(Sorry if any typos got in, my eyes started bleeding… really wanted to post this tonight before another work week started)
After a short and quiet walk away from Hemmett and the broken telegraph line, Anna and Wynn emerge from the snow laden forest and into Nil with the feeling of accidentally discovering a graveyard.
The small town is infested with emptiness.
Abandoned buildings, single and two-story alike, sit like frozen husks. Their windows are broken or removed. Shutters, doors and panels have been stolen away for repairs or modifications elsewhere. Doors are absent from frames. Inside these shallow fronts, emptiness spreads further. There is no furniture to be found, no food to eat or water to drink. Shelves rest bare, stripped of supplies and replaced with snow and ice. Anna walks down the main avenue in stunned silence. Wynn is first in daring to speak, his words breaking their hushed state. “I don’t remember it being like this.”
“Is anyone still here?” Anna asks.
“There must be,” Wynn says, sounding far from certain.
They come upon a section of ruined buildings apparently destroyed by a great fire. Charred beams stand among collapsed rooves and framing. Snow sits several feet deep in the place of would-be occupants, and more flutters in. Further down, Wynn points to a chimney exhaling blue smoke. The saloon, old and worn, blends into the landscape like a bunker. Snow surrounds its walls and encroaches upon the second story.
“Is that the only building still being used?” Anna asks.
“I’m not sure. That poor sight across the street used to be the inn.” Wynn points to a heap of snow with charred boards sticking out like black bones. “See the sign? But apparently that has burnt down as well. It appears they’ve chosen to relocate instead of rebuild.”
Anna looks back at the avenue and sees only remains of what used to be. “Nothing is left.”
Wynn stares at the saloon as his eyes fill with melancholy. “Nil is always left.” He shakes his head. “These poor people.” Together, they feel the crushing weight of a dying town.
“Was it the same person?” Anna thinks out loud. “Who cut the line that also caused the fire?”
“No,” Wynn says. “The fire happened some months ago. I heard about it, though I never knew the damage was so extensive. I thought the stories were more rumor than truth.”
They pause in the snowy lane to stare at the makeshift townhall. Banks of snow invade the deck, and a partially dug path of white steps leads to a door of dark wood banded by iron. To the right, a portion of the deck’s overhang has collapsed, and the snow smothers it as if attempting to swallow it like prey. In the waning afternoon, dull, yellow light can be seen throughout the downstairs window. Upstairs, all is dark.
Wynn sees the worried look on Anna’s face and touches her shoulder. “Dispense of any misgivings Mr. Hemmett placed in your mind. We’re here to help these people. Nice and easy, Ms. Holt. We’ll be just fine.” They approach the building. At the door, they remove their snowshoes and leave them outside. Wynn takes hold of a large, iron ring and pulls.
Hinges squeal in protest.
Inside, four men sit huddled together at a long table. Thick haze fills the room, though not from tobacco. The stone hearth struggles to evacuate the smoke pluming from a fire born from green timber. Anna’s eyes sting as they enter. The room is dark, the ceiling low, and the firelight makes silhouettes of the sitting men. A single lantern burns in the corner above an unattended bar on the left. On the right, stairs ascend. Lingering with the smoke is the acrid smell of body odor. Though she welcomes the warmth of the musty room, Anna immediately yearns for the fresh air outside. She can’t help but attempt to hold her breath.
“Death of man, who is that then?” a voice asks.
Nervous, Anna lets her hand grip the rifle hanging from her shoulder. As her eyes adjust, silhouettes slowly become men. One wearing a large beard begins to stand.
Wynn pauses at the entrance and squints, his eyes bitten by the smoky air as well. “Gentlemen,” he says, stately and calm, “I am Mr. Wynn, and this is Ms. Holt. We are Walkers. We’ve come to repair the line.”
The four men toss glances amongst each other and then spring to their feet in earnest. Speaking all at once, their words flood the room.
“Death of man, it’s about time!”
