Defiant: Chapter Seventeen

Quick post today as I’m preparing to leave the Writing Excuses Conference and Retreat.  I’ve had a fantastic time, met a lot of great people, and learned new writing things. Look for a post later recapping my thoughts, but in the meantime, have a sunset!

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If you’re new to this party, I’m posting my first novel one chapter at a time.  I wrote the entirety of this story before my first Writing Excuses Conference and Retreat, so all those fancy things I’ve learned on both cruises were not applied.  I’m still pretty proud of it though, and people seem to enjoy it.  If you’d like to start from the beginning, you can find Chapter One here.

Chapter Seventeen

Aida’s head swam in the upon waking, and her heart raced against her chest. Short, shallow breaths burned inside, and she blinked against the light of dawn and a blinding headache.

Sienna yelled somewhere far away. Aida squirmed more awake and pushed against the dirt and grass. She rolled to her hands and knees. Her stomach sank as she remembered falling asleep on watch.

Black, leather boots appeared on the ground in front of her. She glanced up at the thick, dark pants and forest green tunic before one of the boots lurched backward and then forward. It connected with her chest under her left collarbone, and she rolled to her right.

Sharp pain ran through her shoulder and down her arm. The light overwhelmed her, and she couldn’t clear her head. She tried to scramble back, or to the side, or somewhere, but confusion gripped her. Aida rolled right, away from the pain. The outside of her left hand went numb, and she struggled to push off the ground.

“Nice dreams, Aida?” The deep green grew closer as his hand grabbed her shirt. She thought she recognized the dark hair on the tall figure. He spun and tossed her back, and she bounced once before she settled against the same large oak she’d stood against the night before.

She rose and reached for her sword. Nothing worked right; she was too slow. Her balance was gone and she fell forward. Her face smashed into the ground as her arms remained pinned under her, failing to find her weapon.

“Run, Aida!” Sienna screamed from somewhere in front of Aida. Where was Luca?

She groped for something ahead of her to grab on to, but finding nothing, attempted to crawl. His hand grabbed the back of her shirt this time and yanked her back toward the tree again. The man flipped her over so she landed on her back.

There was so much yelling, she thought. She paused to look up again at the man. Hinir loomed over her. Cugat’s second ikast had found her.

She remembered throwing Ferran back and attempted to do the same to Hinir. Nothing happened. She couldn’t focus. Aida tried to rise again.

Hinir shoved her back down. “Stop fighting, or I’ll kill your friend.”

The threat brought clarity to the chaos around her, and Aida slumped back down against the tree.

“Take her sword.” Hands appeared beside her and removed the blade from its sheath.

“Aida!” Sienna lay face down in the clearing under the weight of a Venkri Warrior.  Her continued yells bounced around Aida’s head, confusing her further.

She shook her head to clear it, but found no relief.  All she knew was her fears were coming true.  Cugat’s ikast had found her, and her friend was captured.

Hinir looked down at her as his forehead drew to a pinch. He stared for several minutes, and her head continued to spin. Was he doing this to her?

He nodded, and the hands on each side grabbed under her arms and lifted her to almost standing. Aida couldn’t manage the strength to resist, and thought about retching. They brought her back into the clearing.

“Tie her up.”

Her mind was fuzzy like she remained half-asleep. Aida shook her head in an attempt to clear it, but the movement only made it worse. She needed to move, needed to go, needed to do something. The trees above her swirled in the morning light as other hands bound her arms in front of her before sitting her up against the tree.

The face seemed familiar. Ian? No, that wasn’t him. It was one of Hinir’s Venkri ikast. The man checked her bonds as someone else wrapped a rope around the tree to hold her in place.

Sienna remained on the ground, and blood ran down her forehead into an eye from a gash. The Venkri Warrior had her pinned with a knee on her back, but she bucked against him futilely. She probably put up more of a fight.

Hinir glanced around at the trees, one hand on his sword hilt. He nodded to another Venkri to Aida’s right. “Find the boy.”

Luca was alive, for now. She hoped he had the good sense to run far away.

Hinir dropped to one knee in front of Aida.  The man grinned as her world spun. “You lasted quite a time! Do you know what happened?”

“Don’t talk to him, Aida,” Sienna grunted. She spat blood from her mouth. “He snuck up on us. We can get out of this.”

Aida blinked. Her head hurt like she’d had too much wine, and the trees continued to fade in and out of focus before her. She felt like sleeping, like she hadn’t slept in weeks.

“You’re not going anywhere.” Hinir stood and waved at Sienna. The Warrior and two soldiers hauled her to her feet. “Tie her up over there.”

“You’ll never get away with this!” Sienna’s yell cut off as a soldier pulled on her broken arm, and she let out a pained yelp.

“Really? Your friend won’t run because I have you.” Hinir took a step toward Sienna, the sneer on his face evident from his tone. “And you won’t run, because my master has your mother.”

Zara?

Sienna paused her fight for a second before she lunged against the Warrior and soldier who held her. The soldier lost his grip, but the Warrior proved too strong and threw Sienna to the ground in front of the tree.

