Anna opens her eyes to the soft glow of candlelight inside her canvas tent. Gentle cracks and pops of burning wood float into her ears. From nearby, she hears a soft snoring. As she awakens, a dream flees to the distant horizon of her mind and escapes conscious thought.
“Ms. Holt,” Wynn says in a low voice.
“I’m awake.” The words roll from her mouth like a phantom, her breath spiraling in the cold. She turns onto her stomach and looks up. Wynn rests on his haunches at the opening to her tent. Fatigue has crept under his eyes, but he still wears a pleasant look on his face. His fur hat is tugged down tight, leaving only peering eyes and a bushy beard, and his gray coat is buttoned closed. Wool gloves cover his hands. The fashionable yeti is well bundled.
“Good morning,” he says quietly. “Some wood remains, but you may need to chop more. There’s plenty nearby. The work will help keep you warm. If anything worries you, shout.”
“Should I expect trouble?”
“No, but stay vigilant. Desperate times bring about desperate people, and the fire makes us visible.”
“What time is it?”
“A little after three.”
Anna nods. “Is there anything else I should do?”
Wynn shakes his head. “Just keep the fire going, rest and keep warm. And don’t wander off.”
Anna nods again.
“Well then. Until daylight.” He gives a quick smile and lets the canvas flap close.
She listens to the sounds of Wynn crawling inside his tent before pulling on her jacket, gloves, boots and cap. Fearing the worst of what the cold will offer, she completes her layers by slinging a large wolf skin over her shoulders. The fur is thick and soft (she lets it brush against her cheek) and streaked silver and white. Anna hesitates for a moment, wondering if the skin will somehow appall Wilder, and then scoffs at the idea. He can’t be that aware. Can he? Rifle in hand, she steels herself for the coming battle with the cold, crawls from her tent, and emerges into a world of silent wonder.
Firelight flickers in a small circle around the camp. Beyond, the land is illuminated in the sapphire blue of a crescent moon. Through gaps in the trees, she can see a horizon surrounded by jagged peaks of pale white, gently glowing in the moonlight. Wispy clouds stretch thin fingers across the sky, smothering fledgling stars and leaving only the boldest to shine through. Anna lets the scene soak into her mind and fill her memory. In the stillness of it all, even the fog of her breath feels right. With the thick fur around her, shivers abate, and the cold air joins with the experience, bordering on enjoyable. She gazes at the sky with her back to the fire.
As the haze of sleep falls away and clarity returns to her mind, her thoughts being to wander.
It’s up to you, she thinks. No one else decides how you see this. No one forces how you feel about this place or these men, whether they’re captors or friends. It’s only you. The war you joined to fight is beyond reach. You can’t change that, so let it be. Just let it be. Focus on what’s here. Be where you are, not where you wish you were. Like Wynn said, don’t dwell on what’s gone wrong. See what’s gone right. She purses her lips and lets air plume from her mouth like a chimney. A quick shiver races down her spine, but rather than curse the cold, Anna attempts to embrace it. It’s part of this place, part of being in the north. Feeling the cold and enjoying a fire. The snow. The stars. Don’t chase it away. It isn’t something that needs to be fixed. I’m the one that’s out of place. I’m the one far from home. If others can survive here, so can I. Wynn doesn’t seem to complain. Hemmett either. This is their home. I should try to make it mine.
As her thoughts stir, so does her restlessness, and soon the silence and solitude of camp presses in. To pass the time, she begins pacing around the fire, using her rifle like a walking stick, gripping the barrel upwards and stabbing the stock into the snow. Lap after lap, she rounds the flames and leaves a dashed circle in her wake. Looking at her own trail, she notices the snow glinting in the firelight. Kneeling down, her face nearly touching the snow, she watches the flakes sparkle. The scent of snow catches her nose, a clean musk of ice and air. Leaning closer, she extends her tongue and touches the pristine flakes. A clump of cold clings to her tongue before melting away. The taste is the same as the water from her skin, cold and crisp and clean. She can’t help but smile.
Resuming slow laps around the fire, her thoughts drift through the previous day in slow recollection. Wynn’s comment about her weight comes to mind. Patting her flat stomach, she laughs to herself trying to imagine a pot-belly hanging over her belt. And all that time those drill instructors spent getting us in shape, she thinks. ‘Lean and mean,’ they said. ‘Faster and stronger.’ I believed it then but it sounds so silly now, being here. It wouldn’t be half-bad, eating for the sake of weight, though I don’t know how I’ll manage with so much walking. Death of man, how many miles do they travel in a week? In a month? I can’t imagine. And in all this snow? Add the weather and they must—
The word halts her mind.
