Sisters of Westwinter
The First Law of Atla
Chapter Two IV: Loyalty to the Hunter
Chapter Two, Part Three: Sisters of Westwinter – Chapter One VII: Underhanded Designs
Cold wet snow crunched beneath Kerrick’s feet as he marched lockstep with the rest of his platoon. Forty soldiers trudged in time with one another behind Klauven and Ginu. The Hunters led thirty-eight soldiers who fell into rank behind them. Organized into nine rows of four with two in the rear where Kerrick found himself, with only Verrita as a marching mate, leading the remaining six who dragged the cart filled with frozen body parts behind them. The bitter cold of the approaching night sunk into his steel armor and wrapped itself around his leathers as the constant footfalls into snow soaked his boots.
Klauven and Ginu demanded a ferocious pace, every so often shouting back to the rear of the formation to keep up, and Kerrick was sure he wasn’t the only one among them who had begun to feel the sting of the winter’s night in his lungs.
The supply road that the second party had taken the wagon along was their path back to the barracks, a thin and infrequently maintained strip of cobbled stone that ran along the edge of the Ferrous Cliff, which arced around the outskirts of Godspine proper, far below them. Kerrick had taken his position against the cliff at Verrita’s urging. One look over the edge had sent a deep green hue through her cheeks. Followed by a violent shake of her head, he’d obliged to keep her away from the ledge as best he could.
They’d made it a quarter of the way back before she’d spoken, whispering to him low enough that the soldiers before them couldn’t hear.
“Does Klauven bother you, too?”
He’d been carrying a feeling deep within that he’d avoided confronting since the onset of their mission. The Hunter, and his companion both were out of place against the rest of the army. Even when compared to Vandruss, they seemed like street vagrants who’d somehow found themselves at the helm of an army. Kerrick mulled his thoughts over in his mind, searching for the words he’d need to phrase his feelings truthfully and without cruelty. Klauven was dirty and vulgar, the frequency with which he slipped in and out of the Eastern Atlean accent alarmed him. Whatever accent took its place he’d not recognized. Perhaps from somewhere across the Ilden Seas. Or even from the Crooks, though, he paled at the thought that a former native of those isles had gone so far north and claimed so much notoriety as a warrior.
“It isn’t that Klauven is from another place, but rather, that he seems to look beyond us. As if we don’t matter, or exist in comparison to his greater goal, whatever that might be.”
He shrugged, the cold metal of his plate rattled.
“Klauven is odd, and makes himself out to be a danger, but he knows the Ridge, certainly. Not to mention, as unsettling as it might be, he knows how to put down a Dragon.”
Verrita shivered, and Kerrick suspected it was not because of the cold.
“I know, that’s just the thing. How could he do it so easily? When that dragon roared, I couldn’t.” She paused. Heindor, two rows ahead of them, turned and locked eyes with Verrita and put a finger to his mouth.
“How could he hear us?” Kerrick questioned himself, but chose to obey and hung his head.
Behind them, over the Ridgeline, the sun fell behind the mountaintops as they moved. Verrita had progressed beside him from the occasional jitter to a constant tremble, he edges of her armor clinked together. Still, the soldiers didn’t speak. Klauven and Ginu had taken to whistling a tune in front of the group as they kicked through knee high snow drifts and moved against the wind as if it weren’t there at all. As they neared a split in the path, just beyond the forest that his company had found the dragon within that morning, Klauven turned to face the group. With a hand held high above him he gestured for them to stop.
“Do ye’ ‘ear that?” He chided the soldiers. Kerrick silenced his breathing along with his companions, and listened. He strained his ears over the sound of Verrita’s trembling body and nearly gave up before he heard it. Faintly, high above them, he found the sound of beating wings.
Beside Klauven, Ginu cracked a devilish grin and slid a hatchet from his disfigured side.
“Figures we couldn’t make it back.”
The fat man waved at the soldiers and guided them forward, splitting the group once more into two halves.
