Break of Dawn
Change is painful. Sometimes, before the sun can return to light the morning sky, life as we have always known it can go up in flames.
Dawn was ignorant of this reality. She woke up that warm fall morning the same way she always had: preparing herself for a morning hunt. She had followed this routine for many of the nineteen years of her life. Her father had taught her everything she needed to know about surviving in a small village in the middle of the Quarrine Wasteland, and hunting for food was of prime importance. She tip-toed between the expertly made huts of her family and friends with her bow in her hands, and entered the bleak wilderness.
Miles away from her village, the air was still. Not even the leaves were rustling. Dawn snuck over the sand and silently through the brush. Nocking an arrow, she readied herself for her shot. The antlers of her prey protruded out of the bush in front of her. Her target was clear.
Like lightning, she released her arrow into the trees, branches snapping under the force of the bolt. As the shards of trees fell to the ground, Dawn’s target scurried off into the woods. A young dark-skinned man cleared a way through the brush with his own bow in hand, revealing himself to the hunter.
“Dang it Maron!” Dawn shouted. “Waste of a perfectly good kline. You had to have seen it! I was readying a shot!”
“Sorry, I didn’t!” Maron responded, holding back a smirk. “Though, it’s what you deserve! Cheating like that.”
“Cheating?” Dawn snarled back.
“Yeah! Getting a head start and then rubbing it in my face how much faster you are once you get back!”
Dawn rubbed her forehead in frustration. “I have told you a hundred times, it isn’t a contest! You aren’t even in my league!” A smirk flashed across her face.
“That’s why you need a head start?” Maron frowned.
“Oh, you boys,” Dawn laughed. “Just sooo competitive.” She motioned Maron to follow her deeper into the wilderness. “That is a part of hunting, Maron. You get an early start, and then you can get food back before nightfall. If you sleep until midday like a bum, you’re not going to like your results.”
“Hey! My strategy is just as good as yours!”
“If that were the case,” Dawn turned toward the boy with a coy smile, “then you would have beaten me by now.”
“You admit it!” Maron started, but Dawn silenced him with a hand signal. Just ahead, there was another rustle in the bushes. Dawn nocked an arrow, aiming into the thicket, and quickly released it. With a THUD they heard it hit. The kline cried out, and took off into the woods. The hunters followed quickly behind, watching for drops of crimson and waiting for the hybrid beast to finally fall to Dawn’s well-placed shot. As they passed through thickets, Dawn was thankful for the leather she wore to protect her pale skin from the thorns. She unsheathed a short blade to clear some of the path.
The sun peeked over the desert trees and reflected off Dawn’s deep maroon necklace. It was a stone, oval in shape, with an engraving carved into the face; a teardrop sitting atop a cross. Normally when she hunted, she would replace all loose articles, necklaces, or baggy clothing, with something tighter to ensure nothing got snagged by branches when she was rushing through the thicket. Today was different though. She felt an urge when she woke to wear the necklace her father had gifted her when she was born.
Hours passed and the hunters chatted small talk until they finally came across the animal lying in the dirt; a long body of scales and rough skin, antlers crowned its head. Its long, snake-like tongue rested on the dusty ground. Dawn began to make the cuts necessary to lighten the load while Maron watched in horror from a tree nearby. “Gross!” He shouted as she sliced the beast open.
“You know, most of the time a man would be a gentleman and help the lady who seems to be doing all the work?”
Maron laughed. “Lady? You’re funny! You make it sound like you’re a princess in need of her brave knight.” He swooned, teasingly. “You should try to be more like your mom. Or your Aunt Eva!”
“Our village has enough cooks as it is, Maron,” Dawn grunted, working her knife into the slain beast. “I don’t need to take after my mother. And Aunt Eva is a tentmaker in the Citadel. What am I supposed to learn from her?”
“It isn’t their trade you need to learn,” Maron sighed. “You just need to learn how to be a lady!”
Dawn rolled her eyes, tying the kline to her back. The two made their way back to their village sooner than she expected. Maybe Maron was right and she had started a little earlier than she needed to, but her family would be happy to see her return so early.
As they approached the village, little Cammie ran after them and met them in the open field, tugging on Dawn’s arm. "You are back so soon! Can you show me some tricks today?" His young, high pitched voice pierced their ears like a knife.
“I’ll drop this off at Merlyn's shop and then I will come find you, OK?” Dawn replied with a smile.
