Sisters of Westwinter
The First Law of Atla
Chapter One I: Piecemeal
“…most concerning to me, is that their birth rate continues to increase dramatically. As if, perhaps, they aren’t giving birth to new young and instead creating them.”Fimbul House Research Papers: Volume XXIV
Prologue: Part Three – Sisters of Westwinter: Prologue III – The Sky Above
“Wake up boys, it’s cold as Maltha’s Claws and you have the distinct honor of fishing gore from our distributary.” General Vandruss’ voice clawed into the dorm. His sudden shouting rocked the soldiers from their beds, one of whom, Pikeman Squire Kerrick Snow stood at attention. The chill of the morning air crept over his bony feet as the General passed through the room. Kerrick’s eyelids hung thick with sleep. He fought the urge to reach up and pull the crusted goop from his eyes as the General passed by him.
“It’s been eight months since the attack at Godspine, and things have only gotten worse since. Two nights ago, some whelps were spotted on the ridge by a hunting band and a scout team was sent to dispatch them. They ventured north to that nice pretty backdrop you can see out your windows and when they arrived, they were torn to pieces by a Matriarch.” The General slid a wide green leaf from his pocket and placed it on the table beside him, as he continued, he emptied a handful of dried herbs from a nearby tin into the leaf and began to roll it. “She wasn’t hungry. She tore the scout crew limb from limb and then deposited them in the springs, to drift down river and wind up here.” He rolled the leaf tight against itself and struck a bundle of tinder that he held to his grizzled face. The flame caught the leaf that he’d pinched between his lips and he took a long, deep breath. The aroma of the herbs immediately seeped into the dorms.
“She is attempting to poison Godspine’s water supply. You know that river flows straight to the city. So, today, you’re going to fish those scouts and their chunks out of the water and set up a downriver filtration system.” The General blew a cloud of smoke up to the ceiling. “You’re going to get it done in six hours. Better dress warm and don’t come back until the job is done.”
The soldiers saluted, their fists tight in front of their jaw, elbows turned outward toward the wall with their first two fingers pointed to the left. A salute known in every corner of Athella, and Kerrick hadn’t gotten used to the way he’d needed to bend his arm to salute correctly. As the General exited the room he paused nearby Kerrick and his bunkmate Hesch. The medals on the General’s coat jingled as he placed a finger beneath Kerrick’s elbow and lifted it a finger span.
“Don’t let that fall, soldier. Every bit of you matters to Athella.”
“Sir.” Kerrick replied, and the General passed by the bunk in a cloud of greenleaf smoke with a satisfied look on his face.
The General stepped out into the brisk winter morning and let the shoddy door bang against the frame behind him. The soldiers scrambled to gather their uniforms, most of which folded and placed atop the storage drawers at the edge of each bed. Kerrick gathered his uniform and slipped it over his sleeping clothes, the beige suit wrapped tight across his chest. Thick linen pads designed to insulate his joints rubbed against his elbows as he slipped his pants on over his loose boxers. He slid the matching linen pants to his waist and cinched them tight against his skin. A old breeze blew into the dorm as he slid his bare feet into leather boots and laced them while his skin prickled with goosebumps. The other boys moved on to their coats and armaments in the next room while he finished tying the frail laces on his own shoes. He caught up with them and took his place beside Hesch, who as usual, had gotten dressed and was standing at attention for further instruction.
“Morning, Snow.” Hesch said, his salute unwavering.
Kerrick dragged his heavy fur lined coat from the wooden locker, his initials and identification number scrawled into a ceramic plate affixed to the top. He slipped his arms into the coat and immediately felt the shivers ease. “Morning, Kharris.”
The crunch of ice and snow outside of the armament hall caught Kerrick’s ear and he whipped around to face the double doors that led to the training field on the other end of the hall, slinging his pike and crossbow quickly around his back. He raised his arm in a salute just before the doors burst open and General Vandruss returned, the woody, lavender stench of stale greenleaf carried through the hall on a chilly wind.
