Published on 2011/01/23

Defiance

Patti Larsen

Ali gazed over the tree line as the darkness faded into the glow on the horizon. Brief wisps of fog dispersed, revealing the valley below. Her sharp vision searched for motion, found none. Lifting her tanned face, she sniffed the air. The residue of wood smoke mingled with varied scents of the forest. She tasted it in the back of her throat as she began her descent down the rough mountain path.

Ten year’s absence had wiped away her early life in the valley. Time dulled memory no matter her intent. Her new life with the Order demanded letting go of the old.

That familiar mix of aromas, however, brought it all rushing back.

Ali was going home.

She was tireless though she had walked through the night to reach her destination. As she made the tree line, the path narrowed, only thin shafts of sunlight filtering through the canopy.

She paused by a stream, scanning the ground on instinct. Tiny footprints imprinted the soft bank.

I played here when I was young. The ghost of who she was, a wisp of a girl with blonde hair in a torn and dirty dress laughed by the water, offering a wave of her hand as the vision was banished by reality. Ali raised hers in answer. The sight of it made her pause.

Some treasure I am, she thought. Far off from the girl I was.

Would her family even know her now? Her uniform of dark brown leather hugged her from neck to knee, sword and bow constant companions.

A quiet pool formed near her feet. The puddle was enough to allow her reflection to be cast back. For the first time in ten years, Ali really looked at herself. A plain, honest face. Large eyes. Small nose and wide lips. Tanned, scarred cheeks. The face of a warrior.

Crouching, she chose a stone from the gravel strewn at her feet and tossed it into her reflection before continuing on.

***

She was seven years old when the Guardian came to her village. She and her brother Gault were excited and a little afraid. Visits from members of the Order were rare. The elite guard was the right hand of the king and only did his Majesty’s business. They didn’t often venture as far north as the mountains.

This particular man had come to see their father, Darmus. The siblings shushed each other from their perch at the top of the stairs, eavesdropping on the conversation below.

“We miss you greatly.” The tall, spare stranger in chocolate brown leather had eyes that terrified Ali. They made her feel as if she had done something wrong.

“Those days are gone, Emnit,” Darmus said.

“You know why I have come.”

Darmus ignored his wife’s moan. “I do.”

“I am only here for one.” The stranger focused on the children in their hiding place. His eyes were black in the shadows.

Gault grabbed Ali’s arm and pulled her away.

“What’s wrong, Gauley?”

“Go to bed, why don’t you?” He would not look at her.

“What did he mean?” She asked. “Who is he here for?”

“Just go to bed.”

She laid awake well into the night wondering and listening to the noises of the house.

***

The scent was strong from the east tip of the village. Gray smoke puffed from chimney tops, tugged at and dispelled by the swift morning breeze.

Her training snapped her into focus. The smoke was wrong. It spiraled up from the far side of town, too large to be innocent. Her mind had wandered home well before she did, nostalgia stripping her of caution. Emnit would have whipped her within an inch of her life.

She opened her senses as she bypassed the village, staying close enough that she was able to catch a few glimpses. The forest was still, but not overly so. She sensed no threat. Ali cleared all emotion as she had been taught and moved on.

***

Her mother was sobbing. Trensa clung to Darmus, unable to look at her children. Ali’s lower lip vibrated with her mother’s weeping. Her father only had eyes for Emnit.

The Guardian called the entire village to the center square. None questioned or declined. No one wanted to miss it.

Emnit was very tall, taller than her father, lean and hard. His tanned face was gaunt, sunken eyes almost black. His dark hair hung down his back in a single thick braid. He wore a sword, much like the one Darmus hid in the root cellar.

“Citizens of Preval,” he said, “you have been summoned to witness the Choosing.” Gault twitched beside her. Ali felt small under the eyes of the entire village.

“Know that Darmus Archat was a Guardian of the Order.” Brief gasps were the only break in the stillness. “By law, his issue must be tested.”

Ali resisted grabbing her brother’s hand. This cold, dark man couldn’t take Gault away!

