Far to the North (Chapter 4)

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

Walking is hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re staying warm?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Slow and steady,” Wynn says.

Anna nods.

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

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

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

Anna nods. “I’d like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Care for a little company?” he asks.

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

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

“That being?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wynn nods. “Not surprising.”

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

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

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

“And your mother?” Wynn asks.

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

“Mmm,” Wynn grumbles in listening.

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

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

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

“Uh oh,” says Wynn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And failed,” Anna says.

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

“Which is?”

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

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

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

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

“Is that it?” Wynn asks.

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

“I guess,” she finally says.

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

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

She turns up the hill.

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

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

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

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

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

“How much break do I use?” she asks.

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

Wilder snorts in agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roo!” Wilder bellows. “Arooo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tired?” Anna asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilder snorts in agreement and trudges forward.

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

 

*   *   *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sham? How is it a sham?” Anna asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which paper was it?” Hemmett asks.

“The Gazette. The Gazette.”

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

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

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

“Half!?” Anna shouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Far to the North (Chapter 3)

(My apologies for the delay in Chp 3. ‘Holidays’ will be my chosen excuse)

Under a waning sun and clear sky, the Walkers, now four, travel northwest along a pathway of packed snow. The trail rolls with the countryside, sometimes drifting away from the telegraph line and sometimes passing directly beneath it. With the line dipping from pole to pole, the trail diverts around fallen trees and slaloms through stones too large to remove from the path. As they journey with the sun racing them toward the horizon, merchants hurriedly pass in the opposing direction, anxious to reach Nestol before the day’s end. Some smile and wave, recognizing the Walkers, while others glance away and pass in silence. With each encounter, Anna keeps close to the rear of the sled, shields her youthful face and does her best to remain unseen. The trip over the rolling hills is easy, and Wilder leads the group with a steady pace. Conversation is limited to idle chatter over the potential weather and the coming meal. The afternoon passes quickly, and soon the sun sinks into the horizon. As its light retreats, shadows stretch from the trees and caress Anna with icy fingers.

Before daylight becomes scarce, Wynn gives a signal, and the group breaks from the main road. Wilder leads them up a gradual incline that snakes through snow-covered pines, their needles dumping loose snow when bumped into. The slope crests into a wide ridge, and they continue until striking a small plot of level ground. Towering trees surround the perimeter with shadows already covering the open area. Scant shafts of sunlight shine through and dot the untouched swathes of white. As Wynn assesses the site, Anna peers through a gap in the pines to see the greater valley below. Train tracks stretch across fields of white in long arcs that dart in and out of the surrounding forest. Following the tracks south, Anna spots Nestol, now only a discolored rectangle on the vast landscape.

“This will do,” Wynn says. “Don’t you agree, Mr. Hemmett?”

“That it will,” Hemmett agrees as he scratches Wilder’s neck and undoes the sled’s harness.

“We’re stopping here?” Anna asks.

Wynn gives a quick nod while loosening the ropes tying down the sled’s cover. “Indeed. This is a good place to make camp. Level ground, it’s off the main road, and the trees will help break any wind that decides to pass through. The view is a nice bonus.”

“Why are we camping so far from the main road?” Anna asks.

“Thieves,” says Wynn with a grumble. He pulls the canvas cover away, reaches into the sled, and produces an extra cap, its fur a dark brown. Tugging it onto his head, the flaps dangle over his ears. “They’re everywhere, Ms. Holt. Northern people are well-intentioned, but many are here because of hard times. Hard times can cause well-intentioned people to make unsavory decisions. Until we’re further from Nestol, it’s best if we use discretion and avoid the main road at night. We’re far better off alone.”

Hemmett, finishing with the harness and freeing Wilder from the sled, gives Wynn a sideways look.

“What?” asks Wynn.

“You’re not going to mention it?”

“No,” Wynn grumbles as he pulls away the canvas cover, folding it before draping it over the side.

“Mention what?” Anna asks.

“There’s a bit more to it than the concern for theft,” Hemmett says.

“There is, Mr. Hemmett,” Wynn chides. “Though this isn’t the time to mention it. We discussed this earlier. Now isn’t appropriate.”

Anna gives Hemmett a long, displeasing look. “Mr. Wynn already explained the north’s lack of appreciation for the military. I’ve experienced enough of it to understand. My uniform ‘problem’ has already been corrected. And didn’t you notice I was able to slip by each traveler we saw without a second glance?”

“Not that,” Hemmett says. “Some thieves have done more than steal. Not even a month ago one poor woman was—well,” he trails off with a smirk. “Let’s just say a pretty, young woman holds a lot of value for those with ill intent.”

“Enough, Mr. Hemmett!” Wynn barks as he pounds a fist on the sled.

Anna’s face twists as if slapped. “What?”

Wynn lets out a frustrated sigh. “Damn you, Hemmett. Damn you. I told you to treat her as a guest. To make her feel comfortable. Not scare her before the first sunset!”

Hemmett’s dark eyes shift to Anna with a long stare. Shadows accentuate his strong jaw and prominent cheekbones. He stands in waiting, unmoving, with a thumb hitched to his belt. A terrible chill climbs over Anna’s skin as she glances around and notices their total isolation. Eerie silence sneaks through the trees. Nestol, though still visible on the horizon, suddenly feels a lifetime away. Miles of wilderness separate her from the rest of the world. She wonders how many hours of screaming it would be before anyone heard her and how many more before anyone bothered coming to her aid. Looking back at Hemmett and Wynn, their unfamiliarity is cast under a new light. She allows her hand to slowly drop and touch the stock of the rifle hanging from her shoulder.

“Ms. Holt,” Wynn says, “please, I beg you, ignore the rudeness of my colleague.”

“It’s important,” Hemmett says. “She should know.”

“She should feel safe!” Wynn scolds. Gripping the sled with both hands, he takes a deep breath and lets out a long, calming sigh.

“Mr. Wynn told me you’d be this way,” Anna says to Hemmett, “that you’d be mean to me because of my father.”

“I just thought you should know,” Hemmett replies, the smirk still lingering on his face.

Anna glares, her fingers still gripping the rifle’s stock. Its presence in her hand is comforting.

“It’s true, Ms Holt.” Wynn says, working to calm his voice. “It’s terribly unfortunate but true all the same. If you spend enough time with us, you’ll notice there are few women in this part of the world. Those that do call the north home are very shrewd or very tough. Usually both. I had no intention of keeping this unfortunate topic a secret. Given its sensitive nature, I wanted to discuss it later, after you’d gotten to know us better. It feels strange to speak of such depraved acts before you learn the quality of our own character. Believe me when I say we’re well aware of your situation. It’s rather extreme. You’re in a foreign land with people you know nothing about. You’ve no way of contacting the outside world. Lesser men might use that opportunity to take advantage of you. We’re nothing of the sort. I hope you’ll give us the time to prove that to you.”

“Just don’t go running off trusting anyone else,” Hemmett says.

Wynn stomps around the sled and thrusts a snow shovel into Hemmett’s hands. “You. Dig. Now.”

Hemmett, smiling, takes the shovel and begins digging out a small section of snow for his tent.

“Come, come,” Wynn says while approaching Anna, handing her a shovel. “The quickest way to disarm Mr. Hemmett’s rudeness is to simply let it go. The less his foulness gets to you, the more he suffers. Here, let me teach you how we establish camp.” Trampling the snow, Wynn uses his boots to stomp out a small perimeter. “You make another like this for your tent and then dig out the loose snow. Not too deep. Only enough to make a bit of a bunker should the wind pick up. Once you’re dug out, pack the snow some. And consider the shape you leave behind for that’s what you’ll be sleeping on.”

With considerable effort, Anna focuses on the instruction and forces Hemmett from her mind. The shoveling is easy in the light snow. Once the area is cleared and the snow packed, they lay large buffalo hides for the base of their tents. Then it’s oiled canvas propped up with stakes hammered deep. With the tent sprung, she and Wynn move thick furs and wool blankets into each one. Anna delights from the weight of the skins in her arms. These just might be enough to keep me warm, she thinks.

On the edge of camp, Wilder trundles from bush to bush, digging and shoving his head deep into the snow in search of roots. With each resurfacing, his head is caked in white. He seems to smile at his own silliness before flinging the snow free, working his way to another bush, and beginning the process once more.

Hemmett finishes his tent in silence. Watching Anna and Wynn working together, successfully ignoring his presence, he sighs with a touch of regret and unloads the cooking equipment.

The fading day slips by like a thief. Shadows swallow the land, dominating the hillsides and laying siege on helpless valleys. The temperature plummets, growing colder and stinging Anna’s nose and cheeks. Even the air smells frigid. After brief coordination, the three depart from camp in separate directions in search of firewood.

Anna, still feeling a bit like a newborn foal in her snowshoes, takes the opportunity to have a moment alone. She descends a casual grade of the hillside, weaving around wondrous trees turned to statues of snow, and comes to a small clearing offering full view of the greater valley Nestol calls home. Growing bonfires on the edge of town flicker like bold stars. A small black cloud streaks from the station like a dark smudge as another train departs.

How I’d love to be aboard that, she thinks, evil stares and all. She sighs a long plume of breath into the chilling night. Death of man, what the hell is even happening? How did life change this fast? Not six months ago I was screaming at my father, him screaming back, all about some bloody war and enlisting and… and now I can barely remember. She looks across the land, a frozen wilderness full of silence. Light retreats from the sky. Shivering, she pulls Wynn’s fur cap tighter around her head, tucking the ear covers into her jacket. Oh father, why here? Why? Was there really nowhere else? Were you really that furious? Maybe it’s my fault for not understanding. All those years you spent leaning over charts and maps, I never understood there was an actual land you were trying to defend. I never realized the scope of what you were looking at. Maybe if I had known, I’d have yelled back at you a little less. Maybe… The piercing cry of a bird of prey cuts the silence like razor-sharp talons, and Anna sees a large hawk with azure wings dip through the darkening sky.

Another wave of cold trembles through her body, shaking her head and wobbling her shoulders.

Keep moving. Push the cold away.

Taking her time for fear of a misstep sending her tumbling into the powder, Anna descends a curving slope and happens upon an old tree. The trunk is bare and sun-bleached. Its limbs reach for the sky with dead arms, barren of greenery. Anna thumbs the edge of her hatchet, feeling the blade, and hacks at a branch. The blade bites into the wood with ease. The tree is long dead and dry, perfect for burning. She works aggressively, swinging hard and often, begging her body to create heat. A fire will feel so nice, she thinks. I wonder how large Wynn will allow it. It can’t burn too bright if we’re trying not to be seen. The branch breaks away and falls into the snow. Anna packs the powder with her snowshoes and carefully pulls the branch from the tree’s well. What happens if someone finds us, she wonders while hacking the limb into manageable lengths. If someone sees the fire, would they come this far off the road to investigate? They must know someone’s there. Would thieves dare approach an occupied camp? Or do they wait until we’re asleep?

“Ms. Holt!” calls a distant shout from up the hill.

“I’m here!” She waits, hearing her own voice carry over the hillside.

“Everything fine?” calls the voice. It sounds like Wynn’s.

“Yes! Almost finished!”

“Night falls, Ms. Holt! Don’t linger!”

Anna looks up. Stars twinkle to life in the clear sky. A small crescent of moon floats above the mountains. Frigid air bites at every inch of exposed skin. She stretches her mouth and lips, feeling hints of numbness. Brushing snow from the logs, she drops them into a small pack and makes her way up the hill. During the ascent, she pauses once more to look over the valley. Shadows strangle the landscape and darken into night. Nestol sparkles from a growing collection of torches and lanterns. Another shiver ripples through her.

Pretty though, despite the cold, she thinks. Very pretty.

Behind her comes a low, thick huff.

She turns slowly. At first, she only sees snow and trees. Then there’s another sound, that of snow sloughing as Wilder pushes his head through a jumble of pines. He eyes her and tilts his head to the side. Another sigh falls from him, pluming through his nose.

“Hello,” Anna says, unsure of what the muskox may do.

Wilder stares with deep, brown eyes. The look makes Anna’s skin tingle. There’s something in there, she thinks. He’s no ordinary animal.

Wilder snorts, sniffs the snow, turns and walks away, his dark fur sweeping the loose powder as he goes.

Anna watches until the muskox is out of sight.

When she returns to camp, a fire is already burning in a dugout pit. Above it, a metal tripod suspends a black cooking pot. Yellow tongues lick at its smooth belly. Rabbit stew simmers within. The smell of the cooking meal dominates Anna’s nose and causes her stomach to grumble. Hemmett gently stirs the pot with the care of one who appreciates a well-cooked meal in the wilderness. “Ready for some stew?” he asks as she adds her collection to the wood pile.

