Sisters of Westwinter
The First Law of Atla
Chapter Two VI: Scales & Keys
Chapter Two, Part Five: Sisters of Westwinter – Chapter One IX: Premonition Hour
“Witch, breakfast is ready.”
The echo of the steel mug against the bars rattled Emry awake. She pushed herself up from the damp stone floor and peered at him, through beams of sunlight streaking through the windows.
“Get up.” The guard slid open the small metal shield as he had for three months, and served up the same grey slop and stale bread she’d eaten countless times. “Breakfast” at Icehold was no different than dinner or lunch. The same mushed conception of boiled meat and cream, if she was lucky.
She stood and took the wooden tray from the guard, who continued to eye her as he backed away and continued his rounds with the rickety cart piled high with more trays of food.
She took her meal and sat with her back against the corner as she started in on it, barely able to stomach the thick, salty pudding that she figured, at one time, had the potential to still be edible. The bread broke as she lifted it from the tray and crumbs scattered onto the stone, dissolving into the puddle of water left by the previous night’s storm.
She’d been used to storms in the Atlaen winter, but the previous night’s was different. From the slit window in her cell, flakes of snow had whipped into her prison while in the distance, thunder crashed. Over and over the boom of lightning resounded across Godspine. A few miles away, judging by the space between the flashes of light and the rumble. Still, each time she’d faded off to sleep a new chorus of rumbling erupted from outside the city and stirred her.
She’d been on the verge of dreaming of Balshenai. Whatever she’d come close to nodding off she saw the golden shimmering scales of her friend, not covered in blood and broken as last she’d seen them. In the sprouting dream, Balshenai was flying.
Wherever the dragon was flying to, she couldn’t stay asleep long enough to know.
The sight of her friend, strange as she might have been, panned Emry’s heart. She hadn’t known many besides her brothers and father, and to have so quickly befriended the dragon puzzled her. It had become something that had occupied much of her time in the prison. A bond between herself and the dragon had grown, perhaps due to the amulet, perhaps due to the Dragon’s sense of kinship with her. Though she knew the creature didn’t trust her at first Balshenai still offered to take her to The Peaks and even then, when she could have gone directly to their destination, chose to fly over Godspine and show her what the nearby city was like.
She gritted her teeth against the sludgy, slaty food.
In the weeks since her imprisonment, and the bitter torture that she’d endured at the hands of Klauven and Vandruss, she’d allowed her fury to smaller and slip into a cold unrest. She desired nothing but to escape the prison, and she would have it. Even if her anger had simmered, it remained deep inside of her waiting to return.
She swallowed the last splotches of her breakfast and stood. In her sleeve, one of Balshenai’s three scales rubbed against her forearm, where she’d been burnt. She checked the second in her waistband and the third still tucked beneath the bucket.
She didn’t have a plan to escape, not in so many words. Rather a collection of paths to take when she got out of her cell. She’d cobbled the idea together over the previous day and a half and knew that it was a slim chance, but a slim chance was still a chance at all and she wouldn’t neglect taking it.
She slid the wooden tray out of her cell and waited for the guard to return and assign her chores for the day. While she waited, she paced the cell carefully. Around her, numerous prisoners moaned and shouted as the rickety wheels of the breakfast wagon popped along the cobbled walkway of the cell block. A few of them shouted obscenities to the guard, others begged to be released. She was sure that there were others who remained silent and accepted their fate. She would not be one of them.
As the guard approached, she quickly leaned against the wall and hoisted a leg onto the bucket. Beneath the lower rim, facing away from the hall, Balshenai’s third scale peeked out from the bottom of the bucket, barely a knuckle span. She pressed her foot onto the top and let her weight fall as she stretched a moaned out while the guard plucked her tray and moved along. Beneath the sound of the prisoners, a faint crack popped in the dim. When she lifted her foot from the bucket and knelt as if to stretch, she slipped the slivered scale into her free sleeve and reached for the tip of her foot.
The guard returned with keys in his hand and nodded at her. A guard she’d recognized, with a bulbous tipped long nose and deep flared nostrils that loomed over sunken, sullen cheeks and wide inset eyes. Eyes which lingered longer than others, though they were distant. He looked at her with longing.He’d been leering at her when he’d summoned her for morning chores. She hadn’t seen him every day, but many of them, he sought her out. When he spoke to her, he spoke gently, carefully, as if not to upset her. Even still, he referred to her as “witch”.
He put his hand on the bars and looked at her, his eyes glassy.
