Chapter Four, Part One: [SOW] Chapter Four, Part One: Suspicions Aroused
In all the years she’d been alive with the brand of the Ven’alhim, she’d gotten used to a fair many things. The feel of a blade through flesh. The way it stuck, for a moment against bone, and then gave way. She’d become familiar with the weeping on the battlefield, the sound of grown men sobbing for their mother, praying to their god or searching the skies for sanctuary.
What she could never adjust to, was the smell of blood.
She rose to her knees, sunken in the mud while her friends scattered among the camps made their way around the scene. The bodies of the guards scattered about like leftover toys at the hands of an erratic youth. Around her, their blood pooled.
It was a sick, metallic smell. Pungent in all of the ways she hated. Beside her, Dhama remained.
“My dear.” Her friend began. “Come, let’s clean this before another guard shows up and causes us a bigger problem.”
She nodded, her mind wrapped with the prior moment.
“I would say you performed your duties well.”
The scraping voice of Farrakha emerged from deep within the twisting recollection of what she’d just done, pushing aside the growing worry of what would next come.
“They deserved it.” She muttered, pushing herself to her feet as she looked past the dead guards and into the Camps where she saw Haim’s body, limp and stained with blood. Cradled in the arms of his mother.
“My baby boy…” She whimpered, and Sekhenna turned away.
“Come now, dear.” Dhama approached one of the guards and hoisted him by his greaves, waiting on her to assist.
She took a fumbling step toward the dead man and clutched his chest plate, lifting him from the muck with a wet pop as his armor released from the grime.
Dhama led her across the camps, between other villagers who had taken to packing their things. She strode between mothers mourning their children and lovers mourning their wives, and as they carried the corpse to the back of the Camps, beneath the interior of the city wall, Sekhenna laid her eyes on Rheysan, who cradled Cindrea in his arms.
His cheeks puffed with tears as he sang, softly, down to his wife who stared with absent eyes into the sky above.
Dhama hoisted the guard’s body to a stack of crates against the wall and propped it up, then made her way back to the other corpses without so much as a pause.
Sekhenna couldn’t take her eyes off the man, seated atop a hewn log while he gently tucked his wife’s frayed hair behind her ear.
She approached and waited until he finished his verse before she spoke.
“Rheysan, I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t respond, and only shot her a broken glance before he returned to the song.
She didn’t remain, and made her way back to Dhama to retrieve the second guard.
“This was my fault.” She reminded herself, painfully.
“Everywhere you go, you bring destruction.”
The remark came in her voice, in her own mind, but it was not her words. It was the outcry of her previous handler. A wealthy landowner from Northern Athella, who sent her from his home when he realized what she was capable of.
She took the head of the next guard into her hands and hoisted him, dragging him just as they did the first to the far side of the Camps, tucked away from the sightline of the Main Street where they could eventually move through the Tunnels and bury him. If the guard she’d allowed to leave didn’t return with reinforcements.
The muttering of the Camps and its mourning host drowned out as Dhama finally spoke.
“Khenna, you know this doesn’t bode well, for us.”
“I’m sorry, Dhama.” She couldn’t think to say anything else. A fragile apology was all she could muster.
“Sorry won’t fix this, my dear. It will be a short time before they will return for you.”
She knew, she always knew.
“I will pack my things.” Sekhenna had known Dhama for a long time. The sagely old woman had welcomed her with open arms when she’d first turned up, abandoned and drenched in rain. She didn’t fear her, could hardly stand to watch Sekhenna stand outside the half standing shelter of The Camps years ago. She brought her into the ramshackle bundle of houses years ago, before she’d revealed her nature or where she came from. Before the old woman knew what she was, Dhama had welcomed her.
Even then, when Sekhenna revealed her mark, her nature as a Ven’alhim, she was welcomed all the same. A slave brand in the home of anyone else would be feared. Let alone one of her make. Still, Dhama made it a point to seek her out, to include her, to remind her that in The Camps she would not be alone.
“You will do no such thing, not yet.” The old woman flashed a short smile. “You have always had this inside of you, Sekhenna. Is it right of us to abandon a dog because it is in the dog’s nature to bite?”
