[SOW] Chapter Five, Part One: A Taste of Hope

Chapter Four, Part Four: [SOW] Chapter Four, Part Four: From Nails to Freedom

Emry sunk her knife into the frozen dirt, narrowly dodging the hunter’s calf as he rolled out of the way. She dodged a swing of his blade and sent her heel forward, catching him in his groin. He stumbled back and snarled, approaching for another strike.

Behind her, Jundal shouted, bringing his arm down like a hammer upon the helmet of one of the guards, a pile of others already dealt with a handful of steps away. His forearm crashed against the steel cap of the soldier who crumpled, turned to dead weight by the branch like extension of the man. 

Sekhenna fought at his back, careful to guard her weak arm, still strained by the gauntlet. Her own knife zipped wildly between the guards who surrounded her. Between strikes, blood splattered onto the snow, and not all of it belonged to the guards who assaulted them.

Klauven remained silent, casting his boisterous demeanor aside to focus his attention on Emry. He wiped a spot of blood leaking from his cheek, the first strike from Emry which resulted in their brawl. He’d quickly overpowered her, and had Jundal not returned through the wall tunnel she would have been overcome.

She locked eyes with the hunter, his light eyes shining with bloodlust, enthralled in the fight.

She adjusted her grip and yanked the knife from the ground while Jundal brought another pair of soldiers to the earth behind her.

“What do I matter to you?” She spat.

Klauven didn’t answer. Instead, he lunged forward.

The nearby torchlight of a frightened guard flashed the steel of his knife, and Emry stepped out of the way moments before the serrated edge met her skin. The point caught her shirt, already shredded from her time in Icehold, it gave way and tore behind the strike. She leaned toward Jundal and lifted her knee, slamming it into the hunter’s chest. He lurched, catching her thigh around his arm and pulled, dragging her off balance.

She spun and slammed into a fence post, cracking it with her ribs as Klauven released her, spinning the knife in his hand as Sekhenna turned.

“Don’t touch her.” 

The woman’s voice was cold, emotionless. Klauven didn’t react as he crouched over her and dragged the tip of his knife across Emry’s side. Blood seeped from the wound, tickling her as it slid across her bruised skin.

Sekhenna leapt from behind her, the woman’s fist bursting between them to clutch Klauven by the braid. 

“I said,” Sekhenna repeated herself. “Don’t touch her.”

She yanked on the long twisted braid and dragged Klauven’s head into her palm, catching it deftly she gripped the edge of his skull and squeezed.

The grip she held was more than enough distraction for Emry to roll away and climb back to her feet. She braced herself against the onlooking guards as Sekhenna drove Kaluven’s face into the mud. Her eyes alight with fury above the squirming hunter.

“Well?” Emry glanced to the onlookers. “Are you going to take me or not?”

As their leader struggled to regain his upper hand in the fight against the woman, the soldiers didn’t move.

“Come, little root.” Jundal motioned to her from near the tunnel. “We will be going.”

Emry obeyed, despite the swelling inside of her, calling out for her to attack them all, to follow Sekhenna’s lead and drive them to the mud.

She ducked beneath the low crack and crawled through the hole with Jundal close behind. Ducking beneath, she watched Sekhenna spin, lifting Klauven over her body and releasing him to crash against a pile of empty boxes behind a ruined house. She whipped toward the hole and Emry giggled as the remaining soldiers jumped back.

Sekhenna followed them out and caught up as Rheysan waved them to a thick patch of bushes.

“I thought you’d be done for.” He grinned. “Glad to have Sekhenna here, no?”

She rolled her eyes as Emry crouched, catching her breath. She hadn’t exercised in months, getting out of prison combined with the sneaking around left stripes of pain on her lungs.

“It is a shame we were without manpower.” Jundal replied. “You would have been helpful.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t notice you weren’t with me until a moment ago, I made it here and turned back to see that I was alone.”

Emry shook the tightness from her shoulders and met Sekhenna’s eyes, who spoke, silencing Rheysan’s coming rebuttal.

“We need to move quickly. I left as many of them alive as I could, but they will be recouping soon. Emry, can you fight?”

She shrugged. She knew she could, sort of, but without a bow she was far less useful than either Jundal or Sekhenna, she feared for a moment, she might even be less capable than Rheysan without the proper tools.

“I guess I can pretend. I hunted and wrestled my brothers. I wasn’t a child assassin.” She sheathed her knife and stood.

