In the morning, Wilom learned he wasn’t the only one leaving the hotel for the Capital. A woman and her daughter were travelling just ahead of him on the road. The daughter was skipping on ahead, babbling half to herself, and half to a distressingly realistic stuffed toy bear. She wore a backpack, the child-sized duplicate of the one on the woman’s back.
Wilom quickly decided it would be less awkward to start a conversation than to just follow them out of the city, so he closed the distance and said, “Good morning. You’re going to the Capital?
“Morning,” the woman said, then “Honey, don’t go too far! Sorry. Yes, we are. Are you going that way as well?”
Wilom nodded. “I’m catching up with a friend of mine. You, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“We ran a little fabric store, but it’s just not possible to get stock through quick and cheap enough to compete with these new, bigger stores. I’m going to the Capital to try and find work.”
She gave him an odd look. “You know, the big department stores. Maris and Son’s, the Gretta Sisters. They’re everywhere.”
“I thought they were another family store.”
“They were, once, but then they made money and bought other family stores. Now the main stores are the big ones in the Capital, but they run little stores in every town large enough that they still make a profit. What rock have you been hiding under?” Her voice had a sharp note, but Wilom got the feeling that it wasn’t directed at him.
“A very large one, apparently,” Wilom said. “I’ve lived on a tiny town on the coast all my life. You know how small towns can be.”
Neither of them said anything. The woman called, “Honey, remember what I said about going too far off!” but Wilom felt like it was more to fill in space than because her daughter was in any real danger. That was not, apparently, how small towns were now. Shit.
“I’m sure you’ll do marvellously, starting a business in the Capital,” Wilom said.
“Well, I was always the business head of my husband and I. And after my son enlisted, well.” She paused, with a wry grin. “But I’m sorry, it’s not right to tell you all my troubles. You said you were meeting a friend?”
“Sort of,” Wilom said. “I’ve been travelling a while, and I know someone who’s in the Capital, so I thought I might stop there. See if I can find work. I’ve had no luck out here.”
“No work in your home town?” Cathlin guessed, and Wilom seized the chance.
“Not enough for both me and my sister. I tried my hand at another job, but it fell through. Money runs tight awfully quickly.”
“Oh, yes. It does indeed.”
They watched Cathlin’s daughter running in front of them. Occasionally, she stopped to look back, or to admonish an invisible friend for an imaginary transgression.
“How old is she?”
“And her brother was old enough to sign up for the army? You don’t have to answer if that’s too personal a question.”
“There was a fair gap between them, yes.” Cathlin didn’t offer any more information on the subject.
Stupid. On the River, Wilom would never have asked that question. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“It’s OK.” She looked him up and down. “So, what sort of job will you get in the city?”
“You know, I’ve been asking myself that same question. I was apprenticed to a ferryman, but that’s not exactly a useful skill in the Capital. I’m don’t mind people, though. Maybe I’ll see if a shop needs an assistant.”
“You could eventually manage a shop, if you went down that path. And if you’ve got a head for numbers.”
“That might be nice, eventually,” he said, smiling. The idea that he might end up following in his sister’s footsteps after all, after all those arguments with Jali, was a little amusing.
“It isn’t easy, but it is satisfying.”
“I’d have to see if I’ve got the head for it first.” Wilom paused. He seemed to have navigated the first part of this conversation fairly easily, and this would probably be a good way to get information on this new future without raising too much suspicion. “If we’re both going to the Capital, should we travel together?”
She glanced at him, thought for a moment, then nodded. “Alright.”
Really? Just like that? Oh, well. If fate wanted to throw him a kindness. “Good. It’ll do me good to have some company.”
“Me, too, I think.”
“My name is Wilom, by the way.”
“Oh, sorry. I’m Cathlin. And my daughter is Jilli.”
Wilom nodded. That had been surprisingly easy. He tried to think back to Jali and Tanim, and the others from their village. Did adults generally trust each other? He honestly couldn’t remember.
“Where do you come from?” Cathlin asked.
“I was born East of Tramford. Right near the coast. I lived in a few different villages, though.”
“Oh, that sounds nice. You must have gotten a lovely breeze off the ocean.”
“It used to get cold of an evening, I remember that much.”
Cathlin laughed. “Alright, alright, I’ll take off my rosy glasses.”
“No, they suit you.”
Cathlin chuckled again. “Jilli! Come here a moment, please.”
“Jilli, do you mind if Wilom travels with us until the Capital?”
Jilli looked Wilom up and down with an eye much more critical than Wilom had expected of a seven-year-old.
“I don’t mind,” she said finally. “Will he help you set up your shop?”
“No, I’ll be finding my own work,” Wilom said, to save Cathlin the awkwardness of having to answer.
“OK,” Jilli said. She glanced at Wilom and back at her mother, then tugged on her mother’s arm. Cathlin bent down to listen as she whispered something.
“Alright, honey, you’d better keep going, then.”
Wilom watched Jilli leave, and glanced at Cathlin for an explanation.
“Just her game,” she said.
“Oh, of course.”
Wilom watched Jilli playing. He couldn’t make head nor tail of what she was doing. It was fascinating. He hadn’t been at a loss for how to deal with a person for a very long time. Living children acted very differently to those on the shores of the river.
“Do you have family in the Capital?” he asked.
“Yes, my brother. Your friend?”
“That’ll help, then. And … I’m not sure. She travels a lot for work, I only know she’ll be in the Capital soon. I’m sure she’ll stay in a hotel somewhere.”
Cathlin chuckled. “Actually, I remember … Ah, sorry.”
“You barely know me, and here I am sharing all my personal stories! It must be so uncomfortable.”