“Sounds good,” Anna says, refusing to look him in the eye.

“I made a seat for you,” Wynn says. “It isn’t much, but it’s better than the snow. Fold that blanket however it pleases you.” He points to a tree round near the fire. “If there’s time tomorrow, perhaps we can carve the center some to make it a bit more comfortable.”

“Thank you,” Anna says while adjusting the blanket. She sits and leans toward the fire, extending frigid fingers. Glorious warmth soaks in through the wool of her gloves.

“Care for a drink?” Hemmett asks.

“Nope,” she says, staring into the fire.

Wynn and Hemmett exchange a quick glance. Hemmett shrugs.

Dinner is a silent affair. While they eat, the only sound in the camp is of their spoons scraping and tapping at tin bowls. The rabbit stew is delicious and fills Anna’s stomach with amazing warmth. Wynn’s attempts at idle conversation are met by Anna with simple answers. Hemmett’s are met with silence. Wilder rests off to the side, relaxing in the powder and watching Anna closely. When she glances over, the animal never looks away. A deep interest lingers in his eyes, as if he were waiting to hear from her directly, to learn her reason for being there and to know more of her life.

Time stretches. Temperatures drop. The sky above goes black and fills with the dust of countless stars.

After an hour of staring into the fire, Anna breaks her silence.

“I’m tired, but I want to say a few things before I go to sleep.” She pauses, looking them both in the eye to ensure she has their attention. “First, I’m not afraid of being here with the two of you. I don’t believe either of you have any intention of hurting me, so please don’t worry, Mr. Wynn. You’ve done a wonderful job of making me feel welcome. Thank you for that.”

Wynn nods.

“I figure my father placed me under your supervision for a reason,” she continues, “so there’s that. Second, even if you were considering something, I’ll be sleeping with my rifle. I also have two knives and a small pistol. The military trained me how to use them all and how to use them well. If either of you come near my tent, you’d better state your intentions beforehand. Clear?”

Wynn smiles, his eyes hinting at pride. “Quite clear, Ms. Holt.”

“Clear as the sky above us,” says Hemmett.

“Good.” Anna looks Hemmett dead in the eye. “Maybe you think it’s funny what you did, trying to scare me like that, but it told me something about you. It told me you’re petty, Mr. Hemmett. It told me you’d rather be cruel to someone you’ve just met rather than let your own past go. I don’t know what happened between you and my father. That’s none of my business, though I won’t lie, I’d like to know. I hope someday you’ll tell me. But either way, I’m here now. This is happening. Like it or not, we’re stuck together for… well, who knows how long. I’d like to be friends if we can. Truly. Our kind has too many enemies. War is tearing Man apart. I’d much rather see you as an ally than another battle needing to be fought.”

The sternness in Hemmett falters and fades. In its place, a hint of regret.

Wynn takes another silent sip of his tea, his eyes smiling.

Anna’s words lord over the campsite like a courtroom judge eager to charge someone with contempt. Her statement is met with silence. Satisfied with the reaction, Anna stands. “Goodnight.”

 

*   *   *

 

Anna crawls under a small mountain of thick furs and waits for heat to arrive. Feet and fingers dabble with numbness. Her legs feel like frozen posts layered with ice. She curls her knees to her chest and pulls her wool blanket over her face, leaving room enough for her only nose to poke through. Waiting for her body to form a core of heat beneath those heavy skins, Anna thinks back to her grueling days of boot camp. The heat, the humidity, the constant dampness of moisture and sweat and the foul body odors that came with it. At least snow has a clean smell, she thinks. Can’t say I care for the smell of canvas tents though.

She closes her eyes and wishes for sleep.

Anxious thoughts keep her awake.

At least Wynn is nice. Sincere. I wonder if he was former military. Seems like he could have been, though he hasn’t mentioned it. Too nice though. Too patient. He never could have been a drill instructor. I wonder if he would have survived boot camp. Hell, I barely survived boot camp.

Through the thick canvas tent, she can hear the fire crackling with gentle pops and snaps. Occasionally, Hemmett sniffs or clears his throat.

Hemmett I don’t know about. Anytime I look him in the eye, I get this feeling he’s just waiting until we’re alone. I hope Wynn doesn’t let that happen. I’ll need to stay near him for now, until I can figure Hemmett out. Something about those eyes. Wynn was right. He has a disdain for me.

A core of heat blooms in her chest. Slowly, limbs thaw as warmth trickles to extremities that tingle in response. The heat is enough to allow her tense body to relax.

How did any of this happen? Where on Earth am I? What was I thinking? Trying to enlist under a false name, defying Father, thinking no one would find out. Stupid. So stupid. As if I could waltz through the heart of our military without anyone recognizing me. And now look what’s happened. Sent to be hidden away in the north. Why Hemmett though? If they had such a falling out, why would Father want me in his care? I wonder if there’s something else happening here.

She sighs.

Of course there is. Death of man, fall asleep already.

Time becomes gooey, sticking in place before stretching forward. Anna, still curled in a ball, still with her eyes closed, wonders how much time has passed. She wonders if she’s wasted half the night worrying of things beyond her control and wonders how tired she’ll be in the morning. She wonders how far the temperature has fallen. Wonders how far those distant peaks are. Wonders if where they’re going next is just as busy as—

Wakeful thought gives way to shallow sleep.

An hour slips by in an instant.

Anna startles awake to the sound of howling wolves. Gasping with surprise, she sits up, and the heat beneath her skins immediately surrenders to cold. Through the canvas, she can see dull yellow from the campfire. “Mr. Wynn?” she asks. “Mr. Hemmett?”

“It’s quite alright,” Wynn says, his voice filled with sleep. “They’re a fair distance off, and Mr. Hemmett is keeping a watchful eye.”

“All is quiet on the northern front,” says Hemmett.

Another howl leaps into the night, a lone wolf starting the long song with several others joining the chorus one at a time, their voices layering atop one another in cresting waves of sound. Surrounded by her tent, Anna can picture the distant mountains, the trees and valleys between them, and the endless span of stars suspended above. Listening to the wolves sing, she imagines their song rolling to the furthest peaks and highest stars.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Wynn says. “At first it can sound so lonesome, so melancholy, but if you truly listen, you hear what the song really is. One of comradery. Family. Union. They sing to each other, though miles apart. They come together from all across the wilderness to join with each other through song.”

“It sounds pretty creepy to me,” Anna says.

“Listen again,” Wynn says. “Don’t hear the sound as a threat, Ms. Holt. Hear it as an embrace.”

They wait. The fire snaps.

A low, solitary howl starts, the sound distant. The pitch rolls, growing higher, until two more wolves join in. The newcomers sing lower, allowing the first to carry its note higher and higher. Then more join, all at variable tones. The howling coalesces into a choir that makes Anna’s hair stand. The song floods their camp, and for a moment, its all Anna can hear. The song comes from every direction, from valleys and peaks, from thick trees and open fields. The cry seems to last forever before surrendering to silence.

“What do you think?” Wynn asks.

Anna slumps into her bed, laying back and pulling her skins over her. “It sounds very lonely to me. They sound sad.”

“It’s possible they are,” Wynn says. “Perhaps that’s why they sing.”

“How long does it last?” she asks. “Their singing.”

“It varies,” says Hemmett. “Sometimes minutes, sometimes over an hour.”

“These are our sirens, Ms. Holt,” Wynn says. “And this is their lullaby. I’m sure it’s unsettling at first, but give yourself an open mind. Listen to them, not your fear of them. Hear their song. Once you do, you may find yourself having a different opinion. You just may find understanding in their singing.”

Anna curls into a ball and closes her eyes as the song passes over the rolling hills like a gentle breeze. She listens closely, hearing each voice, following each change in pitch. She feels the sorrow, the longing. Yet somewhere underneath the sound, layered within the collection of tones, a binding call is heard. A hint of strength rides among the notes, for they are separate but not alone. Though divided by forest and stone, in the still night their voices close the distance and bring them together.

As she listens, she settles into her bed. Before the wolves conclude their evening recital, Anna is asleep.

Far to the North (Chapter 2)

As a train whistle pierces the air, coiled fingers release from a handrail with trepidation. Having reached her final stop, Anna Holt descends onto a landing platform tarnished by snow and ice. Old boards creak beneath her steps while departing passengers shift around her like schools of fish avoiding a nearby predator. Their quick glances send stabbing glares before turning. Voices lower as they pass. Feet shuffle away from her presence. Oncoming travelers halt their approach toward the passenger cars and give her room, squeezing their tickets as she drifts by. A group of surly men scanning posted jobs on a notice board pause their search to consider the meaning of her arrival. All sights surrounding the station are unfamiliar to her, and all faces unfriendly. As she crosses the platform, the physical weight of her belongings dissipates into numbness, replaced by a weight of pure uncertainty. After traveling hundreds of miles over several days, her journey to the north is complete.

And here I am, nothing but a scorned foreigner in my own land, Anna thinks.

The conductor gives the whistle a long, hard pull. Shrieking steam pains Anna’s ears and leaves them ringing. “Two minutes!” he shouts. “Two minutes!” Lingering passengers hurry to unload their remaining luggage. Four cars down, miners curse the conductor’s impatience as they struggle to onload heavy crates, the plank they scurry across bowing beneath their weight. The conductor ignores their crass comments and looks Anna dead in the eyes. She watches him scan her hat, the repeater-rifle slung over her shoulder, and the gray, canvas bag resting at her feet, the word INFANTRY stenciled along its side. His face hardens with the examination. Seeing her eyes on him, he glares.

“Where are the rest of ya?” the conductor asks with contempt. “Yer buddies?”

“Just me,” Anna says, unsure of the meaning behind his question.

“Just you?” His hard glare softens, almost turning apologetic before squinting toward the horizon. “So it’s gotten that bad then.”

Uncertain how to answer, Anna looks away. If this is meant to be a kind of exile, we’re off to a good start, she thinks.

Turning from the train to take in the view around her, Anna discovers a far friendlier sight. Rolling hills are blanketed in white. Thick pines are snowed over, their tops leaning with weight. In the distance, jagged peaks bite into a clear sky with teeth of ice and dark stone. Dazzling sunlight shines, unfettered by clouds, and fills the world with fool’s warmth. She huffs and watches her breath cloud and vanish. If it feels this cold during the day, she wonders, how cold does it get at night? The thought triggers a shiver through her body, one that travels her spine and ends as a wiggle in her a neck. She sucks in crisp air and lets it go in a long, slow plume while raising a hand to shield her squinting eyes. The train platform feeds into a long path of trampled snow cutting through a field of white, winding into the nearby town. Travelers hobble along its uneven surface, their feet slipping and churning in a mixture of earth and snow.

Save for the town and the train station, there is only wilderness.

Oh, father. You’ve outdone yourself this time.

The train whistle howls again, giving Anna a start. The conductor leans from his car and sees the miners finishing their loading with rude hand gestures in his direction. Smiling with yellow teeth, he bellows one last call for boarding and gives the whistle another blast. Moments later, the behemoth of black iron and steel comes to life, coughing putrid smoke into the sky. Brilliant sunlight reflects from its metal side as each guttural cough grows stronger. Mighty wheels churn, the beast lurches, and the train lumbers forward with straining squeaks and groans. Rolling forward, it proceeds onto buried tracks unseen, its metal plow clearing away snow. Mechanical coughs become labored gasps, and the long crankshaft winds the wheels faster and faster. As it pulls from the station and gains speed, snow flies away from the plow in powdery explosions. Anna watches until the train rounds a long curve and disappears into the trees, leaving a black cloud hanging in the sky.

“Ms. Holt, I presume?” asks a gentle voice from behind.

Anna turns and sees a man standing ten paces back. His skin is dark and smooth, his brown eyes soft. A thick beard of silver streaked with lengths of black covers his face, capped by a curling mustache. Though his mouth is hidden, subtle lines beside his eyes hint at a possible smile. His long overcoat, a muted umber, is unbuttoned and hangs open, and he stands with his hands casually sunk into its pockets. Sunlight gleams off a pewter belt buckle, and Anna is surprised to see his waist absent of both ammunition and pistol. His gray, wool pants are stained but well kept. Snow clings to his shin-high boots.

“I am.”

“An easy guess,” he says, his hidden smile growing. “And here I was worried you’d be difficult to find.”

Anna glances at the emptying platform around her. “About as hard to find as a bonfire at night.”

“Indeed,” he says as he approaches. “Indeed. I bring you welcome to the north, though it’s a shame your reception here is so… chilly.”

Anna furrows her brow at the pun. “Who are you?”

