The journey upriver was always tiring, even to her practised muscles, but ever since she’d first ventured out onto the river with the other children, she’d loved the rush of drifting downstream, the weightless, effortless movement of her canoe as it cut through the water, racing past the trees and plants that lined the river’s edge. Tonight was colder than normal, so Elani paddled harder than she would otherwise, working up a sweat under her clothes and sheets. As she slipped into the familiar motion, she thought. She’d seen pyres before; it was a common enough site near the druid’s encampment. But she supposed she’d never seen one so close before – seen the way the hair seemed to dance as it burned, caught in the fire’s twisting updrafts. She shuddered and tried to push the thought from her mind.
They didn’t talk about the druids much, and the official explanation was simple enough: funeral rights for the elderly of their tribe, much the same as their own practice of burying their fallen (wiser perhaps – with more ground swallowed by the water or claimed by the overgrowth each year, Elani wondered how many more people they could afford to bury). But there had been whispers. Some of the younger residents of shelter claimed that the pyres were a deterrent, a warning sign designed to scare people away from venturing too close to the druid’s camp; others, that the haunting ritual was a sacrifice, offered up to their gods in tribute whenever the tribe needed divine assistance. She’d heard one particularly imaginative rendition of the story that claimed the people riding the pyres were burnt alive. Regardless of the explanation, there was a unifying mystique through each: nobody could explain the green fires that burned through the rain.
The thought of fire, warming, orange fire, sent a spasm of anticipation through Elani’s drenched clothes. She returned her thoughts to the river and realised that she was nearing the entrance to Shelter.
This stretch of river seemed unremarkable, but there was a narrow tributary, off to the left, that wound away from the main flow, its entrance deliberately hidden behind an overgrowth of trees and vines. The tributary flowed down into the river from shallow hillside above, and it was a real struggle to battle upstream against its rapid current, requiring strength and skill that few people outside of Shelter had cultivated. There were treacherous rocks beneath the water’s surfaces, and broad trees had been felled at regular intervals along the stream’s length, creating a maze that deterred strangers from venturing too far up the tributary. Deep sinkholes had been dug into the riverbed that turned the water’s flow into a weapon, capable of sucking unwary travellers through the shallow stream and into vast water-filled caverns below.
As a child of Shelter, Elani knew all of the perils by instinct. She turned her canoe against the river’s flow and used her strong arms to drive its bough into the mouth of the tributary, sending a surge of power through the oar to propel herself over the fast-flowing lip. Thick leaves and tangled vines caught in her hair, but she was quickly through the fastest flow and into more manageable waters. Here, the overhanging trees protected her from the worst of the rain, and in the respite she lowered her hood. As far as she knew, nobody had even tried to make their way up the tributary, much less been caught in its maw: but she supposed that didn’t matter. The best deterrent was secrecy.
It was a relatively short distance upstream to Shelter, and the moon hard hardly moved through the sky by the time the stream opened up into a wide pool. In the low light she could just make out the familiar silhouettes of a small armada of canoes and kayaks and coracles, docked at the pontoon on the far side.
The first people to settle Shelter had simply tied their boats at the water’s edge, but huge fluctuations in the river’s height, and the inexorable rising of the valley’s waters, had lead to several boats breaking their bonds and drifting downstream. Now each of the settlement’s precious boats were tied to a floating platform that rose and fell with the ebbing of the water, a great raft cobbled together from barrels and plastic bottles.
Even at this time of night, it wasn’t unusual to see people at the water’s edge, retrieving supplies from their boats or tending to the freshwater pools that housed their small stock of clams and fish. Tonight though, Shelter appeared silent.
Elani docked her canoe at the pontoon and, spear in hand (with little else to show for her day’s efforts), she walked towards the great underground entrance of Shelter.
A few tumbledown buildings lined the great rockface, small shanty huts made of wood and plastic and great tarpaulins, draped across as roofs. The buildings were used for activities that valued proximity to the water (or distance from the residents): there was a hut for the scaling and gutting of fish (and the occasional skinning of other animals), a small greenhouse that harboured seedlings and strange plants, and the old guardhouse that now served as little more than a place for drunks and reprobates to sleep off the night.
The entrance itself was carved deep into the rock, a natural cavern that had been expanded and lived-in for decades. A wooden fence and gate spanned its width. Elani gave the signature knock, and slipped into the warmth and light of Shelter.
Elani had been let in by the night guard, Poncho; a tall, powerful man, with arms as thick as tree trunks but capable of movement as graceful and fluid as someone half his size. Elani tried to slip past the man without drawing attention to herself, but just as she rounded the corner his melodic voice echoed around the stone walls.
“Don’t tell me Elani” the man said, “you’ve returned empty-handed. I always expect better of someone so proficient with the spear.”
Elani stopped and turned back. Poncho was sat in the guard shelter at the mouth of the cavern, illuminated by the gentle glow of a small bayberry candle. His hands were busy, whittling a small token from a block of wood.
“The river was empty today Poncho. I saw a handful of scullions and a single leaf wrass the entire time I was out. It was a leaf wrass like you’ve never seen though. It was huge, easily eight hands long.”
“I’d berate you for missing something so large, but that would mean believing your story.”
“The fish are getting wary. Let me try another stretch of the river.”
Poncho looked up from his woodcarving. Elani’s voice had lost its usual playful bounce, and he could sense some unease in her manner that concerned him. But still: they all had a part to play in sustaining Shelter, and Elani’s track record was worsening by the day. If he kept covering for her, he was worried she wouldn’t improve. And he knew of her prowess with the spear, of the latent determination that welled beneath her surface. She would be a loss to Shelter. She would be a worse loss to him.
“The Seventh Bend is your stretch of river Elani, as the Sixth is Clover’s and the Fifth mine. Clover won’t soon give up her rights to that part of the river, and you should know better than to ask me for another favour. Besides,” Poncho continued, “that stretch of the river used to be teeming with leaf wrass and mud scuttlers. Either you’re getting sloppy, or the fish have grown wary of the druids.”
Poncho’s mouth slipped into a grin, but Elani’s mind was stuck on the image of the funeral pyre. She smiled back, more for Poncho than herself.
“Goodnight Poncho.” Elani said, and walked down the corridor into the heart of Shelter. As Poncho returned to his carving, Elani shouted back to him: “Carve me a token when you’re finished. I could do with the good luck.”
Elani padded down the stone corridor of Shelter, her feet leaving wet tracks that were quickly absorbed by the porous rock. As she grew closer to the main cavern, the light grew brighter, and the sounds of conversation and movement and laughter grew louder, the smell of food and the warmth of the place swelled in intensity. She stepped out onto the ledge that overhung the cavern, and below her were the huts and gardens and plazas of Shelter, the jumble of delicate wooden beams and soft fabrics that were unique to this cavern, this refuge of warmth and dry in the drowned world around them.
Even at this late hour there were still people milling through the streets, but Elani was too tired for conversation. She made her way home and sunk into the soft, fragrant hay of her bed, soon falling into a deep sleep disturbed only by the green flames of the funeral pyre, flickering through her dreams.
About the Author
Ryan Law is the founder of Ash Tales. Startup co-founder and marketing dude by day, post apocalyptic author by night, Ryan created Ash Tales to offer the world’s best post apocalyptic fiction a final resting place.
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