Written by KC Widdoes
Cover by Rachel Hoard
High in the Pacific Range mountains was the village of Cayley, where strong winds were one of the villages greatest fears.
These fears were not unfounded by any means, nor were they related to the villages architecture. Built inside a natural mountain cave and near a geothermal power station, Cayley had become one of the most fortified villages in the entire Squamish region. But even the sturdiest construction could not completely keep out the deadly pollen should it be carried up by a strong wind.
The pollen had appeared nearly one hundred and fifty years prior, spreading like a wildfire across the continents and seemingly affecting only humans. Emitted by a mutation of bindweed it hung low in the air, lingering like a thick green fog and only relenting in the coldest months. But for most of the year the Green Zone remained a hazard to be avoided by all unless absolutely necessary.
Kaya, however, was not one of those people. She was a ranger. It was her duty to brave the Green Zone to hunt for food and forage for anything the farmstead could cultivate. And like every ranger before her, she was proud to bear that risk to help the village thrive. Yet each time she stepped outside a small sliver of fear lodged in her chest. Fear that she might get hurt, or slip on the descent, and be unable to call for aid.
She did her best to put these thoughts out of her mind as her mother finished braiding Kaya's long raven hair, focusing instead on the comforting sound of the older woman's soft humming.
"Are you nervous?" Mercy's voice was soft but threaded with worry. As a former ranger she understood that fear better than anyone else in Cayley.
Shaking her head Kaya paused for a moment before reaching down to the chalkboard slate resting on her lap, writing out the words 'no more than usual' before showing it to her mother who squeezed her shoulder in a small gesture of comfort.
"Your hairs all done."
Standing up, she cleaned the slate with a well worn strip of cloth before hanging it up near the door as she prepared her gear. Picking up the composite bow she had been gifted when she became a ranger Kaya slung it across her back followed by a large cloth satchel, before opening the door to head out into the village and begin her hunt.
"If you find some berries I can make us some tarts, and you can tell me how the hunt goes when you get back."
Before leaving the small wattle and daub cottage that had been home for most her life Kaya turned and made a sign with her hand. Lowering her ring and middle finger she extended the others and smiled at her mother, whose eyes shone with emotion.
"I love you too, sweetheart. Be safe."
As the morning sun began to rise over the farmstead, Laeli stood to feel golden rays of sunlight caress her face which shone with a thin sheen of sweat. She had been working in the fields for nearly an hour before the sun had even given thought to rise, harvesting what was ready while also giving each plant a thorough check to make sure they were growing well and removing any pests. She didn't mind working on the farmstead, it was simply enough work and only mildly physical, though it hadn't been her first choice of vocation. However with rather severe asthma she hadn't been able to take on the position of ranger.
Her eyes drifted from the blossoming gold in the sky to the fields below and a smile crossed her lips as she spotted Kaya heading toward the village gate with a cloth satchel slung over her shoulder. Marking her place with a small makeshift flag she slowly began walking toward the young woman that had recently been made ranger.
"Kaya!" She waved as she walked, her cheeks flushing faintly at the sight of Kaya's pleasant smile and wave before she began writing something on the slate she carried. They had both grown closer over the past few months, and talking with her had made Laeli appreciate working in the fields even more.
"Good morning, Laeli."
Reading the words caused her cheeks to flush even more and she smiled. She knew Kaya had been unable to speak since birth, and though the slate made communication simpler, Laeli still wanted to speak easier with the young woman. Which is why she had secretly been taking lessons from Mercy.
"Morning, Kaya. Off to hunt?"
The young ranger nodded before clearing the slate and writing again.
"I'm going to forage in the northern section today." The two walked together in a brief moment of comfortable silence before Laeli could hide her secret no longer. Tapping Kaya's shoulder and doing her best to ignore the heat in her face she began to move her hands in the gestures Mercy had taught her.
"Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?" The signs had taken her awhile to learn, but the look on the young rangers face had been worth every moment.
Surprise was evident on Kaya's face, replaced a moment later by sheer happiness. She began moving her hands quickly and Laeli felt foolish for not having learnt more. Swallowing hard she scratched the back of her neck before speaking.