“We will find you a bow when we kill a soldier and take it from their body. In the meantime, stay low. They want the three of us. I’m assuming,” She shot a glance to Rheysan. “No one knows we are coming, right?”

Rheysan shook his head. “If anyone does, they are inside the city and are waiting for us to start moving.”

Emry interrupted. “They killed my friend, Balshenai.”

Rheysan cocked an eyebrow. “What does that matter, girl? If we don’t start moving now, they’re going to kill us too.”

The rage swelled within her, but she knew he was right. Her mind flashed with an image of Klauven’s head, hewn from his body. 

“We need to get going, we only have a few hours of night left. The further we are from the city the better off we will all be.” Sekhenna cleaned blood from her gauntlet with a dirty rag while Jundal collected their things. 

“The City of Kings is many days from here if we are to be walking. There is a merchant’s ship near the Hordjisetr Canal which has ferried immigrants in the past.” Jundal hefted a large leather backpack onto his shoulder and waved to her. “Let’s get moving.”

Emry obeyed.

Behind them, Klauven’s men scrambled through the small opening, gathering in the grove outside of the city, searching through lantern light for any sign of Emry, or the others. She ducked beneath a sprawling patch of Helmwright berry bushes, suddenly feeling more at home than she had in months.

The rest of them likewise made themselves scarce amid the overgrown forest vegetation as they began the journey to the Canal.

Emry kept a close watch of Rheysan, whom judging by the way Jundal spoke, was an outsider between them. The bark skinned man revered Sekhenna in the way he spoke. Around the man, however, he was uncertain. Emry could see his distaste plain as day. Still, the brooding and crass man was not without his curiosities. He was clearly trusted to some degree by Sekhenna, after all, he was making the journey with them.

Emry moved below the bushes until she found a low hanging branch and hoisted herself up into the trees themselves, still following along. Below, her companions crept along at a steady pace, putting themselves further and further from the confused and turned around company behind them. Klauven’s voice echoed through the woods, a laughable mix of insults and commands at the force who had almost immediately lost their targets in the night.

Emry snickered and leapt from one sturdy branch to another, the feeling of the leaves and bark bringing memories of her youth bubbling to the surface.

“No time for that now.”

She pushed on through the night, her eyes monitoring the earth below for signs of movement beside her companions. Behind them, the imposing walls of Godspine stretched over the tops of the trees, torch light flickered against the marching guards on patrol, whose bodies were little more than glittering ants from their distance.

Below her, Skehenna called.

“Emry, we’re setting up a camp for the night. We aren’t making it in time.” 

Jundal motioned for her to join them, and she obliged. 

When she reached the ground, Sekhenna was already arranging a bedroll beside a large mossy rock.

“We’ll start a small fire, facing away from the city. We have some food. Are you hungry?” She cocked her head.

Her demeanor changed dramatically since their exit of the city. The Sekhenna who erupted geysers of boiling water and shards of ice to free the prisoners was so far from the woman who gently placed a second, smaller mat onto the earth and fished through her pack of a piece of jerky which she offered to Emry.

She accepted it immediately.

“I’m starving.”

Sekhenna offered a flitting grin and found another piece.

“Take two,” She whispered. “You look like you need the extra food.”

She took a seat on the cold ground and quietly listened for sounds of soldiers in the night, searching for her companions once more. On the other side of the small clearing, the men set up their own sleeping arrangements. Rheysan haphazardly tossed his bedroll onto the ground, atop twigs and rocks, before he sat and produced his own food. A few steps to his side, Jundal swung his leg in a wide arc, clearing rocks and dead twigs from a space in a large circle. He did not lay a bedroll but instead dropped his own bag on the dirt and approached them.

“I will take the first watch. Little one, please find time to rest. The morning’s hike will be much faster than tonights. I would like to reach the canal before midday. We can hide out in one of the dens there with more ease.”

Sekhenna nodded. “It’s not far.” She said to Emry. “A few hours at most.”

She nodded and took another bite of jerky. 

“What’s Bastrion like?”

Sekhenna laughed out loud. “The same, but it isn’t as cold.”

“Bastrion has a prison as well? Will they know about us?” Emry chewed between words, the savory strip of deer meat electrified her tastebuds. As far as jerky went, it wasn’t the best she’d ever had but compared to the muck from the prison it was a delicacy.

“No, not a prison. It’s the same like every kingdom is the same. The nobles don’t care about us. The slums there are many folds larger than here, but at least there is a. community.”

