Chapter Three, Part Three: [SOW] Chapter Three, Part Three: Alone
“A soldier’s duty lies with that of his commanding officer.” General Vandruss sat at the edge of a large table in the banquet hall. His broad shoulders eclipsed the thin wooden chair which held him as he glared across the room at Kerrick and Heindor. Both of whom had been commanded to sit opposite one another at the far end of the table.
“I am not concerned whether either of you like or dislike your station. You joined the Company and it is your duty to remain until your duty is complete. I heard the two of you bickering like schoolchildren in the barracks when I returned, with the Herriman General, no less.” His voice trembled across the room to find each of them.
Kerrick couldn’t help as the General continued, to fiddle with the straps on his tunic. Heindor looked straight on at the grizzled veteran as if he didn’t care that they were being reprimanded.
“I should have both of you taken to whips for what you’ve done.” He let out a long sigh and waited for either of them to speak up.
“What remains to be seen, however, is the result of your mission. Luckily for the both of you, you have been summoned to another station. As I projected before the two of you arrived, there has been a development in Godspine which demands your attention. The situation on the Ridge is beyond either of your abilities, regardless of what you might think, young Heindor.”
Kerrick fought a smirk as the boy hung his head.
“Snow, you are facing much more serious allegations, if what I’ve heard from your company is true. On the way to Godspine, I expect justification at length for speaking out so plainly against the Hunters who outstation you, and risked their lives to keep you and the rest of the Company safe.”
He caught Heindor make a face, and immediately return to hanging his head.
“Sir, I don’t mean to disrespect, but there is something going on here and I am not the only one who noticed. Ask Sardra, or Luthier.”
The General reclined, if only slightly.
“I will do just that, seeing as Luthier has been injured, he will be taken to Godspine by a separate caravan. When we are finished here, I will request to speak with Sardra immediately.” He cleared his throat and slipped a rolled Greenleaf from his pouch. “Until then, I am going to impart some wisdom to both of you. The truth is, I like you boys. For different reasons, I want both of you to succeed. The thing is, it doesn’t matter how much I like you or want you to excel. This world, this job, will still kill you without hardly lifting a finger. If you expect me to ease you into the reality of what we are doing here, you are wrong.”
Heindor shuffled nervously across from him, and Kerrick continued plucking at the waistband of his tunic while General Vandruss spoke, smoke pouring from his mouth.
“When you signed up, your training was not easy. I expect better from both of you. In an ordinary scenario, you’d be punished with menial tasks. Cleaning the latrines, or maintaining the grounds. However, due to the urgency of the aid request from Godspine you are fortunate enough to have avoided the easy, laborious punishment. Instead, you will be on watch duty.”
Outside the room, someone blew a horn. Vandruss stood from his chair and moved for the door.
“Our caravan has arrived. I will gather the rest of your team and direct them. This conversation isn’t over. When you have finished arming yourselves, you will be directed to your next step.”
He shoved open the cafeteria door and stepped out into the winter air.
With a pop, the door closed behind him and left the boys by themselves. Kerrick kicked his chair from beneath him and returned to the barracks where he found their platoon scattered around the room being directed by another officer he’d never met.
“Snow,” Sardra’s voice came from near the infirmary hall. She was in the midst of packing bandages and salves into a metal case. “Is everything alright?”
As he began to answer, Heindor burst through the door behind him, sending it swinging wildly and nearly hitting him in the process. He grunted and pushed past Kerrick on his way to his bunk.
Kerrick shook his head and made his way to his own bed where he began dressing for duty.
“It’s fine, Sardra.” He shot back quietly while Hesch readied himself on the other side of the bed.
She nodded, with a look that told him she wasn’t finished questioning him, and returned to her duties. As he stepped into his plate, the officer called out to the room.
“Privates Snow, Hesch, Sardra, and Heindor. Report at the caravan outside to begin loading supplies. The rest of you, clean and restore the barracks in preparation for Herriman Company Hunters to arrive in the morning.
Kerrick followed Hesch and Heindor out the door, Sardra behind him as they pulled their hoods up to cover from the storm. The snowfall had grown heavy since they’d returned from their mission and despite the morning light, the barracks were still shrouded in darkness.
“Soldiers!” Another officer shouted over the blistering wind. “Supplies are around the corner, find a place and fasten it down!” He pointed to a pile of crates and barrels that peeked from around the corner.
Kerrick didn’t bother asking for clarification and went to work, with the rest right behind him.
One at a time, they filled the pair of small carts parked in the archery range with supplies. Munitions and first aid supplies, as well as near spoiled food. As they worked, Kerrick noticed a third cart parked, with a horse attached and waiting in the snow. The cart had no seats, and the horse no saddle. As he hoisted crate after crate to Sardra in the caravan, he found himself peeking back at the third card, curious.
