There’s something about the early mornings. It’s the way sunlight streaks across the sky, wispy clouds colored in violet and rose and bordered by gold. It’s the way your breath catches in your chest, cold air brushing against your face and tugging at your hair. It’s that moment of quiet, of calm—the moment just before the dawn as the world brightens around you. And for just one minute, one second, you feel like you’re the only one alive in the world—the only one to greet the day.
Perhaps that’s why I rise early. It’s a chance to stand alone amid sighing trees and whispering grass—a chance for peace and calm as light chases away shadow. Then again, it could just be a leftover habit from my days as a salvager.
Or it could just be because sleep never comes easily—not for me.
Voices swirled together, rising and falling like waves upon the shore as the twang of guitar and banjo sounded through the room. Glasses clinked, laughter and song falling to the beat of the music—the reverberating thrum of the world.
“Rock me mamma like the wind and the rain. Rock me mamma like a southbound train…”
Alexa took another sip of her drink, letting fire flow down her throat as she leaned back against the wooden table behind her, listening to the performers. Stitches pulled against her skin beneath her armor as the alcohol dulled the worst of the ache. Just another scar. For a moment, she wondered how long it actually took for them to disappear. Weeks? Months? It was hard to keep track; new scars replaced old ones almost weekly nowadays, her body transforming into a constantly shifting arena of gashes and slices along her tattooed skin.
Aladdin’s bright scarves flashed in the dim light from the stage as the audience clapped in time to the music. His dark hair fell in front of a slim face that was, for once, completely focused. Marty was next to him with his patched and torn clothing and banjo. His glasses glinted in the dim light as he sang. Both talented. Makes me wish I were King’s Court sometimes.
Alexa’s eyes roved across the room, taking in each person by turn. There was Mickey with weapons drawn, his face intense as he patrolled the room. Tattoos curled from beneath his armor along his arms and across his hands. On the job—we can never seem to not be working at the same time. Alexa smiled wryly. Maybe if we’re lucky, that will change one of these days. She could see Doctor House in the front row, rainbow-colored hair spilling behind her back as she watched the show. Lord Hirst stood in the corner with his bright red coat; he nodded slightly to her as he caught her gaze, lifting his own glass before taking a sip. Alexa quickly turned her attention back toward the performers.
“Hey…mamma, rock me…”
Alexa took another sip of her drink, ignoring the itching sensation of cuts healing—the feeling of stitches being pushed out of her skin. She smiled faintly as she listened to the music, half closing her eyes.
“Well look at that! She actually smiles every once in a while.”
Alexa turned her head toward the speaker, a man sitting next to her with long, grayish hair. One of the Harpers. He grinned at her, pouring some of his drink into hers, refilling her glass. The liquid fizzed and bubbled, sparkling faintly, “You should smile more. It suits you.”
Alexa grinned in return, “Hey! I smile. I’m not serious all the time.”
The Rover smiled back at her, “Don’t smile nearly as much as you should.”
Maybe. Alexa shook her head and turned her attention to the others around her. Stew was sitting nearby, his face cloaked in shadow as he watched the performance. Her eyes outlined his tall frame, the way his muscles were still tense despite the surrounding entertainment. It doesn’t look like he’s drunk anything tonight. She studied him for a moment longer, noting the way his eyes remained fixed on the stage, the way he smiled at the music. But he looks happy—wish he would enjoy himself more often. He deserves it.
She took another sip of her drink, allowing jokes and laughter to wash over her. Her fingers tingled faintly as colors and shapes spun around her. Drink slowly. Alexa put down her glass for a moment. She couldn’t afford to get drunk—couldn’t afford to lose focus.
As soon as I do, I’m dead.
Starlight misted the snow around them as cold air slashed at their lungs. Ice crunched underfoot as the sounds of shouting and gunshot and metal hitting frozen meat drifted further and further away. Night surrounded them—night and the restless dead.
Alexa kept her eyes on her opponent. The alcohol made her warm, drifting to her extremities as she watched him in the darkness. She knew what he was doing, of course—keeping her away from the main fight to protect her. And she had to give him credit; tipping at zed while drunk—or even just tipsy—probably wasn’t the brightest idea. So why did you feel the need to come out here in the first place? A desperate effort to stay awake? You’re just making things more difficult for everyone else.
He darted forward and Alexa quickly back peddled, raising her swords to block him. He struck once, twice, then three times; the third strike landed on her leg, a blow that would probably leave a bruise later. Alexa grinned and then returned the blows, most of them landing on his shield—as expected. You’re going to have to practice more. Their footsteps danced across the top of the thin layer of ice as they continued to spar. He’s going easy on you.
Alexa saw him stumble before he fell. It was a simple slip—his boot losing purchase on the ice for the briefest of moments. Then the rest of his footing betrayed him; he toppled over on his back, his body crashing through the thin layer of ice on top of the snow. Alexa stared for a moment as silence fell. He lay on the ground, shield and weapon held outward rather than across his body. Press the advantage.
Alexa dashed forward and landed two quick hits against the armor plating of his chest with a wide grin, “I win.”
She spun around as the sounds of laughter rang out across the snow, as she lifted both arms in the air. From behind her, she could hear Stew’s loud call of “Bullshit!”
Moments like these—you’re glad to be alive.
Her feet flew across the snow, breath whipped from her lungs as her hair streamed behind her. She spun around trees and bushes, trying to keep quiet as her footsteps rang in the still air of winter. She could see Chance’s back in front of her, the small figure darting ahead. He’s fast. She resisted the urge to catch up with him, to increase her speed rather than simply keep pace with him. She didn’t want to risk slipping. It would just mean more time wasted.
