Chapter Three, Part Four: [SOW] Chapter Three, Part Four: A Rat in the Nest
Sekhenna ducked beneath a covered awning, the frost in the air bit her lungs as she sucked in the cold morning. A pack of guards dashed past her hiding place, shouting her description to everyone they passed. Beneath the awning, an elderly shopkeep stared as they set out a basket of root vegetables on a worn bench.
“Are you alright, dear?” They asked.
She nodded, and put her covered finger to her lips as another guard stepped beneath the awning.
“Ma’am,” He began. The shopkeep scowled.
“Have you seen uh,” He stuttered. “A woman, tall, muscular and broad shouldered. Wearing dirty rags and a metal glove?”
The shopkeep turned their nose at the guard.
“I’ve not seen anyone fitting your description. You may leave now, before I call other guards on you trespassing on my property.”
They began sorting through the vegetables and placing them into smaller baskets. The guard stuttered once more, confused.
“I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
They turned away from the guard who stumbled out of the shack, embarrassed.
Sekhenna released her pent up breath and crouched.
“Thank you.” She whispered.
She slipped a couple of scales from her pouch onto the table and whipped out of the awning in the opposite direction the guards took, ducking behind alleys and walls as she wound her way through the maze of streets that made up the Stonewild District.
“You are a lucky girl.”
Farrakha whispered to her as she drew her hood further around her face, covering her many piercings.
“You know, if the guard had been better at descriptions, you might have been caught?” The voice chided her more.
“Are you about finished?” She whispered back as she crouched beneath a low hanging railing and onto a crumbling stairway.
“Not yet. I admire your willingness to obey me, and the quick work you made of finding young Emry.”
She shook her head. Delivering the knife to the child wasn’t high on her priority list, but as soon as she’d left the Embassy Farrakha hounded her about it.
“Greyiron is difficult to get my hands on, you know.”
“So am I.”
She shook her head and passed through the barrier from Stonewild into the Worker’s District.
Though the two were neighboring, they were in almost every way opposites. Stonewild was home to Icehold Prison, the monolith of Godspine, far and away the most impressive building in the city. It housed the potential for hundreds of prisoners and was a symbol to everyone in Athella not to cross the king, or face the most torturous punishment availabe, the Atlean Winter.
Much of Stonewild reflected what one would expect living beside an industrial prison. The shops were small, fitted with varied defenses. Spikes nailed to the rooftops to supposedly prevent birds from landing. Sekhenna would have believed it if the Atlean city guard didn’t polish and sharpen them every morning. In truth, they were traps for escapees.
Stonewild was also home to the foundries of Godspine, massive forges constructed to mimic those in the nation of Kharazund, owned by the Leeman Company they outfitted soldiers from Atla to the other side of the seas, all part of the great Athellan war machine.
In the Worker’s District, much more emphasis was placed on looking appealing. Despite its name it was home to artificers and artists rather than laborers. Well cleaned shops, with no jagged spikes atop the buildings, dotted the market streets. Which were spacious and lined with flower pots in the warmer season.
Care was taken in the Worker’s District down to the last stone, carved and polished unlike the crumbling foundations of the houses in Stonewild. Despite the sparkling exterior, it suffered from the harsh economy. The last years of turmoil meant that the artists were forced to find work elsewhere. Only the most esteemed still gathered clients, and those clients came from the nobility who’d bought up the property within.
Those who found themselves in the Worker’s District prided themselves on being furthest from the Camps. Sekhenna’s home, hobbled together in moments of panic and paranoia was the opposite in almost every way to the place she strode through. Where the shops were bright and gleaming, even on dreary mornings, the Camps had no shops to speak of. Only gaunt employees hoping to earn their way to the next meal.
Sekhenna checked over her shoulder at every turn, praying no guards were tailing her. The last place she wanted to make a scene was in the middle of the Worker’s District. She’d never hear the end of it from Dhama.
As she passed through their district square, the tines of the gauntlet flared in her wrist. The twitching of the spikes sent shivers through her arm.
“You are adjusting to me, it will take time. When I am able to trust you will not abandon me, I will remove them. Until then, consider it a reminder of my presence.”
Her stomach churned.
She made her way through the Worker’s District to the outer wall of Godspine, one of three gates in the city which led to the surrounding forest. As she passed through, the guards eyed her and she drew her hood further around her cheeks.
“Wouldn’t it be a shame if they noticed you?”
She ignored the voice and veered to the side of the wall as soon as she passed the gate.
On the north end of Godspine, she paused to look over the forest before her. The only part which hadn’t been pushed back and preened against the ever growing city, she admired its beauty for a moment before she crouched down and sidled along the top of a mound of dirt that lined the wall.
The northern forest was in disrepair, even still, since the dragon attack. The felled trees had been cleared and broken down by the Herriman Company for their materials, but the place where the flames had melted the earth remained. A massive clearing of scorched dirt stuck out against the backdrop of overgrowth and dense pine trees. Fendrelhawks perched on their tall branches watching the movements of the deer and squirrel below, unaware of what had happened to their home.