She cocked her head. “Why is it like this? Where you were living, it was like a campsite. Why don’t you have houses?”

The woman smirked. “I won’t take offense, Jundal mentioned you grew up in the woods?”

She nodded. “My father and brothers and I in a cabin to the west of Godspine, on the other side of the mountains.”

Sekhenna sniffed. “We lived there because we don’t have the money to afford a house, or a loft. Most of the people who called that place home have already made their way to Bastrion, and are hoping to begin anew.”

Emry glanced to Jundal, who found a seat to the side of the stone, quite a few steps away from the fire pit which Rheysan dug behind them.

“I’m sorry,” She said, she didn’t know why she was but something in Sekhenna’s tone made her feel like it was the right thing to say. “Why were so many of you without homes?”

She laughed. “Life doesn’t work out well for everyone. Jundal and myself made our way there from much worse situations. Most of the people in the Camps were put out thanks to the union of the Company houses.”

“Company houses?” Emry cocked her head.

“Families who control the gathering of resources. A few big names around Godspine, hell, all of the world, control the gathering and processing of raw goods. A long time ago it was a free market, if you had the scales to start up your own business you could make a decent living. That’s what my father used to do. He was a logger, a long, long time ago. A couple decades back though, the King decided it would be more difficult to control his people when anyone with working arms could make a name for themselves. So, he created the Contracts. Companies could bid on the contracts which would ensure resources to expand their business and in return, they sent a portion of their profit and their resources to their Thane, or whoever led their city.”

Under his breath, Jundal groaned.

“It was ceaseless destruction.”

Sekhenna eyed him. “I’m getting there.”

She took a deep breath. “All over Amsukar, companies who didn’t have contracts began to suffer. In Godspine, there were many. The further north you go, the richer the land’s resources are, so there were hundreds of companies scattered across the city and the Thane decided to offer a deal to them, they take a massive payout of scales in return for the rights to their company, or, they would be edged out of the running by the Contracted Companies. For instance, the Hordi Company was, at one time, a coal mining operation. After the announcement of the merger, they refused to comply. Except, almost all of their competitors took the offer. When there are ten groups working for resources, it might be hard to find them at times, but when it’s down to two parties and one of them is ten times larger than you, with access to more land, more equipment and more revenue, you won’t last.”

Rheysan clapped his hands together as the fire took, catching on a bundle of tinder.

“So,” Sekhenna continued. “The Hordi family fought to maintain their status and their income, but because they denied the merger, their employees were barred from working with the Contracted Company. With nowhere to go, they eventually lost their homes and their livelihoods and wound up in the Camps, with us.”

Rheysan took a seat beside the fire.

“Some of us didn’t even get the chance for a comeback.” He stared intently at the flame while he spoke. “We just lost what we had.”

“What did your company do?” Emry asked, spinning on the dirt to face the growing flame.

“I wasn’t a Companyman. Not explicitly. I worked for Tilliak’s Company, but on the… defensive side.”

She took a bite of jerky. “The what?”

“Some companies,” Skehenna explained. “Were powerful enough to establish their own security force. Some of them still, were hired by the Thanes to be the stand in militia for Godspine.”

“That was me.” Rheysan waved his hand. “Eventually, the Companymen became a united front. All of us worked together, and some of us had to do things no one should have to do.”

His eyes fell to the earth as the fire grew, and a calm silence crept over him.

“So,” Sekhenna continued. “We wound up at the Camps. Not really due to anything we wanted but more because Godspine wanted us to be there. There has to be someone to step on in order to succeed, you know.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.” Emry replied, her eyes still on Rheysan.

“It isn’t.” Jundal’s voice came through the night, outside the light of the fireplace.

“Hey,” Emry’s mind carried her from the conversation and back to Balshenai. The image of the dragon tied up and prodded by the soldiers as the forest burned behind them. “Why did they kill Balshenai?”

Sekhenna laughed. “Because, child, she was a dragon.”

“She wasn’t evil.” Emry snapped. “She was fleeing, she wasn’t hurting anyone. She was a part of nature and doesn’t deserve to die.”

Rheysan laughed from the fireside. “So then, the jerky in your hands came from an animal who didn’t deserve to die then? Perhaps you should vomit it back up so that you don’t further stain your morality.”

She balled her fists. “It’s different.”

“Differen’t because it was an animal you happened to get along with?” He looked at her.

“Do you hunt the city pets, Companyman?” She spat.