She shook her head. The final guard in her arms alone as Dhama walked beside her.
“It is only natural, that the dog bites when it feels it has nowhere else to go. It is the duty of the companion to give the dog a place of safety, to teach it that it has no need to bite.”
She hoisted the guard upon the crates, beside his companions, before they returned to the center of the camps, the stench of standing blood thick in the air. Around them a crowd had gathered.
“Am I simply your guard dog, Dhama?” She asked, the words slipping from her lips as she let the sentiment sink in.
“We all are one thing or another, to each other.”
The crowd murmured, their faces twisted in agony and fear, and anger.
The elderly woman raised her palms to them, silencing them quickly.
“Before you speak,” she addressed the crowd. “Sekhenna is one of us. She did what she did to protect us.”
“Then why did she let one leave?” A voice called from the back.
“I,” she began, but couldn’t find an answer within her, not a truthful one.
She’d wanted to send a message. A crystal clear, stark message to the King. She’d bargained for his help and instead, he slaughtered her people. He’d accomplished his promise in the way those who held the power always did.
With brute force.
She merely responded.
Rheysan pushed his way to the front of the growing crowd.
“They would have slaughtered us, they were trying to slaughter us, and if she’d not come…”
Sekhenna tensed, anticipating his following words, that she should have been killed instead, that if she were not there, his wife would be alive. Regardless of what she imagined his next words to be, she knew he would be right.
“…we would all be dead.”
She felt her heart skip.
Others whispered amongst themselves in agreement while Rheysan continued.
“Sekhenna, thank you.” He offered his hand to her, and all she could do was stare.
“The city has never cared for us.” Another voice called out.
Then another, “We aren’t worth the scales to feed, and they’d rather be done with us.”
Rheysan took her hand into his and clasped it.
She could only stare.
“I mean it. Had you not come when you did, I fear the damage would have been greater.”
He knelt before her, and a bead of sweat trickled down her back.
“They do not know, do they?” Farrakha called from deep within. “They believe you to be the hero, dear Sekhenna.”
The grating sound of the fiend’s laughter raked her mind as others within The Camps followed suit, kneeling before her.
Dhama, who had not bowed for anyone as long as Sekhenna knew her, turned to face her.
“He is right, Sekhenna. Had it not been for you, who knows who of our number would still be living?”
She swallowed hard and looked her friend in the eye.
“Dhama, I…” The words were there. She knew the truth, and couldn’t bring herself to say it.
The moment of silence that stretched between words could have absorbed her long lifetime, but finally, she found the words.
“I don’t deserve you.”
Tears erupted down her cheeks as the villagers watched her. Eventually, they stood and returned to their duties, and the moment, strange as it was, had passed.
Dhama gestured for her to come back to their tent, and she obeyed, knowing better than to deny the matron a request.
Once they were inside she took a seat on the cot and lowered her head.
“Do you know something I don’t?” She asked.
She knew, she always knew.
“What do you mean?” Sekhenna choked on the words.
“The guards refuse to set foot in the Camps, even those with the worst tempers. They all know our value. Nothing good will come of this. The King, and I’m sure the Thane of Godspine will too have something in preparation for your actions.” She sighed. “I know they see you as a hero, returned just in time to save us, but I’ve been doing this a long time, Khenna. No one would have come here to kill us if they didn’t have a reason for doing so.”
She scoffed. “What reason do you think they’d have?”
Dhama slipped a small wooden mug from a nearby crate and cradled it in her hands, rolling it back and forth.
“You spoke with the King.” She swallowed hard and met Sekhenna’s gaze. “What did you ask for?”
Her heart shot into her throat. Dhama did know.
“I requested aid, we were overcrowded and we needed beds. I thought that maybe, if we appealed to him we could have worked out some kind of agreement for resources for more places to sleep.”
She gulped. “I think he worked out his end of the agreement, in his own way.”
Dhama lowered her eyes. “My dear, I told you, didn’t I? That this would be a foolish decision. Your meeting with King Harama, I fear, likely was the cause of what happened today.”
She wanted to argue, but it wouldn’t be an argument worth winning. Dhama was right.
“With that said,” The matron continued. “We will be organizing to meet the merchant ship. As many of us who are willing to leave Godspine, we will be making our way south, to Bastrion. Hopefully, to start over there.”
