Defiant: Chapter Sixteen

I am posting this to you well in advance of when it will show up on Sunday because Sunday is the day I will board the ship for the Writing Excuses Conference and Retreat.

I’m on a boat!  And if you don’t catch that reference, don’t worry about it.  But I do hope you enjoy Chapter Sixteen and remember to like me on Facebook!

Chapter Sixteen

Aida felt her father die.

He didn’t die then.

She looked down at her hands at the blood of the soldier. The soldier died too, over and over while she stared. The blood grew sticky and dried on her fingers faster than physically possible.

Then Aida felt her mother die.

That did happen. Not then, though.

She rolled down the hill with the soldier, and each flip caused the armored woman to crash down into Aida’s small frame. The soldier’s armor made a sickening crack, like a neck breaking, with each thud. The woman smelled of sweat and smoke and death. They came to a stop, and Aida stabbed her repeatedly in the neck.

I only stabbed her once.

Her mother died again, followed by her father. Each death ripped something from Aida’s chest, never to return. An empty spot remained, and would remain forever.

She stood and dashed into the tree line and tried to jump over the first blackberry bush. Aida missed and fell into the thorns. Layers of thorns tore into her flesh and the branches trapped her small body. She dug her way through. Her skin ripped as she clawed past the bush. Aida fell again, into another thorn bush.

Sosanna stood behind her. She faced the snarling, massive Warrior alone. Aida had abandoned her to death. She felt Sosanna die.

I killed them. They’re dead because of me.

 

Aida flung the blanket from her legs. She scrambled to her feet and grabbed her sword as she rolled forward into a crouch. Her blade came free of its scabbard in the same moment, and she coiled to strike, eyes straining against the dark while blood rushed in her ears.

“Aida?” Luca, awake on watch, unsheathed his sword to her left.

At the same time, Sienna, disturbed by the noise, rolled over and sat up to face the other two. She moved quickly once she saw their stances and was halfway free of her blanket when Aida shook her head.

“Wait.” Aida gasped short breaths as she glanced around at the trees. She closed her eyes. There was nothing out there. She sheathed her sword. Her lips dray and her throat raw as she choked out, “Bad dream.”

Sienna’s shoulders fell from their tense position, and she settled back on the ground, dropping the dagger she held in her left hand. She pulled her blanket back to her waist but remained sitting.

Luca sheathed his sword, his face unreadable in the starlight. “What about?”

Aida shook her head as she opened her eyes. Her friends carried so much already. She rolled back so she sat as well, though she held her sword across her lap, like a blanket to keep her safe. Her back and shoulders ached from the tension.

Sienna leaned forward. “What if it is a warning? From the gods?”

What would the gods be warning Aida about with the dream? An attack? They didn’t warn her parents of that attack; why would they bother with Aida.

Aida couldn’t consciously tell when the Calas approached anymore, it seemed, but maybe her mind still attempted to tell her something. The gods might not be telling her something, but perhaps she was telling herself.

Did someone approach their camp? She attempted to reach out into the night, but everything remained fuzzy, even the ever-present sense of being watched. “I think it was just a dream. I’ve had it before, every night now, but also in the village.”

The night grew silent around them, aside from the distant trickle of a creek they’d passed earlier in the afternoon. Clear skies allowed enough starlight to see a few feet in their small clearing. Sienna sat on the ground with her blanket around her waist, and Luca leaned back against a tree. They both watched Aida expectantly.

Aida fidgeted with the corner of her blanket as she stared at her feet. She was like a child, unable to stop her nightmares. The dreams wouldn’t make sense if she didn’t tell them. She started, stopped, and began again. “I dream about the attack on my family a lot. I don’t think it is relevant.”

Neither of her friends moved or responded. Pressure mounted in her chest like the story wanted to claw out. She didn’t know how to tell it though. Aida had shared the story with Dominic and Zara after her arrival, and she’d never spoken of it again. It had been so long since she’d vocalized the events; they only lived in her head.

