Sisters of Westwinter
The First Law of Atla
Chapter One VI: The Exile of Second Alley
Chapter One, Part Five: Sisters of Westwinter – Chapter One V: Corpses on the Ridge
“Morning chores, Witch” The gruff voice echoed into her cell as Emry rolled onto her back. The jagged surface of the stone floor dug into her as she leaned up. She pushed off the floor and stood as the guard shoved a pair of handcuffs through the bars. “Let’s go.”
She took them and slapped them onto her wrists and latching them. She pulled, to display that they were on tight and when the guard was satisfied he unlocked the door.
“You’re on Second Alley.” He took a mop from a cart that he’d pushed into the center aisle and tossed it at her. She barely caught it with her bound hands and stepped out of her cell. The guard nudged her with his hip, and she passed by him. “Finish fast and I might sneak you an extra biscuit.”
She shrugged in response and continued down the hall to another guard, draped in steel plate with a large club in his hand who directed her to Second Alley, one of six alleys that contained prisoners. Each of which was divided and stacked the same way. She’d been in and out of all six during her stay, and the monotony dug into her. Each alley in the prison, which was nicknamed “Icehold” by the prisoners, contained a varied assortment of criminals. Few of whom she’d ever spoken to.
The guard led her across the commons, where she’d been beaten half to death on her first day, and into the West Wing where Alleys one through three were located. Her cell, as far as she was aware, was detached from the alleys and off in its own corner of the prison. She moved forward through the laden snow and out of nowhere felt the club crack against her back.
“Keep your tools clean, witch.”
She gritted her teeth. With a quick tug, she pulled the mop up and lifted the tangled mess of horse hair from dragging in the snow. The guard pushed her with his club, right where he’d hit her. She winced, but didn’t speak.
He led her through the commons and into the west wing, through a barred wooden door and into the Second Alley where she came face to face with a handful of other prisoners. Some faces she’d seen were familiar, some not, and she marched through them to the mop bucket either way.
The Alleys of Icehold were massive halls which sported prison cells roughly the same size as hers, barely wider than she was tall and almost double her height in depth. Each of them came equipped with the exact same amenities as hers. A wooden bucket for waste, and a thatch mattress that had been pounded into broken twigs from use. On either side of the Alley the prison suites extended in groups of four on the first floor, and directly above each of them was a mirrored cell, except for a wooden floor instead of the stone floor. Each cell was without windows and on the hallway facing entrance were barred by thick iron gates. Each alley extended down to fit five suites for a total of forty individual cells per alley.
Emry shouldered past other prisoners who quipped side comments about her, that she didn’t belong there or the occasional question about what she did to find herself locked in the prison with them, but she ignored all of them and approached the mop bucket. She’d found that there were specific allotments for each chore. Whoever was scheduled to mop would do it alone, and would do it last. Which meant that she needed to fill the time with something productive in order to avoid a beating. However, as she approached the mop bucket she found another prisoner who had been assigned to her task. A large man with rough, almost bark-like skin and hair tangled and knotted into long strands whose upper torso was uncovered and decorated with tattoos. Far larger than her, he eclipsed the hallway as he wrung his mop.
She stepped behind him and waited, trusting her instinct to remain quiet despite the calls from the other prisoners to answer their questions. Surrounded on all sides by guards, she felt some semblance of safety, however false the feeling might have been.
The man finished wringing out his mop and turned, nearly knocking her over as he ran into her. He immediately stuttered and reached forward to help brace her as she fell back. His massive hand caught hers, and he kept her balance, and then, for the first time since she’d been thrown in, another living person spoke to her with kindness.
“Little rootling, are you alright?” The man’s voice boomed from his throat without any force. Deep and wide. He made sure she was balanced and released his grip on her.
“I’m alright.” She replied, and nudged past him to wet her own mop. “Thank you.”
“No need for thanks.” He replied. “I see they have sought to punish you as ferociously as they have me.” He lifted the mop and waited, as if expecting an answer.
She said nothing.
“Rootling, it is unkind to ignore those who speak to you.”
Emry did not remove her gaze from the bucket.
