The Monster in the Lake
The vast lake was nestled in the valley between three mountains and the rocky plain where Amka’s ancestors had first settled. As the lake level had risen over the last hundred years or so, her people had relocated farther up into the plain, but still close enough to the lake that Amka had practically grown in its clear waters. She had always thought she knew this lake so well, and yet, she had never even imagined that an underwater cave existed at the base of the mountain across from her shore. Thal had claimed he’d lived there all his life. Amka tried to picture the underwater cave as she stared at the lake but she couldn’t. It was almost impossible to believe.
“Oh, it’s there,” a voice said behind her. “I could show it to you, if you’d like.”
Startled, but thrilled to hear him, Amka turned to see Thal walking toward her with an easy smile, dripping wet. She ran to him, embracing him despite his soaked condition. She felt she’d waited all day for the sun to begin its descent, and she had been finally on her way to the mountain cave to meet him. There was still some daylight left but she had wanted to be early at the cave. She’d only stopped to admire the lake and ponder its secrets.
“Hi,” she said in his arms, looking up at him. Then she sort of froze.
Out in the open, with some light left, she could see him clearly for the first time. And she couldn’t look away, mesmerized, seeing how handsome he truly was. She’d thought he was beautiful before, but in the light she could genuinely appreciate his beauty. He had cut and brushed his hair. His eyes were a clear green; his pupils were contracted and his eyelids slightly narrowed at the moment, possibly because of the evening light. And his skin—when she first met him she’d been shocked by how ghastly pale he was, yet now she saw only beauty in the alabaster-like texture of his skin. It looked almost as though it had a green tinge to it.
He bought up a hand to her cheek. While she was busy admiring him he’d been doing the same.
“You’re so beautiful, Amka. I never thought I’d feel this way toward a sun dweller. Your skin …” he brushed her cheek lightly with his thumb, “… it glows in the light.” He bent down and kissed her cheek.
Amka felt heat rise to her face where he touched her. Her gaze shifted down as she voiced one of her doubts. “There are plenty of girls like me. You’ve just never seen any others.” He had told her that he’d been raised by his mother, alone; he was twenty years old and had never met anyone else.
He shook his head. “Last night I saw other village girls, and none came close to you.”
At the mention of other village girls Amka felt a little prick of jealousy in her chest. “You did?”
“Yes. While everyone was busy discussing the events of last night, I watched from your hunter’s hut.”
After her confrontation with Torren and Aruk, she’d gone back to brief her parents and the village elders on what had occurred, while Thal had stayed nearby in her late uncle’s hut. There had been immediate commotion in the village; surprise, disbelief, and also some anger mixed with shame from the attackers’ families, who then took the bodies away for burial. Amka’s parents had defended her, praised her fighting skills (she was embarrassed, well aware that she didn’t deserve the praise), and everyone sort of agreed that Torren and Aruk had gotten what they deserved. It was not unheard of to have fatal disputes amongst people, but everyone saw the injustice of two against one. Everyone commended Amka’s skills and shrugged off Torren and Aruk’s deaths as unimportant. Yes, they had been training to be hunters and the village needed hunters, but the village didn’t need fools, and they had been fools for going after Amka.
Then after a few hours everyone had gone back to their homes, and Amka had returned to her uncle’s hut with the pretense of getting her weapons. Thal healed her cut, they kissed again and then they parted ways. She went home to her parents and he went back to his underwater cave.
“I was curious, so I listened during the commotion. I noticed two other village girls and couldn’t help comparing them to you,” Thal explained now. “They didn’t come close to matching your wits or your intelligence. Or your beauty.”
Amka smiled. She knew which two girls he must’ve seen. They were younger than her and solely interested in boys. Amka was sure they’d been heartbroken about Torren and Aruk. Come to think of it, they probably didn’t like Amka so much now, for taking the two boys from them.
Thal laughed. “Yes, they weren’t happy. They had ugly thoughts. So you see,” he said, kissing her lips briefly, “there is no one like you.”
His laugh and kiss made her want to kiss him again. Their last kiss in her uncle’s hut had left her wanting more… and now she thought of other things to do with him, as new feelings surfaced in her body which she longed to explore. She looked around. There was no one nearby but she wanted to go somewhere where she could be truly alone with him.
“Amka,” Thal said now, his voice low and intense, evidently knowing exactly what was on her mind, and probably having some of those same ideas. “Do you want to see my home?”
His mysterious underwater home? “Yes, I’d love to, but …” She looked again toward the lake, trying to imagine a way in for a human like her. The lake was deep. It seemed impossible. “How?”
