Shadows from overhead branches shifted in the gloom, cloaking her form in darkness as she leaned against the tree. Rough bark dug into her back, brushing her skin through cloth. She could smell the dampness of the leaves and bushes around her, the earthy scent of forest and new growth. A faint wind brushed her cheek, tickling the hair on the back of her neck as she stared upward toward the twinkling stars.
There was a flash, the hint of light as one star suddenly streaked across the sky. It sped past its fellows, a brilliant fire before it burned out, fading into the night itself. Alexa watched for a moment, allowing her eyes to settle on the place it disappeared, the place where the light vanished. Then she turned her gaze back down to the earth and the trees. She did what she had to in order to survive. She did what she had to in order to live another day.
But could she live with herself?
People milled about her, the clink of weapons and armor echoing through the room. Floorboards creaked as the group shuffled and organized, forming a half-ready mob of people. Alexa looked them over, eyeing each face in turn; there were some new ones and there were some old ones. They would have to serve.
“Meet me outside when you’re ready! Quickly, please. We don’t have a lot of time.” Alexa gestured for them to step through the front doors of the building, watching each pass her by in turn. There was a man with a sword and shield, another one with a blunt club. A third had several guns strapped along his body. She hoped that they would be enough, hoped that they weren’t walking to their deaths.
That’s when she noticed the pale dress of a woman outside through one of the grimy windows; dark curls spilled across her shoulders, pearls strung across her white throat. Her head turned, blue eyes meeting Alexa’s green ones across the space. Alexa reached for the blade at her side, grip tightening on the hilt. No, she wouldn’t let her die; there was no choice, no other option—they had to survive.
Alexa turned to see if anyone else was coming, hoping beyond hope that some had been roused from sleep. A pale face suddenly came into her line of vision, a hat shadowing the dark circles beneath his eyes. Before she could move, before she could say anything, he was next to her. There was the smooth feel of something hooking over her wrist and Alexa had the brief chance to register it was an umbrella. Then the man’s lilting voice interrupted her before she could speak, “Keep this safe for me if I don’t come back.” She turned and he was gone, out the door and into the crowd.
Alexa stared at the umbrella, bemused for a moment. Almost involuntarily, a faint smile crossed her lips; then she walked after him. After all, that’s what Rosemary had hired her for—to fight, to kill, to live.
After all, someone had to keep him safe.
“Alexa! You’re no fun, Alexa.”
“I get that a lot!”
“Why are you running?”
“Wouldn’t you? It’s the smart thing to do!”
Alexa darted across the field, damp grass clinging to her boots as she flanked the figure in her line of sight. He…it—whatever the creature was—slowly walked toward her. Eyes glinted in the moonlight as it drew its lips past sharpened teeth, “Why don’t you stop running, Alexa?”
Good question. She didn’t respond this time. Instead, she circled around the creature, darting into the crowd of other fighters briefly. As soon as she lost its attention, she sprinted toward it again, taking it from behind. Her sword lashed out, metal cutting into flesh as blood spattered across her hands and arms. She spun, gaining momentum as her blade sliced into the creature’s back again. The monster stumbled, limbs flailing as it fell to the ground. For a moment, it struggled to stand. Then Alexa plunged her sword through its neck. There was the feel of something snapping, and then it fell limp.
Alexa turned, her eyes scanning the rest of the crowd. It was chaos, each man fighting for his life. She watched as one of the creatures lashed out with claws, watched as a man smashed in someone’s skull, watched as a monster screamed in rage, blood spattering the ground. There was work to be done.
She sprinted across the expanse, darting in between individuals as she sliced and stabbed, twirling and moving, never staying still long enough for retaliation. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a woman in a white dress kneeling next to a device, saw a man with a pale face attempting to save someone, saw a woman in braids trying to survive.
Then the tide of battle slowed; the enemies slowly sank into the ground or faded into the darkness. Alexa stopped, trying to catch her breath as figures emerged from the tree line. She tensed for a moment, watching them closely; then she relaxed. They weren’t enemies.
They had won.
