Defiant: Chapter Fifteen

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I am heading toward the end of the third draft of DRAGON HERALD. I hope to finish this draft during the Writing Excuses Conference and Retreat. Then I’ll do another pass for grammar and things before I send it out to some readers. Email me if you’re interested in that task.

The third novel is now called OUR SISTER’S MAGE, and planning moves forward, even when I’m trying not to think about it. There are demons, a murder mystery, corrupt gold mines, at least one god, and a mage who doesn’t like the goddess who gives her power.

Chapter Fifteen

The tails of the spider web fell back along Aida’s hair and to her shoulders as she wiped her forehead free of the sticky string. Taller than her friends in front, she managed to catch all the invisible lines across the faint trail that lurked above their heads.

She looked up at the back of Luca for the first time in what seemed like an hour. He stared straight forward as he followed his sister. Sweat ran down his neck and evaporated little in the morning breeze. The pack he carried grew smaller each day as he consumed the food packed for them in Kian’s village. Tattered pant legs hung over his boots as he tromped ahead at a steady pace. His appearance matched her mood. She grunted and dropped her head back down to stare at his boots again.

All she thought of was sleep. She’d never been this tired before, even when the Kort’s coming gave her anxiety. This was different. The battles with Ferran and the Calas seemed likely causes. She slept better the nights after those fights, but perhaps the stress of everything combined to cause her insomnia and nightmares. Aida wanted to return to the village and to Zara’s house. She’d felt safe there.

Warriors shouldn’t have sleeping issues after a fight. They were supposed to be brave, and she was not brave. It was a good thing she hadn’t headed west. Assuming she was able to overcome her anxiety to seek her revenge, she wouldn’t be able to keep control after she arrived. She’d probably face her death unable to move or raise her sword.

Thankfully, both Luca and Sienna slept well, or the three of them would be in a lot of trouble. Sienna was the only one who managed to keep track of the trail.

All this, just to find the Temple. The priests might possess more knowledge about the supposed Writings regarding Aida, but she didn’t understand how that would help her evade Cugat and his plan to make her an ikast. Nathan said they would be safe there, though. She wanted to be safe, or at least wanted her friends to be safe. This adventure had gone on far too long and had grown too dangerous. She regretted the agreement to meet them at her family’s home.

Though the Calas had attacked them, there’d been no sign of the Kort since Ferran’s defeat. Would Cugat wait for the Calas to bring her to him? Would he send Hinir, Kezia, and Ian to hunt her? Or would Cugat come himself? And what then? She could only run so long if the Temple priests did not provide resolution.

Aida gave up the attempt to identify the sensation of being tracked. Days had passed with the constant pressure on her mind. She assumed the problem must also stem from a lack of sleep.

She crested another hill and followed a few paces behind Luca. Rocks lined the path below them, slowing her descent as she placed each foot to avoid a fall. There was no need to repeat Sienna’s accident. She slowed further and waited for him to continue over a boulder.

Sienna stood at the bottom, her long, dark hair finally showing wear from the journey. Strands drifted softly in the breeze, and she patted them down as she pulled a twig from her shoulder.

The trail was flat for the next bit. A stream on their left guided the path as it wound east. This route would take them to the Great River, the only landmark they knew to look for before turning north to find the Temple.

No wider than she was tall, the creek splashed at the rocks on its banks. Light gurgles greeted her as she passed a stone protruding into the water. Bubbles formed as air was trapped, only to be smashed by the current. She tracked the line where the water met the gravel as she walked, and allowed the sound of the waves to lull away her attention. Aida drifted off into another daydream about being back at home with Zara.

The village had been safe. Aida had been frightened for months following the attack on her tribe and her arrival at Zara and Dominic’s home, but no Warriors came for the missing child. She’d settled into the safe, if dull, life of a Calas villager. Aida longed to return.

“Aida?” Sienna dropped back and left Luca in the lead. “How are you doing?”

