“Survival of the Chosen, 16”

by Brianna G. Harte

“Oh good. I’ve got a little cooking oil put off to the side you can dip your sticks into, but you’ve got to make your own fire,” he decided, gesturing off to the side where a couple cans lay.

It was too easy. Maybe a little time consuming, but not strenuous. Flint was all too common in the area, and all that was needed was a good strike, though this tended to be a setback when lightning storms rolled in. Taking a stone into my hand, I rubbed it briskly against a nearby stone, attempting to keep a stick nearby. The fire was soon lit, and fear began to crawl into my heart as I faced the cave. It seemed as though several minutes passed before a foot touched the tunnel’s flooring. Despite my incredibly sluggish pace, the overseer made no attempt to interfere.

The tunnel curved around, soon making the only light the one in my hand. The darkness had consumed me, only kept at bay by the torch. “Herold?” I called out. My voice reverberated, the name repeated a few times more, as though ghosts spoke farther down the passage. “Herold!”

A minute passed.

“Herold!”

“Tristen?” a voice called, sounding far away.

Something approached at a quick pace. Footsteps pounded against the dirt. The light of the flame would not extend far enough for me to see a face. “Herold?”

Soon, his face came into view, one smeared with dried mud, causing the whites of his eyes to stand out. “Thank goodness you’re here!”

“Thank goodness?” I asked, taken aback. “It’s not a good thing that we’re here, Herold. Are you crazy?”

As he shook his head, I noticed how grimy his clothes were. Rather than torn or broken, they seemed to have worn down several days in only two. Mud seemed to be caked onto his shirt and the front of his pants. With his feet barren, the dirt had made the skin a couple shades darker.

“Why are you so filthy? Haven’t you washed yourself? They haven’t forced you to stay here, have they?”

“Nah, that man’s not so bad,” he said, not too concerned about it. “But I did find something I don’t think they want us to know about. Come on, I’ll show you.”

Herold led me deeper into the tunnel without a light to aid him. As he walked, he said, “I’ve known about it since the afternoon of the day I got sent to this mountain. They’re part of our community’s history, something we haven’t really known much about since these people moved in. I wanted to show people, I really did. But none of you came the day after. And if they noticed one of you gone without their say, others would be in danger. I had to make the fence fall.”

I recalled the object hurled at the fence, with Reen desperately trying to hold it up. It caused her so much anguish, anger boiled my blood. “You did that?” I asked on the line between disbelief and outrage. “You almost killed Reen!”

Herold wouldn’t turn around. “She would’ve been alright. It’s not like she cared about the fence, or any others for that matter. Actually, I thought she’d be sent here instead of you, because they would have blamed her for the incident. Guess that didn’t happen.”

“No,” I muttered through clenched teeth, “It didn’t. I had to help her, along with a few others. I wound up here ‘cause I called out the overseers for it, even though they apparently weren’t the cause.”

“Chill, Tristen. I only wanted someone else to see this.” He waved his arm off to the side.

Bringing the torchlight over, my breath was caught in my throat. Strewn about, covered in dirt, were masks carved out of wood and decorated with feathers, jewelry with symbols of past leaders of our community, shields meticulously painted with berries and a few kinds of mud, and much more. Gold that would have been ceremoniously gilded upon the three-foot masks seemed to be stripped away, as faded outlines were seen on each creation.  Some of the wood cracked, yet not from horrible care. Such strong wood would have been at least a century old to begin to crack like that.

Copyright © 2016 Brianna G Harte. All rights reserved.

“Survival of the Chosen, 15”

by Brianna G. Harte

Snow seemed to flee from the tunnel, leaving behind hard earth within. The walls circling into the mountain were uneven. It seemed as though people made them hastily, perhaps just barely wanting to meet the standards set when excavating the mountain began. Even as I just stepped into the tunnel, it seemed all too clear. With my back hunched and legs bent, I could just barely turn around to the overseer.

“Well?” He asked me, not with a hard tone like the others, just impatient.

“I haven’t a light to see inside, nor a task I need to start,” I said simply, leaving behind frustration I would have gladly thrown at the other overseers. Although none of them seemed worthy of an inkling of respect for their treatment of our community, this one had not shown me ill-will as of yet.

With his left hand pulled off of the weapon held across his chest, he scratched his scruffy beard. “I suppose I could get that for you. Do you know how to start a fire?”

A laugh flew into the wintry air. “Of course!” The willingness for him to assist me was certainly a breath of fresh air, as unbelievable as it seemed.

The man’s expression changed. Was that surprise? “Then come out here for a moment,” he ordered lightly. “And get some sticks.”

