This water, as every child of Shelter was taught, was both a blessing and a curse: it supplied their deep water pools with fresh, clean drinking water, filtered through metres of purifying rock; but it also threatened to flood the lower levels of the cavern, requiring constant vigilance and a staff of people to drain the most vulnerable areas. It eroded the cavern’s walls and ceilings, widening the chambers that housed the growing population of Shelter, and unlocking new pathways and spaces previously locked deep within the hillside; but in doing so, it weakened their home. It was the task of Shelter’s woodsmen to buttress and secure the cavern against the threat of collapse.
Today was Elani’s rest day. When she woke, she made herself a cup of nettle tea, put on her comfortable inside-clothes, and sat by the fire with her book spread out in her lap, the sound of smoke being sucked away through the narrow, angled chimney. The tea was more bitter than normal, so she sprinkled in a pinch of dried mint leaves. She found the thin strip of bark that marked her place in the book, and turned the page.
Her finger traced the words, slowly, deliberately. She soon became engrossed, turned the page, tracing the immaculate font from line to line, until abruptly, the words disappeared: she’d reached the end of the book. She’d barely started her tea, she’d been seated for only a few minutes, and now she’d run out of words. With a sigh, Elani stood, tucked the book under her arm and nudged the clay cup closer to the fire. It was time to go and see Cartha.
The narrow streets hummed with life. Children dodged from building to building, those too young for school enjoying free rein throughout the main cavern. She passed Vidi and Clara, decked-out in full scavenging regalia, thick plastic garb peppered with deep pockets, heading out towards the river. She walked past the Kiln, the smell of fired clay mixing with fresh bread, and waved at Druro, manning the bellows.
As she walked, Elani tucked the book deeper into the crook of her arm, hiding it half-consciously beneath the folds of her tunic. There was a flicker of guilt as she waved to people, smiled at familiar faces: she knew that she was spending too much time at the library, filling her head with too many stories when she should be out sharpening her spear and practicing her hunt. But her guilt wasn’t strong enough to change her behaviour; and still she walked towards the library.
As Elani neared her destination she saw a ghostly figure leaning from a far balcony, her skin so pale as to almost be translucent. She was watching the busy market below her, leaning over the edge of one of the cavern’s tallest buildings, a rooftop garden that was the reserve of Shelter’s oldest inhabitants. As she drew closer, she recognised the figure as Cartha. She had been Elani’s first teacher, and even through the mask of time she could still see the vibrant, beautiful woman beneath staring through her rich blue eyes. It was Cartha that had introduced Elani (and just short of a dozen of her classmates) to the core principle that governed life in Shelter: the Water Mantra.
“The water gives life, but it also takes it away. We live here in Shelter only because the water allows it, and we have a delicate balance to maintain with the water. If we people of Shelter were too few, our caverns and tunnels would flood, fill with water and wash us away.”
Elani had shuddered at the thought. “But if we grow too numerous, if we have too many people trying to live in the safety of Shelter, we risk running out of space, of water, of food. We’d starve to death in a dark, crowded tomb.”
Cartha had explained in her soft but firm tone that the cavern grew, year-on-year, the water’s natural erosion carefully cultivated by the skilled people of the woodsmen’s guild (“…and a worthy trade that would be for any of you.”); but that there was a limit to how quickly the cavern could grow and still maintain its safety. Smarter people than Cartha had worked out that every year, Shelter could afford to grow by two people. Most years, this meant that the ten or so natural deaths of Shelter could be offset by twelve births. Elani had struggled to believe this: not that Shelter could only grow by such a limited number, but that there were people smarter than Cartha. It was then that Elani and her classmates had sat together and repeated the mantra of Shelter, words so well-worn and familiar that they slipped from the tongue without any conscious effort:
“Shelter grows by grace of water
Feeds our sons and bathes our daughters
The water takes but also gives
Ten must die so twelve can live.”
The roof garden drew stark and beautiful contrast to the smooth rock walls that surrounded it on all sides, lush ferns and orchids painting a palette of greens and reds and blues.
“I finished it Cartha.”
Cartha turned from the wall.
“Elani! I was wondering if I’d see you again today. Would you like some tea?”
“I can’t stay Cartha, I left my fire burning. But I thought I’d come by and return this.”
Cartha smiled as Elani released the book from the crook of her arm, holding it out to her. Cartha took it and placed it on the table at her side.
“Did you enjoy it Elani?”
Elani turned the question over in her mind. An answer came too her in an instant, but with it, she felt a sense of deep conflict… of guilt.
“I… don’t know if I should be reading any more. I love it, I loved the book, but I’m a hunter. I’m struggling, out on the water. The fish seem to be growing more wary, but I don’t know for sure. What if I’m too distracted? By… that.”
Elani flicked her head towards the book.
“You’re a fine hunter Elani. You handle the spear with a grace and poise few others can manage. But it’s just that: a spear, a shaft of wood, a twist of twine, and a sliver of rock. You dedicate your life to the spear and you’ll hone fast reflexes and develop strong muscles. You’ll grow faster and faster at skewering fish, more efficient, you’ll barely miss a strike. And for what? We have a hundred hunters, all proficient with the spear. We know how to catch fish, we’ve mastered it. We have a pantheon of songs and stories about mighty hunters, and huge fish.” Cartha sighed.
“I have the luxury of age now,” she continued, “and I choose my words with more honesty than others would wish upon me: I’m tired of watching you waste your potential on the river.”
And Cartha looked just that, in the dim orange light of the cavern: tired, and old.
“Paper doesn’t fill an empty stomach.” said Elani, echoing the words of Stone, imitating his slow, methodic speech.
Cartha laughed and leant forward. She kissed Elani on her forehead.
“We need more people of thought and vision, people that use their minds before they apply their hands. We need more people like you Elani. So what book will you take next?”
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.