It was raining with a cold, incessant drive that had waxed and waned and then come back with renewed intensity. We trudged southwards, splashing through muddy streams and dragging our feet forward through the wet grass that clung to our legs with each step. Earlier we had been able to see the White Mountains shining in front of us, growing closer with each step, but then this storm had blown in and now we were lucky to see ten feet in front of ourselves.
We had not seen any sign of life aside from each other in days. We had not eaten in days. We had learned that, no matter how hungry we were, we could not eat grass.
A large shape suddenly became visible in the gloom. It was a barn. I turned towards it.
“Where are you going?” Beanpole said.
“Let’s sleep here.”
Henry and Beanpole exchanged a look.
After a moment, Henry said, “It isn’t night yet.”
“I can’t go any further,” I said. “I need to rest.”
Henry and Beanpole exchanged another look. I frowned at them, resenting the way they had grown closer since the Castle. I thought of the warm, soft bed I had had there and again, felt a twinge as I remembered the Comtesse’s face.
“Fine,” Beanpole said. “Perhaps we can find food in there.”
When we opened the door, an uncounted number of sheep greeted us, bleating in a deafening chorus. The air in the barn was stifling - warm and humid, with the acrid odor of the animals mixed with the smell of wet wool. The smell reminded me of my mother’s kitchen on the spring day when she washed the winter blankets. When the sheep realized that we were not going to feed them, they stopped making the racket and went back to milling around. I climbed into the hayloft to escape the animals and found piles of dry straw. I collapsed into one. My arm throbbed and all I could think about was how miserable I was.
I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew, Henry was shaking me. “Get up,” he hissed. “Someone’s coming.”
The door to the barn was a light rectangle against the dark interior. A man was standing in the space. He called out in the language of the land we were now in, a language that seemed to be all consonants, jumbled over each other. We sat still, not moving. Then he spoke in another language. The third language he tried was an accented version of the language of the Castle and Beanpole.
“Travellers,” he said. “Come to the house. Warm yourself at my fire. My wife makes an excellent—“ he said a word I did not know—“It will warm you through.”
We looked at each. I desperately wanted to go. I started to move, to stand, and Henry put a hand on me. Beanpole shook his head.
“You stay here,” I hissed at them. “If you are afraid.”
I climbed down. The draft of cold air from the open door hit me and I started shivering so hard that I had to hug my empty pack to my chest because my hands would not hold it. My arm ached with the pressure, but it was better than before Beanpole had cut it again. “Thank you,” I said. Behind me, Henry and Beanpole emerged from the shadows.
The man looked between the three of us. “Boys,” he observed. “Out here, on the moors, only two kinds in my barn. Runaways and Vagrants. On your way to the mountains?”
We stopped and looked at each other. Flutters of fear rippled in my stomach.
He started to walk towards the door, but then stopped and looked back at us. “Are you coming?”
We looked at each other. “We could run,” Henry whispered.
Beanpole looked at me. “Will won’t make it far.”
“We have to try.”
We must have looked like we were about to bolt, because he said, “Mine’s a safehouse for the free and a refuge for the afflicted. My wife and I are not Capped. Name’s Adolf.”
We huddled in front of the fire, sitting on the warm hearth with our backs to the blaze, shivering as steam rose off our thin shirts. Adolf had left the cabin to get more wood. His wife, Elsa was preparing a simple meal of bread, cheese, and pungent pickles; later, she said, there would be stew.
Elsa reminded me of the farmer women of Werton. Sturdy and strong, wearing layered dresses. However, where the women of my home tended towards a darker coloring, Elsa had blonde hair that she wore in a thick braid down her back. The dark edge of the fake cap made a visible line against her fair coloring.
“What are your names?” she asked. Her command of Beanpole’s language was far more fluent than her husband’s, or mine. She spoke the language slowly, as if she was tasting each part of each word.
Beanpole introduced us, using the local versions of our names. “Ah, you hale from the north!” she exclaimed as she heard his speech. “You must have been travelling for months. No wonder you are so thin.”
Adolf saved us from having to reply by opening the door and dropping a bundle of wood in the entryway. “You boys picked a miserable day for travel,” he said.