Wilom shook his head. “Not really. I’m enjoying your stories. If it makes you feel better, I can tell you all about my aunt and uncle. I lived with them for a few years after moving away from my parents.”
He told a few anecdotes about Jali and Tanim, and then Cathlin chuckled and told one about her brother, whose name turned out to be Marc.
There was a rumbling behind them on the road. Wilom stiffened, as Cathlin jogged over to Jilli and pulled her to the grass on the side of the path. Wilom followed them, and tried to hide his fascination with the auto as it passed. Its front was open, and the two men in the front seat shared a blanket to keep the mud off their trousers. It travelled a little faster than walking pace, and made a loud clattering noise as it passed them. The wheels, Wilom noticed, were surprisingly thin. To pretend he hadn’t been staring at them, Wilom waved. The man who wasn’t driving smiled, waved back, then put his hand back on the other man’s thigh as they drove away.
“I wonder if many autos travel this road,” Wilom commented casually as the noise of the vehicle subsided enough to talk again.
“What’s an auto?” Jilli asked.
Cathlin gave him an odd look. “It’s an old word for car,” she told Jilli.
“Sorry,” Wilom said. “It’s a family thing. My grandfather used to insist, so we all just got used to it. Then it became a bit of a joke.”
Cathlin chuckled. “He sounds a little like my grandfather. My grandfather used to insist on the oddest things. I still can’t put preserves on anything other than the bottom shelf without feeling my skin crawl.”
Given Wilom was currently claiming to be his own grandson, he decided to take this as a compliment and definitely not to laugh, no matter how tempting it was.
Cathlin was far better stocked for travelling than Wilom was. Her food was far more pleasant, for a start — her bread was obviously fresher, and her cheese actually tasted like something from a farm, rather than something that had been sitting for years on a dusty shop shelf. She had real vegetables and fruit, too. Wilom, feeling a little useless, contributed a tin of soup, which they shared as a side dish.
Cathlin and Jilli even had a tent, just big enough for them both to squeeze inside. Cathlin said she had bought it just over twenty years ago, when she and her husband were first married. It had been a little almost-secret to them: they would set it up out of sight of the village, and some nights they would pretend they were running away, and go spend the night in it. She smiled as she told the story.
From his spot on the grass outside the tent, Wilom could hear Cathlin singing a lullaby, then both of them fell silent and began to gently snore.
Cathlin noticed before Wilom did that there was something wrong with the cart coming towards them on the road. She caught hold of Jilli’s arm and pulled the child to her legs, holding her fast.
And then Wilom saw it, too — in the back of the cart behind the folds of cloth: a glint of metal in the sun.
The cart driver grinned at them as the cart pulled up and stopped, but it was neither a friendly grin, nor, as Wilom noted with a little surprise, an entirely easy one.
“Good afternoon,” Wilom said, holding his ground next to Cathlin. “Pleasant day for travelling.” His voice was steadier than he had expected it to be, even though his ears were ringing.
“Certainly is,” the driver said.
A pair of men hopped out of the back of it, aiming a pair of guns just like the ones in the war pictures in the newspaper at them.
“We’re not carrying anything valuable!” Cathlin said suddenly, her voice shrill.
Wilom noticed through his rapidly narrowing vision that the gun barrels aimed at him were shaking a little.
“I’m just taking my pack off,” he said, keeping his voice low and quiet. “To show you what’s inside it.”
He ignored Cathlin’s kick to his side as he spread the bag open for the driver and his armed friends. “Just cans of food. We’re only visiting relatives, so we didn’t bring any money with us.” He rested a hand gently on Cathlin’s shin, warning her to stay silent. His shoulders were so tense they ached. Only his decades of ferryman experience kept him still and calm.
The men with guns held their weapons a little higher, but the barrels still shook. The cart driver glanced from them to Wilom and said, “Aw, don’t hold out on us, friend! Mayhap we should search your bags. My boys here might like to decide what to do with you if it turns out you hid something from us.”
“We’ve got nothing,” Wilom repeated. “Just food. Please — we’re trying to be in time for my brother’s birthday and we’re expected tomorrow lunchtime.”
“Ow, mama!” Jilli said, but Wilom couldn’t see what had prompted the outburst. He maintained eye contact with the driver, trying his best to imitate the ferryman’s calm confidence, while his mind tried to decide how much it would hurt to be shot.
The cart driver hesitated at that, whether from the reminder that the three bodies in front of him belonged to people, or from the implication that the police would soon be alerted, Wilom wasn’t entirely sure.
“Just cans,” Wilom said again, opening his pack a little further to make the point, and hoping as hard as he could they didn’t ask Cathlin to open hers.
But something he said must have been right, because the cart driver whistled, and the other two lowered their guns and stepped back toward the cart.
“We’ll leave your food. We’re not unreasonable,” the cart driver said. “But remember to bring your toll with you next time, eh?”
Wilom and Cathlin stepped off the road with Jilli and the bag.
“You idiot!” Cathlin said, once the cart was out of sight. “They had guns!”
Wilom let out a long breath, and then began to repack his bag. The ferryman’s handkerchief had fallen to the bottom of the bag. He pulled it out, refolded it and tucked it into a side pocket, before putting all the cans back in the bag. “I didn’t think they’d use them.” He was waiting for the nerves to kick in, the sudden shaking hands and swimming head. But no – now that it was over, he was perfectly calm.
Cathlin shook her head. “You’ve got nerve!” she said, in a tone that indicated it wasn’t intended as a compliment. Then she conceded, “At least you managed to convince them not to take anything.”
“They were just desperate,” Wilom said. Silently, he added to himself that if there was one thing he knew, it was how to handle desperate people.
Cathlin nodded. “Are you sure you’re human?”
“I was the last time I checked,” Wilom said, and technically that was honest.