She startled, and jerked her head up at her friend. Aida didn’t remember walking that far. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t seem fine. You haven’t for days.”

“I’m thinking.”

The creek to their left widened and encroached on the trail. Luca clambered over a fallen log to avoid getting wet, and Sienna followed. Aida walked through the shallow water. As it seeped up her legs, her damp pants stuck to her skin. The cold water jarred her awake as it flowed over her boots and under her socks.

“I’m worried about you.” Sienna slowed as they met on the other side.

Aida didn’t know what to say. She was exhausted; nothing more. A good sleep would help solve her problems. Her friends were still in danger though. “I’m sorry to have dragged you into all this.”

“What?” Sienna stopped. “You didn’t force us to come. If I remember correctly, you actually left us at the village. We followed you.”

“Maybe I should just become his ikast,” Wouldn’t that be better than putting her friends in danger? Aida stared at the ground as they walked. Vaguely aware she wasn’t thinking well, she yawned and shook her head.

“Youth in the West become ikast,” Sienna said. “But they are able to choose. You said so yourself. I’m glad you didn’t pick Cugat, and I’m glad we’re keeping you away from him.”

“In the West, I would become somebody else’s ikast, and then he couldn’t take me.”

“There’s no swapping?” Luca paused ahead of the women and allowed them to catch up.

“Right,” Aida said. “Once the ritual is complete, it is permanent.”

The trail veered right of the creek, and once again they found themselves surrounded by dense oaks and thick underbrush on either side. The ground sloped upward slightly as they approached another hill.

Aida rolled her thoughts over in her mind. The flight from Cugat might be hopeless, her friends remained in danger, and she had no ideas on how to avoid becoming an ikast. Her parents had never discussed this possibility, and no one in the village knew enough about Warriors to help her. She’d been in Calas lands most of her life and didn’t have any options for another master.

She chewed her lip as she walked. “Could I become an ikast to a Calas?”

Sienna head snapped toward her. “A Calas? Why would you want to do that?”

“Cugat couldn’t take me as an ikast.” If she were already an ikast, he’d give up. There weren’t any other Warriors nearby to become her master, though, only Calas.

They slowed as Sienna fell silent in thought. “I don’t know if it would work. Doesn’t the power run in the blood?”

“I don’t know if it would work either. It would just solve the problem if it did.”

Sienna slowed further. “Warriors left the West during the Departure. They had to go somewhere. Perhaps there is Warrior blood in the Calas.”

Aida considered this. The Calas were related to the Pivals from the West. Did they have any Warrior blood anywhere in them? Aida wasn’t sure if it needed Warrior blood, only that Warriors made stronger ikast.

Luca drew back even with the women. “Wouldn’t you lose everything?”

“Yes, I’d lose all my power.” An ikast could grow stronger than their master, but the master was a limiting factor in their development. She didn’t know what would happen if she was an ikast to a Calas, but she certainly would never be as strong again.

“We should ask the Temple,” Sienna said, “though I don’t think they’ll like the idea.”

“Because of the blood ritual.” That was another issue with the idea. What Calas would want to take an ikast with the blood ritual, even if it were possible? The Calas had left the West to escape Tymon’s magic. Sienna fell silent.

The morning warmed as they walked and sweat-soaked Aida’s skin under her pack. Blackberry bushes lined most of the northern edge of the trail, their thorns apparent through the budding leaves.

Luca halted and held his hand up and back behind him to silence the women. “I hear something.”

Aida stopped but sensed nothing different. Her head remained too fuzzy, overwhelmed by exhaustion and the press of the unidentified feeling.

“Let’s get off the path,” Sienna said.

The three darted to the right. Although not as dense, the bushes still snagged Aida’s shirt. She ripped away from the thorns as she followed Luca and Sienna behind a tree and into a dip in the ground. A blackberry bush blocked their view of the trail.

Aida’s heart raced, but she entered her breathing pattern. She felt them then, though it seemed they danced at the boundary of her consciousness instead of being firm. “Calas?”