I laughed. The laugh bordered on hysterical. The concept of choosing to be out in this terrible weather, starving, cold, scared all of the time, was just absurd. But he was correct. We had picked this journey. Despite all of its hardships, the promise of a free life at the end kept us going. Beanpole and Henry joined me after a moment. Adolf watched us and then he too chuckled. “I suppose that was a bit ridiculous,” he said. “Not a scrap of shelter for days around here. Just me and Elsa and the sheep. I was on my way to go round up some stragglers when I found you.”
Elsa handed him a thick slice of bread with a wedge of cheese. “I’ll take care of the boys,” she said. “Come back soon.”
Elsa brought us a pile of clothes to wear while ours dried. The shirts were stained and worn, but clean. The trousers had to be rolled up several times to keep from treading on hems that were far too long. Everything smelled of sheep, but it was good to be dry.
Elsa filled the stew pot with chopped vegetables and mutton while we ate the bread and cheese. Once the stew was bubbling over the fire and beginning to smell tempting, Beanpole said, “How much further do we have to go?”
Elsa dried her hands on her apron as she turned to look at us. “It depends on how fast you walk, yes? Maybe a week will take you to the base of the mountains. Then it will take several days to get to the base of the tunnel.
“It runs right into the mountain. It was built by the ancients, though I cannot imagine what purpose it served.”
We must have been staring at her, because she laughed again and turned to check on the stew. “You’ll see.”
Later, when Adolf had returned, we sat around the table and tucked the stew in. It was flavored with unfamiliar spices. It was warm and filling. Once I had finished my second bowl, and Henry his third, Adolf pushed back his chair. “You boys need to take care, going forward.”
We leaned forward as Adolf continued. “There are a few villages on your path. They do not take kindly to strangers, especially runaways. They’ll lock you up until you can be Capped.”
We looked at each other. “We’ll make a wide circle around them,” Beanpole said after a moment.
Adolf nodded once. “We get a handful of runaways through here every year. A boy came through here….” He looked at his wife. “Last year?”
Elsa nodded. “Year ago last spring.”
“His name was Paul. He was from the north, like you. He was headed for the mountains. A month later we saw him again.”
Elsa stood, picking up her bowl and turning towards the sink.
“He had been Capped and he’d become a Vagrant. Because he was from far off, when he spoke, he spoke in the tongue of his birth, which sounded like gibberish to people around here. He wandered around, the way Vagrants do and the villagers drove him away. I’ve seen it with my own eyes on other occasions. The children gather on the edge of town and pelt rocks at the bad ones. If that doesn’t work, the adults come with axes and pitch forks. By the time Paul stumbled back here, we could barely recognize him. He was skin and bones. He had cuts and scrapes all over, some half healed, some angry and infected. His eyes were odd, staring off at different things.”
Adolf shook his head, taking a long pull from a tankard of dark ale. He had offered us ale with the meal, but it was bitter and not to my taste. “He wouldn’t stay with us. We left food out for him, which disappeared so I assume he took it. I found his body out in the moors a few days later.”
We were silent for a moment, staring at Adolf. The worst outcome I had imagined had been being Capped, or maybe becoming a Vagrant. People at home had always been kind, or at least tolerant, of the Vagrants. I had never heard of anyone treating one like that.
“That’s horrible,” Beanpole said.
“Anyway,” Adolf concluded, “You’d best be on your way in the morning, boys. We’ll fill your packs, but you must mind yourself.”
The next morning we set out, our stomachs full of a mutton roast and potatoes that had cooked buried in the coals all night. Adolf had given us the remainder of the roast, three fist-sized wheels of sheep milk cheese and an enormous loaf of bread. Elsa had come down and given us each a knitted sweater. They were too big and made of a lumpy, un-dyed yarn but they were thick and warm. “I know it’s summer,” she said. “But the mountains are white because there is snow on them all year. Good luck boys.”
After two good meals and a night’s sleep in a bed, I was feeling more like myself. The rain had passed. Even though the grass was soaked, the warm sun on our backs more than made up for it. We set off, moving at a fast pace. Adolf had marked the villages to avoid on the map. The day went without incident, as did the next day.
By the third day, the last of the villages had disappeared and all we could see was the wide blue sky, the towering, snow-covered mountains and the endless sea of grass. The flat plains had given way to gently rolling hills. There weren’t even any sheep in sight.
