Far to the North (Chapter 4)

After twelve weeks of infantry training, training consisting of sprinting up lowland foothills and crawling through sloppy mud, of wading through thick swamps and muck-filled streams, of marching with fully loaded packs and her weapon raised above her head until her shoulders are numb and her legs feel like wet noodles, Anna learns a surprising truth of the north.

Walking is hard.

The reasons are small but many, and they pile upon her with each mile they travel.

After an easy morning along the main trail, sun piercing through endless blue sky, the Walkers veer north at a small junction in the telegraph line and head into swelling hills. The road rises and falls and tilts with the bending hillsides. Though only passing through the lowlands of the north, rising elevation already tests Anna’s lungs. The thin, dry air is worlds apart from the vapor of the sweltering south, and her lungs flex like the gills of a beached fish gasping for oxygen. Each ascent, no matter how mild, feels like a fight against suffocation. Wilder’s pace is draining in its persistence. It’s a saving grace he leads with trampling hooves, dragging fur and a trailing sled, creating a semi-packed path for Anna to follow. The snow is another challenge—light, dry and eager to steal her feet and send her tumbling. The snowshoes weigh on her feet, bumping together between careless steps and altering her gait. Muscles burn. Blood pumps with a steady drumming of her heart.

With considerable effort, she keeps pace enough to stay near the rear of the sled.

Mid-morning, Wynn pauses the group for a brief snack. While nibbling on jerky and cheese, he hands her goggles to wear. “Snow-blindness, Ms. Holt,” he says, slipping on his own pair of bulky, tinted lenses. “It’s a terrible thing. So much sunlight reflecting back is difficult on the eyes. They weren’t necessary yesterday afternoon with the setting sun and shading trees, but today is one of those rare days that looks to be flush with sunshine.” With the goggles on, he smiles wide. “How do I look?”

Seeing nothing but a black beard streaked with silver, caramel lenses resting over ebony skin, and pink lips around bared teeth, Anna can’t help but chuckle. “Like a fashionable yeti.”

Wynn adjusts the goggles to his face. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

An unrealized strain departs when Anna slides the tinted lenses over her eyes. Harsh glare is rebuked. Intense whites dull into soothing creams. Anna takes in the newly visible world around her. Forests sprawl over ridges, reaching toward peaks that span upward until rocky mountainsides sustain them no longer. Above the tree line, ice and stone house mighty cornices that lean precariously over cliffs. On a far ridge, a small bank gives way and slides toward the valley in a misty cloud of white.

“You’re staying warm?” he asks.

Still chewing on jerky, Anna nods her answer until the salty meat goes down. “I’m even working up a sweat on the hills.”

“We’ll slow our pace,” Wynn says, raising his hand to stave off her protest. “You’re doing great, Ms. Holt. Be well with that. But understand that sweat betrays you once light falls. Days like this are misleading. Warmth cheers you on, but the night soon comes and you’re woefully reminded of your place. Sweat freezes too, you see. In the north, moisture is our enemy. Your first priority is to keep dry. Mm,” he grunts while taking a bite of cheese, “which reminds me.” He hands over a water skin. “Drink often, quick little sips when you pause to catch your breath. Dehydration is equally dangerous in this climate.”

From the skin, she squeezes the freshest water she’s ever enjoyed, as if it were collected from the mountain tops themselves, tasting of minerals and glaciers and snow. “Thank you,” she says with a hint of hesitation. “I’m sorry for slowing you down.”

Wynn smiles. “No apologies, Ms. Holt. It’s in our best interest to acclimate you properly, and to be quite honest, a slower pace suits me just as well.” Smiling, Wynn gives his hip a pat. “Wilder is still young and has too much gumption, and Mr. Hemmett only eggs him on. The two can be insufferable at times. Half the time you’d think they’re racing.” He glances toward the front of the sled. “Where to, I couldn’t say.”

Anna looks at Hemmett and Wilder. Both stand around casually, Hemmett nibbling bread and Wilder waiting. To Anna, they look bored, as if they’ve been standing all morning rather than marching mile after mile. Their nonchalant behavior is a strong contrast to the energy she’s exerted, and a seed of concern plants itself in her mind. They’ll go slower? she wonders. What in the world does double-time look like? Not wanting to know the answer, she puts the question out of her mind.

“How is the altitude treating you?” Wynn asks.

Anna inhales, long and clear, until her lungs swell to the brink. Much like the water from Wynn’s skin, the air is crisp and delicious. “It’s been rough. I keep breathing and breathing, and I can feel the air going into my lungs, but they keep burning like I’m not breathing at all. It’s like nothing is happening.” She takes another sip from the skin and returns it to Wynn. “It’s been a tough change.”

“Slow and steady,” Wynn says.

Anna nods.