She looks to the sky where rolling clouds push back against the moon and stars. A storm? she wonders. Oh, I hope not. I’m not ready. No, I’m not ready for that. She sighs a long, wispy cloud of breath.
Alone, time slips by. She maintains the fire to keep herself occupied, adding wood and stirring coals. With each meddling, embers leap into the sky and die. Between quick sessions of poking and prodding, she sits and stares into the flames, her thoughts glowering just like the coals. For the first time, she finds herself having sympathy for her father. She considers the corruption within the gold trade and the conscription of people in the north, a sort off dirty tug-of-war between service and slavery. I never knew this war was so complicated. Though father rarely spoke of it, he always made it sound so simple when he did. Nothing more than managing troops and equipment, protecting supply lines. Of pursuing flanks and catching your enemy off guard. But that isn’t the half of it. Pondering his struggle, she tries to forgive his stubbornness, tries to fold this newfound perspective into her feelings of bitterness, but the notion doesn’t take. Nestled deep like the glowing coals, her resentment still burns.
With her rifle rested over her legs, she watches the flames lick the wood, embracing the small branches like a ravenous lover. The coals shimmer between gold and crimson. Burnt wood weakens, crumbles and collapses onto itself, releasing leaping yellow flames that look like fleeing spirits. The fire invites her in, soothes her mind and pushes the world away. She forgets the cold and the tiredness in her legs. She forgets her feeling of failure, forgets her place.
Forgets time itself.
Her daze is broken by hoots from a nearby owl. She snaps her head in its direction, blinking, suddenly aware of her lack of attention. Some sentry I am, she chides herself, hopping to her feet with rifle ready while scanning for movement. All around, snow-plastered trees stand a watch of their own, frozen in time. She hears the owl depart a branch, sees snow tumbling down and a brief flicker of white wings, then nothing.
The fire dwindles down.
She adds more fuel and waits for the coming day. What was it Wynn said? she wonders. You’re not introduced to the north until you see its dawn?
That introduction soon comes.
It starts with a dull wash of color forcing the final stars into hiding. In their place, a subtle fire is born. It grows from gray to pink to orange and turns the mountain range to a silhouette of pointed teeth. Darkness weakens. The world holds its breath in waiting. Light hits a thin band of clouds and sets it ablaze, its underside burning bright like the coals of the campfire, making the cloud look like a streaking comet stopped in time. Light creeps further into the sky and ignites every wisp, every strand, every miniscule particle suspended above. Stars vanish, replaced by an explosion of molten gold and flaming reds. Mesmerized, Anna watches the transformation happen in what feels to be both an instant and a lifetime. Just as one nook of color is born, another slips away, replaced by writhing colors growing brighter with each moment. Soon, the sun peaks over the ridge like a sliver of molten ore. Through it all, the blooming day comes with a swelling feeling of opportunity, another chance to begin again. She glances at the two tents opposite to her and considers the men inside. See what’s gone right, she thinks, watching the beautiful land come to life. See what’s gone right.
From behind, a deep grunt mixes with the sound of stirring snow. Startled and off-guard, Anna spins and kneels beside her tree round, her rifle raised with sights at the ready.
Looking down the barrel, she finds herself aiming at Wilder.
The large muskox rises from his snowy bed and pauses at the sight of her pointed gun. His large, brown eyes go wide.
Anna lowers her weapon. “Oh,” she says with a whisper of relief. “It’s you.”
Wilder gives his hefty body a shake, and chunks of snow fling from his fur. The look in his eyes shifts from shock to indignance. He huffs with discontent.
Seeing the look and hearing the huffs, Anna realizes her error. Is it the wolf skin or the gun? she wonders. Or is it both? Death it man, can it be both? She slings her rifle over her shoulder and steps around the campfire toward the creature. “I’m sorry,” she whispers, feeling ridiculous. “Wilder. You surprised me is all.”
As she draws closer, Wilder steps back, huffing and shaking his head. This is an apology unaccepted.
Fearing the animal may spook and run, Anna stops her advance and extends a hand of truce. “Wilder, it’s okay. It’s me. Anna. Please don’t be angry.”