Sunlight made the lake glitter, the green waves sparkling as they lapped against the shore. There was the flash of scales as fish darted beneath the water, silvery bodies flickering near the surface before disappearing into the depths. Wind brought the scents of weed and damp and mud as it hushed the surrounding trees with their still-green leaves, stirring the sand and brushing the hair back from Alexa’s face. It was a beautiful day with the water and the wind and the waves—or at least it was for a few moments.
Quincy stood a few feet away from her, light hair tucked beneath his hat as he knelt next to the water. Alexa watched the trail to the lake as he checked on the fish; her eyes darted across the rocky slope and the surrounding tree line as the hairs on the back of her neck prickled. The lake was never a good place to linger, never a good place to stay. They should have left already.
That’s when she heard them, the sound of men yelling. Alexa felt a sudden rush of adrenaline as Quincy jerked to his feet, his blue eyes wide.
She caught a glimpse of four figures speeding down the slope toward them, blunt clubs and knives and blades in gnarled hands. Then she was off, darting after Quincy next to the lake. Wind whipped at her hair, pulling it back from her face as she pumped her arms. Her heart slammed in her chest as panic threatened to choke her. Faster. Quincy’s back came up too quickly and she had to slow.
The sound of something cracking came first, reverberating through her entire body. Then there was pain. It throbbed through her leg as she stumbled and cried out, twisting her back and hips slightly to avoid injuring herself further as she slammed into the ground. A rock bit into her arm, drawing a line of blood. She caught a glimpse of Quincy’s back still retreating up the path.
That’s when she realized what had happened. One of the men had caught up to her, a rusted saw in one hand. She caught a glimpse of yellowed, bloody teeth before he slammed a booted foot against her other leg, crushing it into the earth.
There was another, sharp snapping noise, then more pain.
The sound of a scream filled the air—but it couldn’t have been hers. After all, she would never be so stupid to be here in the first place, never be so foolish as to allow rusted blades to cut into her legs—to allow her blood to soak into the ground. There was no way that she’d lie there, crying in pain as they continued to take pieces of her away, their harsh voices laughing and snarling. There was no way she would allow them to crush her bones again and again and again and again as she lay there, helpless. It just wasn’t possible.
She wasn’t sure when they left, only that they did. The agony was still there, though, throbbing through her as her fingers dug into the dirt, grinding it under her fingernails. Sound didn’t make sense; bird song and yells and waves and wind intermingled equally, forming a buzzing noise in her ears. She felt blood pumping from her arteries, making her lightheaded as she slowly turned her gaze to look through the leaves, staring at the sky as her eyelids flickered. It could be worse. It could be the treatment.
That’s when she noticed someone was crouching next to her, a hand suddenly on her shoulder. Slowly, painfully, she turned her head, bringing the figure into focus. A worried face stared back at her, his mouth twisted into a line. Quincy.
“Do you have anything on you to help?”
Alexa stared at him for a moment before she croaked out a few words, “Snake oil. In my bag.”
He didn’t wait for further instructions. The bottle was already in his hands, the cork flung aside as he shoved it to her mouth. For a moment, she resisted, her mind flashing back to another time on the beach as liquid was forced through her lips. Then she drank, gulping down the bitter concoction with a cringe.
She finished and then caught her breath, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Quincy continued to kneel next to her, his eyes pointedly looking toward her legs as he said without much hope, “Can you stand?”
Alexa winced, forcing herself into a sitting position. More pain sparked across her body and she gritted her teeth, biting back sound. Slowly, she glanced at her legs. They twisted awkwardly under her, large gashes still oozing blood. She didn’t want to see more. She quickly looked away.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Quincy nodded, “I’ll carry you.”
He unslung a bag from his back, filled with wooden staves tipped with metal. Gently, he placed it over Alexa’s shoulders, adjusting it to fit snugly. Then he grabbed her by the waist, slinging her onto his back. Alexa grabbed tightly onto his shoulders, biting back another cry of pain as she felt a bone shift in one of her legs.
Then they were moving down the lake trail. Alexa leaned against him, chin resting against his shoulder as the sounds of yelling drifted further behind them. They moved quietly, trees flashing by on either side of them as Quincy’s footsteps whispered over dirt and leaves. His voice suddenly murmured over the silence, bringing Alexa back to reality.