As I left to gather the sticks, a now familiar weight of stares dissipated. It made no sense to me why this one would trust that one of us would not run away. Perhaps he believed that I would not leave for the sake of the community. Perhaps he simply did not care. Honestly, only briefly did I consider fleeing. However, curiosity at what was in the tunnel kept me on a path toward the mountain. Also, should I leave, who knew what would happen to the others in the immediate area, should this overseer turn out to be as rotten as the others.

With several sticks under my arm, I approached the entrance to the mountain. The man didn’t seem to notice me. Only when I was practically in front of him did he truly see me.

Copyright © 2016 Brianna G Harte. All rights reserved.

“Survival of the Chosen, 14”

by Brianna G. Harte

However, my mouth did not open, with the exception of a grunt once the overseers were out of earshot. The next day would certainly be one I would have liked to avoid altogether. Of course, I could not have been lucky enough to do so.

When the sun rolled high in the sky again, the line was formed across the dirt as usual, with me hiding among the others. Seeing as the overseers were not keen on knowing our names, I had hope that no one would care. None of my friends said a word, though many of them developed scrunched eyebrows.

The time came for roll call. They almost completed it too. Maybe their frustration from yesterday was triggered by seeing us at all, simply numbers to them, not even potential kids. Perhaps they spotted me, an extra to the formation. The overseer ran to another, and I withdrew a breath. He was the one who called out on me yesterday. The one who condemned me to work within the mountain today. If only I could be so lucky as to have him on break as numbers were rattled off.

Striding with a piercing appearance of frustration, his presence doubled in size. “Number 18!”

The other kids wouldn’t look at me.

His face came uncomfortably close to mine. “Are you deaf, number 18?”

“No.”

“Then answer me!”

“You didn’t ask a question,” I noted, trying to cloak fear with smugness.

The overseer’s eye twitched. “You trying to be smart with me, 18? Don’t bother. You know very well that I sent you to the mountain for today for your behavior yesterday. If you don’t want it to become far harder, I suggest you shut your mouth and hustle over.”

Words to retort wouldn’t form. With nothing to say and confidence failing me, I ran off toward the mountain that stood tall over the trees surrounding our community. Before the people in shining, unwrinkled attire came, the sight was a marvel. Healthy trees of green would decorate the sides and be home to the little creatures of the forest. Uneven rocks of varying sizes scattered all around, having no significant pattern to accompany their presences. As you climbed to the top, fresh winds carrying the aromas of the leaves and flowers would caress the noses of adventurers of our community. It would strengthen with ascent, allowing us to breathe in serenity.

Now, all sides of the enormous mountain were desolate. Claiming that the trees would be abundant sources of firewood, the overseers had our parents fell them with shock squeezing their hearts. Believing that the mountains contained rich caverns of minerals within their cores, the project of excavating its inner sanctums began per their orders. Heaps of dirt and ashen grey material, whatever it was, lay beside the large entrance to the center of the mountain.

As I touched the tunnel, an understanding of the disrespect thrust upon nature resonated with me. Unfortunately, I had no choice. Not with the muscular man with a weapon at his side watching.

Copyright © 2016 Brianna G. Harte. All rights reserved.

“Survival of the Chosen, 13”

by Brianna G. Harte

Reen turned to in the direction that I was glaring. “I know that you’re thinking. Don’t do it, Tristen. They were probably the ones behind it, but we can’t get any more work today. Remember, we’re still not done with today’s work.”

It almost made me drop it. But when the overseers got louder, I opened my mouth to accuse them. Estan beat me to it.

“That was low! You could have killed her!” he erupted.

The smug face on one of them returned. “You think I did that, fourteen?”

“One of you had to!” I added, letting my anger get the best of me. “I saw something fly over here, just before the fence began to collapse. Only you would stoop that low.”

“What did you say to me, eighteen?” The man’s eyes narrowed, making him look even more menacing.

“Only you would go so low as to almost kill somebody.”

Another overseer came over with his arms crossed. “You don’t know what you’re asking for, eighteen.”

“My name is Tristen,” I growled.

He pulled his face close to mine, close enough for me for my fist to clench. “No, you’re eighteen. He’s fourteen. That runt of a girl is eight. Understood? Now you’re headed for the mountain tomorrow. You and number fourteen. Learn to respect.”

I wanted to tell him that I already knew respect, and it surely would not be shown toward jerks like them.

Copyright © 2016 Brianna G. Harte. All rights reserved.

“Survival of the Chosen, 12”

by Brianna G. Harte

Weighing my options, I yearned to groan aloud. Muscles cramped within my arms and blood boiled in their veins. The instructors, though this I could call them less and less with each passing time the word passes my thoughts, likely hid smirks beneath their queer mustaches. Alternatively with my contemplation of helping Reen, I wondered what stopped them from sending her into the mountain like they had easily done to Herold not long ago. A sick thought arose. As disgusting as the list that was slowly killing my mother. The overseers – yes that seems more accurate – they could be using her as bait. Luring us all into the mountain that shuddered with my body.