Pieces of the memory floated to the surface when she was awake sometimes; more often than she’d like to admit. They came unbidden to distract her, and she always pushed them aside. The dreams came more often on days that happened, and she could not make them stop. They were always confusing and in the wrong order when she slept, and almost always more terrifying than the reality.

Aida let out a deep sigh. “After we woke up, we fled to the highpoint of the ridge. My mother and her Tengarper realized we were trapped.”

She sent me away. “One of my mothers’ ikast, Sosanna took me down the hill. We snuck between waves of soldiers and remained pressed against the wood line. You all saw that area south of the camp. That whole hill face is impassable.”

Sienna nodded in response. The hill served as a natural defensive block against attackers, but also prevented an escape in that direction.

“I think we were doing alright, but we ran into a pocket of soldiers. Sosanna took most of them on, but one tackled me.” Aida paused and glanced between her friends. “She didn’t attack at first. She just held me down. It gave me enough time to pull my dagger. I killed her.”

“The soldier?” Luca continued to lean against the tree but stiffened.

“Yes.” Aida thought to say more, but couldn’t get out that she’d stabbed her. That she’d taken her knife and plunged the blade into the soldier’s neck. The woman hadn’t even fought back. Her eyes had lit up for the briefest of seconds in surprise as the eleven-year-old killed her. Warm blood had dripped on Aida’s hand and arm as she stared at the body slumped on her tiny chest. Sosanna had hauled the soldier off.

Aida continued to stare at her feet and tried to calm her breathing. Her stomach threatened to empty itself of her small dinner. “Sosanna had killed or wounded the rest. My father always said soldiers didn’t fare well against Warriors, but I hadn’t seen anything like it. Warriors are incredibly dangerous on a battlefield.”

Her father had called them a “terror to behold.” She didn’t understand what that meant as a child. Aida knew the saying to be true as an adult.

Aida folded the corner of her blanket over several times and then unfolded it before she repeated the procedure. Aida had not been able to breathe as she lay on the ground, covered in blood. Sosanna had scooped her up to her feet and dragged her on.

“My mother died after I killed the soldier. I don’t know how long it was; probably not long. I felt it and fell to my knees. I slowed us down.” Sosanna had also stopped, and in hindsight, Aida thought her mother’s death must have affected her too.

“Sosanna and I kept going after a moment, but a Venkri Warrior found us.”

Aida let go of the blanket and pulled herself back on the ground until her back rested against the tree behind her. “Sosanna sent me into the brush. She stood and faced him. She’s the only reason I escaped.”

Luca looked down and shifted between his feet. When Aida didn’t continue, Sienna asked, “What happened to her?”

“I felt her die. Then I felt my father die. Their ikast died too, but by that point I’d lost track of anything but panic.” Aida fidgeted with a twig at her side before she looked up again.

“Sosanna didn’t have to stay with me, but she did.” At Sienna’s look of confusion, Aida continued. “Sosanna was only bound to me because she was my mother’s ikast. After my mother died, she was free to do what she wanted. She could have fled, but instead, she stayed and died so I could escape.”

Silence fell again until Luca spoke. “Did any of the other ikast…” He trailed off, afraid to ask the question.

“I don’t know.” Aida had considered it, but there was no way for her to determine if any had lived. Some of them might have tried to stop fighting, but there was no place to go. Isma wouldn’t take Tengarper prisoners regardless, which left only her father’s ikast. He’d been concerned they might turn after his death, but she didn’t remember enough of what she felt to know. Everything after she sensed her father’s death was a blur of thorns, yelling, and blood.

“I’m so sorry, Aida.” Sienna dropped her head.

“So that’s what I dream about. Running away, down the hill. Facing the soldier. All the blood. And hiding in the brush.” She looked up at the sky. Tymon’s star shone brightly next to its neighbors. “They didn’t start looking for me until morning. I heard them yelling, but I was too deep in; none of them ventured too far into the thorns.”

Aida considered her trouser legs in the starlight. The cloth under the knees fell in shreds in several spots from tromping through thorns. Dirt darkened her knees. They were filthy and tattered. She looked much the same as the day she arrived at the village, three days after the attack. Zara wasn’t here to comfort her, however. Aida wasn’t sure the woman could anymore.