The man laughs, his voice a deep and velvety tone. “I apologize, Ms. Holt. I must admit I’m shameless when it comes to jokes. My name is Mr. Wynn, Kurtis Wynn. I’m the lead Walker for this region of the north.”

“Walker?”

Wynn nods. “My colleagues and I walk the telegraph lines that tie our towns together. Communications in these parts are vital, as I’m sure you can imagine. With the weather and terrain as it is, breaks in the line are a somewhat common occurrence. We walk the lines, find those breaks and repair them.”

Anna reaches for his extended hand and gives it a firm shake. “How do you do, Mr. Wynn?”

“I’m well, Ms. Holt. Thank you. I was messaged about your arrival and instructed to meet you. I hope your trip was as wonderful as our weather.”

“It was similar. Chilly, liked you mentioned. Both the weather and the people.”

“Yes,” Wynn says, sounding forlorn. He removes his cap of gray fox fur and casually brushes loose snow from the top. The hair on his head matches his beard, thick and full and black with streaks of silver. “Yes, I worried about that. Please don’t take it personally. It isn’t you these people take issue with.”

“Then what is it?” Anna asks. “Why give a soldier such nasty looks? Especially infantry. At a time like this?”

Wynn nods with Anna’s chiding words, his face full of patience. “Again, it isn’t you. Please believe that. Nor is it a slight to the sacrifice you make. The war raging in the south weighs on everyone’s mind, even this far north. But here, it’s easier for that war to slip from people’s memory, as if it were a dream or perhaps happening in some far away land. Your youth and your uniform bring reality back. Also, you must understand that the military has a history of suddenly arriving and taking conscripts. Not exactly an activity that fosters a supportive community.”

Anna glances over Wynn’s shoulder to see three miners watching from afar. Their faces are haggard and lined with gray stubble, their clothes dirty and worn. The moment her eyes find them, they feign truancy and rush away from the station. As they scurry off, she looks back to Wynn. “Have you heard the latest?”

“Everyone has,” Wynn says.

“We’re losing.”

“Quite badly.”

“Badly?” Anna says. “We’re being wiped out. They say the front is in retreat, but that’s a lie. The front is broken. Scattered. Fort Walters burns. Two battalions lost. Thousands of men, Mr. Wynn, thousands have—”

“Yes, Ms. Holt,” Wynn interrupts. “I know. It’s horrendous. Like I said, I’ve heard. We all have.”

Feeling a tension coiling within, Anna takes a deep breath and sighs. “I’m sorry. It’s—I don’t mean to yell at you. But it’s upsetting. Very upsetting. And then I get here and…” She trails off, shaking her head. “I thought these people would care, would show some kind of appreciation. Maybe lend a word of encouragement or shake my hand. Something. Anything.”

“You’re not beyond reason in wanting those things,” Wynn says. “I think we’re all looking for encouragement in some form or another. This war grates on us all, and the consequences of surrender is an issue many struggle with.”

Anna scoffs. “If the dwarves will even have it. Rumor is they wouldn’t take our surrender now even if we begged.”

Wynn casts a long look at the young woman in front of him. Her skin is light and her face narrow. Sternness swims within deep, hazel eyes. Rogue curls of chestnut hair spring free from a tight bun, topped with a military cap bearing the insignia of Private. Her posture is straight and strong, and her issued rifle, well-polished repeater, is strapped securely to her shoulder. “May I see your orders?” he asks.

Anna reaches inside her gray coat and produces a folded piece of manila paper. Wynn reads the sheet from top to bottom, examining each line carefully. At the end, he laughs and reads aloud: “To provide military assistance to the Lead Walker until further notice. Well, Ms. Holt. That isn’t the least bit vague, is it?” He hands the papers back. “Before they shipped you north, did anyone bother suggesting what kind of military assistance we might need?”

Anna shrugs and glances down, not wanting to approach the topic.

“I see,” says Wynn, noticing the change in her demeanor. “Did they mention how long you should expect to stay?”

“Until further notice,” she says, still looking at her feet.

“I see. Is there anything you can think of to explain your purpose here?”

Anna leaves the question unanswered and turns her eyes to the horizon.

“Ms. Holt,” Wynn whispers while leaning forward. “I know who your father is.”

The statement snaps her gaze back.

“I sent an inquiry,” he says. “I do more than just repair these lines, of course. Given my duties, I’m allowed ample use to the telegraph system. The report that came back was minimal, but it gave enough information for this to make sense. You’re Anna Holt, daughter of Alistair Holt, the same General Alistair Holt that leads the southern—”

“Yes,” Anna barks, her pale face flushing pink with embarrassment. “Yes, that’s who my father is.”

“I’m not passing judgement,” Wynn says. “It’s none of my business how you came to be here. Your father’s motives are not my own. But here you are, and here you’re apparently to stay. It’d be helpful to understand why, and I’d much rather you see me as your host rather than—”

“Than my babysitter?” Anna interrupts.

“Well,” Wynn hesitates, “I was going to say captor, but I suppose the meaning is the same.” As Wynn sees the frustration spreading over Anna’s face, an easy smile takes to his own. “It’s none of my business is all I mean to say, and I’ll take no effort to make it my business. My business is quite simple.” With a sweeping hand, he turns toward the town. “To care for these people as best I can. To ensure their connection to the world and each other travels uninterrupted.” He turns back to Anna. “I suspect you and I are very similar, Ms. Holt. Civic duty. Service. Doing what must be done to help our people in these trying times. These are values I hold dear. Judging by the uniform you wear, I feel you do as well.”

As color slowly recedes from her cheeks, Anna gives Wynn a second look. The man before her is old enough to be her father, if not more, and resembles him in some ways as well. Confidence clings to his eyes. There’s no hint of uniform, but he carries himself like one in command, though a subtle difference lingers around him. Where her father demanded respect, Wynn carries an air of earning it.

“Think on it,” Wynn says. “I don’t expect you to share your life’s tale five minutes after meeting me. Come,” he says, cocking his head toward town. “Don’t let the shining sun mislead you. Our days are short. Time is limited. We need to meet the others.”

Others, she thinks as resignation soaks into her heart. They’ll know who I am too. There go my hopes of quietly disappearing into anonymity. An aching sigh escapes her lips.

Wynn reaches toward Anna’s bag then pauses with hesitation. “I imagine you’re the type that prefers to carry her own weight.”

“I am,” Anna says, trying to keep curtness from her tongue. “Though I appreciate the gesture. Thank you.” She lifts her large, canvas bag with one hand and steadies the rifle over her shoulder with the other.

“Very good,” Wynn says. “I—oh.” The stenciling on her bag, INFANTRY, grabs his eye. “Ms. Holt, I apologize, but there’s something we must remedy before passing through town.”

“That being?”

He motions for her to set her bag down. “To be frank, it’s your appearance. Your youth and uniform both.”

“My youth?” Anna says with surprise, knowing all too well the impact of her uniform.

“Indeed. The war, Ms. Holt. That ravenous war has taken any abled young person from the north. Though you may spot some from time to time, you’re only seeing those doing a poor job of staying in hiding. Remember what I said about the conscripts?”

She does, and a realization unveils itself. Through her journey, an odd feeling had settled about her, one she could not place. As each train car clacked and rattled its way down winding tracks, she felt a growing coldness from the eyes spying her, eyes that immediately looked away when met. The further she traveled north, the more disdain fell upon her. She assumed the feeling was born from the frigid silence and scornful stares of those around her, but now the curious feeling was firmly placed.

Those that avoided her stare and denied her conversation were persons well beyond her age.

“The military just takes them?” Anna asks, astonished.

“That’s what conscription is, Ms. Holt. As you implied, man has fallen on desperate times.”

“What if they refuse?”

Wynn’s face sours. “Refusal is an option rarely exercised.”

“Death of man,” Anna whispers.

“Indeed. And that’s why,” Wynn says, delicately removing Anna’s gray cap, “we cannot have you roaming these lands as a soldier. You’ll need to blend in. After all, until further notice, you’re one of us.” Wynn removes his fox-fur cap and slips it onto Anna’s head. Its large size easily covers her hair and frigid ears, and the warmth inside soaks into her scalp like melted butter. Wynn gives her a quick look. “Better. Still young, but less militant.” His eyes shift to her shoulder boards. “May I?”

Anna concedes with a sigh. “Carefully please. Don’t tear the coat. I’m cold enough as it is.”

Wynn glances around, sees no one watching and places a firm grip on her shoulder. In two, quick jerks, he tears the displays of rank from Anna’s wool coat, the loose stitching giving way without a fight. Finished, two pieces of black cloth with yellow chevrons remain in his hand. Unsure, he gestures. “Would you like these back?”

Anna takes the markings, glances at the rank removed and stuffs them into her pocket. “Anything else?”

“Your bag,” Wynn says, “though there’s little to do about that. Just conceal the stenciling as best you can.”

A small breeze sweeps across the station, tousling dry snow over wooden planks. Icy fingers sneak into Anna’s jacket and caress her body into a shiver.

Wynn smiles. “That’ll be our cue. Let’s get moving. It’ll warm the blood. The others wait for us on the opposite side of Nestol. Mind the crowds as we pass through. They’re thick today. They’ve been bitten by the sun-bug.”

Anna doesn’t ask but assumes he can only mean the clear weather. The assumption concerns her. Fair weather only earns a nickname when foul is so often the expectation. With bag in hand and stenciling turned inward, she follows Wynn along the churned path into town.

Beyond the tracks, Station N-EST-01 is bustling. Perfect skies bathe the town in golden light. Despite the ample sunlight and the difficult walk along the trail of loose snow, Anna’s fingers flirt with numbness inside her woolen gloves, and her toes threaten to follow. None of the locals, however, appear to be bothered. Guffaws of laughter, swollen by the raised spirits of sunny weather, send puffs of breath into the sky. Merchants shamble through crowded lanes with muskoxen and sled dogs pulling crates of goods, their digging feet and hooves churning the paths to reveal frozen soil beneath the snow. In the midday hour, men have already begun drinking. Some brandish large mugs of ale in the open. Others sip from pewter flasks. Pensive deputies pass by with a reserved tip of the hat to serve as cursory warning to those already flirting with the edge of control. There’s an unspoken agreement among them all, coming and going, laughing and greeting, drinking and enforcing: the day of tepid weather is one to be celebrated—as long as it’s celebrated within reason.

Anna is amazed to see some men are absent their coats. Her hopes of adjusting to the weather quickly are dashed. It’s all she can do to keep from shivering while others look as though they’re in the throes of late spring.

Two buildings dominate the primary corners of Main Street, consuming its crowds and hosting a litany of signs advertising honest gambling, strong alcohol, fine tobacco and comforting women. To the south, offset from the town and connected to several looping cables racing for the horizon in multiple directions, a small white building hosts a single sign: TELEGRAPH. Outside its modest door, over twenty people stand impatiently in line. The main avenue rolls through town like a canyon, each side burdened with billboards stealing as much space as they can. Anna scans the signs as she passes by, GOLD DUST BOUGHT AND SOLD HERE and PHARMACY and NESTOL LODGING and GROCER. Below the wooden plank for the Grocer is smaller sign touting FRESHLY IMPORTED APPLES! A disappointing steak of red letters paint over it reading SOLD OUT.

As they weave through swarms of crowding people, Anna gives ample space to an irate merchant attempting to whip motivation into a stubborn muskox. The detour leads her up wooden steps toward the open doors of a saloon. Inside, the saloon is exploding with the sounds of joyful debauchery. Near the entrance, a bulbous man with a bald head slick with sweat pounds away at an upright piano as if his life depended on it. Given the patronage, she thinks, maybe it does. Around this blubbery ball of a man stand several others, singing and laughing, swaying and holding their drinks as high as their arms will allow. Golden liquid sloshes inside glass mugs and spills over the brim in concurrent tsunamis. Not a one seems to notice the flying beer. If they do, they certainly don’t care. Several tables along the wall are filled with card players winning and losing their fortune one hand at a time. Two waiters wearing white shirts and black vests dart through the chaos like expert sailors aboard a thrashing vessel at sea, always moving with the surge of people and never against it. Most shocking of all, specifically to Anna, are the women. Not that she’s surprised to see them or their flaunting acts, with their extravagant hair or painted faces or heaving breasts threatening to spill into the open. What surprises her, to the point of standing still, are the arms and shoulders they’ve left bare. From across the entrance, she can practically see cold air pouring through the open doors. She balls her fingers in the hopes of feeling warmth. Her toes tingle with numbness, but these women—

“Ms. Holt!” Wynn calls out. He’s several paces ahead with a hand cupped to his bearded face.