He scowled at her. “A dragon isn’t a pet, Emry. It’s a threat. They hunt us and kill us for sport.”

His words stung. She’d only known Balshenai for a little more than a day, but how he could look at something like her and say it wasn’t more than a simple beast was beyond her.

“So what are they here for, then, if they are as deadly as you say? There is an order to the wilds, Rheysan. You might understand the cities and the companies but I understand what is out there. If dragons were as deadly as you say, they would have eradicated us by now.”

He laughed to himself again. “Emry, you’re a fool if you think they are simply beasts. A bear is deadly enough, but a bear who can outsmart you? They should be exterminated. Harvested for parts and made history for us.”

She shot to her feet and hovered her hand over the knife at her hip. “Watch your words.”

“Emry.” Jundal warned.

“Balshenai didn’t hunt me. She saved me, from Klauven’s Companymen! Who, it sounds to me, don’t seem to care about us any more than you suppose the dragons do.”

She felt Sekhenna’s hand on her back, gentle and warning.

“Emry, it is not so simple.” She raised her gauntlet, palm open, toward Rheysan.

The ex-soldier rotated to face her, but didn’t stand.

“What do you think our job was, Emry? Hundreds of unarmed, untrained people out there chopping down trees, mining for goods, right beneath the noses of those serpents that want nothing from us but to see us on their dinner table. We have to fight back against them.”

Emry’s hand trembled over the knife. Her anger lit a fire inside of her she realized quickly would be difficult to put out.

“So you slaughter them and reap their bodies for your trinkets and jewelry, and then what?”

He raised his hands in defense. “I don’t agree with it because I hate them. I hunted them because I was paid to do it. I hunted them because if I didn’t, they would hunt us. To extinction.”

“If they wanted to hunt us to extinction, they would have done so long before we had a manner to defend ourselves, Companyman.” She snarled.

Sekhenna wrapped her hand around Emry’s knife and slipped it from the sheathe.

“Emry, have a seat.” She paused.

“I am not asking.”

She obeyed, her eyes locked on Rheysan, who remained beside the fire. 

“What about this dragon, Balshenai, you said, is so important to you?” Sekhenna asked with a gentle voice.

“Because,” Emry stuttered. Her voice broke into tears as the anger inside of her gave way to a familiar bout of sorrow. “She was the only thing I had left.” Tears burst from her eyes and Sekhenna dropped the knife, taking her into her arms.

The same woman who freed her from her cell brushed her hand through her hair and embraced her as Emry finally and completely collapsed into herself.

Rheysan opened his mouth, but was interrupted by Jundal stepping forward into the light, the imposing presence of the massive man a message enough.

Then, Emry cried until she fell asleep and Sekhenna held her the whole time.

Emry stirred, waking from her uncertain rest to find she’d been tucked into her bedroll beside Sekhenna, who still slept with calm breath in the night. The fire had long since died out and the glowing embers cast no light. The frigid cold of the night crawled across her skin as she sat up, searching the moonlit night for Jundal. In the distance, she saw him standing at the edge of the clearing, perfectly motionless. His legs rigid and rooted to the ground as if he had in himself become a tree.

She slid out from the bedroll and stood, shaking in the cold as she approached him. On the opposite side of the clearing, Rheysan laid on his side, snoring peacefully.

“You should be asleep, little root.” Jundal spoke, spooking her.

“How did you know it was me?” She asked, approaching him.

“I felt you moving in the ground.” He remained unmoving as she arrived at his side.

“I just woke up. It’s cold, I don’t know how you sleep like this.”

“I do not sleep.” He replied flatly. “Dear Sekhenna has learned to sleep in the worst of circumstances. I do not know how Rheysan remains in his dreams.”

She grinned. Though he was impossibly tall and spoke so much differently than she, Jundal had grown on her.

“I am sorry.”

“For what, little root? You have nothing to be apologetic for.”

“I was… angry, earlier.” She crossed her arms, the bite of the winter air stabbed at her.

“I was angry as well. I do not blame you for it.” Jundal slowly turned to face her, his face gentle and smiling. “I knew I would like you, outside of the prison.”

She nodded, “About that, why did the two of you save me? What reason did you come back for me?”

Jundal returned to face the woods before he replied. His movements slow and calculated. “I did not request it. I suspected it would have been too dangerous to free you, but Sekhenna was adamant. She told me she was ordered to free you. By whom, I do not know. She will not tell me.”

