Defiant: Chapter Twenty Two

Greetings and happy November!  As promised last week, I’ve started NaNoWriMo.  We’ll see how it goes.  Last year, I decided to cut my effort short as I had too much going on with other parts of my life.  Work gets busy during this time, and although I don’t spend a lot more time there, I do spend a lot more of my creative energy.  So far, so good though!  I have over 8000 words heading into today’s writing times.

Let’s continue our read-through of Defiant, with Chapter Twenty-Two, which begins our thrilling conclusion to Aida’s journey.

Aida’s shadow stretched out before her as she strode along the path. She shivered though she wasn’t cold. She’d been cold seven years earlier when attacked but didn’t understand then it was fear.

Always remember to breathe.

The Kort army lay somewhere in front of her. Aida’s breathing pattern calmed her enough to get a better sense of them, making her grow anxious again. The cycle continued with each step, though she forced herself forward. Fear was part of the plan, and she did nothing to mask the emotion from the Kort Tengarper she knew waited for her.

Sienna and Luca made little noise behind her as they followed her toward her battle. They were frightened as well, and she felt them, but she focused on the Kort Warriors ahead. Ian was there, with the Kort army, basking in the glory of securing Aida’s arrival.

The Temple raised the alarm earlier in the morning and horns sounded behind them as they fled. They knew Aida was gone. She counted on the priests’ indecision to give her enough time to meet Cugat, and thus far, Captain Kyrra and her troops had not given chase. The Temple’s safety had improved with Aida’s departure, and she didn’t regret leaving.

The tall oaks of the woods around her opened ahead, and the presence of Kort soldiers and Warriors washed over her like the waves of the village lake during a storm. She paused for a moment to gather herself before stepping out of the cover, past the long shadows of the trees, and into the morning sunlight.

Three companies of Kort stood in formation ahead of her. Another set of troops under the Kort banner stood at the rear. She’d felt all of them as she approached, but seeing them was different. Aida almost lost control then. Her heart rose into her throat and her vision blurred. She inhaled sharply.

“This is going to work,” Sienna said from behind. The siblings’ job was to get Zara out of the way and back to the Temple when it was all over, whatever happened to Aida.

She sought out the Warriors in Cugat’s party. Ferran stood aggravated and in pain, and his remaining ikast, Chandi, remained angry. Kezia was confident and as she stood near Cugat and chatted with him. Her ikast waited silently to the side. Ian seemed anxious. Hinir remained still, impassive. And she still could not read Cugat.

Aida studied Cugat and his ikast. All were in full armor, but none expected a battle. The pomp and ceremony of an ikast ritual demanded preparation. Her father described it when she was younger. This type of thing normally happened at the stronghold, not in a field, and it was always a celebratory time.

This will be too. She intentionally took another breath, but allowed the anxiety to flow over the field and to the Tengarper.  Aida didn’t want them to know she was confident; that she had a plan.  The dagger pressed against her calf, but she let that thought go.

Zara stood next to Kezia and in front of two guards, arms crossed. She looked well, if annoyed. Whatever happened with Aida, Zara would be safe.

Aida closed her eyes and steadied herself. She reviewed in her mind some of the sword work she might need, reminding herself that she was a very strong Youth. The War of the Youth saw the slaughter of many masters because of Youth like her. The Youth were dangerous and powerful. Today would be another reason for those in the West not to train their children.

She opened her eyes and continued to walk. The Kort army’s excitement rose to meet her. Aida was dimly aware of the concern growing behind her.

Cugat smiled, but beside him, Zara yelled. “Run Aida! It isn’t worth it! Let them kill me!”

A soldier grabbed her roughly, but Cugat looked back over his shoulder. “Let her yell. This one isn’t leaving.”

Aida centered herself in front of the Warriors, at least fifty paces away. She didn’t need to allow her anxiety to swell; it did that on its own. It felt different this time though. She wouldn’t freeze like she had with Ferran, and she wouldn’t run like she had when she was eleven.

“Aida!” Cugat called. Although she couldn’t sense him, he radiated confidence. He was pleased with himself. His glance back told her he was showing off for the delegation. “I’m glad you finally see the wisdom in my proposal. Come, let us finish this quickly. Your friend can leave, and we can make our peace treaty with the city.”

Aida took three deep breaths, as was her plan. She focused on the feel of the dagger on her leg and the weight of her sword on her hip. “You will let my friend go, and then I will challenge you to the ritual duel.”