She hurries along the wooden planks then drops down onto the lane. Her boots squeak in dry snow. Several riders on horses pass through, their hooves flinging chunks of white. One horse snorts and draws up as the rider pulls the reins. He shouts a vulgarity, and for a moment, Anna is outraged. The words are slung at what could only be a child, for the poor thing looks to only be—

And then she’s frozen again, this time in the middle of the lane, standing face to face with a creature she’s only heard of, never seen. Her eyes go wide with surprise, and her mouth drifts in shock. For one precious moment, she forgets entirely the cold assaulting her body.

Before her, a gnome passes by.

The small creature, perhaps only three feet tall, carefully works his short legs over devastated ground. Bulky glasses rest on his swollen nose while the rest of his small frame is covered in thick furs and wool. From under his cap, a bold tuft of white hair escapes. He guides a large muskox by a single strap of thin leather. The animal is patient and well-trained, for it gives no regard to the insanity around it. Woven into the animal’s thick fur are hundreds of glass vials: long cylinders, thick squares, bulbs, and teardrops. There are potions and jars and tiny bottles the size of thumbs. With each shape and size comes a distinct color within, turquoise and sapphire blue, lovely pink and blood red, clear and bubbling fluids and mixes thick as amber sap. As the beast shambles along, the vials clatter and clink like a vast chandelier stirring in the breeze.

“Good-day,” says the gnome with annoyance as he passes. If he notices her complete shock, he gives no indication.

She watches the gnome until he rounds a corner and is out of sight. Only after the gnome is gone does Anna think to utter a response. The distraction turns her eyes around to the lane behind her. Raucous laughter spills from the open doors of the saloon and into the street. Those passing by casually bump into her and her pack, but she pays no mind. Through the noise around her, a voice cracks her daze like a pistol.

Ms. Holt!

She throws her bag over her shoulder and hurries, her boots breaking traction as she scrambles.

Away from the saloons, the crowds thin. Anna and Wynn are soon behind the wooden buildings lining the street and moving through narrow alleys. Though quieter, even here the bite of the sun-bug has been felt. Back doors hang open for idle conversation. A small group of men have made a make-shift fire pit and cook a small pig over a spit roast. Further on, one man, obviously drunk beyond comprehension, simply sits in the snow with an empty mug in his hand, his head bobbing with incapacitation. Cold winds funnel through the back alleys, driving icy fingers around Anna’s neck and down her back, forcing her into shivers.

As the town comes to an end, its buildings give way to sparse pine trees populating a sprawling field of snow. Wynn stops. “Ms. Holt,” he says as he turns to her, “it’s important to me that we trust one another. At the train station, you placed a trust in me by allowing me to alter your uniform. As strange it may seem, I thank you for that. However, it’s now time for me to place trust in you.”

Anna waits.

“There is the simple matter of how we Walkers address ourselves. As you’ve noticed, I’ve taken to a formal approach.”

“Yes,” says Anna, keeping the formality.

“As Lead Walker for this region, this is the manner I prefer. I find it to be the most respectful, especially when situations become tense. We’re much more than technicians for the Telegraph line. We’re caretakers for these people. They celebrate us. They see us as their lifeline to the world. They know of our work and how difficult it can be, certainly in this region, and they’re quite thankful for what we do. We return that respect as best we can. Formal naming is part of that.”

“Very well,” Anna says with a nod.

“You may notice, however,” Wynn says, a glimmer sneaking into his eye, “that when we’re alone, myself and the other Walkers may drift from that. Sometimes, we’ll simply refer to each other by our surnames. It’s a sort of…”

“Breaking from uniform?”

Wynn smiles. “An appropriate analogy. For the time being, I’ll ask that you address us by Mr. and we shall address you by Ms.”

“Very well.” Anna raises her eyebrow. “This is what you needed to trust me with?”

He shakes his head. “Unfortunately, no. My colleague, whom you’re soon to meet, has an unfortunate history with your father. Be fully aware that you should feel no responsibility, but you may feel scorn. The problem is not with you. Mr. Hemmett is my dear friend and an excellent man, but he can be one to hold a grudge, and he’s done so in regards to your father. I’ve made him explicitly aware his grudge is not with you, but you may find him reluctant to enjoy your company.”

“Is there something I should do?”

“Not at all. To be honest, there’s nothing you can or should do. Only be yourself.”

Anna adjusts the bag in her hand and shrugs her shoulders. “What happened between him and my father?”

“I’ll leave that for Mr. Hemmett to explain, though he’ll likely be reluctant in that department. Hopefully he does in time. Be patient for now.” Wynn lets out a frustrated sigh, his breath catching in the breeze and swirling away. “He can have a hard time letting go. Like you carry your bag, so he carries his past. At any rate, I tell you this because you deserve to know. Trust must travel in both directions. I hope you’ll appreciate mine as much as I do yours.”

“I do, Mr. Wynn. Thank you.”

They exit the alley and trudge through deepening snow. Wynn leads the way via an impromptu trench extending further into the wilderness. Anna follows, carefully placing her boots into Wynn’s steps to avoid sinking into the soft powder. She’s surprised by the effort required to move through the dry snow, but the struggle is welcome. Heat blooms from her working legs and chases the numbness from her toes and fingers. The narrow path winds through sparse pines and Nestol is soon hidden behind the trees. In the distance, rolling hills, pristine and pure under their blankets of white, bump and shoulder their way toward mountainous crags clawing into the blue sky. They ascend a sloping hill, crest, and make their way into a small valley. Below, a man stands beside a muskox yoked to a sled. As they approach, apprehension builds within Anna. How wonderful, she thinks. As if exile isn’t enough, father, you have to put me in the care of one of your enemies? Drawing closer, the man greets them with a wave, and the muskox snorts.

“Anna Holt,” says Wynn, “I’m pleased to introduce Mr. Leonard Hemmett.”

She shakes his hand, one that is bare. Through her gloves, his hand feels warm.

“How do, Ms. Holt?” he asks.

“Well. Thank you, Mr. Hemmett.”

Leonard Hemmett towers over Anna, his height exceeding her own by a foot. His overcoat of black wool is long and unbuttoned and hangs to his ankles, dangling in the snow. Sunlight glints off the large revolver holstered to his hip. Anna forces herself to look into his eyes, eyes that are green and dark like emeralds, eyes that bore into hers with intensity. A dark beard, short and frosted gray, covers a narrow face weathered by wind and sun. Muscles clench at his jaw. His dark clothes contrast against his light skin. A black cowboy hat shadows his face.

“Apologies for the delay, Mr. Hemmett,” Wynn says. “Nestol is bubbling over.”

“The sun-bug bites again,” Hemmett says.

“Indeed it does.”

“Nestol?” Anna asks.

“Nestol,” confirms Wynn. “The locals don’t use the station terminology for their towns. This station, N-EST-01, becomes Nestol. Others follow the same kind of nomenclature.”

“Rolls off the tongue a bit easier,” Hemmett says.

“So it does,” agrees Wynn. “Bustling Nestol will have to make due without us this fine day. Our time is short and we must be off. Which reminds me,” Wynn glances at Anna. “Ms. Holt, have you ever camped in the snow?”

Anna shakes her head. As the question shifts from concept to reality in her mind, she shakes her head faster. “No. Absolutely not. We’re sleeping outside tonight?” she asks with an overtone of fear in her voice. “In this?”

“That we are,” Wynn says. “That we are. Step one is to acclimate you to these conditions. We’re only going further north from here, and the weather is rarely this kind.”

“You trained in the south, I imagine,” Hemmett says. “Near the capitol?”

“I did. In sweltering, muggy heat. Nothing like this.” Anna’s eyes swim with panic. “Mr. Wynn, if it’s a matter of price, I have money. I can pay for lodging if—”

“Price is not the concern,” Wynn interrupts, “though our kind does operate under a specific budget. No, Ms. Holt, we need to get you acquainted with your new home. Soft snow and thick skins will be your bedding, heavy canvas your shelter. It’s a hard adjustment from the temperatures of the south, I know, but you’ll get there in time. Consider it an adventure!” he says with a cheery smile.

Adventure,” Hemmett says, half-mocking and half-laughing. “She’s young, Mr. Wynn, not stupid. How old are you, Ms. Holt?”

“Twenty.”

“And not a day over if it were my guess,” says Hemmett. “You must have enlisted the moment your papers allowed it.”

“Something like that.”

The two stare at each other, neither speaking and neither looking away. Wynn waits, watching their interaction. As a strong silence fills the gap between them, Wynn breaks the impasse. “Alright. That’s enough of meeting Mr. Hemmett then. Come. It’s time to meet the third member of our crew.”

Anna glances around. All around them are trees, sloping hillside, and snow.

“He’s here?” she asks.

“He’s here,” says Hemmett.

Wynn smiles and makes his way over to the muskox. “Yes, he certainly is.”

Anna bounces her eyes between the two men and sees their sly smiles. There’s a joke here, and I’m not in on it, she thinks.

“Come,” says Wynn as he walks around the large beast. “I’ll introduce you.”

Anna follows him, unsure of what will happen next. She wonders if a small snowman has been built on the other side of the muskox as another wintry joke of the north.

“Here he is,” says Wynn, scratching the large head of the muskox. “The third member of our team. Ms. Holt, meet Wilder. Wilder, this is Ms. Holt, our new friend.”

Anna and Wilder look at one another. With broad shoulders standing taller than her own, the muskox regards her almost indifferently, as if she’s yet another one of those creatures that awkwardly traipses through the snow, freezing and fumbling and desperately in need of his services. His fur is heavy and dark and sweeps over the snow. Small clumps of ice tangle throughout. Large horns arc from his head and join at the top to form a hard crown. His eyes, big and brown, stare.

“Say hello,” says Wynn softly.

“Hello, Wilder,” she says, feeling somewhat foolish.

Wilder, standing still, his fur swaying with the gentle breeze, gives a light snort. He then rolls his head side to side and lowers it to the ground.

“Wonderful,” says Wynn. “Come, give him a scratch.”

Anna takes a cautious step forward and lowers her hand onto Wilder’s large nose. She starts scratching, and Wilder does the rest. He rotates his head slowly so Anna’s working fingers can cover each particular itch. Suddenly he raises his head, the work done, and Anna pulls her hand away in surprise. Wilder exhales long and slow through his nose. They make eye contact, and Anna sees a glimmer deep within those dark brown circles. An unusual intelligence resides inside.

“He’s beautiful,” Anna says. “How long have you had him?”

“Well,” Wynn says with a tone of caution, “we’ve never had him per se. While it may appear Wilder is a beast of burden, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some years ago, we discovered Wilder, happened upon him one morning when he was young. We heard a commotion and came over a hill to find him wounded. Two wolves had attacked him. All around was blood and trampled snow. He’d given the wolves hell though. One was gored to death and the other hobbling away. Mr. Hemmett dealt with the waning wolf while I knelt beside Wilder to assess his injuries.

“It was a peculiar moment then, my introduction to Wilder. I looked into his eyes and he did the same and at no point was there a moment of conflict between our souls. Our paths had crossed in what could only be described as a fateful way. At last, there we were. When Hemmett’s gunshot signaled the end of the second wolf, Wilder never startled nor looked to see. He already knew. We were by his side and he was to be by ours. So it was, and so it’s ever been.”

As if remembering, Wilder snorts at the story.

Anna reaches and lightly strokes the animal’s face. “Who came up with the name?”

“I did,” says Hemmett.

Anna glances over her shoulder to see Hemmett approach Wilder’s side and begin stroking the fur around his neck. “It’s a name that came on its own. We stopped to chat with a few travelers on the road. One of them asked if he was wild. I said he more than that. He was wilder.” Hemmett smiles and shrugs. “And that was that.”

“I don’t understand,” Anna says, looking to Wynn. “Are you saying he follows you by choice?”

Wynn traces a finger over the curl of his large mustache and nods. “We’ve never restrained him. Never hitched him off. After we saw to recovering his health, he simply stayed on. He became a Walker of the line, just like Mr. Hemmett and I.”

“What will you do if he leaves?” asks Anna.

Wynn and Hemmett give each other worried glances. Apparently, the topic had been broached before. “Well,” says Wynn, “we’d have to lighten our load. That much is certain.”

“May I take your bag?” Hemmett asks.

Anna slides her own load from her fingers and hands the considerable weight of her belongings to Hemmett. He places them onto the sled yoked to Wilder. Watching Wilder’s eyes, Anna sees no sign of disagreement.

“So together we are three,” says Wynn, “and with you it makes four. Four Walkers heading down the line. I do say, Mr. Hemmett, it’ll be delightful to have a change in conversation, don’t you think?”

“Someone else to suffer your puns,” says Hemmett with a slight grumble.