“Anyone notice the dragon that was looking out for us at the lake?” Klauven asked, speaking plainly despite the threat of immediate attack.
The soldiers shared looks amongst one another while they separated, some of which being summoned by Ginu. The beating of wings above them grew distant, and Kerrick swelled with fear that it would not be distant for long.
“Well?” Klauven continued, expecting an answer from the frightened soldiers, and Kerrick slowly raised his hand.
“Congratulations, Snow.” The hunter sneered. “You’re with me.” Klauven and Ginu continued separating the soldiers until they had reorganized into two groups, Verrita followed Kerrick closely as he approached the rest of the party and Klauven put a hand on her shoulder.
“You’re with Ginu, girl.”
Her head fell, and she muttered a quiet acknowledgement before she turned to reunite with the other party. Ginu shouted above them as they dragged the wagon along the split in the path.
“We will be safer if we stay apart! There is no more order, we move quickly.”
Klauven repeated nearly the same and set off on the lower path that the wagon bearers had used to arrive at the lake that morning.
“I won’t spare anyone who falls behind.” The Blonde hunter called over his shoulder as he took off in a steady run toward the barracks. Above them, the beating of wings in the dark drew near.
Kerrick collected himself and started running. Among the soldiers on his side of the path were Heindor, and the aforementioned’s friends. Hesch and Verrita had been called to the other group and beyond them, no one that Kerrick had grown truly familiar with ran alongside him. The Ridge dipped, sheltering them from the sudden flash of light above them. Mere moments later, thunder rumbled through the air. The hair on his arm stood on end and he pushed himself. Exhausted with burning lungs, he and the soldiers followed Klauven who charged through the twilight, away from the sound of crashing thunder and the scarce flashes of lightning.
On the other side of the lower path, many of the soldiers had slowed. Heindor and Kerrick remained in front of the group, the realization that they were under attack gripped him and pushed himself, not chancing a look behind out of fear for what he might find. Klauven stayed ahead of them a number of feet, until the lower path rose back up and they emerged on the other side of the split, the distant lights of the Barracks in the distance. Gentle flames flickered and curled in the windy night.
“You go.” Klauven called out against the frequent crashes of thunder, and turned on a dime toward the second group, still hidden behind the walls of the forest. “I will go back for them.”
Heindor nodded and took off in a dead sprint with his friends, away from them all, and Kerrick finally turned back, fearing that they’d gotten too far from their companions. Along the path, hundreds of steps behind them was a small pack of soldiers, he couldn’t make their faces out in the darkness but saw above them exactly what he’d feared.
Perched on the edge of the cliff rested a massive scaled dragon, whose two pairs of wings had unfurled into the night sky. It’s scales glittered, green and blue. A bipedal creature, which stood on hind legs with its fore claws attached to the end of a smaller pair of wings. The second paid spanned far longer than anything Kerrick had seen before then. From its shoulders protruded a long, serpentine neck that stretched far over them and loomed over the forest. It’s cavernous jaw unleashed bolts of lightning that flashed from within, scarring the depths of the forest with light and fire.
Kerrick shot a glance back toward the barracks, another twenty minutes at least if he were in a full sprint. The stranded soldiers wouldn’t survive the journey if the dragon turned its attention back toward them. He pulled a deep breath in as another bolt of lightning tore from the jowls of the dragon and unclasped his steel gauntlets. Then, he unclipped his breastplate and let it fall to the snow.
One foot before the other, he began to sprint toward the struggling soldiers, and into he presence of the dragon.
The clouds above them churned and swirled, preparing a vicious snowstorm as he reached the group. Six soldiers, one of whom had rolled their ankle.
“Snow, what are you doing?” One of them called out. A young woman, closely cropped blonde hair and marks beneath her eyes that denoted her ancestry in the Isle of Magi. Four violet-red patches of skin that decorated her upper cheek. Sardra Calleri. They’d spoken before, but rarely.