"I... I haven't learnt that much yet... just simple stuff. And how to ask you to dinner."
She now longed to dunk her face in a bucket of cool ice water to mitigate the intense heat she was feeling in her cheeks. The sound of Kaya writing on her slate brought Laeli back to reality.
"Sorry, I got excited. Of course I'll have dinner with you!"
Before Kaya could wipe her slate clean Laeli had thrown her arms around her in a happy hug. Pulling back she smiled, brought her hand to her lips and slowly brought her hand down toward Kaya in a gesture that Mercy had taught her was 'thank you.'
"I should get back to work and let you get out there. I'll see you tonight though."
With a pleasant smile the two women separated. Laeli couldn't help but glance over her shoulder, watching as Kaya slipped out the gate of the large wooden fence surrounding the farmstead. Had she looked but a moment longer she would have seen the young ranger look over her own shoulder as well.
Stepping out of Cayley's large wooden gates Kaya took a deep breath of the chill mountain air, her ritual for preparing her lungs for the hunt. The cool breeze felt nice against her face, which had become warm from her brief conversation with Laeli. She had been looking forward to finishing her forage so she could have her mothers sweet treat, but now she was excited to be able to share a meal with someone who made her heart beat quicker than normal.
Making her way toward the edge of the mountain she cleared her mind as best she could before approaching the large metal elevator that would take her down into the Green Zone. It was one of the few remaining pieces of technology they had from before the outbreak; initially used to ferry people to and from the geothermal power station that Cayley had been built in and around. Now it carried rangers below so they could help the people above survive.
Slowly and carefully she inspected the steel cables which moved the elevator. Much of her early training had been reading old tattered manuals, learning how to detect minor issues that could cause the machine to fail. After several minutes of thorough inspection she found no potential problems. Stepping into the elevator, she hit the button to descend.
As the metal floor rumbled to life and began to lower she fished a mask and pair of goggles from her pack. The mask was made of leather and was pointed at the front, giving it an odd,
bird-like appearance. She pulled out the charcoal cannister that served as filtration and screwed that into the hole at the side of the mask. With practised ease she placed it over her mouth, tightening the straps at the back so the only air that came in went through the filter first. After which she put the goggles on, adjusting them until they sat comfortably over her eyes.
The descent was always laced with mild fright for her, as the green fog from below crept closer and closer before engulfing Kaya entirely. Closing her eyes as she was swallowed in the pollen she took a very slow breath, holding it for several seconds before releasing it. The tightness in her chest easing when she didn't immediately start coughing blood. She repeated this breathing several times, each time holding it for longer. When the elevator finally came to a stop at the bottom of the mountain she had readied her lungs to hold her breath for nearly a minute. It was an important technique for rangers and coupled with slower more methodical movements it allowed for maximizing the use of each filter.
Once the elevator had finished descending she looked around the pollen laden area for any immediate threat, but found none. Though she could barely see twenty feet in front of her she knew the area almost as well as she knew the inside of Cayley. Several miles of lush forest spread out before her, the underbrush within her hunting grounds had been kept relatively well trimmed but the areas beyond that had become a wild land of unruly bushes, twisting vines, and thick grass even taller than she was. Giving her goggles one final adjustment, she set off.
She moved through the grass slowly, each step carefully chosen as her boots parted the underbrush. Her sharp eyes scanned the nearby vista and what lingered at her feet. Though she hoped to be able to bring back some type of game she knew it was far more important to find some kind of wild vegetation that could be used for crops on the farm. Shifting some of the brush aside near the bottom of many trees she found quite a bounty of edible mushrooms, carefully using the dagger in her boot to dig it out without disturbing the fungi's root structure underneath. She knew it would still be a few weeks before more mushrooms began to flower again.
For the next couple hours Kaya wandered several miles of trimmed underbrush. Prying up mushrooms, picking berries, and collecting a handful of vegetables and seeds. Though Cayley's food stores were decently stocked it was always better to have options to rotate through the fields so that the soil remained rich in nutrients, something her mother had taught her growing up when she used to help on the farmstead.
Making her way back toward the elevator ready to retire for the day was when Kaya spotted something that would make for a truly incredible bounty for the entire village. A large boar had made its way into the trimmed part of the forest and was rooting around at the base of several trees, digging up mushrooms she had missed.