I grit my teeth and continued with the fence in front of me, though I never let Reen out of my sight. She struggled with the overbearing mass of the fence. Though her strength outmatched many in our community, even she could not overcome ten lengths of connected fencing.

In the corner of my eye, something flew. At the time, its origin evaded me, but the target didn’t. Not even seconds later, Reen grunted loudly as the wood slanted at a much steeper angle than before. The top of the fence reached her shoulders. Knowing that once it dropped lower, she would be done for, I rushed over to her.

“Estan! Help!” I called as I took over a section a few poles away from Reen. I could hardly imagine how she had managed to keep it at bay for as long as she did. Though I surely wasn’t the strongest of my age, I wasn’t exactly weak, and the fence put much more pressure on my body than I was accustomed to.

As Estan came over and assumed a position a several lengths from me, he and I enlisted the help of others nearby. In less than a minute, there were seven of us pushing against the fencing, and it took all of our efforts to put the fencing back in place. Not crooked, like the way Johanna was making them, but in line.

We all smiled, bent over to catch our breaths.

“Thanks,” Reen said as soon as her breathing returned to normal. “You really saved me.”

“We all did,” I told her, motioning to the others. After moments in silence, I stood upright, noticing the laughter among the overseers. “I wonder what happened.”

Copyright © 2016 Brianna G. Harte. All rights reserved.

“Survival of the Chosen, 11”

by Brianna G. Harte

The utter silence that followed triggered uneasy looks between us all, except for Johanna who found the dirt far more intriguing than a muted conversation. While stones and hammers lifted from the ground, each of us glanced at her, silently willing for a story to unfold. No matter the number of times we peered over, not a word came out. I wanted to sigh and move on. I didn’t know her too well. Though we all lived in the same family, Johanna remained somewhat of a recluse. And yet, she came closer to us, those more likely to receive more chores for the day for speaking at the level of whispers.

A couple hours of working passed by. It was then that we could look back on our projects and groan. With Drew and Herold unable to help, few sections had been added. Usually we would finish not too long after midday. Now, this was not the case. The sun descended slowly in the sky, and along with it left hope. And unfortunately, the instructors always seemed more irritable at night. There was nothing we could do to stop their shouting, calling us by number, nitpicking of our woodwork. We thoroughly expected such a frustrating treatment, especially when we realized that Johanna had been making the fences crooked. To our annoyance, it could not have been noticed much sooner because of the angle.

“Johanna!” Estan hissed. “What are you doing?”

As before, she didn’t respond. She didn’t even try to undo the damage. With an inaudible groan, Reen backtracked Johanna’s work, attempting to realign, but it was futile. Perhaps ten sections required fixing and they had more mass than she could handle on her own. Temptation to jump to her aid was there. And yet, so was the resistance, only fortified by each glance at the menacing sneers that surrounded us.

There may be only twenty or so of us, spread out across two long rows of fence, but every look seemed to be aimed at each person.

Copyright © 2016 Brianna G. Harte. All rights reserved.

“Survival of the Chosen, 10”

by Brianna G. Harte

Hammering in nails to the splintering wood, I could not be found in a celebrating mood. “It wasn’t a complete success, and you both know it.”

“Calm down, Tristen,” Reen told me. “We know that. It’s easier to try to forget about it. Dwelling on it won’t change anything.”

“Neither will ignoring it.”

“Are you alright, Tristen?”

“Why?”

“You’re never this irritable.” Estan shook his head as he cut new pieces of wood, trying not to collect splinters with his skin.

Giving a glance to either side, Tristen sighed. He lowered his voice. “You would be too if your mother was on the list.”

Reen and Estan nearly forgot their work. “No,” came a breathless whisper.

I rammed the next nail deep into the wood.

Brushing his hair back and rubbing his neck, Estan’s face drooped. “No one’s safe then. Your mother has got to be the one of the most spiritual people in our community.”

“She didn’t sound like it earlier,” Tristen sighed, trying to keep his voice from wavering.

“Three! Thirteen! Eighteen!” A voice bellowed close by. “Shut your trap and get to work!”

Reluctantly, we resumed the tasks given to us. Once the instructor’s back turned, Johanna shuffled over to us, proceeding to dig into the icy ground as she had a distance away. Not a word came from her mouth. Her raven hair plastered to her wet wool clothes as though she fell into the snow not long ago. Though she could be clumsy at times, there was no way she would end up in the snow and get soaked from head to toe from the white ground. Wool was not something easily dried, especially in cold weather, and more than likely, she did not own another woolen outfit to keep her warm.

“What happened to you, Johanna?” Reen asked in a soft tone.

Johanna opened her mouth to speak, but quickly lowered her head and grit her teeth.

Copyright © 2016 Brianna G. Harte. All rights reserved.