“I can swim very fast. I’ll take you out there”—he pointed towards the lake—“then you take a deep breath and I’ll convey you underwater.”
Thrilled, Amka smiled. “Okay. Let’s do it,” she said, trusting him completely. She had seen firsthand his strength and speed.
He grabbed her hand and they walked to the water together. As they went deeper and the water reached her torso, she trembled, but not just from the cold. When the water was up to her neck Thal pulled her close. His eyes were almost shining, reflecting the water around them. She clung to him. She wanted to be with him now.
“Soon,” he said, as moved her to his back. Then he swam to the middle of the lake while she held on to him with her arms around his neck. She enjoyed touching him a little too much.
“This is it,” he said, as he stopped in some nondescript spot in the middle of the lake. He pointed to the mountain in front of them. “The base of that mountain is below. Ready?”
The deep blue beneath her was daunting, but she refused to be scared. “I’m ready.”
She took a deep breath and covered her nose and mouth with one hand. Thal didn’t miss a beat. She felt a rush of movement around her, and the pressure of the water increasing as he pulled her down, down, down. She tried to keep her eyes open but after a few seconds she couldn’t see anything anyway, so she closed them. Her lungs were just starting to protest the lack of air when Thal shifted course; a second later they surfaced in a pool in complete darkness.
“Wow!” Amka cried as she took a deep breath.
“Are you okay?” Thal asked, worried, while holding her.
“Yes,” she said, just as she started to notice that she was really cold.
“Sorry—I didn’t think of that! Let me light a fire and get you to warm up.” He carried her out of the water and placed her on what felt like smooth stone while she tried to lessen his worry by assuring him she was alright. But he still sounded nervous when he announced he’d be right back.
And he was—Amka didn’t have a chance to even guess what her surroundings would be like based on the echo of their voices, when a light appeared from deeper in the cave and Thal came back, holding a torch. Then he lit a fire in a pit a little further inside the cave, and Amka gasped in awe.
The cave didn’t look like her mountain cave at all. The walls were arched, perfectly polished, except where decorated with etched patterns. She walked up to the nearest wall to touch it. It was rock, but it was impossibly smooth.
“My mother did most of the work. She came across this cave while pregnant with me, fleeing from a raid. Once she made it her home, she began working on it, and she never stopped. All my life I remember she was always weaving, making blankets out of pondweed, or carving and shaping the cave walls.”
Thal had mentioned the raid before. Was that only yesterday when they had talked for hours in that cave? Now, after seeing his strength and speed in person, it was hard to imagine a group of mere humans had been able to kill an entire family of blood-drinkers. Thal had simply said the humans’ greater numbers and advantage in the day had been underestimated by his people, and his people had paid the price twenty years ago, right before Thal was born. Thal’s mother had escaped the raid, pregnant, and travelled north to these colder lands where the snow blanketed the ground year round and humans were less in numbers. She had found the cave next to the small lake and turned it into a home for her and her baby. But several years later the entrance to the cave had been covered in water as the snows melted and the lake level rose. Amka’s people called that year the Great Spring, when the lake level rose suddenly and they had had to relocate uphill where they currently lived.
“To find this place and create this home, alone, she must have been an amazing woman,” Amka said. “You can tell she was really dedicated.”
“She was,” Thal said with somber reverence. Then he laughed. “But also, there wasn’t a whole lot to do down here, after I was grown and she’d taught me to hunt, and the old history of my people.” Then he grabbed Amka’s hand and pulled her deeper into the cave, holding the torch before him. “Come, I’ll get you some dry clothes and show you the rest of the cave.”
“How far does it go?” she asked.
“Not far.” He pointed to a large open area off to the right of the main hallway. “We shared this area back here for sleeping for the longest time, until I carved another room for myself. My mother slept here and kept her stuff here.” He let go of Amka’s hand and rummaged inside a pondweed basket. Then he handed her some folded garment.
“You can have this, to change out of your wet clothes. It was my mother’s.”
“Thank you. It’s so soft.” She ran her hand over the material. It was made out of a hide she didn’t recognize.
“It’s a winter seal skin,” Thal explained. “They used to grow as long as me and twice as heavy, and in great numbers. But they have now mostly gone, and the ones left are much smaller.”
Then he pointed to a hollowed out section of rock across from his late mother’s sleeping area. Its opening had a large reed blanket over it that was presently draped off to the side, and she could see inside. The room wasn’t large but it was twice as high as Amka was tall, taller than the rest of the cave. It had a large cot in the center that appeared to be stuffed with muskgrass and covered in a blanket made out of the same hide as her dress.
