The poles of the telegraph junction huddle together like a lost patrol regrouping in the forest. At their center, looping lines form a webbing of cables before splitting from the station, each connection ducking its way through the trees to rush toward distant towns. Hemmett climbs down from the final pole, ninth in all, while Wynn updates a small maintenance ledger from the ground. He carefully scrawls his notes with the nub of a pencil and brushes falling snow from the pages between each update.
“Everything here is fine,” says Hemmett. “Wires are tight. Insulation looks good. There’s some wear but nothing unusual. Certainly not enough to disrupt communications.” Clearing a fresh layer of snow from the top of a wooden crate, he sits and knocks on the crate’s side. “The portable telegraph confirms a break between here and Nil. I was able to send and receive with all other outposts.”
Wynn nods, writing diligently. “As we expected, I suppose. Very good, Mr. Hemmett. All stations wired except for Nil.”
Hemmett shrugs. “Nil was nil.”
Wynn’s eyebrows perk up as he closes his ledger with a thump. “Why, Mr. Hemmett… was that a pun?”
Hemmett forces a cough and thumps his chest with a fist. “No, no—I must’ve gotten something in my throat.”
“I can only imagine,” says Wynn, playing along with the charade. “Perhaps a proper sense of humor flew in by accident?”
Hemmett sours his face and continues coughing, shaking his head with distress.
Letting the joke go, Wynn scans the junction station and sighs. “It looks like we’ll be walking step for step with the line tomorrow. Don’t misunderstand, I’m happy to see the junction intact, but if another tree branch is responsible for the break, you’ll be doing the climbing.”
Hemmett nods. “It’s better that way. I’d hate to see you embarrass yourself in front of Ms. Holt.”
“Indeed,” says Wynn with a narrow glare. “Speaking of which, she should have camp settled by now. Everything here is in order. Let us head back.”
Wynn gathers their tools into a leather pouch and drops his ledger inside while Hemmett clamps the wooden crate shut and lifts the handles. They move quickly, chased from the station by fattening flakes of snow. Their walk is short and offers a stunning view. On their right, a frozen lake rests as a pristine field of white. Beyond its banks, steep hills crawl upward and scratch at the underbellies of clouds rushing by. Under the storm, light fails quickly.
When they return, they find Anna has taken care of everything. Three canvas tents stand in shallow foxholes. Inside, skins and bedrolls are laid out. Likewise, three tree rounds surround a burning fire. Their cooking pot hangs above the flames from a tripod, and extra wood rests near the firepit. Outside of camp, Wilder roams from bush to bush, burrowing his nose to dine on roots and hidden grasses.
“My goodness, Ms. Holt,” says Wynn, admiring the camp. “This is remarkable.”
“I wanted to finish before you made it back,” Anna says.
“Did you hear that, Mr. Hemmett?” Wynn asks. “Wanted to. It was a matter of personal importance to her. A point of pride.”
Hemmett gives Anna a quick wink. “It’s not her fault. She’s new. She’ll learn soon enough to take her time.”
Wynn shakes his head. “Two full days of walking and Mr. Hemmett still finds himself with enough energy for sarcasm.” He lets out a reminiscing sigh “Ah, to be middle-aged and barely gray again.”
“You’re in unusual spirits yourself,” says Hemmett, noticing the good-natured jab.
Wynn pauses in a moment of reflection. He sees Anna’s watchful eyes and smiles. “So I am, Mr. Hemmett. So I am. Ms. Holt, I must say, it’s delightful to have such eagerness in my camp again. I’ve spent so long with Mr. Hemmett, I’ve forgotten what ambition looks like.”
“I have more rabbits, too,” she says, raising a hidden arm from behind her back. Three large hares hang from the rope in her hand.
“She’s even caught our dinner,” Wynn says with delight. “Ms. Holt, this is quite the performance. I dare say you may earn yourself some of Mr. Hemmett’s famous whiskey at this rate. Legend has it he keeps it hidden in that duster jacket of his, but few men alive have seen it come out.”
Hemmett glares at the joke, then does a quick count. “Three hares,” he says.
“But that’s so strange… because I only heard three shots. Does my memory serve me correctly?”
“You heard right,” Anna says with an air of cockiness. “Three shots for three hares.”
Hemmett’s green eyes narrow, and he rubs at the coarse stubble over his jaw. “It must have been an act of self-defense then? These were rabbits so consumed with evil they rushed you and came so close in their blood-thirsty charge you couldn’t miss if you tried? That’s the only explanation I can think of.” He gives the dead rabbits a questioning nod. “Did those treacherous creatures attack you, Ms. Holt?”