Wynn steps a little closer and lowers his voice. “You’re alright this morning? I noticed you’ve kept yourself to the rear. You’ll tell me if something is bothering you?”

Death of man, she thinks. He thinks I’m drifting back by choice. “I’m alright,” she says, not wanting to reveal her struggle. “Just thinking. It’s a lot to take in,” she says, motioning to the wilderness, “all of this. Being here.”

Unseen eyes stare back through tinted lenses. Rogue strands from Wynn’s mighty mustache curl back and tickle his goggles. “I imagine so,” he says. “I’ll leave you to your considerations. Perhaps we’ll chat this afternoon.”

Anna nods. “I’d like that.”

As if her words are a dropping flag signaling the start of another race, Wilder starts off. Wynn trots ahead to join Hemmett by the impatient muskox’s side.

Anna huffs a quick sigh, takes a final bite of jerky, and follows.

Despite the call to travel slower, Anna still struggles to keep pace. Rather than force herself, she adheres to Wynn’s warning and maintains a comfortable speed, sparing her lungs from unseen fire. As minutes pass and the sled slowly pulls away, her concern blossoms into full-blown embarrassment. I can’t keep up, she thinks as the figures she follows disappear over a low ridge. Even when they go slower, I can’t keep up. She shakes her head and sighs with frustration. Head slumping, she marches on with steady steps and crests the small rise. A short distance beyond, the three Walkers stand in waiting. Though flustered by the eyes watching her, elation sprints through her heart. They’ve stopped so I can catch up, she thinks, even Hemmett and Wilder. She closes the gap and flashes a smile when reaching the group. After taking a quick sip from her water skin, Wynn nods with approval. Not a hint of disappointment is given. No sideways glances can be found. Their patience is genuine and their faith in her ability true. Anna feels her heart swell with appreciation.

The group slinks across the landscape. Aside from Wynn’s occasional backward glance (Hemmett appears to never look), the group is content to allow her space. Anna is grateful for the time alone, trekking through the frozen world as if lost in a dream. Thoughts spin through her mind like dancing cyclones, thoughts of her father and his intentions, her exile and the war. How long, I wonder. How long does he intend to hide me here? Until the war is over? Longer? Forever? What happens if he’s relieved of command? Or killed? Am I forgotten? Does anyone even know I’m here? As her thoughts spiral further, she finds herself thinking of home, and her heart aches with longing. Such a fool, she thinks. A damned fool. I should have listened to mother. She was right all along. Feeling herself sliding into despair, she glances up to see Wynn looking back, checking her distance. He smiles wide, another chance sighting of the fashionable yeti, and his silly face yanks her back from the edge. Smiling as wide as he can, he doesn’t look away until Anna smiles back.

Midday comes, and they break for lunch in a grove of thick pines. Already weary, Anna plops down into the snow. Wilder huffs with approval, mimicking the act with a collapse of his own, powder puffing away in a cloud. To eat, Wynn provides sliced salami, bread and cheese. Here comes a lecture on walking efficiently, she thinks as he hands the small spread to her, but the fashionable yeti simply smiles and leaves her be, opting to sit beside Hemmett near the front of the sled. The two men eat quietly and rarely speak. The few words they do exchange are hushed mumbles. Anna strains to listen, curious of what’s being said, and catches only the end of their conversation. “Give her time,” Wynn says. “She’ll come around.” When Wynn looks in her direction, she drinks from her water skin and pretends not to hear.

Though the break from walking is relished, the frigid air of the shadows wraps around her, soaks into her winter clothes and settles onto her skin. Before her meal is finished, cold shivering assaults her body. Though aching for more rest, she’s happy to hear an impatient snort from Wilder and the dry squeaks of the sled gliding through the snow again. Walking equals warmth. As Hemmett and Wilder pull away, Wynn waits and joins Anna by her side.

“Care for a little company?” he asks.

“Sure,” Anna says with a polite smile. They walk together, and she studies his pace in attempt to match it. Relief washers over her when she finds the pace he sets is slower than her own. Already, the day’s mileage is creeping into her legs, and they yearn for slower travel.

“Ms. Holt, not to sound inappropriate, but I do have one concern I’d like to discuss.”

“That being?”

“Frankly, I’m concerned about your weight.”

“Excuse me?” Anna says with more snap in her voice than she intended.

“You’re too thin, young lady. The military has done well in making you strong and lean, as is their duty, but there are no dwarves here to fight. Your battle is with the cold.” Wynn pats his modest belly as they navigate between boulders standing twice their height. Snow rests atop them like chef’s hats. “Strength is important, but a healthy layer of blubber is just as vital. I’ve been watching you, and you eat little more than a squirrel.”

“Well,” Anna admits, “I could eat more if I needed to, but I’d rather not take all of your food.”

