Defiant: Chapter Fourteen

Greetings, a day late.  The holiday weekend threw me off.  I met with my most excellent writing group last night, and was reminded they are most excellent.  I have the best writing group, full of wise and encouraging people.  And now I’m motivated to continue with draft #3 of Dragon Herald, which slowed down considerably this week.  I don’t have that much more to go!  I can do it!

For now, enjoy Defiant: Chapter Fourteen!

Aida’s left foot scuffed along the dry brown dirt, catching on a weed as it reached across the aging trail. She caught herself as she grunted, frustrated by her exhaustion. Luca and Sienna stopped ahead of her and turned in response. Shaking her head in silent assurance she didn’t need help, she glanced past the two at the trees beyond. There was more light behind them; hopefully a clearing.

The friends had found the old trail again three days earlier and had made good progress east. Sienna and Luca grew in energy and motivation after each night’s slumber, but Aida awoke more tired every morning. She didn’t sleep much, and when she did, nightmares of the attack on her parents forced her awake in a panic. Drenched in sweat, she would lay still and calm her rapid breathing, only to repeat the entire sequence again and again until morning.

They walked on, and the two siblings increased the pace. The trees spaced out, as the oaks’ trunks grew wider with more available space. A broad field opened in front of them as they stepped out of the woods. Aida winced at the sudden unshaded sunlight.

“A village?” Sienna took a step up on one of the many rocks that continued to dot the landscape.

Aida followed but remained on the path to take in at the remains ahead. Deteriorating wood lay in a rough rectangle nearby, no larger than her own hut at home. Grass grew in clumps in the interior and vines crawled over the remnants of the far wall. She thought she could make out the outline of the fence that had protected the garden, though the wood lay broken in several smaller pieces. The stench of decay wafted toward them from somewhere further in the village.

She took a step toward the abandoned structure but jumped back in surprise as raccoon scurried out of the near wall at her intrusion. Something stirred in a hut elsewhere and sent a pile of small rocks thumping to the ground as it hastened to get away from the visitors.

The tree line curved to the north and then back east again as it hemmed in that side of the village. Fields opened to the south. Dozens of the same style of hut covered the area from the tree line to the other side. There might have been one hundred Calas here while the buildings were still standing. Where did they go?

Aida followed Sienna, and Luca trailed after he investigated the hut. Birds sang in the woods around them, but their footsteps made the only noises inside the village. The trail had been easily passable on the way there, and Aida assumed it saw regular, if infrequent use. However, there was no trace of anyone nearby, and a shiver ran Aida’s spine from the emptiness.

“That must be their shrine.” Sienna strode up the lane.

A stone building stood in the center, off the right side of the trail. Three of the rock walls toppled in on themselves, while the southern wall retained much of its height. A robin perched upon the corner as it stared down at the visitors. Daylight from the noon sun illuminated the inside as much as the field, as the remains of the ceiling lay on the floor.

Luca kicked over some wood lying near the path and sent it back toward the line of huts. “I wonder how long they’ve been gone.”

Sienna stopped but continued to look at the shrine. “I wonder why they left.”

Aida glanced to the other side and found the source of the smell. The scant remnant of deer bones, days dead, lay against the corner of one of the deteriorating huts. The logs there spread in a chaotic pattern, disturbed by the earlier struggle.

Sienna started moving toward the shrine again, but Luca stepped into the hut’s skeleton to examine what remained of the animal. “Mountain lion, probably.” He turned and followed his sister. Aida stared several more seconds before turning again toward the village center.

Aida stopped again with a start and returned to the hut as she studied the grass on the once dirt floor. All she located was some small animal droppings. She moved to the next decaying structure and found the same thing. Luca came back to watch her.

“There are no Calas bones.” She looked up at him, puzzled.

“Did you think they just died here?” Luca asked.

“I don’t know. Why would they leave?”

He shrugged. Ahead of him, Sienna stepped over the knee-high pile of fallen stones blocking the door to the shrine. Aida and Luca went to the door but stopped, and watched Sienna pick through the collapsed roof beams and benches once used for worshippers.

“They left their idol,” Sienna said.

A lopsided table still stood awkwardly at the front of the shrine, one leg broken. The tabletop leaned against a rock. The statue lay on its side, rolled back slightly so the god faced up at the open sky, head toward the ground on the side of the broken leg.

