Sisters of Westwinter
The First Law of Atla
Prologue II – The Promise of Dragon’s Fire
No sooner than she released the haft did she fall back behind her parent’s bed. The arrow found its mark in the center of the man’s left eye, a sick crunch echoed through the bedroom as it embedded itself. Emry whipped her hands to her ears and clamped her eyes closed as her father’s bow clattered to the floor. A cold thud followed. She peered beneath the skirt of her parent’s bed to see the scout lying on his back, his head twisted in her direction. The gush of blood from his eye masked the scars and drenched his unkempt facial hair. The torch he held rolled a hands length away from him and teetered back and forth.
Emry couldn’t take her eyes away from the sight of the man, dead, on the other side of the room. The churn of insides wrenched her and she took a second look at exposed shaft, buried deep in his head. Another painful twist gripped her without warning, and she spilled the contents of her stomach onto the wood before her. Chewed berries and jerky erupted from her and splattered against the floor, intermingled with bile and river water. A tingle crept through her as she heaved once more, ejecting the whatever was left of her guts onto the bed as she struggled to stand. The tingle continued to spread from the base of her skull upward as she picked up the bow.
The stench of vomit and the growing scent of smoke as the scout’s torch caught light a pile of linen rags she had been meaning to clean. The blaze ignited quickly as she braced herself on the nightstand, composing. She stared for a moment before she turned back and pushed open the door opposite her, that led to her father’s small balcony. She climbed the bannister and raced toward the river. When she drew near she ripped her water skin from over her shoulder and slapped it into the running water, allowing it to collect.
“There will be more.” She reminded herself through heavy breath as she yanked her water skin out and returned to the balcony. She gripped small wooden pegs she’d hammered into the support beams years before, and climbed up. The blaze had grown to envelop the pile of linens, and as she found herself before it in the bedroom, the realization set in that a water skin would not be enough to quell the maturing flame.
She held the leather pouch before her and sprayed water across the blaze. Steam and smoke hissed as she emptied the contents, unsuccessfully taming the flame. In apparent defiance, the flame spread to a bundle of dried skins her father had been saving for binding some of his writings and took them alight. She sucked in a lung-full of smoke and clamped down her jaw once more. The flames had spread across the hall, blocking her from the storage room, but it was her only hope. So she clenched her hands into uncertain fists and ran into the raging flame. She shuddered as she stepped over the corpse, and shoved with her back foot through the fire. The spiteful flame licked her skin as she crashed through it. The heat singed her hair and clothes as she ran through it and emerged on the other side, sweat drenched but otherwise unharmed. The cabin had grown to an unbearable heat, but she pushed through it to get to the storage room where half a wagon’s worth of clay pots rested on the ground, filled with water.
She hefted them one by one to the fire and poured them out, but it spread faster than she could manage. The flames writhed over the body of the scout and filled the cabin with the scent of burning flesh. A wave of nausea washed over her as she dumped another pot full of river water on the flames, but it was to no avail. She stood in the hall surrounded by empty pots as the realization crept in that there was nothing she could do to halt the blaze. She gritted her teeth and ran straight through the flames once more, the heat within the cabin unbearable as she jumped over the blazing corpse. Flames spread through her father’s bedroom and tore into the chalk drawings she’d made that he’d kept since she was little. They incinerated the knots of grass her brothers tied together into a necklace for their mother. They chewed the linen sheets that covered the bed and licked at his bow and quiver before she arrived and plucked them from the gluttonous flame.
She stopped only to collect her thoughts, to think of what she would really need from her father’s room. A thousand things flashed in her mind, clay jewelry her father had kept from her mother. Her father’s hunting journal. Trinkets and memories of the life she’d lived in the forest by the river and a million other things that she’d wanted to take with her. As the cabin walls caught blaze, her father’s room was swallowed in flame as she decided that she couldn’t wait any longer. She slung his bow and quiver over her shoulder and reached across the flames for the small leather bound journal he’d written notes for her in. The flames raked at her forearm, the heat blistering her skin as she stretched, and placed her hand around the hot leather, singed by the scout’s flame. She clamped down and yanked her arm back through the heat and embraced the journal as she shoved her way through the balcony door.