The night wasn’t much different than the night of the attack, though it was warmer when Isma arrived. The dim light, the smell of the wood, and Aida’s uselessness were all the same though. Guilt hung on her heart, and she was too tired to fight it.  “I don’t ever dream about my parents dying.”

Sienna looked up. “What?”

“Their deaths. I feel them die in my dreams, but I don’t ever dream of them dying. They were cut down in battle, for me, and I never think about their actual deaths.”

“You never think about it,” Luca asked, “or it isn’t in your dream?”

She shrugged. She did think about their deaths, but she couldn’t think about how they died. Aida had seen people die in battle; she’d even killed some, but she couldn’t envision her parents facing the same fate. Yet they did, and it was her fault. Did they die quickly? Or did Isma make them suffer?

Sienna let out a long breath. “Are you dreaming now because of the Kort?”

The question brought Aida back to the present. Her friend wanted to find a cause, which Aida appreciated. “I don’t know. They weren’t this vivid when the Kort showed up, but then again I wasn’t running for my life in the woods.”

“I just wish there was a way we could make them go away.” Sienna’s face strained against her sadness.

Aida wished the same but had never been rid of them in the village. They were worse on the trail, she didn’t understand why, and there didn’t appear to be a solution. She shook her head and stood. “I’ll take watch, Luca. I’m not going to sleep anyway.”

Sienna and Luca stared at her for a moment before Sienna laid back down and Luca moved to his blanket. Apparently, her look indicated she didn’t want to talk about her dreams anymore. And she didn’t.

Aida walked away from the sleeping pair to a larger oak several paces out of the clearing. It was darker there, and she knew she wouldn’t be seen by anyone approaching their campsite, though she doubted anyone could find them now. The only way they’d be able to track Aida and her friends was if a Tengarper were near. She leaned against the tree and settled in for a long night of watching.

Sienna would think the gods had sent Aida messages. Her friend’s faith hadn’t seemed to wane at all after they found the Tymon idol in Calas land. She was so certain about everything about the gods, but her opinion was so different from what Aida had grown up with. She wondered if the Calas were just simpler than the West.

Aida still had more questions for the gods, even if she didn’t think they’d sent her a warning. Why did Tymon gift the Venkri and Tengarper with such different gifts? And why just a certain set of them? It did allow them to rule but didn’t make them any smarter than the soldiers or servants. It didn’t help them keep the Calas from abandoning their homeland. Did he offer any suggestions on that in the Writings? The Calas wouldn’t have any if he did.

The disturbing and aggravating sense of being followed nagged at her. Perhaps that’s the gods telling me something. She laughed at her own sarcasm. No, if the gods wanted to speak to her, they’d have to make it a little more obvious than a general feeling of… whatever this was. It was familiar, almost like her early sense of Calas nearby. Faint, but noticeable. Or maybe it was more like the feeling of the village, surrounded by Calas she could hardly feel.

She stiffened as she wondered if Calas followed them. No. No Calas could follow this well for so long. They’d have to remain the same distance away from her at all times. The only Pivals who could do that were other Tengarper.

The Venkri of Isma had used the Tengarper’s ability to detect their size and distance to trick her parents and their ikast on that night. Only a Tengarper would be susceptible to that kind of attack, because Venkri wouldn’t depend on their feelings. She smiled ruefully at the memory; if Isma had been traveling with a Tengarper, they could have located her in the brush. Her escape to the village would have been cut short.

She’d been scared during her flight to the village, but soon found the warmth of Dominic and Zara’s house.  It was safe there.  She’d finally been able to relax.  Zara treated her like another daughter from the start.

Aida relaxed against the tree, satisfied the Calas weren’t nearby. A gentle breeze drifted through the wood, and the sound of tree branches swaying overhead mingled with the waters of the nearby creek. Her eyelids drifted shut once, but she startled and opened them again as she adjusted herself against the tree. Slowly, they closed again, and the friends were left without a watch.

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