I’ve always loved the mountains. As a little girl, I used to stand outside our cottage and stare hard into the distance, trying to make them out against the horizon. Sometimes, on a clear day, when the light was just right, I could see their outline far away, calling to me.
When I was ten, my father took me north with him. He was a weaver, and he would make beautiful rugs and blankets and fabric from the wool that the local shepherds brought us. Once a year, he would load up all his textiles onto our wagon and take them north to the villages near the mountains, where the cold winters made his wares a valuable commodity.
I could hardly wait to set out on our trip. I danced around the wagon. “Are you ready yet, Father? Can we go now? How long? The sun will be up soon. Let’s go, let’s go!” My mother and grandmother kept trying to reel me back in. “Clarissa, come here. You need a heavier jacket. Did you pack your thermal undergarments? Where are your mittens?” I ignored them. It was barely autumn. The air was still warm, even this early in the day, before sunrise. I couldn’t understand their worry.
Finally, all was ready. My mother handed me my bag, full of all the warm clothes she could fit in it. “I know you’re excited to be going to the mountains, Clarissa. But be sure to heed your father—the roads of El are not safe like our village. There are many dangerous things out there.”
My grandmother squeezed my hand. The excitement that danced in her eyes matched my own. “Clarissa, you will finally see the mountains, as I know you have always desired. Perhaps you will even have an adventure or two.” I hugged her tight. My grandmother had always understood me better than anyone else.
When I’d kissed my mother and each of my younger siblings, it was finally time to get underway. The sky was just beginning to turn gray in the East when we mounted the wagon’s high seat and waved our last farewells.
“Good-bye Melodie,” my father said to my mother. “Good-bye children, good-bye Mother! We’ll see you in three weeks, four at the most.”
“Good-bye!” I called out as the oxen began pulling us away toward the road that would lead us north. “Good-bye! We’ll be back soon!” Now that the journey was actually upon us, I began to feel a little nervous. Three weeks away from my family and my home. It suddenly seemed like a long time.
My father put his arm around me. “Don’t worry, Clarissa,” he said. “You’ll see them again very soon. And in the meantime, we’ll have some grand adventures. Just wait and see. Did I ever tell you about the Little People of Meridanth that live in houses made of grass on the southern slopes Mount Tanden?” And he began to regale me with stories of all the people and places we would see on our journey until I completely forgot about the home I was leaving behind, and thought only of the wonders ahead.
Five days into our journey, we stopped at a village called Braed. The mountains had grown larger and larger as we travelled north. From our room in the Inn, I could see them turning red and pink in the sunset light.
“Two more days and we’ll reach the hill country,” my father said. “Then one day more, perhaps a day-and-a-half, and we’ll be in the foothills. That’s where we’ll sell most of the rugs and blankets. It stays cool there all year, and the winter comes early there. We might even see snow.”
I’d never seen snow, and as I climbed into bed the image of tiny white gems floating in the air and coating the ground beneath my feet made me smile as I drifted off to sleep.
I woke with a start sometime later. The fire had burned low and the sky outside was black like coal. I looked to where my father should have been sleeping, but his bed was empty, his blankets still neat and untouched. He had never gone to bed.
Surprised, I slipped out of bed, wrapping one of the blankets around my shoulders. Where could he be? Maybe he had gone down to the common room and fallen asleep in front of the fire there? Or maybe he was checking on the oxen in the stable.
When I got downstairs, there was no one in the common room. I peeked into the kitchen, but there was no one there either and the cooking fires were banked for the night.
Finally, I snuck quietly out the front door. I knew it could be dangerous for a girl to be wandering around on her own at night, but I had to find my father, to make sure everything was alright.
When I got to the stables, I found the door open wide. The animals were each safely shut into their stalls, but there was no one else in sight. I went to where our two oxen were sleeping, nuzzled against one another for warmth.
“Hello Bodkin,” I said. “Hello Darla. Have you seen father?” They opened sleepy eyes at me. Darla gave a low grunt.