“Witch, it’s time for dailies.” He stuck the key into the lock and popped the door open.
Her plan to escape had not included him, but she was thankful for the blessing, or the luck. She didn’t bother wondering which as she stepped out and placed a hand on his chest plate while she slipped the broken scale into her palm and slipped it delicately into the locking mechanism, deep enough that it would be hidden but hopefully, she assumed, wide enough that the cell door wouldn’t lock when she was returned.
The guard stepped back and gestured down the hall.
“Fourth Alley. Inventory Inspections.”
She nodded and turned on her heel without words, toward the other guard who waited at the end of the hall. She approached him and stopped a few arm lengths away.
“Witch, Fourth Alley.” He handed her a burlap sack with a number of small punctures inside of it and sent her on her way. Through the hall on her right and down the main access path, to the right a second time and down a long hallway that brought her to Fourth Alley. A mostly vacant cell block which sported a handful of inmates. Many of which seemed as though they didn’t belong in the cells either. The inmates in Fourth Alley didn’t wave her off or disregard her any time she’d been there previously. They treated her like a person, a person whose luck had run out.
She entered and nodded at a guard who had taken her station at the entryway.
“You know this job. Get to it.” The guard spat on the ground before Emry. “Clean it up.”
She rolled her eyes and knelt, wiping the spittle from the stone with the sack. On previous days doing Inventory Inspections she’d learned that the inmates were relatively self-policing, at least, as self-policing as one could be with an army of armed and armored guards at their backs. The inmates were charged with routing smuggled items from one another and were ordered to bring them back to the Warden’s office as soon as their rounds were complete. How they managed to find anything illicit was beyond Emry, but she didn’t care one way or another. It didn’t seem to matter how much she’d found and returned, only that she’d found something.
There was always something to find.
She paced through the cell block, silently thankful for the reprieve from the laborious chores that she seemed to often find herself assigned. Plucking contraband, especially from the unassuming inmates from Fourth Alley was a far cry from scraping blood and vomit from the halls of Second Alley and dealing with the raucous folks who inhabited that space. Save for Jundal, she hadn’t met anyone else in the Prison who spoke to her on her own level. Most of them, like the one they called “Feeder” were rambunctious and aggressive, if they weren’t outright violent toward her, guards included, they were uncomfortably flirtatious. Something she didn’t have the will to tolerate on her best day, let alone after having served three months for a crime she didn’t even realize she had committed.
The crime of existence before the people of Godspine was punished severely, she discovered as she approached the first occupied cell in Fourth Alley.
“Do you have anything you might want to turn over to the Warden in your possession?” She asked, flatly.
The tall, broad shouldered woman in the cell leaned away from the wall and shook her head. Emry didn’t care if any of them did offer something, she was sure that if she returned empty handed there would be some kind of punishment but she’d kept the scales for such an occasion. A perilous one, but it was her safety net. She knew what might happen if she handed over one of the scales, but it was better than taking the whip for not being “obedient” to the guard ship.
The woman leaned back to the wall and turned away from Emry without another word and she passed to the next cell.
“Contraband.” She gestured to the bag and the second inmate, a sickly man whose frail frame was swallowed by the space around him in the cell, met her eyes.
“I didn’t have anything when they threw me in here. I don’t have anything now.” He stifled a cough and took a seat.
“What are you here for?” She asked, not realizing she’d spoken as the words left her lips. There was something about the daily chores that comforted her. It was the only time she was able to speak to someone who wasn’t a guard.
“I was poor and in the way.” He replied, whatever hope the man held had long been stripped from him. She’d only been to Fourth Alley twice before, each time for different tasks and neither of which gave her a chance to speak to the people that made their bed there.
“What does that mean?” She cocked her head and let the sack fall to her side.
“It means I didn’t have any scales, and I was a scapegoat. The King wants the city happy and, as far as he’s concerned, the city is happiest when there are no unsightly blemishes roaming the streets.”
Emry nodded, uncertain what he meant but completely certain on the other hand that he wasn’t about to explain. She stepped past him and to the next prisoner, who had their back turned and was fiddling with something in their lap.
“Contraband.” She held the bag to the cell. The prisoner didn’t turn to face her, and continued to tinker with whatever was in their hand.
“Contraband.” She repeated, and shook the bag, despite it being empty.
“I don’t owe you anything. A fragile voice called back from the cell. Shaky, uncertain. It was a young man’s voice, barely her senior she’d guessed.