Wilder stays his ground, planting his hooves and bracing. Then, without warning, he belts out a sound. “ArroooOOO! ArroooOOO!”
After hours of near-silence, the sound is a shockwave to Anna’s ears, and she jumps with a startle. “Shush, Wilder! Shh!” she begs, waving her hands.
“ArrooooOO!” Wilder bellows again, his head angled high, his breath pluming from his mouth.
In a panic, Anna waves her hands trying to silence the creature. “Shhhh! You’ll wake them!”
A groan comes from a nearby tent as a body stirs inside. “It’s alright, Ms. Holt,” says Wynn with a groggy voice. “It’s alright. Wilder often wakes us when he feels we’ve slept too long.” He clears his throat and grumbles. “Though today does seem earlier than normal.”
Anna watches Wilder as he ceases his call. The anger in his eyes is gone, replaced by a faint twinkle. To Anna, it looks nothing short of a smirk. Knowing she’s been tricked, her face drops. “You little stinker,” she says.
Wilder snorts with satisfaction, turns and wanders toward the edge of camp.
“What’s that?” asks Wynn, his voice still thick with sleep.
“It’s Wilder,” Anna says. “He…” she hesitates, not wanting to sound absurd. Already, the scenario is unbelievable to her. “He—oh, never mind.”
“His wake-up call is a bit like being clubbed in the ears,” says Wynn as he crawls from his tent, “but Wilder isn’t one for being delicate.” He slips on his thick jacket and slaps loose snow from his fur cap. His silver hair is warped with sleep, his curled mustache bent. With an obvious limp, he joins Anna beside the fire.
“Are you okay?” asks Anna.
Wynn smiles. “I suffer from a terrible illness, Ms. Holt. Aging. It’s terminal, I’m afraid, and very contagious. You’ve caught it too, though you may not be aware just yet. The symptoms are coming though, rest assured. Someday, when you’re as old as I am, you’ll find it takes some convincing to get all the pieces moving.”
“Is reaching your age even possible?” asks a sarcastic voice from Hemmett’s tent. “Surely no one could live to be as old as you. You’re an aberration.”
Wynn tilts his head with feigned disgust. “Ms. Holt, observe a common symptom of aging. Denial of one’s own condition. Middle-aged men suffer from it most.”
Hemmett grunts and crawls from his tent. He smacks his gums, stretches, and scratches at his short beard. The look in his eyes is dull and unimpressed as he rubs the sleep from his face. “Denial, huh? I suppose you’d know. At the rate you’re going, I’ll retire from Walking before you do. Then who will do your heavy lifting?”
“I prefer to travel light,” says Wynn. “It’s much easier than dragging this damned sled around with all your toys and trinkets.”
Wilder, sifting his nose through the snow, pauses and lifts his head to give a grunt of agreement.
Hemmett looks to Anna. “Do you see how the common laborer is treated in this outfit? Despicable, isn’t it? Don’t let it happen to you.”
Wynn smiles. “Pay no attention to him, Ms. Holt. Mr. Hemmett insists on being prepared for any possible scenario, even those likely to never happen. Then he blames everyone else for the effort it takes to haul his cargo.”
Hemmett lets out a lengthy sigh. His breath pours into the air like a fog. “I’m gonna go take a piss.”
“Come now,” chides Wynn. “Let’s display a bit of class in front of our new friend.”
Hemmett smirks and gives Anna a dramatic bow. “Ms. Holt, pardon me while I take my leave. Nature demands I cast my signature upon the snow.”
Wynn shifts his weight and gives Anna a sideways look. “Not to sound the hypocrite, but I must do the same.”
“Mr. Wynn, do you sign your Y’s with a curly-q?” Anna asks with a voice of mock-propriety.
Wynn smashes his fur hat onto his head and buttons his coat. “My elegance is wasted.”
* * *
Rising with the Walkers, the sun climbs from behind distant peaks and arcs into the sky. Hemmett and Wynn waste no time. Before Anna can realize, both frying pan and coffee pot are vying for space above the fire. Much like Hemmett worried over their rabbit stew, Wynn meddles with the brewing coffee as if their future depended on it. When his work is done and the cups are poured, Hemmett offers Anna a quick warning. “Careful,” he says. “He brews it strong enough to even get the glaciers moving.”
