Chapter Two, Part Six: Sisters of Westwinter Chapter Two VI: Scales & Keys
Morning came early for Kerrick and the rest of the survivors. The night prior rocked each of them in their own ways, and he could hear his squad mates struggling with their reality in their own ways in the middle of the night. Sardra, weeping across the room. Heindor, repeating the story of Klauven’s slaughter of the dragon under his breath. Others shivering badly enough that their bed’s creaked. Most of them, though, like him, laid silent as the storm passed by them. He didn’t know what any of them were thinking of, but for some reason, he couldn’t get the image of Klauven out of his mind.
He’d been bothered by the hunter before, the look of him, somewhere between deranged and obedient to the General. He saw it in the others, there was something about Klauven that commended attention. He knew it, they knew it, and still the hunter dug under his skin. He couldn’t figure why, but something about the blonde, braided hair and the look in his eyes reminded Kerrick of someone he’d known when he was young.
He tossed and turned, his mind rifling through connected memories that might lead him to the answer until the first sun peeked over the mountain ridge and into the barracks. Most of the soldiers had sat up and dressed long before then, but those who didn’t responded to the first glimmer of morning with groggy eyes as they crawled out of their cots and into their uniform. Kerrick did the same. Their morning routine was hard baked into them after boot camp. There were eight minutes between the first sun and the second sun, and if they weren’t ready to go in that time, they’d be punished.
He slid his feet into his boots and stood, buckling his belt around his waist and watching the others as they did the same. Many of whom still carried puffy cheeks from the previous night’s tears.
“Soldiers.” The familiar voice of General Vandruss echoed into the room. “I understand you’ve had a frightening weekend.” His boots echoed through the barracks, and though he whipped his head around, Kerrick couldn’t find the General anywhere in the room with them.
The other soldiers looked around confused, too. Kerrick buttoned his coat and stepped away from his bed side, on his way to the infirmary where Luthier had spent the night.
“I will be arriving shortly. Klauven and Ginu have been assigned to a new position starting today. They will not be with you any more. However, when I arrive I will be gathering a small troupe to return to Godspine with me. There are rumors of a rebellion brewing, and we have been asked to put the rumors to silence before they reach the ears of anyone who might be willing to engage in such behaviors.”
Kerrick listened, aware that Vandruss was projecting his voice, through what manner he couldn’t know, but the General was not with them. He passed through the barracks and to the infirmary where Luthier slept soundly, splotches of his pillow still wet with tears from the prior evening.
In the barracks, Vandruss’ voice continued.
“It has come to my attention that there was not only one dragon attack in my absence, but two with a potential for a third. As such, those of you who will not be returning to Godspine with me will begin packing your things. I am reassigning you to a new post. There will be, in a number of days, a team who will arrive to replace you here. This new platoon is more experienced and will be able to survive a true dragon attack.”
Kerrick caught the way Vandruss said “true”, as if the prior evening hadn’t destroyed the lives of his friends and their families. As if Ginu hadn’t carted a pile of bodies back from the forest and left them in the marksman range to freeze.
He tightened his grip on the banister of Luthier’s bed.
“Maltha’s claws…” He whispered.
Luthier stirred, and he turned back to the barracks where Vandruss continued his speech.
“I am sure I will learn more when I arrive, but I understand Klauven and Ginu to be troublesome leaders. I applaud you for withstanding their attitudes, and especially their eccentric behavior. They are unlike us, refined in the wilds of Atla, away from civilization and order. What they lack in decorum, however, they make up for in duty to the Company as well as skilled combat.”
Kerrick entered the barracks as Vandruss began his closing statements.
“Klauven and Ginu have been relocated to an active hunt elsewhere in Atla. I commend each of you for being able to withstand their behaviors, despite how unalike us they can be. The two of them, as well as their Company Chief are valuable allies and as such, are a necessary evil in regard to the growing threat which the dragon scourge mounts against us. I expect a full debrief when I arrive, as Klauven and Ginu will not be there to fill me in.”
The sound of the Generals footsteps faded into silence as the platoon shared shocked looks with one another.
“What does he mean?” One girl stood from her bed. “We go through what we went through last night and the Hunters just leave?”
Kerrick panned the room, taking in their reactions as Vandruss’ message left them to their own thoughts.