Luca crawled to the edge of the bush, watching from under one of the branches. Aida held her hand on her sword, ready to rise if spotted. Sienna pulled her dagger, the only weapon she could draw and wield with her left hand.

Aida heard voices coming from the east on the trail. Luca’s hand, held back toward his friends, signaled four.

The voices grew more distinct as they approached with little stealth. At least one set of boots stomped along the path, and a woman did nothing to lower her volume. “And then what will he do? He can’t ask her to marry him until her father approves.”

Another woman replied with a softer voice, though her words remained clear to the three hiding. “I don’t know. You know how young love is. That won’t stop him.”

The first voice grew louder. “I don’t know. Doesn’t seem smart. She could find better than him.”

“Could you two quiet it down?” One of the men spoke, and his annoyed voice sounded younger than the two women.

“We aren’t going to find them.” The first woman did lower her voice some, though. “Why would they stay on the trail if they know we’re looking for them?”

“Faster.” The second man’s voice was gruff and deep. “And I bet they’re trying to get to the Temple quickly.”

“If they get there, they’re gone,” the first woman replied. “Or at least I won’t be chasing them no more.”

“Well let’s find them before then,” the second man said.

“Right. I don’t think we have to stop talking though. They’ll probably just think we’re on a trip if they run into us.” The second man grunted, but the woman went on as the sounds passed Aida, Sienna, and Luca. “It isn’t like it is odd for us to be out here.”

The two women returned to their discussion of their village’s two youngsters in love while the men remained silent. Their voices drifted down the trail to the west, leaving the three friends hidden.

Aida, Sienna, and Luca waited almost a half hour before they left their hiding spot. They’d need to move more carefully.

Luca led the women away, and Aida resumed staring at the ground. Why hadn’t she felt them as they approached?

Crickets covered the noise of their movement through the pathless brush. Aida strained through the fading light as she skirted around the edge of a thorn bush. Her parents never mentioned this many thorn bushes in the West. It was no surprise the Pivals never migrated east before the Calas and the Departure.

Sienna had led the three friends north for a few hours after the Calas passed, then turned east. The trail wasn’t safe if the Calas patrolled the area. Without Aida’s warning, the three might easily be surprised and overwhelmed.

“I don’t like what they’re doing to the Calas.” Luca had returned to politics frequently during the afternoon after their unexpected encounter.

None of them had expected the Kort influence to extend as far east as it did. Nathan had never told Sienna the Temple realized the advance either. The Kort’s purposes appeared less amiable each day.

The excitement of almost being caught returned her vigor for a time as they fled, but the exhaustion crept back into the sides of her head. Aida never lost the feeling of being watched or tracked, and panic grew as the evening darkened. It drowned out everything else in her mind, even the crickets. Perhaps it was the reason she couldn’t sense the Calas.

Luca walked slowly, pretending it wasn’t to help Aida keep up. “We shouldn’t be divided like this. The Calas should all be together. How can they hunt their own?”

“There’s nothing we can do until we arrive at the Temple.” Sienna’s resignation hid her deep concern. She’d kept her head down all afternoon, likely pondering the same things as Luca, silently.

Aida needed to keep walking. Her friends would find the Temple, and at worst, they would be safe there. She would do whatever she needed to do to them safe.

She realized she was falling almost as she landed. She got to her knees and looked up at her friends, staring at her. “I tripped on a rock.” Wiping her palms on her pants, she stood, intent on continuing.

“Do we need to stop for a bit?” Sienna asked.

Aida shook her head and walked on, past her friend. “I’m fine.”

Where was she going? Aida couldn’t see as well as Sienna and didn’t possess the same sense of direction. She stopped and allowed Sienna to move ahead.

“You all should go on without me and find the Temple. You’d make it there faster.” Aida fell in line behind her friend. “I could hide somewhere. I’d be safe.”

“We’re not leaving you.” Sienna’s shake of her head was visible in the near-dark.

“You’d be safe without me.”