Sekhenna sidled along the base of the wall, away from the forest and toward the southern gate. Lion’s Gate, it had been called thanks to the symbol of the Herriman Company.
“The lion of industry.” They’d begun calling themselves, likely more for their pride than their majesty.
She had never admitted it, but their symbol having been the lion had bothered her almost more than how exploitative they’d been to the city and its people. Where she was born, where she grew up and became a Ven’alhim, the lion was celebrated. They were imposters of symbolism more than they were industrious.
“You think their symbol should be a termite.” Farrakha interrupted. “I quite enjoy it.”
Sekhenna didn’t reply as she rounded the eastern side of the city on her way home. It wouldn’t be long before she’d move forward with her plan to break Jundal free, and Emry too. She hadn’t considered the girl would be locked in the Nail Ward. Farrakha had given her some information about the child’s whereabouts but to be in such a cruel containment seemed unnecessary.
Unless she really was as deadly as the rumors said.
After the dragon attack, it was the talk of the town. A young dragon witch had arrived in Godspine. Her bond scale slaughtered by the Herriman Company and she herself taken into custody to be interrogated and held until she broke. It was the talk of the town, which brought Skehenna some peace of mind that the burning of House Tilliak was almost entirely ignored thanks to the girl.
“I should thank her.” She mused as she rounded the final curve of stone and laid her eyes on Lion’s Gate. A massive set of ivory pillars stood decorated in polished gold and brushed stone. A carving of a lion affixed upon the crown and two massive steel reinforced doors barred access.
To what extent the paired watchtowers accomplished, she never could figure out. Merchant trade came through the North and West gates, the Lion’s Gate was mostly used by the adventurous hikers who wanted to try their hand at hunting game in the foothills. Still, as much as she hated it, it was a spectacle.
She approached beneath the view of the watchtowers and passed through, nodding at the footmen who stood at either side of the gate. The guards who protected Lion’s Gate were Herriman Companymen, paid for by their business and stationed in shifts. She’d known all of them in one way or another and made it a point to keep her nose out of their business, all the more likely they’d keep their nose out of hers.
Each of the Companies which funded Athella had their own peculiarities, though Herriman was a well known group they’d come from nowhere and risen to become one of the most powerful. They absorbed many of the other Companies into themselves, Sekmah, Windvar and Grossh. It was the only option for many, and the fallout meant that those who didn’t make the cut during the merger were out of house and home.
Therein was the reason she’d gone to King Harama. The fusing of so many Companies had led to misfortune for countless families, and those who weren’t brought over to Herriman or Tilliak wound up on the streets, which meant they wound up at the Camps.
She stepped through the gates and let out a long sigh, almost home she pulled her hood from her head and hummed to herself as she made her way through familiar, worn streets.
As she neared the camps, she took in the quiet. A rare event in such a crowded district, if she could call it that, it was full at all hours of the day. Something she couldn’t say about the others. In Stonewild or the Worker’s District, when the sun fell there was a sense of peace, of solitude. The Camps couldn’t afford the same luxury. All hours of the day there was work that needed to be done. Fetching medicine or food, hunting or cleaning. The hum of the people she’d lived with brought her peace more than any silence could. She’d known silence for too long.
As she approached, no hum grew to meet her ear. Instead, what she heard was a single, sharp cry for help.
Skehenna launched into a sprint for the wooden barrier they’d hobbled together from drift scrap and planks unfit for sale by Herriman. She launched herself over the waist high barrier and ran to the center of their tents where she saw the right hand of the King’s Guard whom she’d only seen hours before at his side.
He stood over the body of Haim, and the guard she’d paid off to watch over them, and his blade dripped with fresh blood.
Farrakha spoke to her, but she didn’t hear the words as she screamed and charged the guard.
She drew the gauntlet behind and slashed at him. He raised his sword to block and she caught it with the metal. Pain flushed through her arm as she squeezed and crumpled the blade like wet paper. With a single pull, she wrenched the sword from the guard’s hand and swing with her exposed fist, catching him in the jaw.
The guard stumbled back and drew a knife, slashing twice at her midsection. The first she dodged, then caught the second with her freehand. She angled her nails into his exposed skin and squeezed as hard as she could.
“What did you do?”
The guard stared her in the eye and grinned.
“What you asked us to.”
Behind, the clang of metal sounded as another guard rushed her from a nearby tent. A blade came down over her right shoulder, the hilt slammed into her and dropped her to her knees. She pressed the gauntlet against the ground and welcomed Farrakha into of her mind.
“I will kill you all.” She muttered and pushed off the muddy ground. She swung her hips out and kicked her legs, catching the second guard in the jaw and knocking him back as she flipped over the first, whose hand trickled blood from the nail wounds. She reached into her cloak with her freehand and drew a dagger, shorter than that she offered to Emry but long enough.