When they’d finished their duties, Vandruss came from the barracks with what looked to be a fresh Greenleaf in his mouth.
“Well done, now, I want you to load the bodies of the soldiers and scouts onto that. Hesch, you will be leading the cart on the ride back. Pack them tight so they don’t fall. I don’t want any one of them lost.”
Vandruss didn’t stay to take questions. Each of them made their way to the bodies, still piled grotesquely on the old hand cart. Verrita’s face still atop the pile, still watching. Her lips blue and frozen, her eyelids brittle and covered with flakes of snow. All of the soldiers, friends to some of them, remained piled and twisted upon themselves.
Kerrick didn’t want to be the first. He stood, staring at Verrita’s face while Sardra and Hesch did the same.
Heindor, on the other hand, had no such reservation. He stepped to the wagon and immediately began pulling frozen limbs from the clung together pile and hefting them through tight breaths to the larger, empty cart.
Kerrick watched in silence as Heindor loaded the first, then the second handfuls of their companions and took a step toward them. Their bodies frosted and tortured beneath the dense snowfall. Since joining the military and signing his life away to the Windvar Company, he hadn’t thought about the chill that came from sorrow. His training had been difficult, before then, his displacement from his familial home had been difficult, but nothing hurt like the bite of snow as he wrapped his arms around Verrita’s desecrated corpse and hoisted it from the snow.
Patches of skin tore and snapped, still clinging to the exposed skin of their other comrades. Half of whom he’d never even introduced himself to. Their Company wasn’t large, only sixty eight bodies, and there were twenty or more of them bundled in the cart collecting light snowfall.
He carried Verrita carefully, as if he didn’t want to hurt her further. Each step toward the caravan was heavier. His boot landed harder, and with each step Verrita’s body shook. Her hair wasn’t frozen, not like the rest of her. It hung down, long enough to brush the top of the snowy ground as Kerrick moved.
He paused before the cart and heard behind him, the footfalls of Sardra and Hesch, each of whom carried companions of their own. Without a word he lifted the body of the girl he’d known briefly and placed her delicately in the back of the cart, far enough that she wouldn’t stick to another, but close enough they hopefully wouldn’t have to pile bodies atop one another.
He didn’t let himself think about what he was doing. He only turned back and retrieved another soldier. A boy, whose name he didn’t know. What he did know is that the boy in his arms, covered in deep cuts and slashes used to love playing cards. King’s Ripple. A simple game, and from what he remembered of the boy, he was simple too. He didn’t complain when their food was cold, or undercooked. He never threw fits about trough duty or polishing his gear. He did what he was asked. Every time.
“Except for once.” Kerrick’s mind ruptured out of reminiscence and into anger. “Except for the time that mattered.”
He placed the boy in the second cart and returned for another. Heindor continued working quietly, not bothering to share looks of sorrow between the rest of them.
Altogether, they made quick work of the job, carefully placing each of the dead as to prevent them from crumbling onto one another. When Heindor placed the last one in the cart, he turned on his heel and made way for the barracks where General Vandruss had been organizing the platoon.
Kerrick turned to follow him when he was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. It was Hesch.
“I believe you.” He whispered, gesturing at the clean wounds on the soldiers. “No dragon would do that.”
Though validated, it didn’t change the fact that so many had died. Even if he was wrong about his suspicion, there were other ways. No one had to die on such a simple mission.
He balled his fists.
He didn’t wait for either of his companions to reply before he made his way back to the barracks.
The three of them entered midway through the platoon organizing to leave. Each of them gathered their belongings, trinkets and books they’d brought with them to quell their boredom and longing. Kerrick made his way to the bunk he shared with Hesch and retrieved his own things. A medal his father gave him when he’d joined the Company. A pair of knit gloves he’d only used a handful of times thanks to a hole that wore in the first finger. It didn’t serve him to keep, but his mother made him a new pair every year at the start of winter, and he wasn’t home to get his new ones this year.
He pocketed the other items, notes and poems he’d been writing since the beginning of his station, and when he’d finished he met the rest of the platoon outside.
“Snowfall has picked up.” Vandruss addressed them all, shouting into the wind. “We will be traveling quickly. Take care to watch the route, given the recent reports of dragon attacks on the ridge, this is not going to be a safe caravan home.”
The soldiers shared scared looks, it was doubtful any of them, Heindor included, wanted to come face to face with another dragon.
“Though, we’ve been lucky so far.” He whispered to himself.
Vandruss and his two officers began sending parties to various wagons where they landed their things and climbed aboard themselves.
