Nell nuzzled her head against me. I rubbed her nose. Her eyes fixed on me and I swear she knew.
It was barely dawn. Everyone but Jim was asleep. He insisted the night watch suited him but I think he likes to watch out for us. He says us young ones are the hope for the future but I don’t know. We’ve lost too many.
He came to meet me at the gates. ‘You taking her out?’ He nodded his approval and patted her neck. He turned the winch and the metal barricades opened. Nell stamped her feet, anxious to get going. It hadn’t affected the horses or the dogs. For some reason our natural companions had been spared, and we were grateful for this small mercy.
I rode without a mask. I breathed in a sharp lungful of sweet air, aware of the risk as I did so. In the freedom of the morning with a horse beneath me and an open field ahead of me, it was one I was content to take.
Jim nodded at me to go on. I felt fear run through me. No-one ventured out unless they had to. Not after Simon had returned, barely alive. It had taken a month for him to die.
I kicked at Nell’s flank and felt the sudden jerk of movement. We were away, kicking up clumps of damp earth, a faint mist cooling my face as she galloped on. I saw a pack of dogs in the distance. They looked well nourished. There were clearly pickings to be had. Pickings I didn’t want to dwell on. One of them approached me, its tail up, expectant. We needed dogs, good ones. He trotted along beside me, looking up at me every now again, panting a smile. Today was not the day though. When I paid him no attention, he gave up on me and ran back into the wastes.
I pulled on the reins, turning Nell onto the road south. It was the road Eve and I had ridden in on all those months ago. When we’d found the settlement, they’d welcomed us. We both knew it was because of Nell. What use was there for a half-ruined man and his pregnant wife? But one horse had carried the vote for both of us.
The metal groaned as Jim opened the gates. ‘It’s alright lad, I’ll take her now.’ I dismounted. I didn’t look at Nell again.
Eve was in the communal room, nursing our son. He pulled at her nipple, his fist slapping at her breast in frustration. I sat down next to her, putting my arm around her fragile shoulders.
‘Is it done?’ she asked. I nodded. We would eat well tonight. Her eyes filled with tears. Then she looked down at our son. ‘Good,’ she said.