(My apologies for the delay in Chp 3. ‘Holidays’ will be my chosen excuse)
Under a waning sun and clear sky, the Walkers, now four, travel northwest along a pathway of packed snow. The trail rolls with the countryside, sometimes drifting away from the telegraph line and sometimes passing directly beneath it. With the line dipping from pole to pole, the trail diverts around fallen trees and slaloms through stones too large to remove from the path. As they journey with the sun racing them toward the horizon, merchants hurriedly pass in the opposing direction, anxious to reach Nestol before the day’s end. Some smile and wave, recognizing the Walkers, while others glance away and pass in silence. With each encounter, Anna keeps close to the rear of the sled, shields her youthful face and does her best to remain unseen. The trip over the rolling hills is easy, and Wilder leads the group with a steady pace. Conversation is limited to idle chatter over the potential weather and the coming meal. The afternoon passes quickly, and soon the sun sinks into the horizon. As its light retreats, shadows stretch from the trees and caress Anna with icy fingers.
Before daylight becomes scarce, Wynn gives a signal, and the group breaks from the main road. Wilder leads them up a gradual incline that snakes through snow-covered pines, their needles dumping loose snow when bumped into. The slope crests into a wide ridge, and they continue until striking a small plot of level ground. Towering trees surround the perimeter with shadows already covering the open area. Scant shafts of sunlight shine through and dot the untouched swathes of white. As Wynn assesses the site, Anna peers through a gap in the pines to see the greater valley below. Train tracks stretch across fields of white in long arcs that dart in and out of the surrounding forest. Following the tracks south, Anna spots Nestol, now only a discolored rectangle on the vast landscape.
“This will do,” Wynn says. “Don’t you agree, Mr. Hemmett?”
“That it will,” Hemmett agrees as he scratches Wilder’s neck and undoes the sled’s harness.
“We’re stopping here?” Anna asks.
Wynn gives a quick nod while loosening the ropes tying down the sled’s cover. “Indeed. This is a good place to make camp. Level ground, it’s off the main road, and the trees will help break any wind that decides to pass through. The view is a nice bonus.”
“Why are we camping so far from the main road?” Anna asks.
“Thieves,” says Wynn with a grumble. He pulls the canvas cover away, reaches into the sled, and produces an extra cap, its fur a dark brown. Tugging it onto his head, the flaps dangle over his ears. “They’re everywhere, Ms. Holt. Northern people are well-intentioned, but many are here because of hard times. Hard times can cause well-intentioned people to make unsavory decisions. Until we’re further from Nestol, it’s best if we use discretion and avoid the main road at night. We’re far better off alone.”
Hemmett, finishing with the harness and freeing Wilder from the sled, gives Wynn a sideways look.
“What?” asks Wynn.
“You’re not going to mention it?”
“No,” Wynn grumbles as he pulls away the canvas cover, folding it before draping it over the side.
“Mention what?” Anna asks.
“There’s a bit more to it than the concern for theft,” Hemmett says.
“There is, Mr. Hemmett,” Wynn chides. “Though this isn’t the time to mention it. We discussed this earlier. Now isn’t appropriate.”
Anna gives Hemmett a long, displeasing look. “Mr. Wynn already explained the north’s lack of appreciation for the military. I’ve experienced enough of it to understand. My uniform ‘problem’ has already been corrected. And didn’t you notice I was able to slip by each traveler we saw without a second glance?”
“Not that,” Hemmett says. “Some thieves have done more than steal. Not even a month ago one poor woman was—well,” he trails off with a smirk. “Let’s just say a pretty, young woman holds a lot of value for those with ill intent.”
“Enough, Mr. Hemmett!” Wynn barks as he pounds a fist on the sled.
Anna’s face twists as if slapped. “What?”
Wynn lets out a frustrated sigh. “Damn you, Hemmett. Damn you. I told you to treat her as a guest. To make her feel comfortable. Not scare her before the first sunset!”