“You two, with me.” Vandruss pointed at he and Heindor.
He wasn’t about to protest an order from the General, and moved for the carriage beside the boy. They climbed in on either side and sat. Heindor hadn’t bothered to stow his personal effects, deciding instead to keep a stack of books and a walking cane on his person, which was barely too large to fit lying on the floor, and even still too large to fit upright. He wedged it between the canvas roof and the floor, tucked carefully between his legs while Kerrick set his own, a small wooden box, beneath the seat.
Vandruss gave orders to the officers and the other soldiers appointed to ride horseback on the return trip before he too climbed into the carriage.
The General slipped his gloves from his fingers and closed the door tight. The air inside the cabin immediately began to warm as he struck a steel match against a stone and lit a bundle of Greenleaf.
Their ride jerked forward suddenly as the crack of a whip instructed their horses to move and Vandruss leaned forward, bracing himself on his knees.
“Where were we, boys?”
The carriage rumbled and creaked as its wooden wheels popped over snow buried rocks and ruts in the path.
“I believe you were instructing us on our appropriate next steps, regarding the company.” Heindor spoke up. His demeanor had changed. He sat with a straight back, he addressed Vandruss directly. Kerrick eyed him as he smelled the wafting smoke from the Greenleaf.
“I know.” Vandruss replied. “It has come to my attention, Snow, that you are suspicious of the behaviors of Klauven and Ginu and what their purpose was for splitting you up on the ridge.”
“It’s more than that, sir.” He replied.
“It’s no use to explain again.”
“Well, tell me.”
Vandruss leaned back and took a long drag from the Greenleaf.
“I believe we were split up on a bias, sir.” He began against his will.
“What do you mean?”
“On our first outing, the scouting party cut through a forest, on the upper path to the reservoir. While there, Klauven encountered a dragon. He rushed in to kill it while a number of us remained where we stood. Heindor, myself and a few others eventually followed to provide backup if we could.”
Vandruss nodded, carefully listening.
“Snow wasn’t going to go, he should be thanking me, if what he believes is true. We went to help the Hunter with the kill, but arrived too late. He’d already taken it down.”
“It was sick.” Kerrick interrupted in return. “I haven’t seen a Hunter in action, but I have doubts they would be able to subdue and maintain a fully grown dragon singlehandedly.”
Vandruss continued nodding and looked to Heindor to fill in more detail.
“If it was sick, he put it out of its misery.”
Kerrick shook his head. “Did you know dragons cry?” Kerrick looked at his companion, his cheeks flush despite the growing warmth within their carriage. “It could barely lift its head.”
Heindor shrugged. “So be it.”
“What led you to believe the dragon was sick, and if it was, why are you suspicious about its sickness regarding the later attacks?”
Kerrick forced himself to take a breath. He began to twitch his fingers and dash his gaze back and forth across the cabin.
“I believe that whatever happened, when we left the dragon, changed Klauven’s decisions. When we arrived at the lake, he sent those of us who didn’t immediately rush to his aid to fish the corpses from the river. On the way back, he split the platoon based on who helped him and who didn’t. Those who didn’t, followed Ginu into the upper path through the forest. We were under suspicion of a dragon attack in the first place, then after killing one, seeing another on the ridge near the lake, and returning does it not seem suspicious that he would lead any of us back through the forest?”
Vandruss took a long pull of Greenleaf.
“It would, if you didn’t have the experience or information he had.”
Heindor lifted his head to speak, but Kerrick couldn’t contain himself.
“So explain to me then, why with all of his experience, there are twenty dead soldiers following us in a cart, their bodies frozen and hacked to pieces with a blade and every single one of those soldiers are counted among those who didn’t follow the madman into the woods to kill a dragon?”
Vandruss raised his hand.
“I understand your frustration, private.”
He leaned back, his blood boiling as Vandruss continued, his voice calm and slow.
“If there is any ounce of truth to your suggestion, I will find out. Until then, I want you to know something. Accusing Klauven of what you have is a crime. To insinuate a member of any of the Companies would intentionally seek out to kill members of another is paramount to treason. We are instated by King Harama, and each of us hand picked by the leaders of the guard to protect Athella. Protecting Athella means defending everyone, even those whom you disagree with.”
Heindor stuttered. “It means routing the weak.”
Vandruss whipped to face him.
“Fear is not weakness, boy!”
The boom of his voice echoed in the cabin and left Kerrick staring.
“Private Snow has gone to great lengths to hold his tongue—“
“By insinuating that the Hunters are murderers?” Heindor laughed in Vandruss’ face.
The General scowled.
“I’m sure he’s repressed his true feelings and is unwilling to be direct with me. A lesson you should take into consideration.”