Zara’s image filled Aida’s mind as they bound Sienna. Not only were her friends in danger, she might get Zara killed as well.

The sun dropped in the afternoon sky when Aida woke again. What had happened?

A soldier stood to her side, and he glanced down at her every few seconds. A Calas, probably recruited recently from the Kort journeys across their land. He shifted between feet and looked back up when he saw she faced him. Aida inhaled sharply, surprised by the realization she could identify him as a Calas. How long had she slept?

A regular Kort soldier, a woman, leaned against a tree near Sienna. Sienna’s head drooped as she dozed. The gash on her head appeared closed, if messy, and her arm sat against her lap at an odd angle.

Their wrists were bound in front of them, but enough slack remained they could dip their heads to their hands to grab food. Aida’s guard dropped some bread in her lap without comment; she wondered if it was hunger that woke her. Her stomach growled in response.

Hinir sat on the other side of a fire, more intent on the flames than on the captives. He spared her the briefest of glances while she ate. Soldiers moved about the clearing in her periphery. She couldn’t see or sense Luca anywhere nearby, and for that she was grateful.

Aida paused her chewing to consider she had just attempted to sense Luca and was confident she had not succeeded. She realized she felt Hinir as well, though his calmness almost escaped her notice. His two ikast were somewhere nearby, but not in the camp. Her skill had returned with some sleep.

A piercing ache radiated from her ribs into her left shoulder, and the outside of her left hand was somewhat numb like she’d slept on it the wrong way. Various bruises also called for her attention, joining all the cuts and scratches already collected from their journey.

“Feeling better?” Hinir tossed a water skin over the fire and into her lap.

She looked down at the water but made no move to take it.

“There’s no reason to drug you. My master wants you awake for his arrival.”

Arrival? “Where are we?”

To her left, Sienna stirred against the tree at the sound of Aida’s voice.

Hinir glanced at the other woman. “Just a day or two south of the main trail, and perhaps three days west of the Temple. Very impressive run.”

They were close, then. If she could have held out another three days, they would be safe at the Temple. Sienna and Luca would be out of danger. Zara would still be with the Kort, however. Aida’s heart sank at the thought. She’d failed.

He leaned back and smiled. “You did quite well, you know. My master selected wisely.”

There was no comfort in his words. She’d still end up with Cugat. “What happened?”

“For as much as an advantage we Tengarper can have on the battlefield, we are notoriously easy to trick.” His aggravating, superior voice dripped with conceit; almost mocking in its certainty. “We remained on the edge of your ability to detect us, which kept you alert. My guess is you couldn’t sleep, and when you did your sleep was disturbed?”

She didn’t reply as she worked through the story. Was that possible? It sounded reasonable. It seemed like something that could happen. She closed her eyes and sighed, realizing the same powers used to trick her parents had also been used against her.

He shrugged. “You can tell me later when you’re an ikast. Cugat is on his way here along the path and will join us in a day or two. He’ll be happy to learn you lasted well over a week.”

“I’ll never become his ikast,” Aida said. Hinir was so pleased with himself, and it disgusted her. “I’ll die before I become an ikast. He won’t be able to take me.”

“Brave words, but I think you will.” His derision reminded her of Ferran, but there wasn’t a cliff to throw him over. Aida’s blood boiled. “He has Zara now. I assume you’ll like her returned to her daughter here safely?”

“Don’t let him threaten you, Aida.” Sienna pulled against her ropes and winced at her arm. “I’ll kill him for taking my mother.”

“You should sit still, girl. We only really need one of you alive. Besides, your mother is well cared for. Ian is seeing to that.” The contempt at Ian’s name hit Aida like a blow to the head.

Ian. Though Ian had to do Cugat’s bidding, hopefully he could keep Zara well otherwise. She didn’t doubt he’d be on her side if the situation was different, though she didn’t know why she thought that way. If only there was some way for him to overcome the ikast bond. But there wasn’t. Cugat could order Ian to kill Zara and Sienna, and he would comply without question.

Aida’s stomach churned. She felt better than she had all week, with more control over her power, but had no ability to use any of it to help her friends. Her only potential ally among the Kort had lacked the free will to support her, and might even be called upon to kill those she loved. The only option was to submit to Cugat and become his ikast.

Always remember to breathe. Her mother’s instruction returned to her. She started her breathing routine. The fear and fatigue had made her forget her one tool against the fear and fatigue, yet again. She needed to work on that.

No doubt she’d have time once she was Cugat’s ikast. She’d have Kezia to train her to use her Tengarper skills, or Hinir. She thought it would be Kezia though; Hinir didn’t seem the type. Would Cugat train her in battle? He grew old. Ian seemed too young though, or not good enough.

Would they return to the Kort stronghold? Were there more Warriors to train her? Or would they remain in Calas lands, leaving Aida to face those who had trusted her in the village? Would she see her friends again? Would they understand?

Will he make me kill them?

She realized she’d stopped her breathing pattern. Aida resumed, and the worry lessened. It was a nice change from the last week, when she couldn’t contain such thoughts and the panic they caused. The combination of sleep and lack of an unknown presence alarming the edge of her mind had done wonders for her mental state.