Sienna picked up the idol and set him on the dirt floor in front of the table while Luca and Aida entered. The god stood almost mid-thigh and was also stone; a most expensive item this far from the mountains. At the loss of the weight, or perhaps disturbed by Sienna’s touch, the rock which held the table’s corner up fell. The tabletop slid forward and made a dull thud as it stopped right behind the statue. Dust billowed out and upward, and the vibration rattled the idol.

Aida glanced up to ensure none of the beams remained, as she didn’t want one to fall on her as she passed. The ceiling was totally gone, and she tracked the flight of a bird high above. A board shifted under her foot, and Luca grabbed her arm to steady her while she took another step across the room.

“I don’t recognize him.” Sienna squatted before the idol to examine the idol’s features.

Aida had only seen two idols to this god, but she had worshipped him daily as a child. “That’s Tymon.”

“It can’t be.” Sienna glanced over her shoulder.

“He is,” Aida said. “My parents said he was always depicted with a curved knife.”

Tymon carried a curved knife, held in this case against his chest. The placement spared it from breaking off when the idol fell however long ago. His robes went down to his feet, and it seemed every fold was etched into the stone. The rope belt was knotted in the front. His eyebrows made a perfect scowl. It was a much more detailed depiction than her parents’ idols.

The Calas did not worship Tymon though, and it didn’t make any sense to find him here, so far east of the mountains and so far south of the pass. Nathan had taught all the Calas believed him to be a demon.

“Frayne and Albernia carry weapons,” Sienna said. “It must be Frayne.”

“Frayne always carries a sword.” Luca knelt beside the idol as he examined him. “And has a beard. This one doesn’t have a beard.”

“It can’t be Tymon.” Sienna stared back at Aida. “You must be wrong.”

Aida’s mother had a Tengarper idol of Tymon, and her father had a Venkri idol. Both were about the size of an adult’s hand. He was the only god to whom they prayed after their exile; the only one they thought they needed to appease after their sin. They both died carrying their small idols to the god of blood. She wouldn’t forget.

Aida opened her mouth to argue but saw her friend’s face darken as she turned back to the statue.

Sienna frowned. “If it was Tymon, maybe that’s why their village was destroyed.”

“There’s no reason to believe the village was destroyed.” Luca waved his hand in dismissal of the idea as he rose. “They could have just left.”

“And left this here?” Sienna shook her head, neck reddening as she stared at the god standing before her. She stood and took a step back. “If they worshipped this demon…”

Aida rubbed at a tired eye and squatted to see the statue’s detail. She ran her fingers along the top of his head and shoulders. Sienna sucked in a breath behind her, but Aida ignored whatever righteous indignation her friend harbored. She had not seen Tymon since the night of the attack, though she prayed to him daily. Pain welled her stomach as she wondered again why he’d let them die. Where were you when they needed you?

She focused on the details to distract herself. Her father’s idol shared the same dark color, but the smooth texture reminded her of her mother’s. Venkri stone and Tengarper craftsman, perhaps? It was amazing to find him so far away from the Warriors who honored him by making this image.

Aida worshipped him for so long in secret, aware the Calas wouldn’t approve. It felt so strange to be among a people who followed all the same gods, except the most important one, the source of the Warriors’ power. Yet here he was, standing before her, in Calas lands. The east had not abandoned her god entirely. She rocked back and stood.

Sienna scoffed as she stepped forward and pushed the statue of Tymon over. He tipped back into the uneven table before he fell to the side. He resumed his blank stare into the afternoon sky. “Calas don’t worship Tymon.”

Aida’s chest burned. Too many nights without sleep and too many days trekking through the same scene, hill after hill, rock after rock, left her unable to control her anger. She stepped between Sienna and her god as Sienna scrambled back. “Looks like these Calas did.”

Luca’s head was down, but his eyes darted from Aida to Sienna as he stood to the side. Sienna shook her head as her cheeks grew even redder and her shoulders tensed. “Maybe someone snuck this here from the mountains, and they didn’t know who it was. Or they had it since the Departure and were punished.”

“Six hundred years later?” Luca’s head rose.

“I don’t think the statue is that old,” Aida said.