“How do ya do there—”
“Mercy finds us!”
The men cluster around the Walkers and eagerly shake their hands, some taking the opportunity to shake them twice. “Come, come!” they say as they lead Anna and Wynn inside to have them at their table.
“Are ya thirsty then?’
“A small bite ye can have. Not much to offer but—”
“How long until the line—”
“Boys, boys,” says a man with a thick, black beard. He raises his hands as though begging forgiveness from the crowd. “Let’s not bombard, hey? They’ve a job to do. Minutes pass for them as well. Let us not waste them. I imagine you’ll need the remaining daylight for repairs?”
Wynn removes his cap and settles onto the bench beside the table. “Repairs are currently ongoing. My best man works the line as we speak.”
The bearded man slaps the table with an open palm. Tin tankards jitter with surprise. “Hot damn! How do ya like that, boys? As we speak!”
“Wonderful Wynn I calls him!”
“Finest Walkers ‘round!”
Seeing the elation in their eyes and the pride in Wynn’s, Anna smiles and releases the grip on her gun. She rounds the table and sits to the left of Wynn, nearest to the fire. Though the tension in her body fades, she continues to breathe as little of the foul air as possible.
“Gentlemen, please,” Wynn says, trying to manage their excitement, “if you could be kind enough to introduce yourselves.”
The man with the thick beard bursts with laughter, his eyes squinting with his wide smile. “Aye, names will do, hey? Mine’s Fergus. The gentlemen to your left is Shaw, and across from you sits Edvard and Hawk.” Hawk looks on with red eyes and a satisfied smile, as though the reasoning behind his name is already known. A long scar runs along the side of his shaved head. He nods directly at Anna, and Anna nods directly back. She makes a mental checklist of the features associated with each man, burning both name and appearance into her memory. Fergus is easy enough, his heavyset form matching the largeness of his jovial nature and his full beard and thick hair. Shaw looks to be the opposite, with wild eyes housed within a lean face barely decorated with a thin mustache and soul patch. Edvard watches with tired eyes supporting dark circles. His gray beard is thin and long, and a balding pattern pushes the hairline away from his forehead.
“And who is this lass then, hey?” Fergus asks, bewilderment crawling onto his face as Anna’s youthful features become more and more apparent in the dull light of the inn.
“As I mentioned, this is Ms. Holt,” Wynn says. “She’s the newest addition to our team, and we’re delighted to have her.” The men look on in silence, each waiting for an explanation for how a person like her could have wound up so far north. Wynn clears his throat at their expectance. “She’s also the niece of my colleague, Mr. Hemmett.” The mention of relation is enough to send their pondering faces into an agreeable nod.
“So then, the repairs happen,” says Shaw, his wild eyes seeming to swirl. “That must mean you already know.”
“Know what?” Wynn asks.
The four men beseech each other in silence, neither wanting to speak of the ill that has isolated their town.
“About the line?” Anna offers carefully. “That it appears to have been cut?”
Shaw looks at her with worried eyes, his wiry arms tight with tension.
“I’m glad you make mention of it,” says Wynn in a professional tone. “There was something peculiar about the damage we discovered. I wonder if any of you—”
“It was Pickens,” says Shaw.
“Aye, Pickens,” the rest say in agreement. “Twas Clarence that cut the line.”
“Pickens, you say?” asks Wynn. “His name is Clarence Pickens?”
“He’s mad,” says Edvard in a hushed tone while stroking the length of his thin beard.
“He’s cursed,” Shaw says even quieter.
“Don’t speak it!” spits Fergus. The lines around his smiling eyes vanish. In their place, fear and anger broods. “Don’t speak it, or it’ll find us here too.”
“Look about,” says Edvard. “Tis already found us and had its way.” The circles under his tired eyes seem to grow darker. “Clarence didn’t raise the curse. He woke the dead.”
“Ya aint to speak of the dead!” Fergus shouts.
A door slams from behind the bar. All at the table turn.
Beneath the lantern of the bar stands a petite woman. Her hair is gray and thick like wire, yet neatly brushed. With stern eyes, she glowers at the group. Under the light, the lines on her aging face are clear. “Who’s yelling so vile in the home I keep?”
“Sorry, Mum,” the four men say.
She approaches them and eyes the new arrivals. The floorboards are silent beneath her steps. Her face is hard and tight but softens at the sight of Wynn. A smile cracks her lips. “Well, well. Kurtis Wynn. I thought I saw you. And now here you are. My-my. It’s been years.”
Wynn smiles, and Anna is surprised to see a hint of red strike his dark face.
“Hello, Tilda,” says Wynn. “It’s wonderful to see you again.”
“Likewise,” she says quietly. She shifts her gaze, and the softness in her eyes disappears. A sharp scowl is directed at the four men. “Stop foolin’ about with those words. They’re not toys. They’re real, just like our troubles, and you’d better—oh,” she says, her eyes finally finding Anna. “Hello, dear. What’s your name?”
“I see,” she says slowly, as if tasting both the words and the age of the newcomer. “And how have you come to be in the company of this fine man?”
“She’s a trainee,” says Wynn. “New to the north.”
A soft sigh escapes from Tilda. “Sounds like a crash-course.” She scans the table once more to place her dominance, not shifting her eyes until each man shrinks away. “From what I gather, you’ve already been given the maniacal details of our town’s newest horror story.” She turns and strolls toward the bar.
“Mum,” says Fergus with a delicate tone, “forgive us. We got carried away. The excitement and all, hey?”
Tilda reaches under the bar to produce two empty glasses. Using a small cloth, she wipes them clean. “Excitement? That’s a word for it. Although,” she says, leaning her small body while pulling the beer tap, “it’s difficult to imagine what’s exciting about tragedy.”
The four men sit in silence.
Tilda returns to the table with two beers in hand. She hands the first to Wynn and the second to Anna. “Anna Holt,” she says, her voice soft as silk, “my name is Tilda, but I’d so adore it if you called me Mum.”
Unsure, Anna searches Wynn’s eyes. He sips his beer and nods.
“Very well,” says Anna. “Thank you for the drink, Mum.”
Tilda looks at Wynn. “She’s an angel.”
Wynn chuckles lightly to himself. “Ms. Holt has been an absolute delight. She’s a wonderful addition to our team.”
Tilda scans the small room for the Walker not present. “And Leonard? Are you still dragging that man around with you? Still trying to cure him of his bitterness?”
With a sigh of resignation, Wynn shrugs. “He’ll someday learn to stop carrying unneeded weight.”
Tilda paces around the table, her movements akin to both a meandering cat and coiling snake. She seats herself across from Wynn, and Hawk is more than willing to move his bad leg and yield space on the bench.
“It’s pretty bad, Kurtis,” she says quietly. “You know me and how I am. I don’t lend ears to the stories these boys share amongst themselves. But this—”
“Tis a curse,” whispers Shaw, his wild eyes exploding with fear. “A deviling!”
Tilda’s eyes shoot up and silence the man.
“Sorry, Mum,” Shaw says, covering his mouth.
Wynn furrows his brow. “What did he say?”
Tilda sighs and shakes her head. With idle movements, she rubs away spots from the large, wooden table. “But this one is different.” She locks eyes with Wynn. “Something terrible has happened. Up at that cave. The Pickens got up there diggin’ around for whatever they could find, and instead of finding something, somethin’ found them.”
“What do you mean?” Wynn asks. “What happened?”
“Go ahead, Fergus,” Tilda says. “But keep it respectful. I’ll have no ill in here.”
“Aye, Mum,” he says with sorrow in his voice. “We don’t know what happened, hey? Things were quiet as could be. They always are around these parts. The Pickens came along and started asking about. They’re miners, you see, but the worst kind—desperate. They didn’t say outright, but you could see it in their eyes.”
“Such a shame, too,” says Hawk, slowly strumming the scar on his head with the pads of his fingers. “Kind folks, Clarence and Marissa.”
“Aye, aye,” the four men say in respectful agreement.
“Especially Marissa,” Tilda says. “Poor girl, she suffered from the worst sickness of all. A heart filled with love and not a single child to share it with.”
“Mum?” Fergus asks. “May I?”
Tilda nods and waves a hand of continuation.
“We did our part, know that Mr. Wynn,” continues Fergus. He shakes his head with regret and suddenly looks much younger behind his beard. “We gave them the truth of it all. The gold—what little there was—had come and gone. Then the terribleness that happened with Charlie. The fire. We bared it all, every misfortune to pass through.”
“Poor Charlie, always meant so well,” says Edvard.
“Funny as all get out,” says Hawk.
“But that Clarence Pickens,” continues Fergus, “he was a stubborn man. I think it was guilt that drove him, hey? He and Marissa both were getting on in their years. I saw it myself, the look in his eyes. Twas the look of a man begging to be forgiven for what he couldn’t control. He looked as though he were on his last chance. Or so he thought it.”
Wynn nods along in quiet listening and sets his beer on the table. Anna takes a long drink from hers and feels its warmth settle into her tired body.
“It’s the curse,” whispers Shaw.
“Not once more,” snaps Tilda, pointing her finger. “There is power in words, and you’ll not play with them like toys.”
“Apologies, Mum,” Shaw whimpers. He strokes the soul patch beneath his lip with a nervous finger.
“It all goes back to Charlie and that wretched cave he found,” Tilda says, her sternness already disappeared. “Remember Charlie? The rush he caused?”
“Of course,” says Wynn.
“Lotta good it did us,” Tilda says with a hiss. “There’s something in there Kurtis. An evil stirs within that cave. It’s happened before, and now it’s happening again.” Her eyes narrow on his. “And don’t you look at me like that.”
Wynn takes a nervous drink of his beer.
“I’m tellin’ ya, this is different. This ain’t mean ol’ Tilda finally gone soft and finding superstition after years of hearing it spoke. You should have seen that poor man’s face. Clarence came in like a banshee from the wind, death in his eyes, his body oblivious to the freezing cold he’d just trampled through. You could barely understand a word he said they fell from his lips so fast. I’ve seen the look of a story being told,” Tilda says, pushing a finger down onto the table. “But a man’s face can’t hide real fear. I saw.”
“Why was he so afraid?” Anna asks.
Each head turns toward her in unison, her company among them already forgotten.
“Twas his wife,” Fergus says. “Marissa. He… I—” Fergus shakes his head quickly, and his black beard shimmies beneath his chin.
“He said she was taken with sickness. With darkness,” Tilda finally says, the other men afraid to speak the words in her presence. “Some terrible thing crawled within her, controlled her. Sickness like he’d never seen.”
“He came to Nil alone?” Wynn asks. “Without her?”
Tilda nods as slow as the grave. “Without her, Kurtis. Without her. And why would a man do such thing, hmm? How could he leave his beloved behind, sick as he claimed?”
“Perhaps she was too ill to travel,” Wynn says while turning his glass on the table. “Maybe she was better off staying—”
“Because he believed it,” Anna interrupts, her eyes going straight to Tilda’s. “He really believed she was cursed, and if he brought her here, she’d—they’d,” Anna pauses and glances at the surrounding men.
A proud smile spreads across Tilda’s tight face. “That’s right, sweetheart. You’re absolutely right.” She shifts her gaze from Anna and glares at the men surrounding the table. “They’d burn her.”
The four men stir in their seat. “Now Mum,” Fergus tries.
“You’d burn her,” Tilda shouts, bringing her tiny fist down onto the table. Anna jumps at the sudden sound. “Burn her for demonism without a second thought! You know it’s true, and Clarence—the poor man—he knew it too. Superstitious babes, all of you!” With smoldering eyes, she condemns them. “You’d spend more time building the flames than letting the woman make her case.” Tilda thrusts her small body away from the bench, leaving those at the table stunned. Making her way to the bar, she leans on the tap and pours herself an ale, her eyes glaring throughout. “And poor Clarence, what choice did he have but to leave her and come alone to plead his case?”
The saloon falls silent with waiting.
“Forgive me,” she says, shaking her head and breathing deep. “You’re good boys, all of ya. My poor heart simply breaks at the mess made over this.” She returns to the table and sets her tankard down, its large handle easily fitting her entire hand. She reaches for Wynn and laces her fingers within his. “A terrible mess made, Kurtis, with that poor man and his sweet wife. And now Daniels is lost in it too.”
“Aye, Daniels,” grumble the four men with shame in their voice.
“Who is Daniels?” Wynn asks.
“He was, is—” Fergus stammers, “He’s our doc, hey? Looks over us. Keeps what supplies he can. Tinkers in alchemy when the weather’s too foul to get about.”
“What happened to Daniels?” Anna asks.
Tilda gives her a long look, her eyes carefully analyzing the young woman. “Gone to the north. To that cursed pit of a cave. He heard Clarence’s story and couldn’t bear to think of a pregnant woman so sick and in such dire need.”
“Pregnant!?” Wynn and Anna say together.
“Aye,” Tilda says with another grave nod.
“Pregnant with the darkness,” squeaks Shaw. His eyes look to Tilda with fear as he presses a trembling hand over his mouth, but no repercussion comes from the small woman.
Wynn sets his beer down. “Okay. Things are beginning to get a tad—”
“Don’t you dare dismiss our words, Kurtis,” Tilda says, scooping up her tankard with both hands. “You know me, and I know you. Two things I’ll not have, nonsense and disrespect. I say these words with all the sincerity of my weathered soul. There’s an evil there, Kurtis, an evil far to the north. I can smell it on the wind. It blows in like a storm, stirring my heart and putting ache in my bones. I can see the storm coming, and it comes with something awful.”
Wynn stares at the table with his hands pressed down flat. He takes a deep breath while his mind grapples with what to say next. Anna watches in silence. Though her ale is good, she’s lost her taste for it.
“Allow me to understand the situation,” Wynn says. “How long has Daniels been away?” Wynn asks.
“Three days,” the men say amongst themselves.
“And he and Clarence traveled together, yes?”
“No,” says Fergus. “Daniels went alone only recently. Clarence came and went and cut the line all in the same night. That was weeks ago.”
Wynn narrows his eyes with speculation. “Why would he cut the line?”
“He was mad, crazed,” whispers Shaw.
“Aye,” says Edvard, petting the length of his thin beard. “Tis our fault. Clarence came to us for help, see? He was so lost then and mumbling on about poor Marissa and her sickness and her swelling belly. He told us best he could about what happened, but we, we…”
“We shunned him,” Hawk says. He gives Anna a look of remorse, his fingers still brushing the scar running along the side of his head. “Our fears bested us. Death of man,” he says with a voice shaking with weakness, “we turned him away in his hour of need.”
“Did anyone see him cut the line?” Wynn asks.
The men glance around and shake their heads.
Tilda takes a long draw of ale and returns the tankard to the table. “It was Clarence that did the cutting. No one else.”
“But no one witnessed this, correct?” Wynn asks.
“Kurtis, it was—”
“Tilda,” Wynn interrupts with a frustrated tone, “I cannot prosecute a man for destruction based on assumption or rumor. You know that. You’ve ambushed me and Ms. Holt with quite an incredible story. Please allow me to make some kind of sorts of it.”
The saloon goes silent. Rage pours into Tilda’s face as though she were slapped. The men at the table go wide-eyed in waiting for the violent eruption that is surely to come. “No one witnessed the destruction of the line,” Tilda says with pressed lips. “However, several of us have alibis during the night in question. Clarence was the only man unaccounted for.”
“Thank you,” Wynn says. He attempts to place his hand on hers, but she quickly pulls away. Anna sees the disappointment in his eyes at the slight.
“And he went back to the cave?” Wynn asks. “Is that the assumption? Back to tend to his wife?”
The men shrug and nod in general agreement.
Wynn tugs at his beard in thought. “I’ll need to speak with him, either way. Both stories, the line and his wife, are terribly serious.” He looks at Anna. “We’ll leave tomorrow, after the repairs are complete.”
“Kurtis, you don’t understand,” says Tilda.
“I don’t understand what has happened, no, but it’s my duty to sort it out. I’m required to pursue those that damage the line, and I’m most certainly not going to allow a pregnant woman to suffer such as this. Not during times like these.”
Tilda shakes her head in disbelief. “After so many years, you come into my home and ignore the words from my own mouth?”
Frustrated, Wynn shakes his head. “You must understand my position and my perspective.”
Tilda brings her arms onto the table as if embracing her beer. She leans forward until her chin touches the edge of her tankard. With grey eyes, she peers into Wynn’s. “Has my warning not been sufficient? Have I not expressed myself as sincere? In our decades of friendship, have I ever exaggerated upon the things I see?”
Wynn shakes his head as if ashamed to answer truthfully.
“Then why, Kurtis? Why do you refuse to heed these words before you?”
“It’s my duty, Tilda. You know this.”
Tilda’s face becomes as still as stone, her eyes like frozen gems. “That’s it then, is it? Simple as that. You’ll go north, warning or not.”
A sadness finds Wynn’s eyes as he realizes the impending loss of an old friend. “I must.”
Tilda nods repeatedly to herself, and the hardness on her face melts away. Her eyes dart, landing only where other eyes do not return her shattered gaze. She turns and walks to the bar, placing a small hand on the door that exits from behind it. “May the snows fall gently upon you, Mr. Wynn. You’re an exceptional man, of that there’s no question.” She sighs with mourning. “When you come upon Daniels, send him my love.” Without waiting for a response, she leaves the room.
Silence fills the space around them.
Wynn takes a sip from his glass and glances around the table. None of the men will return his look. His eyes land on Anna last, and she can only wear a face of uncertainty. He clears his throat and stands. “I suppose Ms. Holt and I should return to our man and see how the repairs are coming. If things go as expected, we should return by evening. Are there rooms we may use?”
Eyes are downcast. Shaw looks up in delicate tremble. “It’s for Mum to say.”
Wynn nods, puts on his fur cap, and walks to the door. Anna meets him there. “Perhaps it’s best if we make camp outside of town then, under the line. You can find us there should you need us. We’ll return in the morning.” The room is as still and silent as it was when they entered. He opens the door. Its hinges squeal again.
Outside, Anna breathes as though coming up from fetid water. The fresh, cold air is a wonderful release for her suffering lungs. “What now?” she asks as they put their snowshoes on.
“We’ll speak of it outside of town,” Wynn says in a whisper.
They hurry down the avenue in silence. The day is darker with the passing afternoon, and snow falls at a steady rate. Short gusts of wind hurry through the trees. Out of sight from Nil, Wynn steps off the road. Shaking his head, he sighs. “Ms. Holt, I must say, I’m at a loss for words.”
Anna nods. “What are we going to do?”
“Step one is to keep Mr. Hemmett as far from those people as we can. Death of man, can you imagine?”
The idea of Hemmett sitting in that same room and listening to those same words flashes in Anna’s mind. The chaos it implies is enough to make her laugh, but the idea of that scene becoming reality stops the laugh in her throat. “We can’t sleep there,” she says.
“Absolutely not,” Wynn agrees. “I’m sorry to say it, especially after making our arrival sound so enticing this morning, but it appears we’ll have a few more nights sleeping in our tents.”
“I don’t mind,” she says, seeing the frustration on his face. “It’s starting to grow on me.”
Wynn smiles, chuckles, and releases some of his tension with a small sigh. “As are you, Ms. Holt. As are you. Come, we need to find Mr. Hemmett before he wanders into Nil looking for us.”
“What will you tell him?”
Wynn gapes. “I haven’t the slightest.”
* * *
Hemmett climbs from the Telegraph pole onto the nearby rock cropping a final time, gently setting his supplies on the stone. He stretches his back, gathers his equipment, and makes his way down to the sled. Nearby, Wilder churns his hooves in search for greenery and roots, enjoying his time roaming free. Snow falls in gentle fashion and muffles the world around them. As he loads the sled, Wilder looks at him with suspicion.
“Not far to go,” Hemmett says. He points in the direction of the line. “Less than a mile, okay? I don’t blame you for not wanting to drag this thing any further today, but we’re not quite done.”
Wilder huffs. Snow clings to his snout, and his fur sweeps with each movement. His eyes look on.
Hemmett closes a wooden crate on the sled, turns the latch, and looks back. “You alright?”
Wilder huffs and snorts. His eyes stare.
Hemmett pauses in consideration. “You miss Hutch, don’t you?”
Wilder dips his head and tosses a small clump of snow with his nose. “Roo. Aroo!”
Amused, Hemmett smiles. He rounds the sled and approaches the large animal. Wilder watches and waits, shifting his feet but not moving away. Dry snow squeaks under their steps. Hemmett scratches Wilder’s head and admires the large creature. “Do you ever miss it? Being out there? Being with your own.”
Wilder lets out a small sigh and rolls his head, guiding Hemmett’s working fingers closer to his ear.
Hemmett chuckles and scratches away. “Not so much I guess. I imagine it was nice to make a new friend though. Friends are nice.” Still rubbing Wilder’s ear, Hemmett looks in the direction of Nil. Through snow-covered pines, he sees two figures approaching. “To be honest, I have a bad feeling about this. All of it. Keep your eyes sharp, okay?”
Wilder, his eyes closed in ecstasy, rolls his head further to allow more scratching.
Hemmett smiles and listens to the world around him. The trees sigh with occasional wind. Wilder’s breathing becomes rhythmical. Large flakes of snow fall to the world like fluttering butterflies. “Sometimes I miss it, being with a family. Having a home. You can’t tell, but I’m pulling a sled too you know.” Hemmett sighs. “I thought it’d get lighter over the years… but it hasn’t.”
Wilder pulls away and tosses his head. Blinking several times, he huffs toward the approaching figures.
“Yup, they’re back. Perfect timing.”
As Wynn and Anna draw closer, both wave. Hemmett returns the gesture. Wilder puffs a quick breath and ambles toward them. He has another ear that needs scratching and Anna is the perfect candidate. She smiles as Wilder approaches and nuzzles against her, happy to oblige him.
“You’ve finished?” Wynn asks.
“I have,” says Hemmett. “Being closer to the rocks made it easier to use our equipment. No dealing with the pole. I just finished packing the sled.”
“That’s unfortunate,” says Wynn.
“Because we’re camping here tonight.”
Confusion stretches across Hemmett’s face. “We aren’t staying in Nil?”
Wynn begins sorting through the sled, removing a snow shovel and unpacking the tents. “To be frank, Mr. Hemmett, I do believe you’d lose your composure if you spent any length of time with those people, especially in cramped quarters.”
Hemmett looks at Anna with a raised brow. “I told you they’re crazy.”
Scratching at Wilder’s rolling head, Anna can’t help but smile. “I want to disagree with you, but it was certainly a strange experience.”
“That’s fine,” Hemmett says to Wynn. “I’d rather camp than stay with them anyway. What about the line? Do they know who cut it?”