Wynn smiles to himself, the warning clearly a compliment.
Breakfast is a quiet affair served with bacon, potatoes and melted cheese. Anna delights in the meal and the strong coffee that comes with it. With Wynn’s insistence, she enjoys a second helping. Warmth fills her satisfied belly. She pats her stomach and smiles. “I’ll have that pot-belly in no time.” When Hemmett gives her a confused look, she and Wynn only smile.
“It looks to be another lovely day. You’ve brought fine weather with you, Ms. Holt,” says Wynn from beside the fire. Gazing at the thin layer of clouds, he works on the last bit of coffee from the pot. He sips and stares, sips and stares, each drink renewing the stain on his mustache. “Fine weather indeed,” he says, mostly to himself. “I reckon we could make Nil by nightfall. How say you, Mr. Hemmett?”
“I say that coffee must be working some magic on your hip.” With a grunt, Hemmett rolls the last of the tents. “It’s possible, sure, but it’ll be a hell of a walk.” He carries the canvas and poles to the sled where Anna helps him pack the items.
Wynn shifts his mustache in thought. “And we’ve still the junction station to verify.”
“We should make the junction by early afternoon, depending on the road, but Nil is still ten miles further.”
“What’s at this junction station?” asks Anna.
“Several telegraph lines coming together, each toward different outposts,” says Wynn. “It’s the first point of possible failure for the line to Nil. We’ll verify connections there before moving on and inspecting the actual line. If fortune finds us, we’ll find the break there. Then again, the junction could be fine. Which would mean…” He sighs and tosses back the last of his coffee. “I’d rather not go tree climbing again, Mr. Hemmett.”
Hemmett nudges Anna with his elbow and gives her a playful look. “And why is that?”
“You most certainly know why,” Wynn says, snapping his head around. “You’re well aware of—oh, right.” Wynn cuts his lecture short as soon as he sees Anna’s face. “My apologies, Ms. Holt. Mr. Hemmett is goading me. You weren’t there for the last tree.”
“What happened in the last tree?” Anna asks, a smile already spreading across her face.
“Mr. Wynn was reacquainted with gravity,” says Hemmett.
Wynn feigns an exhale of exasperation. “While it’s nice to see you two getting along, I’m not sure it’s something I’m comfortable with. This isn’t a dynamic I’m accustomed to, two versus one.”
Anna and Hemmett both smile and finish packing the sled, knocking snow from their shovels and laying them flat. They cover the top with a stretch of canvas and secure it with rope.
“I’m not comfortable with you having three cups of coffee,” Hemmett says. “Nil by nightfall? What’s your plan, the northern death march?”
Wynn stares at the bottom of his cup with sullen eyes, as if he’s certain to find a hole in the bottom where precious coffee has escaped. “Perhaps,” he says. “I promised Ms. Holt an ice-berry pie once our job was complete. My tongue begs for the taste.”
“No pie is worth that amount of walking in one day,” Hemmett says. “But if you insist, the sled is packed and ready. I’ll have Wilder yoked any minute—well, once he’s ready. He’s still lounging for some reason.”
Pulling her rifle from the snow like a stuck javelin, Anna slings the weapon over her shoulder and pauses. “What do you mean by once he’s ready?”
Wynn and Hemmett exchange an awkward glance. “Well,” says Wynn as he twirls his coffee cup and stuffs it into his coat pocket. His face twists with thought. “It’s difficult to explain. You see…” He shifts his hands as if weighing invisible objects. Waiting for his explanation, the camp goes silent. At a loss for words, he surrenders the attempt. “Mr. Hemmett, perhaps you could explain it to her.”
Hemmett scratches his rough beard with embarrassment. He starts to speak, pauses with consideration, then begins again. “There’s no real way to explain this, so I’ll just say it. Wilder decides when we leave.”
Anna looks from Hemmett to Wynn to Wilder and back again. “You’re joking.”
“He’s usually pretty reasonable about it,” Hemmett says in a tone that is half-apology and half-plea. “He understands what we’re doing, when camp is packed and we’re ready to leave. To be honest, he isn’t acting himself today.”
“His behavior is unusual,” says Wynn in agreement. “What with his early wakeup call and his distant lounging. I wonder if something has him upset. Did anything happen while we were asleep?”