The words landed on Sekhenna’s ears and though she knew, she didn’t want to believe it.
“I would like you to come, Khenna.” The woman’s sweet voice rang in the tent.
“What about those who stay?”
Dhama glanced through the flap of the tent. “Those who choose to stay will do so for their own reasons. I am telling you this, because I have a request to make of you.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“If you come, Khenna, this can’t happen again.” She sighed. “No one can learn of your nature, that you are Ven’alhim.”
“Suppose I can’t keep it to myself, then, in Bastrion? I’ve been there before. I’m sure there are some who will know me.”
“Then they will know you, and it can be dealt with. What I am asking, Khenna, is that if you come with us, you abandon your brand and remake yourself into someone new. A regular woman, with no duty, not bound to anything or anyone. Free to be yourself. If you go, leave the gauntlet, and your legacy here.”
“You wouldn’t abandon me, would you, Sekhenna?”
The voice chimed beneath Dhama’s words.
“I can’t.” She muttered.
“Remember our agreement, my dear.”
“I want to, Dhama, but what you are asking me to do is impossible now.”
The woman frowned. “You are a free woman, Sekhenna. You told me so yourself.
“I’m not, not anymore.”
Her friend cocked her head, confused. “I don’t understand.”
“Tell her of our agreement, and I will take your arm.”
The sudden command from Farrakha shocked her. The voice was erratic and violent, but hadn’t, as of yet, issued a command to her.
“I can’t tell you.” She replied.
“I won’t risk being discovered by that old crone.”
The voice continued.
Dhama spun the cup in her hand as her eyes began to glass over.
“If that is the case, I’m sorry, Sekhenna. Truly, I hope that you will be free sooner, rather than later.”
She stood, and stepped out of the tent without waiting for a reply.
“She is wise not to question you, my dear.”
Sekhenna agreed, it was wise.
But it wasn’t what she hoped for.
Sekhenna remained in the tent, alone, for some time before the sound of approaching footsteps disturbed her silence. She looked toward the door to see Rheysan push open the flap and step inside.
“I am sorry to bother you, Sekhenna. Dhama mentioned you were taking some time alone, but I wanted to speak with you briefly.”
“Thank you, again, for coming to our aid today.” Rheysan didn’t bother waiting for her to reply.
“It’s really not—“
“I just, wanted to talk to you. We’re getting the funeral service prepared for the villagers… for Cindrea.” He interrupted her, and then paused.
“I’m sorry, Rheysan, really.” She looked up at the man, who had tied back his own greasy hair into a short pony tail and paced the minuscule walkway within the tent. His hands on her face and a look in his eye as if he were winding down from a spice high.
“It’s not, really something you could apologize for.” He spun on his heel and quickly took a seat on the edge of Dhama’s bed. “I just, I don’t know. I feel like there is something we can do. Isn’t there? Some way we can get back at them for what they did?”
Sekhenna laughed from deep in her belly.
“You’re joking, right?”
He didn’t react.
“Rheysan, I know this is hard, unimaginably so.” She paused, and placed her hand on his knee. “I can’t imagine what you’re experiencing, but I promise you, revenge is not the answer.”
“What if it is?” He clasped his hands and rested his head on his knuckles. “What if we can get revenge, in a big way?”
She shook her head.
“It isn’t worth it, Rheysan, I promise.” She withdrew her hand, as the thought arrived within that he was freshly widowed. Still, his sharp jawline and short beard drew her attention time and time again, through each meeting. His eyes burned through her like a dragon’s flame. Creased on the edges and still glistening with tears, she caught his glance.
“No, Sekhenna.” She reminded herself.
“I have a. Friend, locked up in Icehold, who we could speak to.”
Her heart skipped.
“He was brought here a few years ago, he’s a bit unstable, but he knows things I can’t understand. Are you familiar with the Dragon Riders?”
“He used to be one, a long, long time ago. His companion was killed by hunters and with nothing else to do, he joined a Company, my Company.”
She continued nodding, urging him to continue.