Cammie left in high spirits, getting ready for a session of training with Dawn. “I guess that’s my cue,” Maron laughed, raising his hand to his head in a salute. “Kid’s got nothing to learn from me.”
“Don’t be like that,” Dawn smiled back.
“Acting like you have nothing to offer!” Dawn responded.
“I didn’t say that!” Maron laughed. “When Cammie is older and needs help courting his lady friends, I will be there for him.”
“Glad I never fell into that trap,” Dawn laughed.
“But when it comes to manly things, like fighting and stuff, he doesn’t need me,” Maron placed his hand on Dawn’s shoulder. “Same time tomorrow? Maybe I can beat you this time.”
Dawn smiled back. “It’s a date.”
Maron made his way to the opposite end of the village as Dawn walked into Merlyn’s hut to drop the kline onto his cutting table. “Not the biggest catch, but it should last for a couple days.” She said with an exhale of exhaustion.
Merlyn smiled back at her, “You know, not all the responsibility of the village falls to you. There are other people here that can lighten your load.” He glanced at Cammie through the door. “You are allowed to relax every once in a while.”
“Who else does he have?” Dawn replied, glancing back to her protégé. “His grandma? Maron? They’re not going to show him how to defend himself. They won't show him how to wield a bow, or a sword. Somebody has to.”
“I agree.” Merlyn said, untying the kline and hanging it in the back of his shop to finish draining. “Somebody does have to. But you don’t always have to be that someone. You can only pour out as much as you get filled up.”
Dawn shrugged coyly and left the shop, not entirely agreeing with the butcher’s words, but knowing in her heart that he was looking out for her. She spotted Cammie at the training grounds, beating a wooden sword against the straw training dummy. Dawn noticed the opportunity in front of her. She grabbed her bow, and a training arrow with no head. While he was pounding away, she released the arrow into his back. Cammie flipped around, stomping his feet into the dirt. “Hey! That's not fair!”
“That is your first lesson today,” Dawn replied with a smirk. “No matter how dangerous you think the enemy in front of you is, you have to stay aware of the things around you. You won’t face off one on one in a battlefield. You’ll never see the arrow that takes you down.”
The two started sparring with their wooden swords. Dawn reminded Cammie of how to stand when wielding a weapon, and how to react to an opponent’s strikes. While she taught him, a tall figure approached behind her. “Care to show him what a real fight might look like?”
Dawn spun around and saw her father standing with a wooden sword in his hand. Cammie shouted, “Yeah! That would be so much fun!”
Dawn sighed as she turned her sights toward her father. “I have grown a lot since last time,” she said with a whimper.
Dawn’s father stepped forward eagerly, ready to test his daughter’s confidence. Without any warning, he swung his sword. Dawn raised her's just in time to stop it from contacting her head, but that was just the beginning. Her father rained an endless barrage of strikes coming from all different directions, and Dawn only had time to react by blocking the attacks. She knew if she could just dodge one without having to use her blade, she could counter swiftly and end the fight, but her attacker was merciless. One swing after another he whittled down her strength until blocking these swings became a task all by itself. Her arms grew tired, and her father seemed to have a never-ending supply of energy.
Dawn knew she would lose if she didn't change up this fight. She had to find a way to move to the offensive. If she could rush forward, it could throw her father off balance and give her the upper hand. She waited for an outside strike, and then made her move, throwing her shoulder into her father's gut.
He stumbled backward, sword steady in his hand. Dawn attacked, but her father was prepared. As she swung her sword, he used his strength to his advantage and swung back at her, knocking her blade loose and throwing her off balance. As soon as she regained her footing, her father's sword was at her neck, a defeat.
Cammie screamed in satisfaction, “That was so great! I want to fight like that someday!”
Dawn's father replied, “If you go seeking trouble, you will find it.” He slid his blade into the sheath on his hip. “Don’t go looking for a fight, or the fight will find you.”
“Drake! You are scaring the poor boy,” Dawn's mother, Mia, said in response from her viewpoint on the side of the training ground.
“Yes, Hon,” Drake picked up his daughter's sword. “Hopefully Cammie never needs to see what a real fight looks like. But we will teach him how to handle himself if one ever arises." He turned to Dawn, "You did well. That was a good move to gain the upper hand. If you had thought of it before I had tired you out, it might have even worked.” He slowed down and locked eyes with his daughter, “Know your own body. Know your weaknesses. Just as well as you know your strengths. The better you know your weaknesses, the better you can cover them.”