Wynn hands Hemmett a shovel. “That’s the part you won’t like. There’s more to be done.” He motions Hemmett to follow and together they begin shoveling their campsite. “They feel confident about who cut the line, but that man has left town.”
“Not surprising,” says Hemmett. “If he knows anything about the line, he knows we eventually come to fix it. And then prosecute.”
Wynn nods while he packs a flat section of snow with his shovel. “Clarence Pickens is his name, and he has a wife named Marissa. They’re miners. The townsfolk mentioned they’ve been working an old cave further north.”
“That could be trouble,” Hemmett says. “Anytime a miner wants isolation, it means he’s found something big.”
“It isn’t about gold,” Anna says, still scratching Wilder’s ears. Seeing the struggle on Wynn’s face, she continues the story. “Clarence had come back to town for help. His wife was sick. And pregnant. She’s still there in the mine—the cave.”
Hemmett measures her eyes and compares them to the look in Wynn’s. “And?”
Wynn begins unrolling skins and canvas for their tents. “They’re convinced the sickness is some kind of curse.”
Hemmett laughs, and his breath leaps into the air in hefty clouds. “Of course they are. When you live in Nil as long as they have, you think everything is a curse.”
“It’s more than that to them,” continues Wynn. “Beyond their standard superstition. Even Tilda is convinced some ‘evil’ has been found.”
With Wynn kneeling down and working on his tent, Hemmett makes eye contact with Anna. He loops his finger next to his head and mouths, Tilda is the craziest one.
Unable to help herself, Anna smirks.
“I want to verify their story,” Wynn continues, not noticing Hemmett’s gesture. “At minimum, we need to make a reasonable effort of finding Mr. Pickens, but if there is a pregnant woman ill and in need of aid, we shall do our part. More so than ever, our kind need children.” Wynn looks up. “This is an opportunity to answer a higher calling. We won’t take it lightly.”
The words steal the joking smile from Hemmett’s face, and he eventually nods in solemn agreement.
“I’ll take the first watch,” Anna says. “I don’t mind. I’m a little on edge after listening to those people. I’ve never seen despair like that.”
“It’s a kind offer,” says Wynn, “but I doubt a watch is necessary this evening. Judging by Nil’s state, no one is coming this way. We’ll all enjoy a night of full rest. It’s needed. Tomorrow, we walk again.”
With the three of them working, the camp is quickly brought together. Soon, a small fire is burning and sending its heat into the cooking pot hanging above. As the light of day wanes and night settles in, the snow begins to fall with a fury. The Walkers sit in silence by the fire and watch the plump flakes plunge from the sky. After enjoying potatoes and the last of their rabbit meat, they retire to their tents and sleep.
For Anna, sleep does not come easily. As she lies in her tent, the skins soft and warm, she replays the day’s conversations in her mind. Hemmett’s past, the trouble in Nil, the thought of a sick and pregnant woman suffering in some remote cave, all work to keep her from finding peace. In time, the fire dies, and she’s left only with the subtle sound of gentle winds dancing through the trees.
* * *
Anna’s eyes roll open to darkness and the sound of swaying trees. She rolls onto her side, and the sound changes with her position. Someone is whispering. Her eyes go wide with realization, and she sits up. The whispering turns to a mumble, someone agreeing to something, and scant light from a lantern shines through her tent. She takes her rifle in hand and slowly peers through the front flap.
“Yes, I understand,” says Wynn in a low voice. “Keep him there.”
“You’ll come then?” asks a familiar voice. Anna can’t place it, but the shakiness of it reminds her of Shaw.
“Yes, give us only a moment.”
“What is it?” Anna asks in a crisp tone, making no attempt to hide the rifle she holds.
The light from the lantern raises up and illuminates Shaw’s face. He takes two steps toward her tent, sees the rifle, and stops. “Terrible things, terrible things,” he says with a voice on the edge of terror. “It’s Pickens. Clarence. He’s come back.”