Around her, the crack of charred collapsing wood echoed into the night. The flames had spread through the house completely as the balcony door snapped closed behind her. She lifted herself over the railing with a stinging arm and hopped the railing for what would be the last time. Down on the wet earth, she stepped away from the cabin and looked back as it collapsed beneath the growing hunger of the flame. Her stomach twisted as she made her way toward the river.
Somewhere from deep down the realization of her day swelled up and burst within. Tears forced themselves violently from her eyes and with them came a violent coughing fit. She collapsed in the mud of the riverside to let the tears fall on her family’s resting place as she gasped for breath. In the middle of the bubbling stream, the stick she’d driven into the ground to mark their resting place swayed beneath the weight of the water, and she curled beside it as the fire crackled on the other side of the tree line behind her. She held herself in disquiet until the remaining sunlight dipped behind the mountains, her stream of tears came to a halt with the snapping of twigs.
Somewhere beyond the river bank behind the suddenly foreign and imposing trees, fire light flickered. She froze in place, her breath tight in her lungs as she fought to hold back her sobs. She slowed her breathing, the last few tears slid down her cheek as she laid on the mud and stared. They had arrived.
In the darkness of the forest, one torch light become two, then three, then five. A group of shadowed figures marched through the wet underbrush towards the massive fire that had erupted in the woods behind her.
“It’s them.” The rage within her wrapped itself around her heart as the men drew nearer. She released the tight grip she’d held on her knees and stretched herself flat against the mud. Slowly, silently, she crept toward the river. Her fingers gripped the mud as she dragged herself forward, her father’s bow carved a swath through the muck with each motion. She plunged her blistered, burned forearm into the icy river and jolted. The frigid water coursed over the burn and soothed it with a chill. She clenched her hands around a rock lodged beneath the running water and pulled herself down, drawing her bow from around her shoulder as she slithered to the river and dunked her head beneath.
The water wrapped around her and coursed across her skin, prickled by the cold. Beneath the surface she noted their forms as they crossed from the trees and toward the burning cabin. Five men her father’s size, two much older than her father and three closer to her age. All of them armed heavily and draped in thick fur coats that concealed polished silver armor, two of them shorter than she. The rest much taller. She swung her bow carefully around her, sure to keep it completely submerged as the men moved downriver to find a shallow crossing. Her stomach tightened as she slid an arrow from the quiver and knocked it in the water. When it had found its place, she watched patiently as the men crossed the river, ten body lengths away from her hiding place. She waited as they paused on the other side of the river bank, their voices muffled by the rushing water. Her lungs tightened as they continued their conversation, yet, she kept her composure.
The men refused to move from their place, the sound of their bickering twisted and diluted by the river. The light from her flaming home grew only brighter and the pain in her lungs grew only more severe as she watched them, waiting for a chance to catch her breath. Two of the men shouted something in unison and marched away from the others, leaving their torches behind. The men moved quickly through the darkness, and in moments were gone from her sight.
“They’re going towards my home.” She thought, and twisted her neck to face the surface of the river. Her lungs screamed with pain as she contorted herself, with one eye on the remaining three men she pressed her lips and nose from beneath the water and released a long, painful breath. She gulped down a second and returned to her place to see the three men follow after their companions, towards the house fire. Emry waited until their torchlight had disappeared from the riverside and pushed herself up, emerging from beneath the water’s surface to hear the men bickering about a man named Klauven.
“Confused why he’d want a lass out here.” One of the younger men shouted. “Not much of our business, kidnappin’ kids.”
Another voice, older, rougher, worn by age and war answered. “Girl ain’t no child. Klauven wants the mother this time.”
Emry’s heart skipped a beat. “They were looking for my mother.”
She crouched down and crept slowly out of the river. As she did so, her bow bumped the stick that marked her family’s grave and it gave way, collapsing beneath the pressure of the stream. The makeshift marker floated to the surface and bobbed down the river, on a long journey to Lake Reilyr. She thought to reach out for it but stopped herself. “Too loud.”