“Do you hear that?” Beanpole asked.
“What?” Henry said.
“It sounds like a cat,” I said.
“A cat?” Beanpole said.
“No,” Henry said abruptly. “Someone’s crying.”
As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. Someone was sobbing, with deep, exhausted gasps, as if there was nothing left.
I listened for a moment and decided that the cries were coming from ahead and to the left, so I set out in that direction.
“What are you doing?” Henry said.
I didn’t really know. “Going to see,” I said. “Maybe they need help.”
“Maybe it’s a trap,” Henry said.
I looked at him. “Out here? In the middle of nowhere?”
“Fine,” I said. “You stay behind. I am going to go see.”
In the end, they both followed me.
There was a young, Capped woman, a few years older than us. Her hair was unkempt and matted, falling in tangled clumps around her shoulders. Sticks, grass and leaves were meshed in. Her clothes were rags. There was a long scar across her face that ended in at one, milky, sightless eye. She sat, clutching her belly and rocking. Every time she rocked forward, she cried out again, so she rocked back until she lost her balance and pulled her body back forward.
By her side was a backpack. It looked like it had supplies in it.
“She’s a Vagrant,” Henry said, reaching down for her pack. “Let’s go.”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
The woman reached up, spouting nonsense as Henry picked up the pack. She cried out and grabbed for it with a blood-soaked hand. The motion made her lose her balance and she fell over on her side as Henry shouldered her pack. She lay on the ground, her legs half drawn into a fetal position, whimpering meaningless syllables.
Beanpole knelt and reached out towards her. She cowered back, but Beanpole was gentle. I didn’t see what he saw, but his face paled and he shuddered. “She is going to die,” he said. “Soon, too. I think.”
“Let’s go,” Henry said.
“We can’t take her stuff,” I said.
“She’s a Vagrant,” Henry replied. “And she doesn’t need it.”
“We should relieve her suffering,” Beanpole said. We both stopped and stared at him.
“You mean kill her?” I said, at last.
“Yes,” Beanpole said. “It would be a mercy.”
Now it was my turn to blanch and turn away. “How can you be sure?” I asked.
“We don’t have time for this,” Henry said. “Let’s go,”
“You can see her intestines,” Beanpole said. “They are black.”
All I could think about was that poor woman, out here by herself. “We should stay with her.”
“We don’t have time,” Henry insisted. Let’s go. It could be a trap.”
“Who would set a trap out here?” I demanded.
We stood around the woman, looking at her. She had stopped looking at us. She lay on her side, crying as she clutched her middle. It was pitiful.
I said to Beanpole, “How would you do it?”
“I have my pocketknife,” Beanpole said. “We could cut her throat. I watched the butcher do it to chickens back home.”
I turned away, feeling sick. “How can people treat them like this?”
“If you think about it,” Henry said. “It makes sense. If food is tight, why share it with,” he waved his hand vaguely at the woman, “them?”
“It’s wrong,” I insisted, thinking of the Vagrant house back home. There was always food and it was clean and dry. I had never heard of a sick Vagrant, but I had been a child and I didn’t pay much attention to that.
“What happens when they get sick?” I asked. “Henry, do you remember?”
“Let’s go,” Henry said again. “if Elsa is right, we should be reaching the mountains tomorrow or the next day. No need to make it longer.”
Beanpole was fiddling with his pocketknife. I stared at it, feeling both sickened by the sight and the thought of what Beanpole was suggesting, but also strangely drawn to the idea.
I crouched down next to the woman and touched her shoulder. She did not pull away. She had grown quiet and her breath came in soft, rattling gasps.
“There was a kid who lived next door to me for a while,” Beanpole said. “His grandmother lived with them. Three years ago, when the grandmother died, I asked my mom all sorts of questions. She mostly did not have answers aside from the usual, you’ll understand when you are grown up. Capped. I asked her what happened to Vagrants and she looked at me like she had never thought about it before. Then she told me that they wandered off and died in the bushes. Like cats.”
“Cats,” I echoed. I looked back at the woman and I realized that her breath had stopped. I yanked my hand away. “I think she is dead,” I said.
Beanpole crouched down next to her and put his face next to hers. “I think you are right,” he said.
We left her to the wind and rain, taking her backpack with us.