“What slowed you down?” He replied, ignoring her question.
“Luthier caught a piece of debris where the dragon landed. We didn’t even hear it come down, but it sheared rocks from the upper ledge and they landed on his ankle.” She gestured to a soldier, larger than Kerrick by a few stones, limping on a blood soaked ankle. His arms wrapped around Sardra and another soldier who didn’t speak.
“Shed his equipment.” Kerrick crept around them as a bolt of lightning shot across the sky and arced onto the path, sixty steps in front of them.
“It will make him lighter, we can work together to carry him. If we stay here long enough, the dragon will find us. Best outcome is we get knocked over the edge. That fall is thirty or forty stories down. We won’t live regardless of what kind of armor we are wearing.
In the distance, screams of soldiers echoed into the night from the cover of the blazing forest. The dragon’s tail whipped against the outcropped wall and shot stone from the surface, crumbling down to the farmland far below them. Sardra didn’t move fast enough for Kerrick’s liking, and he slipped his fingers between Luthier’s breast plate and tunic. With a quick press, he unlatched the buckle that kept the armor on him and it fell to the stones below, nearly landing on the boy’s ankle.
“Apologies.” Kerrick muttered, and crouched below Luthier. He pushed off of the slick ground and caught the boy’s knees in his shoulders, pushing forward until Luthier was suspended in the air, his knees over Kerrick’s shoulders and his back supported by Sardra and her companion. The remaining soldiers paused to collect the armor they’d left behind.
Luthier whimpered with each step, but Kerrick ignored the sound and set a quick pace for them. The faster they got away from the dragon, the better. Behind them, one of the soldiers screamed. Kerrick couldn’t turn to see where the stragglers were, but it didn’t matter. The dragon’s tail whipped through the air and slammed against something metal. Then, the scream faded into silence as the soldier it crashed into was flung from the ridge. Two more violent thunder strikes crashed around them as the pound of the dragon’s claws vibrated the earth. He didn’t turn his head, knowing that it would do him no good to try with Luthier’s knees over his shoulder, but more so because he knew that he didn’t want to see how quickly he would be killed.
So he continued. Sardra and her companion hefted Luthier behind Kerrick, and as they neared the end of the lower path, he realized that the dragon had picked off the other three members of their group. Where they had gone, he couldn’t know. Only that there was no sense in returning to find them.
“Move.” He called back to the others, and hefted Luthier’s leg above him so that he could look at the dragon. As he did so, he found that the beast had crawled further into the forest. The thrashing of its tail that rendered their companions lost to the ridge wasn’t intentional. As if it hadn’t noticed them.
“That can’t be right.” He thought to himself as he marched forward to the sound of Luthien’s desperate breathing.
“Snow, why did you come back?” Sardra asked as a flurry of snow picked up and blasted against their cheeks.
“I would have wanted you to do the same for me.” He replied, the shape of the barracks before them, barely visible against the coming snowfall.
Shards of snow popped against his cheeks as Luthier’s body grew colder. Still, he refused to stop. The boy’s whimpering had devolved into crying, and Kerrick couldn’t blame him. The crushed ankle bounced against his chest with each step. Frozen blood flecked from his skin and onto the snow below. Far behind them, the sound of the dragon thrashing continued. A lightning storm localized to the forest, and the forest alone, continued to rage as they treaded through the rapidly growing snow drifts. Kerrick’s toes had long grown numb beneath the frost, and he dared not think about which of them he’d have to remove before the night was over.
Sardra gasped, and drew his attention as the dragon let out a ferocious roar that pierced the darkness, and he turned to see the long serpentine neck of the beast glowing white. It remained for a moment, wings outstretched, back arched and neck into the sky, before the pent up breath emerged and bolts of lightning erupted from within the horror and crashed around the forest before it. Tens, or even hundreds of crackling bolts of light slammed into the ground all around the dragon’s body, splintering trees and erupting flames upon the branches, and behind the chorus of lightning and thunder, there rose a chorus of screams.