She crept out of the river and towards her home behind the men, their voices echoed through the trees as they loudly talked with one another about Klauven and how he’d sent them to their death. She listened, to follow the sound of their voices than because she cared what they were saying. The flame of her home ravaged the trees and plants nearby, illuminating the forest like a sun had come to rest in her mother’s garden. Shadows flickered against the ground as she ducked behind leaves and trees, in tow with the pack of men.
They arrived at her cabin to find it a pile of smoldering rubble. The two who had gone on ahead were nowhere to be seen, but Emry kept her sights focused on the three remaining who approached the fire and spoke to one another in hushed whispers, as if they realized they were being watched. She drew the arrow back in her bow and lined it up, watching the three men move as she pointed at them with the flint tip. They paced back and forth around a small clearing that once was her mother’s garden, which had overnight become a ravaged pile of soot. The heat that burst forth from the fire seared her cheeks, but the three men were unfazed by the immense flame. Each of them paced just outside the flickering tongues that swelled and twisted around the charred mass of wood. They bickered and argued as if they were outside on a sunny day, speaking once more at high volume and completely unconcerned with the presence of the flame.
With her aim set, prepared to strike, she held herself off as the two who went ahead before emerged from the blazing pile of wood with a charred, undistinguishable body in their arms. The scout she’d killed earlier was barely more than a cinder as the two torch-less men heaved his corpse onto the grass, trampling flowers she’d once cared for meticulously. Four of the men arranged themselves around the fifth, who knelt down and rooted through the pockets of the corpse, searching for something. Emry shook herself back to focus and realigned her arrow with the man in the center. Each of the four stood with their arms crossed and backs turned, carefully peering out into the forest while the fifth looted their dead companion. The new and still familiar rage guided her aim as she set her sights on the men, her knuckles white against the handle.
From the center of their circle, the fifth man slipped his hand into a burned pocket and withdrew a small golden necklace affixed with a red gem. His face spread wide with a grim smile as he lifted it above his head, and Emry released the arrow. It tore through the hot air and plunged itself into his temple, and he fell immediately. His lifeless body crashed into the knees of the man opposite the circle and caused him to stumble. The man knocked from his position turned to chastise his partner and found his companion lying lifeless on the charred earth with a single arrow protruding from his skull. He shouted and all four men drew their weapons at once, one of them knelt down to retrieve the golden necklace as Emry knocked another arrow. She drew it back and crouched lower when one of them shouted and pointed in her direction.
She released a second arrow. Her stomach tightened. The shot slammed into the fourth man and knocked him back. She had missed his head. It plunged into his shoulder as he screamed in pain and fell onto his back. His companions took an uncertain step forward, searching for her against the flickering shadows. She ducked behind a tree and peeled away from the fire, another arrow nocked in her bow as she rounded a trunk and spun to face them again. From her new vantage, the group were shrouded by twisting shadows and low hanging branches, but she released another shot regardless. Her eyes dead set on the head of one of the elder men, a handspan shorter than she, who pushed his way defiantly into the darkness. The arrow sailed through the trees, threaded like a needle towards the eye socket of the eldest of the remaining men. Emry waited for it to connect, and when the man didn’t fall, her heart sank. He turned slowly to face her and lifted the necklace on display. A foul grin cracked across his face as he motioned to the others.
Emry’s heart banged in her chest as the men approached her. She grabbed a third arrow and bolted away from the flames, searching for somewhere to hide.
“Back to the river.” The thought emerged from her mind suddenly and unprovoked, but she obeyed and dashed to the opposite end of the house towards the river. Behind her, the men clamored after her in the echos of broken twigs and bouncing arrows.
