Sisters of Westwinter
The First Law of Atla
Chapter Two I: Corpses on the Ridge
Chapter One, Part Four: Sisters of Westwinter: Chapter One IV – The Beggar
The fresh recruits marched lockstep with the wagon and carried with them an air of silence. Some of them buzzed with adrenaline as Klauven led them, but others, Kerrick included, marched through the snow with an uneasiness he couldn’t define. Their six hour timer was running low, and they hadn’t made it to the river. What little time they had left would need to be spent wisely. General Vandruss likely wasn’t lying about leaving them to be dragon scrap if they weren’t back by nightfall.
Their organized march had been broken by Klauven after they’d left the forest where he split them into organized marching parties. Kerrick at the front of one group. Heindor marched quickly at the helm of another. A third led by Verrita, a young woman a few years his elder. As they pushed along the path, the second team who had been sent with the cart veered a corner on the edge of the woods. The Hunters passively regarded one another as the groups merged. The wagon with Ginu’s group had been filled to the brim with large metal plates and poles, some kind of box which was lined on each side by a series of symmetrical holes and spouts, with two openings on the top. Bundles of flaccid hose laid beneath the mess, and folded neatly atop it all was a black mesh fabric. Some soldiers from Ginu’s group muttered amongst themselves while Kerrick’s company remained silent.
They continued for another span of daylight, just over an hour, when they heard the gentle bubbling of the river. Far enough out of the steep mountain ranges to weaken the current, but on flat enough land it formed a small lake atop the cliff overlooking Godspine. Klauven waved his crew to follow while Ginu barked orders to the others, removing the metal parts from the wagon and aligning them on the ground.
“My boys, get in a line.” Ginu shouted over his company. Klauven turned to face Kerrick and the rest.
“Orders are, clean the river.” He began, and paused briefly before he switched back to speaking with the accent from when he first arrived. “Yer duty is to fish out e’ry piece of the scouts ‘for they run off river.” The imposing man swung his hand in a wide arc toward the group led by Verrita. “Lass, you take charge.”
She nodded and marched forward to the opposite end of the lake with her group, many of whom Kerrick noted were part of the company who stood back, or even fled from the dragon attack.
“Rest ‘o ‘ye, yer on patrol.” Klauven motioned to Heindor’s group. “Ye’ shining’ pillar o’ the community, take the nor’ side.”
Kerrick straightened his back as Klauven turned to look his way. “Snow, ye’ take a walk on south.”
Kerrick nodded and started off toward the southern half of the lake as Klauven shouted after both parties.
“Ye’ see a snake, shout!”
A handful of the soldiers shouted in agreement while Klauven departed. Kerrick led his team across the river and to the southern side of the lake, his pike at the ready.
“Spread out.” He spoke, uncertainty in his voice. He’d done plenty of patrols before, but nothing of this scale. He had walked neighborhoods and districts in Godspine, had to scrub the muck from his feet after a routine in The Camps. He’d been familiar with the twisted, interlocked and enclosed streets of Godspine. Nothing like this. Watching the skies for potential dragon attacks wasn’t something he’d ever considered having to do.
He sucked in a breath and set out across the shoreline while his group spread themselves a pike’s reach from one another and paced. Along the lakeside, the gentle water lapped against the grit of the beach. Patches of grass poked through the overlain snow and as he approached he could feel the warmth of the lake’s surface. The river that fed it poured from high in the mountains, the lake itself was connected to the myriad of hot springs that Godspine boasted to its frequent tourists. Steam rose from the surface of the lake as he peered across and watched Heindor with his own pike in hand, retelling a story to one of the other boys that clung to his pockets.
At the eastern side of the lake, the third group had submerged themselves in the waist deep water and had begun spearing bloated body parts from the makeshift rocky dam. Most of them held rags over their mouths as they fished for remains in the warm river. A few of them, Verrita included, worked stoically.
The dragon attack sullied all of their moods, Klauven certainly didn’t help. He separated them as soon as they reconvened outside of the forest and appointed a “leader” to each of the teams. Heindor, whose team was comprised of those who charged in initially. The brash and dauntless of the squad paced the opposite side of the lake and chattered. Kerrick’s group, silent, changed by what they saw. None of them spoke much besides telling one another about wildlife sightings, the occasional warning of a deer or a fox that scattered as soon as it saw them. While Klauven’s three companies worked, Ginu’s constructed a large machine in the snow. A large metal panel rested on the ground, and in the center they attached the box, which fit all manner of hoses from the various spouts. On either side rested two large poles on mounts with hooks on each side.
