The trader; Stoker, came a day earlier than usual to Fenn this week. It did not often happen that way except near the end of each month, in the third week. This time, it was because of the weather.
If he had not come then, he might not have been able to come at all, that week, with the weather turning as unexpectedly severe as it had.
As Warrior Guards; Monique MacBeath and her comrades in arms met, and controlled those outsiders who came into their city, few as they were; saw that they conducted their business, and then left.
They had been doing this; guarding the gate, for three years now.
Their first day of being trusted to look after the gate, alone, without supervision as the older warriors stepped aside, was also the first day that Stoker came to their city as their trader.
After that, and for the three years since then, Stoker was the only one who came regularly from week to week, bringing those goods that they needed, or requested.
It was always the same trader; a man, yet not a full man, but so different from their own subservient males. He was bigger, much heavier, stronger; more direct in speech and action, as they’d learned over the years. He was also quiet, rarely saying anything, just satisfied to listen, and to watch.
He was a Yunk, a half-man. All traders, like Stoker, were Yunks.
For the last three years it had been Stoker who’d arrived at their gate each week and was admitted to the city, once Monique—in charge of the guard—was satisfied who he was. He was always alone, though they knew who he was even from a mile away with those gigantic horses of his, and his carts. As well as his small dog.
On a few occasions, he had stayed the night with his horses until the weather improved, saying little or nothing, and then he had gone again, taking the only road back to Golden, before going on to his home in Saltash to prepare for his next trading run with them on the following week.
Today was different.
He was early, and they could see and feel why.
They heard the wind outside and felt the cold.
Some had talked of the possibility of snow. They had never seen snow other than on the distant mountain peaks when they were not shrouded in clouds or were not too hazy.
When they opened the gates to him, they’d seen the piles of scrub brush, built up along the city wall where the wind had taken it, only to see it swept up again by another gust, to be moved even farther, with a few of them blowing into the courtyard around them.
They were soon collected up, with others deliberately brought in, in the five minutes it took to get the heavy gates opened; the carts brought in, and the gates closed again behind them.
That ‘brush’, burned well, with a lot of heat and not much smoke, once it was fragmented between rollers.
Stoker drove his horses into the city with a sudden clatter of their hooves on the cobbled surface, seeing and hearing the massive gates close behind him with a solid… ‘thunk’…, cutting off the bitterly cold wind. He sat there for a further few minutes, catching his breath, glad to be out of that wind, as he allowed his stiff muscles to respond, uncovering his face and mouth from the blowing sand, and breathing again as he unstrapped his protective coverings on his legs and body.
They watched as he shook the sand out of his clothes and wiped off more of it that had become encrusted upon his face where it had stuck in the perspiration. Other sand had stuck to the blood on his clothing, but some of that blood, was still fresh.
Stoker was larger than any man, or Yunk, they had ever seen before (they had never seen more than three of them in their entire lives, so they were naturally curious about him). His eyes were sharp and clear; missing nothing. His hair was cropped very short, revealing many scars upon his head.
At a guess, he might be about thirty years old.
When they’d caught glimpses of his body as he moved around, they could see the scars on his legs, his arms, and his body, but knew better than to ask about them, not sure how he would respond, even after this long; yet he had given them no reason to fear him.
Even in three years they had never got close to him. He held himself aloof from them, observing everything; saying little. He was an 'unknown', and seemed to want to stay that way.
He knew that the situation would have to change today. They might have a few months, or even a year, before the rebellion came, but it was coming. The Fennians had better be prepared to meet it, head on.
He could prepare them for that.
The preparation would begin tonight.
The Dorians, the most distant city of women from Fenn, had begun to lay keels for two sailing ships. The rebellion was beginning, and it would affect all four cities, so Stoker would put his part of things into motion too, and he knew how to do it.
Stoker was not allowed to go about the city, armed (though no one here could have stopped him), or alone.
For the sake of peace, he symbolically surrendered his weapons and his few pieces of leather or metal body armor, even as he climbed down from his wagon, by placing them on the ground. Later, once he had cleaned the blood from them, he put them away, or in, or behind the large box that was his seat on the first of the two wagons, dragged in tandem by the horses, but he left his sword lying along the top of his seat.
There were other weapons within reach, at strategic places along the sides and in the backs of his wagons. They also needed to be cleaned off and replaced where he could get at them.
The women knew better than to search that box without his permission, or to touch any of his weapons.
Inside the city, he saw their nervousness over the obvious signs of conflict just outside of their gates upon his clothing and on his person.
They’d seen what he could do with those weapons of his-- but without actually seeing him do it-- by the number of animal carcases, Frexes, stacked in the second cart, and blood, dripping out of the back of it.
They’d attacked him after he’d left the last city... Golden.
With time, many of those animals had learned better than to attack either him or his horses, but this time had been different, and the blood on his coat and legs showed it. They'd attacked in greater numbers again.
They were hungry, having been driven down from the mountains by cold and other enemies; and the smell of meat.
This time, as in the past, the warriors first had to unload those bodies before they could get at the goods he had brought. All of the bodies were of Frexes; rarely anything else.
They needed to be eviscerated, and soon, before they went ‘off’.
No matter. Everything could be used.
This man; Stoker, was possibly related in some distant way to the Thorians; a warlike race of men, but it was forbidden to speak of them, and they dared not ask him what he knew.
The Thorians were the men—ancient enemies— who lived beyond the wastelands, in the mountains, and who controlled what went on in, and around the four cities of women. They had forced a treaty upon all of the women, confining them to their cities and imposing other, minor indignities upon them.
