Defiant: Chapter Twelve

This was a busy week for writing!

I finished the first draft of the first chapter of my third book, currently called THE LADY’S MAGE.  I wanted to finish this up now because I may have the opportunity to have it reviewed in a critique group on the Writing Excuses Conference and Retreat (and Cruise).

Once I was finished with that, I worked on a query letter for the second novel (DRAGON HERALD), as there may be an opportunity to have someone review it instead, or as well.  After I’m totally finished with the novel, I will use a query letter to ask agents if they’d like to represent my work.

Then!  I started editing the third draft of DRAGON HERALD.  The story is done, and everything is where it is supposed to be, so in this draft I’m just rounding out corners, adding some details I missed in early chapters and making sure each chapter has all the things it needs to keep a reader going.  That’s the plan, anyway!

What is the timeline for all of this?  I still have a hard time guessing, but here’s the plan for now:

  • End of September: finish the third draft of DRAGON HERALD, start on the fourth draft
  • End of November: send DRAGON HERALD to readers
  • January: finalize DRAGON HERALD
  • February: Start querying agents for DRAGON HERALD, begin writing THE LADY’S. MAGE

Thanks for joining me on this adventure!

This week, our friends continue their journey in Chapter Twelve of Defiant.

The courier’s royal blue uniform popped out against the green of the hill ahead. Aida spotted him at almost the same time she sensed him; evidence of the flattening ground in the area. Trees dotted the landscape, but there was no thick underbrush to wade through and few thorny plants to avoid. The grass rose to their knees on either side of the path, though the breeze pushed it lower.

“Should we hide?” Luca stopped with the two women, and his one fully open eye tracked the approaching stranger. He turned his head to squint out the other, partially opened eye.

Four wide oaks stood off the trail to the east but offered little concealment. A few paces away to the west, scraggy bushes grew into a thicket, but they were short to hide three adults. Larger, wooded hills rose in the distance in all directions, but they didn’t have time to get to them.

Sienna began to walk again. “He’s probably already seen us.”

“I guess there’s only one of him.” Luca shrugged.

“And he’s from the Temple,” Sienna said.

Aida followed. “He could still be dangerous.”

The Temple sent couriers along established routes to most villages every week or two. Armed against wild beasts, the men and women had served in the Temple guard before their service. He was dangerous, even if he didn’t intend harm to the three friends.

Sienna cast a glare over her shoulder at Aida. She didn’t mind; something was wrong with the morning. Her eyes moved to the horizon to her left and right as well as ahead, as she worried someone was nearby besides the courier. She didn’t sense anyone other than him, but the feeling of being watched hung at the edge of her consciousness.

Aida shook her head and dismissed it as nothing more than fatigue. The three had sped north on the moonlit trail after leaving the village behind them. They took only short breaks until dawn when they halted for an hour to eat. Silence had hung over the friends for most of the morning as they each battled the need for sleep and thought about their journey.

“We are on a path to a village.” Sienna adjusted her pack on her shoulders. “It isn’t unusual for couriers to travel. And, as Luca said, there is only one of him.”

Luca’s shuffling steps followed Aida. “There is just one of him, right?”

Aida nodded. She only picked out the courier in the wild grasses around them. I could kill him.

The thought was unexpected. She’d never considered fighting a Calas until the night before in the village. Anxiety welled in her stomach. Am I like the Kort? Violent like all the Warriors? She wanted to be more aggressive against other Warriors so she wouldn’t repeat her fear that she had with Ferran, but she didn’t want to aim it at the Calas.

Sienna sped up. “We should ask him about the men last night.”

“Think he knows them or something?” Luca didn’t hide his sarcasm.

“No,” Sienna said, “but he may know why they were so desperate to help the Kort. Why would anyone fight other Calas to help the Kort?”

Calas fought very little amongst themselves. The Departure had many causes, but it attracted the Pivals least interested in violence. Few problems plagued the East, or at least that was what Nathan had told them. The Calas were peaceful; it was the Warriors who fought. Violence came from the West.

“They must have something the Calas want.” Aida kept her pace steady and remained behind with Luca. “Kian said those men wanted adventure.”

“What do the Kort get out of it? If they’ve been making connections for years, it wasn’t always about finding you. Why do they need the Calas at all?”

“Nathan never said anything?”