“Soldiers, as I mentioned previously,” the General began, followed by a larger, and more intimidating pair behind him. Two men, both of them well built. The kind of men who found their strength of body in the dense forest that choked the base of the surrounding mountains. These men may have served in the military at some point, but their hunched shoulders and overgrown beards suggested that it had been years, perhaps many, since they’d worn a Athellan Uniform. “We will be heading west to the mouth of the river. I said you’d be collecting body parts, but you will also be constructing a water filter. King Harama, on a visit from Karka has been gracious enough to send us some machinery that will keep the rot of death from washing downriver, in the event this happens again.”
“It will.” One of the men following the General responded.
The man who spoke sported a long shiny braid of blonde hair, streaked with dried mud and blood from days prior. Kerrick looked over him, and silently observed the scars that dotted the man’s half bare chest. His arms held a long leather coat that would have dusted the floor had it not been sloppily bundled around his arm.
“And we will prepare for such an event.” The General continued, and shot the blonde man a sour look. “We will have seven hours until sundown, as they travel at night you are expected to be back in six. Any of you who have not returned to the compound by sundown will be discharged and assumed dead.” The General slipped another roll of green leaf from his pocket and lit it, the sound of his final word echoed briefly against the hollow walls.
“We gon’ escort ye.” The second man gurgled. He was a sight to behold. His skin covered in boils and sores, collected most densely around the rim of his helmet and collar of his breastplate. Intermingled beneath the smell of the stale herbs, the stench of his unwashed body permeated the air even through the fresh green leaf. Kerrick shivered as the man coughed a wad of phlegm and blood onto the ground. “Apologies, suits.” He hacked and braced himself against one of the other lockers.
“Your orders are as follows,” The General took over. “You will be sent in two parties, one to push ahead and begin the retrieval, while the other brings the wagon with the filtration equipment to the site. We currently have most of the bodies trapped in a net but it won’t hold for long. These men…” He gestured behind himself. “Will be your escorts. Right side lockers, you will be with Ginu.”
The man covered in sores stepped back and raised his arms. The men ordered onto his team squirmed and shared fearful looks with one another. Each of their lockers were paired off based on their bunks. Hesch took a step toward Ginu as the owner of the right side of their bunk and nodded at Kerrick. “Watch your back, Snow.”
He nodded as his companion stepped to the side of the blemish covered man. The General took a long puff of his green leaf and exhaled.
“Left side, you’re with the Huntmaster.”
The blonde man grinned. “Let’s be about it then. I’m buildin’ an appetite.” He slipped into his coat and spun toward the doors, not waiting for any of the soldiers who shambled behind him. He kicked the door open with an iron boot and stepped out into the practice grounds, snow crunching beneath each step.
Kerrick followed close behind the group of men, his heart thudded against his chest. The General rotated to address Ginu and the others as he and his company stepped out into the rigid winter morning. Once they’d all made it outside, the Huntmaster led them to the edge of the training grounds with excited steps. The soldiers lined themselves in rank and followed. Locked in unison as they were trained while the hunter danced in the snowfall. From the other side of the dormitory, Kerrick heard the second company organize themselves under the General’s loud instruction to load equipment onto a wagon.
“Now boys,” The Huntmaster began as soon as they’d crossed out of the compound gate. “Out ‘ere, you ain’t soldiers. Yer prey.” He rested a twitching hand on the handle of a broadsword he’d kept at his hip. Large flakes of snow gathered on his braid and face, and he breathed a thick cloud of frosted breath before he continued. “I don respect this institution. Bein’ honest. So, as sure as there are two moons, I won’t be giving orders. Out ‘ere I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors ought my Hunting Band. Hailing from Godspine, I’m the one and only Klauven. Some call me The Bloody, but ye don’t have to.”