“I am not ignoring you. I don’t have anything to say to you.”
The man stepped into a nearby cell, and Emry caught the other prisoners out of the corner of her eye as they backed away from him.
“Well, let us find something to say to one another then.” He replied. “I am Jundal, an Exile in a bad, bad place.”
Emry scoffed. “I’m Emry. I’m a witch.”
Jundal’s eyes widened, and he backed into the corner of the cell, stepping over a pile of vomit that had frozen to the stone.
“You don’t mean that, do you?” He shook his head and shoved the mop onto the vomit. “I do not know that they could keep a witch caged, even in a place like this.”
Emry hoisted her mop from the bucket without wringing it and moved to the cell across from Jundal to begin mopping. Other prisoners loitered around them, eavesdropping while they scraped mud and blood from the bricks.
“I am whatever you say that I am.”
“You are clearly a woman.” Jundal replied, his weight on the mop bending the handle dramatically. “Of this I am certain, unless of course you are covering yourself with an illusion.”
Emry fought the urge to laugh. “I suppose you will never know.”
“I would like to.” Jundal replied, his voice echoing with sincerity.
Emry sloshed water around the dirty stone, the cell she’d entered had gotten much worse since her last assignment in Second Alley. The bucket in the cell had cracked and begun leaking onto the floor. Much of the bodily fluid had frozen, except, as fate would have it, the very top layer. She took care to step on the cleanest bricks as she slopped excrement across the prison floor.
“So, little rootling.” Jundal began. “I am concerned by your size. Have you been eating?”
She shrugged. The slop they fed her was hardly a meal by anyone’s standards. She’d met raccoons who ate more appealing meals.
“It’s no banquet, but it’s something.”
“You know, you should be eating regularly. Even when they give us paste. It will keep you strong. This is to be a hard winter.”
Emry fought the turning of her stomach as she returned to the mop bucket and drowned hers in the murky gray water.
“I suppose so.” She hoisted a fresh, wet mop out and returned when Jundal stepped out to do the same.
“You know,” He lowered his voice. “The guards don’t really care if you clean the cell you are in. The prisoner there is on his deathbed. He is riddled with illness. It is not worth keeping clean.”
Emry grimaced and chipped a frozen chunk of vomit from the stone. “That is all the more reason to keep it clean then, isn’t it?”
Jundal grinned. “You are dedicated to the task, rootling. I respect that.”
Emry finished cleaning the pile of waste and rounded into the next cell, which was much cleaner than the first. Jundal skipped his second cell as she continued, and moved on to the third. He passed a bald man, emaciated with a round piercing in the center of his scalp.
“So Jundal, why are you here? You don’t look the prisoner type to me.”
The tattooed man laughed with his whole belly and leaned against the wall. “I am the prisoner type to the people here, most assuredly. I believe that they do not see the world as I do. I was imprisoned for burglary.”
Emry cracked a smile. “Aren’t burglars supposed to be skinny, and quiet?”
“Not if they are good.” Jundal attempted to cross his arms, and pulled the handcuffs tight against his chest.
“But, then you aren’t a good burglar either? You were caught, after all.”
Jundal’s face fell into a scowl and Emry’s heart skipped.
He held the look for a short time, but was unable to maintain it as a grin spread across his face, and infectious one that threatened to spread to her. “You are correct, little one. My companions would like you.”
“Are you going to recruit me when we get out of here? I can join your band of thieves then?”
Jundal nodded to a guard who was patrolling the floor above them. “I do not think they appreciate that kind of talk.”
“I do not think I care what they think.” Emry mimicked Jundal and moved to the next cell. He laughed and followed her, staying nearby her as they made their way through the bottom floor together. She noticed the other prisoners kept their distance while she spoke to Jundal, and made it a point to continue.
“So, Jundal, what did you steal?”
He shoved down hard on the broom and dragged it across the stones. “I stole a glove.”
Emory paused and cocked an eyebrow at him. “A glove?”
“It was a special glove, of course. If it had been a traditional glove I would not be here. It was a metal glove, with intricate golden shapes that ran along it. I also happened to steal a number of scales.”