Neither of her friends replied. They had argued with her the first few times she’d brought up their safety but had given up. She was so tired. She wondered how often she’d mentioned the idea.

Luca drew near behind her. “Let’s talk. That should help keep us distracted.”

Aida didn’t comment on the use of “we” and “us,” as if her friends needed to rest or needed the distraction. “What do you want to talk about?”

He thought for several seconds. “Did you really plan to go west? And try to kill the people who attacked your family?”

The topic was unexpected, but Aida did wake up a bit. She chuckled. “Yes, though clearly that would have gone much worse than I expected.”

“I don’t know.” Sienna looked back with a grin. “You did throw Ferran off a cliff.”

Aida’s pace increased some at the compliment, though that still seemed more luck than skill. She doubted she could do it again, especially if she remained tired.

Luca asked, “When would you go?”

“I’d thought about this year, but then the Kort came, and I wanted to see them. Maybe I shouldn’t have waited.” Then she’d be dead in the mountains or from a Warrior. The idea still seemed better than dragging her friends on this dangerous trek.

“Are they all as bad as the Kort?”

“All the Warriors?” Aida kicked at a rock, and the stone disappeared into the trees. “They all fight.”

“I don’t see why anyone would cross the mountains just to hunt down a family.”

“They hated my parents.” Before she was born, houses to the West had hunted her parents and their ikast for their sins. Isma must have remained angry about their continued existence.

“Still,” he said. “I don’t like a lot of people but don’t hunt them down. What are the other houses like?”

“I don’t know except what my parents told me. They got along with some of them. We got along with Lortun.”

“That’s where Ian is from.” Sienna’s tired voice led Aida ahead, and she sped up to catch her friend.

“Yes.” Aida’s stomach hurt at the thought of his forced participation in the Kort.

“How did they know how to find you?” Luca remained at her side.

Aida often wondered the same question. She assumed someone from Lortun must have told the houses to the West her family lived and a general description of their location. The Calas may have helped them too.

“I don’t know. Spies. Lortun. Calas.” Aida assumed she never would know who led Isma to their camp. Calas joined in the attack though, so they seemed likely. She hadn’t thought about the chance it was someone from the village until long after that Calas would have led them to Aida.

“How did they attack?” Sienna grew more interested in the conversation. “Now that we’ve been there, the site seems like a perfect place to camp. It should have been safer.”

It was. Elevated and challenging to find and assault, her parents had selected the rise for defense intentionally. They knew every path on and off the hill. “They tricked us,” she said.

“How?” Sienna asked. “How does one trick a Tengarper? If you can sense enemies from far away, how do the Venkri get around that?”

“My mother and her ikast felt a force as they approached from the west. We left as there was no use in fighting. With the lake and the cliffs, we could only go southeast. They had another force there and surprised us.”

“They used your mother’s skills against her,” Sienna said.

“Yes.” Aida often thought how unfair the attack had been, but there was really no other way for the Venkri to surprise and win against the Tengarper. “They tricked us.”

Sienna and Luca waited for more information, but Aida didn’t want to share. Lost in her own thoughts, Luca startled her after a moment. “How many Calas did they have?”

“I don’t know. Enough to confuse my mother.” She thought about what it would take to trick a Tengarper, even with two forces and Calas.

“Like the Calas soldiers with the Kort?” Sienna asked.

Aida was only barely listening. Could someone use her Tengarper blood against her in the same way, or could she do the same to the Kort? There was likely a whole list of tricks the Venkri held to trick the Tengarper. They couldn’t maintain any equality with the opposing forces if they didn’t have a way around the Tengarper Warriors’ ability to sense them.

“That would mean Calas working with the west isn’t new and we shouldn’t be surprised.” Luca sighed at the guess.

Sienna continued around another bush. “We need to ask the Temple about this. Maybe they know something.”

Aida wanted to think about the trickery more too. If they ran into the Kort again, she’d need every possible advantage. She needed sleep first though, as she was far too tired to use any Tengarper skills, much less against an opponent.

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