They called him Elder, because his eyes looked old although his face looked young. Alana had found him, all those months ago, face down in a clump of ferns beside the stream, wearing strange clothes and speaking no language anyone ever heard. Where he had come from, still no one knew, but Elder now spoke their language, and mothers plotted which of their daughters he would wed.
But Alana had no mother, no father. No one to speak on her behalf. And time was growing short. Tonight, at the full moon, the village would gather at the Broken Face and pull out all the Old Things, making music while those of age were bound for life, until only the Unwanted remained. Most years, everyone knew who would be paired with whom, but no one knew what the Elder intended to do, and so neither did anyone else.
Alana squatted with the other girls grinding grain, but her eyes followed the Elder as he climbed nimbly from one roof to the next, repairing thatch.
The sun climbed toward midday, the houses, the trees, and the people growing sticky beneath it.
When the grinding was finished, Alana gathered her things and looked up to see the Elder melting into the cool of the forest. She knew he sought solitude by the stream. She had often watched him, though always from a distance.
Until today. She rustled a palm branch to warn him of her approach. He looked up. The wary expression cleared. “Oh. Hello, Alana.”
Now that she was here, she didn’t know how to start. “Elder, tonight is the Choosing.”
He looked tired. “I know.”
“You have told no one what you intend.”
“I intend nothing.”
“But this is how things are done.”
“It is not how my people do things.”
“You are not with your people. You are here. And we need you.” Her voice shrank to a breath above a whisper. “I need you.”
She might have thought he had not heard, except for that tiny tremor below his chin, the only expression he allowed himself in public. But not here. “I know you grieve,” she said quietly. “I know you seek solitude to mourn those you lost.”
He looked sideways at her. “You see much, Alana, for one so young.”
“I am not so young.”
He sighed. “You belong with your own, Alana.”
“No one will choose me,” she said. “I am without family. Without bridal price. I am alone, like you. We are the same, you and me.” She crouched beside him and put a hand on his wrist, holding out the fine, clear bell her mother had bequeathed her for the Choosing. Once, it had stood upon a stand of some sort, but that had broken long before her mother received it for her own Choosing.
He glanced at it and shook his head. “Alana…”
“Elder, you say I see. I see you. You hold your grief as if it will keep you alive, but it will not. The living belong with the living.”
He eyed the object in her hand. “Do you even know what that is?”
He eyed the Old Thing, and his lips quirked. “It had another purpose, once.” The smile faded. “So beautiful, and yet in the end, no more than a cup.”
It did look like a cup, but she had never seen a cup that stood upon a stand. “Every bell is just a cup until it is struck, Elder.”
He met her gaze, and the sadness in it softened to a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes. He took the Old Thing from her. “Call me John,” he said.
This is a departure for me. I never have felt very comfortable writing in sci-fi/fantasy/far-future-post-apocalypse kinds of genres, but that’s how this little proto-romance developed in my mind. Hope you enjoy. (Sorry it’s long. I tried to cut it, I really did.)