“This is where I sleep. You can change in here,” Thal offered. “I’ll hang your clothes by the fire pit.”
She took off her wet leggings, breechcloth and tunic, and handed them to Thal, while she unfolded the dress and examined it, trying to determine how to put it on.
“Wait,” he said.
She looked up to find him looking at her in a way that made parts of her body flush with heat. Being naked was very normal for her, but Thal’s expression made her suddenly self-conscious.
“Yes?” she breathed.
But he was just standing there holding her clothes, staring at her with an expression of wonderment. He blinked and appeared to be trying to speak. “Amka, you’re … I mean, I’ve never seen … I mean …” he mumbled.
Adoration rushed through her. This boy who could do all the things he could do … he couldn’t form a sentence as he stared at her. She took a step toward him until she was right in front of him, and placed a hand on his chest.
“Your clothes are wet, too.”
His breathing was ragged. “Yes.”
“You’d better change out of them, too.”
And he did, then they stared at each other for a second before succumbing to the desires that had possessed them.
The air was different in the underwater cave. After spending a few hours with Thal, well into the night (not that she could tell how late it was, since she couldn’t see where the moon was in the sky … but she guessed it was well into the night), she felt she could use some fresh air. It obviously didn’t bother Thal, who had lived his whole life in this cave; but then, he didn’t need to breathe as much as Amka did. He took breaths, Amka noticed, but when he’d swum out to the center of the lake with Amka on his back, his head had been underwater most of the time. He must not need as much air as she did. The underwater cave air was fine for him, but not for her. She felt she needed to go back to the surface.
Thal stopped mid-sentence and turned to examine her. He had been answering her latest question—were there any other exits out of this cave besides the underwater entrance? (No, but at some point he had considered creating one by digging his way back into the mountain and then up)—when her thoughts about fresh air had made her take a deep breath.
“Amka, we need to go up right now.”
She shook her head a little, to dismiss his worry. “I’m fine. I was just thinking that I could use a little bit of fresh air.”
But he had already gotten out of bed, and started putting on clothes. They had been lying next to each other on his bed, talking about anything and everything, naked and content. Yet now Thal was distraught and afraid as he picked up her clothes from the floor.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t notice before. Your breathing is different now—you’re taking longer breaths and taking them more often. You’re drowning down here. Your body is telling you that you need fresh air, so we’re going up—now, please.”
Drowning? She thought he was exaggerating, but she found it endearing, so she let him scoop her out of the bed and carry her to the pool at the entrance to the cave. She could’ve walked, but she loved being carried by his deceivingly strong arms. She loved …
As she dressed in her still damp clothes, she watched him pace the cave floor, worrying over her. But she couldn’t share his concern; she was feeling something else altogether.
She loved him. Or maybe she just loved being with him like this. Or maybe it wasn’t love, just something like it. After all, she didn’t really know what love was supposed to be like. But this was definitely something, something she’d never felt toward anyone before. Yes, she had only really met Thal the day before, but she knew she wanted him to be her mate for the rest of her life.
He stopped his frantic pacing and stared at her, stunned for a moment, then his expression was replaced by a look of sincere reverence. As she finished tying the knot on her leggings, he closed the distance between them and put his arms around her. His eyes, which she knew were green, glowed almost orange reflecting the light of the fire with an intensity she had never seen before.
“I love you, Amka,” he said, his voice full of emotion. Then he brought his lips down to hers.
She readily welcomed the kiss. She tightened her arms around his lower back, pressing against him. She could tell he was hesitant, that he wanted to end the kiss so he could take her out of the cave, but she also felt his need, his love and his devotion. And she wanted to give him more. So she slowly traveled her lips to his cheek and down his jaw, and finally down his neckline, offering her neck to him.
This time he didn’t fight her.
The bite stung but she didn’t feel any pain. Somehow it felt even better than it had the previous day, the first time she had given him blood back in the cave. She felt a great pleasure, her senses full of him, and a moan escaped her lips. Thal, Thal, I love you. I want to stay here forever.
But he pulled back too quickly, healed the bite marks, and again scooped her up in his arms.
“Thank you for that,” he said, bringing his forehead down to hers briefly. Then he kissed her quickly. “It’s time. Ready?”
The ride back seemed quicker than the way in. She surfaced in Thal’s arms and took a deep breath in the darkness of the night. A chilly wind felt abrasive on her cheeks, surprising her.