“Mr. Hemmett hasn’t an appropriate taste for humor,” Wynn says to Anna, giving her elbow a playful nudge. “In fact, it’s enough to say his sense of humor has been… snowed in.”

Hemmett shakes his head and gives a weary laugh. He looks at Anna, and she’s pleased to see the initial sternness is absent from his face. “How long are you with us, Ms. Holt?”

“Until further notice,” she says.

Hemmett, still smiling, feigns a sting. “Oh, you poor thing.”

“I’m sure she’ll be quite fine,” says Wynn as he digs through the sled. “Ms. Holt, by chance, were you issued snowshoes before departing the capitol?”

“No, sir. Only boots.”

The two men shake their heads. The gesture is nearly identical.

“Come then,” Wynn says. “We’d best gear you properly.”

Wynn brings her a set of snowshoes and teaches her how to strap in. Anna’s initial steps leave her feeling like an awkward duckling, but the shoes are a significant improvement over her boots alone. The webbing keeps her well above the snow rather than sinking in, as if she were walking on clouds. After a few minutes of key instruction from both Wynn and Hemmett, as well as a snort from Wilder that could easily be taken as condescending, she’s moving with confidence across the soft banks.

“Very good,” says Wynn. “With that, I do believe it’s time to be on our way. How say you, Mr. Hemmett?”

Hemmett nods. “I’m ready.”

“Where are we going?” Anna asks.

“On assignment, recruit!” Wynn says with a proud smile. “There’s a line to tend to. Communication is vital in these parts, and there’s a broken connection we’re to find.”

Anna shields her eyes from the brilliant sun and stares off into the expansive distance. “Which way are we going?”

“The telegraph line,” says Hemmett, pointing. “Our path is always along the line. If you bend down, you can just see it beneath this stretch of trees.”

Anna squats down and scans the hillside. Below, wires run from pole to pole, leading toward the station in town. In the opposite direction, the poles arc over a rolling hill dotted with pines and disappear into the horizon.

“How far is it to the next town?” she asks.

“Days,” Hemmett says with a smirking wink.

Wynn nods. “Indeed. Days. We’ll start slow this afternoon. Let you get comfortable with your snowshoes. Teach you how to setup camp. But the journey in front of us is long, so it’s best to cover what distance we can while the weather is good.”

“Let’s go, Wilder,” Hemmett says. The muskox, seeming to snap from a daze of boredom, snorts and starts forward. The sled glides quietly through the snow. As the two lead the way, Wynn and Anna stand in contemplation. “You’ll be fine, Ms. Holt. Believe me. Lesser people than yourself have survived these conditions. You’re young and in amazing health. Just give yourself some time.”

Sighing, Anna nods. It looks like I’ll have plenty of time, she thinks. Resignation latches onto her heart as a phrase passes through her mind once more. Until further notice.

 

Far to the North (Chapter 1)

(It’s just me, so kindly forgive any typos you come across. I’ve done my best to hunt them down and kill them all… Hope you enjoy the story. Lots more to come.)

“Careful then. Hold the light up, love.”

She does so, raising the lantern higher. The cave’s insatiable darkness presses against yellow light while Clarence clears loose stone with hurried strikes of his mining pick. Soil and rock tumble away from a dark mound. Marissa watches her husband dig, lantern light flickering over his gray coat, dark pants, and wool cap—all dirt-stained and frayed edges—and sees the years that have snuck into his body. His aging back is bent, his shoulder slumped forward with a curve creeping toward permanence with each day. Through all our running, time has still found us, she thinks. True what they say, the death of man comes for us all.

But for the moment, age is suspended.

“Oh, Mar,” he says, excitement filling his lungs as more stones fall away, “You were right. You were right!”

Marissa Pickens smiles. She happened upon the collapsed section while following the faintest vein of silver, a vein since gone into hiding. Her scouring eyes and tracing fingers worked through the dark tunnels of the abandoned mine, leading her down a narrow and seemingly forgotten shaft. In a small chamber below, a cave-in was found. “Aye,” she says. “See it there!?” The glee in her voice is enough to pierce the dirty scarf wrapped around her face and neck. “I just knew the stone here looked queer. I just knew, Clarence!” Holding the lantern like a perched owl, she stretches her lean arm to provide better light.

“You clever rascal,” he says. His wife can’t see the smile on his face, but she can hear it in his voice. Theirs is a marriage and friendship long enough to bestow such abilities. Clarence brings the pickaxe down harder and digs with its broad end. Tumbling stones clack against each other and send echoes into unseen caverns. “See the glint in the stone? I wager the vein has ducked through here then. Oh, I can just smell the gold!” he says with a giggle. “The light, love! Keep it high for me!” Clouds of breath jump from his mouth while he works. Their cheerful laughs drift away and vanish into the shadows around them. Behind, through a twisting world of darkness, a fierce blizzard blasts against the cave’s natural opening. Sharp stone cuts the wind and perverts it into howling whistles, but neither Marissa nor Clarence hear the chilling tune. Their determination has carried them to one more chance.

Hope carries on.

“It’s large enough then,” Marissa says. “The opening. Don’t tally. Let us climb through.”

Clarence works the pickaxe with feverish movements. Chunks of granite break free, and loose dirt spills around his boots. He eyes the small gap presenting itself. Climbing up the pile of soil, pebbles falling from beneath his pushing feet, Clarence slides into the opening to test its size. He reaches an arm and shoulder through. “Hand us the lantern. Let me get a good look-see of the other side.”

Marissa hands the lantern to her husband. As Clarence reaches through the opening, precious light disappears. The absolute black of the cave towers over Marissa like a ravenous beast. Her ailments, forgotten in their moment of possible fortune, return. The hunger in her belly, the fierce cold gripping her skin, the ache contaminating her bones. It’s enough to make her smile fade, to suspend her joy in exchange for nagging fear. For if Clarence were to fall or lose his grip on the lantern, if it were to drop and smash upon the rocks, the terrible darkness around them would crash in like an ocean, drowning them in—

“Come, Mar,” Clarence says, reappearing. “Hold this while I climb through.”

As the handle of the lantern finds her fingers, so does relief find Marissa’s heart.

She watches Clarence scale the small mound of freshly dug soil, and in a moment his thin body is through the opening. From the other side, he works to push more earth away and widen the hole. Marissa climbs to him, careful to keep her balance and protect the lantern in her hand, and is soon face to face with her love. Looking back at her, he smiles wide. Dust clings to his gray, scraggly beard. Grime stains his forehead and gaunt cheeks. The dirt amplifies the wrinkles around his eyes, giving crows feet hard, dark lines. But look at the love in those blue eyes, she thinks. They pause for a moment, smiling at one another.

“Hand the light here then,” he says, reaching an arm through to take the lantern. “Careful on this side. These stones are more than anxious to turn your ankle.”

The lantern passes through, and Marissa is swallowed by darkness again. Of all her years spent mining, it’s the one feeling of terror she still can’t shake. The darkness lurking within the depths of caves and mines is one that is simply absolute, and she can’t help but glance over her shoulder at it. A behemoth of black lords above her, inhaling and exhaling the wheezing sounds of the winds cutting against the stone.

“Come, come!” Clarence beckons after setting the lantern on the ground nearby.

Laying on her belly, Marissa climbs into the opening head first. With her head and arms through, she feels a dreadful exposure to the shadows lurking behind her. Childish fears bring an image of reaching claws of darkness extending toward her dangling legs. The fear spurs her, and she shimmies through, kicking and twisting her narrow body while reaching for Clarence. He takes her in his arms, supporting her weight until her legs are through and feet are down. Together in the new section, neither take the time to brush the dirt from their clothing. Having spent so many years scouring mines for fortune, and finding little, the earth has become part of them.

“Not so cold this side, is it?” she asks.

Clarence nods in agreement. “A bit musty too.” Retrieving the lantern from the ground, he raises his hand and lets yellow light spill into the jagged shaft before them. The path ahead is tall and narrow, like a knife wound stabbing deeper into the mountain. Frozen stone juts out. The flooring, slanting wedges of granite, leans with a heavy camber. Clarence steps forward, squinting into the darkness ahead, while Marissa investigates the cave walls for the vein of precious metal gone missing.

“What do you think?” Clarence asks.

“I think we’re close. This is quartz, no doubt,” she says, tapping the stone with gloved fingers. “Perhaps a hint of silver too.” She looks at him. “How’s the way forward?”

“Tis narrow,” Clarence says, “but room enough to continue. What’s your council then? Further?”

“I think so, yes. Unless you have an idea that’s better?”

As if on cue, Clarence’s stomach rumbles with hunger. Man and wife look at each other. In only a moment, they acknowledge their situation in silence. Surrounded by cold stone and oppressive darkness, wearing clothing too old and too thin and far too dirty, they see the dire state of their lives. They see their haggard eyes and narrow cheeks. They see weariness and pain. Both know neither are to blame for the struggles they endure. Misfortune happens. The war in the south has torn the world of man apart. There’s no doubt they’ve done their best. All efforts have been spent. Reaching for one another, their cold fingers intertwine. In unison, they share a brief smile, one carrying both an apology for the other’s struggle and a thankfulness for the love that keeps each by their side.

“Shall we then?” Clarence asks.

Marissa nods.

The narrowness of the cave forces them to pass single file. Encroaching stone pushes against their backs and shoulders, and the two miners contort their bodies within their unyielding host. Pointed rocks test the soles of their worn boots. Hand in hand, the two proceed in a slow shuffle, huddled within the light of their lantern. As they do, both scour the stone in search of precious metal.

Minutes pass. Silence mounts.

“Not a thing yet?” Clarence asks.

Marissa is reluctant to answer the question. Excitement is fading from his voice. Hope is already slipping away. “A bit further, Clarence. Let’s see. This mine was started for a reason.”

“We were given warning for this cave for a reason, I suspect,” Clarence says. “Those townsfolk had little to say on the success of the mine. Only ill words were spoken of this place.”

“Aye, but they found gold, didn’t they? That much was certain by the glares in their eyes. It’s chance enough it hasn’t all been found. Never mind the bust or the fire or their insistence of a curse. You saw them, Clarence. Bored people they are, and in hiding to boot. They share absurd tales in hopes of driving us away. They speak of curses because they don’t want our business mixing into theirs. Besides, there’s no chance they came through here. You saw that collapse yourself. Tis part of the cave, not the mining section proper. This part is old still, untouched. Just look at the walls for yourself then. No marks. No Scrapes. Tis all clean still, Clarence. There’s good chance there’s something to be found further in. Push on, I say. Optimism.”

Clarence pauses his shuffling feet. “You think it true?”

“I do.”

He looks down. The rock and soil near his feet appear undisturbed. There are no signs of stomping boots, no claw marks of previous miners dragging heavy equipment over the stone. Quartz sparkles like a shimmering frost, but there are no pick marks, no signs of rock broken free by someone searching for something more. “I see it now, aye. Right again. Oh, forgive me, Mar,” he says with remorse. “Forgive me. I can be so foul, but it’s not a foulness for you. It’s this bitter cold. It gets into my bones!”

She gives his hand a squeeze. “I know, Clarence. I know. It fouls us both. But if we find that pesky silver vein, or even chance upon a pocket of gold, I promise to take the chill out of those bones forevermore.”

They press on. The cave narrows still. Encroaching stone bumps against their spread arms and shuffling legs, turning their movement into an awkward shuffle. Chilling stone prods at their backs and shoulders. Their pace becomes woefully slow. Suddenly, Clarence stops.

“Mar,” he says, pointing a finger. “See that there? On the ground near my boot.”

Standing shoulder to shoulder in the narrow gap, Marissa fails to see around him. “I can’t, no. Move forward.” Clarence does so, and pebbles of granite crunch beneath his feet. The spot now between them, he stops and points again.

With a considerable pause, she stares at a dull spatter of dark red. “Blood?” she asks.

“I think it be.”

Her eyes search the immediate area. “Is there more?”

Clarence turns his head. “Yes, Mar. A heap of it just ahead of me, smeared over the stone.”

Her mind races, imagining both horrific scenarios and reasonable explanations to refute them. “Think it from an animal?”

“I suppose,” Clarence says with hesitation, “though I’d not place a hefty wager on it.” He forgoes mentioning how the blood stain resembles that of a human hand.

“It’s old though,” Marissa says. “Yes? And animal or miner, certainly no one has been through here in recent time. We saw the collapse ourselves. You dug it out with your very hands. Either way, that blood is old. From ages ago.”

“Most likely, given the looks of it,” Clarence says with apprehension. “I doubt it to be an animal’s though. Could be someone was inside when the ceiling gave.” He shrugs. “Maybe he took injury during the cave-in and sought to exit another way.”

Marissa thinks on the situation. “I’d rather not find any bodies this time,” she finally says.