“You calm yourself well.” Hinir studied her across the fire. “We were somewhat concerned about your anxiousness the first day.”

The first day, on the green. She’d panicked before she met the Kort, and they’d noticed. If only she’d been more afraid, maybe Cugat wouldn’t have pursued her.

“I’m glad to see you can overcome that.  It will make things easier.”

Easier to be Cugat’s ikast, to study as a Tengarper Warrior, to do all the things Aida didn’t want to do.  Hinir was happy he could present a better ikast to his master than he’d even anticipated.

“Why does he want her as an ikast?” Sienna asked. “Why do all this to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do?”

He glanced at the other woman. “Our house will unite all Pival. My master only accepts soldiers and Warriors who will give us the greatest chance of accomplishing that goal. He believes this includes Aida.”

“The Writings.” Sienna sighed and looked down. Aida thought her friend might appreciate the dedication to faith among the Kort as it seemed to mirror her own. Then again, Sienna never thought her faith should include kidnapping people.

“My parents sent me, along with many copies of the Writings, to Cugat. Did you know he is well studied in the Writings?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “It is a rare thing among the Venkri.”

“Why is that?” At Hinir’s confused look, Sienna added, “I always wonder what brings people to or pushes them away from the Writings. It is my job.”

“The Tengarper have always been the keeper of the Writings. All the copies belong to their cities. When the Venkri departed west, they took few copies. They consider other things more important than learning, usually.”

“Do they worship the gods?” Sienna asked.

“Of course, why wouldn’t they? They do not need to know much to worship the gods, as we can see clearly in your own Calas.”

Sienna let the insult go unanswered, though her neck reddened.

“Even the Venkri are not backward,” he continued. “Blinded to wisdom at times, but nonetheless seeking the will of the gods.”

“What do you know of the Calas gods?” Sienna’s voice had an edge. Still defensive of the gods and the Calas religion, even after the adventure. Or was she baiting him?

“Plenty.” He stood and strolled in a rough circle. “We’ve been studying you for years, you know. No sacrifice. Belief that Tymon is a demon. You’re confused children.”

Years. It confirmed what they already suspected, that the Kort had been more involved with the Calas much longer than the Temple knew or admitted.

“Your sacrifices are behind the famines and plagues that Pival has suffered through for centuries.”

“So you say,” Hinir said. “But what would you know? Your histories are a cobbled mess after the Departure. You simply blame us for all the ills of the world.”

“The Departure happened to get away from your kind.”

“Still believe that lie?” Hinir asked. “The Calas left for many reasons. Certainly, some for religious reasons. But others just wanted ‘adventure.”

Sienna’s face turned bright red. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I? The Tengarper are the keepers of records, and we kept much better records than your cowardly Calas did when they fled.”

Hinir’s explanation did offer a better answer for the Tymon idol in the earlier village, but Aida couldn’t tell if he was only trying to annoy Sienna. He returned to Aida. “I was honored to become Cugat’s ikast. You should be as well.”

“Like Ian?” Aida wondered at the wisdom of her question as soon as she said it.

Hinir didn’t react, at least not externally. She felt his anger flare, though. “They were fools not to join Cugat when given the opportunity. Their houses are foolish too, weak. They will fall.”

“Their houses, or them?”

The pause lingered for too long. “Their houses of course. Kezia and Ian are ikast of Cugat now and with the Kort.”

So Kezia came unwillingly as well.

Aida thought back to her father’s concerns for after his death, the idea his own ikast might abandon Aida or turn against her mother’s ikast or each other. Did that happen, at the end? Did any fail in the last battle after her parents died? When Cugat died, would his ikast scatter? Would Ian and Kezia be able to flee?

“You will become an ikast to Cugat,” he said. “Even if you resist. Why not just give up and make it easier for yourself? And your friends; he has no interest in them without you.”

Aida doubt he cared about her friends, or probably even her, though she wondered if he felt some embarrassment associated with having unwilling ikast in your line. Her parents had given the impression it was frowned upon in the West.

Or maybe he wanted her to give up because it would make his life easier. He’d been tromping through the woods, same as her, for some time. “How long since you left to come look for us?”

“We left after Ferran returned.”

She hadn’t forgotten about Ferran, but assumed he would have left before then. How much did Hinir know about that battle? “Oh, is he well?”

“He will recover.”

“That’s too bad.” She tried not to sound smug. She failed. “And his ikast?”

“She’s fine.” He cocked his head to the side. “You’ve proven to be very resourceful for a Youth. That must be how Isma lost you. We won’t make the same mistake again.”

Lost her?

One of the soldiers drew near, followed by another Calas. The new Calas visitor wasn’t in Kort colors; just another of the Kort’s spies. Hinir walked with them away from the fire where Aida couldn’t hear them.

“You did find out they’ve been studying the Calas.” Aida hoped to calm her friend.

Sienna grunted. “He’s still lying. They don’t know anything. He could be lying about everything.”

What advantage was there to lie? Aida shrugged and returned to staring at the fire as Hinir came back from his short meeting.

“Good news,” he said. “My master will be here tomorrow afternoon.”

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