Anna sticks out her tongue and throws the game at Hemmett’s feet. They land in the snow with a fwoop. “Get to cooking, Mr. Hemmett.”
Wynn booms with laughter.
The laughing and well-meaning jokes continue over dinner, a stew with hearty chunks of rabbit meat, potatoes and onions. Being so near to Nil, Wynn splurges and offers up the last of the bread, and each use their share to wipe their bowls clean. Hemmett considers an attempt at ice fishing, but the evening is already growing dark and the snowfall heavier. With the wind dying down, they use extra canvas from the sled to build a makeshift canopy beside the fire. Sheltered from the snow and with limbs weary and bellies full, they watch the flames in silence, letting crackles and pops dominate the conversation. Around them, the world is tucked into bed under a fresh blanket of snow. Sound is muffled. The forest goes still.
“Alright,” Hemmett says, breaking the long stretch of silence while he unbuttons his coat. “You’ve earned it.”
Wynn glances over with sleepy eyes. Despite their shelter, stray flakes have found his thick beard and claimed it as home. Large spots of white blot out silver and black hair. Seeing Hemmett reach into his coat, his eyes come alive. “Is it happening? Is it actually happening?”
“Don’t even start,” grumbles Hemmett. “I’m trying to be nice.”
Wynn gives a high-pitched hoot and rubs his hands together. “You’ve done it, Ms. Holt. The unthinkable!”
“What?” she asks, her face showing confusion.
Hemmett pulls his flask from an inner pocket, a pewter container wrapped with worn, black leather. He looks Anna in the eyes with a stare that seems to fluctuate between hesitation and sincerity. “There’s no denying your effort, Ms. Holt, I must say. I had a lot of doubts about all of this, about your joining us, this trip. Everything. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. And despite my history with your old man… well, you’re a hell of a young lady. You’ve got a lot of tenacity. It’s a shame we had to strip your rank insignias. You’d make the Army proud.” He unscrews the flask’s top and hands it to her. “You get first dibs.”
Wynn claps as the flask finds Anna’s fingers. “Hear, hear and well deserved! Bravo, Ms. Holt. Bravo. You’ve convinced the dragon to surrender his hoard!”
Anna can’t help but smile. She sniffs the opening and turns away. “Oof. What is this?”
“That,” Hemmett says, “is the finest whiskey you’ll ever hope to come across in the north. Not the swill they serve in the saloons. Not even the ‘good stuff’ bartenders claim to have hidden away. That is eighteen-year, single malt whiskey. In these parts, you’ll not find anything finer.”
Anna holds the flask with hesitation.
“I’ve only seen that flask presented twice in three years, Ms. Holt,” Wynn says. “Once as a sympathetic gesture to ease poor Davy’s pain after he disrespected Wilder, and the other for a smoldering little vixen that left Mr. Hemmett quite smitten. He didn’t even share with me the time I saved his life!”
Hemmett shakes his head. “You didn’t save my life. I was nowhere close to dying.”
Wynn blows raspberries. “Easy to say now that you’re dug out from beneath the avalanche. Maybe I’ll let you sort the next one out on your own.” He turns his attention back to Anna. “Not to force the issue, but I’ve spotted more shooting stars than glimpses of that flask of whiskey.”
Hemmett gives a disregarding shrug. “We see shooting stars all the time.”
A sly smile blooms beneath Wynn’s beard, and he gives Anna a quick wink. “Then we’re agreed on the matter.”
Anna grins and wiggles the flask in her hand. Liquid sloshes around inside.
“Have you had whiskey before?” Hemmett asks.
Sheepishly, Anna shakes her head.
Hemmett raises his hands to plead with Wynn. “She can’t even appreciate it!”
“Oh, quit your squealing,” says Wynn. “This is a proper experience for the girl. Tonight, she officially folds into the group. She’s earned her keep and our admiration to boot. Now drink, Ms. Holt, drink before this sour bastard changes his mind. Drink and pass it around!”
Anna’s apprehensions are crushed by the delight swirling in Wynn’s eyes. She takes the flask to her lips, tilts her head, and swallows before her taste buds can react. Soothing warmth rolls over her tongue, down her throat and spills into her belly. She waits, expecting a cough, a wretch, any kind of reaction, but nothing comes. Only a hint of aged wood, smoke, and silky heat. “Wow,” she says with genuine surprise. Her tongue licks at the aftertaste in her mouth. “That’s good.”
Wynn laughs, bringing his hands together in soft claps. “I knew I was right about her!” he says with delight.
Anna passes the flask to Wynn’s reaching hand. When she exhales, she half-expects her pluming breath to shine with a hint of gold. As the whiskey settles into her stomach, heat kisses her cheeks.