Clarence nods. “Agreed. I’m wonderin’ though…”

“Leave us not hanging in such a foul place, husband,” Marissa chides. “Just be out with it.”

“Well,” Clarence says with a pause, not wanting to propose the scenario, “What was it they said of the fire in the mine? Nine people died? But not all the bodies were recovered?”

“They spoke only of the deaths. They made no mention of recovery, attempt or success.”

“Hm,” Clarence grunts. “Good chance we’ll find more than silver down this path then.”

A long silence hangs over them. Beyond it, the faintest whaling of the blizzard’s wind can be heard howling through the cave behind them.

“Well then?” Clarence asks. “What say you? Press on?”

All around them, the stone walls glitter with quartz like stars in a night sky. Marissa picks at the surface with a finger, leaning so close the wall kisses her cheek with frozen lips. “I think so, Clarence. Truly. Whatever ill happened here is no concern of ours. These stones are filled with promise. We do ourselves disservice to abandon such hopes now.”

“Aye,” he says, sounding almost disappointed. “Aye, very well. Take the lantern then.”

“For what reason?”

“This next section, Mar. The stone closes in. I’ll need you to hold the light while I see if I can wiggle through.”

“Is it that bad?”

Clarence looks at the tightening section of rock. Narrowing points of granite clamp down like teeth in a closing jaw. “Not that bad, I suppose, but we won’t know ‘til we push on. It’ll be a bugger though, through or otherwise.”

“Don’t force it, Clarence. Not down here. Death of man, I can’t even imagine what—”

“Don’t get your mind started on it,” he interrupts. “I know my thickness, and you know I was born half-ferret. Just take the lantern.”

“Be careful,” she says as the handle transfers to her fingers.

Clarence moves forward, his narrow body shuffling sideways, his breath escaping in quick puffs of white. Marissa watches as he slides further into the dark wedge of stone, descending down. All is quiet save for the sound of his boots bumping against rock, his labored breathing, his clothes sliding over coarse granite. For a moment, she thinks to call him back, to tell him to stop. The ominous dark of the cave seems to swallow him inch by inch, and her mind fills with the fear of something within the cave slipping, giving way. But she holds her tongue. Cling to the hope, not the fear, she thinks. What’s there to find if you turn back now? Only the same fate you’ve tried so hard to leave behind. After minutes of scuffling, Clarence finally calls back with a shout.

“How is it then?” Marissa asks.

“Not so bad,” Clarence says between strained breaths. “The rock pinches your back a bit, but keep working. Stay low, that’s the key. There’s a narrow bit that will press your chest some, but it opens proper on the other side. There’s another chamber. Come with the lantern, love. There’s something here to see, but I can’t quite make it out. I need the light.”

Marissa starts in. The narrow gap forces her to lower the lantern to her knees. Shadows dance in front of her as closing walls block the light. Her cheek presses against cold stone, and the scent of minerals leaps into her nose. As she shimmies, rock bites down against her advance. An ankle jams and forces her knee into an awkward bend. Scarce space exists for movement, and her breathing soon feels restricted. Panic crawls from the cave walls and latches onto her body, pinning her in place. Marissa reacts, looking back from where she came to consider her retreat, but there it is; that absolute darkness is standing there, waiting for her. She feels the breath in her lungs shorten.

“Clarence. I’m a bit worried here.”

He hears it. She’s more than worried. She’s flirting with the edge of sanity. “Come now,” he says. “You’ve handled worse than this, love. Slide yourself down a bit. It’s wider as you go lower. Put weight on your back and shimmy through with your shoulders.”

She tries it. As she squirms down, the lantern sticks to a sharp edge and threatens to leap from her hand. Scraping metal shrieks against stone. Her knuckles go white in a panicked grasp. The treads of her worn boots slide under her. Stone gnaws against her hip and presses against her face. Without enough room to turn her head, she yells out. “Clarence!”

A calming voice calls to her. “I’m here, Mar. I’m here. Shimmy back a bit. I had a tough spot there as well. You’re likely on it. Shimmy back and come in lower. Shove your feet deep into the crevice and bend your knees. Sink into the gap proper.”

“We should turn back!” Marissa yells. She can hear her own panic now.

“We can’t. Not now. There’s something to be found here. I need the light to see for sure. Just relax and scoot yourself lower. Lower and shimmy on your back. And collect yourself, Mar! If I’m through, you’ll make it true enough.”

Marissa Pickens closes her eyes to hide from the dancing shadows of the lantern, to hide from compressing darkness and burying stone. Her heart hammers as if trying to smash the rock through her chest. She listens to her husband’s voice as he talks her down. Knees bend lower. Thighs burn with strain. Placing more weight on her back, the coldness from the stone soaks through her wool clothes and seeps into her body. Again, the lantern bites into the rock with a horrific screech and tries to snag.

“That’s it,” Clarence says. “Keep it coming.”

Her leading hand reaches out as if attempting to flee from her trapped body, clawing for space, searching for emptiness in place of stone. Wiggling fingers stretch and claw until finding something tender and soft, her husband’s gloved hand.

“There, love. You’ve found me yet again. Almost through now.”

She keeps her eyes closed. Her thighs tremble from awkward squatting. The air in her nose is thick with the scent of minerals, as if she’s drowning in stone. Her cheeks sting against the cold walls. She works forward, and fingers touching fingers clasp into a hand holding a hand. She shimmies again. He has her wrist now and starts a gentle pull. She screams in her mind, wanting to cry out. The cave feels to be eating her whole. “Pull me,” she says with strain, and she feels her arm slip into his hands. Bulging veins streak her neck as she holds her breath. Stone bites into her leg, grabs her hip, traps her foot. Collapsing, the cave is collapsing! It crushes against her chest and—

Just as she can take no more, she’s pulled through, free from the jaws of stone.

Scampering to her feet, she gasps for breath and clutches the lantern to her chest.

“Alright then?” Clarence asks while gently taking hold of her shoulders. “Easy there, love. Breathe for me. Come, come. Calm. Deep breaths, now.”

Marissa curls into his arms, trembling. “I don’t know,” she mutters, shaking her head. “I don’t know what came over me. I thought the cave was closing. I thought—”

“Easy does it,” he says, pulling her close. She buries her face into his chest while he rests his cheek atop her head. “Twas a tight fit, no doubt. Don’t be kickin’ yourself for it. You did well. No shame in having a scare. You did well.”

Holding her husband close, Marissa feels the fearful trembling slowly pass from her body. She breathes deep and closes her eyes, calms her nerves. Silence fills the chamber around them. Through the narrow passage, the whaling winds of the cave are stifled. It best be worth it, she thinks. I’ll not like to have done that without reward.

“Look, Mar,” Clarence whispers. Slowly, he turns their huddled bodies and points.

As the light of the lantern spills into the chamber, Marissa gasps. “Death of man.”

Yellow, flickering light falls on black, human bones.

“Nay with that,” Clarence chides. “Nay. Optimism, as you said.”

“Optimism how, exactly?” The fear within her, nearly squelched, is renewed. She backpedals toward the narrow passage as light reveals the small chamber. At its center, bones lay splayed out in an X. The meat looks to have been burnt away, leaving only blackened char clinging to skeletal remains. A plain dagger protrudes from the chest.

“And look there,” Clarence says, pointing. “Another. Some were caught in the collapse after all.”

Marissa looks to her right and sees a second body slumped against the cave walls. The skin is dark and shriveled, yet still preserved by the cold. A thick, gray beard clings to the face while empty sockets stare back like black eyes. Its jaw hangs open as if locked in an eternal, silent scream. A large, wolf-skin coat hangs over the corpse’s shoulders. Thick pants cover withered legs lying flat over the stone. Rugged mountaineering boots cover feet resting together in a V.

“Was it the cave-in that did it?” Marissa asks, her waking nightmare of being swallowed by stone still racing through her mind. “Were they trapped?” She leans back against the wall of the cave, her palms pressing against the mountain above her, her body wanting out, her mind begging for instant freedom.

Clarence prowls the perimeter of the round chamber, stepping like a stalking cat, his eyes fixed on the centerpiece of bones. “What else?” He points to the body leaning against the wall. “He’s sitting calm enough, isn’t he? It could be the cave collapsed on them and he took it in stride, death and all. Some people have that way about them, a way of accepting it. Bless their soul. That calmness toward death has yet to find my blood.”

Marissa shudders at the thought of dying in such a place. What a horrible end, she thinks, to lay in such awful darkness and wait for death. In this darkness, do they even know they’ve passed?

“But this one here,” he continues, “something off about this one, love. Look at it. Mr. Wolf is clothed and decayed. But this one in the center is burnt clean away. No clothes. No meat. And look at the chest, that dagger standing tall like a pennant.” Clarence runs dirty fingers over his beard and taps his chin. “I think there was a bit of murder happening here, Mar. That one killed this one. No doubt in my mind. This poor bastard was stabbed in the heart. Can’t you see? Shine the light.”

“I see it plenty,” Marissa says with a glare. Though she tries to look away, the curvature of the small chamber redirects her eyes to the bones in the center. She sees the dagger standing within the chest of the skeleton and the blackened stone beneath it. Her brow crinkles. “What of it being burnt?”

“That I can’t figure.” Ducking beneath hanging stone, he approaches the corpse covered in gray wolf-skin. “There’s a small pack here,” Clarence says as he turns open a canvas flap and begins rummaging. Inside, he finds a leather-bound journal, candles and matchbox, folded maps, and a small horn of gunpowder. He holds the horn up for further inspection. A name is inscribed along the side. “Aughardt. Hm. Never heard of the lad.”

“Clarence,” Marissa chides. “I’ll not be desperate enough to allow the likes of grave robbing.”

“Calm yourself, woman. You’re still rattled from fighting through the gap. This is no grave. You’ve enough sense to know that. Neither of these souls has been set to rest. In fact,” he says while setting the journal down, “the boots on this one just may fit me. If not, they’re well enough for trade.”

“Clarence!” Marissa protests.

“Don’t complicate this with sentiment. My feet are worn to the bone. You know that. I don’t mean to disrespect the dead, love, but ‘tis dire circumstances all around. Now please,” he says, while carefully removing Aughardt’s boots, “let me be. The work is already dirty enough without the guilt.”

Marissa looks away in frustration. Wrongness fills her mind and troubles her soul. Around her, the small chamber seems to pulse, as if the shadows flex with strength and dim the light from the lantern. Have we come so far to only become like this? she wonders as another shiver flows through her body. Has it come to robbing the dead? And what of this poor soul, murdered here in such a way? Was his own ending one inspired by theft? What could possess this Aughardt to chase him toward the center of the earth? What—

Her thought stops. Her throat tightens and her eyes go wide. “Clarence,” she says, the strength stolen from her voice.

“I’ll not argue the point. I’m sorry for it, truly, but we must make use of what we can.”

Marissa approaches the burnt bones and squats down near an outstretched arm. Scanning its length, she extends her own. Her reach far exceeds that of the skeleton. “Clarence,” she says again, her voice a sad whisper of sorrow.

He grunts as the first boot slips on. The fit is tight around his toes, but the soles are in far better condition. Overall, it’s an upgrade. “What is it?”

“Was this one a child?”

With the second boot midway over his foot, Clarence stops. “What?”

“Look at it,” she says, standing to hold the lantern overhead. “It’s small. Smaller than me by any margin. Death of man, did this monster murder some poor child? In a place like this?” Marissa’s voice falls like a stone into a bitter sea, her broken heart following piece by piece.

Clarence slips on the second boot and crawls toward the ruined body. Seeing the crushing sadness spreading over his wife’s face, he raises a hand to calm her. Kneeling near the skull, his brow furrows with hard lines of thought. “Let’s not jump to conclusions,” he says while rubbing his pant legs with worry. “Let’s sort this out a bit.” He scans the skeleton, but it’s size is undeniable. The skull, the torso, the lengths of leg and arm all indicate a child. “Could it be?” Clarence says in disbelief. He looks back at Aughardt’s corpse. “Ya evil bastard, could it really be?”

“How old, Clarence?” Marissa asks. “Death of man, please. How old was this poor thing do you think?”

Sighing, Clarence wipes his brow with grief and forces himself to take another inspection of the burnt bones. “It’s tough to say… seven, maybe eight years old?”

Marissa searches him with horrified eyes. “But how? How? And in such a brutal way? With the dagger so deeply plunged and this… this… burning!? For what reason, Clarence? What purpose?”

“Could be the curse,” Clarence mutters. “Maybe the man was deranged. Obsessed. There are strange people, you know. Not all of the old ways have died. Maybe—” Clarence cuts himself off.

“Out with it!” Marissa snaps.