Heindor hunched into the corner of the cabin as Vandruss spoke.
“You have strong feelings regarding this matter, both of you. Is it because you are concerned with the safety of the platoon, or because you want to be right? We will see.”
Vandruss paused to take a drag of Greenleaf.
“When we arrive at Godspine, I have a duty I am appointing to each of you. Snow, Heindor, you will be working closely with an Icehold officer to isolate a piece of information we’ve received. There will be an attempted escape attempt soon. Evidently, there is a rat in our ranks, and it will be your duty to rout them. I expect complete cooperation between the two of you, as failing this duty could mean demotion from Company rank. In order to quell your spirits, and give you an opportunity to consider how much this rank means to you, I will give you the option to comply and accomplish your task, or, if you are so inclined, when we arrive in Godspine I will personally see you discharged from the Company. You may return to your families a deserter. The choice is yours. Comply, or be removed.”
Neither of the boys spoke. Their silence filled the air, accented by the sound of crackling herbs.
Vandruss grinned and released a long spout of smoke from his nostrils.
“I see you are taking me seriously now. Other soldiers will be assigned to this task, but the two of you will be watched. Everything you do or say will be reported to my by your superiors and you will be expected to fall in line. Which means, Snow, I don’t want to hear a word from you about how Icehold operates. Heindor, I refuse to listen to you complain about Snow regardless of your feelings toward him.”
He took another drag, allowing either of them a moment to respond. No one did.
“I think we are seeing eye to eye, then. When we arrive at Godspine I will bring you and your squad to meet your new commanding officer. I expect results, boys. If you fail this I will see you both demoted and forced into shift with one another, no matter where you end up. Do we have an understanding?”
Kerrick nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Heindor mimicked him, and turned to look out the window.
“Oh, but I haven’t gotten to the best part.” Vandruss continued, a coy smile on his face. “Icehold is currently in possession of a witch. A young girl who commanded her dragon to attack us, back in the spring, I’m sure you remember?”
Kerrick saw the day in his memory clear as crystal. King Harama had arrived in the morning, he had been placed on guard duty and was posted outside one of the many noble houses scattered about Godspine to protect the party goers. From the sky, a golden dragon descended upon them and circled the city, preparing for an attack. As the Tilliak house panicked, the Herriman Company shot down the dragon and pursued it into the forest.
As soon as the dragon was taken care of, chaos ensued elsewhere. A band of vagrants set fire to the Tilliak house, some of them went so far as to throw rocks through the windows and rip out the fence posts which surrounded the property. He and the other guards chased the vagrants away, but the fire had grown too large too quickly. If it weren’t for the King’s guard present in the city, the fire might have threatened all of Godspine.
“The witch has been isolated, her dragon exterminated, but they are keeping her in confinement to draw out other witches. Should you come across her, do not speak. She’s foul smelling. A forest mite, but she is quick witted. The Dragon Riders are known to be sly. Do not reveal anything of yourself to her. She will use it against you.”
Kerrick listened, his mind alight with memories from the day.
“What should we do if there is a break out?”
The General took a long, final drag of his greenleaf and dropped it onto the carriage floor, stamping it out with his boot.
“Kill anyone who makes it through the gates. Except for the witch. Keep her alive at all costs.”
Thanks for reading “Sisters of Westwinter” this week!
Don’t forget, Mean for the Holidays continues tomorrow morning with the final chapter of City of Night, “The Lamplighter”
“Sisters of Westwinter” is a high fantasy serial fiction novel taking place in the world of Amsukar: Fractured under the weight of a constantly deteriorating environment and the everlasting threat of dragon attacks, the kingdom of Atla has expended their resources defending their borders from the hostile world around them. Despite their efforts, the dragon attacks continue. In a valley outside of the Atlean capital, Godspine, lives a young girl named Emry whose curiosity gets the better of her when she discovers an elder dragon living on her land. As she ventures to meet the ancient creature, she learns she had been watched by the Dragon and its daughter since her birth. At this discovery, she ventures back home to share the news with her father, only to find him dead with her killers there waiting for her.
“Nightfall in Brahmir” is an episodic fantasy fiction story taking place in the world of Brahmir, where the lines between dead and alive are not simply blurred, they are almost nonexistent. In this place, all manner of horrors plague the denizens from returned corpses, trickster spirits, to killers stalking the daylight. Part One will be four Chapters, each of which follow one of the main characters as they try to work out what happened to Mayeli, and rescue her from the grasp of the strange powers that be within the merchant city, Ammon’s Reach.
[…] Chapter Three, Part Four: [SOW] Chapter Three, Part Four: A Rat in the Nest […]