Hemmett’s dark eyes shift to Anna with a long stare. Shadows accentuate his strong jaw and prominent cheekbones. He stands in waiting, unmoving, with a thumb hitched to his belt. A terrible chill climbs over Anna’s skin as she glances around and notices their total isolation. Eerie silence sneaks through the trees. Nestol, though still visible on the horizon, suddenly feels a lifetime away. Miles of wilderness separate her from the rest of the world. She wonders how many hours of screaming it would be before anyone heard her and how many more before anyone bothered coming to her aid. Looking back at Hemmett and Wynn, their unfamiliarity is cast under a new light. She allows her hand to slowly drop and touch the stock of the rifle hanging from her shoulder.
“Ms. Holt,” Wynn says, “please, I beg you, ignore the rudeness of my colleague.”
“It’s important,” Hemmett says. “She should know.”
“She should feel safe!” Wynn scolds. Gripping the sled with both hands, he takes a deep breath and lets out a long, calming sigh.
“Mr. Wynn told me you’d be this way,” Anna says to Hemmett, “that you’d be mean to me because of my father.”
“I just thought you should know,” Hemmett replies, the smirk still lingering on his face.
Anna glares, her fingers still gripping the rifle’s stock. Its presence in her hand is comforting.
“It’s true, Ms Holt.” Wynn says, working to calm his voice. “It’s terribly unfortunate but true all the same. If you spend enough time with us, you’ll notice there are few women in this part of the world. Those that do call the north home are very shrewd or very tough. Usually both. I had no intention of keeping this unfortunate topic a secret. Given its sensitive nature, I wanted to discuss it later, after you’d gotten to know us better. It feels strange to speak of such depraved acts before you learn the quality of our own character. Believe me when I say we’re well aware of your situation. It’s rather extreme. You’re in a foreign land with people you know nothing about. You’ve no way of contacting the outside world. Lesser men might use that opportunity to take advantage of you. We’re nothing of the sort. I hope you’ll give us the time to prove that to you.”
“Just don’t go running off trusting anyone else,” Hemmett says.
Wynn stomps around the sled and thrusts a snow shovel into Hemmett’s hands. “You. Dig. Now.”
Hemmett, smiling, takes the shovel and begins digging out a small section of snow for his tent.
“Come, come,” Wynn says while approaching Anna, handing her a shovel. “The quickest way to disarm Mr. Hemmett’s rudeness is to simply let it go. The less his foulness gets to you, the more he suffers. Here, let me teach you how we establish camp.” Trampling the snow, Wynn uses his boots to stomp out a small perimeter. “You make another like this for your tent and then dig out the loose snow. Not too deep. Only enough to make a bit of a bunker should the wind pick up. Once you’re dug out, pack the snow some. And consider the shape you leave behind for that’s what you’ll be sleeping on.”
With considerable effort, Anna focuses on the instruction and forces Hemmett from her mind. The shoveling is easy in the light snow. Once the area is cleared and the snow packed, they lay large buffalo hides for the base of their tents. Then it’s oiled canvas propped up with stakes hammered deep. With the tent sprung, she and Wynn move thick furs and wool blankets into each one. Anna delights from the weight of the skins in her arms. These just might be enough to keep me warm, she thinks.
On the edge of camp, Wilder trundles from bush to bush, digging and shoving his head deep into the snow in search of roots. With each resurfacing, his head is caked in white. He seems to smile at his own silliness before flinging the snow free, working his way to another bush, and beginning the process once more.
Hemmett finishes his tent in silence. Watching Anna and Wynn working together, successfully ignoring his presence, he sighs with a touch of regret and unloads the cooking equipment.
The fading day slips by like a thief. Shadows swallow the land, dominating the hillsides and laying siege on helpless valleys. The temperature plummets, growing colder and stinging Anna’s nose and cheeks. Even the air smells frigid. After brief coordination, the three depart from camp in separate directions in search of firewood.
Anna, still feeling a bit like a newborn foal in her snowshoes, takes the opportunity to have a moment alone. She descends a casual grade of the hillside, weaving around wondrous trees turned to statues of snow, and comes to a small clearing offering full view of the greater valley Nestol calls home. Growing bonfires on the edge of town flicker like bold stars. A small black cloud streaks from the station like a dark smudge as another train departs.
