To avoid the first round of alcohol, Caroline feigned the need for sleep. Brother Stephen was unusually insistent to the point of suspicion but she knew well how to take care of such matters. When she could no longer attempt to rest, Caroline avoided his renewed offers by employing her need to attend to lady matters. He appeared to be on the verge of insisting that she partake when Brother Adam surfaced and silenced him with waved him aside. It was a blessing for the moment but she knew before long, she would have to make her move and try to escape.

She had considered making her way through the woods as she trailed her way around the encampment but she knew how these men had dealt with previous stowaways. It was dangerous but she knew she would have to return and remain there until they slept. She knew that this was likely going to be difficult but it was the only way in which she would be able to slip away and hopefully get further along than they knew before they realized she was gone. She knew there might be a way to make it look as though she were dead already if she could make them think that there was another collapse in the shelter. Perhaps it might kill the others but at this point, it was a more merciful death than the one they were being dealt at the hands of their poisoners. Whatever the case may be, she knew for certain that she had very little in the way of options and the only one that would allow her to continue to her goal was to remain in the camp until later tonight.

Upon her return, she saw Brother Stephen sulking and she pretended not to notice his glares as she settled back down, making it seem as though she needed desperately to rest. When pressed, she made a point to feign embarrassment at the rude happenings in the woods that were unbecoming for a lady. She then imitated poor health, making some of these bastard ill-born brutes brighten up at the prospect of her failing health. She couldn’t help but notice, however, that Brother Adam was not among those who seemed to be gleeful at her misfortune. Instead, he allowed her to settle in peace, making a point to keep the rats away from her. Playing her part, Caroline noted his actions. She did not yet know if he was primed to make a move of his own but he seemed to have at least some capability or interest in keeping her here. She would not squander this opportunity and made a point to keep as quiet as possible as the main activity of the night began.

The two remaining men had started to drink early, one on account of terrible stomach pains and the other to numb himself to the bitter wind. They were quickly becoming more stupid and slower in their movements. She did not permit herself to watch but she didn’t have to. She already knew that they were dying men who had not idea that their bodies were being destroyed. They had become nearly skeletal and had only become worse since they had started this wretched camp. So hideous in their health had they become that Caroline felt even more pressure to play the role herself. She made the best show she could of the phantom sickness but nothing too desperate or the liquor offer would present itself. For the sake of realism, she made idle mentions of the cold and shivered as though she were losing the battle for heat. Internally she cursed her bundle. How very greedy this thing could be. As she curled up and the men around her began to retire, she curled closer to the fire and thought of the task at hand. She made it appear as though she were ready for sleep but she simply watched as the men around her were retreating. It would happen soon. She would run. She would find her way. She had to. Her very core of her being would allow for nothing less. So consumed in her trance she was that she didn’t notice when Brother Adam came close to her and settled near the fire. From inside his heavy coat, he produced his own flask.

“You shiver so,” he said, his voice toneless. “We’ve lost all but these lowly wretches here. Our mission is so doomed to failure if we cannot move with even one single living body to the forest.”

“They have given in to their vices,” Caroline muttered. Brother Adam nodded knowingly.

“Still, we cannot arrive empty-handed,” he said, uncapping his flask. “And it would be a travesty to allow a mother to suffer death in the cold. Surely this will assist. It’s pure, unlike the swill these drunkards have been consuming.”

“You are too generous,” Caroline replied, balking. Though she retreated from the flask he offered, every fibre of her being wanted nothing more than to snatch it from his hand. He must have sensed her restraint because he edged closer, whispering his secrets.

“Pay no mind to the beggars who drink that swill,” he said, quietly. “In your ill-health, you’ve not seen how they practically dog the steps of my men, trying desperately to pinch even the smallest amount of liquor out of them. Here they are, dying of the rotten city drink and still they demand more. I’ve not yet offered anyone anything for fear that once these hounds find out what I keep in my own flask, they would sooner slit my throat than be without. A sip is all you need to warm you. Take it and be revived.”

Though she doubted, Caroline’s will was cracking under her wants. She knew for certain that these men could dog no one but it was so much better a lie than the truth. She could withstand a bit of poison. She swore she could. The others had only been slowed down for a week before they began to expire. She could drink a bit and kill the nerves that she felt in fleeing. Yes, she could use this for herself. She took the flask and in a moment of weakness, she lifted it to her lips and drank deeply.

Caroline knew that she’d been tricked as soon as the rancid poison hit her stomach. The fog of the burning alcohol had been quick as Brother Adam had promised so she knew for certain it was real liquor that he’d been drinking prior. The warming was immediate but it didn’t take long before the pain in her stomach began. It was only once the fog in her mind came on too quickly that she realized the scope of the treachery that she’d been a victim of. She lay on the snow, powerless to retaliate as she felt the oppression of that haze take over and cloud her mind completely. Collapsed before the fire that had been reduced down to glowing embers, the last image that she saw before forceful sleep came was of the swine pouring the poisoned alcohol on the ground. Under its venomous stream the last of the fire light died out and with it the last warm moments of their hellish shelter had come to a brutal end.

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