The last light of day had faded over the horizon not ten minutes before and yet the world felt like it had been plunged into eternal midnight. Never before had this road before them felt so ominous and for the first time, she wondered if this was something that she would be able to do. She doubted, all of the sudden, the sureness of this plan but it was too late to abandon her resolve now. Sitting bundled in the back of a cramped canvas covered trailer, Caroline had watched with dull eyes as the people who would be her travelling companions filed in, each of them carrying the same mysterious bundles. She had been handed one too upon her arrival and the only instruction she was given was that the bundle was to sit beneath her seat on the bench and she was not to let it slide out or move at all. She had feared that this was to be a small humiliation that would be her punishment for demanding such a trip but it was not so. True to his promise, the man from the shabby building had saved a spot for her and upon the fall of dark, they rode off, their small party packed into the covered trailer that might otherwise transport something like lumber. Tonight it carried a load of people who were considered by some to be no more than cattle and where they were going, they were surely to be treated as such. It was demeaning but for the greater good. This is what she told herself as the jerking motion of the trailer signalled the start of what was sure to be a perilous journey. Caroline had little to look forward to and was not planning for a future. She had told that awful man as such as she left him that night weeks ago and she had repeated it bluntly to him tonight. Though she would never admit to being scared right now, she knew that this was all a part of the process and she was determined to face down this challenge even if it frightened her. This was the last stand that she would take. The last deed that she would do for her family and she would not let anything, not even her fear of her impending and promised death, get in the way.
Though she was determined to ensure that she kept her promise to herself, she was quickly coming to realize that there was more to this promise than she had bargained for initially. For one, though the man had said that this trip was dangerous, she had not understood what she was looking at until now. Even at this moment that she sat in this cold, dank vehicle, surrounded by other desperate souls awaiting their fate, she knew that she was only facing the beginning of this wretched task and there was much more to come. Much worse awaiting the road ahead and she didn’t know what shape it would be other than ghastly. The oppressive mood about them did little to cheer her prospects too. It didn’t help to know that their destination was far and the means to get there was more treacherous than she had known. There was a truck that was towing them along the roads and though the trailer that they rode in was covered with heavy canvas, it was bitterly cold immediately and only became colder as they rode. There was no way to know from inside the trailer how long they had to go or how far along they’d come. The darkness also gave them no hint and they were forced to endure the first of their challenges, that being the brutally indifferent but fatally freezing weather.
Though it was truly horrendous to endure, at least there were small parts of this hellish journey that she could be thankful for. Caroline was grateful for the layers that she had taken to burying herself under to remain inconspicuous. Still, she knew that she would have to be careful about what she told others around her, lest they give away anything. These were people who were among the most downtrodden wretches that she’d ever seen and it would be difficult to pass herself off as being their equal when she was sporting more clothing than they could dream of. She saw others around her with their clothing falling apart and wondered how long they would be able to fend off the bitter winds. She wondered, idly, if they would survive all the way through the forest. A part of her truly hoped that they would not. Not only would this ensure that she would be able to find a way to get closer to the Kent household, but also she would have fewer people who might be able to talk about her if she did anything wrong. Caroline was thankful that she was not the only one on this journey who had been prepared for the weather but she was well aware that she was in the minority. She was also one of only very few women coming along but that made her nervous as well. Two of them were tarted up already, telling of their intent without either of them having to utter a word. Neither were natural beauties that boasted anything that might single them out as desirable nor was the cosmetic help they had employed doing anything to further their cause. Caroline worried very little about them being of any danger to her in terms of competition. Master Kent’s taste was well established to run younger and more vulnerable than anyone on this forsaken trailer could offer. Still, they might yet prove to be annoying in her pursuit and she was prepared to take matters into her hands if they should try to get in the way. That was, if they made it all the way to their destination. If the weather did not try to freeze the life out of their bodies, she had the distinct feeling that there was a good chance someone in their midst or someone on the road would rise to the occasion.
When they had started on their journey, Caroline was surprised to see the man she’d spoken to before sitting with them in the trailer itself. Since the day that she had told him that she would ride to the establishments in the forest with the first group to go, she had become acquainted with a number of men who were preparing for the journey. Much to her dismay, they were all a part of the same group and he had been telling the truth about being unable to pass through the forest roads until the new year. They had organized quickly in the meantime and when she’d arrived, she had seen them all together, speaking in hushed tones and appearing to be every bit the scoundrels that they were. Still, they had made good on their promises to take the group out and had provided the means on the condition that they carry their bundles out with them to the first stop that was never mentioned again nor defined at all. Every man that had been a part of making sure this trip happened was either staying behind or, the few unlucky ones, were in the truck deciding on the route that they would take and alternatives should that prove too dangerous to get there in one piece. Only the first man she had spoken with was in the back with them. It was no mystery really what he’d been employed to do. Once their journey had commenced, his job became very obvious to them all. He was silent but his poisonous eyes spied each one of them, keeping keen attention fixed on anyone who mishandled or otherwise took any note of their bundles. As they reached the darkened mouth of the forest road, they could no longer look at each other but there was the impression that he could see them. This man who had arranged to have each of them carrying something very illegal was no longer simply watching and in the darkness, he was everywhere among them. His ears heard each noise so they were silent. His eyes were still upon them all and since they could not see where his attention was directed, it was on each of them all at once. They were still as statues lest someone move and the crumpling of the package beneath someone’s feet get his attention in the wrong way.
Though she could only guess, Caroline figured that they were only a few yards into the start of the forest road as the temperature plummeted suddenly and sharply. The deepening darkness did not allow for anyone to see the other but she could hear the twitching bodies adjusting to the cruel frigidity of the conditions around them. In the blackness, she could hear the hiss of breath being drawn harshly into someone’s lungs, the air itself stinging to breathe. She could hear the chatter of teeth as someone else rubbed their hands on their outer garments in attempt to keep some heat in. The whole of the trailer was converted into a chorus of bodies in desperate pain as the cold around them continued to deepen their despair. In that moment, Caroline knew that on this first night of their journey, she would be arriving at their first stop and seeing at least one corpse among them. Bowing her head, she only hoped that it would be quick to silence the chattering teeth and the painful, frozen breaths that withdrew in plumes about them. This sound, she realized at this late moment, was one that might yet drive her to madness.