How I’d love to be aboard that, she thinks, evil stares and all. She sighs a long plume of breath into the chilling night. Death of man, what the hell is even happening? How did life change this fast? Not six months ago I was screaming at my father, him screaming back, all about some bloody war and enlisting and… and now I can barely remember. She looks across the land, a frozen wilderness full of silence. Light retreats from the sky. Shivering, she pulls Wynn’s fur cap tighter around her head, tucking the ear covers into her jacket. Oh father, why here? Why? Was there really nowhere else? Were you really that furious? Maybe it’s my fault for not understanding. All those years you spent leaning over charts and maps, I never understood there was an actual land you were trying to defend. I never realized the scope of what you were looking at. Maybe if I had known, I’d have yelled back at you a little less. Maybe… The piercing cry of a bird of prey cuts the silence like razor-sharp talons, and Anna sees a large hawk with azure wings dip through the darkening sky.
Another wave of cold trembles through her body, shaking her head and wobbling her shoulders.
Keep moving. Push the cold away.
Taking her time for fear of a misstep sending her tumbling into the powder, Anna descends a curving slope and happens upon an old tree. The trunk is bare and sun-bleached. Its limbs reach for the sky with dead arms, barren of greenery. Anna thumbs the edge of her hatchet, feeling the blade, and hacks at a branch. The blade bites into the wood with ease. The tree is long dead and dry, perfect for burning. She works aggressively, swinging hard and often, begging her body to create heat. A fire will feel so nice, she thinks. I wonder how large Wynn will allow it. It can’t burn too bright if we’re trying not to be seen. The branch breaks away and falls into the snow. Anna packs the powder with her snowshoes and carefully pulls the branch from the tree’s well. What happens if someone finds us, she wonders while hacking the limb into manageable lengths. If someone sees the fire, would they come this far off the road to investigate? They must know someone’s there. Would thieves dare approach an occupied camp? Or do they wait until we’re asleep?
“Ms. Holt!” calls a distant shout from up the hill.
“I’m here!” She waits, hearing her own voice carry over the hillside.
“Everything fine?” calls the voice. It sounds like Wynn’s.
“Yes! Almost finished!”
“Night falls, Ms. Holt! Don’t linger!”
Anna looks up. Stars twinkle to life in the clear sky. A small crescent of moon floats above the mountains. Frigid air bites at every inch of exposed skin. She stretches her mouth and lips, feeling hints of numbness. Brushing snow from the logs, she drops them into a small pack and makes her way up the hill. During the ascent, she pauses once more to look over the valley. Shadows strangle the landscape and darken into night. Nestol sparkles from a growing collection of torches and lanterns. Another shiver ripples through her.
Pretty though, despite the cold, she thinks. Very pretty.
Behind her comes a low, thick huff.
She turns slowly. At first, she only sees snow and trees. Then there’s another sound, that of snow sloughing as Wilder pushes his head through a jumble of pines. He eyes her and tilts his head to the side. Another sigh falls from him, pluming through his nose.
“Hello,” Anna says, unsure of what the muskox may do.
Wilder stares with deep, brown eyes. The look makes Anna’s skin tingle. There’s something in there, she thinks. He’s no ordinary animal.
Wilder snorts, sniffs the snow, turns and walks away, his dark fur sweeping the loose powder as he goes.
Anna watches until the muskox is out of sight.
When she returns to camp, a fire is already burning in a dugout pit. Above it, a metal tripod suspends a black cooking pot. Yellow tongues lick at its smooth belly. Rabbit stew simmers within. The smell of the cooking meal dominates Anna’s nose and causes her stomach to grumble. Hemmett gently stirs the pot with the care of one who appreciates a well-cooked meal in the wilderness. “Ready for some stew?” he asks as she adds her collection to the wood pile.
“Sounds good,” Anna says, refusing to look him in the eye.
