A massive crash rang out. Tilly spun around to find Toby just feet away, surrounded by pots and bowls from the lower cupboard.
“Toby!” she shrieked. She dashed towards him, grabbed his hand, and dragged him out the door. The butcher wasn’t far behind them, yelling out profanities. Toby tripped on the door jam forcing Tilly to grab him and throw him on her back, straining under the weight. She ran until they were three blocks away, crouching behind a trashcan in a side alley. She huffed and wheezed.
“I don’t think he saw us,” she whispered. Toby looked terrified. Tilly looked down upon him as he started to cry. She wasn’t quite sure what to do, but the ache in her belly began to reappear, begging her to reach for him and pull him into a hug. She obeyed. Her pounding heart finally began to slow and Toby started to calm.
She felt something wet on her hand. It didn’t take long for her to realize it wasn’t Toby’s tears. She looked up into the sky just as the downpour began, dumping a torrent of water upon them like an ocean wave. The thunderstorms in Weylan Wynters were terrible and terrifying – not the type of storm you’d want to be caught alone in. The two lost children were very quickly soaked to the bone, Toby’s cries difficult to decipher over the monstrous claps of thunder. Lightening began to strike. Most homes and shops had specially-fashioned plated roofs to offset the lightening but there was no protection for those stuck in the streets and alleyways.
Tilly glanced around nervously but could hardly see through the rain. She pulled Toby underneath her drenched cloak and meandered back towards the main thoroughfare in hopes of finding some shelter. As she approached the Square, she spotted a stable just across the street to the left. It didn’t appear to be guarded and there were no animals to be seen. She scooted Toby over and they took shelter under an overhang, cuddling close in the hay.
How are we going to get home? Tilly wondered. And what will Ms. Grace do to us when we finally get there?
Thunderous booms shook the ground around them. Toby buried his face in Tilly’s lap. She stroked his hair in an attempt to comfort him. It felt awkward but it was something she’d seen some of the older girls do and it always seemed to calm him down.
Realizing they might be stuck there for a while, she glanced around to get a sense of their surroundings. All was dark with the exception of the shards of light provided by the lightening every few seconds. It looked like there were just four stalls in the stable – all empty except the one they were cowering in. The structure was dusty and unkempt as if it hadn’t been used for quite a long time. Tilly began to wonder if it was abandoned.
She watched in silence as gallons upon gallons of fallen drops of rain gathered in the streets creating a miniature flood headed swiftly for the lake below. The town’s construction on the side of a hill had been its saving grace in the survival of these storms. All buildings were built on stilts just a foot above the ground to make way for the rivers created by the rain. The streets were hilly and steep, sending all moisture straight down to the lake where a drainage structure had been built, siphoning the water into the empty valley on the other side of the mountains. Tilly always thought the steep winding roads around town would make for an incredible water slide. She sat up on her perch in the hay, imagining herself careening through the streets, all smiles and giggles, shocking the faces of onlookers as she passed. She would end her chilling adventure with a 5-foot drop into the lake, her body creating a satisfying splash as the cool and inviting water enveloped her. She might just float in it for a few minutes, enjoying the flying sensation of her buoyancy. The bubbles would tickle her on the way to the surface and she’d open her eyes just a tiny bit to say ‘hello’ to the mud fishes.
Another bolt of lightening hit the street nearby and Tilly turned to see a dark figure standing directly in front of her. She pulled Toby close and scooted backwards hastily. The dark figure stepped closer, raising a small lantern.
“What are you doing here?”
It was a deep male voice, certainly not one that Tilly recognized. Toby started screaming, fighting to get away. It took all of Tilly’s effort to keep him from running off into the storm to a certain death.
“Toby stop!” she shrieked. She looked back at the man, his face now close enough to observe. He was a young man, likely not more than 20, but at Tilly’s age he seemed ancient. He had longer hair, down to his shoulder, unkempt, a small pudgy nose, and deep dark brown eyes.
“You’re a wanderer,” she mused. She stopped short – she hadn’t realized she’d said it out loud. “Wanderers” are what Ms. Grace called those who had climbed The Mountain and survived to return to Weylan Wynters. Tilly had always dreamt of meeting one of them. She’d seen them around the square before, usually crouched in a corner or muttering to themselves, but Ms. Grace was adamant that the children stay far, far away from them.
This was her chance; her chance to find out what The Mountain and the creatures it protected were all about. Unfortunately, this Wanderer didn’t seem interested in conversation.
“There’s no such thing as Wanderers,” he glared. “You’re sitting in my bed.”
Tilly glanced around then moved to her feet, Toby close by her. “I’m sorry, we didn’t know. Can…” She stuttered, terrified that this awful man might throw them back out into the storm. “Can we use one of the, the other stalls?”
The man merely grunted. Tilly decided that must be a ‘yes’ and hustled Toby over to the stall just across the aisle. She pulled off her cloak and dug into the hay to build a little nest for them to sleep in. The Wanderer appeared to be doing the same. Toby cuddled in underneath her arm and they both braced themselves for a very long night.
When they awoke the next morning the storm had disappeared along with their neighbor, the Wanderer. Tilly was a bit disappointed but found herself anxious to get home. She woke Toby, brushes the hay off their clothes, and guided them back to Tandilly Place.
“What on earth were you two thinking? You could have been killed! I almost called the officials to start a search! This whole place could have been shut down and left me on the street like one of those pinky Wanderers!”
Ms. Grace raged on for ages while the other children watched in horror – Tilly and Toby were in more trouble than any child had ever been.
“Please don’t be angry with Toby,” Tilly begged, “it was my idea, not his. He’s too little to understand.”
Ms.Grace granted her request but not without completing what she believed to be a well-deserved tirade. “You will hand over any money you’ve found, complete double chores, and have half a serving for each meal for a week. And early bedtimes for both of you – a full two hours before the other children until I feel I can trust you again.”
Tilly sulked up the stairs to the bathroom to bathe and change her stale clothes.
The warm soothing bath water was quite nice in contrast with the harsh tone she had just endured. She relaxed and went over her encounter with the Wanderer – it was quite fascinating. Now that she knew where he slept, she hoped she could track him down again and ask him some questions.
After her bath, she pulled on a small scratchy towel and returned to the main room to change. She was shocked to find all the children waiting eagerly for her on the other side of the door.
“We want to hear everything! Tell us about your adventure!” they cried. Even Toby was waiting with anticipation as if he’d already forgotten he was with her!
“I will tell you,” she said with a grin, “but we have to wait until tonight. I can’t get into anymore trouble and Ms. Grace is waiting for me downstairs for my chores.”
The children looked disappointed but they all made plans: Tilly and Toby would go to bed early as per their punishment but they wouldn’t go to sleep right away. Instead, they’d lie awake until the other children came to bed. Then after lights out, they’d all gather around Tilly’s bed to hear the story.
The plan was in place. Tilly was so excited to have such positive attention from the other kids that she forgot entirely about the butcher and his strange human prey.