Emnit stood in front of her brother for so long that Ali felt him take a gasp of air when the man stepped back.

Before she could ask what happened, she was lost in Emnit’s eyes. Something within her was torn away.

Can you hear me? His voice was in her head.

Yes, she answered.

Her body felt tingly, mind on fire. Everything was brighter, noises more intense. Even the brush of Gault’s tunic sleeve against her hand made her pause at the odd feeling of it.

Emnit turned to her parents.

“I have Chosen,” he said.

Trensa collapsed in a wailing puddle as Gault shouted a protest. Ali’s mind was occupied by the strange new sensations, with no time to think or feel. As soon as Emnit made his announcement, he retrieved a travel bag, one of two lying in the dust.

In case it was Gault, she thought.

Yes, Emnit said.

Within moments she was marching toward the south edge of town. There was a short interruption when Trensa caught her, kissing her hair and face, her own distorted with grief.

We must go. Emnit detached her from the weeping woman. Best to be done quickly.

Will I see them again? Ali held tears back as she waited for his answer.

Someday, he said.

Her last memory of home was a long look over her shoulder. The whole village gathered to watch her go. Her brother waved, her father watched.

Her mother wept.

***

Ali hunkered down on the wide-open outskirts of the north end. They never had a need to wall or fortify. They were a peaceful people, far from the border, in a quiet and safe part of the world.

Had been. The entire section was burned to the ground. Fine walls of gray smoke rose from dying embers. Heat waves distorted the scorched dirt. The scent of burning wood mixed with cooked meat. This was no accident. Short steel war arrows were embedded in the surrounding buildings, charred black by the fire. There was a hoof churned half circle where the attacking force made their stand. A pile of dead bodies smoldered in the center of the square.

The damage was at least a day old. The rest of the village seemed deserted.

Not soon enough, she thought. They were taken by surprise.

She circled the site, alert as she pieced the battle together. Ghosts revealing themselves to her, tied to the gift.

Night, the moons not yet risen, not a hint of a breeze. The sudden silence of humming crickets. A deep, drumming growing louder as light flickers in the distance. Riders sweep out of the trees, masked in black, horses snorting steam. Torches are offered to arrows, setting the special tips ablaze. Without warning or order, they fly. The wood of the buildings catches. The first to emerge is killed from a distance. The second makes it two steps. He is taken down. The third manages to shout a warning before falling, but it is too little, too late. Sheets of flame climb the magistrate’s, smoke slithering across the roof. There is shouting as the villagers attempt to rally a defense. There is so much smoke and flame, painful to watch, impossible to make out much detail. A small group of faceless defenders storms the square but are surrounded, their weapons no match for arrow’s reach. A miracle, two attackers are injured in the assault, a horse goes down, but the end is inevitable. They are killed to a man and left to burn.

Ali pulled free in time to hunch over and vomit. The smell made the vision all the more intense.

Forgive me my weakness, Emnit, she thought. Her teacher would not have understood.

***

She was unable to stop crying. Her new master allowed her to snuffle for only a short time before gripping her upper arm in one iron hand and shaking her so hard she cried out.

“Enough,” he said. “You have been Chosen. Do not mourn your old life. Release it now.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“If I see one more tear,” he said, “you will be punished. Do you understand?”

Ali agreed, even though she didn’t.

Emnit released her. “Emotion is your enemy,” he said. “It is a lesson you must learn, Alimaeha. The gift will feed on it, on you, if you are not careful. And that will be your undoing.”

She rubbed her arm and did her best, not knowing that bruise was to be the first of many.

***

Ali tensed as the world fell silent. She was in the safety of the tree line before her mind knew her body had moved. There were people approaching, making no effort to lower their voices or hide themselves. Several men stepped into the square. Each carried a weapon of some sort; long bows, like her own, swords, axes. One carried a wheat scythe.

Survivors, she thought. Looking for what?

“I’m telling you, I saw someone,” a young man said. The others spread out. A quiet part of her mind realized neither her father nor her brother was with them. A huge man with broad shoulders and corded arms turned toward her hiding place. She took in his ruddy face and thinning dark hair, shining with gray.

