This particular story was done as a joint project with the wonderful and talented Kathryn Elsinger. The Alexa sections were done by me, while the Dakota sections were done by her. Please check out her awesome blog for more stories here!
The sun beat down across the dusty landscape, filtering through the branches of dry, warped trees and desert scrub. It warmed the paved roads and sharp rocks, streaming across the scattered buildings that made up the town. No clouds marred the impossibly blue sky—a sky that stretched for miles and miles toward the horizon. All that could be heard was the dry rattle of the wind as it carried voices from down the road, the sound of footsteps in the dirt.
Alexa stood next to a copse of trees, sword extended in front of her. Sunlight warmed the dark plates of her armor and pale hair as she watched the woman across from her carefully. She had her arm similarly extended, sword ready to block or strike. And while she wasn’t wearing much in the way of armor, her face looked determined beneath her brown hat.
Alexa smirked slightly. Now. She darted forward, feinting to one side before striking toward the other. A surprised look crossed the woman’s face—blue eyes widening slightly as the blow struck. Then she stepped back, shaking her arm slightly after feeling the flat of Alexa’s blade.
Alexa withdrew just as quickly, backing up into the ready position. She offered the woman a grin. Best way to take the edge off of a blow. “That was better than before, Dakota, but remember to maintain eye contact. And remember to use your speed. You’re fast, after all.”
Dakota grinned back in response, impossibly blue eyes twinkling as she held up her sword again, “That’s easy for y’all ta say.” Her braids glinted gold in the light as she shook her head slightly, “Ain’t all that easy when you’re first startin’ out.”
Alexa shifted her weight slightly as she adjusted her grip on her sword. She watched the Merican, eyes studying her for the moment, noting the way she held herself—the way she ignored the bruises that were probably already forming from their sparring. I can see why he likes her.
She smiled again, “Don’t worry. It will get easier with practice. Now…” She paused for a moment, her smile growing wider, “Let’s try this again.”
Welts rose on Dakota’s arms and legs faster than she could believe. For a moment, the two women stood frozen and watching one another—their stances mirrored, swords raised and waiting. The new girl was like a snake, deadly fast and lethal if she chose to be. She was only striking with the flat of the blade between encouraging words, but it stung; and Dakota knew she’d be feeling this lesson for days. The girl, Alexa, circled her, forcing her to turn to keep her blade between them.
The light slanted through the trees above her, glowing in her white blonde hair and throwing her sea green eyes into shadow. The familiar coloring brought a sting to Dakota’s eyes, and she lifted a hand to shade them from the sight. Mercifully, her teacher assumed it was the brightness causing her to turn away.
“See what I did there, Dakota? You have to use the terrain to put your enemy at the disadvantage.”
Dakota nodded and stepped left into the shade. People were milling around—Styks and Chance watching from the side of the road. The rest of the visitors from Hayven also observed, less conspicuous but not unnoticed from behind the windows of the Saloon. Dakota’s eyes darted, watching them all in the nervous manner that was becoming second nature to her. That’s when Alexa’s blade slapped home again.
“Eye contact, Dakota. Right here.” She pointed into her own serious gaze with two pale fingers. “You can’t get distracted like that.”
Dakota laughed and looked back up, locking eyes again with the Bay Walker, “How are you so freakish fast? I swear I ain’t never seen someone move as fast as you do.”
The pale girl favored her with a smile, but raised her blade again, determined and patient.
They stood in the middle of a field, dry grass trampled down by feet and stained with blood. The sun beat down on their backs, shade nonexistent within the relentless onslaught of light. Others milled about them, worry and determination flashing by in turns. The nearby woods were quiet for the moment, but it was likely that more creatures would emerge—more of the walking dead.
Alexa pushed her pale hair from her face, glancing to the two others beside her. Dakota stood in her newly-learned stance, sword in front and ready. Mickey stood next to her, his normally-tattooed arms now bare after travelling through death. They left him to die. Alexa shook her head briefly as she pushed down emotion, instead tearing her attention back toward the woods. No wonder the people here are worried. Their allies might turn their backs and run at any moment.