Her entire body stilled at the sight of the hairy beast. She knew it was a potential danger but was far more concerned with spooking it and costing the village a feast. Carefully and as quietly as she could Kaya slid the bag off her shoulder and set it near her feet. Slipping the bow over her head she crouched low in the grass, watching as the pig either failed to notice her or was too occupied with eating the bounty of fungi it had discovered. Slipping an arrow from her quiver and into place she took a slow breath, drawing the bow back she waited for the exact right moment to release. She would only have one shot, and if she failed to hit her mark the boar could easily charge her before she could fire another, the arrow needed to cleanly pierce its thick hide.
Time seemed to stand still as she waited, her breathing had slowed down so much that she was now only taking a breath every thirty seconds. The muscles in her arm burned yet she remained still and utterly focused on her quarry as it slowly drew closer.
It rounded a tree less than fifteen feet from her, Kaya could see it directly now. She would get no better shot than this. One final adjustment of her bow and she released, a soft twang the only sound as an arrow loosed and fired toward the boar with incredible speed. The arrow found its mark, piercing right through the boar's hide and through its heart. Kaya released a quiet cheer of excitement. Her dinner with Laeli was guaranteed to be incredible now.
Kaya's return had brought with it an excitement that exploded throughout the village. Boar was not an entirely common meal in Cayley and was always treated as something special. Laeli and Kaya had both agreed to postpone their dinner for a day so that they could enjoy this feast together. The two of them had then spent most of the remaining day preparing both the boar and outdoor stone oven for cooking. After almost an entire day waiting the two sat together outside watching the sun dip low over the mountains as they enjoyed a succulent roasted boar.
They sat in comfortable silence at first, enjoying not only the delicious food but the beautiful scenery unfolding in front of them. It was Laeli who first broke the silence.
"I'm glad you agreed to have dinner with me." The flushing of her cheeks was unmistakable, and it made Kaya smile as her own face grew warmer.
"I'm glad you asked me." She was thankful to have the slate nearby, and even more so that Laeli was patient enough for her to write her replies. She knew that others within the village found her tiresome to communicate with.
The sun slid behind the mountains as they finished their meal together. Mercy had made them both delicious tarts with the berries Kaya had brought back and as they both bit into their treats, a thought struck the young ranger that she needed to ask.
"Can I ask why you invited me to dinner?" Laeli stared at the question on the piece of slate and though it had begun to grow darker Kaya could see the young woman's face flush once again.
"What do you mean?"
Furrowing her brow as she thought how best to phrase her reply she cleared the slate and began writing again.
"People often avoid talking to me." Laeli squeezed her
shoulder in comfort causing Kaya to smile again, her cheeks flushing even more. "But you never have. You even learnt some sign language." She wanted to ask more, her heart quickened as potential reasons danced through her mind, yet she dared not ask for fear of what the answer might be.
"Well...because I like you. As a friend but also...as more." Laeli's face was now almost as red as the berries in the tarts. And hearing that Kaya's face grew just as red.
"You do?" It took some effort for her to write those words without smiling like a complete fool, yet somehow she managed.
"I thought you might have known...I don't know how you feel about me, bu-"
Kaya silenced her with a kiss. It was soft and gentle like the late night breeze that tousled their hair. She couldn't help but enjoy the faint berry taste on Laeli's lips, and smiled as the young woman returned the kiss.
As their lips separated they giggled, each unable to contain their happiness. Their fingers dancing over one another as their hands came together. Kaya had never been so happy, nor had she ever smiled so much in one evening.
"So," Laeli said with a playful smile. "I take it you like me too?"
Kaya said nothing, instead smiling and leaning in to nuzzle the crook of Laeli's neck. The young farmhand put an arm around her. And though the sky had begun to grow even darker they both beamed with a happiness brighter than any sun.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KC (they/them) is a professional writer with a focus in comics and prose, and a masters in procrastination. They have been creating stories to escape the monotony of reality since they were ten years old and writing professionally since their mid twenties. Their passion for storytelling is matched only by their passion for good food. They are still waiting for their digivice and Digimon partner.