First day of the Tide – Post-Apocalyptic Oneshot

This is set in my Patina universe.

He’d been out gathering woods for the coming Winter, when he had seen the signs.

Until that morning, Winter had been more or less like a looming treat, something to be feared and something to get ready for, but still far-off.

As he walked away from his shack in the woods, though, he realized that something was wrong. He turned around to check on his surroundings, his trusty rifle held in both hands. It was a very old pre-War model, and it had weathered sixty springs since the fall of Man, but it could still shoot a hole through anything dark and hungry that slithered out of the tree line and breathed heavily beneath the cover of night.

Right then it felt like a stick. Air seemed to choke him.

Should he just go back inside? He could still see his house, or what might have passed as a house: a cube of wood built around an old chimney. He had found a still-working engine from the times before, one of those machineries that did not seem to need any oil or coal or wood to burn, only their ow stubbornness.

He had found it alike to his own and had decided to stay. The ancient machine had served him well. Its heat, the water he carefully boiled and salted to keep the things in the woods away and a tendency to make as little noise as possible had served him good so far.

“Holy Virgin,” he muttered, grasping at the rags of a faith that had once been widespread in that land but had been found wanting at the contact with the things that crawled out of the dark, and had since been mostly-abandoned in other corners of the world. But he reached for his wooden cross and put a kiss on it.

Nothing came.

Only a cool wind that spired from the north.

It was the kind of chill that seeped right into your bones and even though it was not that cold yet, he knew that this year Winter would come earlier and it would stay longer.

Which meant he did not have much time dilly-dally. He needed wood, and good one.

Cursing under his breath, he advanced between the tall grey pines. He still remembered a time when he was a kid and the pines used to be brown. These were grey and a deep velvety green in summer and then…

And then like this: a crimson sap began to pour from the tree’s branches and it felt in large goopy drops on the ground. If you waited long enough, you could see large amounts of sap swelling on the ground or between the thickest branches. And strange things moving in them.

He did not want to stay and wait at all.

He found a good spot between two large pine trees that still showed parts of their summer coat and started to hack at them, hewing his axe with expertise, if not as much strength as he would have wanted.

It was a difficult job, and not without risks. Back in time, simply gathering woods for winter would have been a tiring activity, but mostly safe.

The absolute worst that could happen to you was to hack at your own hand, or to meet with a grumpy bear.

Some of those things did resemble bears.

But he did not want to think about it. He kept at his work until a tall pile of firewood lay at his feet. The engine might keep his home warm without any fuel, but he still needed fire for other reasons, and it was wise to have enough to last all winter anyway.

The ancient machine had lasted so far, but one day without heat and scalding water and he would be worse than dead.

The shadows had shortened and a crystal sun peered from above. It was hard to think about the wreckage of the world in such times: the woods, even grey and red as they had been turned, still possessed some kind of weird beauty.

He reached out for his backpack, putting his canteen to his lips – and that was when he heard it.

Coming from behind: an echo of laughter and cheer.

“Who’s there?” He pulled back against the tree, waiting for the assailant to show itself.

But nothing came.

As he turned to check, he noticed a faint golden glow peeking out of the tree cover, just a few hundred steps north.

Telling himself that curiosity is the mother of fools, he still went to check. He heard stories of people who ignored any and all calls from the woods and did not end up better for pretending not to heed them.

His axe was sturdy and he still had his rifle.

That must count for something.

Behind a thickets of thorny boughs he found an abandoned church.

Weeds and branches had grown out of its skeleton, so that mostly only the walls remained, but the stained glass rose window at the entrance miraculously stood intact.

“Mother of God,” he whispered coming closer.

He passed through the threshold and into the church proper. Roots covered the old floor, but it wasn’t those that attracted his attention. Right where the altar should have been, a single golden rod floated in the air.

It sung with angelic voices, and for a few moments he was a kid once again, holding his mother’s hand in church, during Mass. The world outside would still be full with light and the homes of man, and he would be going home to a community and to a world that made sense.

This was the source of the golden light and the choir he had heard.

Longing, he raised his hand as if to come closer to the rod – something stop him though.

Right behind the church’s farthest wall, something was moving behind the trees.

He only saw the shadow of an outline. A hulking, dark outline that was too tall to be a bear and too bent to be a human being.

A nameless fear chilled his heart.

He raised the cross to his lips again and he pretended to share a brief prayer towards the golden rod – then he nodded and, never lifting his gaze, retracted his steps back to the entrance.

The lurking shadow did not move.

He turned to walk back to his pile of wood.

The sound and light ceased.

Even beneath the sun in the middle of the day, the forest seemed to close in on him.

Somewhere behind the church’s ruins he heard a faint, disappointed growl.

As he reached his pile of wood and picked it up, he decided that no matter how much he might need, he would ration it.

Better not to come out until Spring, that year.

Author’s Notes: tomorrow is the 13th of December, which is Saint Lucy’s day and is an important date of the winter calendar. I felt like celebrating it. Thanks for reading.


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