“Amka, are you alright?”
“Yes. I’m alright.” Amka smiled as she shivered. He had asked the same question when she surfaced in the cave, but it seemed that now he was even more worried.
The night was cold and she was wet. It was about a half an hour to swim to shore and walk back to her village. She was pondering where she could keep a stash of dry clothes near the shore for future visits, when Thal interrupted her planning.
“I don’t like that you’re cold. I’ll carry you to the village. I’ll run and be there quickly.”
She had barely assented when he began to swim faster than she had seen any living creature swim. She held on tightly to his back, and as they reached the shore in no time, he didn’t stop and only ran faster. They reached Amka’s uncle’s hut at the edge of the village before she could even decide whether the ride had been thrilling or terrifying.
“It is too dangerous to take you to my home,” Thal said as he started a fire while Amka removed her wet clothes for the second time that night. “But I want to see you every night, so I’d rather visit you instead. I want you in my life, Amka.”
“I want you, as well. I don’t mind the danger.”
“But I do.” He paced around the room and found a blanket to cover her in, then wrung her clothes out while she warmed up. As he worked, he added, “I think I’ll dig out a room in the cave where you first trapped me, so I have a place to stay above. Does anyone else know about that cave?”
“No one but me,” she replied, thrilled. “And I would love that.”
That cave was farther than Thal’s underwater home but Amka saw the advantage of having a place where she could meet him whenever she wanted. There was no way she could go to the lake cave by herself.
“I’ve never spent a night above water,” he said, “but I don’t want to spend another night away from you.”
“What’s his name?”
Amka looked up sharply at her mother’s question. Mayna had been quietly working on her pottery as Amka folded her clothes, but now those shrewd eyes trained on her daughter.
“Whose name?” Amka asked, feigning confusion.
Mayna sighed, but her lips were turned up slightly, as if amused at Amka’s poor performance. “Amka, you can be honest with me. I can tell there’s something going on with you; a mother knows when her daughter’s heart is happy. And I know it’s not just that Torren and Aruk are gone.”
Amka laughed, wishing she could tell her mother the truth. But the truth was out of the question. Her people were not fond of outsiders, let alone blood-drinking monster ones. She settled for an evasive truth. “Life is much better without those two, I do have to admit. The youngsters’ training is going well. I never knew how much Torren was holding them back.”
Several weeks had passed since Torren and Aruk’s deaths. Amka, as the village hunter, was in charge of protecting the village and hunting animals for food. Prior to taking over this role, when her uncle had been alive, she had been training the younger hunters; this role had then gone to Torren, as the second oldest. (Apparently he hadn’t liked this role and had decided to challenge her). Now with Torren gone she was back to training the younger kids on top of her usual hunting duties. It would’ve been too much for one person, but she had Thal. Unbeknownst to everyone, Thal had been the one feeding the entire village these past few weeks. In her spare time during the day Amka trained the young hunters, who were happy to confess they didn’t miss that one chaotic month they’d had Torren as trainer.
Mayna simply replied, “Hmm,” and continued working on her pottery.
Amka knew her mother suspected something, and she felt it was wrong to pretend to deceive her. So she added, “I really don’t like any of the village boys.”
A look Amka couldn’t decipher crossed her mother’s face. It was gone as quickly as it came, though. “I see,” Mayna sighed. “There’s not a whole lot to choose from here, I’m afraid.”
There were four younger hunters training with her, of which only two of them were boys, and the oldest of them was fifteen years old. There really was not much for her to choose. The village population had been decimated some ten years before, when most of the hunters and older boys had died in an expansion campaign gone wrong, clashing with another clan. The few survivors had come back weary and with no intention of ever engaging in war again; they chose the peaceful life, farming the land and taking care of the youngsters who were the future of their people. Amka had lost her father and older brothers; her mother had then coupled with Tahik, who had lost his mate in the same conflict and needed a mother for his two young children. Amka’s uncle had been the only experienced hunter left and had taken on the role of village hunter. A role which was now Amka’s.
“This morning your father and I had talked of traveling south to our neighboring clan three day’s ride from here, to find a mate for you,” her mother finished, with a curious, probing look, as if trying to gauge Amka’s reaction at the news.
“That’s not necessary, Mother. I’m not interested.”
“And there’s no one else?”
Amka gritted her teeth. “There’s nobody here,” she insisted.
Her mother’s features twisted painfully, as if in anticipation of dreadful news. “Then … the child … is Torren’s?”