Sienna noticed her friends lagged behind and slowed. “Only that they offered friendship, and he was suspicious. The Temple is suspicious as well. But nobody understands why the Kort want to trade with the Calas.”

“Kezia and Ian said they needed supplies for their stronghold, but they wouldn’t need to come this far for those.” Aida looked up at the sky and then back down at the courier as they walked toward him. They didn’t have enough information about the Kort to predict where they might be or who might help them. “I don’t know if we should mention the Kort to him. What if he’s a spy?”

“From the Temple?” Sienna’s offense was palpable.

“They have spies, Sienna,” Luca called forward. “They must have them everywhere, or that village wouldn’t have heard of us.”

Sienna didn’t reply but continued on the trail. The royal blue dot grew into a man, sword strapped to his left hip and a pack shouldered across his back. He saw them too but made no move for his weapon.

Sienna stopped as they grew closer. Aida drew next to her, and Luca continued forward a step or two so he was in the lead.

The man wore his hair a little longer than usual and had a short beard, but otherwise appeared like the courier who frequently visited their own village. His bright blue tunic covered mail, and he wore thick, dark trousers over his rugged boots. The same birds on Luca’s sheath adorned the man’s worn leather sheath.

“Greetings from the Temple.” The courier offered a slight smile and bowed with his greeting as he examined the three friends, pausing on each of their swords. He stopped several paces away and motioned to Luca’s blade. “That’s Temple steel.”

Luca glanced back to Sienna. She usually led conversations. “Mason, a Temple guard, gave it to me. When he died.”

The man grunted. “I remember Mason. Sorry to hear he’s dead. I thought he lived west of here though?”

Sienna cleared her throat. “He did. We’re from a village to the west. Nathan is the priest. I’m going to the Temple to study, and they’re going with me to join the guard.”

He glanced behind them to the trail. “Odd path to the Temple you’ve taken.”

“We stopped by to see Kian with a message from Nathan.”

The courier nodded and again looked at their weapons. He glanced at Luca’s face and at his black eye. “Well, you may make it back there before me. Tell them you saw Logan on the trail.”

“We will. How long will it take to reach the Temple?”

“I can do it in twelve days from here.” He thought for a moment. “Most people would need fourteen or fifteen.”

“Thank you.”

He looked Luca up and down again and then appraised Aida. He nodded at her sword. “And gods be with you two. The guard is recruiting now, I hear.”

“Thank you.” Luca stood a little taller. Aida said nothing.

“You’ll need to fare better than you did to get that black eye though.”

Surviving a fight with a Kort Warrior with only a few bruises was quite a feat, but Luca said nothing as his neck reddened. The silence lingered as none knew how to respond without implicating too much.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’m on my way to meet Kian now.” He glanced south along the path before turning to the friends again. “Safe travels.”

They all bowed to him as he continued on the trail, toward the village and Kian.

“Are they all a bit odd?” Sienna asked several minutes later as his figure vanished over the hill.

The courier to their village didn’t talk much either. Aida suddenly wondered if they all knew who she was, though none of them had ever mentioned it.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and the scent of rain rolled over the hills. Though patches of trees sprung up more frequently on their travels in the afternoon, they’d spent most of the day on grassy plains like where they had met the courier that morning. It had been fantastic for travel, but there would be little shelter from the oncoming storm.

“Let’s find some cover before it hits.” Sienna’s voice was wearier than earlier, but still she plodded along as she lead Aida and Luca.

Aida’s grew less energetic with the warmer day, so the threat of a thunderstorm forcing them to stop was appealing. The lingering sensation of someone watching them bothered her still, and she thought a good rest would eliminate the feeling. She glanced west at the storm clouds as she adjusted her pack straps again; it appeared the rain might go more south of them.

“It’d be nice to find some good hills for shelter.” Luca had remained quiet for most of the day’s journey, lost in thought following the meeting with the courier. His hand rested on his sword each time Aida had turned back.

Sienna looked west and increased her pace. “I could go another day or two without having to climb a hill. Or fall off of one.”

She sounded amused, and Aida tried to forget her friend had fallen off the cliff because they fled with Aida. Now they weren’t safe with her, or without her, as the Kort likely wanted them dead. Thunder drew her eyes to the left again, and the horizon brightened with a flash of lightning.

“Still seems pretty hilly to me.” Luca breathed heavily as they walked up a grassy slope. “Just fewer caves to hide in from the rain.”