She focused only on Cugat’s response, though she felt nothing. The ikast around him expressed surprise and glanced at their master. His smile never faded. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but that isn’t how this is going to work. If you’d like to see your friend released, you’ll need to accept the ritual.”

One of the new, unknown Warriors called out from behind Cugat’s forces. He was aged and looked gruff, but Aida sensed some pleasure at the situation. “Cugat, is it not enough to violate all of our laws regarding this? Give the girl her battle.”

“Unless you fear loss.” One of the unknown female Warriors called from nearby. The Kort Warriors behind Cugat’s forces laughed. Their disdainful attitude toward Cugat would have been evident to Aida, even if she had no Tengarper blood.

For the first time since meeting him, Aida sensed something from Cugat. Rage boiled under his otherwise calm surface, all aimed behind him though he stared at Aida.

His anger was followed by more surprise from Kezia, though she didn’t turn her head to look at her master. She’d not expected to feel her master for some reason. Her face remained flat as she glared at Aida.

Aida’s confidence surged at the small victory over Cugat’s control, even if it had more to do with the Kort at the back than anything she’d said. The fact she could sense all of them so well while she was scared calmed her some. She continued to allow her anxiety to show through, though.

“Yes, go fight her then.” Zara scowled at Cugat. “Maybe she’ll kill you, so I don’t have to.”

The surprised soldiers guarding Zara looked at Cugat for a response. He ignored her and focused on Aida. “The ritual doesn’t hurt, girl, but a battle might.”

Aida drew her sword and planted her feet. “Let Zara go, and then we will find out.”

Cugat’s nose flared, but then his shoulders relaxed. He turned to look over his shoulder at the other Warriors. “Release the woman.” He glared at Zara. “Know this, you cannot aid her or the battle is forfeit, and I can send my ikast to take her.”

“I pray she kills you.” Zara walked past him. “And if she doesn’t, know this, I will.”

She did not look back as she approached Aida.

“You should have run, Aida.” Zara embraced her. “When you become his ikast, you’ll be stuck.”

“I don’t plan on that happening.” Aida returned the hug and then let Zara go. Zara moved onto embrace her children “You all will need to wait here. If anything goes wrong, run for the city.”

Her sword felt loose in her sweaty palm as she turned, and she gripped it more tightly. It didn’t help. Sweat ran down her back, pooling at the base.

This man killed my family.

She took a few more intentional breaths. The feelings of the Kort before her could be overwhelming if she didn’t focus. She went through each of the Kort Warriors quickly one by one. Everything was just the same as the last time, though there was a new mix of admiration and concern.

Their concern was not for Aida. She saw Cugat for his age then; an old Warrior trying to take his last ikast. Another voice in her head wanted to say he was old and wise and practiced, but she shut that voice out and focused instead on her breathing and Cugat’s face. She couldn’t read his feelings, but she could try to read his face. He still studied her, sword undrawn.

His calm, calculating manner did nothing to appease her growing anger, and her neck grew hot with rage as she waited. She’d been planning for revenge for seven years, and her opportunity stood before her.

The soldiers glanced between Cugat and Aida in the silence. None of his ikast broke eye contact with her, and Cugat continued to stare. She felt nothing from him, but his face tightened as he thought. He was planning.

Her stomach dropped, fear matching pace with her rage. She wanted to drop her sword but talked herself through it. There was only one of him. Just one Warrior to fight. It wasn’t like the battle seven years before. It wasn’t a surprise. She wasn’t a child.

Zara decided to try to move things along. “Are you coming to get here or you just going to stand there like an old coward?”

Aida couldn’t help but smile at the attitude, one she’d drawn from so many times before. Cugat finally pulled his sword free and took a few steps towards her. “This is your last chance, Aida. Surrender now. It will hurt less.”

“I’m going to kill you, like you had my parents killed.”

Another wave of surprise crossed Cugat’s face. Shock from the Warriors behind him. Ian must not have had time to tell him about that revelation. Cugat sneered. “Learned about that, did you? If Isma house hadn’t failed me, then we wouldn’t be here.”

“Yet here we are.” She took a step forward, and he advanced.

His first blow surprised her, as he aimed it toward her head. She wanted him dead, but she thought he wanted her alive. She blocked it, but it knocked her back. He was much stronger than Ian, and also much stronger than Aida. Her heart leaped into her throat, and she stopped breathing for a moment.