“Sir,” One of the soldiers spoke. A short man, two years Kerrick’s junior, he raised a shaking hand and looked towards the hunter with fear in his eyes. “Are the legends true? That this valley is a Dragon’s nest?”
Klauven grinned. “Where is yer home, boy?” The hunter squatted in the snow and picked up a handful, squeezing it in his hand as he waited for a reply.
With chattering teeth, the boy replied. “Bastrion, sir. I wanted to join the defense, protect the immigrants as they moved north.”
The Huntmaster arced his hand back and threw the half melted bundle of snow at the boy’s face. The cold splatter of ice and water echoed in the quiet field and from the wet mush, a rock fell onto the ground. Shortly behind it, a drop of blood that dripped from a fresh wound.
“I suggest ye go home, boy. Ye will die ‘ere as sure as our two moons echo.” He stood and wiped the water from his hand as the boy remained still, eyes unmoving from the stone on the ground. “What’s yer name?” Klauven approached the boy and placed a hand on his shoulder.
Klauven snapped with the fingers on his free hand. “Breath of dragons, boy, I’m no sir.” He turned away from the rest of the company and began marching on his own to the west.
Hiendor and some of the other soldiers glanced back and forth at one another, waiting for orders.
“Go.” A larger boy spoke from behind them. A mop of black hair hid his eyes, and he took the first step forward to lead the company towards Klauven who had made it a fair distance without turning back to see if he was being followed.
Kerrick marched obediently forward behind a small group who remained in lock step with one another. The further they went from the compound, the more at ease the majority of the group became with the Huntmaster in the lead. Kerrick remained rigid at the side of three other boys. The countryside beyond the compound fence was littered with tall pine trees, many of which covered in snow. To the north, the forest expanded to the base of a tall mountain range. Beyond that was further than he’d ever travelled. The snow weighed down the branches of the trees and each of them erupted from the earth like vibrant green needles.
Few words were spoken on the march, Klauven whistled to himself as they passed through a field that hadn’t seen crops since before Kerrick had been born. As they pushed to the opposite end of the abandoned farm land, some of the soldiers whispered amongst themselves about the Hunter’s demeanor. How he twitched and shook, how his head swiveled back and forth along the treeline. Almost as if he were expecting something. One of the soldiers, a boy born into wealth, whispered near enough that Kerrick could hear.
“My father sent me a letter recently from Godspine. He said that a massive golden dragon attacked them eight months ago. That the city would have been doomed if it weren’t for Klauven and his hunting band. They had to engage the emergency defenses, do you know what those do?”
The boys that huddled together to listen all shook their heads.
“They skewer the glittering things.” Klauven interrupted. “Meant to fire when the dragon is first spotted, they are ballistas on rope and anchored to the foundation of fortresses or castles. ‘At dragon circled the city to attack ‘fore the guards made their way to the turret.” Klauven slipped a small axe from a side sheathe, and for a brief moment Kerrick noticed the number of knives and axes strapped to his thighs and shins that had been hidden by the oversized coat. Fifteen blades or more were hidden on the legs of the man.
“Far too small to hurt a dragon.” Kerrick thought.
The Huntmaster spun a knife in his hand as he continued. “Guards waited till the dragon had eyes on the turret and ran. Back when Athella designed those turrets with the purpose of putting down the snakes quick. Ye boys familiar with the body of a dragon?”
The boys grumbled amongst themselves, quietly issuing ideas and theories. Kerrick spoke up.
“Dragon’s bodies are different dependent on their nest location.”
Some of the other boys looked at him, eyebrows raised.
“Sure is. Two Stars, Pikeman, ye may find yourself a learned man when you leave the force.” Klauven sneered. “Forest, Mountain, River, Ocean, Cave, Plains, Swamp, Desert, dragons are in union with their birthplace. Broods rarely, if ever mate with a dragon from another family. So they are predictable, not to mention, their bodies are usually giveaways for their home nest and what Brood family they came from.”