“I don’t know what I would have done if you’d died.”
Alexa remained silent for a moment, eyes flickering over her own shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed. Then she replied, “It wouldn’t have been your fault. I was stupid
She felt his shoulders tense beneath her, his head slumping forward slightly, “No, it would have.”
“Well you’re carrying me now, so no worries.”
Leaves rustled as Quincy walked up a slope, his feet digging into the loose earth. There was the burbling sound of a stream behind them, the faint cry from a crow. Alexa remained quiet, fingers grasping onto Quincy’s shirt. She couldn’t tell him what was really on her mind—that he shouldn’t blame himself, that he couldn’t blame himself. After all, he’d come back for her.
But should he have?
Alexa watched the girl cry. Tears streamed down her face, making her eyes red and puffy as she sobbed. Her hands were twisted behind her, kept secure by frayed rope and knots. Her lower lip trembled as she sniffled, “Are you going to hurt me?”
The woman in green next to her responded, her voice quick and to the point in her foreign lilt, “No, we’re not going to hurt you.”
Alexa allowed her eyes to scan the surroundings as Sydney dealt with the girl. They had taken her to the edges of town—to the woods. Dead leaves rustled against the ground, boughs creaking against one another. Alexa tightened her grip on her sword, noting that no birds called out, no insects buzzed; this was hunter territory—and it wouldn’t do to be caught here after dark. Then again, she’d be here as long as it took—as long as Sydney ordered it.
The girl’s high pitched voice suddenly cut through Alexa’s thoughts, “But I don’t want to go alone. How can I find my way back?”
Alexa glanced toward her, trying to ignore her feeling of disquiet, “Do like I told you and follow the footprints, okay? And if you hear anything, jump into the bushes and lie down in them and be quiet—flat on the ground. Most things will pass you by.”
Sydney moved to the girl’s back and lifted her blade. Then, she cut through the ropes binding her wrists. There was a small snapping noise as the frayed ends gave way, then Sydney stepped back. “There you go.”
The girl stood there, her lower lip still quivering. Alexa saw something pass over Sydney’s face. Pity—maybe. Her hand fished in her bag for a moment before she took out a small wheel of cheese, handing it to the girl, “Don’t eat it all at once.” The girl nodded in response, biting back more tears.
That’s when something caught Alexa’s attention, the sound of shifting metal and footsteps. She turned, her eyes settling on the figure behind her. Dark, metal plates were strapped onto his body; knives bristled from his sides and back. Guns and swords were slung over her shoulder and belted at his waist. Crow.
The man jerked his head toward the girl, “I need to take her.”
Sydney stepped forward, eyes narrowing as she watched the man in front of her, “We were told to release her beyond town borders.”
“Well then the laws of town no longer apply. I have my orders.”
Alexa glanced to Sydney, noticing how her mouth hardened, how her eyes became steely. She turned away from Crow, walking back toward the sniffling girl, “I need you to listen to me carefully. I need you to run, understand?”
The girl nodded, eyes wide.
The girl stumbled into the woods, arms flailing as she fled down the path, sobs escaping her. Alexa watched her retreating back, something sour bubbling up to the back of her throat as she heard Crow’s words.
“I’ll give her a head start.”
Alexa shifted in the darkness, easing her legs beneath her as she moved to stand. She rested one hand on the rough bark of the tree next to her, fingers finding the grooves within it. She could hear insects chirring in the nearby bushes, their songs calling to one another in the night. She could smell the scent of smoke and fire and trash from the nearby buildings. But the stars were gone, covered by the dawn that threatened to lighten the sky.
Hiding was no longer an option. Sitting was no longer an option. Alexa dug her nails into the bark of the tree, her eyes glancing toward the darkened structures around her. She knew that they slept quietly, their gentle breaths stifled by walls and blankets—the town was at ease, at rest.
Alexa closed her eyes, trying not to think. She was done with running, done with doing nothing, done with watching things happen.
It was time to fight.
It was time to live.
Are you really any better than he is?