He swallowed the lump that formed in his throat and continued to push forward until they neared the bunker, where a few of the soldiers met them in the training yard. He lowered Luthier’s legs to the snow and allowed the composed, warm companions to collect the boy while he and Sardra stumbled forward behind them, his heart crashed against his chest with every strike of lightning and before he pushed his way into the barracks, he chanced one final look back into the forest. The dragon remained, its head arced over the treetops and lightning poured from it. A thousand sprawling fires had amassed into one massive blaze that crawled through the trees, and with a sigh he pushed the door to the barracks out of his way and followed Sardra inside.
The warmth of the barracks didn’t comfort him, and the surrounding soldiers who’d wrapped themselves in blankets and covered their faces reminded him why he’d felt so harshly about Klauven. The man didn’t feel fear, and if he did, he didn’t show it. Even then, Kerrick had engraved the Hunter’s face on his mind as he charged into the forest to seek out the rest of their companions, and his own friend, Ginu. Despite Kerrick’s suspicions, at least Klauven cared for something.
“Snow, that was brave.” Heindor’s voice crooned across the barracks, tight lipped and wide eyed he spoke through a thin veil of arrogance that Kerrick saw through like spring water.
“I knew you weren’t going to do it.” He shot back and passed the soldiers who’d already bundled up, most of whom were Heindor’s friends. A handful of them had curled against their bedposts with cups of tea or soup pilfered from the mess hall in the absence of a commanding officer.
“I came here to inform the next in charge.” The pompous boy shot back, mouth full of bone broth.
“I doubt that.” Kerrick unbuttoned his sopping wet, blood soaked tunic and tossed it onto the wooden floor. In the back, near the mess hall, Luthier screamed in pain and Sardra tried to comfort him.
“Three dragons in one day, Kerrick. If I didn’t know better I’d say we were cursed.” One of Heindor’s lackeys quipped with a mouthful of bread.
Kerrick shook his head and slipped a warm shirt from his locker. He didn’t respond.
“You know, Klauven has his eye on you.”
He slipped his undershirt on and ignored the soup soaked words of the boy. “I think he is looking for another hunter to join their team.”
“I doubt that.” Kerrick replied, slipping out of his boots and trousers to find something warm.
Heindor gasped, as the room fell silent behind him. “What happened to you? Your legs are…”
Kerrick slipped his legs into his trousers one at a time and turned to face Heindor, whose face had gone pale.
“I carried Luthier, whose legs were broken and splintered, back to the barracks while you and your companions found your lot of pilfered soup and warm tea. I hope the comfort of the first pick was good for you.”
Luthier moaned in the back room as Sardra continued tending to his wounds.
“You should be so lucky that the dragon didn’t follow us, Heindor.” Kerrick stepped towards the corner table where the boy sat. Luthier’s thawing blood dripped down his calves, what didn’t soak through his pants fell onto the floor.
“You would have died.”
Heindor stared at him in silence for a long moment before Kerrick passed him by and made his way down the hall.
“I saved you some of the good food!” Heindor called, and Kerrick didn’t reply.
Instead, he made his way to the infirmary near the mess hall, where Sardra and her companion finished bandaging Luthier’s ankles. While he’d gotten dressed, they’d cracked his bones back into place and affixed them to a splint. Though, they both could have used some help wrapping the wound.
Sardra turned as soon as he entered the room and wrapped her arms around him.
“Sardra…” he began.
“No, Snow. You saved our lives. I don’t know what to say to thank you.”
He blushed, and wrapped his arms around her in return.
“Not being dead is thanks enough.”
Their embrace was short, but he clasped her tight as thunder rumbled in the distance, a constant drone beneath the murmur of soldiers in the next room over. She released and turned back to Luthier, who stared up to the ceiling of the infirmary, tears dripping from his eyes.
