When you have to dig deep for courage --- set in a post apocalyptic time period.
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The winter came early. The traders were caught on the side of the mountain just days away from the settlement. This trading expedition was not going well. Other survivors had opted for nomadic migrations, and had started their journey to warmer climates earlier than expected. They were more attentive to the weather patterns than Byron had been. Byron was an arrogant and quite handsome young man in line for clan leadership. His father was Julius, holder of the sacred ring of merchants.
Julius, with four others with attributes of strength, cunning and leadership formed the clan hierarchy and developed the rituals and codes that the Clan followed to survive and prosper.
If Byron had not been so fixated on Althea, he would have been more attentive to the pleadings of the other traders in the group to follow the lead of the nomads and prepare for an early winter. Byron had to be first. He would not take advice from anyone, not even his father. His leadership abilities were more luck than sense. When he finally decided to lead the trek back to the settlement, he recognized that time was shorter than he originally guessed and they would have to take the shortcut through the mountains to get back to the settlement before the harshness set in.
If Althea had not informed him of her pregnancy, he would have dallied longer. Althea’s father was Tomas, holder of the sacred challis, he would be furious that Byron had opted to leave Althea at ron-de-vu rather than slow their run over the mountain. Althea listened patiently to his explanation of why she had to remain behind. Her haunting curse would accompany the strongest of the traders on the return trek: “You better live. And you will pay the highest tribute when I find you.”
Byron had enough sense to look abashed. And not enough to sense not to get in the last word, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”
Byron acknowledge the shift in attitude in his team. The lack of trust became evident with each averted eye, each shifting foot, each muffled cough or curse. Byron took his tentative place in the lead position, “ All who can keep up with my pace will not have to turn over their profits.”
The other traders silently communicated their options. Byron watched each blink, each shrug, each shift of foot or hand, each adjustment of the goods carefully packed on their backs. “All who can keep up with my pace will earn tribute completion status.”
One by one the ten members turned away from Althea’s group and followed Byron out of the circle and into the wooded foothills. Althea was left the weakest traders and a young wisp of a girl who volunteered to stay behind to assist Althea. All of the stragglers could keep up on a slow summer journey, not a double-time run through woods and mountain terrain. One of the trio of elderly who maintained the ron-de-vu was apologetic, but had to ask: “We cannot allow you to stay without payment. What do you offer?”
She shook her head in frustration. The traders took everything she worked for to help the clan survive the winter. She had nothing except the added burden of caring for Mynx, the 13-year-old orphan who had attached herself to Althea and the incompetent ones.
Althea held forth empty hands to show that she had nothing to offer. Graham, the youngest of the elderly trio had thick black hair, twinkling blue eyes that distracted one from staring at the deep knife mark that traced from his right eye to the edge of his lip. “I have known 45 summers. I work for all that I have. I fight for survival with each season of this ron-de-vu. What be your excuse for not preparing for the next season?”
“I have lived 19 springs in the home of clan leader Tomas, holder of the sacred challis. My goods were confiscated by the sire of the baby I carry.”
The mistress of the trio spoke, “This be your sister? These be your kin?”
Althea looked into Mynx’s sad eyes. Mynx was an old soul. And her eyes were filled with fear. She did not want to be sold again. She scanned the faces of the five remaining traders and each dropped their gaze rather than admit their fears to her.
Althea begrudgedly admitted, “No. She is alone. As am I. Now. I guess.”
Foster, the oldest of the trio, extended an aged arm out to corral his comrades a few paces farther to have a private council discussion. Althea could hear talking, but could not discern the words spoken. Occasionally, they would hear Graham utter “No!” or “Oh, for God’s sake.” Mynx dared to tug on Althea’s tunic and point to the bargaining rocks. Althea nodded. She, too, needed to sit. This discussion between the trio was turning into a longer negotiation than any of them anticipated. This could only mean that one of the group would be put at stake to pay the winter refuge fee.
Much later, the trio joined the gathering at the trader’s circle. “You are fortunate to be young and healthy.” Althea looked at Foster and saw that he spoke from a place of sadness.
“You are not long for this earth.”
Foster eyed her skeptically before admitting, “No. My time is short. Mistress has not provided children from her union with Graham. He is free to choose another. In exchange for this business, one of you will form an alliance with Graham. Choose.”
They all waited patiently for the end to Mynx’s retching and dry heaves. Althea comforted the tearful young girl. “I am with child. Mynx is too young. They are male. What is our other option?”
Mistress chuckled softly. “Negotiations may take longer than anticipated. I need something to drink.”
As she moved off, she tugged at Graham’s arm to get him stop dragging his thumb along his right eyebrow. “That habit never formed a new thought. Offer our guests refreshments.”
Foster lifted his hands in the air in a huff and snort “Just because she calls you guest, does not mean you do not have to work or pay for your keep.”
Althea reiterated, “What other options are offered?”
It would be a long day.
[word count: 1054]