“To Ms. Holt,” Wynn says, raising the flask. “I couldn’t imagine a finer addition.” He cocks his head back and lets amber liquid flow into his mouth.
“Whoa!” Hemmett shouts with worry. “Take it easy!”
Wynn swallows and closes his eyes, ignoring Hemmett’s cry. “Oh my. Now that is delicious.” He smacks his lips and hands the flask to Hemmett, its weight considerably lighter than before.
“Took the lion’s share, I see,” Hemmett says with a sigh.
Wynn rotates in his seat, shoving his tired hip toward the fire. “A man of your age really should be embracing the notion of respecting one’s elders and allowing them their pleasures. You’re soon to cash in on the rewards.”
Hemmett smiles despite his attempt at anger and takes two quick sips from his flask. The first disappears quickly, as if priming his mouth, while the second is savored for a moment before sending the drink down. His fingers spin the cap on with small squeaks, and the flask disappears into his coat.
“Never to be seen again,” Wynn says in jest. “How does it feel to be a part of history, Ms. Holt?”
Anna smiles with relaxation. “It feels nice.”
Hemmett can’t help but laugh at the answer. “The two of you are goddamn ridiculous.”
Anna’s eyes are drawn to the fire, and she watches dancing flames lick at the wood. Snaps and pops send small embers flying out while plump snowflakes plunge to their silent death. The world around them is muted and still. Her tired muscles relax. As the whiskey settles in, her mind wanders and thinks of the day’s journey, the long climbs and the vistas rewarded. She remembers the day prior, meeting Wynn and Hemmett and Wilder. She remembers her train ride north, the anxiety swelling in her stomach and the anger she felt when her fate was stolen from the front. She thinks of her stubborn father and of her well-meaning mother. Without realizing, words slip from her mouth. “I miss home.”
Hemmett looks up but remains silent.
Wynn gives a slow nod. “We all do, Ms. Holt. We all do. Keep that in mind should you find yourself suffering from homesickness.”
Sickness, she thinks. In a way, I suppose it is. But does this sickness ever go away, or is it terminal? Her eyes linger in the fire. Flames writhe and twist with strange patience, a mix of fury and diligence. Orange fingers coil around wooden limbs, tickle and retract again. Beneath, coals flicker like boiling metals in a forge. Maybe the cure is to move forward when you feel the need to look back. Two days already feel like a lifetime. What will it feel like in a week? “Will we reach Nil tomorrow?” she asks.
“Likely,” says Wynn, “though tomorrow’s pace will be slower. We’ll search the line more thoroughly now, keeping an eye out for tangled tree limbs or anything else that could cause a problem. That takes time. We’ve been fortunate to come so far so quickly. I figure we can make Nil by nightfall if things go well.”
“Then what?” she asks.
Wynn looks up, his brown eyes slow and lazy. “Excuse me?”
“What happens after the line is repaired? Do we stay in Nil? Move on? When do you go home?”
“Oh,” Wynn says, critical thought returning to his eyes. He shifts in his seat. “Ms. Holt, I apologize. I forgot we hadn’t covered this.”
Seeing the sternness crawl into Hemmett’s face, Anna asks, “Did I say something wrong?”
“Of course not,” Wynn says. “Nothing wrong at all. It’s just the answer may be a bit of a surprise to you.” He clasps his hands and laces his fingers. “This may sound a little odd, but we don’t go home.”
Anna scans the eyes before her. Wynn’s carry a forthright look. Hemmett’s are downcast and staring at the turbulent embers, the jovial calm once occupying them now gone. “What?” she asks.
“Much like the duty you took on when enlisting, Mr. Hemmett and I have placed ourselves in similar service. This is a vast territory we tend to, and it requires constant attention. Though there are other Walkers in the region, our numbers are always fewer than our demands. With the terrain and weather as it is, the task of maintaining the telegraph is a constant undertaking.”
“You don’t go home?” Anna asks. “Ever?”
“There are some towns we consider home,” Wynn says, “where names and faces are most familiar, but it’s months at a time between visits. Sometimes years.”
Anna shakes her head with disbelief. “But you must have a home. A place to return to. There must be somewhere.”
“You’re in my home, Ms. Holt,” Wynn says. “This camp is my place of dining and resting, where I spend time with both strangers and friends. The frozen lake just beyond is my front porch, the wild ranges on the horizon my back yard. It’s a property of endless acreage and insurmountable beauty.”
Anna looks at Hemmett. Jaw clenched, his face is as still as a statue. Darkness broods in his eyes, and shadows find hard lines entrenched on his furrowed brow.
“Do you find this hard to believe?” Wynn asks, seeing the confusion on her face. “It’s the same for those on the front. They don’t see home for years at a time.”
