Sisters of Westwinter
The First Law of Atla
Chapter One IV: The Beggar
Chapter One, Part Three: Sisters of Westwinter – Chapter One III: Snow & Blood
The hacked together row of lean-to apartments built against the southernmost retaining wall of Godspine withstood the harsh winters of Atla weakly on their best day, chipped pebbles and loose rocks wedged between large walls of mud made up the exterior of nine “complexes” that the civilians of Godspine less than lovingly refer to as “The Camps”. Lodged against the wall and arcing outward in a semi circle, the nine buildings make up a neighborhood of their own populated by adults and children alike. Their beds stitched together with rotted thread and wrapped in soiled linen, the denizens of the Camps have persevered beneath roofs with holes, pipes that leak, and the worst of the Winter Freeze that creeps through Atla at the turn of every year.
Among the destitute and disparaged that cram themselves shoulder to shoulder on straw mats, lives a young woman. Three seasons into adulthood Sekhenna Fliss has long maintained that she would rather be there, or in the sprawling tunnel network beneath the city than in the wilderness of the Ferrous Woods.
The Camps, nestled between Wolfsbane District and the Herriman Company Lots were the dumping ground for the rest of the city’s waste. When there were celebrations, like the three-day festival thrown by the visiting King Harama in the spring, the drained bottles and wine skins found themselves piled along the dirt streets and back alleys, the bones of animals sucked clean of meat littered the gutters alongside the remnants of paper decorations hastily torn down in anticipation for the new work week.
The dirty hands and feet of The Camp’s denizens worked tirelessly to clean their neighborhood despite the sneers of the merchants from their balconies in the Wolfsbane District, and despite too, the upturned noses by the Herriman Company’s workforce who, despite working for pebbles beneath their master’s mountains, still looked down upon Sekhenna and her people as they swept and shoveled and mopped their streets.
Despite it all, Sekhenna did not pay the onlookers mind as she dragged a straw broom through piles of half melted snow stuffed to the dirty brim with dissolved paper mush and pheasant bones picked half clean. On either side of her stood others in the long list of unmentionables she considered friends, each of them silently attentive to their chores. Haim, a young boy half her age plucked a thigh-bone from the snow and bit down on a chunk of gutter water soaked meat. She thought to open her mouth and stop him before his mother slapped the food from his hand. The bone bounced on the muddy road and came to an unappealing stop with a splash into a dirty puddle.
“Haim you know better.” She whispered, and pulled her patchwork coat tighter around her chest. Haim sniffled once, and then with a longing look to the morsel submerged in the water, made his way back to his duties. The pair pushed piles of garbage along the stone gutter to the sound of the Herriman Yardmen shouting directions at one another in the distance. Across the dead end of the cobbled street that bridged the eastern side of The Camps stood a tall wrought iron fence, haphazardly fused beneath intense flames, the black bars protruded carelessly into the sky twice Sekhenna’s height. Atop each of the metal rods a short stone spike had been mounted, wrapped tight around the end of each pole to prevent the miscreants from The Camps and other slums across Godspine from sneaking into the Yards.
Sekhenna pushed a soggy piece of underclothes from the gutter and paused to watch the goings-on in the yard. Attached to the fence line rested a long brick path that encircled a massive dirt lot. Where spaces for twenty or more homes could be built, instead held a staging ground for whatever the Foreman deemed appropriate for the day. On this particular day, the yardmen paced back and forth moving tree trunks into piles, awaiting their processing to be stripped of bark and cut down for building.
The Herriman Company, having been one of four conglomerates to overtake the industrial network of Godspine had their hands in what seemed like everything. The third largest of the merged conglomerates, Herriman established base level infrastructure for the city. Their round table oversaw the city planning as well as the procurement of necessary supplies. They were most frequently seen pushing wagons and handcarts around the city filled with timber and stone, or on occasion, ore from the nearby mines. The lot that stretched from their fence line to their warehouse complex was often littered with spare lumber and other waylaid resources. Most of which were shipped south to allied territories, like the Kingdom of Hiliod that spanned the central expanse of their continent.
While Herriman championed the basics of material collection for the Kingdom of Athella, they also had a company whose import was much more useful to Sekhenna and the others in The Camps, fish. If it had been any other day, Sekhenna would have been preparing for a trip through the Herriman Yard to gather some supplies for her people, but she had a much larger task before her.
She shoved a heap of snow into a broken grate and made her way past Haim and his mother, toward the square of The Camp where a couple stood, directing the flow of daily chores. Surrounding them were a handful of makeshift tents and canopies the sheltered a number of cots, repurposed from spare wood that they harvested from their homes. Upon the cots laid a number of people, the majority of which were not native to The Camps. One of the women in the center of the square paced back and forth, tending wounds and offering a large water skin to the wounded. Sekhenna approached from behind and the woman jumped.
“First Eyefall, Khenna.” She gasped. “You are quiet. Are you finished with the barrier wall already?”
She shook her head, and offered the broom to the woman.