Chance was nearby, his Merican hat pulled low over his face as his wiry arms worked in the dirt. His hands scrabbled in the dust as he carefully laid down a thin wire, checkered shirt hanging loose on his thin frame. It was a simple task—lay down the line and direct power to the town; the problem was keeping him safe long enough for him to do it. But they had Chance’s back. If we don’t, who will?
The sound of crunching leaves suddenly jerked Alexa back to the present. Her green eyes darted toward the noise as she raised her blade.
They emerged from the twisted trees, their limbs half-broken as they dragged themselves across the flat plains. Alexa could smell the rot—a sickening, sweet stench made worse with the sun’s heat. Some had missing eyes, picked clean from their skulls by enterprising scavengers. Others had skin that jerked and moved just beneath the surface—maggots doing their best to wriggle their way from their fleshy prisons. A few gasped and snarled, half-decayed lungs no longer able to function properly.
Alexa cast a brief glance at the others. Mickey could handle himself—would handle himself. But Dakota was another matter; she could only hope that the girl had learned what she’d been taught. Then again, if she’s anything he says she is, she can probably take care of herself.
There were a few brief seconds of peace, and then there was chaos. Screams and shouts echoed across the field as men and women hacked into the restless dead. Alexa remained where she was for the moment, keeping watch to the rear. If more zed arrived from that direction, it was best that she remain. Besides, I’m not about to leave Dakota and Mickey alone.
He asked me to act in his stead.
Cool, composed, confident. No wonder every head turns when she’s around.
Dakota waited quietly for the conflict to begin. Her nerves sang on high alert, but the blonde girl at her side appeared to be the essence of poise. I wonder how she remains so calm.
The enemy lumbered toward them, slow and predictable. While Dakota tried to stay near Alexa and her shadow, Mickey, it was difficult. The screaming voices of combatants and the nauseating rattle of the horde soon divided them, causing them to go separate ways. Dakota suddenly found herself standing over Chance while he tried to move the injured out of harm’s way. Her sword was drawn, just as she’d been taught, but her movements were still jerky and unpracticed. This could get ugly. Dakota put on her most determined face and, with an air of confidence she did not feel, scanned the tree-line for danger—making herself a shield for the unarmed. I’ll protect them.
It was warm despite the cool breeze that was rising up from the direction of the lake. The coppery smell of fresh blood rose to mingle with the stench of rotting flesh as the battle continued. That’s when cries of warning rose from the crowd around her as another wave of the dead staggered from the forest. Dakota jerked her head, looking for her teacher. There. She spotted Alexa darting across the battlefield. Her sword flashed and blazed in the afternoon sun like an avenging angel’s as she hurried back and forth. She would strike and be gone, suddenly insinuating herself into some other crucial spot in the chaos. Always, Mickey was nearby watching her back—even when she couldn’t see him.
He says they’re friends; maybe he’d like more, but friends first. He’s more interested than he lets on.
Without warning, her enemy was before her. The wounded nearby were scrabbling for safety as she tried to drive back the threat. The sword was heavy and too big for her untrained muscles—but she had to fight.
Dakota gritted her teeth and plunged the blade into the papery skin of what had once been a woman. The creature snarled, clawing at Dakota as she ripped the sword free, leaving an ugly wound gaping in the thing’s chest. I need to protect them. Using more blunt force than finesse, Dakota savagely hacked the head from the creature. It rolled a few feet and then stopped, white eyes staring upward at the sky.
The fight around her was becoming quiet. For once, the wounded were all being tended and the enemy being driven back.
Easier in the daylight – cleaner. No one bleeds to death in easy earshot of their allies. I wish it were always like this.
She cringed to think of Mickey’s strange accent while he said the words, “Tha’ was me. I died there.”
Dakota had been there not so long ago—lying prone as she begged for rescue or death or both. The town hadn’t helped, hadn’t come. She remembered her own death—how dark spots had swum in front of her eyes before the Grave Mind came for its due. For a moment, she wondered if that same hopelessness had grasped at Mickey, or if he was too tough for such pitiful emotions.
Dakota shook her head, snapping herself from her thoughts. Too dark for such a bright day. She briefly ran her hands over the new rents in her armor. It didn’t look like much but with the upgrades Stew had sent, she’d managed to keep all her blood on the inside this time.