“Fewer beasts too.” Sienna pointed to a copse of trees in the distance as they crested the hill. “We’ll take shelter there.”

The familiar sensation of others swelled in Aida’s mind as she caught up with Sienna. “There are Calas nearby.”

Luca stopped near the women. “In the woods?”

Aida looked around but found no other source. “They must be taking shelter from the storm.”

“Should we turn around?” Luca glanced back the way they’d come.

“They’re probably only travelers, like us. Or traders. It is the right time of year.” Sienna scanned the horizon. “And I don’t see any other shelter.”

Luca studied the patch of trees on the opposing hill. “I don’t know about this.”

“They might have news. Or more food.”

“They could also be Kort spies,” Luca said.

Aida stared at the trees and wondered about the Calas within. It was the right time for traders, and they would have every reason to stop in the trees. Not every Calas could be a Kort spy, could they? The courier had not attacked them.

She thought several sheltered ahead but didn’t detect anything odd. No Warriors or soldiers joined them. “Let’s walk down, and if we don’t like them, we can keep walking. I think the main part of the storm will go south of us anyway.”

Sienna nodded. “We can walk in the rain if we need to.”

Luca started down the hill, ahead of the two women, but Aida passed him. “I think I should go first.”

“They might be looking for you.”

“If they are, they won’t shoot me.”

Understanding flashed across his face, and he fell back a step so Aida was in the lead. She moved her shoulder straps in an attempt to stop them from chafing. The pack felt heavier than she thought it should have, even though she didn’t have that much more than her friends. As she tromped down the hill, she also adjusted her sword belt so it was in the best position to draw.

“Will you be okay in a fight?” Sienna walked behind Luca.

“I was last night.” Aida thought back to the fight with Ferran and her panic. “It was different with the Warriors. I don’t know why I froze, but I don’t have that problem with Calas.”

The other Calas sheltered in a small patch of oaks on another rise in the land. Thunder rocked the sky behind Aida and her friends; as expected the storm tracked south as they approached the trees. Sprinkles fell on her neck as she walked. They wouldn’t remain entirely dry though they avoided the downpour.

As with most of the wooded areas in this area of Pival, the copse held both trees and thick underbrush full of thorns and other weeds. The area was small enough Aida saw light on the other side of the oaks as she looked for the traders. The hair on the back of her neck raised as she realized she couldn’t see the Calas inside.

She stopped. Were they hiding? Hiding was useless against Aida, but the Calas didn’t know that. More importantly, the Kort didn’t realize that. Aida slowly started to walk again. It was likely these were traders taking shelter from the storm. They might be sitting down, not hiding. Regardless, if they watched the three, she didn’t want them to know she could detect them apart from the normal means.

“What are you doing?” Luca whispered.

“They don’t know we know they’re there.” She continued to scan behind the trees as she walked. Finally, she spotted what she thought was an arm. “Hello!” Aida tried to sound friendly; without suspicion.

One man poked his head out from around a tree near the path, and then he stepped on to the trail. Another man strode out and planted himself in the center of the path, facing the three friends. Both carried swords. Aida stopped and smiled, pretending not to notice she’d interrupted what appeared to be an ambush.

Sienna didn’t bother. Aida heard shuffling, and her friend’s bowstring pulled tight.

Three more men walked out on to the path. Aida nodded into the trees and Luca’s eyes drifted there as he drew his sword. They were not yet even with the copse, but at least three Calas remained inside, hidden.

Five Calas blocked the trail. All wore the same type of villager clothing: plain pants, plain boots, simple tops. These weren’t soldiers, but they weren’t the boys of the village either.

“Hello!” the one in front called out to them. “You surprised us. There’s no need for weapons.”

“We ran into a beast a few days ago.” Aida looked at the man’s sword. “We’re just being careful.”

“Heading north?” The man, apparently the leader, started to walk toward them on the trail. His companions followed.

“Yes.” Sienna motioned with her arrow, aimed at the man’s chest. “We’d appreciate it if you’d stop.”

“We’re no trouble.” The man stopped. His companions did as well, though they spread out around the path as their eyes flicked between the three friends and back again to their leader. “We’re just heading south to a village. Meeting some people.”

“We were just south at a village,” Luca said. “Who are you trying to meet?”