“What did he mean Klauven and Ginu are leaving?” Heindor spoke up, half dressed and lying on his bed. If the General had seen him, he’d have wound up scrubbing troughs until summer.
“I believe he means the Hunters are leaving.”
Another soldier, a stout boy, spoke up, stopping him from doing so.
“Well, what do we do then?” Heindor asked, gesturing to them frantically. “The dragon could still be out there.”
Kerrick took a step forward to see Heindor roll his eyes.
“I’m not sure.”
The pudgy blushing boy who’d fawned over the Hunters furrowed his brow.
“This all seems suspicious, doesn’t it?” Kerrick walked across the center aisle as he spoke, making his way slowly to Sardra’s bed, and more importantly, the front door of the barracks. A suspicion had gnawed at him since they’d reached the ridge. The marks on the corpses they’d uncovered weren’t from a dragon, or a bear or snake or griffon. They were clean cuts which were roughed up after the fact.
“Why would Vandruss be leaving us a message, especially in the manner in which he did, through magic, when we’ve never once gotten a message from him in such a way before? None of us are skilled enough to understand the validity of whatever just happened. I’d wager that over half of you have never seen anything like this before in our lives, am I right?”
A few of the soldiers nodded, not nearly half, but he suspected some were ignoring him and others refrained out of embarrassment. Kerrick marched past Sardra and out the front door, which she caught on the backswing.
“I don’t believe anything we’ve seen in the last two days has been entirely accurate.” He gestured out to the path which led to the ridge behind them while the soldiers looked.
The morning had quickly grown bitter, what remaining frost clung to the earth from the night before had grown thicker after the storm. In the distance, the forest path where they’d met their dragon smoldered in the daylight. Beside the path rested the wagon, just as it had the former evening. Filled to the brim with body parts, a number of them, the parts of their companions who’d been taken into the forest with Ginu. Protruding from the top of the pile with a bifurcated jaw, was Verrita.
Kerrick’s stomach dropped.
Her face contorted into horror, holding her left arm and covered in frost she stared up to one of the suns. Lifeless with pale blue skin.
Kerrick placed his hand on the wagon and breathed out as a few of the soldiers stepped from the barracks to witness what he’d seen the previous night.
“Hold it together.” He urged himself.
His stomach twisted tighter.
“Snow, what is that?” One of Heindor’s friends dropped to his knees at the sight of the wagon.
Doubled over, he replied as calmly as he could.
“It was calculated.”
Heindor burst from the back of the crowd and out to the yard, stopping just before Kerrick.
“Explain yourself.” He shoved and caught Kerrick in the ribs, knocking him to the ground.
The snow puffed around him and he leaned up to sit.
“I don’t think the dragon attack was a coincidence. Think about it.” He gestured at the bodies without standing as Heindor flexed his fists.
“What of it? It was a tragedy! I had friends die last night!” He leaned forward, attempting to brace himself on the wagon before he jerked his hand away quickly.
“I mean, we were meant to get attacked. Some of us were.” Kerrick locked eyes with Heindor and slowly stood. “Think about it, really. Look at those corpses.” He pointed at the bodies.
Heindor refused, and pushed away from the wagon. “What about them?”
He turned to the other soldiers and repeated the question. Some of them obeyed, some of them bent over and retched. Sardra raised a hand.
“I don’t understand either, Kerrick. Can you explain?”
He shook his head. “Every single person in that forest, the group selected to go with Ginu, was someone who didn’t rush forward during the initial dragon attack. When we were in the forest and it came down, that story Heindor has been repeating for hours?” He spun to face the soldiers, and returned his gaze to the pudgy boy who could do nothing besides retell the story of Klauven killing the dragon.
“That wasn’t a dragon attack, mates.” He clenched his fist. “That beast was sick. It was already dying. It was defending itself.”
Silence fell over the soldiers for a while before, eventually, it broke.
Heindor reared back into a belly laugh and shattered the quiet in the training grounds.
“It was sick? How would you know, you’ve seen many of them before?” He spun on his heel and took a step into the barracks when Kerrick put a hand on his shoulder, holding him back.
“How many have you?”
The boy froze, then whipped back and wrapped his hands around Kerrick’s arm, dragging him forward onto his knee. The dense leather did little to deaden the blow and Kerrick fell to the snow.