“I made a seat for you,” Wynn says. “It isn’t much, but it’s better than the snow. Fold that blanket however it pleases you.” He points to a tree round near the fire. “If there’s time tomorrow, perhaps we can carve the center some to make it a bit more comfortable.”
“Thank you,” Anna says while adjusting the blanket. She sits and leans toward the fire, extending frigid fingers. Glorious warmth soaks in through the wool of her gloves.
“Care for a drink?” Hemmett asks.
“Nope,” she says, staring into the fire.
Wynn and Hemmett exchange a quick glance. Hemmett shrugs.
Dinner is a silent affair. While they eat, the only sound in the camp is of their spoons scraping and tapping at tin bowls. The rabbit stew is delicious and fills Anna’s stomach with amazing warmth. Wynn’s attempts at idle conversation are met by Anna with simple answers. Hemmett’s are met with silence. Wilder rests off to the side, relaxing in the powder and watching Anna closely. When she glances over, the animal never looks away. A deep interest lingers in his eyes, as if he were waiting to hear from her directly, to learn her reason for being there and to know more of her life.
Time stretches. Temperatures drop. The sky above goes black and fills with the dust of countless stars.
After an hour of staring into the fire, Anna breaks her silence.
“I’m tired, but I want to say a few things before I go to sleep.” She pauses, looking them both in the eye to ensure she has their attention. “First, I’m not afraid of being here with the two of you. I don’t believe either of you have any intention of hurting me, so please don’t worry, Mr. Wynn. You’ve done a wonderful job of making me feel welcome. Thank you for that.”
“I figure my father placed me under your supervision for a reason,” she continues, “so there’s that. Second, even if you were considering something, I’ll be sleeping with my rifle. I also have two knives and a small pistol. The military trained me how to use them all and how to use them well. If either of you come near my tent, you’d better state your intentions beforehand. Clear?”
Wynn smiles, his eyes hinting at pride. “Quite clear, Ms. Holt.”
“Clear as the sky above us,” says Hemmett.
“Good.” Anna looks Hemmett dead in the eye. “Maybe you think it’s funny what you did, trying to scare me like that, but it told me something about you. It told me you’re petty, Mr. Hemmett. It told me you’d rather be cruel to someone you’ve just met rather than let your own past go. I don’t know what happened between you and my father. That’s none of my business, though I won’t lie, I’d like to know. I hope someday you’ll tell me. But either way, I’m here now. This is happening. Like it or not, we’re stuck together for… well, who knows how long. I’d like to be friends if we can. Truly. Our kind has too many enemies. War is tearing Man apart. I’d much rather see you as an ally than another battle needing to be fought.”
The sternness in Hemmett falters and fades. In its place, a hint of regret.
Wynn takes another silent sip of his tea, his eyes smiling.
Anna’s words lord over the campsite like a courtroom judge eager to charge someone with contempt. Her statement is met with silence. Satisfied with the reaction, Anna stands. “Goodnight.”
* * *
Anna crawls under a small mountain of thick furs and waits for heat to arrive. Feet and fingers dabble with numbness. Her legs feel like frozen posts layered with ice. She curls her knees to her chest and pulls her wool blanket over her face, leaving room enough for her only nose to poke through. Waiting for her body to form a core of heat beneath those heavy skins, Anna thinks back to her grueling days of boot camp. The heat, the humidity, the constant dampness of moisture and sweat and the foul body odors that came with it. At least snow has a clean smell, she thinks. Can’t say I care for the smell of canvas tents though.
She closes her eyes and wishes for sleep.
Anxious thoughts keep her awake.
At least Wynn is nice. Sincere. I wonder if he was former military. Seems like he could have been, though he hasn’t mentioned it. Too nice though. Too patient. He never could have been a drill instructor. I wonder if he would have survived boot camp. Hell, I barely survived boot camp.
Through the thick canvas tent, she can hear the fire crackling with gentle pops and snaps. Occasionally, Hemmett sniffs or clears his throat.