Wynn waves a disregarding hand. “We’re well stocked, Ms. Holt. There’s no need to worry about that. Mr. Hemmett and I live off the land. Fortune is on your horizon, however,” he says with a sly smile. “Once we repair the line to Nil, we’ll continue into town and enjoy some delicious ice-berry pie. Have you ever had ice-berry pie?”

Anna shakes her head. “I haven’t.” She hesitates, replaying his words again in her head. “Did you say Nil?”

“I did. Station N-11,” Wynn says. “Those in this area have taken to calling it Nil. The double-meaning is quite intentional. Much of Nil’s existence has been misfortune. It was supposed to be an outpost to launch further expeditions north, but when the war broke out, resources were diverted and the small town was essentially forgotten. Even the stationed lieutenant was reassigned without replacement. Only a handful of people live there now.”

“If the town is forgotten, why do they stay? Why not go somewhere else?”

“A certain freedom comes with being forgotten. Those in Nil like their privacy.”

Anna glances at Wynn. “Sounds like they’re hiding.”

“Some are,” he says with a nod. “I’ll not lie, Ms. Holt. There are a few deserters calling Nil home.”

Hard lines dig into Anna’s brow. “If they’re deserters, they should be reported. Man needs every person we can muster on the front.”

“The reports have been filed, Ms. Holt. I should know. I filed them. It’s my duty to do so, but to what end? Is the army to send five or ten men to retrieve one or two? And who’s to say those sent will perform their duties and not desert themselves? While I agree with you in principal, reality isn’t so simple.” Wynn catches a glimpse of the frustration on Anna’s face. “It upsets you, doesn’t it? The idea of people running from the war.”

“It isn’t right. If you’ve chosen to fight, you shouldn’t abandon your post.”

“Not all of them chose. Remember what I said of the conscripts.”

Remembering, Anna grumbles. “What good does it do to run to the mountains and hide?”

Wynn lets out a sympathetic sigh. “Not much, I suppose, though most do end up directly involved with the mining industry. Gold is important, as you know. The Army needs funding. Mostly, they’re doing what they can to survive, like anyone. I doubt most choose to be here, yet here they are none the less. Life leads us down strange paths. Surely you can relate to that.”

“I suppose,” Anna says in a begrudging tone.

“Each person has their war, Ms. Holt, and their own way of fighting it. You’ve made a noble choice in joining the cause, but not everyone can do that. Some are quite fearful, to be honest. The stories coming from the south… these dwarves and what they’re doing… it’s horrific. For many, it’s too much.”

A moment of silence passes as they consider the tales, monstrous stories of men torn apart by their limbs, impaled on spikes or boiled alive in oil, of unfathomable siege engines laying waste to human forts and strongholds. Even worse are the stories of man’s weapons losing effectiveness against their cruel enemy. Not only do losses mount, they gain in severity.

“Vile business, that,” Wynn says in a sour tone. “And what of your war, Ms. Holt?” he asks, changing both tone and topic. “How have your new captors treated you?”

“My captors treat me quite well,” she says with a smile. “Five-star review.”

“Five stars!?” Wynn says with playful delight. “I should take prisoners more often.”

Anna’s smile grows into a light chuckle. “Capture northern girls though, someone used to the climate.”

“Too easy. Wouldn’t be a capture. Northern women come running at the sight of a fashionable yeti.”

Anna’s chuckle rolls into a laugh. “Oh, do they?”

Wynn strokes his magnificent beard. “It’s a law. Like gravity.”

Anna laughs again, and the sound rolls in front of her through the trees. She catches sight of Hemmett glancing over his shoulder.

“And the north itself?” Wynn asks. “What’s your impression thus far?”

“There’s so much snow,” she says. “I had no idea. And so cold. Even when it’s sunny like this, it’s still cold.” She rubs her gloved hands together. “It’s quiet though. I like that. And peaceful. This is nothing like the city. I can see why people come here, despite the snow and the cold and the silly yetis.”

Wynn grins with satisfaction. “Do you enjoy the city?” he asks.

Anna sighs as a crinkle of thought flashes across her brow. “I did. At least I thought I did. I mean, it’s home after all. Everything’s been turned so upside-down though. I miss being home and my mother, but life is so crazy down there.” She blows a plume of breath into the air and watches it disappear. “In a weird way, after everything that’s happened, it’s nice to get away.”

“Yes,” Wynn agrees. “Distance has a gift of creating clarity.”

“Yeah,” Anna says with downcast eyes. “Yeah.” She kicks at the snow with her shoe. Clumps fling from the webbing and fall into untouched banks, leaving small pits.

“Ms. Holt,” Wynn says, seeing the mousy look covering her face. “What did happen? Why are you here?”