Emry’s heart sank.
“Yes, you know, copper, silver, gold, I had two or three thousand when they caught me. To be truthful, the money was mine in the first place.”
She sighed, confused. “You mean, dragon scales?”
Jundal cocked an eyebrow. “I would not be able to carry two or three thousand dragon scales, little Emry.” He passed into the next cell. “I took them because they were taken unfairly, a merchant in the square robbed my friends and I would not allow it, so I retrieved the money from their employer. It happened to be in the middle of the night and I had not accounted for Lord Tilliak’s watch dogs.”
Emry shook her head and returned to work as a guard banged on the floor above them.
She scoffed and continued mopping, sparing the occasional glance at Jundal who mouthed to her.
“We will talk later.”
She nodded and continued about her duty until she reached the final cell. When she did, there was a tall man waiting inside, crouched in the corner. She paused and glanced down the hall, where the guards had gathered to talk amongst themselves on the other end of the alley.
“So, you’re a witch.” The man licked his lips, spinning a shard of glass in his hand. Emry shot a glance around her, Jundal had returned to the mop bucket and was just beneath the guards.
“Suppose I am. Would you be able to kill a witch with a piece of glass?”
The man spread his cracked lips and licked them once more. Wiry, dirty red hair fell in front of his face.
“I don’t want to kill you, I’d like to leave this place sometime. Rather, I have questions.”
Emry gripped the handle and pointed it at him.
“Ask the guards, they know me well.”
“They don’t know that you weren’t really a dragon rider.” The man’s voice creaked, mocking her. “You’re riding a high because you think it will scare these guards because they don’t know what you are.”
Emry stared at the man, his face vaguely familiar to her. She began to parse through her memories.
“I am whatever you say I am.” She spun the mop and splashed it onto the stone, sending excrement tainted water out onto the floor near the man’s bare feet.
“You think you can trick them, but you can’t trick me.” He stood. “I was with you, in the woods, when you landed with that golden demon and it burnt up our guards in an instant.
Emry’s mind clicked, and she realized where she recognized him. He was one of the guards who surrounded them. She held the medallion up to his face and pledged to destroy him.
Emry felt a hand grab her shoulder and pull her out of the cell doorway.
“She won’t need to trick you if you are dead, Feeder.”
The man met Jundal’s eyes and grinned. “Do something about it, exile.”
Jundal gripped the mop, and Emry watched the muscles on his back ripple as he wrung it between his hands, and then, he stepped out of the cell.
“Get out of here, Feeder. Go, or I will do something that I will not regret.”
The thin man stood and tucked the shard of glass into his frock. As he passed by Emry he leaned into her and whispered.
“You killed my friends, deceiver. I won’t forget.”
He slipped past them and made his way to the other end of the hall as the guards approached.
“You two are done for the day.” One of them gestured to Emry and Jundal. “Go back to your cells.”
Jundal nodded and followed the guard down the hall towards the Third Alley. Another guard stepped beside Emry and led her back through the commons.
“You are flirting with death, witch.” He quipped after the commons doorway closed.
“It isn’t your business who I am flirting with.” She shot back.
The guard turned around and put a knife to her throat. “What you brought to this city should have had you killed, and yet, you were spared. We are under strict orders to keep you alive. Feeder isn’t the only one in this prison that wants you dead.” The guard spun back and continued, sheathing the knife quickly.
Emry didn’t bother responding. Every time she had, she received veiled threats or was ignored. The guards had grown tired of her attitude, exactly as she’d hoped. She followed him back to her cell, and he unlocked her cuffs before shoving her into the room and slamming the cell door behind her.
She rubbed her sore knees for a while before she laid back and propped up the bucket, revealing Balshenai’s scales. Her time in Icehold was valuable at least, as she walked her way through the prison in her mind. Every door she’d seen, every cell with a prisoner within it she remembered, and she planned a path to escape. All she needed was a way to keep the gate open.
She dropped the bucket and rolled across her cell onto the mat with eyes closed.
Chapter One, Part Seven: