Anna and Hemmett stand together beside a narrow road. Burly pine trees, fully clothed in ice and snow, surround them as though they’re unwelcomed intruders. Above, gray clouds swell with ill intent. Buried in silence, they listen for the sound of coming travelers.
“What does it mean?” Anna asks. “The line being cute.”
Hemmett scowls down the length of empty road, his eyes dagger-points for those who aren’t there. “It can mean anything. What it means for us is that this trip just became more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Has it happened before?” Anna asks.
Hemmett clenches his jaw. “Just once.”
“It got complicated.” His eyes still scanning the road, he exhales with frustration. “Death of man, where are they?”
“Should we split up?” Anna asks, letting the topic of cut lines go. “You go on and I’ll follow the road back?”
“No,” Hemmett says. “They haven’t passed through here yet. We’d see their tracks. But I don’t like this. Wynn never falls behind like this.” He growls through his teeth. “It’s that damned gnome.”
Embarrassed by not noticing the lack of tracks, Anna fusses with the rifle strap on her shoulder and looks down. The breeze stirs with attitude. With each gust against her cheek, Anna feels cold creeping into her body. She wraps herself in her arms. In the back of her mind, a worry comes to life. In their efforts to match Wynn’s pace, Hemmett pushed her harder than she realized. She didn’t notice she had begun to sweat. Now, with the heat of their effort gone, replaced with standing and waiting beside the road, she feels the moisture chilling fast.
“Is that something?” Hemmett asks in a hushed tone.
They listen. Low whispers of wind pass through pine needles. Swaying tree tops sigh. Then a murmur finds their ear. A moment later, the faint sound of distant conversation is heard, followed by the gentle sound of clinking glass. They stare down the road, and Wilder is first to appear around the bend. Hutch follows immediately behind, strolling along like a walking wind chime.
“It’s about time,” Hemmett says, his voice giving away more anger than he intended. He turns to Anna. “Listen, don’t say a word about what we’ve found until the gnome is gone. Understand?”
“Okay,” she says. “What makes you think he’ll leave?”
Hemmett glares as the small figure comes hobbling into view. “Oh, he’ll leave.”
Wilder sees them first and gives a grunting greeting, tossing his head as if waving hello. Hutch mimics the action with far less enthusiasm. Behind them, Vials hobbles several paces behind Wynn. The gnome’s face is flushed from the cold and sour. His beady eyes glare at Hemmett with distrust. Wynn, his thick beard speckled with snow, shares a smile as they eventually come to a stop next to Anna and Hemmett. “There they are, two Walkers in the flesh. How goes the search? Have you found the damaged section?”
“There’s something we need to show you,” Hemmett says.
Wynn pauses. “What did you find?”
Hemmett presses his lips tight and glares at the gnome. “I’d rather not say without your seeing it first.”
The pleasant smile fades from Wynn’s face. “Very well. What can you tell me?”
Vials sees the look in Hemmett’s eye and picks up the cue immediately. “Mr. Wynn, I thank you for your company, but I must say, with deepest regrets, that it’s come time for me to depart. No, please,” he says, quelling Wynn’s protest with a raised hand. “I insist. You’ve done me a great service this day, one that I shall forever remember, but I’m quite anxious to continue on my way, and I cannot keep you from your duties any longer. I’m in debt to you.” He clutches Wynn’s fingers in a childlike shake, gives Anna curt nod, and gives a gentle tug on the leather strap hanging from Hutch. The gnome hurries off in an awkward waddle. Wilder sighs as Hutch follows along.
“Very well,” Wynn says to Vials as he departs. “Nil is only a short distance further. Perhaps we’ll see you again in town.”
Not looking back, Vials waves a hand in silent response. They watch the gnome hobble slowly out of view. “What a strange man,” Wynn says while stroking his beard. He turns to Hemmett. “What have you found?”
Hemmett waits until the sound of clinking glass is all but gone, then speaks in a low voice. “The line has been cut. Intentionally.”
Wynn curls an eyebrow. “Are you certain?”
“You saw this as well?” Wynn asks Anna.
Anna hesitates before nodding. “It looks that way. I defer to Mr. Hemmett’s expertise, obviously, but I agree. If I had to guess, I’d say it looks like someone took an axe to the cable. They didn’t cut through all the way, and it took a couple strikes, but it isn’t bite marks or frayed cable or anything like that. It looks like it was chopped.”
Wynn’s face sours. “Well this adds an unwanted wrinkle. At least a clean cut makes for easier repair.”
“It’ll take some time, but nothing difficult,” Hemmett says. “The insulation is damaged too. I can have it done within a few hours. Easily before nightfall.” Hemmett leans closer. “Where were you?”
Wynn looks up from his contemplative stare. “Hmm?”
“Today. On the road. You were supposed to match our pace for when we needed equipment from the sled. What the hell happened with Vials?”
Wynn removes his fur cap and runs a hand through his thick, silvery hair. “Nothing happened, Mr. Hemmett, you worrisome man. We walked and we talked. Everything was quite cordial, I assure you. On the up and up. I wasn’t tricked into drinking some mind-controlling liquid if that’s what you’re concerned about. He didn’t steal my thoughts.”
“Then why did you lose track of us?” Anna asks.
“To be perfectly honest, Ms. Holt, Vials is rather enjoyable to be around, despite Mr. Hemmett’s misgivings. He’s a deft conversationalist. More often than not I found myself caught up in his stories. He spoke for nearly every minute we walked, quite controlling, in fact. To be honest, he wouldn’t shut up. I did my best to keep an eye out for you, but I didn’t stress my pace too much for the sake of keeping him talking. The more he spoke, the more I could learn. The two of you are capable enough. You knew our general location. I doubted anything so urgent would happen that you’d need my immediate assistance.”
Anna glances at Hemmett. His face is hard. “What did he say?” she asks.
“Well,” Wynn says, his enthusiasm wavering, “He told some delightful stories, many of which did make me laugh with sincerity…”
Wynn smiles. “But despite his mastery of language, I wonder if gnomes understand the meaning of gullibility. I’ve never been told such a string of embellished yarns in all my life. There are only a handful of truths we can claim in regards to Vials, assuming that’s even his name, something I doubt.”
“Which are?” Hemmett asks, ready to dispel those truths the moment they’re mentioned.
Wynn ticks his fingers. “He’s a gnome. He’s intelligent. And he’s a liar.”
Hemmett, seemingly ready to pounce, relaxes.
“What about his alchemy?” Anna asks.
Wynn leans from side to side and gives his legs a modest stretch. “His mastery of that is true enough, but I’d like to give him as little credit as possible.” Wynn catches the look in Anna’s eye and smiles. “It’s disappointing, honestly. I so wanted to gain something from that exchange. I hope he’s not representative of all Gnomes.”
“What did he tell you?” Hemmett asks.
“What didn’t he tell me?” Wynn says with a scoffing laugh. “That’s likely an easier list to sort out. For a creature that talks so much, he managed to not say a thing. The entirety of this day has been filled with tale after tale, each somehow attempting to outdo the previous one told. I imagine some of what he said must be based on truth, else he’s dangerously inventive. Perhaps that kind of genius lends itself to stories and alchemy alike.”
The three stand in silence and share a round of disappointment.
“He was the first race I’ve met,” Anna says, breaking the pause.
“If you feel let down,” Hemmett says, “don’t be. Neither races are impressive. Dwarves or Gnomes.”
Anna shrugs at the mild scolding. “It’s still something to me.” She chuckles. “It felt like my jaw hit the ground the first time I saw him in Nestol.”
“It’s far less common now,” Wynn says with a nod. “There was a time when the races co-mingled, but those were very different days. Back before—well, you know.”
“Come on,” Hemmett says. “We can talk more while heading back to the line.”
The three break away from the road, their snowshoes tossing dry powder. Wilder follows, grunting and snorting at the offense of having to follow instead of lead. They wind down a rolling hill, navigating between patches of ice-thorn and sapling trees struggling to grow out from snowy graves.
“Why do you think Vials is here?” Anna asks.
“I couldn’t begin to guess,” Wynn says. “He’s certainly searching for something, and given his attitude, it must be of unquestionable importance. He’s come here alone, and his journey is very dubious. This is not forgiving country, especially for someone so poorly equipped. This is no vacation for him, that much is certain. I also doubt he’s here to support his alchemy. Anyone skilled alchemist would hire out the arduous work of gathering rare supplies. He isn’t cut out for this environment.”
“Do you think he’ll go to Nil, or was that a lie as well?” Hemmett asks. Leading them, he pauses and raises a hand. “Let’s unhook Wilder here. We can reach the line from that rock cropping over there. No need to make him lug all of our stuff into the ravine.”
Wilder snorts in agreement.
Wynn and Anna work on freeing Wilder from the sled. “He mentioned his destination of Nil so often I’m certain he’ll do all he can to avoid it,” Wynn says. “Which only adds to my lack of understanding about him. I haven’t a clue how he survives out here with so few supplies. He isn’t even armed.”
“Is it the potions?” Anna asks. “I mean, is that how he survives?”
Wilder sighs with relief as he steps out from the sled’s harness. He falls into the loose powder with a soft puff of sound.
“I can’t imagine anything surviving on potions alone,” Wynn says after a moment of consideration. “But after today, I feel my knowledge toward potions and their capabilities is sorely limited.”
Hemmett trudges downhill a few steps and stops on top of a flat rock. The snow around them is trampled from their earlier tracks. “There’s the cut,” he points. “Clear as day.”
Wynn strolls to the edge of the small cliff and squats down to examine the nearby pole. Thinking, he strokes his thick beard.
“What do you think?” Hemmett asks.
Thick, black cable is severed through save for a final bit of insulation attaching the line to the pole. Inside, copper wire is exposed. Already tired of squatting, Wynn seats himself in the snow and stares at the line. Sharp pinch marks infest the damaged portion. “I think whoever did the cutting was in a hurry. Or in a panic. These axe marks are all over.”
“Aye,” agrees Hemmett.
“Or maybe it was dark,” Anna adds.
“Let’s think on it over some lunch,” Wynn says. “It’s well beyond midday, and I’m famished. Is there any rabbit meat left?”
“Enough for a solid meal,” Anna says. She gives Wynn and Hemmett questioning glances. “Are we setting camp?”
“Not entirely,” Wynn says. “But we need to break down the sled to retrieve our equipment for repairs. May as well enjoy a proper meal with our effort.”
They set to it.
Anna manages lunch, building the fire and starting the cooking pot while Hemmett and Wynn setup to repair the line, clearing away snow from the pole and laying out replacement parts and needed tools. On Wynn’s insistence, they eat before beginning any substantial work on the line.
“There’s no sense in letting lunch go cold,” he says as Anna hands him a bowl of thick stew.
Hemmett takes his own with a grumble but is soon shoving spoonfuls into his mouth. Anna smiles at his eagerness. The three sit in a row on their tree rounds, looking down at the telegraph line. Behind them, Wilder lounges in the snow. “How do you handle this?” she says, pointing her spoon toward the telegraph pole. “I mean, with the townspeople. With Nil. The fact the line has been cut.”
“I’m glad you’ve brought it up,” says Wynn. “It’s exactly what my mind’s been tossing around.” He takes another bite, chews, and swallows the stew down. “Intentional damage to the line adds another dimension to our work, one I take no pleasure in. You see, Ms. Holt, though we’ve no authority when it comes to enforcing laws or keeping the peace, we do gain jurisdiction when it comes to willful destruction of the telegraph. The line is our responsibility, through and through. Elements or people. If it’s found someone has intentionally caused damage to it, we’re required to prosecute them.”
“What’s the punishment?”
“Lately?” Hemmett says with a raised eyebrow. “Conscription.”
“Hmm,” Anna says, chewing and thinking.
“That’s often my take on it,” Wynn says. “Especially when you consider our destination. Nil isn’t a bastion of patriotic support for the war. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
“Deserters,” Hemmett says. “Most of them have fled the front. They’re also crazy.”
Wynn’s face sours. “I prefer to say they’re temperamental.”
Hemmett shakes his head in reiteration. “Crazy.”
“Death of man,” Anna says, worry finding her voice. “This all sounds like a big mess in the making.”
Wynn waves a calming hand. “One thing at a time, Ms. Holt. Let’s not invent problems when we’re already saddled with enough. Is the situation ideal? No. But we’ll make our repairs and perform our duties all the same. It’s best to never assume in these scenarios. Life is strange and people stranger still. The moment you think you’ve got it sorted, here comes a surprise.” Finishing his stew, he lets out a satisfying sigh. “That hit the spot, Ms. Holt. Thank you kindly for giving us a warm meal.”
Anna smiles. “You’re quite welcome.”
Wynn stands, pats his belly and stretches his legs. His eyes linger on the line. “Mr. Hemmett, is this a repair you can handle alone?”
Scraping the remaining bits of stew from his tin bowl, Hemmett eyes the damaged section and shrugs. “I suppose so. Why?”
“Because I’m leaving you to it,” Wynn says, turning to face them. “You and Wilder will remain here with the supplies and make repairs. Ms. Holt and I will continue into Nil together and get a sense of what’s happened. They’ve been without communications for almost three weeks now. They’ll be happy to know repairs are underway, and perhaps we can get some legwork done on who did the cutting.”
“No,” Hemmett says, his eyes glowering.
Hemmett stands and points to the line. “Someone did that for a reason. I promise you the reason isn’t good, whatever it is.”
“Levelheadedness is how we handle this,” Wynn says. “We cannot wander into this assuming the worst.”
“And you can’t wander into this assuming the best.”
“How did you handle it last time?” Anna asks, interrupting the building stalemate. “Mr. Hemmett said this happened before. What did you do then?”
Wynn grumbles with hesitation. “Forgive me if this sounds condescending, Ms. Holt, but I’d rather not say. In my experience, it’s best to not go into these things with any preconceived notions. You only blind yourself to the truth that way. It’s better to approach the matter with a clear mind and let the information around you make its case.”
Hemmett glares at the passive slight. “Ms. Holt,” he says, never removing his stare from Wynn, “you’re learning another lesson today. One about Mr. Wynn. That being he’s as stubborn as a bull once he sets his mind to something. He’ll preach the dangers of preconceived notions, but he won’t think twice when it comes to reconsidering his own decisions.”
Seeing the tension between them, Anna remains silent. Hemmett and Wynn stare. Cold wind blows between them.
“It has to be done one way or another,” Wynn finally says. “And to be perfectly honest, Mr. Hemmett, though I do respect your concerns, I feel your presence in Nil will complicate matters. You lack restraint when it comes to those you disapprove of.”
Hemmett’s eyes cut like jade daggers. His jaw flexes as his teeth clench. After a moment, he shakes his head and relents. “Fine,” he says in a curt tone. “Fine. I’ll stay and fix the line. You two investigate. But Ms. Holt,” he says, turning to her. “You keep a close eye. Mr. Wynn can trust the people of Nil if he likes, but you trust in your rifle first.”