Raising her eyes to the horizon, Anna lets out a long sigh. Her breath swirls and dissipates. “I was just… stupid. So stupid.”

Wynn waits for her to continue. When she doesn’t, he says in a delicate tone, “It’s fine if you don’t wish to discuss it, but I’m here if you need someone to listen. Yetis don’t tell secrets.”

Anna nods, and a long moment passes. Just as Wynn feels she’s closed herself off, Anna breaks the silence.

“I wanted to enlist,” she says. “As you can imagine, my father wouldn’t let me.”

Wynn nods. “Not surprising.”

“Nope, not at all. And to be honest, I don’t hold it against him. Not with how the war’s gone so far.”

“So how is it you came to be part of the infantry?”

“I wouldn’t let it go,” Anna says. “So finally, I got clever,” she says with sarcasm, tapping her head. “I started scheming and came up with the perfect plan. I found someone to forge my papers so I could enlist under a different name. The Army doesn’t care anyway. They’re desperate for people. They don’t have the time for background checks. I went to the recruitment office the next town over, filed my papers, passed a quick physical, and that was it,” she says with half a laugh. “Just like that. Just like you’d expect. I was off to boot camp within the week.”

“And your mother?” Wynn asks.

“Months before, she had me applying to universities. She wanted me nowhere near that war. I applied like she asked and waited for acceptance letters to start coming in. The idea was to make her think I was at school instead of boot camp. I knew it wouldn’t last. They’d inform her when I wasn’t attending any classes, but I only needed a small window, maybe a week or two. Just enough time to get lost in the system. I figured if I could get that far, it would work.”

“Mmm,” Wynn grumbles in listening.

“And you know what?” she says, turning to face him. “It did work.” She forces a laugh and lets her hands fall, slapping her thighs. “No one knew who I was. No one cared. Drill instructors yelled at me like anyone else. I made friends and created a back story of where I was from. None of them had a clue. No one asked anything too personal, so the lie was easy to maintain. I was just another soldier. I didn’t matter. My father didn’t matter. It worked perfectly.” Anna laughs as the memory of her failure plays itself, a sour laugh dripping with defeat.

Ahead, Hemmett and Wilder wait near the crossing of a frozen stream. Small boulders leave swollen lumps in the snow like shallow graves. Happy to have his new guest talking, Wynn gives them a subtle wave to continue on without them.

“Boot camp was hell, though not as bad I was expecting,” Anna continues. “Time slips by, we graduate, and it comes time to get our orders. My entire division is getting sent to the front. Everyone, across the board. Names are being read alphabetically, and I’m starting to wonder why they’re reading names at all when all the orders are the same. Then my instructor gets to me, and just stops and looks,” she says, sliding up her goggles to mimic the expression. Her brown eyes are hard and cold and filled with disdain. “And he doesn’t say anything. Just skips me and goes on to the next name.”

“Uh oh,” says Wynn.

“Uh oh,” agrees Anna, sliding the goggles back down. “People start glancing around. Everyone noticed it. Why wasn’t I been called? What happened? People start whispering. The names keep coming, more orders for the front. I stand there and listen to every person I trained with, all of my friends, go straight to the front while they wonder why my name was never called.”

Wynn nods. “That must’ve been uncomfortable.”

“It was damned embarrassing,” Anna says with a spit. “And just like my father. Death of man, he can never just beat you at something, you know? He has to rub your face in it too.”

Wynn steps to the side of the trail and takes a sip of water. Seeing him do so, Anna draws a drink from her own skin, swirling the cold liquid in her mouth before swallowing it down. She hooks the skin over her shoulder, adjusts the rifle on her back, and puts her fists on her hips. A mix of frustration and disappointment covers her face.

“Is that when you learned of coming north?” Wynn asks between sips. “Were your orders announced in front of your peers?”

“No,” Anna says, her body relaxing with the answer, “thankfully. I was held aside while the others were dismissed. They asked me who I was, who I really was, showed me my forged documents. I eventually told them what they wanted. I had to. The game was up. They knew who I was. I guess they were seeing how far I was going to take it.” As they resume their walking, Anna shields her eyes and looks ahead. “Isn’t Mr. Hemmett going to wait?”

“He’ll scout ahead for a proper campsite,” Wynn says. “Don’t worry. We’ll follow their tracks.”

“Anyway,” Anna says with a sigh, “the rest happened so fast. Orders north. I was shoved onto a train that night. No explanation, no disciplinary action. Just sent away.”

“Well,” Wynn says with a shrug. “Better than the brig.”

“I guess,” Anna says, her voice disillusioned. “But don’t you see? The whole time I thought I was beating my father at his stupid game, but instead I fell right into his hands. The moment I enlisted, I gave him absolute control. Stupid. So stupid. Enlisting wasn’t defiance at all. It was total submission. He couldn’t stop me when I was only his daughter. As soon as I enlisted, I was his to command. So he creates some nonsense orders and sends me north. Just like that.”