“No, but you aren’t allowed to have tools, items or possessions of any kind unauthorized by the Warden.”
The boy giggled to himself briefly. “Who is to say that the Warden gets to tell me what I can and can’t have.”
Emmy paused to watch him rhythmically shove something away from his body with one hand, the other tucked close to his side.
“I would suggest you deposit whatever you are holding into the bag. I don’t want to involve the guards.
“Do it.” The boy called back, not turning to face her.
She shook her head and stepped past the cell. No sense in bothering him longer, she would return before she was finished and try again.
In the last cell on the first floor, she saw a girl, twenty seasons or more younger than her, playing with a wicker doll. When the girl noticed Emry, she stuffed the doll under her shirt and rolled onto her stomach in a vain attempt to hide it.
Emry knelt and whispered. “I won’t take it from you.” She peered to her side to find the guard at the end of the hall lazily staring into the distance. “Are you here because you are, a blemish, too?”
The girl cocked an eyebrow and then, after a brief moment, nodded.
Emry sighed and dropped her knee to the floor, more easily to see the girl on her level, against the stone floor. The girl’s knees were bruised and cut all over. Her feet dirty and caked with dried mud and flaking blood.
“Why are you here?”
The girl looked around the cell and shook her head. “There was a big party, and we were too close.”
Emry’s mind spun. She didn’t recognize the girl on either of her previous visits to Fourth Alley.
“When did they bring you here?”
“In the spring.”
“Did you see anything else, the night you were brought here? Anything unusual?”
The girl nodded.
“What did you see?” Emry kept an eye trained on the guard nearest her, who continued to stare into the air before him.
“There was a big monster in the sky, and a lot of people got scared. Someone said that a house was lit on fire and then my family ran. We tried to go back to The Camps, but the guards got us and started to handcuff a bunch of us.”
Emry’s stomach twisted. Fire? Did she mean the forest fire that she’d caused?
“Where was the house?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere in the city. Nearby, but I didn’t see any fire.”
She nodded to the girl. “Thank you.”
Emry stood and hoisted the burlap sack to her shoulder. Before she made her way to the second floor, she leaned back to the bars. “You can hide it.” She whispered. “Under the bucket, they won’t look.”
The girl nodded and Emry took her leave, with one eye still on the absent guard.
On the second floor there was only one prisoner, and she approached them the same as the rest to find that they were asleep. She couldn’t define any of their features, but their chest moved slowly up and down in an unrefined peace. Beside them, laid a steel knife. Larger, if only slightly, than her hunting knife, but still a sizable tool. She knelt and slipped her arm between the bars, barely able to brush the handle of the knife with her fingertip. She pushed, stretching her shoulder muscles to pain as she reached into the cell for the weapon and barely caught the end with her nail and dragged it toward her. It bounced against the rocky floor and as soon as the think of the thin blade echoed into the room she withdrew her arm with haste.
The inmate churned in their sleep, and rolled onto their opposite side before their gentle snores returned. Emry took a shallow breath and reached once more into the cell, this time with her palm on the blade she withdrew the knife and held it in her hand.
“How did they get this into the prison?”
She admired the shine of the blade for a quiet moment before she slipped it into her tunic, the cold steel of the weapon brushed against her skin and sent a prickling bite of excitement through her. She slipped one of Balshenai’s scales from her sleeve and dropped it into the bag before she descended to the lower steps.
As her feet touched the first floor, the guard who had escorted her into the Fourth Alley entered and locked eyes with her.
“Witch, have you gathered sufficiently?”
She nodded, and handed the sack over to him as the knife blade brushed her skin a second time.
He opened the sack and before he could investigate the single item she’d collected, a young man’s voice burst forth from a cell in the center of the block.
“You won’t have me!” He screamed, his vocal cords fraying as he did so, and followed by his exclamation came a sick slurp. All three of the guards present in the Alley rushed to the site of the noise and clamored to open the cell. Emry remained where she was left, in stunned horror as the guards pulled the body of the thin man from the cell, still breathing and dripping blood from a hole in his neck.
Emry stared at the small wooden shank protruding from his neck and shivered at the sight. She realized what he was doing when she’d stopped him and her stomach twisted upon itself.
One of the guards ripped the shank from his neck and let blood pour out of the wound, while another returned to her.
“Come. We are going to take care of this, go back to your cell.”
Emry obeyed and followed the guard, the knife a dreadful weight in her sleeve.