“But that’s different.”
Anna considers the question. She leans forward, plants her elbows on her knees and rests her chin on her hands. “Because that’s the war. You have to go. That’s the point. People can’t pick and choose when they’ll fight. It wouldn’t work.”
“Miners can’t pick and choose when they’ll find gold,” Wynn says. “Nor can Walkers pick and choose when a town loses connection.” He stretches his leg, his knee popping with the move, and rubs his hip. “We’re all in this together, Ms. Holt, woven by our common need to see Man survive.”
Though agreeing with the concept, Anna’s face sours. “But what about your families? You must have families.”
Wynn gives a quick glance to Hemmett, sees the anger brooding, and looks away. “I had a family for a period in my life, but that was some time ago, nearly two decades now. I was married to a woman of unrivaled patience and beauty. We were very happy together, though she was quite saddened by our inability to conceive children. Ours was a love strong enough to endure such a trial, however.” He nods in remembrance. “Those were better days then. Before this bitter nonsense in the south. Before the war.”
“What was her name?”
“Martha,” Wynn says with a soft smile.
“Where is Martha now?”
“She passed many years ago.”
“Oh,” Anna says with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“It’s alright, Ms. Holt. It’s alright. We know well enough about you. It’s only fair you should learn about us.” Wynn shifts his weight and brushes away errant flakes that manage to flutter their way beneath the canvas awning and onto his coat. “It was a peculiar thing, her dying. Something I struggled with for many years. You see, the event felt like a theft on my life, a sort of emotional robbery. It was a simple illness that took her, all while I wasn’t looking. I was early in my Walking years then, only a little younger than Mr. Hemmett. Back then, my legs were vigorous and fresh and my knees bent happily. Not like today. I could trot up and down the mountains laughing. It was an incredible feeling, that spryness, as if at any moment wings would burst from my shoulders and give me flight.”
Wynn stands and places thin tree limbs into the fire. He pokes at the burning logs, setting embers free, and watches small sparks float into the sky, opposing the large flakes falling down.
“As it always is,” he continues, still standing, “I was called on for a broken line. I was home at the time, a rare moment for me. Martha had been under the weather the past week, but nothing serious. There were a few occasions when her cough was enough to give her pause, it was that taxing, but the fits were uncommon and her spirit was as strong as ever. I considered staying…” Wynn says, his words slowing as his mind travels back to consider staying once again, “but Martha was fierce in her practicality. She knew my being home to care for her would come at the price of lost income. She wouldn’t hear of it. ‘Go tend the line and come home, Kurtis,’ she said. ‘You needn’t worry over me.’ So I did.” Wynn clears his throat and shakes his head, his eyes lost in the coals of the campfire. “And I never saw her wonderful smile again.”
The softness in Wynn’s voice is enough to pull Hemmett’s eyes up, though only for a moment. He looks at Wynn, spares a glance toward Anna, and returns his stare to the fire without a sound.
“I was told she died of pneumonia approximately ten days after I left. She ignored the symptoms and put off seeing the doctor until it was too late. When she finally sought help, the infection in her lungs was too far along.”
“Mr. Wynn, I’m so sorry,” says Anna.
“As am I, Ms. Holt. As am I. Sorry for all the obvious reasons, but more still that I never had the chance to see her buried. I never knew a thing was wrong until it was all said and done with.” Wynn’s voice lingers with bitterness. “The line was down, you see. There was no way for anyone to contact me, and it was a nasty bit of work to bring the line up again. I learned of all that transpired three days after the fact via a simple message on yellow paper.”
In the distance, somewhere in the darkness beyond camp, an owl shrieks. The sound is shrill and violent and pricks the still moment around the campfire like a needle piercing skin. The three Walkers turn their heads to the sound. After a moment, Wynn and Anna return their eyes to the fire while Hemmett continues peering into the night.
“So that was the end of it,” says Wynn. “No being by her side while she passed. No solemn tears or final kisses goodbye. No congregating in the support of family and friends while she was lowered into the ground. No planting of wildflowers beside her grave, though I did do that after. It was simply stolen, all stolen. I hurried home from my duties to find a wooden cross and nothing else. My love, my life, was just… gone. Returning home felt just as hollow. There was no more laughter or warmth. No more spirit. What was my home had been reduced to an empty house. I haven’t been back since.” Wynn lets out a long sigh. His breath hangs thick in the air, as if weighted with sorrow. “Since then, each mountain I climb feels taller, and each valley descends lower. I’ve never felt the threat of wings springing from my shoulders again.”