Wynn gives a slow nod of understanding. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Ms. Holt. Though flawed, it wasn’t the worst idea. People have lied on enlistment papers before. Your options were limited. You took a chance.”

“And failed,” Anna says.

“No,” Wynn says in immediate disagreement. “You didn’t fail.”

“Of course I did. Look where I am,” she says, raising her hands in disgust. “I’m at the edge of the world, weeks, if not months from the front. This is disaster, complete disaster! I couldn’t have failed any worse if I tried.”

“True,” Wynn says after allowing Anna a moment to calm down, “your plan didn’t transpire as you hoped, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure on your part. Maybe you failed to see the flaw, but either way, the risk of being caught was the same. Chance was all you had, so it was chance you ultimately took. All in all, I think you were pretty successful.”

“How?”

Wynn unbuttons his gray coat and hooks his thumbs onto his belt. “You’re part of the infantry now, aren’t you? Not on the front, no, but infantry still. That’s something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. You survived boot camp without special treatment. You’ve sacrificed as much as anyone else, if not more given your circumstances. You utilized your options as well as you could. That isn’t failure, Ms. Holt. In life, that’s called coming up a little short. It happens to the best of us, your father included. Me as well.”

The rolling grade they climb crests into a bald ridge. Brilliant sun shines down, and the dry snow shimmers with sparkling light. Ahead, Hemmett and Wilder stand in waiting beside a gnarled tree, its old limbs bare and twisted and reaching to the sky like a dying hand.

“You have failed in one aspect though,” Wynn says. “That much is certain.”

“Which is?”

“You’ve failed in giving yourself the credit you deserve.”

Anna glares, wondering if Wynn’s words are somehow a trap. “What do you mean?”

“Mm,” Wynn says with a nod, stopping his march and looking back. Thick woods spill away below them, their limbs layered with snow. Frozen lakes dot the valley in small splotches of white. Towering around them, mountain ranges push up as if battling one another for height. Distant winds whip snow-capped peaks, curling snow into the clear sky. “What do you see down there?” he asks.

Anna shrugs and shakes her head. “I don’t know. Snow, trees. Mountains.”

“Is that it?” Wynn asks.

With her back to the sun, Anna slips off her goggles and stares. Lazy hills roll toward rocky peaks, ending in pointed crags that scrape the sky. Ancient glaciers cling to steep mountainsides. A snaking line of white creeps through the forest before finding a cliff, spilling over and giving birth to a frozen waterfall.

“I guess,” she finally says.

“I look at that,” Wynn says, “and I see an incredible distance a young woman has already come, not twenty-four hours in my charge. That’s remarkable to me. Think of who you are and where you’re from. Where you were two weeks ago. You’ve marched through a harsh land and entrusted yourself to complete strangers. This, on top of completing strenuous military training. Even with your plan to reach the front in ruins, you march on. Though beaten, you continue. That isn’t failure. Far from it.” Wynn gives her a gentle touch on the shoulder and starts up the hill. “Think on that, Ms. Holt,” he says over his shoulder. “You’ve focused so much on what went wrong, you’re blind to so many things gone right.”

Anna stands alone for a moment, letting her eyes stroll across the scenic view. Her breathing calms. The furrow in her brow diminishes. She takes a deep breath, smelling the coldness of the air, a scent of pines and pristine snow. Absent from the smell is so much smoke and heat and sweat that hangs in the city she calls home. Letting the breath out, she closes her eyes in consideration. Maybe he’s right. Maybe this isn’t failure, despite so much having gone wrong. Maybe there is more positive than I realize. Opening her eyes, a part of her hopes to see the world transformed, as if the landscape itself would change if seen with an optimistic point of view. But the mountains and trees and snow are unchanged, and in her heart, defeat still lingers. But I’m still a million miles away from everything, she thinks. From those I trained with, from the war, from everything worth fighting for. She glances over her shoulder to see Wynn marching away in methodical steps up the grade, clumps of snow kicking from his feet. But maybe… maybe.

She turns up the hill.

Not far ahead, she finds Hemmett, Wilder and Wynn standing along the trail and waiting for her to arrive. The path narrows and turns downward, winding across a hillside in snaky turns and tight switchbacks. Old pines rest beside the trail like towers, their vertical trunks showing the frightful angle of the ridge. Early afternoon light passes through their limbs and cuts into the shadows like golden blades.

“Gets a little tricky here,” says Hemmett. “We’ll need to manage the sled.” He looks at Anna. “Up for it?”

“Of course,” she says. “What do I do?”

“Have her on the brake?” Hemmett asks Wynn.

