Covidia watched the ripples until they ebbed away, and this time skimmed a stone across the lake. Maybe this time it would reach the other side?
The smooth grey pebble skipped once, twice, three times, making the fourth jump before it sank beneath the murky waters.
Maybe the lake had been pretty once. Maybe the sunlight had glittered off the water on a past Spring day. Maybe there had been swans and cygnets, ducks and ducklings. Laughing children playing on the play equipment by the shore opposite her. Flowers blooming along the banks of the lake. Fish swimming happily in its waters. None of those things survived.
The lake was now full of sludge, thick with mud. Birds hadn’t gathered at the lake for as long as she could remember. Children were locked behind gates to protect them. Not even weeds grew around here and the fish had died out long ago. It had a smell of death about it, silent and unnerving, but you could see and hear a lot from here. Especially if something was coming for you.
A dry twig cracked underfoot, the sound echoing in the silent dismalness of the day. She jumped up, grabbing her bow and arrow. She stood half-hidden in the dead bushes and the rocks, in a strong defense pose. She had daydreamed again, so stupid…
“Hey,” a deep familiar voice said. “It’s me. I don’t fancy an arrow in my gut.”
“Watch yourself. You sound like an elephant stomping through the leaf litter. Others wouldn’t be so friendly,” she said, putting her weapons down. “It will be dark in a few hours. I can’t stay long. I have to get back.”
He reached for her hand and held it for a moment. Then he drew her towards him, and their lips met. Kissing felt wild and free, and all-consuming. Her heart raced with passion, and together they sank onto the bank. Her hands were already buttoning his shirt, already warming themselves against heated flesh.
“I need you so much,” he murmured, breaking for a breath. “Can’t you forget them and stay with me?”
She stiffened and pushed him away to calm herself.
“We are the Tribe and the Tribe is us. I can’t leave. I need the Tribe. The Tribe needs me.”
“You say that every time, like some insane preschool motto,” he groaned. “It’s not natural. You and me, that’s natural. That’s what it was always meant to be.”
“And look where that got the Old World. Into this mess. Men and women aren’t meant to be together long. And the Tribe Elders would be so angry that I spend any time with you. I should be hunting or scavenging, not wasting time here with you.”
“If you believed that, you would not even come here.”
“Storm, I feel a fire inside me. Something may be of desire, probably lust. That can’t last, how can it? Next birthday I will become a mother. All grown up, with a little girl of my own.”
“They come in boys and girls, Vidia.”
“Not in the Tribe. Maybe where you come from, never in the Tribe. It’s a medical thing,” Covidia said.
“What do you mean?”
“I know how the animals mate,” she said, uncomfortably. “Male and female, boy and girl. That’s not what we do. Old World Magic. The babies are always girls.”
“That’s Old World Magic. The Elders know how it works. They say when the Magic runs out, so will the Tribe. Everything has its time.”
“I love you,” Storm said in frustration. He frowned, his dark eyes deepening with emotion. He ran a hand through wild dark curls. “We could have our own child.”
“Like animals?” She snorted a little. “I’m not an animal, Storm.”
Storm ignored her comment and tried to understand.
“Why does the Tribe do what it does?”
“The Elders said the Men of the old world were violent, attacking the vulnerable and the weak. Women who had their children and raised their children. The Elders say we don’t need men, not even for children.”
“Why do you come to me, Vidia?”
“If I didn’t I would miss you, Storm. I’ve got to be close to you. Your heartbeat is so strong, and when you hold me it’s like the world disappears and we have found another world, just for us. It’s just not going to last. We can’t make a life out of this feeling. It will burn out, and we would tire of each other. Maybe you would become violent with me?”
“I know the stories. My village tells them every evening as we shut the gates. I know what the men of the old world were like. But I am not of that sort. The old world is gone.”
“Then why is it full of horrors?” She shivered. Those creatures that came out after dark were terrifying. Anyone not inside the gates was as good as lost. Eaten most probably.
Some of the people that had survived the end times were not exactly human anymore. Some of them didn’t have a village or a tribe. Foes lived off the flesh of others, anything that moved. Some of the animals were not as they had been either. They hunted by dark, and the dark was already encroaching on them.
“A woman like you afraid?” Storm said. He sighed. “I am afraid as well. But we should fight against the fear, and fight the Foes when they come. We could be together always if we tried. We could make a new village. Surely we are strong enough to face the Foes and the horrors together?”
She was shaking her head slowly. “You always do this, Storm. Turn something wonderful on its head, and force us apart.”
“It’s not just me.”
She remembered their embrace, the heat not yet completely leaving her. She longed for his arms around her, but it was getting too late. They had wasted their precious time together, and now she had to return before the sun disappeared.
“Same time tomorrow?” He said with a shrug. He drew her close again. “I mean it. I love you. I need you. Think about it.”
He hugged her, and she melted into him. They kissed goodbye. Then they both turned and left, walking in opposite directions.