She sprinted toward the river, the heat of flames and eyes of the killers on her back. When she was close, she ducked and slid across the mud, coming to a halt right at the water’s edge where she dove beneath the surface. She gripped her bow in her teeth and swam downriver, behind her the men arrived, their torches bright against the dark valley. She pushed onward, letting the current carry her down river a ways before she jammed her feet into the mud and came to an unwilling halt. Beneath the surface of the river she barely made out their torches against the light of the house fire that had begun to jump across the river. She gripped her bow and stood to line another shot as the men split up to search. She held the arrow steady on one who had stepped the furthest from his companions. He scoured the river bank for sight of her and turned away for a moment too long. Emry released another arrow and another knot twisted inside of her. He paused briefly and then fell to the mud, his torch at his side. It rolled across the bank and was snuffed by the river.
Emry placed the bow back in her mouth and submerged herself again, to move back up river where she could see the other men. She clawed at the slippery, moss covered rocks of the river floor and fought the current until the light of another torch illuminated the forest. She rose slowly, and dropped her bow from her mouth and into her hand as she slid another arrow from her father’s quiver. She nocked it and waited for the man to draw nearer, the light from the fire illuminated him against the overwhelming darkness of the forest and the golden necklace he’d hung around his neck sparkled in the glow. She tightened her grip on the bow and stood, rage fueling the draw of her arrow and he slowed to a halt, his eyes on the blaze. Then, she heard splashing from behind her.
Emry whipped around to find herself face to face with the other man, who’d abandoned his torch. He charged at her and she jumped back, releasing her arrow, only for it to slip past his cheek and lodge itself in one of the trees behind him. He bore down on her and collapsed, knocking her bow from her hands as he took her wrist. His gloved fingers dug into her blistered forearm as she muted a scream. She reached to her thigh for her hunting knife and found it missing. The man spun her quickly and gripped both of her wrists with one powerful hand and jammed a rag into her mouth with the other.
“Child.” He whispered. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
She lifted a leg and stomped on the man’s foot. He grimaced behind her and yanked her back toward him.
“Settle down or you’ll end up like dear old dad.” His voice was sick, like a man drunk on power. She bent and twisted to no avail as he pushed her forward, toward the other man. She stomped on his feet and twisted in an attempt to free herself, but he squeezed her wrists in return. The man kicked her ankle and sent her falling toward the ground, only saved from bouncing off of the mud by his iron grip. He dragged her to the other man who stood before the fire calmly.
“Found her.” Her captor grunted.
“Child, you are deadly.” The man with the necklace replied. “I understand Klauven’s warning.”
She remained silent, hee eyes locked on the elderly man, his medallion glinting in the firelight.
“Before we kill you, I want you to watch.”
He reached down and took her by the arm, his grip stronger than the other’s as he hoisted her to her feet. He was grizzled, numerous years her father’s senior. Old enough that she suspected he was alive during the Taking of Whiteplain, perhaps before then. A long white roughly kept beard decorated his wrinkled, blistered face. He tied her wrists behind her back with a length of rope before he took her arms in his own.
“Walk with me, child.”
Emry spit on the ground before him as the old man stepped forward. He sneered at her and yanked the rope, sending her reeling toward him off balance. She tripped on her own feet and crashed into the ground.
“Quite the handful, too. Are you certain you wouldn’t consider placement in our military?” The man snickered, his necklace bounded off of his chest with each breath. His partner followed closely behind as they approached the garden, enraptured in blistering flames.
“Why?” Emry spit as the man pulled them to a stop.
“Why what, child? Without hesitation you killed three of my men and maimed a fourth, all while remaining hidden from sight. We could use you.” His eyes were glassy, clouded over. His face covered in numerous scars and sores. His clothing unlike any she’d seen before. He didn’t wear scraps of linen and leather haphazardly sewn together. His clothing was made to fit him snug. Fur lined his collar as a decoration, not a necessity. His clothes had been dyed, dark blue and red like flowers she’d have picked a lifetime before. The necklace rested on his chest that gently heaved. The heat of the fire was unbearable to her, yet he stood beside her as if he couldn’t feel it at all.
“Why are you doing this?” Emry choked the words through the knot in her throat.
“We were ordered to do so.” The man replied, not bothering to look at her as he gazed toward the fire.
“By who?” Emry snarled. Sweat poured from her brow.
“By our employer.” The man replied. “He pays us to remove blemishes from his property.”