Upset that he ever let the idea slip, Clarence shrugs with regret. “Maybe this Aughardt was part of a cult. A fiend. These northern mountains hide many things, Mar.”

Marissa’s eyes fall back to the small skeleton in the center of the chamber. Though her soul wishes to cry, her tears refuse to well. “Take it all then,” she says. “Strip the evil man of everything he has if it suits you. May his bones never find peace. May he be tormented by an eternity of walking barefoot through frozen darkness than ever find sleep.”

Clarence sighs, and his breath suspends over the small corpse like a bank of fog. “Don’t dwell on it, Love. Alright? This was something that happened months ago by the looks of it. Maybe years. We’ve come upon it now, fair enough, and a show of sorrow is appropriate. But you’ll not carry this with you, ya hear? We carry enough sorrow from our own lives. No need to go collecting sorrows from others, strangers at that.”

“Do you think they knew?” Marissa asks. “The people in town. In Nil?”

Clarence looks at Marissa directly and he shakes his head. “No. Not for a moment. I could never believe such a thing.” The two stare, and Clarence can see his answer is not fully believed. The nod coming from Marissa is one of courtesy, not agreement. His face sours, and pain trickles into his heart while her brown eyes shift back to the child’s remains. He sees the slightest quiver touch her lower lip and a curling frown wink on her dirty cheek. With a start, he hops to his feet. “Up then,” he says. “We’ve still a search on our hands.” He steps over the small body, his boot bumping one of the bones, and touches Marissa’s shoulder. “Don’t think me to be coarse, but our own problems still exist.”

Throughout the small chamber, a faint hissing is heard.

Marissa and Clarence look at each other. Goosebumps sprout along their back, neck and arms.

“The wind?” Clarence asks.

“I suppose it must be,” Marissa says with another insincere nod.

“Help me search for the vein,” he says. “You’ve the eye for ore. I’m only good for setting it free from the mountain after you’ve found it.”

“Yes, yes,” Marissa sighs. “Just one more moment, for the sake of my heart.”

Clarence tucks graying hair behind her ear. “Some mourning, but no dwelling.”

Marissa nods, this one sincere, and they share a quick kiss on the lips. Clarence turns to the resting body of Aughardt to conduct another pilfering of his belongings. “I’ll defile this one then while you pay your respects to the one he so callously ruined.”

Marissa sets the lantern down and gazes at the child’s remains. She tries to imagine what the face may have looked like, if it were a boy or a girl. I hope a boy, she thinks. Death of man, what kind of horrendous things could a man like that have done to a little girl? Her eyes trace over the stretched arms and legs, and they seem so little looking at them again, looking at them with eyes that now understand. This poor child. Poor, poor child. A sensation comes to her, one of embracing the life now lost, one of providing what little comfort she can. My womb never allowed such love to be shared. But how I could have loved this unfortunate thing, she thinks while touching a shin bone with the tip of her finger. This poor creature, this—

Another hiss passes through the chamber, longer and louder than before. They startle, and Clarence whirls to face the center. As they look at each other, the shadows within the chamber flex again. Darkness swells. The lantern flutters, as if starving for air.

“The hell was that!?” Clarence says with a shudder.

“I don’t know,” Marissa says, her skin crawling. “The wind again?”

“Twasn’t no wind. It came from behind me. From the center!”

The lantern sputters and threatens to fail.

Clarence lunges. “Don’t let it die!” he shouts as he hurries toward Marissa to adjust the lantern’s wick.

Marissa surrenders the lantern and scoots away with kicking feet, as if her presence is the sudden source of the flame’s struggles. Darkness presses down. Fear drapes over her like a sopping-wet cloth, cold and heavy. Invasive. Her heart accelerates with climbing panic. Without intention, her eyes are drawn to the skeleton again. Shadows swing over the remains as Clarence manhandles the lantern. In the shifting light, leaning back on her elbows, Marissa sees something new within the skeleton. Though the shadows dance, two points within the jaw remain fixed.

Teeth.

Big teeth. Long, sharp, feline teeth.

Marissa squints, not believing her eyes. She’s certain she’s wrong, certain that what rests in front of her simply cannot be. She props herself up and leans toward the body. “Clarence,” she says. “Do you see this?”

Light continues to dwindle. He glares at the shrinking flame behind the glass while adjusting the wick as well as he can. “I am, I am!” he says in a panic.

“No,” Marissa says, suddenly drawn toward the burnt skull. “This. The skull.”

Shadows surge with power.

Darkness presses.

“I saw the child’s skull, Mar! I’ve other matters to contend with.”

Marissa doesn’t hear the panic in his voice. She no longer cares. A sudden longing has come to her, one that pushes her away from panic and into consuming peace. It’s a dire want. A need. She must see the skull up close. There is no other option. She must hold it in her hands, inspect it, cradle it, understand it. The feeling pulls her like a leash as she crawls toward the remains. With great care, she moves over the desecrated bones to rest cross-legged at the skull, sitting as if it were an altar.

“Mar, I think we’d best leave that be,” Clarence says, not looking away from the lantern. He holds the glass prison to his face. Inside, the flame shrinks to near nothingness.

But the concern inside Marissa is gone, for this is how it is and how it always must be. It makes sense to her now, their mining, their existence. Their suffering. It was all meant to lead to this moment and to this place. Her purpose has been found, and her lack of motherhood is suddenly of no consequence. Her chance to give life has come in the end. Life has finally found her.

Clarence spares a quick glance to see Marissa stripping her hands bare. She tosses her gloves aside casually.

“What are you doing!?” cries Clarence. He reaches, one hand holding the lantern while the other clutches his wife’s shoulder.

She doesn’t answer. There’s simply no need. The message is true. Her suffering was not in vain. She can feel it now. It flows into her body like pales of hot water poured into a tepid bath. Her aches lift and her soreness fades. The bites in her hands from early arthritis lose their teeth. Cold nights haunted by pangs of hunger disappear into a golden sea of ease. “It’s okay, Clarence,” she says. “Don’t you see?” as she lifts the skull and cradles it within her palms. She looks up and faces him. “Don’t you see?”

Clarence’s eyes go wide with horror.

Marissa’s are black with dilation. What little white remains is pink with strain. Tears race down her cheeks.

Mar, put it down!” he screams, batting at her hand. But the attack is useless. Marissa’s grip on the skull is too strong. One hand flails while the other clings to the lantern in desperation. Clarence reaches for her wrist and leaps back when an evil hiss flies from Marissa’s mouth. He stumbles over a loose femur and falls to the ground. The lantern flies from his hand, smashing onto a hard edge.

Glass shatters.

The flame of the lantern dies and the chamber goes full-black.

Outside, the winds of the blizzard howl and scream.

Going Forward

After taking the summer off to spend time with the family while my son was out of school… and then taking three more months off via being lazy, I’ve finally figured out what I want to do in regards to writing.

Short version: I want to write, and I want to give people something to read.

You’d think those are simple goals, but I’ve managed to make them complicated. However, using the same creativity needed to complicate something so simple, I’ve also managed to conjure up a solution to my own problem.

When it comes to writing, I want to do two things. I want to write books with the ultimate goal of self-publishing, and I want to write flash-fiction at a consistent pace to draw in a readerbase. While I’ve done poorly at creating flash-fiction at a consistent rate, I have managed to write a book. An entire first draft is done with several chapters of a second draft completed. Yay. Go me.

Here comes the slight curveball though: the book I wrote is for a story I pulled from nothing.

While I enjoyed lifting a story from a very basic concept, stripping out parts that didn’t work and eventually crafting a book from the remains, the story itself was never something I was personally invested in. It’s a fun adventure, a solid horror story with characters that act in a reasonable way, but it isn’t the kind of story I tell from the heart. For years, I’ve had an idea rattling away in the back of my mind that I’ve wanted to tell. At one point I did try to tell it, but I found my ability was lacking. I put it off until my skills could tell the story in a way I felt appropriate. Now, some years later, I feel my ability has arrived and the time has come to try again.

But what of the book I wrote? It’d be a shame to abandon that after spending so much time on it. So here’s the plan:

I work on my new story (book), the one I adore and have personal ties to, the one that’s been rattling in my brain for so much time. While doing so, I’ll also post my completed horror story chapter by chapter with the hopes of drawing people in for reading and growing my readerbase. This is good in that it gives people something to read and also prevents a completed book from languishing in abandonment. This idea also motivates me to complete the second draft and finish my book in a proper way, ultimately putting me in a position to sell an e-book. Yes, it’ll already exist for free on this website, but that’s fine. I consider it practice, and I really want to complete that project. Having an audience waiting (hopefully) for each chapter will push me forward.

So that’s the plan. Post a completed book here while working on another. I don’t have any real timelines associated with these ideas. My rough goal is to post at least one chapter a week with the completed story. I’ll work on the new story as my interest allows. Last year, when I was writing the book I now intend to post, my goal was to write 3k words a week. I’ll keep that goal as a baseline, but I have no idea if it’s something I’ll meet. Basically, I’m not going to worry about it.

As far as the book I’ll be posting here goes, it’s a horror story with a good dose of fantasy/western stirred in. If you’re interested, keep your eyes open. Chapter One should be posting within the next couple days. Hopefully you enjoy it.

The Dead Servant (Flash Fiction)

He reaches the end of the hall with slowing steps of trepidation. Tired torches burn from their sconces, the stone walls behind them charred from years of smoke and fire. With his footfalls echoing down the long corridor, he knows before he turns, before he sees, that the door just around the corner will be closed. Late at night, when the manor is quiet and empty, the servants retired to their chambers for the evening, he’s heard the thumps of thick oak and the squealing of iron hinges.

While the living servants rest, one restless servant stirs.

He holds his breath, though not by choice. In the passing weeks, it’s taken more and more effort for him to approach his study at night. First it was the rumors, the other servants whispering amongst themselves, laying claim to unsettling sights and sounds. Then the whispers turned to startled gasps. Then to screams. He hadn’t seen the ghostly visage himself, but the horror in his servants eyes when they told their stories made it clear others had.

Running his fingers along granite walls, he rounds the corner. Before him, the large, oak door to his study stands closed. Expectations met, he lets out an unsteady sigh.

He wonders if this is the night when his fears are confirmed. He wonders if this is the night when his mortal vessel comes face to face with the wandering dead, with a lost soul. Cold air prickles his skin. His breath shortens.

He steps forward.

For weeks he feigned disbelief, always striding toward the closed doors with an air of confidence and throwing them open without regard. As if the act of bravery could dispel a lingering presence. As if a meddling spirit would be impressed by such trivial things. But as the presence grew stronger, as the chilled air grew icier, the pitiful mask of his bravery crumbled. Beneath the ruins of courage, only timid fear remained.

He approaches the door, silence hanging, and grabs hold of a large, iron ring. Wrapping his fingers around the metal, he feels the cold soak into his skin. His breath fogs. He breathes in, sets his feet and pushes against wood bounded by metal.

Hinges singing, the doors swing open.

As they part, he waits for a pale phantom to appear before him. He waits for a psychotic wail or reaching fingers or a hate-filled breath to whisper into his ear. The tales have been shared a dozen times each, so often that his servants no longer tend to their duties along the south wing. The legend of the dead servant has become very real.

But instead of those things, a feeling far more horrific finds him. Pushing against those heavy doors, he suddenly feels them swing open as if someone assisting with his entrance were pulling from the other side. The iron rings fly from his hands, and he stumbles forward into his study, landing on his knees beside a large, cherry-stained desk. He whirls and looks back, desperately scanning the room, a frightened scream already waiting in his lungs, begging to be released.

But the room is empty.

Around him, oil lamps burn a dull yellow. Books line the walls. Silence floods the room, and with it, a heavy feeling of unseen eyes watching his every move.

Unsure, he mutters the only words his mind can muster. “Arthur,” he asks, speaking the name of his deceased servant. “Is it true? Is it you?”

Silence.

He stands in frightful observation, waiting for a book page to turn on its own, for charts and maps to leap from the table, for his large globe to spin so quickly it finally topples over. All events that have happened before, he thinks. But the room sits still in its waiting. The feeling of watching eyes presses down.

“Arthur, you mustn’t worry,” he says, trying to shake his fear. “Your days of service have ended. I’ll always be grateful for your efforts, old friend. You’ll never be forgotten.”

The room seems to sigh, long and steady. Then slowly, the heavy, oak doors begin to close.

He watches in horror, hearing the iron hinges scream, hearing the telling creaks and thumps of those doors going closed, sounds he’s heard night after night from the distance of his bed chamber. His eyes grow wide as an iron locking bar slides in place and engages.

“Arthur?” he asks, his voice trembling. “It isn’t true, what happened between me and your daughter.”