In a single motion she ducked beneath a third guard who stabbed at her with a pike and jammed her dagger through the back of the first guard’s neck. Blood funneled from it and she kicked him off. He landed face down in the mud beside Haim’s body.
The second guard charged her, his nose bleeding, he raised his sword. It came down more quickly than she expected, and was only able to narrowly dodge as the sharp edge tore through her cloak and not the flesh of her unburdened arm. She whipped her gauntlet at him and slashed his face with pointed, sharp metal claws. The guard screamed and stepped back as the third spun the pike, slamming it broadside into the back of her head.
A fourth guard arrived and leapt toward her, wrapping his arms around hers as she fought to stand. He locked her arms, above her head and behind her and dragged her to her feet.
“You were getting this for free, Beggar. You should have thanked us.”
She struggled to free herself as the pike wielding guard fixed his grip and shoved the pointed end at her.
It plunged into her side and her blood poured out of the wound.
“The only thanks you will have from me is a quick death.” She whispered to the fourth guard and wrapped her armored hand around his forearm.
Immediately, his bracer began to cool. Water dribbled from the tips of her fingers and froze as soon as it touched the metal. It crept beneath the plate and onto the man’s skin. She felt it move along his scarred forearms and further into his armor as more drained from the gauntlet.
She pushed, willing the water to travel up his bicep and around his shoulder as another droplet twisted its way onto his flesh. As she struggled, she watched the third guard who shoved the pike further into her. A twisted smile crept across her face as the gauntlet began to glow.
Quickly, the trails of water that had spread across her captor’s skin froze in an instant, she pulled on the strands of ice, empowered by her anger as a crack burst from his shoulder. He howled in pain and released her, falling back to the mud.
With her freehand, she swept her hair away from her ear and exposed her mark.
“Have you ever fought a Ven’alhim?” She asked, and yanked the pike out of the third man’s hand further into herself.
Her body filled with warmth from where she’d been stabbed. Blood poured from the edge of her wound and around the pike. She reached further and gripped the shaft, yanking it further into her.
“We are a cursed people.”
Warmth filled her body with power as the pikeman tried to release his grip on his weapon. She shot streams of water from the gauntlet that splashed against him, and froze them, locking him in place unable to remove his hands from the magical ice.
The third guard, frozen against the pike, began to scream as she pulled him closer, pushing the pike through her body further.
“You’ve always been afraid of us.” The warmth from her wound spread through her, as her voice split into two. The gauntlet began to frost over as she channeled its power, and with her freehand she gently ran her fingertips along his face as tears began to fall.
“You’re a demon.” He whimpered.
“Not quite.” She closed her gauntleted fist and in a moment, the ice melted from him and fell to the ground. She reopened her hand and placed it on the head of the pike protruding from her back. With a pull, she yanked the pike through her and brought it to her side. The guard took a single step back and turned to flee.
She raised the pike and threw it, pushed by a strong blast of water from her gauntlet as it rocketed toward him, impaling him in the upper back, right through his heart.
“I’m just a killer.”
Behind her, the fourth guard struggled to stand. He stared at her, gripping his broken arm. She turned to face him.
“What did you do?” She spoke, her voice with its own echo crashed around the Camps as she strode forward, unaffected by the hole in her body.
The guard trembled.
“We did as we were told.” He whimpered when she stopped moving before him.
“Tell me exactly what was said.”
He stammered a moment before crying out. “The King told us you had no right, he told us to kill as many of you as we thought necessary. He said it would be better for you to have less mouths to feed.”
The guard feel to his knees as tears burst from his face.
Sekhenna knelt before him and grabbed his jaw with her gauntlet.
“Your eyes…” He muttered just before she gripped him tight
“You tell your King I am coming for him. Tell Harama I will not rest until he has been slain. Promise him, that Sekhenna the Ven’alhim will be his undoing. No matter where he flees, we will find him.”
The guard shivered in her hand, but nodded.
“Now go. Do not disappoint me.” Her two voices spoke in unison as the warmth from her wound began to retreat. She released the guard and shoved him toward the gate out of the camps. He ran, weeping, as her eyes fell onto Haim. The boy had been stabbed through the stomach with a pike. Around the Camps, many bodies had been left where they were killed. Those who lived began to emerge from hiding when they realized they were safe.
Among the living, Dhama stepped into the square, her sorrowful eyes locked onto Sekhenna.
“I told you, ‘Khenna, this would happen.”
She didn’t respond. Within her mind, Farrakha vibrated with excitement.
“I am sorry, Dhama.”
The elderly woman stepped toward her until she was within arms reach. Then, she embraced her.
Sekhenna cradled her friend as the warmth drained from her and her knees gave way. She collapsed to the mud and laid beside Haim and the guard, and every other member of the Camps she’d let down.
Thank you for reading Sisters of Westwinter! Chapter Three comes to a close with “The Beggar’s Threat” — Chapter Four Begins in the New Year!
“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.