“I think so,” Wynn agrees. “Come ‘round to the side, Ms. Holt. See this here?” he asks, pointing to a long lever built into the runners. “This is a bit of a brake, though don’t give it too much credit. It’s as crude as it looks, just a lever forcing a plank of wood into the snow, but it helps with tricky situations like this. You manage this while Mr. Hemmett and I keep the sled from leaning too far to the side.”

“How much break do I use?” she asks.

“Enough to keep it off Wilder’s heels,” says Hemmett. “He’ll do the hard part, just don’t let the sled start pushing him down the hill.”

Wilder snorts in agreement.

Anna removes her snowshoes and mounts the front of the sled, gripping the brake with both hands. Hemmett and Wynn move to the rear and grip the sides. All three ready, Hemmett gives the word. Wilder starts forward, mighty hooves planting firmly in the snow. At first, the sled is reluctant to move, but the hesitation is temporary. It breaks free in an instant, and gentle gliding accelerates into dangerous, downhill speed.

“Brake!” Hemmett shouts, somewhat panicked. “Brake! Brake!”

Anna pulls hard on the lever, and the brake bites into the snow with a crunch.

“Keep on it,” Wynn says. “Don’t let off. Keep as much tension as you can without forcing Wilder to pull.”

“Not too fast, Wilder!” Hemmett shouts. “It’ll run you over otherwise!”

Anna pulls hard, using the strength in her arms, shoulders and back. The sled wiggles down the trail as the brake digs into the snow. Wilder, stalwart in his efforts, moves down the grade with steady steps, careful not to build too much speed. Now fully into the descent, the sled leans forward as its weight shifts, and Anna digs her feet into the frame to keep from falling.

“Let up a little on the first switchback,” Hemmett says. “We’ll need some freedom to turn.”

As they approach the first switch, a tight turn wrapping around a tree trunk, the sled starts into a slow spin.

“Brake!” Hemmett shouts. “Brake! Bra—ah, shit.”

Anna pulls the lever as far as it will go, bumping against the end of its travel, but the sideways motion continues. Hemmett pushes one side while Wynn pulls, but the effort is futile. Gaining speed and still sliding to the side, the sled thuds into a tree trunk. Wood snaps with a crack. Fists of snow fall from the tree in fat clumps, plopping onto the canvas cover, into Wynn’s hair, and down Anna’s collar.

“Sorry!” Anna says, engaging the brake with all her might.

“Tis fine, Ms. Holt,” Wynn says. “Nothing to worry about. Bumps and bruises come with the territory.”

Hemmett sidesteps the hill and leans against the large tree trunk. “Let off a bit. We need to rotate.”

“Roo!” Wilder bellows. “Arooo!

“I know, I know,” says Hemmett. “Mr. Wynn, help me push off.”

Together, Hemmett and Wynn work the sled free from its modest snag, their feet sinking into the snow as they push. Tiny avalanches break beneath their steps and send clumps of snow tumbling down the hillside. Anna manipulates the brake to match their calls, and soon the sled is free. Without too much trouble, they round the first switchback.

“I think that’s the worst of it,” Hemmett says as he looks back. “We’ll take our time the rest of the way, but that first stretch looks the steepest.”

Slow but steady, they manage their way down the difficult path. Wilder puts on a display of immense strength, his hooves biting into the snow with stubborn steps, his powerful legs defying gravity. Despite their efforts, the steepness of the hill still sends the sled into small slides they struggle to control it. Anna keeps her hands firm on the brake lever, pulling tight when gravity threatens to overtake and relaxing after Wilder regains control. Hemmett and Wynn keep to the rear, slipping and sliding in feeble attempts to maintain the course of the sled. Both curse with regularity in their fight. Hemmett lets off a string of words so foul Wynn feels forced to chide him for it. Anna can’t help but laugh. In time, with all three working up a sweat, the group navigates the descent and settle into the valley below.

“Well then,” Wynn says while wiping his brow. “Nice to have that behind us.” He looks back at the descent, a zigzagging line working its way through trees and beneath precarious ledges of stone. “Doesn’t look so treacherous from down here, doesn’t it?”

Anna pulls her arms and back in a stretch, her muscles weary from the strenuous work. “That was pretty intense. I didn’t know if we were going to make it.”

“That first bit was a test, for sure,” Wynn says. “Some of these smaller passes are surprisingly difficult, especially when the path narrows like that.”

Hemmett nods. “How much further do you want to go? Still some daylight left.”

“All that and the man is unphased,” Wynn says to Anna. “Does such a spring still exist in your step?”

Anna shrugs. “I can keep going if we need to. That got my adrenaline flowing.”