“Maybe they simply left.” Luca never argued with Sienna about the gods, but his voice was firm.

Sienna turned her head and met his stare. “They were punished.”

“Not for him.” Aida turned around and righted Tymon on the ground in front of the table. She took a deliberate step toward Sienna when she finished. Her friend would not topple him again. “Tymon is a god.”

“He’s a demon.”

“How would you know?” Aida had always wanted to ask but never did out of respect for Zara and Dominic. Now, heat rose into her cheeks and her fists clenched against the long-held anger.

“He’s why we left,” Sienna said. “You and your blood rituals.”

Her blood rituals? She had not even undergone the ikast ritual, much less been involved with the earliest times. Aida hadn’t met any of her own people other than her parents and their ikast until the Kort arrived. “Were you there for the Departure? Did you check all the Calas’ bags for idols to Tymon?”

“No,” Luca said, “She knows because Nathan told her.”

Sienna spun toward her brother. “The Temple knows. They have records. The earthquakes, the famines, the disease all happened when the blood rituals started.”

Luca’s voice grew louder. “What, nobody died before then? Who did they blame?”

Sienna blinked several times. “Why are you helping her?”

“Because most two-year-olds make more sense than this! Oh, this person died because they offended the gods. This village didn’t burn to the ground because they had the right statue.” Luca’s whole face was red and his shoulders rigid. “Did our father have the wrong idol? Did Mason pray to the wrong god?”

Sienna’s eyes widened. “Sometimes people just die.”

“Then sometimes earthquakes and famines and diseases just happen too.” Luca glared at Sienna, hands clenched into fists. “Maybe the Calas left because they thought Tymon was a demon, maybe not. Maybe they were wrong. Maybe you and the Temple don’t know anything.”

“That’s not true!”

“You’re just afraid it is, because then what would you do?” Luca took a step forward and stood near his sister. “What would you do then?”

Aida thought of defending her friend. The gods were real, and they did care. Luca was only angry. She was also mad at Sienna though for tipping over Tymon, so she remained silent. Sienna wouldn’t know what to do if she didn’t think almost as highly of the Temple as she did the gods.

“Well, at least I’m doing something.” Sienna inched toward Luca as her volume rose. “Not aimlessly wandering through life.”

“I might have a plan if you stopped telling me I could and couldn’t do.”

“Sure, then you could have joined the Kort and been involved in kidnapping Aida. I sure wish I’d let you do that one. You don’t know as much as you think you do.”

“That makes two of us!”

There was silence for a moment as the two siblings regarded each other, faces red and chests heaving. Without facing Aida, Sienna said “The Calas left-”

“You have no idea why the Calas left.” Aida crossed her arms, tired of Sienna’s certainty.  Without Zara there to calm her, she lashed out. “The Temple could say anything at this point. Tymon is easy to blame.”

Sienna turned her head toward Aida as she set her shoulders back. She glanced back at Luca and then spun to face the door. “I’m going for a walk.”

“Try not to find a beast,” Luca said as Sienna jumped over a bench and climbed over the stones in the door.

The clearing with the old village proved to be as good of a place to stop for the evening as any, especially since her friends disappeared after their argument. Luca stalked south after Sienna left, which gave Aida time alone. She found a pile of rocks free of vermin to lean against and rest. The occasional bird or bug flew overhead as she stared up and tracked the stray white clouds that floated in the afternoon sky. It was a warm day, and she longed to sleep.

Sleep had been fleeting since their encounter with the villagers from the north. The violence plagued her dreams, when she slept at all. Aida was afraid to close her eyes, lest the visions return, and instead rolled over to watch the grass blow in the gentle breeze. A dull throb pulsed in her forehead as she considered their situation.

The beautiful day brought no comfort as the muted sense of being tracked held on to Aida. She couldn’t escape the idea someone was nearby, though she felt no one and the three hadn’t encountered anything but wild animals in their trek. After several minutes of scattered thoughts, Aida rose and returned to the shrine.

The statue of Tymon remained where he stood earlier, and Aida paused to study the aging stone. Where did this village get an expensive idol? He was plain enough, but she had thought only the Venkri traded with the Calas for stone idols, and they weren’t cheap. She heaved the table back up, moving more rocks under the corner to make it level. Aida brushed it free of debris and tested its stability with a push. Once satisfied, she moved the heavy idol up off the ground to the table, and he resumed his position at the front of the shrine.