Anna sighs and gives Wilder a long look. The muskox is stretched in the snow without a single care in the world. He basks beneath the sun, soaking in the light that sneaks through thin clouds. When his eye catches hers, he looks away, casually lifting his nose as though he were royalty and she a mere peasant graced by his presence.
“Something did happen,” she says. “This morning, before he woke you. He startled me. I heard something behind me, and in reflex, I pulled my rifle.”
“Oh,” Wynn and Hemmett say in groaning unison.
“No,” she says. “No. It can’t be that bad. Can it?”
Wynn breathes in as if suffering a sting. “Afraid so, Ms. Holt. He’s taken to you well enough, but Wilder has no tolerance for firearms being pointed at him. In fact, I’m surprised he’s handling it so well.”
Hemmett smiles. “Remember last year when Davy pointed his—”
“Yes, yes,” says Wynn, interrupting, “I certainly remember.”
Anna furrows her eyebrows. “What happened to Davy?”
Wynn waves his hand in dismissal. “Don’t pay attention to Mr. Hemmett. Those were completely different circumstances. Your situation is easily resolved. You need only share your sincerest regrets to Wilder and we can be on our way.”
Anna searches Hemmett’s eyes for help. “You’re kidding. I’m supposed to apologize?”
Hemmett shrugs. “I wish he were. Wilder is very peculiar. I’ve never been around a creature like him.” Seeing the look of disbelief on her face, he laughs with sympathy. “I’d offer advice, Ms. Holt, but I can barely understand it myself. Best of luck.” He hooks his thumbs onto his belt and joins Wynn beside the dwindling fire.
Anna turns to see Wilder lying on the edge of camp with a look of complete indifference to the world. His legs are stretched in front of him, and he reminds her of a housecat resting on a windowsill. He casually glances this way and that, as if pretending not to notice the activity in the camp and the attention on him. Anna sighs, rounds the sled, and approaches the animal. As she does, Wilder ignores her approach.
“Hello, Wilder,” she says, already feeling foolish. Glancing to her side, she sees Hemmett and Wynn both watching and smiling. She squats beside the large muskox and begins scratching the thick fur on his shoulder. He turns his head in mock surprise and looks at her as if to say, Oh! It’s you.
She works her fingers over his shoulder and neck, waiting for a change in demeanor. None comes. “Are you ready to get going?”
Wilder huffs and lifts his nose to sniff the air. His legs remain still.
Anna works her fingers further along until she reaches the cap where long horns form a thick crown. The bone is and weathered and hard. She drags her fingers over the bumpy ridges. “You have magnificent horns.”
Wilder huffs again. I know, his eyes seem to say. I know.
Anna strokes his neck. Wilder’s dark brown fur is thick and coarse. There’s a sudden impulse to brush the animal, but she can only imagine the time it would take. Watching the creature’s eyes, she can see her flattery is going nowhere. She sighs and shakes her head at the coming words. “I’m sorry I aimed my rifle at you this morning. Sincerely. I didn’t mean to. My mind was wandering while I watched the sunrise, and you startled me is all.” Her hand moves and massages his small ears. As she does, Wilder’s head slowly rolls toward her working fingers. Anna smiles at the movement. “Please don’t be angry with me,” she says in a slow, silky voice. She rolls the thin skin of his ears between her fingers. “I really want us to be friends. Would you like that, Wilder? Would you like to be friends?”
Wilder’s head lolls to the side. His eyes lose focus.
Anna smiles and works her fingers against his ear. She’s reminded of home, of her housecats and how eagerly they would dig their cheeks into her fingers for a good, long scratch. “Can we be friends, Wilder?”
“Mr. Hemmett and Mr. Wynn are ready to start walking again. Are you ready to pull the sled?”
Under the affect of her working fingers, Wilder grunts again.
She massages his ear for a moment longer then snaps up onto her feet. “Well then,” she says. “Shall we?”
Wilder’s head nearly dips into the snow at the removal of her hand. His eyes snap open as if slapped from his daze. He blinks several times, stands, and gives his mighty head a shake. He huffs a satisfying sigh.
Anna turns toward Wynn and Hemmett with a proud smile. “He’s ready.”
Stunned, Wynn and Hemmett look on from the dead firepit, now filled in with snow. “Well whaddya know,” says Hemmett. “I think Wilder just lost some of his mystique.”
Wynn, his face full of smile, nods. “I believe so, Mr. Hemmett,” he says with a chuckle. “I do believe so.”