Wynn shakes his head. “Youthful company can be such a curse at times.” He shields his eyes from the afternoon sun and lets out a long sigh of consideration. Darting through the trees, the telegraph line dips forward in low waves, weaving between the pines and ducking under reaching limbs. “Not too much further, please. My joints are tightening up, and we have plenty of walking tomorrow. I feel I’ve had just about enough for today.”

“Tired?” Anna asks.

A huge grin spreads over Wynn’s face. “Yes, young lady,” he says while slipping off his goggles. “Aches and pains. Soreness. You know, old people problems. I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand.” He shoots her a quick wink. “The two of you can storm the next ridge without a second thought, I’m sure, but I can’t put in the miles I used to. No, ma’am.” Wynn takes a long draw from his water skin and rubs at his hip.

“This valley is fairly long and flat,” Hemmett says. “Camp on the northern side?”

Wynn nods. “That’s fine, Mr. Hemmett, that’s fine. But not the very edge. Leave some level ground to start with in the morning.” Wynn shakes his head at Anna. “One of Mr. Hemmett’s cruelest tricks is to start the day uphill.”

“I’ve found it’s best to tire him out early,” Hemmett says. “Otherwise the day is filled with bad puns.”

Anna grins and sticks a tongue at Wynn. “How frightful.”

“No more frightening than the youthful exuberance the two of you display now,” Wynn says. “Mr. Hemmett, I haven’t seen you this energized in months. Bitten by the sun-bug?”

Hemmett shrugs. “I agree with Ms. Holt. Coming down that hill was exciting. I’m ready to keep going.”

Tired of their banter, Wilder huffs, stomps his hooves and gives the sled an aggressive tug.

“I agree, Wilder,” Wynn says with an air of sarcastic arrogance. “Let us leave these thrill-seekers to their own devices, shall we? They can feast on adrenaline while you and I rest beside a nice fire.”

Wilder snorts in agreement and trudges forward.

Wynn nods. “Nice to see at least one of you has retained their senses.”

 

*   *   *

 

The tepid afternoon passes quickly. Thin clouds stretch over the blue sky like a sheer. The Walkers navigate a few more miles before breaking away from the telegraph line to establish camp. The valley floor is silent and still. A frozen world seems to wait. For what, Anna is unsure. Hopefully not a calm before the storm, she thinks. I’m starting to enjoy the sun-bug.

“Where is this break in the line?” Anna asks as they unload the sled. “I mean, why haven’t we been checking it?”

“Good question, Ms. Holt,” Wynn says, pausing from his shoveling. Two locations for tents have been dug, and he’s nearing completion of the third. Central to the site, Hemmett digs out snow and shifts what stones he can to create a firepit. “We’re lucky in this scenario. The break is isolated only to Nil. We can communicate with all other northern locations. That means the break is beyond the next junction. We don’t need to inspect the line until then.”

“Oh,” she says, reaching for more skins. “Well that’s nice I guess.”

“It saves us a lot of time,” says Hemmett. “Inspecting the line slows us down quite a bit.”

“Do you think the people in Nil are worried?” Anna asks. “Do they know we’re coming?”

“They’re fine,” Hemmett says, his voice terse.

“They’re hearty people,” Wynn says. “They can survive on their own. And yes, they know we’re coming. A break in communication always prompts Walker response.”

“How do we know it’s the line?” Anna asks. “What if something happened to the town?”

Wynn finishes the last of his digging and lays large bison skins over the snow. “Well… we don’t. But it would require something severe to silence the town, and there’s been no word to indicate so. It’s a break in the line.”

“Or they’ve finally gone silent to skip paying their Coward’s Fee altogether,” Hemmett says with a grumble. The rocks he handles clack against another as he forces them into the snow.

Anna hands Wynn canvas and tent poles. “What’s a Coward’s Fee?”

Wynn gives a disapproving look toward his colleague. “I assume you’re aware of the funding arrangement the Coalition of Man has created with the miners in the north.”

“A little,” she says. “I mean, I know the gold helps pay for the war. It’s an important effort.”

“Important, sure,” Hemmett says with bitter agreement. “It’s too bad the whole setup is a sham.”

“Sham? How is it a sham?” Anna asks.

Wynn turns to setting up the tents, rolling his eyes at the coming rant from Hemmett, a rant he’s heard too often before.

“They make it sound like some noble cause,” Hemmett says, stomping a stone in place, “the backbone of the war effort, providing the funds to feed our troops, supply them, support them, so on, but the whole thing is a scam. These ‘noble’ miners are cowards. They come to the north to flee the front and save their own hides. Nothing more.”

Anna glares. “But they’re sending gold down.”