Anna’s heart stirs as she struggles with what to say, but no words will come. And why would they? she thinks. What is there to possibly say? In that moment, she abandons all pretense of professionalism, stands, approaches Wynn and embraces him. He’s only startled for a moment, caught off guard by the simple gesture, but soon his arms are returning her hold in kind.
“Thank you, Ms. Holt,” he says in a shaky whisper. “From the wells of my heart, I thank you tremendously.”
Anna stays silent and closes her eyes, resting her head on his shoulder. His coarse beard scratches her skin. The scattered snow on his coat melts into her cheeks.
“What is that?” asks Hemmett, ignoring their embrace and scowling at the darkness beyond camp.
Taking comfort with each other, neither Wynn nor Anna answer.
Hemmett stands, thumbs open his jacket and slips a hand toward his holster. Squinting against the firelight, he asks, “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what, Mr. Hemmett?” asks Wynn, releasing Anna.
Hemmett draws his revolver and shields his eyes from the campfire in a futile attempt to see into the night. “Listen,” he says in a hushed voice.
Seeing the sudden alertness in him, Anna retrieves her rifle standing like a javelin in the snow. She brushes dry powder from the stock, squats, and scours the perimeter. Snow falls in hefty clumps, obscuring her view. She listens and relaxes her eyes, waiting for them to stumble upon movement. “I hear it too,” she says a moment later.
“What is that?” Hemmett repeats.
Wynn stands by the fire, his eyes searching, his ears straining. “We’re camped too close to the path,” he whispers.
“Who in their right mind would be traveling in this?” Hemmett asks.
The sound comes gradually. A light tap here and a clink there, sounds so delicate their ears miss lighter notes and fill in empty gaps with phantom sounds from their own mind. It grows into a sort of rustling, as if distant glass chimes were stirring in a breeze.
“I’ve heard that before,” Anna says.
“Shh,” says Hemmett, kneeling lower.
The clinks and tinkles mix with that of something large shuffling through the snow. A light grunt follows. Hearing the sound, Wilder shifts from his resting place, tossing piled shelves of snow from his fur. He sniffs the air and huffs.
Lightly clinking glass goes still. The forest falls silent.
Hemmett thumbs back the hammer on his pistol. Metal ticks as it latches. Anna aims down metal sites into the darkness outside of camp. The world waits, save for falling snow.
“Hello!” comes a shout from the darkness. The voice sounds strained, old and tired.
Hemmett raises his large revolver. Firelight glints from the long barrel. Still squinting, he calls out. “Who goes there? Show yourself.”
There’s a long pause before the voice calls out again. “Do you intend to shoot me?”
“That depends on you, friend,” Hemmett says. “Do you intend to stay where you are?”
“To stay where I am contradicts your command to show myself. You’ll need to make your decision before I make mine.”
“Come into the light then,” Hemmett says. “Nice and slow.”
The voice utters a command, and a large beast can be heard shambling forward. Glass gently taps against glass, sounding like wind chimes in a gentle breeze. From the darkness, two eyes reflecting firelight float like glowing orbs in the night. A glistening nose soon appears beneath, followed by curved horns coming together on a solid crown of bone. The shoulders and body of a muskox come into view next. Snow clings to thick, shaggy fur, and firelight reflects from dozens upon dozens of glass vials woven into the beast’s hair. The small bottles dangle and bump into another as the muskox lumbers toward the edge of camp.
Hemmett tenses in his stance, fearing the animal to be a distraction. “Come out!” he demands.
The old voice calls from behind the creature. “Calm down, human. I’m alone and unarmed. I assure I’m no threat to you. That cannon in your hand is more than enough to be rid of the likes of me.”
“Mr. Hemmett, please,” Wynn says quietly. “Sir, if you’d be kind enough to approach the camp so we may see you.”
“On the condition he’s kind enough not to fire the moment his eyes find me.”
“You have my word,” Wynn says.
“Very well.” Light steps struggle through deepening snow, barely audible over the crackling fire. Though muffled, more clinking glass can be heard, along with intermittent sniffles. From behind the muskox, an old gnome appears. He wears a wolf’s head atop his own like a helmet, its yellow fangs hanging down over his forehead. The snow-covered wolf pelt clings to his shoulders and trails behind him as he walks. Beneath the pelt, he wears a dark coat over an old, red robe. Thick glasses rest on a bulbous nose, giving sight to beady eyes. White whiskers cover his face, the looks of a beard grown for necessity rather than style. His chubby cheeks are flushed from the cold. “Good evening,” he says with apprehension.
“Good evening,” says Wynn.
“What are you doing out here?” Hemmett asks, his pistol lowered but still in hand.