“What is your weakness?” Dawn asked, wondering what she could have done better to win the fight.
Drake paused, “You are.”
As the family discussed the fight, the sound of horses drew near. Drake quickly moved Dawn and Cammie over to Mia and approached the two strange horsemen trotting through the village. Merlyn the butcher also found his way to the commotion.
“They are reavers,” Mia said quietly to Cammie and Dawn. “Monster hunters.”
“Why are they here?” Dawn asked with a glare in her eye.
Mia shook her head, not knowing the answer. A shiver shot through Dawn’s spine. Her mind immediately thought of Cammie’s safety. If there is a monster nearby, how safe could they be? And how dangerous are these men?
Dawn slowly crept toward the weapon rack and grabbed her bow, nocking an arrow to be ready. She noticed the men glancing over at her. Drake turned toward her and shouted, “Dawn! Come here for a second.”
Surprised, Dawn dropped the bow and walked over to her father and the strangers. As she approached, she examined the characters. One was a katze, a tiger-like being of great stature. It stood on two legs and towered over the humans. Very intimidating. The other was a man, middle aged, with long hair and a gruff face. He seemed weathered by life, as if his posture and demeanor were scarred by his experiences.
“Dawn, this is Cain, and the katze is named Ragnar. They are reavers,” Drake gestured towards the men as she stepped up. Dawn made uncomfortable eye contact with the man, whose gaze was captured by her necklace. “This is my daughter Dawn. She can show you to the edge of the village and towards the ruins. They are a few days' walk northeast. You may not be able to get there on your horses. The trails have overgrown heading in that direction.”
“Could we leave our mounts with you here?” Cain asked, almost as if it weren't a question. “When we come back this direction, we will take our horses with us.”
Drake nodded, and the men dismounted from their horses. With a glance from her father, Dawn led the reavers toward the northeast edge of the village. Walking next to the giant cat made her uneasy, but she still strolled with her head up, and her shoulders back.
As they reached the edge of the village, Dawn turned to find Cain staring at her, as if he was peering into her soul. She averted her eyes to Ragnar, pointing to the wilderness. “The ruins are straight that way. The greenery will start to become less lush and you will see the mountain in the distance.”
There was an awkward silence. Dawn glanced back and forth between the two men's eyes. “Thank you, Dawn,” Ragnar said, finally breaking the silence before the reavers set out.
That night, Dawn locked herself in her room with the lute her aunt had gifted her as her mind dwelled on the reavers. What was that guy’s issue? He couldn't take his eyes away. And why did he keep glancing at her necklace? Her fingers danced around the fretboard as a melody slipped past her lips.
I am fall leaves under the frost.
The chill is in my blood.
I’m unsure if what I feel is pain.
I’m unsure if it is not.
Can I endure this hopeless winter?
Will I be sleeping through the night?
Or will my heart stay cold and bitter?
Even as darkness turns to light.
For now, I wait for spring.
Where the sun will return and glow ever brighter.
As she sang, her mother called out from the main room. Dawn set down her lute and moved to sit with her family around a fire for dinner.
“The Wastes are dangerously cold at night,” Mia spoke. Something Dawn had heard her say hundreds of times. She poured a bowl of kline stew for her family. “I hope those reavers know how to keep themselves warm.”
“It isn’t that bad,” Drake stated. “You remember when Maron the moron fell asleep on a hay bale and stayed outside through the night? He survived until the morning.”
“Don’t call him that!” Dawn defended her friend. “You know he hates it!”
“All I’m saying,” Drake continued, “is if the kid can survive, then reavers should have no problem. Especially a katze like that.”
Dawn turned to her mother. “You said they were monster hunters,” she stated quizzically. Drake scoffed from his seat nearby, but she continued. “What kinds of monsters?”
“They are said to hunt demons from the Other,” Mia responded with wonder in her voice. “The Fallen they call them.”
“The Fallen?” Drake responded mockingly. “There aren’t any Fallen left in the world. Not even the great Moldolor himself, the greatest dark sorcerer ever to live, could bring the Fallen back.”
Dawn shivered at the name. Moldolor. She didn’t know much about him, except that he started the revolution against the White Council nineteen years ago, just before she was born. Her stomach dropped as if she was eating stones.