Kerrick paused as the group locked together pieces of the filter, and behind them Ginu rested on the wagon. Klauven, however, was rooting through the wagon for something. He pulled open cabinet after cabinet from the cloth covered wagon and rooted through them. He was looking for something, and judging by the way he threw his hands up and leaned against the wagon, he assumed whatever the Hunter was looking for wasn’t there.
“Snow,” One of the soldiers, a golden haired ex farm boy with a sharp jaw named Clip, motioned toward the mountains that overshadowed their lake to the south. “I think there is something there.”
Kerrick followed Clip’s finger into the peaks, the light of the setting second sun split over the horizon and cast a golden beam across their operation, and nestled in the shaded boughs of pine trees, Clip pointed at something moving.
“Think we should warn them?” He asked, his voice trembled. Kerrick focused.
Lurking beneath the cover of the pine trees, he could barely make out the shadow. A sprawling form tangled between thick, towering trunks and wrapped itself along the top of a higher ridge. Certain he knew what he saw, he held a hand to steady his partner.
“Let’s wait.” Kerrick shot a glance over his shoulder to check on their leaders who had sprawled themselves out on the back of the wagon with their eyes closed.
“Snow, if we wait we will…”
“Don’t say anything.” Kerrick fired back, the sudden frustration from within felt out of place. “It is watching us.”
“But the General said-“
“I know what the General said. I’m telling you to relax. It can see us, and it isn’t stupid. It knows we can see it. If we rally the party and prepare an offensive we are at a disadvantage, an incredible one. We don’t know what kind it is, if it is hurt, or angry, or if it is curious. If it sees us assemble to attack it, we will be dead faster than Klauven could command us to fire.”
Clip let his jaw hang slack as the creature lumbered through the trees. The other soldiers didn’t seem worried by their side conversation, perhaps distracted due to the echo of Heindor enacting slaying a dragon of his own on the other side of the lake. Kerrick’s face flushed with anger.
“We watch, and if it doesn’t come for us, we don’t raise an alarm.” He lowered his pike and turned, enough to appear as if he wasn’t watching but not so much that the sprawling mass of scales was out of his sight. “Even if we wanted to attack it, it’s so high and so far we wouldn’t make it in time. If that dragon wanted to kill us, we’d be dead.” He patted Clip on the back and took a step around him.
The soldiers continued about their duty, with Kerrick and Clip keeping a watchful eye on the dragon that had followed them with its eyes. Two piercing gems far in the shadows of the forest. He worked through their remaining tasks and how much time they had left over and over in his mind, powerless to make things move faster. The filter team dragged the tangled metal mechanism to the other side of the lake, just before the waterfall that fell to Godspine. Kerrick left Clip and marched to Hesch who had positioned himself near the filter and guided the other soldiers through the assembly. Hesch hoisted a large steel bracket onto his shoulder and passed it off to a large woman, built like a Troll’s neck she hefted it as if it weighed nothing and swung it onto its mount.
“Bit far from the south end, Snow.” Hesch chided.
“Wanted to make sure you were alright.” He took a step past the filter as the second sun set behind the mountaintop. “Not a lot of time left.”
Hesch sighed. “Unfortunately they didn’t send an Athellan Engineer with the parts. We’re making it up as we go.” He laughed and Kerrick realized how tense he’d gotten. He stepped past the filter and followed the river to the edge, where below Godspine had sprung to life.
Beneath the Ferrous Cliffs, Godspine had already been plunged into darkness. Two hours prior the townsfolk had lit braziers and torches all across the city and from his vantage point he could see it all. He slipped his water skin from his pack and felt the cold bite of the metal against his lips as he looked over the city. The leftover townsfolk scampered around through the streets like ants, their walkways covered by large metal sheets. He’d never been fond of the way the defenses looked like Prickle Figs on the tops of the roofs. Hundreds of little barbs and spikes that shot out from barbed wire nets and wooden spikes. From the Ferrous Cliffs, the top of his home town looked identical to the little square fruits, covered in curly hair and little thorns.