She had long questioned the gods as she stood in the village shrine, lay awake in bed at night, or walked among the trees. Now she knelt before Tymon and prayed. Aida knew her mother was a religious woman. Her father followed the gods as well. How did they end up together? Was their death a punishment, or only the random violence of Warriors? And why did Aida live? The idol offered no response. None of the gods ever did.

Aida looked out through the failed walls to ensure her friends weren’t nearby. “Do you want me to go with the Kort?” She didn’t pause, as she knew there would be no answer to this question either. “Am I supposed to be running away? Going to the Temple which doesn’t believe in you? Putting my friends in danger? Or is this the right thing? Do the Kort offend you by violating your rules? Would I offend you too, if I became an ikast? Do I offend you now, as a half-breed? Is that why you don’t answer? How am I supposed to know what to do if you don’t tell me?”

She held in the tears that threatened to flow out of frustration and exhaustion. Her head and eyes ached against the strain, and she dropped her head to her chest. The grass was as thick inside the shrine as it was in any of the remains outside, and she watched an ant crawl up a weed between her and the table. Aida reached out and smashed it between two fingers.

Aida listened to Nathan as he shared the Writings. She had discussed them with her parents, and later, Dominic and Zara. They gave a general idea of what everyone was supposed to do in life, but none of it seemed to apply to her. There were more Writings than she had read, but they weren’t available in the village. She was alone and without direction.

As she left the shrine, she grabbed some wood from one of the nearby huts. She stalked back to the pile of rocks she’d rested against and placed the wood vertically against it. Her knife slid smoothly out of its sheath under her boot, and she started a breathing pattern to calm herself.

The knife went at least a hands width right of the target, tinging as it bounced off a rock. She grunted and squinted at it before she walked forward to retrieve the blade.

She closed her eyes and tried breathing again. She opened her eyes, drew her hand back, and released the knife. It went far left this time and missed the wood by the width of a hand. What is wrong with me?

Aida didn’t want to damage her knife, so she moved the wood to rest against the remains of a hut. A mouse ran out of the debris as she threw the target down. She thought about trying for the rodent but knew she couldn’t hit it now either. After she repeated her breathing pattern, she let the blade fly again. It chipped the right side of the wood target before it fell into the pile.

“How goes practice?” Sienna appeared behind Aida.

She failed to hear her friend’s approach and thought she was distracted by her effort. “It isn’t going as well as I’d hoped.” She was used to hitting exactly where she aimed, each time. Her father’s ikast Biel had thought knife throwing was an art form, even though he admitted it held little practical value in an actual battle. She was no better now than she was when she was four and Biel showed her the method.

“Are you able to move it? With your mind?” Sienna came forward slowly. It seemed to Aida she was checking to see if Aida was still mad.

Aida shrugged. It was Romella who taught her how to use her Tengarper skills to increase accuracy. “Usually. It isn’t working very well today.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been sleeping well.” She retrieved the knife and stood ready to try again.

Sienna sat next to Aida, feet out in front of her as she leaned back on her uninjured arm. “Does this normally happen when you’re tired?”

“No.” Even when Aida hadn’t been sleeping before the Kort’s arrival, she retained all her skills. She was as strong then as ever. As she exhaled, Aida let the knife fly. It lodged itself on the very edge of the target, still at least a hand away from where she had aimed. She plopped down next to her friend and stared at the handle sticking out from the wood piece. “This is different. I don’t know why I can’t do it.”

“Why can’t you sleep?”

“Another good question. I can’t seem to fall asleep, and when I do, I wake up with nightmares.”

“Of what?”

Luca had been too young when Aida arrived to understand what brought her to the village, but his sister had listened intently whenever she could. Sienna knew what had happened to Aida’s family, but Aida never shared with her any of the feelings or struggles she had after. She opened her mouth, but then stopped. If I tell her now, she’ll blame Tymon for everything. “I don’t know.”

Sienna lay back and stared at the sky. “Tonight Luca and I can take the watches so you can sleep more. We can see if it helps at all.”

“I don’t think…” Aida trailed off as she realized it might help. She was so tired; a little extra sleep would be nice.

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