“He and I served together for years, until I met Cindrea, and, through some poor choices he was discharged. After my service ended I didn’t hear from him again. I lost my position after the takeovers came, and went on to live my life. He was sent to Icehold for, as they put it, protective measures.”
“So, this friend can be of use to us how?” She leaned forward, tracing the outline of his lips with her eyes.
“Sekhenna.” The crawling voice of Farrakha shoved its way into her mind. “A married man?”
“Well, he still was able to hold his bond. The whole time we served together, he could still draw on the beads. He could practice his magic regardless that his bonded dragon had been killed.”
She rolled her eyes. “Likely parlor tricks. Riders lose access to the flow if they are cut off from their dragon.”
Rheysan nodded. “Exactly, isn’t that something special?”
“Unfortunately, Rheysan, I think you misjudged your friend’s talents. If he was still able to tap in to the resources, and especially if he was able to use them that could only mean one thing, his dragon is alive. Or was, at the least.”
Rheysan shook his head.
Outside, Dhama called the villagers to her them in the center of the Camps for the funeral rites. Rheysan stood, and pushed his way out of the tent.
Sekhenna followed behind the well built man and let her mind drift. While they approached, Rheysan continued.
“Regardless of the state of his dragon, he can still use his magic. He could get out and kill the King, couldn’t he?”
She grabbed him, hooking her gauntlet around the crook of his arm. He came to an immediate halt and spun to face her, a head taller than she was, he looked down at her with a frantic excitement.
“Rheysan, you need to let go of this. I mean that. You can’t do this. It’s spelling your death.”
He shook his head a second time. “I died already, about three hours ago when I came home to find my wife pinned through like a stuffed doll, Sekhenna. I can’t just let that go.”
She tightened her grip on his arm, his hard bicep gripped in her palm.
“You have to.” She paused, squeezing harder. “This isn’t a suggestion.”
He jerked his arm out of her grip and turned away from her. Without a word, he approached the growing crowd.
Sekhenna arrived and remained in the back as Dhama began a long prayer for the deceased. Among the rank of bodies piled before here, she saw Haim, whose mother sat, slumped over and sobbing beneath the matron’s prayer. Cindrea was among the corpses, and so too were many faces Sekhenna had grown to love over her years in the Camps. Twenty or so bodies had been stacked in preparation to be dumped into a mass grave outside town.
Their customary tradition, established upon realizing the city of Godspine didn’t bother affording them the luxury of being buried in the cemeteries. Occasionally, one of them would be granted such a burial if the correct bishop was coerced, or paid off, but it was rare. The Thane of Godspine didn’t look fondly upon his constituents intermingling with the impoverished, even after death.
Dhama continued her prayer and brought it to a lengthy close, admonishing the gods for abandoning them. A personal affront to the dieties to which she had just offered up the souls of her friends to.
Sekhenna didn’t bother with the prayers and the acts of service. For was no more important to her than the bishops who denied her friends burial plots. If they were part of the crew, she’d long wished for the whole ship to sink.
Still, listening to Dhama plead with Kor and Malpha to take pity on the dead struck a chord with her.
“You seem to be making an impression on the boy.” Farrakha’s voice crooned in the distance. As if it were emerging from the depths of her mind, she whipped around to scan the tents, where the voice came from.
“What do you want from me, now?”
“I’m simply enjoying the view. Your fondness for the widower is bringing me much pleasure. It’s a forbidden fruit, and much like when you found me, you can’t keep your hands off of it, can you?”
She scoffed under her breath, drawing the attention of some of the crowd as Dhama ushered them to gather and collect the bodies for their procession out of the village. Sekhenna stepped through the crowd and paused before Haim’s mother.
The woman looked up, her bloodshot eyes shining with tears as Sekhenna whispered.
“Do you mind, if I help take him?”
The woman shook her head, and together they hefted the boy’s body into the air alongside others. Rheysan, to her side, carried Cindrea alone, while an elderly woman hoisted their babe alongside them.
Once the corpses had been plucked from the mud, the crowd began their procession toward Lion’s Gate, where they would make their way to the burial ground.
None of them spoke as they marched slowly out of the Camps. Passersby in neighboring districts looked at them, some with shock but mostly with annoyance as they carried their dead through the streets in a public display led by Dhama who began singing an ancient hymn to Maltha.