Emry screamed and reeled her head back, ready to slam it into the old man’s temple. She began to lean forward and felt a hand wrap around her knotted hair.
“Down, girl.” The other man yanked on her hair and sent her to her knees. He wrapped his fist around her hair a second time and tugged. The pain shot through her body, but she remained on her knees.
“This is not property. This is my home!”
“You did not pay for it.” The old man replied, grinning.
Emry sucked a deep breath in to reply, but out of the corner of her eye, for only a moment, she could have sworn she’d seen a sparkling golden flash pass through the woods near her home.
“Watch.” The old man gestured to the body of the hunter she’d killed, lying motionless atop the charred remains of their other partner. Emry turned her eyes to him and stared.
It took a few moments, but the man’s body began to twitch ever so slightly. It started in the tips of his fingers and spread like a convulsion that matured through him until his limbs trembled against the body of his partner. Then, as if summoned by the shaking, a black root stretched from between his fingers. It erupted from the joint and tore the skin apart and crawled as if it had a mind of its own toward the ground, submerging within the earth of her mother’s garden. Other parts of his body erupted in the same manner, each with a slick black root that slithered from the burning skin and anchored itself to the earth below him.
“This is our hidden work.” The old man continued. “That the world may recognize us and know, we are merely servants.”
The man holding her hair drew a small knife and placed it at her neck. “It isn’t personal.” He muttered, and knelt down. She felt the wet air of his breath on the nape of her neck. “For what it’s worth… I regret this part of the job.” She felt the blade press against her exposed throat, and just before she clamped her eyes closed once more, it flickered past her gaze again, the golden sparkling flash.
The man holding her hair paused as a crash echoed through the woods. When Emry didn’t feel the blade slide across her throat, she opened her eyes to see standing atop the pile of smoldering wood a brilliant, gleaming dragon with wings spread wide into the night sky. Wreathed in fire, her scales glittered and her eyes glowed with a vibrant green light. Both of the men took a step back and released Emry. Her hair fell behind her as she stood and stepped toward the dragon. The familiar broken scales around her ankles and the disdain in her gaze welcomed Emry’s approach.
“Unfortunately for you.” Balshenai growled at the men. “This is my favorite part of the job.” She reared her long, thick neck back into the air and inhaled. The flame of the cabin itself moved toward her body, being pulled in by the immense weight of her presence as she breathed in deep. “Duck.” She quickly whispered to Emry, who obeyed and threw herself to the charred ground as Balshenai let out a stream of white hot flames that enveloped the men wholly. Emry turned to see them run towards the river, their screams bursting into the night as they dove into the water, and the fire didn’t go out.
Balshenai slowly crept down from the smoldering pile of wood and paused before the gnarled mass of black roots and bloody muscle that the two men had become. With a single swipe, she hewed the root from the earth and sent the bodies of the men sprawling across the forest. She approached Emry slowly.
“Child, are you hurt?” Balshenai’s voice was different from before. The callous, uncaring tone had trickled away and what was left was a gentle, almost motherly kindness about her words.
“Deeply.” Emry replied, and Balshenai lowered her head.
“Take hold. I am not finished with them.”
Emry obeyed, and gripped the dragon’ horn as it swung her onto its scaly back. Once Emry had seated and secured herself, Balshenai crept forward toward the two men who laid down in the river, the white flames from her breath still searing their flesh as they tried in vain to put it out. Eachh crashing step of the dragon cast Balshenai’s terrible shadow over the men as they scrambled to their feet and ran from her hulking form. She rested on her haunches and curled her tail around her body as the men emerged from the water.
“Stop.” Balshenai spoke. The men froze in place. “You won’t put this flame out, you beasts. There is nothing you can do.” She licked her teeth in the same sickening way she’d done last Emry had seen her. “So stop fighting the urge to run. I’ll know where you go.”
Emry heard the grin on Balshenai’s face through her words as the dragon swung its head down to face the two men, still as statues on the river bank.
“I suppose,” Balshenai continued growling. “You have nothing more to say?”
The men didn’t respond.