Obron, her mind whispered.

With great care, she revealed herself. The big man cursed, raising the sword in his fist.

“Do you not know me, master smith?”

His eyes widened, the sword falling with a thump as his nerveless fingers released it.

“Ali,” he said. “Little Alimaeha.”

She bent to retrieve the fallen blade. “You should never drop your weapon,” she said.

Ignoring the offered sword, he swung her into his arms, crushing her against his broad chest. For that brief space of time she was seven years old and he was one of her heroes.

He turned toward the gathered men. “Ho, now, lads! Put your weapons down. Our little Alimaeha’s back from the Order!” Only then realizing what he had done, Obron set her on her feet, fear rising in his eyes. “My apologies,” he said.

“I need you to tell me what happened,” the soldier in her said. “And why.”

“Soon, lass, ah, my lady,” he said. He lowered his voice. “We are glad to see you.”

Ali went with the blacksmith into the forest. She knew the path, understood where he was taking her before she spotted the black opening of the first of the caves carved into the side of the mountain.

“We had to,” he said when he saw her looking. “There’s no going home yet, not after what happened.”

At the top of the path, they entered a clearing dominated by a vast cave mouth. A few families huddled nearby, watching her with haunted eyes.

Obron’s wife, Maelinda, met them at the cavern entrance.

“Stir up the stew from yestereve, woman, and cut up one of those loaves fresh cooling! We have a starving stranger here who just wandered in.”

“Mother bless me!” The petite woman gripped Ali’s hands between her own. A smile creased her lined face, though Ali could feel her anxiety.

She followed them into the damp cavern, Maelinda limping lightly ahead. Ali kept her eyes forward, ignoring the people around her. Sobs and low cries of grief echoed in the dark. She was shown to a rough stone slab next to a small fire and had food thrust before her. Maelinda draped a warm fur over Ali’s shoulders against the chill. With mechanical automation, she devoured the stew and bread, only sipping the watered ale that was set beside her.

As she ate, Obron lit his pipe. Rings of smoke rose around him, the familiar smell hovering in the still air.

“These are hard times,” Obron said. “Since the death of King Amoden, there’s been nothing but trouble brewing. Trade is slow, if it happens at all. Folks go missing on the highways. The useless fool they’ve placed on the throne couldn’t care less from what we’ve been told. Ayah, I suppose he means well with his treaties, but they ain’t helping his subjects. He needs to stop looking past our borders and see to the safety of his own folk.”

Ali knew this wasn’t the only part of Preval experiencing attacks. And yet, the king refused to act time and again, tying the army and the Order to the ground. His new foreign policy took his complete attention.

Obron went on. “We’d heard of trouble in the lowlands. We never thought it would reach us. ‘Till they hit us two nights ago, no warning or negotiation or even demands.”

“Obron,” she said. “Where is my father?”

“The night we were attacked, your Da was the only one who kept his wits. He got some of the men together so fast I don’t know how he managed. Even fought back a bit. Darmus got a couple, took down a horse.” Emnit’s presence was strong as she listened with forced dispassion.

“He was killed.” The quiet in her voice pleased her.

“Ayah. We hadn’t a chance again them. My own Togan…” he choked off, face mottled with pain.

“Here now, Obron,” Maelinda’s hands fell to his shoulders. “There was nothing anyone could have done.”

Obron brought himself back under control. “They killed the magistrate and the entire council.” He leaned forward, eyes sad. “A poor homecoming for you, lass.”

Ali felt cold. An iron fist settled around her heart. Cold was perfect. “My mother?”

“Ayah, your Momma too, was struck down when she tried to get your Da from the flames.”

“And Gault?” Her voice was Emnit’s.

“Lives, if for now. He is badly burned and infected with a great sickness.” He sat back again, puffing sadly on his pipe. “We don’t have a hope here if we have no protection.” He watched her through the swirl of smoke. “Will you help us?”

“I want to see my brother.” She climbed to her feet, the fur sliding from her, to gather in a soft puddle around her boots.