Hemmett I don’t know about. Anytime I look him in the eye, I get this feeling he’s just waiting until we’re alone. I hope Wynn doesn’t let that happen. I’ll need to stay near him for now, until I can figure Hemmett out. Something about those eyes. Wynn was right. He has a disdain for me.
A core of heat blooms in her chest. Slowly, limbs thaw as warmth trickles to extremities that tingle in response. The heat is enough to allow her tense body to relax.
How did any of this happen? Where on Earth am I? What was I thinking? Trying to enlist under a false name, defying Father, thinking no one would find out. Stupid. So stupid. As if I could waltz through the heart of our military without anyone recognizing me. And now look what’s happened. Sent to be hidden away in the north. Why Hemmett though? If they had such a falling out, why would Father want me in his care? I wonder if there’s something else happening here.
Of course there is. Death of man, fall asleep already.
Time becomes gooey, sticking in place before stretching forward. Anna, still curled in a ball, still with her eyes closed, wonders how much time has passed. She wonders if she’s wasted half the night worrying of things beyond her control and wonders how tired she’ll be in the morning. She wonders how far the temperature has fallen. Wonders how far those distant peaks are. Wonders if where they’re going next is just as busy as—
Wakeful thought gives way to shallow sleep.
An hour slips by in an instant.
Anna startles awake to the sound of howling wolves. Gasping with surprise, she sits up, and the heat beneath her skins immediately surrenders to cold. Through the canvas, she can see dull yellow from the campfire. “Mr. Wynn?” she asks. “Mr. Hemmett?”
“It’s quite alright,” Wynn says, his voice filled with sleep. “They’re a fair distance off, and Mr. Hemmett is keeping a watchful eye.”
“All is quiet on the northern front,” says Hemmett.
Another howl leaps into the night, a lone wolf starting the long song with several others joining the chorus one at a time, their voices layering atop one another in cresting waves of sound. Surrounded by her tent, Anna can picture the distant mountains, the trees and valleys between them, and the endless span of stars suspended above. Listening to the wolves sing, she imagines their song rolling to the furthest peaks and highest stars.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Wynn says. “At first it can sound so lonesome, so melancholy, but if you truly listen, you hear what the song really is. One of comradery. Family. Union. They sing to each other, though miles apart. They come together from all across the wilderness to join with each other through song.”
“It sounds pretty creepy to me,” Anna says.
“Listen again,” Wynn says. “Don’t hear the sound as a threat, Ms. Holt. Hear it as an embrace.”
They wait. The fire snaps.
A low, solitary howl starts, the sound distant. The pitch rolls, growing higher, until two more wolves join in. The newcomers sing lower, allowing the first to carry its note higher and higher. Then more join, all at variable tones. The howling coalesces into a choir that makes Anna’s hair stand. The song floods their camp, and for a moment, its all Anna can hear. The song comes from every direction, from valleys and peaks, from thick trees and open fields. The cry seems to last forever before surrendering to silence.
“What do you think?” Wynn asks.
Anna slumps into her bed, laying back and pulling her skins over her. “It sounds very lonely to me. They sound sad.”
“It’s possible they are,” Wynn says. “Perhaps that’s why they sing.”
“How long does it last?” she asks. “Their singing.”
“It varies,” says Hemmett. “Sometimes minutes, sometimes over an hour.”
“These are our sirens, Ms. Holt,” Wynn says. “And this is their lullaby. I’m sure it’s unsettling at first, but give yourself an open mind. Listen to them, not your fear of them. Hear their song. Once you do, you may find yourself having a different opinion. You just may find understanding in their singing.”
Anna curls into a ball and closes her eyes as the song passes over the rolling hills like a gentle breeze. She listens closely, hearing each voice, following each change in pitch. She feels the sorrow, the longing. Yet somewhere underneath the sound, layered within the collection of tones, a binding call is heard. A hint of strength rides among the notes, for they are separate but not alone. Though divided by forest and stone, in the still night their voices close the distance and bring them together.
As she listens, she settles into her bed. Before the wolves conclude their evening recital, Anna is asleep.