Another swing came quickly, this time from the side. She knocked it away, and a vibrating pain shot up her arm. Too clumsy. He’s so strong.

He attacked several more times, with hard blows at her head. She defended each one but was lost ground with each step. Zara’s concern flared behind her, with Sienna and Luca. Sweat cascaded down her arm into her palm, and the tip of her sword swayed as she shook with fear.

She paused briefly and tried to throw Cugat, like she threw Ferran. Nothing happened. He smirked. Something prevented her powers from working. He charged again.

Cugat was trying to exhaust her. His age might work against him eventually, but he was the stronger of the two initially. She ducked under another swing as she panted heavily. This wasn’t going as well as she’d planned.

Aida darted to the side to give herself some distance as she studied her opponent. Some sweat glistened on his forehead, but he didn’t otherwise appear strained by the fight. The grin had never left his face. Cugat turned to his army and rose his hands, and earned a cheer in response. She sucked in a painful breath and glanced to the sky.

Always remember to breathe. Her mother’s voice returned to her mind, and anger flared as Cugat charged forward. He was the reason her mother’s voice had ended. He was the reason her father had fallen.

She started her own round of attacks. He remained stronger, but she was faster. Each of her attacks only narrowly missed. Cugat took a step back with each attack, and his smile fell.

Aida closed the gap between them, allowing her rage to fuel each blow. She got too close on one though, and he used his free hand to grab her arm and throw her to the ground.

His foot came down where her leg had just been, and she rolled away, thankful to not have any armor to encumber her movement. Then she was on her feet, making another dash towards Cugat, but he stepped to the side and she missed.

The counterattack was swift and almost caught her in the back, but she spun in time to miss the sword. The momentum carried her forward into his waiting fist, and the blow knocked her head back.

She stepped back so as not to fall, but was dazed as she stared again at the morning sky. He charged forward and swung his sword directly for her outstretched weapon. His blade knocked her mother’s sword free of her hand and onto the ground next to her. Aida stumbled away to the side. Cugat smiled again as he circled, placing himself between her and the sword.

Blood dripped from her nose over her lip and to her mouth. She listed to the right and fell. She stood quickly and faced him again, though her vision seemed crooked and fuzzy.

Cugat sheathed his sword. He stepped forward and swung his massive hand, but she ducked. She punched him in the stomach as hard as she could, but yanked her fist back in pain after it connected with his armor. Cugat brought his other hand around and caught her in the side of the head. Aida fell again. She rolled up to her hands and knees but almost blacked out from pain. He kicked her in the same shoulder Ferran had hit, and she rolled onto her back.

“My new ikast is a fighter,” he called back to his troops, earning another loud cheer. The cheer seemed to go on too long; was that just in her head?

She tried to throw him again with her mind. Aida took several deep breaths and pushed out. This time, she felt a push back. Cugat used some hidden Tengarper skills to repel her power.

Aida rolled over again, pushing off with her before leaning back and resting on her calves. It would be the appropriate position to begin the ikast ritual, though she was only there because she couldn’t summon the energy to move further.

Cugat beamed as he approached her. “You’re a strong one. This might have worked if I hadn’t helped myself out a bit.”

He glanced behind him, toward the unfamiliar Warriors, as he drew a dagger from his belt to start the ritual. His gaze returned to Aida, and his grin never left as he pulled the blade across his hand.

Aida drew in shallow, painful gasps of air as she watched blood roll off his palm down onto the dirt in front of her. Someone screamed behind Aida, but she let the sound go. She let everything go. She had one chance remaining. Aida took in one last, slow breath.

Always remember to breathe.

Cugat drew near. He’d need to be right in front of her to start the ritual. Aida’s father had told her about this as well; the master pulled the Youth forward and pushed their head down while he cut across the back of the Youth’s neck. Once the master’s bleeding hand made contact with the bleeding neck, Tymon bestowed his gift, and the ritual was over. The Youth was an ikast.

Unseen by Cugat or his army, Aida drew her own dagger from the boot at her hand. She felt his hand on her head as she tightened her grip around the handle. He pulled forward. She might not be able to affect Cugat with her power, but she could still direct the knife.

“Master!” Kezia screamed. She knew something was wrong then; Aida must have given something away with her thoughts.

He was too busy gloating to notice. As he raised his head to look at his troops again in victory, she threw the dagger up and into his neck. It was an impossible shot, guided more by her mind than her hand.

Cugat’s confused face fell directly in front of her onto the ground. Exhausted, she tumbled to her side.

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