Lying in a mess, she thought, like my life. How can I tell these people there is nothing I can do?

***

Ali held still for the thrashing.

You care too much. The flat of Emnit’s sword raised burning welts on her back. You weigh yourself down with these feelings for others. You defend them when you should look to your own training.

Any show of weakness would result in further lashes. He did nothing wrong.

The boy needs to learn, Emnit’s blows stopped. You must follow orders, Alimaeha.

He returned to his work as she clung to self-control. The core of her ached for the boy, only ten, who had been nearly killed by a pack of older trainees. As she took her punishment, not the first and certainly not the last in those long ten years, Ali held on to the truth and her defiance.

She had done the right thing.

***

Gault’s eyes were closed. His chest rose and fell with ragged unevenness. One side of his face was gaunt, cheeks and eyes sunken. The other was no more, a charred mass of weeping yellow, red and black.

She felt nothing. Emnit would be proud, she thought.

Gault’s eyes flickered. “I… must be… going mad.” His words were broken things. “Could it be…?”

“It’s me, Gauley.”

He strained for breath. “A Guardian, for real. Do you know how jealous I have been, sister mine?”

She wouldn’t have wished it on anyone.

“You… heard?” he said. “About Mother? Father?”

“Yes.”

His eyes lit the fire that had burned him. “Kill him.” He reached for her, pulling her close. His breath smelled of his end.

“Gault?”

“The… the bastard… their leader… he killed our parents… the fire he ordered kills me now.” Her brother’s eyes burned, the last spark of him living there for only that moment. “Swear by our blood that you will kill him!”

Emnit would not approve.

“I swear,” she said.

The frantic need in him died as he did. His gaze turned up, grip on her hand falling away. Reaching forward, she gently closed his eyes.

***

“What will you do, Ali?”

She told Obron the truth.

“There is nothing I can do,” she said. “I have my orders. I am to take my place at the border to Vistanesh and assist the garrison commander there.”

“Then we are lost.” Maelinda said. “Tell your king his people die while he does nothing.”

“And your oath?” Obron said. “What of the promise you made your brother?”

“A lie to a dying man.”

Not wanting to carry another memory won over her parting shoulder, Ali left them, moving west, away from home.

Forgive me, she thought. The lies I tell are for your protection.

***

Emnit tossed a torch into the pile of kindling. It caught immediately, flames sighing outward. The squatter’s settlement was erased in less than an hour.

They overstepped their bounds. Emnit was as cold as ever.

I thought it was our job to protect them, she said.

Emnit was quiet for so long she was surprised when he

responded.

So did I, he said.

Then why—

Orders, his mental voice was crisp, covering that moment of weakness, the flaw in his control. Above all else, we must follow orders.

And them? What orders are they breaking?

Defiance is unacceptable, he said. You know this. They keep their lives, at least.

And if someone were to step in?

These people would be killed, he said. And the traitor as well.

Her last real lesson from him. Obedience was all. Anything else was death.

***

Ali circled back to the scene of the fire. A blind child could follow them, she thought as she set out in pursuit. They are confident no one is coming after them. Who are they?

Ali ran through the day. The hoof tracks weaved over the road, through a smaller valley. She smelled smoke about midday but ignored it and the column of black that rose from the east.

As the sun descended, she followed at a slower pace. The prints were fresher, horse dung only beginning to crust. The band was moving at casual speed. As it was, they were making it easy for her.

When the sliver of the first moon rose above the horizon, she found them. The camp was large, twenty men and horses with room and tents for more. They posted no guards and lit a massive fire. As one of the soldiers passed before the fire, she saw the crest on his tunic.

Memory slapped her hard.

***

Ali made her way to the stable, schooling her thoughts to perfect stillness. She had been called to serve, a Guardian at last, the first of her year group to achieve it. Emnit had watched, her official welcome granted by Master Arner himself.

You make me proud. His mind touched hers. He was always testing her. She ignored him.

As a reward, she had the rest of the training cycle to herself. Unaccustomed to idleness, she found herself bored and missing, of all people, Emnit.