One of those stipulations was not in any way, minor... The Tributes!
Thorians controlled the cities; but only at a distance, and under the terms of a treaty which was beyond living memory for most of them.
The penalties for breaking any term of that treaty were onerous, but were not spelled out in any detail as far as any of them knew.
It was not wise to attract the attention of those vicious overlords, so the inhabitants of the cities abided by the terms of that obligation, while fuming silently against them.
They were constantly reminded of one of the more painful terms each month that went by. They saw 'tributes'—all of them beautiful young women; all of them scared, none of them knowing what awaited them—arrive in their city at the end of each month, brought by that same trader. They were the tributes from the other three cities.
He never discussed any of that aspect of his business with them. He rarely discussed anything.
The Thorians controlled him, too.
On the first day of the following month, and every month, ten such tributes… some from each of the cities; a total of thirty from each city over the course of a year, were sent out into the wasteland from Fenn, to a certain death from what they could see of it, with those Frexes.
With such a constant reminder each month of the cost of insurrection, they abided by that treaty, but it remained a difficult relationship with an unseen and cruel enemy. No matter, the Thorians left them alone because of it, and they were thankful for that.
As bad as it was, and as painful as it always was to consider what would happen to those young women outside of the city walls, they knew it could always become worse, so they fumed, and waited.
They had never seen a Thorian, and did not want to. The very name… Thorian… made their blood run cold, considering the blood-curdling tales their mothers told them of those men (without openly using that name... 'Thorian') , as the children sat at their knees.
They knew that if the Thorians were required to interfere in their affairs ever again… if the Cities of women rose up against them again… then everyone in the city would likely be killed to pay for that. That, was what the rumors hinted at.
One did not ever disobey what was spelled out in that treaty, or go against any Thorian! They had been painful lessons, learned over the aeons.
Except, they had been forgotten.
Monique and her troop of twenty like her, were warrior guards with responsibility for the security of the city and had a job to do.
They knew Stoker, and his little dog that stood lookout most of the time.
It was the same ritual each week he arrived with his laden carts in tandem, though not always on the same day.
Most of the guards laid their arms aside and helped him with his horses; to unhitch them, carry away the heavy harness, and lead them away to the stables in one corner of their area. Others of them helped him unload the two wagons, laden with trade goods that came each week from Golden, and Saltash; two of the three waystations before Sinden; the next city of women, was reached.
Sinden, was a city neither they nor Stoker knew much about, other than that the women were pale skinned and blond haired. Different from them with their darker, mahogany skin and black hair. He never spoke of it, but they knew that he was not allowed to trade with Sinden.
Each trader was responsible for just one city, so Stoker could never have been in Sinden.
Fenn, was his trading city.
It was warmer where they were now. They’d felt the sudden blast of cold air as the gate opened, but ‘he’, now felt the warmth surrounding him.
The heavy stone walls of the city soaked up and held the heat of the sun, and they were protected from the wind. They had a large open fire in the center of their fully enclosed guard quarters immediately inside the gates.
Stoker brought the meats, and those vegetables they did not grow for themselves, as well as many other things for trade.
They were self-sufficient in some things, and could survive as long as they needed to without these weekly visits, but Stoker also brought cheese, butter, grains, and cotton, as well as sides of meat from much larger animals than they could manage for themselves, as well as various pieces of metal hardware.
He would normally have driven deeper into the city, to the central market that was soon set up around him and his carts to barter goods. After that, he might leave almost as quickly as he came, spending no more than a few hours in their city. But not today.
He would require their hospitality for at least another day, or even two, until the storm passed, so there was no urgency.
Stoker was only the third ‘outside’ man they had seen. He was unlike their other trader of previous years, and he had taken some getting used to, but he was gentle and soft-spoken, and took care not to give offense when he needed to help them. He was the only one who could lift the massive sides of meat across to the smaller wagons that would take those carcasses deeper into the city to be divided and traded. They often paused to watch him, marveling at how he could do that, and make it look so easy.
They had watched him clean blood and hair off his weapons soon after he’d arrived, and then had watched him pack most of them away.
He always asked permission before he picked up any of his weapons where he’d laid them. He knew that he still made them nervous, even after all this time. They could never have managed those spears, that gigantic axe, his several swords; or even his leathern protection.
All of their weapons were light, by comparison, and would have been useless against him anyway.
He was visibly tired, something they had never noticed before, but he appeared to have been at war. Which he had.
He needed to wash up, change, and eat, but he saw to his horses first, and saw his dog had water, as others began to unload the lighter supplies that he brought each week.
The women had never seen such horses, or such wagons. Each horse was higher than they could reach, and with harness that was beyond their strength to do anything with. Each metal-rimmed wheel was almost twice as tall as any of them.
Some of those sides of meat in the bed of each wagon, were from other large animals they would only guess at. They could manage a pig carcass between four of them, seeing additional value in the heavy tusks, which could be carved.
Monique took him to one side, as she usually did, and saw that he was allowed to bathe in privacy, in a darker area, to get the blood off himself, and then to get dressed, as others finished unloading his carts.
When they were emptied, others would scrub them clean.
His dog watched everything she did from the shadows, trusting no one.
She remembered the first day that Stoker had come to their city. The first day they had been entrusted to guard the gate for themselves
That day had also been when that first Yunk (they hadn’t even known his name) had stopped coming, and he had been replaced by Stoker; a very different kind of Yunk.
She remembered thinking how different this one was, but was not quite sure just ‘how’, he was different.
She would soon find out. That day was now here.