The wind whispered across the grass, bending green and yellow stalks as they walked across the field, side-by-side. The late afternoon sun beat down on their shoulders, warming their backs and faces as they strolled toward the edge of town. It was almost time; the caravans were leaving and she had a meet-time with JD. Not to show would drive him insane with worry. Always be at the rendezvous.
Dakota paused and stood with her new friends as she spoke, “Y’all better stay in touch. Was nice seeing all y’all from Hayven. Wish I didn’t have to leave so soon.” Dakota cast a sly glance to Alexa, a smile crossing her face, “Y’all ever consider stayin’ down here?”
The pale girl grinned back in response, shaking her head, “It’s nice, but not my type of place. Not enough puddles to jump over.”
Dakota laughed, genuinely and without fear in her heart for a time, “Stay, Alexa, if y’all don’t think you’ll dry up and fade away in the heat. We could make you into a proper Merican.”
Deftly, Dakota slipped off her hat and dropped it onto the other girl’s head. It was too big for her and as she looked down at her feet, almost shyly, it slipped forward awkwardly on her head. At that moment, Dakota wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around the girl and hug her like she was family.
Dakota remembered putting her hat on another little blonde girl a lifetime ago. Wear the hat; it’ll help keep the sun outta yer eyes while you aim. Dakota had put her arms around the girl and had helped support the weight of the heavy revolver. See? That’s how ya do it.
Dakota quickly pushed the memory aside, looking hard at the other girl for a last time. They had nothing in common; they were from different worlds and had probably walked entirely different paths to get to this moment together. But something about her manner resonated deep in Dakota’s chest—a sharp pressure not unlike what she felt when seeing old friends after long years. Idly, her gaze wandered to the man beside Alexa, and the pressure became something uncomfortable in her stomach.
Turning her attention fully to Mickey she said, “Yer liking that image a little too much, if’n ya get my meaning. Give that here, Alexa.” She smiled to soften the words, but she took the hat quickly and slid it smoothly over her own blonde braids. He oughta just make his move and get it over with. Like someone said once, see bout how many drinks it’s takin before yer howlin’ at the moon.
A cloud of squawking birds rose from the trees behind them, their sharp calls breaking the moment of silence between the three. Looking over her shoulder, Dakota could see the smoke from the caravan fires being put out, a common enough signal that folks were getting ready to roll out. Time to go.
The small group started moving again, the northerners laughing and joking back and forth over her head. She smiled at their easy banter and strolled languidly toward the town’s border. Alexa, small and sharper than she even let on and Mickey, broad, strong and passingly familiar—even despite his strange accent from the Mass.
He’d said that he was a worker. “I’m no good fer anythin’ but heavy liftin’ and swingin’ fists.” It reminded her of someone. Dakota couldn’t help but hear another voice, a ghost, echo his thoughts.
“I know I’m sorta dumb and I get into a lot of fights, always needin’ to be getting’ myself all stitched up time and again… but if you can put up with that… um… then maybe you and I could…”
Mickey’s voice and a friendly touch on her arm called her back from the darkness. They’d stopped walking, as close as they needed to be for the caravan’s guards to keep watch. She looked up at him from under the faded brim of her hat, not entirely sure what he’d said. Again he asked, “Moind if I talk to ye alone a moment?”
He looked past her, towards Alexa—as if torn between his need for privacy and concern for leaving her even remotely unprotected in the wild. Dakota followed him a few steps away from the girl and cocked her head in an unspoken question. He was intimidating in his size and intensity; his eyes blazed with dark fire in a serious manner she hadn’t yet seen in her short time fighting beside the man.
“Deals have been made, Dakota, yer ta be protected here…” He continued, elaborating on the consequences her death would have here.
Blood rushed in Dakota’s ears, fear and confusion warring with the butterflies in her stomach as she remembered the glint of the Nemesis knives and the bars of the slavers’ cells. She remembered pools of blood soaking the knees of her jeans as Bravo’s people died around her.
“I need ta know ye understand.” Mickey’s eyes pinned her to the ground, his voice deadly serious. It sounded as if his very life depended on her acknowledging his words.