“No,” Drake continued. “The worst things that reavers hunt are dragons. And the orcs have done most of that work for them!” He spooned some more stew into his mouth.
“You can’t deny that the Fallen are real though!” Mia rebutted Drake’s statement. “Even if they are ancient. They did, at one point, exis...”
“Quiet!” Drake whispered, bringing their attention to the noises outside. Dawn heard the sounds of footsteps and whispering right outside their home. Not voices Dawn had ever heard before. Drake quietly walked toward his sword, and strapped it to his hip. “Dawn, take your mother; go out the back of the hut, and run. Go quietly to the Wastes. Wait for me at the entrance of Boar's Head Cave. If I am not there in two nights, move on.”
“Drake, you're scaring me,” Mia trembled. Shouts and screams arose just outside the front door.
“Just go!” Drake barreled out of the warm hut into the dark cold of the night, swinging his sword into a bandit standing near the door. Dawn rushed to grab her bow, a few arrows, and a sword for her waist. She was now her mother's protector.
Dawn and Mia retreated out the back door. The flickering flames of what was now a burning village brought dim light to the suffocating darkness. The sound of steel clanging against steel rang through the air. Dawn nocked an arrow and led her mother silently out of the village. One step after another they made their way toward the wilderness. As they looked around at the carnage left by the raiders, Dawn saw the body of Merlyn slumped over a bale of hay, three arrows protruding from his back.
The two kept moving toward the wastes, avoiding everyone in the village, friend or foe. Nothing could compromise their stealth. They scurried like thieves from one shadow to the next, each movement an attempt at stealing their freedom, until they finally saw the desert’s edge. Dawn looked back to reassure her mother who was walking right behind and caught Cammie in her vision, drawing a sword to fight off the invaders. She glanced back toward her mother, “Wait here, I will be right back.”
Mia protested, but Dawn was already out of earshot. She needed to protect Cammie. A party of raiders approached him, and Dawn released her first arrow into one of them, trying to ready her next shot as fast as she possibly could. Cammie swung his sword at the bandit in front of him, but he was clearly outmatched. Dawn released another arrow, taking out the nearest bandit, but she wasn't fast enough to nock another arrow. A third raider knocked Cammie's sword out of his hands, and plunged his own blade into the young boy's stomach.
Dawn screamed, clenching her fist around her sword to blitz the remaining bandits. She was a much better fighter than they were, but the emotion that filled her body blinded her. She swung her blade once. Twice. Thrice. But the bandit parried each blow. Through her rage she finally overpowered the first enemy before the other two approaching could arrive on the scene.
She knew she couldn't take on two at once, so she dropped her sword and started to ready another arrow as she backed away from the bandits. They realized her plan and rushed toward her, but it was too late. Dawn fired into the first bandit. The second was approaching fast, but Dawn was faster. She ran the opposite direction until she had her arrow ready, and when she turned around she released the arrow into the man's gut, and he fell. Dawn knew that her shot wasn’t fatal, so she marched over to the final bandit, removed the arrow sticking out of his gut, and prepared a final strike to finish the job. She jerked back the bowstring, aiming directly into her enemy's foul grimace, but the bandit grabbed her leg and knocked her to the ground, sending the arrow flying into the night.
The man turned over, clenching his gut and drawing a knife from an ankle sheath. As he attempted to crawl on top of Dawn, she kicked as hard as she could into the man’s face, sending him flying backwards into the earth. She jumped back to her feet, and grabbing the last arrow from her quiver, she rammed it into the man's heart.
Securing her bow, two arrows that she could find around, and sheathing her sword, a symbol on the bandit’s cloak caught Dawn’s attention; a teardrop atop a cross. Confused, Dawn started back up toward where she left her mother, but she was nowhere in sight. She called out, "Mom?" as she ran towards the wilderness. When she finally approached the edge of the wilds, she found her mother lying in the sand, with an arrow protruding from her chest.
Devastated, Dawn knelt down to assist her mother, who was quickly bleeding out into the soft, dark earth. "No. Mom. No. We have to keep going. You have to make it. Mom. No."
Unable to find the breath to speak, Mia quieted Dawn with her hands, placing one finger on Dawn’s lips, and with the other hand she grabbed hold of Dawn's pendant. As quickly as the arrow was shot, her breathing stopped.