“I saw the firelight from the trail,” he says. “This storm is considerable, much more than I was prepared for. I—” His words cut off as his eyes land on Anna still crouched with her rifle ready. “I hoped I could take shelter beside your fire. It seems that may have been a mistake.”
“You’re traveling alone?” Wynn asks.
“I am. I have the required approvals to be in your lands. You may check my papers if you like.”
Wynn approaches the gnome and receives a small envelope. He steps back and opens the papers beneath their canvas awning, reading them in the firelight. All wait in fixed silence as Wynn reads the documents word for word. Falling snow piles onto Anna’s shoulders while Hemmett stomps through the dry powder, rounding the muskox in search for anyone in hiding. Satisfied, Wynn folds the papers and returns them to the traveler. “Mr. Vials, is it? My thanks. You can never be too sure these days.”
“Indeed,” says the gnome, returning the documents to his coat pocket.
Hemmett rounds the adorned muskox and huffs with frustration. Snow sticks to his pantlegs. “Why were you traveling without a lantern?”
Vials glares before giving an answer. “Do you see these spectacles, sir? I’m far better off allowing Hutch to lead the way. There’s bloody nothing for me to see in this storm, and at night to boot.”
“Hutch?” Anna asks.
“Yes. Hutch. My beast of burden.” He hitches a thumb at the muskox behind him.
“Mmhm. And why are you walking?” Hemmett asks. “With legs as short as yours, you should be riding him.”
Vials gives Hemmett a long stare before answering. “If you must know, my posterior has had just about enough riding.” He turns to Wynn. “If I’m not welcome here, simply say so. There’s no need to waste our time.”
“Mr. Hemmett, please,” says Wynn. “Lower your pistol. You as well, Ms. Holt. Forgive us,” he tells the gnome. “These are trying times, and even with the war so far south from here, there’s no shortage of danger in these territories.”
Vials sniffles and adjust the glasses on his nose. “Think nothing of it. I’ve experienced human hospitality before.”
“You were in Nestol,” Anna says after lowering her rifle. She brushes fresh snow from her tree round and reclaims her seat. “I saw you.”
“That’s correct. I’ve traveled directly from there.”
“And where is your destination, Mr. Vials?” Wynn asks. “What brings you so far north?”
“Just Vials,” he corrects. “Vials is my name and Vials are my trade.” He nods his head toward Hutch. “As I’m sure you’ve noticed.” Shuffling his small feet bound to snowshoes clearly designed for a child, Vials inches toward the fire. “I come for rare herbs not found in my lands. Trade has been stifled ever since your kind took up warfare with the dwarves. A gnome does what a gnome must do when it comes to profession and trade.” He leers at Hemmett, seeing the pistol still in his hand. “I travel to Nil and beyond.”
“Nil?” Hemmett scoffs. “Who told you to go there?”
Unhappy with Hemmett’s tone, Vials eyes narrow. “One of your pharmacists in Nestol directed me this way. He said there would be trade. Why?”
Hemmett laughs as he holsters his gun. Clouds of breath leap from his mouth. “There’s no trade in Nil. There’s nothing. Didn’t notice the name?”
Vials scratches his cheek and remains silent. Behind him, Hutch nudges him with a horn and gives a grunt. “Yes, yes,” Vials says, irritated. “Very well.” Ignoring Hemmett, he addresses Wynn. “My creature wishes to graze or at least continue. Not to press the issue, but am I free to stay within your camp or not?”
Wynn answers before Hemmett can object. “Of course, mister—uh, Vials. I’d be delighted. Ms. Holt, if you’d be kind enough to assist our guest with his things.”
“Sure,” she says, handing the rifle to Wynn.
Hemmett looks on, incredulous.
“Are you hungry?” Wynn asks.
Vials scoots toward the fire and raises his naked hands to the flames. His fingers are short, his knuckles round and swollen. “I am, though I’ve enough provisions for myself. Food is not required, just a safe place to rest until morning.”
Anna approaches Hutch with caution, though the muskox does not seem to care. Draped over his back are two leather pouches tied in place with rope. She undoes the poorly tied knots and slides the pouches off. Free of the weight, Hutch wanders off all tinks and clinks to forage for food. “Gnomes must not need much to survive,” she says, feeling the weight of the pouches in her arms.
“I travel light,” Vials says, not looking back.
“We have some sausage if you’d like,” Wynn offers.
Vials gives a curt nod. “That will suffice.”
“Uh, where do you want this?” Anna asks, bags in hand.
“There is fine.”
“In the snow?”
Vials looks up at her, his head barely standing higher than her waist. “In the snow.”
Anna shrugs and lets the bags go. They fall into the powder with a puff.
