Though the day brought relief from the freezing temperatures, there was a bitter chill in the evening winds that only seemed to get colder as the sky got darker. So fierce were the troublesome winds that they cut through the soiled layers of Caroline’s cloaks and coverings like paper. She still cradled her bundle like it were an infant but a part of her resented it for taking her precious warmth. She could at least be thankful for her preparedness for such horrid conditions. Her fellow travellers were falling to frostbite on the ears and the nose. Just the look of them made Caroline grateful for how long her hair had grown to cover her ears beneath her hood. It made for poor insulation but it was something more than the luckless wretches she was stuck with. Their pathetic shelter was growing weaker and faltering beneath the weight of the snow melts during the day. As of only two nights ago, one side had been giving way and finally collapsed under the pressure of the heavy drift it housed. Most unfortunate that it had also managed to bury another of their travel companions in the night most suddenly. Another hapless accident, Caroline noted. A hapless accident where no one screamed.
They had become even more obvious in their attempts to kill of the remaining members of their party these days. Anyone who was still marginally functional was put to work until they were broken. Once they couldn’t work or if they were in an accident that hadn’t done the job, they got their first cocktail. She remembered well the envy she felt when she first saw someone produce a hip flask but she knew better than to ask. She saw the man who had been offering it and the devilish grin upon his face as he used sweet words to pour the liquid in the battered cup. And so generous with his portions. The fool took it with a greed that offended her almost as much as the smell that wafted from that wretched cup. Oh how rotten that liquid smelled. They had been too obvious that time as even the others had shunned the liquid. The fool wasn’t dead right away. It was the only saving grace that allowed them to continue with their ghastly business without having to resort to a more physical method of dispatching the dead wood. Caroline had no objections to any of this until the faces of these wicked men had started to turn in her direction. Though not all of them were looking at her with that same contempt, she was deeply insulted to know that some of these ruffians truly believed that she was no better than the dreadful fools they were poisoning.
Caroline had managed to avoid any of these rotten drink offers when they had started to circulate them. Initially it had been good enough to simply feign sleep when the flasks and the bottles appeared. Though she cursed her dry mouth, she knew better than to accept their kindness. They had been brutes since beginning of this wretched journey but when her travel companions had been reduced to seven, they had suddenly reformed their attitudes towards them. Oh how they would laugh and joke like the group had been comrades all along. Some had taken to sitting around the fire with them, building their camps closer so as to create an atmosphere like a community between them. Caroline was the only one not fooled by their gaiety and their sudden talk of lighter topics. They spoke of all the hard work that was to come and how they had to stick together as a group. They spoke of being oppressed. She listened in utter disgust as they lied. Moreso, she felt a kind of betrayal that she should be considered as worthless as these people around her or that the men who were plotting their deaths would stoop so low as to consider themselves comrades, even falsely. And it was a falsehood they sold as the first death was about a week later.
Apparently dying in his sleep, Caroline had seen the ground around the buried man, the remains of his struggle still evident in the melting snow. Since then, the cocktails became stronger. The first one given to any of these lowly men might smell of that same rotten liquor that had been passed before, rancid and clearly of inferior stock, but still drinkable. Once night had fallen and the drunks became more dazed, the strongest of the poison cocktails was handed out. She knew because suddenly the men around them were no longer drinking, happy to hand out more and more generous helpings. The strongest cocktails were given to the weakest and they were quickly eliminated. Now they were down to three men and herself. Two days ago, they were nearly covered by snow when the shelter collapsed on that weakened side. She had managed to dig herself out, cradling her bundle. The other two had dug each other out to freedom but the third man had not. Caroline had no doubt in her mind that if they could have seen his body before it was exhumed, there would be claw marks in the snow and likely his last gasps of struggle still evident around him. It hardly mattered. The remaining two men were now practically being forced to drink themselves into a stupor where neither of them could even recognize what they were drinking didn’t taste like anything except for poison. And as of yesterday, they had come looking for her. That insufferable fool, Brother Stephen, had mocking called out for the mother. The brute had meant to feed her his despicable poison!
She’d been too cunning for him yesterday, staying in hiding for most of the day. She had emerged from the fringes, appearing none the wiser. It may have fooled them for now but she knew that the time to act was quickly drawing close. So far no one had chanced to take her bundle and though she resented its existence, she could not be parted from it. It was hers. She would carry it to her end and make good on her ghastly promise, even if it meant both their lives. But she knew she must fight to get there now. Never before had she been so grateful for the cord coiled up in her cloak. She prayed that she might yet escape with her precious bundle without having to face down the ugly need to kill too many of these men. No one would mourn them so she felt no guilt at the thought of dispatching them with as much callous disregard as they had the others. Still, it was wasted effort. Effort that could be spent trying find and ultimately destroy the wretched witch that had destroyed her family. Vivian. The name still burnt her inside and to think of the the days passing that she was carrying those beautiful, horrible children. Oh she would never see their faces and she would never come to bare them. Caroline would see to that one personally this time. She would not allow anything to let her fail now.
Tonight, she would make her flight for the greater good. To do so, she would have to keep her head. If she could just stay ahead of these pigheaded men, she might yet find her way out to freedom. If that failed, she would have to try to appeal to Brother Adam. She knew better than to believe that he might be truly compassionate to her needs but she had faith that he could be turned to her advantage. She might yet find the means to sway him. She didn’t really wish to resort to appealing to his baser instincts but it was a means to her coveted end. That end was coming soon one way or the other and she had no intention on letting anything get in the way of it. She thought of all these things as she watched Brother Stephen administering the first round of poisoned alcohol to the remaining men. Though she wished dearly to take part, she knew she could not. She had to make her flight tonight. Holding the bundle closer to her body, she hated it as much as she clung to it. It would be hers forever soon. It would be the thing to replace the imposters in her family. Clinging also to the cord that was wound around her body, she would see to it that justice prevailed before the first bud of spring. Tonight, she repeated quietly to herself. Tonight it would all change and she would be on her way to her destiny.