“You know,” Farrakha interrupted the song, its voice coming from outside Sekhenna’s mind. “I’ve never understood the appeal about a goddess of excitement.”
Sekhenna ignored it, and instead looked down at Haim’s face, eyes closed and peaceful, his lips downturned in a gentle frown.
Rage boiled inside of her, and she began to cry once more.
The procession made it past the Lion’s Gate beneath the watching eyes of the city guard and continued across the well trod road, their boots slick with mud.
Where the road entered the forest, they veered off to the south and toward a small clearing marked with carved stones. Once they’d crossed the threshold of the clearing Dhama peeled away from the procession and reached into a felled tree trunk long since hollowed out to retrieve a shovel. A few other members of their village did the same in other felled trees and united with Dhama to begin the long process of digging the grave.
Sekhenna laid Haim on the trampled snow alongside the others, and took a step away to watch from the distance.
She bounced her eyes from person to person as they dug, singing songs and dancing. Some of them wept still, others, like Rheysan, took to their own privacy and stared in furious silence.
Without a coin to their name, the people who had made Godspine home for her dug until the suns sank below the tree line, and when they were finished they deposited the bodies one by one. She remained at the edge of the clearing despite the occasional disappointed look from Dhama.
When they finished burying the dead, the crowd dispersed, returning to Godspine one by one in the night until only a handful of them remained in the clearing. Dhama approached Sekhenna and held an arm out.
“Let’s go home, dear.”
She gripped the matron’s arm and hoisted herself up, following the scattered villagers as they made their way out of the clearing.
“Are you still going to go through with your plan, to rescue Jundal?”
It was a matter of time before her friend would ask, she knew, and still she didn’t want to answer.
“I have to.”
“I know it pains you, Khenna, and I am begging you, please, don’t let yourself fall with him.”
She shivered, the coming snowstorm pushed a haunting chill through the trees.
“I can’t just let him die there, Dhama. You know him. He would give anything to get me out.”
She nodded. “I know, dear. But what good is it to sacrifice yourself for the sake of another? I would give him the same advice, if he asked.”
“But he wouldn’t.” She thought.
“I know, and I’ve been thinking about it.” She paused. Ahead of them, Rheysan slowed his walk, his head cocked to one side, ear turned toward them.
“I am still going to try. He would do the same for me.”
The matron smiled to herself.
“I’ve always loved you for that, dear.”
She kept an eye on Rheysan, who made it no secret that he was eavesdropping on their talk. She was sure Dhama noticed as well.
“Do you think it will be worth it? Given your recent actions, are you even sure you will get close enough to Icehold to give him the key?”
She snapped a branch underfoot as the Lion’s Gate came into view before them. “He is my friend, and I have to try.”
Dhama audibly sighed. “I know, you feel you owe him a debt. It doesn’t have to be paid with your life, Sekhenna. There are other ways.”
“He stole from a nobleman. A Contract Owner, no less. Any other way will take too much time and he doesn’t have a lot of that left.”
Dhama waited to respond, as Rheysan paused at the gate for them to approach.
“Ladies,” He gestured for them to continue and followed closely behind.
“When will we be expecting our next shipment of supplies from Arrow & Lamp?” Sekhenna asked, intentionally changing the subject.
“If I had to guess,” the matron replied, without skipping a beat. “Ten days or so. Perhaps a fortnight, given the weather.”
She nodded. “You know,” She raised her voice as they passed through Lion’s Gate. “What you said to me earlier, about revenge, you’re right.”
Dhama shot her a look from the corner of her eye.
“I know I am.” The matron replied, matching her volume.
“Thank you, for talking me through it.” She peered over her shoulder to see Rheysan, following a distance behind them.
“I don’t want to have to dig another grave, Sekhenna.”
The words came, louder in volume to speak to Rheysan, as she had, but she wasn’t simply saying things to misguide the man. She meant what she’d said. Sekhenna heard it in her tone, she’d known it ever since they’d become friends.
“I know.” She replied, at a much lower volume.
Neither of them spoke until they’d returned to The Camps proper and made their way to their tents, set up beside one another. Sekhenna ducked into her own ands on her cot, the weight of the gauntlet heavier than it was in the morning.