Seeing their intense interest on him, Vials makes his best effort to return the favor. “And I suppose I should inquire to you as well. What brings the likes of you to such a remote place?”
“We’re Walkers,” says Wynn as he hands over pieces of sausage and cheese. “We maintain the telegraph system for this region. Maintaining communications in lands like these is critical.”
“Indeed,” Vials says between nibbles. He watches Anna as she sits. Illuminated by the fire, he notices her young face and smooth skin. “These two make sense,” he says, tilting his head toward Hemmett and Wynn, “but I thought humans sent all their youth to the front.”
“She’s my niece,” Hemmett says with a piercing tone. “My brother’s daughter. You don’t need to worry about her, wolf bait. Is that why you’re wearing that ridiculous wolf head like a hat? An attempt to trick the wolves into not eating you?” Standing on the edge of camp, swollen flakes accumulating in his hair and on his shoulders, Hemmett watches with a palm resting on the handle of his revolver.
“She’s awfully young,” Vials says, ignoring the jab.
“And you’re awfully far from home, wolf bait.” Hemmett retorts. “Like I said, you don’t worry about her.”
Vials gives a long look at the man standing behind him, then turns to Wynn. “Is this one always so angry?”
A soft smile spreads over Wynn’s face. “Mr. Hemmett is very protective, an asset in these parts.”
“I suppose so.” Rolling his tongue, Vials makes a sour face and sniffs at the sausage in hand. “He’s a Mr. Hemmett. She is one Ms. Holt. What might I call you?”
“Wynn. Kurtis Wynn.”
“It’s a pleasure, Mr. Wynn,” Vials says. “A pleasure and double the fortune. If it weren’t for this camp, I’d still be wandering through the dark blind as a bat, and if it weren’t for you, I’d not be welcome in this camp.” He raises a puffy eyebrow at Anna. “Imagine the disappointment.”
“Why were you traveling in the dark?” Anna asks.
Vials exchanges the sausage for the cheese, bites, and crinkles his face with displeasure all the same. “Was more the animal’s decision than mine. Hutch can be intolerable at times. But more to the point, I was led to believe this town of Nil was closer than it is. Without a guide to instruct me, I decided to press on rather than take shelter for the night.”
“A guide would be useful in these parts,” Wynn says.
Vials gives a dull glare in response, unsure if he’s being mocked.
“Why don’t you have a guide?” Anna asks, her wide eyes mesmerized by the gnome.
“Dear girl,” Vials says, “not all services are available for one such as me. At least, not while in your lands.”
“Shouldn’t you be waving some magic wand to help find your way?” Hemmett asks as he draws near to the fire once more.
Vials ignores the sarcastic question.
“Oh, right,” Anna says, her tone taking on that of an excited schoolgirl. “What about magic? Don’t gnomes know how to do magic?”
“Magic,” Vials hisses, “is a poison on my people, Ms. Holt. A poison that has brought only ruin during a time of technological advancement. While even you humans bumble forward, my people are guided by relics for leaders, by foolish old gnomes clinging to ancient stories and fading tomes all in search of some marvelous power that has yet to be found. So to answer your question, Mr. Hemmett—not that your trite quip sought an answer—no, I don’t have a wand to wave. My business goes well beyond that. Alchemy is founded well on science, and alchemy is the path that will set my people free. I’ve no space in my life for magic.”
Hemmett only stares in response, unmoved by the rant, while Wynn strokes at his beard.
“Oh,” says Anna, clearly disappointed at the lost chance of seeing a spell performed in front of her for the first time.
“At any rate,” Vials continues, “I must say I’m quite tired and desire my rest. I hate to be rude and so quickly turn in, but I did not seek your fire for the grace of your company. You understand.”
“Very good, Vials,” Wynn says before Hemmett can mouth off again. “There’s still some distance to cover before reaching Nil tomorrow. We’d all do well to turn in.”
“Thank you,” the gnome says. He reaches into his coat and jingles unseen potions within. As if on cue, Hutch trundles into camp under a chorus of singing glass. He nudges the gnome with his crown, nearly knocking Vials over.
“Yes, yes,” Vials says, perturbed. “Here then, you fiend.” He produces a phial filled with magenta fluid from his coat and pops the cork with a thoomp! Extending a short arm, he pours the liquid onto the muskox’s outstretched tongue. Anna watches with wonder as the viscous fluid seems to absorb directly into the animal’s tongue. Hutch sniffs and snorts and exhales plumes of heat from his nose. He shakes his head, shivers his body with a glassy rattle, turns, and lays down in the snow. Within moments, Hutch is fast asleep. With the glass silenced, only long, heavy breaths can be heard.
“What was that?” Anna asks.