“Sounds like a different person.” Kerrick noted that the Huntmaster’s accent and speech patterns shifted as he spoke, leaving behind the thick stunted sentences frequently used in the north and slowly adopting a more refined, educated demeanor.
“Cave dragons have lots of legs, how many legs will tell you which cave. Ocean dragons have fins instead of wings, so on. Dragon that came down o’er Godspine was a Stoneborn, adolescent, my guess ‘tween sixty and a hundred years. Dragons whose nests are in the mountains have developed a fearsome flame, much hotter than any we can make. White hot, melts steel in moments. you saw Ginu.” Klauven slid the knife into his pocket as the group approached the forest wall. Their destination still two hours into the woods themselves. “This lass, golden scales and torn wings, was a fighter. She likely wound up sparring with her siblings or managed to survive an attack from another band some months before, when she turned away and we fired, she kicked the first ballista out of her wing. No good for flying, she crashed and tried to start a fire to keep the guards away. They surrounded her and in a panic, she…” Klauven paused. “She killed a lot of soldiers. Lit them up as soon as they got close. She was on the verge of passing out from blood loss. So, we did what we do best. We sliced her throat.”
Most of the company surrounded him as he finished, but a few stayed back including Kerrick. While the boys cheered, Klauven shivered. He nodded and grinned.
“Uncertain event, given that they missed every vital organ in the damned thing. Those ballista are meant to hook into a dragon’s torso. Not its wings. Each turret station, you’ll come to discover, is set up with four. Two for a primary shot and two for a secondary. The primary shot is meant to hit them in the chest. The secondary to hit them in the head when they’ve stopped moving, to ensure a quick death.”
One of the soldier’s raised his hand. “Aren’t dragon scales and horns useful for things?”
“Course they are.” Klauven laughed and waved the other boys to calm down as he stepped over a bundle of shrubs and flowers. “Can’t harvest em safely if the dragon’s in a panic, though can you?”
The soldiers quieted as he continued. “So, your military builds ballistas and other assault weapons to take down the things. My companies lay traps and snares and poisons. We get the reward, you get to be safe.”
Klauven’s eyes dodged through the forest as he spoke, searching for something.
“So why are you and your partner here?” Kerrick spoke up.
“Cause the Matriarch ‘at did this likely knows we will be heading down to the river hold and fishing scout soup out of the drink. Myself and Ginu came to make sure some of you make it back.”
The soldiers looked at one another, suddenly realizing what their orders had been.
“So the General wants us to walk into actively patrolled dragon territory to do this and left us with one hunter and a bunch of barely capable adults to fight off a dragon?” Kerrick shot back, and gripped his pike tighter.
“Sounds to me like your General understands that there’s power in numbers.” He snickered. “Or at least hope.”
Kerrick gritted his teeth and pushed forward, following Klauven deeper into the woods as wildlife scurried away from them. The soldiers fell quiet for a while as they continued through, the cold had begun to creep in through their coats and they bundled up together. Still, the two companions beside him who remained silent since they left the compound remained in lockstep with him, the only three that hadn’t broken formation when Kaluven slowed.
“Do you hear that, boys?”
In the distance, a branch cracked. Klauven reached to his back, beneath his long coat and produced a crossbow, a bolt loaded as he gestured for them all to be silent.
Another crack echoed through the woods and the deer and foxes that had just run from the company came scurrying back in a panic. Klauven aimed his crossbow toward the noise and signaled for them to ready their arms. They obeyed and waited.
Then, another branch broke in the forest a hundred steps in front of them, and a low growl spread through the burdened branches that shook the snow from them, and rattled the chill bones of the boys. Only then, did Kerrick’s companions break formation.
Chapter On, Part Two – Sisters of Westwinter – Chapter One II – The Court of Ice
Welcome to Chapter One! Kerrick Snow is another one of the viewpoint characters for this novel, and is one of my favorite lil guys. Hopefully you’ll come to love him as much as I do! A Soldier, and a son,
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