Screams echoed in the darkness ahead of them—cries for help sounding within the night. Alexa branched off from Chance and sped into the woods while he continued toward a main road. A twig slashed across her cheek as she sprinted, a line of fire trailing its way across her face. She ignored the pain and ducked, crouching behind a tree as she scanned the open field where the cries were coming from.
Figures stood within the open space, their outlines shadowed by the covered wagons that were used as shelter and sleeping space. They surrounded a group of huddled people—the source of the cries for help. The Harpers have gotten in over their heads this time. Alexa gritted her teeth. It would take a while for the others to get there—and she and Chance definitely couldn’t take them by themselves. Her heart caught in her throat as she realized what she would have to do.
I’m so going to regret this. But only one thing for it…
Pain is all relative—and each type of pain has its own pitfalls. Being stabbed, for example, isn’t all that bad as far as wounds go; you can survive a stab wound. Yet the intimacy of the gesture—the way the blade slices into you as you look into your opponent’s eyes—can make it far more painful.
Bullets are another matter. Sure, it’s painful, but your body goes into shock. You can keep running for hours with a bullet wound. It’s only afterward that you realize how much blood you’ve lost—and how close to death you’ve dared to tread.
Explosives, though—explosives are the worst.
Alexa was blown backward, her body becoming momentarily airborne as the blast hit. She toppled to the ground, instinctively rolling to prevent even more damage. There was a moment where she lay there, stunned. Her ears rang as people around her mouthed voiceless cries. Then the pain hit.
Fire raced along her skin beneath her armor, each movement becoming a challenge. Alexa choked back a cry and stood, holding both swords in front of her. The smell of singed hair and skin wafted on the breeze, sickening in the night air. One more scar.
Others raced toward them, picking people up off of the ground. Pockets of fighting broke out around her; raiders were slowly pushed back by the rest of the mercenaries that had answered the call. Alexa shook her head as the ringing in her ears slowly began to fade, becoming dull.
She jerked her head sideways, eyes spotting a man on the ground. His legs were bent at an odd angle, blood and bone pushing through cloth and skin. Alexa sheathed one sword and darted forward, kneeling slightly and carefully putting one arm around the man’s shoulders. She held back a cry of pain as his hand brushed a burned portion of her skin.
Alexa didn’t bother to speak. Instead, she dragged the man toward the side of the field, gritting her teeth. One more step. Her muscles strained, working against the snow and ice as she finally made it near the woods. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the rest of the mercenaries chasing after stragglers.
Alexa carefully let the man go, crouching down next to him, “Stay here until the fighting is over. Then call for the others to come over and fix your legs. I’m going after the ones that got away.”
The man nodded, drawing himself further into the underbrush. Alexa watched him for a moment, making sure that he was hidden—and then she ran.
She raced across the icy world, ignoring the burns that fired across her skin. Her feet pounded against the road, air whipping across her face as she chased figures in the distance. She gained on them—quickly. And then she noticed a figure on the ground.
Alexa skidded to a halt, eyes tracing out the tall figure lying there. A raider? One of the enemies that they forgot to finish off? She half-raised her sword—and then his voice sounded out.
“Hey there, darling. Come to finish me off?”
Alexa stared at the figure for a moment longer before saying the first word that came to mind.
Immediately, she was on her knees, fishing through her bag. Her heart sped in her chest as her fingers closed around a small tube. Adrenaline shot. She’d half-raised it toward his chest before he spoke again, “I’m fine! I’m fine. Just fell. I just need a moment.” He turned his head slightly, looking at her, “Geez, why do you have to be so violent all the time?”
Alexa froze with the adrenaline shot, her heart slowing. She could feel the blood rushing to her face as she quickly shoved the device away, standing up, “You sure you’re okay?”
He waved a hand from his position on the ground, “I’ll be fine. Just give me a moment.”
“Alright.” Alexa turned and unsheathed her swords, taking a few breaths to calm down as her eyes scanned the surrounding area. The others would catch the stragglers—it was important to make sure at least one person was with a man when he was down. Am I violent? Alexa shifted her weight from one side to the other. At the rate you’re going, maybe. Hayven makes us all violent eventually.
The sky was lightening already, dawn threatening to rush in with its glow. The sounds of battle had quieted as voices became more controlled—as people began to heal the wounded. Alexa closed her eyes briefly as adrenaline continued to pump through her veins, as she waited for him to regain his feet; she hadn’t slept, but she wasn’t tired—not yet.
Sleep never comes easily
They walked across the top of the snow, their footsteps carrying them away from the warmth and light of the building behind. They were easy together—comfortable. They wandered through the dark as starlight reflected off of crystals of ice—as the rattle of frozen branches chimed in the distance.
They paused for a moment, standing together in front of the door. Alexa glanced up at him from the corner of her eye, noting the uncertain way he watched her—nervous, perhaps? She wasn’t sure how to act herself.
“So you’re pretty tired, I guess?”
It was an unasked question—an invitation. Alexa glanced up at him fully, eyes tracing the lines of his face. She hesitated for a moment, wondering. You can’t. Then she nodded firmly, “Yeah. I’m going to try to turn in early tonight.”
He glanced downward for a moment, and then he met her gaze, giving her a half-smile in response. He reached forward—hesitantly—and Alexa met his embrace. Warm arms encircled her briefly before letting go again.
“Stay safe on the way back.”
“I always do.”
I welcome the dawn. It’s an end to rest—a call to action. It spills into the world, gilding branches and brambles—sparking along ice. I walk within sunlight as it burns away half-remembered thoughts and the remnants of dreams—a welcome relief from restless nights.
After all, sleep never comes easily.