Emry nodded. “How long have you two been together?”

The tangled maw of bark covering his mouth spread into what Emry assumed was a smile. “We have been friends for many years. She found me when she was living in the Isle of Magi, far to the southeast of here. Across the seas. I was imprisoned.”

She giggled to herself, the matter of fact statement tickled her.

“You seem to find yourself imprisoned often. Perhaps you should take a look at yourself to understand why.”

“It is because,” He replied. “I was disobedient to my people. I defied the orders of our ruler and as a result, I was imprisoned. I found myself in Icehold for a similar reason. I led a party to the house of Lord Tilliak nd robbed him of a handful of possessions, namely, the gauntlet with Sekhenna now wears. I was caught and she later made her way there to get revenge. Which, is how she wound up with the gauntlet in her possession.”

Emry cocked her head. Her lighthearted joke evidently fell flat.

“Have the three of you been doing this for long?”

“As long as we have known one another. Sekhanna was freed not long after we were united. Ever since then we have been entwined. She is my greatest ally, and I hers.”

Emry giggled. “What about Rheysan?”

Jundal groaned. “I do not know.”

Though her suspicion had been correct, she somehow didn’t feel pleased at the confirmation.

“He is indebted to Sekhenna, for the time being. I am relying on that to bide our time until he proves himself a worth ally to our goals.”

“What are your goals?” She asked.

“To be free.” He replied. His direct answer made her question whether or not she should push the topic further.

“Do you think there will be freedom in Bastrion?” She took a seat on a nearby stone, the cold surface seeding chills through her.

“I do not know where we will find our freedom, or if we will ever have it. I will still search, however.”

She nodded. 

“Emry.” Jundal continued. “I have something I must share with you, in confidence.”

Her heart skipped a beat.

“There is a facility here, in Godspine. To the north side of the city, in the woods. It is a laboratory in which they study dragons, and their biology. I am telling you this, because if there is any hope your friend Balshenai lives, she will be there. It is almost a certainty. I can’t guarantee she will live, but I could not lead you to Bastrion without at least letting you make the choice for yourself. If you go, we will not be following.”

Balshenai? Alive? She glanced back to Sekhenna, still asleep on the bedroll.

“What?” She asked, unable to find more words.

“I do not recommend you go, especially if you will be alone. It is surely guarded well, and if you truly are not a witch, you will almost certainly be killed upon entering.”

She swallowed the lump in her throat.

“Jundal, thank you for telling me.” She let her mind work through the news for a moment. If Balshenai was alive, even if there was only a chance, she couldn’t abandon her. To be counted among the host of humans who’d let the golden dragon down was the last thing she wanted. She’d already let Balshenai down once.

“I must emphasize to you that there is no guarantee she is alive. It has been months since her capture and the likelihood is next to none. However, if you learned of this after we’d boarded the ship to Bastrion, I know you wouldn’t have forgiven us.”

She grinned. “Thank you, Jundal. I don’t know what to say.”

“You have said enough.” He smiled at her a second time. “If you are choosing to leave, do so before Sekhenna wakes. She will attempt to convince you to stay. There is a safe house in the Market Square, we passed by it on our way out of Icehold, marked with two half circles over the door. It is a small home. If you make it there unseen, you will almost certainly be safe within. Due to the priority of your capture, moving through the city will be dangerous.”

She nodded. “Jundal, what will you tell her if I leave?”

“I will tell her the truth. It has been nice to get to know you, Little Root.” He returned his gaze to the forest, watching the darkness with a deep well of patience.

She hopped from the stone and wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. “Thank you, Jundal. I hope we meet again one day.”

He placed a hand on her head and patted it. “I hope so as well, Emry.”

She crept back to her bedroll and fetched her knife, which Sekhenna had placed beside her. Quietly, she latched it to her belt and returned to Jundal.

“Please, be careful. Take care of one another.”

Jundal grinned. “It is what I do best.”

She shared a final look with him before she turned on her heel and began her march back to the city walls. Her heart thudded against her chest, her mind screaming for her to run, to get as far away from Godspine as she could. She could not.

She had to know what had become of the dragon. It was her fault Balshenai found herself in Godspine at all, and if there was a sliver of hope she could free the dragon, if she lived, she would risk a lifetime returned to the Nail Ward to make things right.

Thanks for coming through for the beginning of Chapter Five! I’ll continue publishing new stories weekly and there is plenty more to see from Emry Windsholm. Her story is far from over.

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