The man swayed slightly, and his eyes drifted to either side at his friends on the flanks. “Some friends sent us to meet three youngsters. Said they might need some help finding their way. Think that might be you all?”

“No,” Sienna said. “We know where we’re going. Maybe whoever you’re looking for is at the village.”

“I don’t think so,” one of the men on their right said.

The leader, still standing in the center of the trail, waved his dull sword slightly. “It would be best if you all came with us. Easier. We’ll make sure you don’t get lost.”

“No, thank you,” Luca said.

“We’re not to kill you, but this could hurt if you don’t come along willingly,” the leader said. “And we weren’t told nothing about your friends.”

“You’d kill Calas?” Sienna asked.

The men on the flanks looked at each other. That wasn’t part of the plan. They thought they were only keeping three Calas youth for the Kort.

When the men didn’t answer, Aida drew her sword. “I have no problems killing you, and my friends don’t either.” She shifted to her right and paused. Aida didn’t want her friends to do any further killing. “So it seems you’re the one who should comply here.”

“Girl, there’s eight of us,” the same man on the right said. The men on either side fanned out and formed a semi-circle around the three. “Don’t be foolish.”

“Did your friends who sent you tell you about us?” Aida spun her sword. She glanced at the trees and guessed the remaining men were archers.

“Villagers from the west. What does that matter?” the leader asked.

“Seems he left out a small detail. I’m a Warrior Youth.” Aida let the news sink in and watched several of the men as their eyes widened. Perhaps she could talk them off without a fight. “We killed two ikast a week ago, and I threw one off a cliff. Here’s your last chance to continue on your way.”

“What’s that mean?” one of the men on the left asked the leader.

“Nothing. She’s lying.” He strode forward, sword raised.

Intimidation hadn’t worked, so she decided to end the fight quickly, hopefully keeping her friends uninvolved. Aida rushed to meet him, moving faster than any could have expected. She ducked under his slow, surprised swing and punched him with her free hand in the chest. Ribs crunched under her fingers. His sword fell out of his hand as he slumped forward.

The rest of the men stared at Aida. “Is whatever the Kort are offering worth it?”

Arrows flew from the trees and landed near Aida and the fallen leader. Terrible shots. They aren’t archers or soldiers.

“Don’t shoot at them!” The man on the right ran toward Aida. “We need this one alive.”

Sienna and Luca rushed forward to join the fight and also foul the archer’s shots. As long as they were close to Aida, the archers wouldn’t target them.

Aida met the man as he approached. He was faster with his blade than the first, but she blocked it with her sword before swing her weapon around to cleave his hand from his arm. The man joined the leader on the ground as blood flowed from his forearm.

The remaining three men before them stopped again. Their leader lay gasping on the ground as he clutched his chest and tried to breathe. The second man stared at his missing hand for a moment before he started to scream.

Luca charged to engage the man on the right, which left two in front of Aida and Sienna. Both men backed up several paces before they turned and ran. Luca’s target also dropped his sword and bolted in the other direction.

Luca started to chase him.

“Luca!” Aida took a few steps forward. “Stop, we need to go.”

The two wounded men were the only reason the archers in the woods did not continue to fire at Sienna and Luca. Aida thought they might ignore the command to spare her as well. She spotted one, wide-eyed in terror, as he looked out from behind a tree.

“We need to get some distance from them. You two go first.” Aida remained standing over the wheezing leader and stared into the copse. The man she’d seen had disappeared after he ducked back behind his cover. Another man darted off; she saw him head north with the other three who had fled.

When she thought Luca and Sienna were far enough away, she turned and sprinted south to join them. They continued on the trail into the storm.

“I don’t think we should go north to the road,” Aida said as she slowed several moments later. She wiped her sword off and sheathed it. The Calas did not follow.

“And we can’t go back to the village.” Luca panted as he bent over to rest. Thunder clapped above, and the sky grew bright as the sun with lightning.

“This path had been going northeast for a time.” Sienna also gasped for breath. “If we head straight back south, we will go east of the village and should be able to find the older trail that heads east.”

“Will it take us to the Temple?” Aida asked.

“I don’t know, but if we keep going east we’ll run into the Great River, and then we can take that north. It should have fewer people, at least. ”

“The long way,” Luca mumbled as he turned south.

Rain soaked through Aida’s clothes as they left the trail. The sense of the Calas was gone, but the dull feeling of being tracked remained.

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