“Not in so many words. I’ve been summoned.” The attendant didn’t take her broom, so she laid it against the eroded fountain that stood in the center of the square, filled with medical supplies and left over food rather than water, the broom slapped against the stone plinth in the center and bounced into the fountain. Behind her, two children whimpered with hunger pangs.
“Ooh, are you meeting the officer again?” The woman giggled.
“Dhama, I don’t know how many times I need to tell you, it isn’t that kind of meeting.” She plucked a bundle of venison jerky from the fountain as the woman turned on her heel and moved to an elderly man on a nearby cot, barely conscious. He reeked of alcohol.
“Be careful, sister. It is dangerous out there, you should be well aware of the risks. Do you remember the last time you went off cavorting where the Guardsmen were stationed?” Dhama knelt and began removing a bandage around the man’s arm, revealing a deep infected burn wound beneath.
Sekhenna tossed the jerky bundle to a passing aid, who caught it and handed it off to the young siblings muttering about their hunger.
“The last time I was near the guards, it was because they were doing this.” She gestured to the rows of cots that surrounded them. “I think you’ll remember that I was helping you bring wounded to our home to keep them out of harms way.”
Dhama turned and scratched her head, her eyes narrow. “Oh, I do remember. I also remember being left alone to organize their beds while my dear friend went missing for a while, and then a fire broke out near the Garrison.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Dhama rolled her eyes and focused on wrapping the wound. “Whatever you are doing now, please be careful. You know security is tighter all over because of the King. If he catches you, I wager it will not be pleasant.”
Sekhenna knelt to another person, a middle-aged woman with a deep gash on her cheek, and withdrew ointment from her pocket to coat the open wound. “I doubt it will be anything I couldn’t find a way out of.”
Her friend sighed to the drunk man and shook her head.
She wiped an excess of ointment from the woman’s face and left the bundle of extra in her hand. Without further discussion, Sekhenna stepped away from the cots and made her way out of the Camps. Godspine had always unsettled her. The sharp stone edges of each building stretched fearsomely over the streets. At the edge of the stonework canopy stretched fearsome tines that dotted the tops of the buildings and hung from the edges, creating a messy nest of jagged points that were stationed to protect the city from the descent of dragons.
Their effectiveness, however, had yet to be seen. The city of Godspine still hummed with unrest from the recent dragon attack, eight months prior. An attack that put to stop King Harama’s confounded celebration, and allowed Sekhenna to escape without being imprisoned.
She passed out of the Wolfsbane District and progressed northward, into the Jarl’s Square. The core of the city shrouded by further defenses constructed since the recent attack. Along the walkways, Jarl Bennedent had commanded more spires to fill the streets and stretch above the overhanging gutters. Large metal plates had been fashioned and laid across the open gaps to shield the streets from overhead view. All along the market streets around the Jarl’s Square had been outfitted with steel plates that overlaid the once decorated wooden doors. Windows all over the city had been shielded with metal barricades that slid open and closed. Through the open doorways, the citizens and shopkeepers had stocked crossbows marked with the symbol of Jarl Bennedent’s House. A Golden Bird with two spears crossed behind it.
“It’s like they are preparing for war.” Sekhenna thought to herself as she passed by a fruit stall and slipped an apple from the edge and into her bag. As her fingers placed her snack safely in the burlap, they brushed against cold metal.
“Because they are.” A twisted voice replied to her, terrible and familiar the woman spoke like sludge dripping through a drain grate. The sound of her voice like ground stone through running water. Sekhenna did not reply.
With a glance over her shoulder to verify she had not been seen, she continued down the winding cobble street to the bustling square. People littered the amphitheater, busy about their day to day. Merchants in rows peddled wares they’d gathered from places far and near. Fruits and vegetables freshly imported by Herriman from the Copper leaf forests of Marrybell, far to the west. Children clamored around an aged man with a long silk cloth bundled tight around his head who stood before a table littered with trinkets constructed from wood and stone. The children excitedly plucked and fingered toy horses and dragons whose limbs and wings moved on small levers as the man bargained with their parents. Craftsmen on the other side of the square offered swords and daggers of average quality, weapons that had been crafted for decoration. Young soldiers scrutinized them, pretending to swing the weapons and testing their improper balance, boasting in their knowledge of combat. She stepped between a couple, a few years her senior, bickering about their allowance, and stepped behind the recruits, still playing soldier with the decorative weapons. The woman across from them grinning at her potential sale.
“When you hold it here,” the thinnest of the three boys began, clutching the base of the sword between two fingers with the blade pointed toward him. “You can test the balance, you see?” He released the weapon with his offhand, and it tilted quickly down toward the handle, sliding off of his finger. Sekhenna reached a hand and caught it, whipping it back up to her side.
“You will hurt yourself.” She replied, and handed the sword back to him, the point of the blade in his direction. He stuttered and reached for it. Moments before he placed his fingers on the metal she whipped it back and flipped it around in her hand, catching the dull blade with a careful grip.