“What good do you think that does?” He leaned towards his friend.
“Well, it kept the dragon out this spring.” Hesch kicked a hollow pipe toward another of their companions who gestured for it at the silent urging of the large woman.
“Strange that the dragon flew over our city then, we killed it, and no one came looking for it.”
Nearby, The pile of mangled corpses stacked on the snowbanks attracted carrion insects. The third crew had slowly been moving the parts to a large hole they dug, but the work was slow. As Hesch complained about Ginu’s smell on the way to the lake, Kerrick took a hard look at the pile of corpses. Each of them, though bloated, were piled with clean cuts along their joints, with large gashes in the parts of them that remained whole. Their bodies were carved up severely, but each of the cuts where their limbs were severed, not ripped. Each of them looked like clean cuts as though they were put through a guillotine.
He nudged Hesch, and gestured to the bodies. “Does that seem odd to you?”
His friend studied the dead scouts for a long moment before he replied. “I think you’re overthinking it. I know you are going to tell me that they don’t look torn up, but I need you to consider when you’ve seen a dragon attack victim. There is a chance they pulled so hard and so fast that it appears like a clean break after this long. Not to mention anything that might have fed off of the corpses.”
Kerrick looked around the field that surrounded the lake and gestured. “Right, so where are the dragon tracks?”
“Dragon tracks?” Hesch laughed. “Yes, because we are going to waste time to find them.” Hesch turned to check on the filter construction, which neared completion, before he turned back to their conversation.
“No, you aren’t understanding what I’m getting at.” Kerrick gestured to Godspine, nestled beneath the towering cliff. On the northeastern end of the city by the main gate, there was a massive patch of burnt trees and a huge crater in the ground that trailed into the woods. “The impact of that dragon left enough damage that eight months of restorative work hasn’t filled it all the way in. Look at the size of the hole.” From up so high, the divot in the earth left by the beast was roughly the size of their barracks. Two and a half family homes or more. Though, he was much too far to exact a measurement.
“So you’re saying the dragon that came here and killed these scouts didn’t have legs?”
“No, I’m saying it wasn’t a dragon.” Kerrick snapped. His mind whirled at the thought. “What if this wasn’t dragon related at all?”
Hesch held his abdomen and knelt, picking up a handful of snow as he did so. “I admire your suspicion, but this is something else. Dragon came, could have attacked them from the lake, could have picked them up. If there aren’t two suns, Snow, I’d say it sounds like you are trying to frame the attack on man.”
“I’m not saying anything yet.” He took a step away from the cliff and back to his patrol route as the final pieces of corpse were plucked from the snow and the large woman on Hesch’s company flipped a latch and locked the filter together. The soldiers called after Klauven, who had fully reclined in the wagon. He rolled from the wooden bed and to his feet and jogged to meet them.
“Excellent!” He shouted. “Gather ’round, pikes.” With a wave of his hand, he summoned the soldiers all to meet him and produced the pearl he’d pulled from within the dragon. He took the pearl and placed it in a small glass chamber affixed to the back of the filter, and as soon as he snapped the case closed the machine hummed to life. The dull vibration of the water sent ripples into the center of the lake, and he dunked his hand down to find one of the hoses. While he laid in the snow, searching underwater, Ginu rolled lazily out of the wagon and waddled to them.
“Pikes, ‘is ‘ere is a mighty tool. It’s ‘a stuff ‘o magic, really.” Klauven tapped the glass dome and the machine stuttered, and then continued. He pulled his submerged arm from the river and wiped it across his pants. “Dragons got a knack fur magic.” He turned on a hell and waved for the soldiers to follow. They all obeyed. “Those l’il pearls ‘an power e’ry thing you can dream. Wonders, really.”
Kerrick noticed him slip in and out of his accent as he spoke, and looked to his companions to see if any of them did as well.
“We’re off.” Klauven slapped the side of the wagon. “Verrita, your company drags the ship.”
He did not wait for any of them to follow, and began the trek back to the barracks. Kerrick turned back one more time before they departed to look at the ridge, and when he did, he found the dragon gone from beneath the creaking limbs of the forest.
Chapter Two, Part Two: Sisters of Westwinter – Chapter One VI: The Exile of Second Alley