Balshenai wasted no more time. With a lightning fast motion, she reared her neck back and down on the younger man, snapping his coat with her teeth. She threw him into the air and a scream burst from his lungs as she lunged forward and caught him out of the air, with a sick crunch she bit down on his torso. Blood erupted from her mouth and the man’s arms and most of his legs fell from her jaw. Emry peered over the massive shoulder of the dragon to see blood from the first man rain down on his partner with the golden necklace. He collapsed in place and began shouting, begging for his life.
“I’ll do anything! Please take me!” He cried.
“You don’t have anything that I want.” Balshenai replied, and with a careful claw, pierced his chest and plucked the necklace from his torso before she bit down on him as well. He was dead before she could taste his blood.
The dragon leaned down and allowed Emry to dismount before she plunged her head into the river bed, washing her teeth and jawline of blood. The deepest parts of the river barely covered the dragon’s thick jaw, so she rotated her head in the river to properly clean herself. While the river took the blood from Balshenai’s jaw, Emry examined the golden necklace pulled from the charred body. It was small, with a large medallion in the center. It appeared to have been carved with a language she didn’t understand, but was not the language that decorated the trees around her home. Affixed in the center, the medallion carried a small opaque red jewel.
When Balshenai had finished, the dragon curled up and laid down beside her, a large eye watching Emry as she washed her own clothing in the river.
“You killed them.” Balshenai slowly spoke. “I did not expect that from you.”
Emry scrubbed dried blood from her tunic in the stream as she sat with the events of the day. “I did what I had to do.”
Balshenai nodded. “That is a convenient idea.” The golden dragon began to glow as the final flickers of light faded into darkness from the smoldering heap of forest and home. “You could have run. You wanted to kill them.”
Emry clenched her tunic. The dragon was right. “No. I did what I had to do.”
“That is the great lie you convince yourselves, isn’t it? That everything you do is because you must?”
Emry sighed. “No.” She released her tight grip on her tunic and tossed it onto the dry bank. “It isn’t as if I wanted to kill them.”
“That is a clever lie, little girl.” Balshenai released a massive yawn from her jowls. Despite her size, she paled in comparison to Jokull. The white scaled dragon of the ridge was three or maybe four times her size, and Balshenai was incredible enough. Emry ran her gaze up and down the curled dragon, her mind mulling over the words.
“All lies are clever, aren’t they?” She finally responded and waded back to the river with her father’s quiver to wash it as well.
“Perhaps not, but you are young still.”
“Why did you come back?” Emry turned, holding the quiver absentmindedly with one hand as she faced the dragon.
“Because there was a fire in my father’s valley. I wanted to know who started it.” Balshenai’s reply was quick, as if it had been practiced.
“Right, and you killed the ones who did.”
The dragon laughed under her breath, steam rose from the surface of the river as Emry turned back to finish washing the quiver.
“I didn’t kill the one who started the fire, I left you alive, child.”
“How did you know it was me?”
“Because you are not quiet, child. When I caught the scent of those men I returned to keep an eye on you.”
Emry whipped back to face the dragon. “And you waited until my home was burned to the ground before you decided to step in?” Emry’s face flushed, and she threw the quiver back onto the bank beside the tunic. “If you were so intent on waiting, why did you come at all? That is a lie, dragon. You did not come to save me. It was luck that you were here at all, wasn’t it?”
“It was not luck, Emry. I will soon bury my father, and it will be nice to know that neither of us are alone.”
Emry’s story was inspired largely by my own journey of self discovery, and a lot has gone into her creation and the world she lives in at large. I’ll be speaking more on her life and her character as well as the world where this story takes place on Social Media. (linked below)
The three parts of the prologue were posted to Vocal Media already, the re-posts here have been edited and are here to set the stage. As I go forward releasing the chapters of this story, I’ll be doing so in smaller, easier digestible pieces on The Grimoire, and when a chapter is finished I’ll be releasing it over on Vocal Media afterward. As things move along, I’ll be getting some art and some more fun pieces of the world out to share with you more of this creation of mine. Until then, please enjoy it and tell your friends.
I’ll see you soon. 🔺