From outside the infirmary, Heindor’s grating voice echoed, regaling the story of Klauven’s battle with the dragon in the forest, puffing the Hunter up as a master of his craft, which Kerrick couldn’t debate. He stepped out into the room as Heindor shouted to the other soldiers, most of whom still held themselves tightly beneath blankets.
“…And Klauven jammed the spear into the Dragon and brought it down just before it was going to kill us!” He waved his hands in the air, one of them held a half eaten slice of bread.
“Don’t exaggerate.” Kerrick interrupted. “That dragon might have been a threat, it assuredly was, but it was not attacking us. It was provoked.”
Heindor turned in his seat, his jaw limp.
“I was telling it how I saw it, you came late, Snow.”
“I was right behind you. There was no battle. The dragon was there’d likely would have killed us, I’m not trying to say that. I am trying to say that your premature idolization of the man is dangerous.”
Heindor dropped the bread onto a plate and stood, a look of betrayal upon his face.
“Snow, do you not admire his tenacity? To venture into the middle of this storm to save the others who were separated from us?”
Kerrick stepped past him without meeting his gaze and to his locker.
“I don’t admire that the people he went to save, supposedly, are the same people he split from the main path, which was far shorter to travel, and incidentally, were the same people that chose not to follow him into the woods to battle a dragon with little more than splinters for weapons. I don’t admire manufactured tenacity, or artificial bravery.”
The room fell quiet at his words.
“Did you not notice? Or was I the only one who paid attention?” He looked to the other soldiers, most of whom shared glances at one another. Sardra stepped out from the infirmary and watched as he pushed onward.
“During the first dragon attack, Klauven charged in an killed it without hesitation, did no one notice that it refused to fight back? Did no one notice that the dragon hardly moved? It was ill, or hurt. It wasn’t roaring to tell us that it was hunting us. It was wounded and it was scared. It was looking for its brood.”
The soldiers looked at one another in realization as Kerrick paced past Heindor. He continued.
“Then, at the second attack, knowing that the wagon path was shorter and would help keep us hidden beneath the cliff, he sends a certain group to travel along it while the rest move into the forest, arguably with more cover, and directly to the corpse of the dragon he killed this morning.”
Heindor stood quickly, knocking his chair down as he swung his arm at Kerrick, who side stepped.
“Do you doubt our leaders, Snow?”
As Heindor opened his mouth, the front door of the barracks slammed open with a crack, and thunder rumbled above them as Klauven stepped through. His body covered in blood, his clothing burned.
Outside the doorway Ginu stood before the cart, with a few of the soldiers, each of them bleeding and burnt in the same manner as Klauven as he stepped into the barracks.
“It is over.” He lifted his torn coat from his shoulders and tossed it onto the floor, exposing his bare chest riddled with scars and tattoos that had all been coated in fresh blood. From behind, Ginu stepped into the barracks and adjusted his stance, the suit of armor that had fused to his flesh rattled. His stench pierced Kerrick’s nose.
“Get to rest, we’ll be on our way ‘ack to Godspine by mornin’ to ‘elp Vandruss with a project.” Ginu snorted and spit snot into the wooden floor.
“What about the rest of us?” Kerrick spoke up, pushing past Heindor.
“Most of ‘ye didn’t make it.” Ginu replied, gesturing back to the cart.
There, piled atop the frozen bodies of scouts that they’d pulled from the river earlier that morning were the bodies of people he knew, people he’d trained with. Their limbs twisted and broken tangled around each other where they hadn’t been torn from the joint. Gashes covered their bodies, their faces twisted and locked in looks of horror. Of those who remained standing, there were only a few. Verrita was among them, whose eyes had puffed with tears. Barely holding herself up, she clasped her left arm. Kerrick stepped past Ginu into the snowy night and watched her fall to the ground, with blood draining from a wound in her arm. From behind, back in the barracks Klauven’s grunting echoed.
Kerrick’s blood boiled.
Chapter Two, Part Five: Sisters of Westwinter – Chapter One IX: Premonition Hour