Elani sheltered under the branches of an old willow tree, hidden from sight, her aluminium canoe bobbing on the water.
She sat, silent, wrapped from head to toe in thick plastic sheeting, a patchwork quilt of tarps and bags and duct tape. For hours she sat and watched, her silent meditation broken only by the need to eat. With slow, subtle movements, she picked apart a morsel of coarse bread, feeding herself with one hand while sprinkling fine crumbs into the river with the other. When she had eaten, she sat and watched again.
She watched ducks and geese land on the rippling water, saw them sit and preen before labouring back into the air. She saw cranes and herons descend to the river banks, their skeletal outlines soon lost in the jumble of felled trees and exposed roots. She watched small streams trickling through the steep woodland that coated the edge of the valley, the torrent seeming to grow faster and stronger, minute by minute. Eventually they'd tear away a part of the hillside, sending dirt and moss and rotten branches tumbling into the river below. She watched hardy falcons pirouette and wheel through the drenched air. She watched the rain fall and fall and fall, without once breaking its steady cadence.
But most of all she sat and watched the small stretch of river that flowed past her willow tree.
She'd grown used to sitting like this, cross-legged and frozen in the small canoe, but she'd never managed to rid herself of the dull background ache that radiated through her body, made worse by the water that permeated through the layers of plastic sheeting she wore. Distraction was the best remedy, but distraction made her slow. Elani couldn't be slow, not again; so the aching in her back and legs remained.
She forced her mind to focus in on the water, to look through the hypnotising pulse of splashing on the surface, into the darker waters below. It was then that she saw it.
Silver scales flicked through the murk to the left of the canoe, and a huge, bloated fish swam into range. She reached into the canoe for her spear, cursing her thoughtlessness for not propping it on the side like she'd been taught. She mustered all the fluidity her aching muscles could manage, slowly lifting the spear into position.The fish drew closer, and Elani saw that it was a Leaf Wrass, the biggest she'd ever seen. It would be a prize if she could bring it back to the camp. Elani drew back her arm, and as the fish turned side-on to the canoe, Elani powered the spear forward into the water. She met resistance, and pinned the spear further down into the water in response, held it there and waited. Soon the cloud of mud had settled, and she could see into the water. Elani had missed the fish.
It was almost dusk, and the thick grey clouds that covered the valley had started darkening to black. Elani's missed strike had unsettled the local wildlife, stirring a flock of birds into flight over the hillside. As she sat and waited, their crowing slowly faded away into breathless night, and soon, the only sound Elani could hear was the rain on the water, on the willow fronds, pattering on her plastic sheet. She'd missed her chance, but she still had an hour before she'd lose the day's light completely. She didn't want to face returning to the camp empty-handed again. Besides, the fish were more active in the twilight.
She knew it would be futile to wait in the same spot, so she made sure her remaining bread was safe in the dry box, and reached for the paddle laying on the canoe's floor. Reaching out to the tree trunk behind her, she pushed herself away from the riverbank, her canoe parting the willow leaves and stealing out onto the dark river.
She paddled slowly, deliberately, against the flow of the river, barely breaking the surface of the water with her paddle, her tarp wrapped around her body, a dark, indistinct silhouette in the wet twilight. She was halfway across the river when she saw a distant light. It had just rounded the river's Eastern bend, and was flowing with the current towards her, too fast to be powered by the river alone.
"God." she whispered.
She paddled quicker, but the far side of the river flowed faster, and she was having to fight strong eddys and whirling currents, hidden under the river's calm surface, and as she drew closer to the riverbank, she had to dodge between jagged rocks and stray timbers sticking up from the decayed houses in the water below. She knew the metal canoe would survive a few scrapes, but she was terrified the noise of a collision would alert anyone nearby. She wrestled with the paddle, heaving and turning the boat into the current, making for the shortest route to the opposite riverbank.
The floating light was closing in by the minute, and even in the darkening evening, she could make out a silhouette, a shadow of something, of someone. She was sweating and breathing deeply, using every ounce of strength to pull herself through the water and find shelter in the overhanging trees at the water's edge. With a last burst of strength she lunged for an overhead branch and pulled herself, and the canoe, along its length, tucking the bulk of the canoe into a shadowed recess between two fallen trees. Rocks blocked her view of the river, and in silence, she waited for the light to come into view. Seconds turned into minutes, and still she waited, her breath held. She could feel sweat trickling through her hair and into her eyes, warm through the cold constant of rainwater, could hear the sound of her heart beating, when suddenly she saw a glowing green light reflected in the water's surface.
Slowly, steadily, the aura of light grew larger and larger, until past the rocks came a huge ball of glowing light, blinding. The ball was pure fire, burning even through the torrential rain. Elani was overwhelmed by the sight, almost hypnotised by the sheer power of the flames, the image swelling to fill her mind as she stared. Big broad flames swirled around the raft, crackling and spitting huge vivid colours into the night; and as it drew closer, she could see, in the centre of the raft, cloaked by the inferno, a figure seemed to be kneeling. Thick tree branches were propped up against him, glowing with fire, and white embers smouldered beneath him, undeterred by water and rain. The raft passed by close enough to see the figure's bowed head, its waxen face, charred and empty in the green light.
A gasp escaped her lips as realisation dawned upon her. It was a funeral pyre. As if to confirm her thoughts, the valley rumbled with a thunderous noise, and the sky was illuminated by an explosion of light. The same green of the raft shot up into the sky, tendrils of lurid green spreading up into the clouds, seeming to ride the shockwave of the explosion. The valley bloomed with rich colour, lighting up the cold, wet night; and then in an instant, it was gone. The color vanished, the light withdrew, and the valley fell cold again.
She sat motionless for a few minutes, watching the pyre carried downriver, lurid green flames illuminating the water as it passed by, nearing the river's Western bend. Instead of washing up against the river's edge, or snagging on trees, the pyre followed the river's curve: slowly, carefully navigating the treacherous current by the guidance of some unseen hand, until the green glow of the pyre had finally pulled out of sight.
She was shaken, and the familiar river seemed alien in the wake of the explosion. Her urge to keep hunting for fish had evaporated in an instant. She no longer worried about returning empty-handed, and knew that the family would understand: the pyre had been an ill omen. She knew there would be no fish today.
Elani turned her canoe to face downstream, and with a last look to the druid's encampment, high on the hillside, she let the current carry her back towards Shelter.
The river flowed steadily through the dark countryside, and soon she had left the druid's stretch of river far behind.
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.
Elani woke the next morning to the soft sound of rainfall drumming on the cavern's distant ceiling, a constant, reassuring sound that always carried with it a soft murmur of home. The grand, multi-chambered cavern that housed shelter was sunk deep into a hill, high enough from the waterline that is was safe (for now) from the swollen river and its tributaries. But the rain was unending, and there was a constant flow of water through the soft, porous rock that made up the cavern's walls and ceilings.
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 Poncho, 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.