“It could be so easy”
She paused while the guard opened the cell door for her and pushed her inside. Then, he closed it behind her and turned the key to lock it. Her heart skipped a beat as he twisted the small metal key and when the mechanism popped, he slid the key out and returned presumably to Fourth Alley to tend to the inmate.
After he left, she approached the cell door as other prisoners clamored at the urgency of the guard. She placed her hand as gently as she could on the cell door and pushed, as the deadbolt slid across the strike plate, unsecured by the groove. Her heart pounded as she pulled the door closed again, realizing that the deadbolt had been blocked by the scale. She’d done it, and all that was left for her to do was to wait.
She took a seat at the back of the cell and closed her eyes, counting down the minutes to nightfall. The knife still hanging inside of her tunic.
She remained there in still, patient silence as the knob nosed guard from before came past, pushing a dinner cart. He slid the tray in to her cell and she took it the same as she always had. She sat and put herself through the torturous dinner for what she’d hoped would be the final time. Then, when the guard came to collect the tray he didn’t speak, he offered no endearing comment and she watched him collect the tray in silence.
The sun had set while she ate, and she steeled herself for the final moments of waiting. After the trays were delivered to the kitchen, the guards would rotate stations. She closed her eyes and listened, as if they were game she was hunting. Since her time in Icehold had begun, she’d made it a point to remember the movements of every patrol, the things she could do to sway each of the guards, and how easily it would be to sneak past them when presented the opportunity, and her time to put it all into practice was quickly approaching.
“It will be useless to convince them to let me go if I’m caught.”
She stood and paced, counting in her mind.
“If I get through the central courtyard…”
She slowed her thoughts to listen to the guard step away from the door and down the hall.
“It is time.”
She turned on her heel and shook her sleeve, sliding the knife handle into the palm of her hand as she pushed gently on the cell bars. It fought, but the metal scraped against the scale and she forced it open. A loud rattle echoed through the Alley and sent the other prisoners into a clamor as she slipped out of her cage and toward the doors.
She worked back through her memories of the halls, taking note of every alcove, closet or doorway she could remember as she passed through the large double wide wooden doors. On the other side she found herself in one of the central halls. These much wider than those of the cell blocks, and decorated with steel torches that hung along the wall separated by a few steps. As she swept the hall, she found guards for the time being.
She turned left, which would lead her toward the courtyard. The same courtyard where she was first brought into the prison, and which held the only way out she could identify.
She gripped the knife tight and ran through the empty hallway toward the courtyard door and stopped just before it. The massive arched gate hewn of thick wooden beams and reinforced with metal plates hung ominously shadowed away from the flickering torchlight. Behind her, from her cell block, the prisoners had gone into an uproar upon the realization that she’d escaped.
She pushed open the courtyard gate as slowly as she could as a horn sounded in a nearby room. She slipped through, into the courtyard as guards mobilized inside. The banging of their armor a chorus that sent a chill through her insides. A chill unlike that she felt as she stepped barefoot and without a covering into the open courtyard in the dead of winter.
Snow piles built up over the last night swarmed her bare ankles and drowned her dirty feet as she sidled along the inner wall of the courtyard. In the center where she’d experienced her interrogations and beatings, a small pile of wood had been stacked. A group of carved stumps surrounded the piles of wood and she realized that the guards were working on starting a bonfire. A thought that made sense given the temperature, but still surprised her.
“Where are they?”
She continued, choosing not to think any more about where the guards might be. At the rate she’d gone, she would be burned on the pile of scrap wood if she were found. Instead, she continued along the inner perimeter toward the entrance gate.
She assumed she’d need to be escorted by a guard to get through the main gate itself, but on either side of it there were two smaller doors which, though she’d never been inside of, she assumed would lead to the watchtower above the courtyard. She glanced around to see the braziers which had been lit on prior evenings were unable to withstand the winds of that particular night and their fires had gone out. If it weren’t for the attention her jailbreak had caused, the guards likely would have been on their way to reignite the flames.
She crept along, keeping an eye on the four watchtowers that stood at the corners of the courtyard and noticed movement in two, both of which were opposite her destination.
Her feet stung with every step as she pushed herself forward. The cold steel of the knife worming its way through her finger tips as her mind flashed with visions of the child and the wicker doll.
“Come back for her, with Balshenai.”
She approached the gate, her body still tight against the outer wall, hoping that the shadows were enough cover. The moon had nearly grown full again, and the center of the courtyard was bright against the mostly undisturbed snow. Beneath the arch that connected the two watchtowers, she finally released herself from the edge of the wall and crouched into the darkness. As she’d expected, the main gate was barred with a massive iron shaft she’d be mad to think she could move.