Where could he be? And where was everyone else? Although it was late, it seemed strange that no one was about at all. At most of the inns where we’d stopped, there were always a few travelers in the common room into the small hours of the morning. And it was not unusual for the innkeeper and stable boy to be up late as well, welcoming late-arriving boarders.
I slipped back out into the inn yard, closing the stable door behind me. The night was very quiet. I was becoming quite worried, and scared. I decided to go out to the main road that ran past the inn. Perhaps there was some trouble somewhere in the village and my father and the others had gone to help. But when I reached the road, all was silent. The houses along the road were all dark, no candles burning in any of the windows.
Truly frightened now, I began backing toward the inn yard, when I saw something that made me stop. In the road were many footprints. This was not unusual itself, but what was unusual was that they were all going in the same direction, north—out of the town–and that there were no cart or animal hoof marks among them. It looked as if a great group of people had all walked along the road recently—right out into the wilderness.
Just then I heard a wailing sound begin in one of the houses nearby. I jumped in fright, but as I listened a moment more, I realized that it was not some weird and terrible creature, but a baby, who must have woken from its sleep. I hoped to see a light in the house and to hear the baby quiet as it’s mother got up to tend to it. But the windows remained dark, and the crying continued, growing stronger and more desperate with each passing minute. Finally, I could take it no more and I moved to the door of the house. To my surprise, it was not completely closed. I pushed it carefully open, my heart thumping wildly in my chest. What if there was something hiding in the shadows? But as my eyes adjusted, I saw that the single room of the cottage was empty and motionless, except for a cradle in the corner, where they crying was coming from and where two tiny fists were reaching up, shaking in distress.
I went to the cradle and saw an infant about three months old lying there. The blue blanket told me that it was a boy child. The room was cold, and the baby was shivering as he cried. I quickly picked him up, wrapping the blanket tight around him and holding him close to my chest. Having four younger siblings had taught me what to do with a crying baby.
The baby quickly quieted and began sucking his tiny thumb. “There, there,” I said, patting his back. “Where are your mama and daddy? Where has everyone gone?” I was still frightened, but somehow having this little baby to care for had made me a little braver. I was not completely alone. And, there was someone who needed me to be strong, to try to make sense of things.
Searching the room, I found some fresh milk in a clay pitcher. I remembered that my mother had sometimes fed my brothers and sisters milk with sugar in it when she was unable to nurse them. I set the pitcher in the coals of the nearly dead fire to warm it. Then I found a crock of sugar and mixed some into the milk. But I could not find a skin bag like my mother had used to give the milk to my baby siblings.
“Nevermind,” I said to the baby, who was now falling asleep in my arms. “I’ll use one of the water skins we use for traveling. I think I can make it work for you.”
Hefting the now warm pitcher in one arm and the baby in the other, I made my way back to the inn. Still, I saw no one about. Once I thought I saw movement on the road, but it was just a clump of grass swaying in the wind.
Back inside the inn, I lay the baby on my bed. He began to fuss and whimper, but I was able to fashion a make-shift teat for him from my water skin and he happily drank the warm sugar-milk from it. When he’d begun to fall asleep again, I gathered up my possessions and my father’s. But I couldn’t carry them all down to the stables without leaving the baby alone in the room, which I wasn’t willing to do. What if he were gone when I got back? What if he disappeared like everyone else?
Instead, I fashioned a sling out of a shawl my mother had packed for me, passed it around my shoulders and carefully placed the baby inside. He stirred slightly, but then curled against me and went back to sucking his thumb, his eyes closed peacefully. Then, gathering up our belongings, I moved quietly down to the stables.
I woke Bodkin and Darla and led them out to where our wagon sat in the yard and hooked them into their harnesses. My father had placed oiled skins over the piles of textiles. Loosening one tarpaulin, I pulled several blankets from beneath and placed them on the floor beneath the wagon’s seat. Carefully I tucked the baby into his little nest of colorful woven fabric. He would be safe and warm there.
Stowing my bag and my father’s beside the baby, I climbed up on the seat and slapped the reigns. Slowly, the oxen began to pull the wagon out of the yard. I turned them north, following the footprints on the road. We were going to find out where everyone had gone. And, more importantly, why.