She blinked away the remains of her dilated vision as she left the sunlit yard for the cool dimness of the barn. The place was still, stable hands absent. Ali’s mind processed this as she made her way to the far stall and slipped inside. She ran her hands over the soft, black hide of her favorite horse. He, in turn, greeted her with a soft whicker.

The unexpected touch of her mentor’s presence froze her in place. Ali held her breath, a quieting hand on the stallion’s nose. Footfalls and the murmur of voices made her settle further.

The door to the stable creaked closed, deepening the gloom.

“I am here, as you requested.” Emnit’s voice was harsh.

Ali peeked through the uneven slats. His back was to her, blocking her view.

“You know why we’re here.” The other’s voice was low. Emnit shifted forward, clearing her vision.

The crown prince. He and Emnit were often together, but in public. Not hiding in a darkened stable in the heat of the day.

Havard flickered his blue eyes around the empty barn. “Have you any further word? I am ready to join the others, but I need allies. Do I count you as such?”

“As I have said,” Emnit said, “we act immediately. The time has come, my prince.”

“I hoped you would say so. Your support means success. My men leave at midnight.”

The prince left without another word. Ali returned her attention to Emnit to find him gone as well.

She had no idea what they discussed. The fact it was done in secret concerned her. But what had she heard? Nothing.

Emnit appeared at the stall door, startling the stallion.

“You were never here,” he said. “Nor I. Nor the prince. There are things happening, Alimaeha, that you and I may come to change, even if it means making a path where none exists. But only if you trust me.”

“Of course,” she said.

He left her there to wonder. As she saddled her horse, she realized with some surprise he was asking her to trust him. Not the other way around.

***

Ali forced emotions down as the gift tried to devour her.

The soldier was wearing the crest of the crown prince.

Ali hunched beside a boulder, shielding herself from casual view.

Perhaps I am mistaken, she thought. Could they be in pursuit of the bandits? No. She wasn’t willing to lie to herself. They are the murderers. But why?

The only person who could answer her was in that camp.

No one noticed her until she was near the bonfire. Her goal was standing on the far side of the flames, laughing and drinking from a silver flask. The prince’s smile died, but he wasn’t alarmed. There was only one reason he didn’t think her a threat.

Emnit, her mind whispered. What have you done?

Ali came to a halt and Havard nodded to her.

He still believes I’m my master’s creature, she thought.

“I wasn’t told you had joined us,” he said.

“I haven’t, your highness,” she told the truth. “I’m on my way to the border.”

“You’re a far throw from there yet,” he said. He offered her the flask. “Drink?”

He made it so simple. She was moving even as the prince saw it in her eyes. So easy. An end to it all, including her own life. She never expected to live from the moment she chose her path.

What she hadn’t expected was the grip on her wrist, the power of the gift that flowed through her, controlled her as it had since she was seven years old. Ali tore her eyes from Havard’s terrified gaze and looked up at Emnit.

His power engulfed her and dragged her to black.

 

She woke in dull pain. She tried to open her eyes, but only succeeded with one. The other throbbed, firmly sealed.

It was still dark. The bonfire blazed still but there were many more soldiers than before. She could feel their grim determination hanging like a canopy.

Ali tried to move. She was sitting up, hands bound behind her, tied to a tree. There was something not right inside her, a broken feeling of finality. Her head bobbed, hanging as she gathered her remaining strength. Only then did she notice her uniform was stripped from her. Her thin undergarments were torn and bloodied. She couldn’t feel her legs.

She choked, straining to spit out the old, crusted blood that filled her mouth, fresh welling to replace it.

Emnit. His name was a curse. He preached, beat obedience into her. And now here he was, the enemy, the traitor.

She knew he was coming before she saw his boots appear next to her corpse-white feet. She refused to look up.

“Alimaeha.” His speaking voice was a statue come to life, if stone could speak.

For the first time she defied him openly and refused to acknowledge him at all. He crouched, thick fingers sliding under her chin.

His face was full of sorrow.