To either side, however, much smaller doors stood. Each of them ajar with light from oil lanterns flickering and bubbling within the dismal darkness. She pulled in a frigid breath and stepped inside the door to her right, with knife in hand.
Inside the watchtower door, she saw a guard with his back turned, washing a pile of potatoes and carrots in a small bucket. She felt a pang in her heart as she crept up to his back and raised the knife.
“I’m sorry.” She whispered, and with lightning fast precision, slid the knife into the guard’s throat.
The man fell limp in an instant and she carefully guided his body to the ground. She quickly patted against his hip bag and found a pair of small keys and a pile of coins. Careful to be silent, she pulled the coins from the pouch and placed them on the towel beside a pile of peeled potatoes and then pulled the bag from the guard’s body. She slung it over her shoulder and made her way to a nearby staircase, where she heard the faint sounds of movement in the upper floor.
She crept up the steps, careful to keep her footfalls near the wall as she adjusted the grip of the knife. Blood trickled from the blade onto her fingers as she crouched down near the upper landing and scanned the room. It was barely bigger than the lower floor, decorated with a handful of nails. Some of which held scabbards and belts and cloaks, others hung bare and rusted from the wooden plank walls. Against the far side opposite the staircase a metal door hung open, leading to a stone walkway. Beside the door a large wooden table stood, with four wooden bowls each of which filled with steaming soup. At the table sat one solitary guard who tapped his finger impatiently upon the tabletop. Emry braced herself and with a short inhale, charged forward.
The guard shot up with barely enough time to draw his own sword before she crashed into him, flailing with the knife. With a quick jab to her side, he knocked her back as pain flared around her ribs. She ducked beneath a swing from his sword and leapt toward his legs, slashing at the exposed joint behind his knee. The knife made contact and she heard his scream in pain immediately before she felt his elbow crash into her spine and she slammed into the floor.
Dazed, she rolled onto her back and flipped the knife in her hand and leaned upward, narrowly dodging another slash from the guard. He came down hard with his gauntlet against her temple and the shock knocked her to her side. Her head throbbed from the pain and the guard raised the sword above.
She slipped her hand into the pouch and tossed the keys upward, the metal ring caught the guard in the cheek and he turned away, dropping his guard long enough for her to roll onto one knee, with her other leg braced to sprint towards the courtyard boardwalk.
The guard dragged his sword through the air and slammed it onto the table beside her, sending a shower of wooden splinters into the dimly lit room and she used the strike to her advantage, ducking beneath his exposed arm she slashed into his side with the dagger, provoking another violent cry as he dropped to a knee. She spun around to his back and flipped the knife to slice his throat, and then she paused.
A cold, stabbing pain from her left side. Shot through her body. She looked down to see the guard’s once free hand gripped a knife, which he’d embedded into her side. The blade was short and the incision was shallow, she could see that much, but the pain rippled through her as he dragged the dagger out of her skin and stood.
“We knew you were dangerous.” He spoke through his pain, blood dripped from his wounds as she fell to her knees. “We were told to spare you, orders from higher than the Warden.”
Emry’s vision blurred as she toppled forward and fell flat on the wooden floor. Above her, the guard coughed.
“So, we were given an ichor, to paralyze. Not kill.”
Her fingers and toes grew cold, slowly at first as the thrum of shock echoed in her side. Then, quickly began to tingle. She lifted her shoulders and tried to press off of the ground to continue the fight, but collapsed beneath her own eight as the cold burrowed deeper into her bone.
“Shame, really. I would have loved to kill you.”
Emry tried to speak, but her tongue had grown heavy. Her mind fogged, and then, she slipped into darkness.
So there it is, the end of Chapter Two.
Make sure you keep an eye out over on Vocal, this story has grown rapidly and as it’s grown I’ve had to adapt to some changes in how it’s written. I’m taking a week off from the release schedule of Sisters of Westwinter to get the companion project spooled up and ready to go.
Anyway, this month (if you’re reading along with release) is NaNoWriMo, and I’ve been plugging along on two more projects alongside this one, one of which I will be guaranteed to release down the road. I don’t want to get too much into detail regarding them right now but There are big things coming. If you’re reading this on release day, don’t forget that Chapter One will be uploaded in full to Vocal Media next Saturday (11/12)
Until then, enjoy and remember:
Life is not meant to be awful.