“I’ve seen all I need. You’re accusing a man of treason, Snow.”
Kerrick pushed onto his hands and knees, keeping watch at the corner of his eye on Heindor’s feet, waiting for the boy to take it too far once more.
It was a correct assumption.
Heindor turned, his feet pointed at the soldiers as he continued. “Klauven and Ginu have come to teach us something the academy would never. Our Company would abhor us becoming Dragon Hunters. This is an opportunity, Snow, don’t you see that?”
Heindor turned back to face him and lifted his leg.
“You should know better than to bite the hand that might present you a new opportunity.” The boy dropped his leg quickly, but not so quickly Kerrick didn’t have time to shove himself at the other.
He crashed into Heindor’s planted leg and felt the boy’s shin pop as he tumbled back onto the snow. As soon as he landed, Heindor cried out.
“What did you do that for?”
“That was because you aren’t paying attention.”
Heindor scrambled to his feet and squared his shoulders, clear with violent intent, while he planted his feet firmly on the ground and raised his own fists.
“Don’t you find it strange that the only soldiers harmed were those who didn’t spring to action to help Klauven kill a dragon, one that was already sick?”
Heindor swung hard with his right hand, a hook aimed for Kerrick’s left cheek. He ducked below and caught the boy’s hand. With a shove he sent the flustered soldier down toward the snow.
“I don’t think fighting will serve us.” He spoke calmly while Heindor held his balance.
“We had orders, Snow.” Heindor swung again. This time a jab directly toward his throat. He stepped back and grabbed the boy’s wrist, pulling him off his balance once more. He slipped on a patch of ice and fell, the momentum carrying him into a snow bank.
Kerrick dusted his hands and turned to face him.
“Isn’t it suspicious that the dragon, which we’ve been told since boot camp, was the most dangerous and deadly creature in Atla, was found in the forest and chose not to do anything to us?”
Heindor swung from the ground, a strike which he deflected with a knee.
“Then, the dragon, which is supposedly deadly, is quickly killed. With little effort on his part, when we regroup at the lake to set up the filter, he gives a talk about the purpose of Dragon Hunters and makes a display of the gems that power our machines, and by the way…”
Heindor stood and barreled toward him, catching Kerrick in the side and knocking him to the snow.
“How can you talk about the man who saved your life in such a way?” The boy screamed through a sudden outburst of tears.
“Who said he saved our lives? If we’d stayed back, we wouldn’t have been in any danger I wager. In fact, I’d. Put a bag of scales on the dragon still being alive had we not followed him into the forest.”
Heindor slammed his fist down and Kerrick barely dodged the strike as he pulled his legs back to toss the boy off of him.
With a shove, Heindor stumbled back and braced down to charge him again.
Kerrick raised his hand. “Did you notice the dragon on the ridge above the lake? When we were building up the filter? When Klauven split our platoon into two parts, one to fish the corpses out of the reservoir and one to guard the rest? Did you see then, there was something watching us from the forest line above?”
Heindor paused, long enough for Kerrick to know. The man was scared, just like he was.
“It doesn’t matter, Snow.”
Heindor’s reply came colder than the air between them. “To doubt your leaders is in direct defiance of what is expected from us.”
“We are to protect Godspine, the surrounding settlements and Atla at large. Our station is meaningless without us.” He fired back, preparing for the incoming attack.
“What are you trying to say then, Snow? You doubt our leadership?”
As Kerrick opened his mouth to respond, A voice boomed from the depths of the barracks.
“Enough, both of you.”
General Vandruss stepped through the door beside them into the snow, past the other soldiers and in between the boys. The glint of sunlight from the medals on his coat flashed in Kerrick’s eyes.
“Both of you, inside, now.”
He shot a glare at Kerrick, who assumed another had been shot to Heindor as well.
The boys obeyed and lowered their fists, slowly turning toward the door as the General watched them from behind.
“We will be speaking of this at length, once we are inside.”
The General followed them through the door and closed the door behind him, fury scratched across his face.
“Snow, Heindor, sit down. The rest of you, leave us.”
He took a hand and unbuttoned his coat, letting it fall to the floor behind him as he took his place before the boys, his other hand resting atop the hilt of his sword.