Vials shakes his head. “That is the end result of my own foolishness. I thought to tame this beast through the use of my potions. Instead, I gave creation to an addict.” He returns his beady eyes to Anna. “Addiction within a substance varies from creature to creature it seems, as I’ve never seen a gnome—or human, for that matter—display such a visceral response to a sleeping potion.”
“That was a sleeping potion!?” she exclaims, her voice returning back to the girlish excitement that came with the prospect of witnessing magic. “Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“Yes, well,” grumbles Vials, “trade has suffered nearly as much as your kind during this war. It seems we share a commonality; both our leaders have no understanding toward the benefits of alchemy. Mine are reluctant to sell, and yours are reluctant to buy.”
“Not the dwarves though,” Hemmett says in an accusing tone. “They’ve been buying all your kind will sell and then some, haven’t they, wolf bait?”
Fumbling within his robe for another bottle, Vials slows his movement and places a cautious eye on Hemmett’s shooting hand, a hand hitched dangerously close to his massive revolver. “Indeed,” he agrees with a listless tone, “they clearly understand something your kind does not. And their dedication toward victory goes without question.”
Hemmett starts a retort, but Wynn cuts him off. “As you say, Mr. ehhh… Vials, it’s late and we should all get some rest. You’ll be safe here with us tonight.”
Hemmett’s eyes burn with anger, but he holds his tongue.
“Very well,” Vials says. Finally finding what he was searching for within his robe, he reveals a glass container no bigger than his thumb. Inside, the same magenta fluid swirls. He settles himself into the snow, using the end of his wolf skin as a sitting mat, and folds his legs. Working the stopper free with a squeaky pop, Vials takes the daintiest sip from the bottle. “Good night then,” he says, thumbing the cork back on and hiding the bottle away. He pulls the wolf skin tight around himself, slumps forward and falls asleep.
Anna stares, her brow furrowing. “Just like that? Is he actually asleep?” She gives them both a questioning look. “Have either of you ever seen something like this?”
“I’ve taken tonics here and there,” Wynn says, “but nothing that amounts to a true potion. They’re more of a flavored liquor than anything else. The tonics, I mean.”
Seeing the surprise on her face, Hemmett approaches the sleeping gnome with unimpressed steps. He leans forward, resting his hands on his knees. Loose snow falls from his shoulders. “He looks asleep,” he says with a shrug.
“Just like Hutch,” Anna says. “See?” She points at the animal though all three can clearly hear the soft snoring. “It was the same thing, the same potion.”
The trio draw together around the gnome wrapped in wolf’s fur and stare. The small body, no larger than a child’s makes no motion aside from the slightest sway from breathing. Hemmett pokes the gnome’s shoulder.
“Stop it,” Wynn says.
“Are we supposed to do something?” Anna asks. Despite her attempts, her mouth continually drifts open with surprise. “I mean, do we just leave him like this?”
Wynn shakes his head. “I don’t know. I suppose so. He made no mention of needing shelter. He didn’t ask to share a tent.”
“His two satchels are basically empty,” Anna says. “I took a glance before bringing them over. There are some clothes and some food, but that’s about it.”
“Any alchemy supplies? Roots, leaves, so on?”
Anna shakes her head. “Not that I can tell.”
Hemmett pokes the sleeping gnome again.
“Mr. Hemmett, please,” Wynn chides.
“I don’t trust him,” Hemmett says. “I think it’s a trick. And I don’t buy his story for one second. All the way up here for alchemy? Give me a break.”
Anna steps away cautiously. “And how could he just go to sleep like that? He doesn’t know anything about us. What if we wanted to rob him?”
“You said his satchels were empty,” Wynn reminds her.
“Yeah… but what about his potions?”
Wynn frowns. “It works one of two ways,” he says with a sigh. “Either it’s an elaborate ruse meant to catch us in the act of theft, or it’s real. And if it’s real, is there a single bottle on that creature you’d want to steal?” The three look at Hutch and the variety of potions woven into his fur. “After seeing this, you’d be crazy to let a single drop touch your tongue without knowing the effect beforehand.”
“You two sleep,” Hemmett says. “I’ll take first watch.” He rolls his tree round next to the gnome and plops down. “If he moves, I’ll know it.”
“This feels weird,” Anna says. “I don’t know. Should we be worried?”
“We should be careful,” Wynn says. “Not worried. We’re in agreement though, Ms. Holt. This is certainly a surprise, and a bizarre one at that. One thing I’ve learned through my years in the north, surprises are rarely good.” Stroking his beard in thought, he turns toward his tent. “Another thing,” he says before climbing in. “Keep a close eye on your water skins. If you’re not certain of the contents, don’t drink from it.”