“You were never meant to be here,” he said. “Nor was your village to be a target. Your father…” He trailed off, regret heavy between them. “Your father was my friend, the only friend I have ever had. His death is a waste.”

Ali worked up blood and saliva. When she had enough momentum, she spit in his face. He didn’t flinch, made no effort to wipe it away, even when the bloody wad trailed down his skin, glistening in the light of the distant fire.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

What right had he to be sorry? His admission allowed her to see him as he really was. Flawed, small. Human.

She refused to touch his mind. Her words were grainy and rough but she got her message out.

“I don’t care,” she said.

“You know why you have to die?”

“So you and the traitor can live,” she said.

“I am a patriot.” His words clipped short. “The king has done nothing since he took the throne but ignore reality. Did you know the fool has opened the border to the Vistani? The Vistani! As though our enemies were suddenly trustworthy! He has their ambassador at the palace.”

He calmed, his old mask falling into place. He stood, towering over her, power in check. “We will save our people,” he said. “We will force the king to take notice or we will seize his crown from him.”

“Your strategy is flawed if saving people is your goal,” she said.

“Casualties are the cost of war.” He was back-lit by the fire, wreathed in flame but cloaked in darkness.

“You have taken everything from me,” she said. “My childhood, my family and my trust in you. I am beyond your reach. Do your worst.” She let her chin drop.

His boots retreated. The prince’s voice rose in anger as their plan spun out to her, through her gift. This time, instead of seeing the past, Ali was granted a glimpse of the future.

Smoke rises from the Order barracks. Guardians lay dead, brought low by betrayal and lies. The Capitol is in ruins, polished domes crushed like eggshells. The stench of rotting corpses and fire is a constant. The Vistanesh assault is an endless marching column of dark-robed barbarians on massive horses, the devastation reaching out to the crippled countryside. Preval is in chains. Everywhere there is decay and hopelessness. Havard dies by the hand of Emnit moments before a Vistani arrow takes her mentor’s life.

Ali almost shared her vision with her old teacher. But Havard’s fury made her pause.

I must act, she thought. This must not be. There is nothing I can do, but I must do something!

Her gift touched her rising emotion and tried to feed. With nothing left to lose, she let it. She saw Emnit spin, felt his power as he realized what she was doing, but he had no control over her any longer.

Ali poured everything she was feeling into her gift. It swelled in a heartbeat, engulfing her in flames.

Fire, she thought. How fitting.

She laughed as the storm of heat rushed from her and engulfed the camp. Emnit’s eyes were empty as her power surrounded him and set him alight.

 

Ali opened her eyes to the brilliant sunrise, cast with pinks and reds and golds. It took her a long time to understand that she was whole and healthy again. Her uniform was restored to her, sword and bow lying nearby. Even her pack was intact.

How?

Her gift hummed happily within her.

The clearing was empty and made her wonder if she dreamed it all. The grass was untouched by the fire she created. There was no sign of tents or horses or soldiers. The air was calm, peaceful, fragrant with flowers and the ripe grass she crushed beneath her feet.

Why is the Order so afraid? She wondered. How can it be that we have been forced to lock away such a power?

The gift flashed her forward.

She was standing on the steps to the throne. The Capitol burned behind her, engulfed in flames of her creation. She laughed as they placed the crown on her head, devoured, mad with power. She was a monster, beautiful and flawless and horrible, and they loved her for it.

Never again, she thought.

Her gift disagreed, now with a life of its own.

We’ll see, she thought. The fire within her dimmed and simmered.

Ali took a step forward and stumbled. She crouched, parting the grass.

A pair of leather boots lay crumpled there.

She knew those boots.


Patti Larsen is a novelist and screenwriter with a passion for paranormal, fantasy and science fiction adult, YA and MG. Her middle grade novel, The Ghost Boy of MacKenzie House (Acorn Press) is due for publication in spring of 2012. Other publications include Cat City (Smashwords, Lulu.com) and Curiosities, Inc. (Smashwords, Lulu.com).

Patti lives on the East Coast of Canada with her very patient husband and four gigantic cats.