cast her a sideways glance.

“Nathan sent word. The Temple must concern itself with the West. We worry about their activity here. There was no particular worry about you, though.”

“My reasons were plain,” Aida replied.

“Yes. There was a rather obvious reason for you to be in the village. Nathan simply presented you as another soul to minister to.”

Aida looked at Sienna, and then to Luca “The leader of the Kort, Cugat, thinks I’m mentioned in the Writings.”

“Nathan wants us to go to the Temple to inquire there,” Sienna added.

“Well, I don’t know anything about that.”

Aida caught something in the priest’s face at the news. “You know something. What do the Writings say?”

“They say nothing of you.” He hesitated before he continued. “There are some of my order who were… concerned when you appeared. They seemed to think it was a portent of something to come. Something referenced in the Writings. Most everyone disagreed, however.”

“Cugat apparently did not.” Aida’s anger rose.

He shrugged. “This Cugat is wrong. You are right to go to the Temple. They will be able to help you in any event, and will not appreciate the Kort interference.”

Luca shifted his weight and crossed his arms. Aida looked at him, but he didn’t say anything else.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me about this before?”

“If it isn’t true, why would we bother? There was also no need to frighten the Calas at your village. You were just a girl.”

Aida stared at the priest, but he said no more. If they really didn’t think it was true, they had no reason to tell the village. She sighed.

“You are safe here for now,” Kian said. “I need to return to the shrine. I know it isn’t much, but you all are welcome to stay here until dinner with Morgan later.” He rose and opened the chest to find blankets for the three.”

They agreed, and he left them in his small home. After finishing the bread, Sienna and Aida rolled out the blankets on the floor.

“Hard, but dry.” Sienna yawned. “The roof helps.”

“I’ll take first watch. We don’t know these people.” He leaned across a shuttered window to gaze outside with his one open eye.

Sienna nodded. “Good idea.”

“Why don’t you like them?” Aida asked.

“I don’t dislike them. I just think one of us should be awake.”

“Not that,” she said. “You don’t seem to like the priest.”

He shrugged. “Nathan is the only priest I’ve ever known. Don’t know why I have to like them all. Besides, isn’t it strange the Temple knows all this information, but the only two people we know from there are Nathan and this other priest? Why don’t they send more if they’re concerned?”

“Maybe they’re just watching. Or they could have spies,” Sienna said.

“Seems like they could have said more earlier. Solved a lot of problems.”

“I’m sure they know what they’re doing, Luca.”

He scuffed his foot on the dirt floor. “You think they can do no wrong.”

“That isn’t true. We just need to trust them. They know more than us.”

“Apparently, they know there are ‘incursions,’ yet do nothing. They had theories of Aida but didn’t share those with her or with our village. It seems like they know a lot of things they don’t do anything with.”

It was strange to think the Temple priests knew about her this whole time, and even had theories regarding her importance. Most of them had dismissed them, but still that was something they could have told her. It was irritating.

“The Pivals to the west believe in things we don’t believe,” Sienna said. “I’m sure they just want to be careful about the believers. Not turning anyone to the worship of Tymon through hasty judgment. They are wise.”

“How would you know?” Luca demanded. “You’ve only ever met Nathan until this guy.”

“The gods ask for our obedience,” she said, sitting up straight now and glaring at her brother.

“That seems to be working out well for us,” he grabbed one of the stools from the table and sat.

“What?”

“Nothing. Go to sleep.”

“The gods protect us, Luca. We should be grateful for them and for their priests.”

He ignored her, and stared blankly at the closed door instead.

“Luca?”

“We should sleep.” Aida laid her head on her arm. “I bet we’ll all feel better after a rest and dinner tonight.”

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