“There’s gold sent back, sure,” Hemmett says in begrudging agreement, “but they’re all working together for a cut. The officers overseeing the payments. The merchants buying and selling the gold. The miners staking their claims, reporting their finds. Everyone is skimming off the top to keep their numbers low. They make it look like they’re sending back the required percentage, but the totals are all a lie. Meanwhile, everyone is living fat and happy while soldiers like you go to the front and die. Why else would a place like Nestol be booming when supplies in the south are so short?” He removes his black hat and huffs in frustration. “There’s nothing noble about it. They’re all cowards in hiding, lying about the gold they find, living off hidden profits, and letting young men and women like you die. And all the while, the dwarven war-machine advances.”

Anna stands silent, her hazel eyes squinting with concentration as she takes in the news. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s not true.”

“Cowards, Ms. Holt,” Hemmett says. “The whole lot of them.”

Keeping inside the tent to set its poles, Wynn lets out a regretful sigh. “He has the gist of it, though I disagree on the severity. Remember, even thieves need some amount of honesty to avoid being caught.”

“But I read the story in the papers.” Anna says. “The war had sacked the treasury, but political infighting was to blame, not a lack of gold. The parties are deadlocked on how to spend it, each side arguing over how to manage this damned war.” Anna huffs, flabbergasted. “I mean, everyone was talking about it.”

“Which paper was it?” Hemmett asks.

“The Gazette. The Gazette.”

Hemmett scoffs. “They couldn’t find north if a compass was glued to their hand. What do they know about the mining?”

“But we protested!” Anna shouts. “Demanded the government stop bickering and provide the troops with what they need. Our people are dying,” she says to Hemmett, sounding as if he were to blame. “Every battalion is short on supplies. Ammunition, clothes. Even food. There’s barely enough to go around and even less transports to get them what we have.”

“I know, I know,” Hemmett agrees with frustrated nods. “And meanwhile, up here, everyone gets a kickback. Barely half the gold mined makes it south.”

“Half!?” Anna shouts.

“That’s speculation, Ms. Holt,” Wynn intervenes. “Wild speculation at best. Though Mr. Hemmett has the theory down, he hasn’t a clue of the numbers. Neither of us do. Don’t let him convince you these lands are rife with corruption.” He points a finger at both them. “There are good people here, hard-working and dedicated to Man’s cause. Yes, some are in hiding and some may have gamed the system, but even those care about the efforts in the south.”

When Wynn turns his back to raise another tent, Hemmett mouths to Anna silently. Half.

For the first time, Anna feels the coldness of the north retreat from her body as her blood boils with anger. She thinks back to her year before enlisting, the protests marching through the Capitol streets, the chanting, the solidarity amongst the people. The feeling of being unified in taking action against inaction, to support those whose lives were being needlessly lost. The memories, once precious, are now soiled. She glances around the camp if search of something to kick. “What about you?” she asks, her voice carrying accusation. “Do the two of you pay the fee?”

Canvas tent in hand, Wynn pauses. The anger in Anna’s eyes causes him hesitation. “No, Ms. Holt,” he answers. “Seeing as we’re government employees, we’re exempt from the tax.”

Anna balls her fists and grinds her teeth. She shoots a sharp look toward Hemmett.

“We don’t make much, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Hemmett adds.

“No,” Wynn says. “And our budget is quite strict. We live mostly off the land and through our own means of trade. In fact, Mr. Hemmett isn’t technically on the payroll. I pay him from my own budget as my employee. They refuse any request I make for additional help, but I’m in no condition to perform these duties alone.”

Anna nods and takes a breath. The cool air soothes the fire brewing in her heart. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry. I just… death of man, this makes me furious! This is unbelievable! Does my father know!?”

Wynn and Hemmett exchange a nervous glance. “I’m sure he’s aware,” Wynn says, “though his jurisdiction is the war itself. I remember there being an audit in the recent past. A year ago? A bit more? That investigation did lead to a handful of arrests and others placed into conscription. That was before the war turned grim.”

Anna gapes. “So that’s just it? Everyone knows and nothing is done?”

Wynn gives an apologetic shrug. “The issue is similar to when we spoke of desertion. A lack of manpower, Ms. Holt. Only so much can be done.”

Enraged, Anna shakes her head and paces near the empty firepit.

“Here,” Hemmett says, reaching into the sled and tossing her a sheathed hatchet. Anna snatches it from the air. “I know you’re angry,” he says, “and I know this doesn’t fix anything, but it’ll help settle the anger you’re feeling.” He nods his head toward a small cluster of trees outside of camp.

Anna slaps the broadside of the small axe against her palm. Her eyes scan the surrounding area. Finding a suitable outlet for her rage, she stomps off. Moments later, the silence around them is broken by the sound of brutal hacking.

Hemmett waits until she’s beyond ear-shot. “Wow,” he says quietly.

“Indeed,” agrees Wynn. “Mr. Hemmett, in the future, avoid agitating Ms. Holt. Okay?”

Watching from the edge of camp, Wilder snorts in agreement.

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