Outside her tent, she heard Dhama organizing her things, and the tap of many footsteps upwelling in the calm night.
She leapt and dashed from her tent, her fists raised, expecting a troupe of the King’s men to arrive in the darkness. What she found, however, was altogether different.
She met her gaze upon Dhama, standing around a crowd, smaller than the one who’d gathered for the funeral but large still. Each of them with a packed satchel or two, their cots broken down and folded. At their front, stood her friend, the matron of The Camps, with her own belongings packed together.
“Sekhenna, I wasn’t lying to you.” She began. “We are leaving for the dock tonight. Please, come with us.”
She froze in the cold air.
“I want you to join us.” She continued. “Please. Pack your things and meet us there. The ship will arrive at the first sun tomorrow morning.”
She looked over the crowd, and saw among them Haim’s mother, and many of those who’d lost loved ones, gathered an waiting to head out. Near the front, she noticed a young woman cradling Rheysan’ child and Rheysan nowhere to be seen.
“I will meet you there in the morning, but there is something I need to do first.”
Dhama lowered her gaze. “Sekhenna, if you go through with this, I can’t bring you with us.”
Her heart skipped, and then dropped.
“Once we’ve arrived in Bastrion, if you are not with us, we will have to say goodbye. If you survive what you are going to put yourself through, I wish you well.”
The matron turned, with tears in her eyes as Sekhenna raised her voice.
“I can’t just let him rot there, alone, with no one.”
Dhama didn’t respond until the crowd had made their way out of the Camps, and when she turned back, she spoke through streaming tears.
“I don’t want you to be alone, either.”
The words lacerated her heart, but she didn’t move. Sekhenna remained, unmoving. Dhama’s quiet stare was a plea for her to change her mind.
“Sekhenna, I can’t put our people at risk any more. If you paint this target on your back, don’t follow us. Don’t bring more death to our people.”
Dhama didn’t wait for a response, or an argument.
There was none to be made. Instead, the matron turned her back on Sekhenna and whoever chose to remain in the Camps and walked into the distant shadows.
Sekhenna’s heart pounded in her chest as she watched her friend until the darkness of the night consumed her, and then she fell to her knees.
From the sparsely populated tents, those who chose to remain peered out in the night at her and looked upon Sekhenna who knelt in the mud once more with tears in her eyes, and she felt a new kind of loss.
“Why can’t I go?”
“Because I have larger plans for you, Ven’alhim.”
The tears streamed down her face and she wrapped her arms around her knees as the snow began to fall.
Behind her, a voice called out.
“What are you planning to do, Sekhenna?”
Rheysan emerged from the darkness and stood beside her, still weeping.
“Don’t tell him anything.”
“I am doing what I must do.”
From her peripheral, she saw his hand extended down to grasp. “Then let me help you.”
She didn’t take it, as much as she wanted to.
“Rheysan, you will get yourself killed. I promise you. Don’t follow me.”
He scoffed. “I don’t need to follow you, only to give you instruction.”
She glanced up to see him holding a small gem in his hand, translucent, peach colored with deep red cracks scattered across it like spider webs.
“Is that…” She began.
“An Ether node?” He finished. “Yes.”
She stood and met his gaze, his dark eyes ringed with intent, small pupils scanning her face, looking deep into hers.
“I want you to deliver this to an old man in Icehold, Amar is his name, locked up in their maximum security wing. It’s called the Nail Ward. Tell him it’s a gift from Rheysan. No need to break him free, he will take care of things himself.
She reached out and plucked the stone from his palm and for the first time since she’d returned to the camps, he smiled. Her heart fluttered for a moment before she stomped the feeling out.
“Why do you want me to do this?”
“Because,” he looked up to the sky. “They killed my wife, and imprisoned my best friend, and yours too, it seems. You and Dhama talk about revenge and how poisonous it is, but, Sekhenna, I don’t want revenge.”
He returned his gaze to her, his eyes narrow, bleeding malice.
“I want obliteration.”
Thank you for reading Sisters of Westwinter! Chapter Four kicked off with the culmination of part one. At the end of this chapter, we will be entering a new era of Sisters of Westwinter.