“Never take a sword by the blade.” She locked eyes with him, pulling his attention from the peddler. “You will lose a finger.”
The recruit stared at her as she handed off the sword and took another from the display. The dull silver blade emerged from a pommel decorated in cheap golden filigree. The glittering paint used to disguise the ornamentation masked the true metal beneath. She took the blade into her hand and held it out over the corner of the table.
“By the way, balance of a blade matters quite a bit less than the craft of the steel.” She smacked the broad side of the sword against a stone post that the cart was tied to. The metal immediately cracked across the width of the blade. “If you hit a steel plate, and your weapon a fake, you will be dead.” She took her free hand and placed it on the table, pinching the cracked blade beneath her palm and the cart. With a forceful shove on the handle, the blade splintered into pieces as the pommel separated from its binding and the metal shards crumbled to the cobblestone. She held the broken tip of the sword in three fingers and waved it at the peddler, whose face had grown sour.
“Don’t buy weapons from a market peddler. They will sell you playthings and decorations.”
The woman scoffed. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She is mocking you gentlemen. Each of these blades are fine Greyiron, blessed by Kharakhuzund Forge-Priests.”
Sekhenna couldn’t prevent the laugh that burst from her throat. Each of the boys remained silent.
“Tell me, then. What did you do to get them? Greyiron is not simply given out.” She leveled her gaze at the peddler, who placed her hand on a small leather bag thatching at her side.
“We, well, my troupe and myself…” She paused. “We saved a derelict from the Glowing Forest.”
Sekhenna tossed the broken blade onto the pile of fake weapons and crossed her arms. She caught one of the boys gaze drift to her forearms and his jaw dropped.
“So, you’ve been to the Glowing Forest, then?” She leaned forward. “You are doing a poor job convincing me. What was the derelict’s name, what did he do?”
“We didn’t ask.” The woman stuttered.
“So, you saved an unnamed man, somewhere in the forest, that sprawls as far as the eye can see, and you were rewarded with an army’s worth of weapons made from their unique and extremely valuable metal, and none of the details are returning to you?”
“Councilman Gar!” She blurted, cutting Sekhenna off. The boys shared looks with one another.
“Councilman Gar, wonderful. I do hope he’s doing well.” Sekhenna turned to face away from the table. The peddler no longer interested her.
“I bought a sword from her yesterday.” One of the boys, shorter and rounder than the first, spoke up.
“What did she charge you?”
Sekhenna’s eyes widened. “Sixty Scales could feed me for months. She slipped her hand into her bag and searched for her coin purse. As she did so, the peddler reached into her own pouch and withdrew a knife.
“Careful, lass.” She growled. “I wouldn’t make a scene.”
Sekhenna saw the glint of the blade from the corner of her eye and paused briefly, then continued searching for her coin purse as if the peddler held out a forest squirrel rather than a knife. Outside of the market stalls, guards perked up at the noise.
“Found it.” Sekhenna pulled her coin purse from the depths of her pouch and her finger brushed the same cold metal from before.
“Kill her, be done with it.”
She lifted the coin purse as the peddler slashed with her knife, dicing open the leather pouch for her scales to fall onto the cobblestone. The hollow pop of the money against the ground drew the attention of other nearby stall-goers, who quieted as the guards approached.
Sekhenna lifted her other hand to her neck, and pulled her thick black hair away, and leaned in toward the peddler to expose her neck, just behind her ear.
“Do it, then.” She spoke somberly as the boys took a step back. “Slice me open.”
The peddler woman dropped the knife onto the replicas as the guards approached.
“A Ven’alhim…” She muttered.
“What is going on here, ladies?” The guard who spoke was a large man, just under Sekhenna’s height but certainly heavier. She knelt to collect her money.
“I was just talking these boys out of wasting their hard-earned scales when this woman decided to threaten me.” She stood and faced the guards, whose weapons were drawn and aimed at them. “I apologize for the scene, officer.”
The guards looked at the boys, one of whom in the back waved them off with a flick of his wrist.
“Move along ma’am, she has a right to be here like anyone else.”
Sekhenna nodded, and turned back to the peddler, leaning on the table with both hands. Her fingers wrapped around the woman’s knife.
“I’m so sorry to cause you an issue, ma’am.” She winked and stepped away.
“That mark, you’re cursed.” She spoke louder, wide-eyed.
“Aren’t we all? Dragons are out to eat us.” She stepped away from the table and dragged her hand along the pile of decorative weapons, the peddler’s knife pinched between two fingers. With a spin she waved to the guards and her opposite hand slipped the knife into her bag. They nodded, oblivious, and returned to their posts. The woman immediately began to pack up her things and Sekhenna rubbed the mark on her neck absentmindedly as she rounded a corner and paused. She looked back to see the woman’s eyes following her, fear still in them.
Then, she continued along to her rendezvous with a new trinket that would fetch a decent price in The Under Channels. Perhaps as much as Sixty Scales.