“But, why?” Dakota asked plaintively, softly. “Why?!” She reached a hand toward him to stall him, to force an answer. But he only smirked and turned away, moving back toward Alexa and the circle of waiting caravans.
Alexa cast a glance to her two companions as they moved back toward her. They were easy together—comfortable. It was as if the three of them had known each other for years. She could see Dakota frowning faintly beneath her flowered hat, her hair glinting gold in the light. For a moment, Alexa wondered what Mickey might have said. Then the frown disappeared, replaced by a quick smile on her pretty face.
Dakota’s footsteps were light and easy as she walked back toward her, fingers hooked into the belt loops at her waist. Mickey glanced at her every so often, his sword resting on one shoulder. Alexa noted how his dark eyes darted around them, ever watchful of their surroundings. Can’t let your guard down. Alexa kept her own hand on the hilt of her blade as Mickey moved to stand beside her again.
Mickey nodded, his lyrical accent sounding out across the field, “All done.”
Alexa smiled at him and then turned her gaze away, studying the horizon that stretched before them. In the distance, she could see the caravans—the covered wagons and carts and horses that carried crates and boxes of goods into the settlement. Smoke rose from Rover campfires, the smell of roasting meat wafting on the breeze. We’ll be joining them soon enough—on the road again back north. The warm weather was nice enough, but she was ready to be gone—ready to be back home.
“Sure y’all can’t stay a bit longer?”
Alexa turned her gaze back to Dakota, noting the grin on her face, “Can you stay a bit longer?”
Dakota shook her head in turn, “’Fraid not. I’ll miss the caravans if I do. Ain’t got no time left.”
Alexa nodded, glancing again toward the waiting caravans. I’m going to miss this. They might have only spent the day together, but Alexa liked the Merican—enjoyed her company. She’s not afraid to be herself—to open up, to care. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Mickey shifting his weight from one leg to another, restless. Alexa turned again, studying Dakota. She’s a good person—truly good.
Alexa smiled faintly as she remembered the girl earlier that day—how she had leaned over a letter, a baby held carefully in her arms. She remembered how Dakota’s impossibly blue eyes scanned over the handwritten script as a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. She cares about him as much as he cares about her.
I wonder if she realizes.
Alexa had done everything he’d asked of her. She’d watched out for her and delivered what needed to be delivered. But does she really know?
Alexa exhaled faintly, her breath stirring the pale strands of hair in front of her face. She took a step toward Dakota, casting a glance toward Mickey briefly. Ever watching. She paused for a moment as Dakota looked at her, questioning, fixing her green eyes with her blue ones. Eyes the color of a sky on Christmas morning.
“He…cares about you, Dakota.” Alexa didn’t need to say who “he” was. They both knew. She could see it in Dakota’s eyes. “If anything ever happened to you, he’d be crushed.”
Dakota smiled and rolled her eyes as Alexa spoke. She doesn’t believe me. For a moment—a brief instant—Alexa wanted to shake her. She wanted to make her understand—to realize. Just as quickly, the feeling faded, passing.
Her voice sounded harsher than she wanted it to, more serious, “I mean it, Dakota. He cares for you—and I hope that you believe that.” Alexa paused for a moment, watching the Merican, waiting for her response. She has to understand.
Slowly, Dakota nodded. Something flashed over her face. Worry? Concern? Something else? “Y’all better take care of ‘im for me.”
Alexa nodded in return, “We will. But stay safe, Dakota.” She paused for a moment as their eyes met, as they watched one another—alike and yet different.
“For both your sakes.”
“I didn’t realize…” Confusion flickered across his features as he spoke—confusion and something else. “I didn’t realize that his kind could have…a relationship like that.”
She watched him in the darkness, green eyes meeting his brown ones—full of uncertainty. Something stirred, a feeling, a memory, “It’s unusual, but every person is different. He’s different.” She paused for a moment before continuing, “What they have is something special. After all, it’s lasted this long.”
He nodded and they lapsed into silence—a silence that was only broken by the sound of the wind outside, the scuffle of leaves, the howl of a wolf. A silence that was comfortable—of mutual understanding. A silence that promised everything and nothing.