Along the wall, an oil lamp goes dark.

“It isn’t true, I swear it,” he begs. “I loved her as one of my own. As one of my own.”

Another lamp dims, the feeble flame inside dwindling down to the tiniest wink of light, then goes dark.

“She was a beautiful girl, Arthur,” he says, his voice on the verge of weeping. “A wonderful, beautiful girl. I would never hurt her. Could never hurt her.”

Rounding the room, another lamp falls victim to an unseen hand and succumbs to darkness. A single source of dull, yellow lingers in the corner, a small island in a sea of horror.

“Lord above, have mercy,” he mumbles, clutching his hands to his chest. “Lord, please, I beg of thee, protect your humble servant in his time of need.”

The frozen silence in the room is broken by whisper so quiet it’s barely heard. “Servant,” someone scoffs.

The final lamp is put to rest, and the study falls to absolute darkness.

Imperfect Meetings (Flash Fiction)

The moments are rare, but he tries. With effort and heart and dire determination, he pushes beyond five dollars mailed inside of birthday cards, beyond a quick video chat to shout out, “Hi!”. He arrives for a designated weekend, a rare appearance after missing many for reasons he can never understand or describe. He shows, plans or not, and two confused souls come together for a rare moment as father and son.

And those moments are golden. Against all fears and uncertainties, regardless of their flaws, every moment is golden. Precious memories are formed and hurriedly stored in a secret place, stored and saved and readied for darker days. And for a rare moment, the man so distant and lost no longer feels broken.  He sees himself through the lens of a capable father, sees himself able to bring happiness to a precious man in waiting, and he rejoices. Young, smiling eyes wipe his tears clean. Giddy laughter replaces his screams. His failings, all of them, fall away, and all things upside down in his life are temporarily turned upright.

But then time expires. The ending for visitation rights comes. The afternoon concludes, and father and son, still two souls both lost and confused, separate once again. The lens held in focus for those precious moments shatters, and the man, into several thousand pieces breaks apart.

Alone once more and left with only his failings, he departs, and darker days return. Golden moments are besieged and ruined. He digs deep in search stored memories, and though he can hear the laughter and see the smiles, those memories are distorted by a fatherly lens shattered well into a thousand pieces.

And while the broken man wrestles with the idea of permanent departure, his demons overpowering, his failings overwhelming, the young man in waiting anxiously anticipates the next imperfect meeting between father and son.

Six Years (Flash Fiction)

“Happy Anniversary,” she says in a dull tone, as if announcing the time or the weather or any other mundane piece of information.

He breaks away from his book, the first time in a solid hour, and looks at her. Watching her settle a small plate of cupcakes in front of him, he waits, choosing his words carefully. “I’m sorry? What was it you said?”

“Happy anniversary,” she repeats, pretending not to notice his quick decision to pretend not hearing her the first time. “Six years ago today we went on our first date.” She speaks the words in a matter-of-fact tone, like a newscaster casually breaking the news that the local sports team lost or that the stock market tanked during the day’s trading. “Can you believe it?” she asks, not caring to hear his answer. “It’s crazy, right? How fast time goes by.”

Agreeing, he nods out of habit. “It is,” he says, working hard to conceal his disappointed surprise. “It really is. I guess it’s true what they say.”

“What’s that?” she asks quickly, hoping to catch him off guard.

“Oh, you know,” he says, “the older you get, the faster time goes by.”

Together on the porch, bathing in another setting sun, she settles down onto the outdoor couch, making sure not an inch of her skin comes into contact with his. “My grandparents used to say the same thing,” she laments, wishing her grandparents were still alive, wishing that the last six years had not gone by, wishing that anything could be salvaged from this obvious lie. “I can still hear them, ya know? I can hear my grandpa telling me, ‘It goes by so fast.'” She forces herself to laugh, though it’s the last thing in the world she’d like to do. Inside her lungs, an eternal scream of frustration blooms. “And now here we are,” she says, ignoring the emotion boiling inside of her. “We’re just like them, aren’t we?”

He glances at her and catches her gaze. It’s a look he’s seen a thousand times before, and like always, he ignores it again. She’s just pining, he thinks. She’s just wishing our lives would go the same way theirs did. It’s normal, he reassures himself. Most girls want to live out the fairy tales of their parents or grandparents lives. It doesn’t matter that times have changed. It doesn’t matter that my love has drifted and died and blown away. That’s how love was back in those days. Passive, obligatory and altogether pointless.

“Don’t you think?” she asks, urging his reply. “I mean, can you believe my grandparents were married before they were both nineteen? And here we are, ‘so mature’ as my mom likes to say, taking our time and making sure everything is just right.”

He closes his book, his thumb holding the page to which he’ll soon return, and looks at her. “What a different time it was back then, wasn’t it,” he asks, his question the tried and true way of disarming her intentions, her implications, her every attempt to pressure the situation.

Disappointed yet again, she smiles. “It was,” she says, not agreeing in the slightest. “It really was. Still,” she tries, “six years is pretty impressive.”

“It is,” he says, opening the book to its saved page again. “We’ve been dating longer than some of my friends have been married.”

She doesn’t look in his direction, and she doesn’t say a thing. Instead, she simply nods in hateful spite. She nods, taking the words as a brutal strike against her character and her potentiality of being a wife. “Yeah, those poor things,” she agrees in a dry tone. “It must be hard, their marriage not working out. They must feel so disappointed.”

“They must,” he says, already forgetting the topic of conversation, his book regaining dominance in his mind. “Such a horrible situation,” he says as he turns another page.

She looks over at him, disdain filling her eyes, and unwraps a cupcake. Taking a bite, the taste is sweet and bitter and absolutely disgusting, filling her mouth with six years of rot.

Captain Muscleman (Flash Fiction)

The last of them shuffles in, their three-piece suits disheveled, their movements hurried and anxious. Wooden chair legs bark against the floor as they fill in the missing spaces around an old billiards table. A single light hangs above the green felt, illuminating gold rings and expensive watches. Tired eyes look across to each other. Five o’clock shadows stretch over rough faces.

“Now that we’re all here,” says the leader of the group with tired condescension, “let’s get right down to it. We all know why we’re here. I’ll open the floor to options. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.”

Shady individuals shift in their seats. Some pop their knuckles. Others pop their necks. Despite all the grunts and huffs, not a word is tossed out into the open.

“I’ll just come out and say it then,” the boss says, “I’m thinking about giving it up.”

“What!?” a spindly man says from the corner of the green table. His voice is high and scratchy and just enough to overcome the audible gasps that fill the empty warehouse.

“What choice do I have?” the boss says, already offended. “You’ve all seen the news. You’ve heard the stories. I feel the same as the rest of you, but it’s foolish to think this can go on any longer.”

“They’re lies,” a chubby man scoffs from the side. “Propaganda. Come on, you know how the press is.”

“That’s bullshit and you know,” says another opposite to him. His dark eyes are narrow and sharp. A long, thin scar stripes down the left side of his face. “Big Tony. Little Tony. The Chetsy brothers. And just last night—”

“We all know what happened to Chris,” the boss says. “It’s why we’ve convened. No need to rehash bad news.”

The man with narrow eyes squints in anger. “Bad news? He fuckin’ took Chris’ head off. One clean shot.”

All around, well-dressed crime bosses squirm.

“I said not to bring it up,” says the boss. With a heavy sigh, he pushes his seat back from the billiards table and stands. With his two hundred dollar shoes clicking on the wood flooring, he paces around his seated lieutenants. “We’re at the end of our road, gentleman. Our era has come to a close. There’s no denying it.”

“What do you mean?” asks another, his voice heavy with nerves.

“You know what I mean,” the boss says, his hands folded behind his back and his face down. “This Captain Muscleman… this ‘superhero’. This freak. He’s done it, boys. He’s chased us down, choked us off.” He sighs again. “He can’t be stopped.”

“But it can’t be true, can it?” asks a soldier from New Jersey. A cigarette rests between his lips and bounces as he speaks. “I mean… super-human strength? Shooting lasers from his eyes. It’s gotta be bullshit, right? I mean… what the hell?”

Still pacing, the boss shrugs. “I can’t speak for his strength, but the laser thing seems true enough. Did you see the news a week ago? How he cut right through those concrete walls? Big Tony had no chance. His whole compound was designed around staying inside that vault in the basement. This Captain Muscleman,” he says with a shudder. “He was inside before his guards even had a chance to take him out.”

“So let’s lay it out then,” says a surly gentleman from the table. He picks at the green felt with dirty fingernails. “You’re saying we’re done, finished. What does that mean? What are you proposing?”

The boss does a full lap around billiard table before speaking. His heavy steps cause the floorboards to squeak. He clenches his fists and grinds his teeth. “I’m proposing legitimacy,” he says. “I’m proposing the end of villainy.” He stops and looks over the table. “I’m saying we should go straight.”

“Straight!?” the dirty man from New Jersey exclaims. Around him, others grumble. “How?”

“I don’t know,” the boss says. “That’s where you come in. What are your options? What kind of pies do you have your fingers in? That’s what I wanna know. That’s what we need to figure out. It’s time we change our operations just enough so they exist within the letter of the law.”

A nervous man from Miami, his skin orange with fake suntan, lets an idea slip. “Maybe we could run for office, ya know? Become politicians.”

The boss scowls. “We’re fuckin’ better than that, Larry, and you know it.” The room grumbles in agreement, and Larry shrinks away into the shadows. “Look, nothing extreme, gentlemen. Don’t over-complicate things. Just take a look at what you’ve got going on in your areas and look at them from a new perspective. See if anything can be salvaged by going legit.”

“And Captain Muscleman?” a man asks. “What are we going to do about him?”

“Not a damn thing,” the boss says. “Haven’t you been paying attention? We’re going to beat him the only way we can. By ripping off people using the system instead of bypassing it.”

“But won’t he notice? Won’t he figure it out?”

“From what I can tell,” the boss says, “all these superhero types are the same. They can’t use logic. Their moronic moral compass is set in stone by the criminals that write the law.”

“That’s why we should be politicians!” Larry begs. “If we can write the laws, we’ll own the towns.”

“Shut up, Larry,” the boss says. “We’re criminals, not soulless vampires.” Throughout the room, grumbles of agreement chime in.

Doorsteps (Flash Fiction)

She sighs and takes another long drink from her Seagram’s and seven. Ice clinks in the glass as she presses it to her lips and swallows and swallows and swallows. It’s another mix almost gone in one simple session, and they both pretend not to notice. “Tonight?” she asks. “Really?”

He doesn’t look up. His elbows are planted on his knees, bare arms from a t-shirt stabbing through holes in denim jeans. With the weight of his world, his chin presses onto his hands. “Tonight,” he says again, wondering how many ways he’ll have to tell the same story. “I gotta get out of here. It’s just how it goes, ya know? This fuckin’ city,” he says, not looking at her, not looking at the skyline or the beaten avenue or anything his mind would bother to blame for his misery. “I just gotta get out of this town. Haven’t you ever felt that way?”

“No,” she lies, crunching ice in the back of her mouth. It’s her third mix, and the whiskey has finally found its place. “I love this place. Always have. Where the hell else could you consider home? And what the fuck do you expect to find in California?”

His feet twist on the concrete. Small pebbles grind beneath worn sneakers. “I just gotta go,” he says again, his heart unable to conjure the real truth, his lips unwilling to release the words that would let this young woman know that it’s her, that it’s her absurd attitude, her unrelenting needs, her continual demands that drive him from one shore in pursuit of another. “I feel like if I never take this chance, I’ll never take a chance at all.”

“Chance,” she scoffs. “Fuck that. It’s too expensive over there. Everyone knows that. You’re just gonna bury yourself. And for what? The chance to ‘escape?'” she says, quoting the air around her head.

Which is exactly why I have to leave, he thinks. This shit, this garbage weight strapped around my waist. You and my friends and everyone else. There’s no freedom here. There’s no release. “It isn’t about trying to escape,” he lies. “It’s about opportunity. Ya know? It’s about seeing what else is out there. How can I see the world from the same window?”

She tilts her head fully back, draining whiskey and soda and ice in one. It all goes down, all free of consideration or understanding. “Jesus,” she says, laying on her accusations as thick as she can. “You sound like my mother. See the world, travel,” she scoffs. “Bullshit. Just admit it. You’re quitting. You don’t love this town. You never did.”

Admit it he won’t. It’s a fight he has no interest in winning, let alone engaging. “I just wanna see what’s out there, that’s all. It isn’t personal,” he says in a tired tone, though he knows her words ring true. The further he can get from her, the better off he’ll be.

“They’re gonna turn you into some kind of liberal idiot, you know that right?” she says, pulling a cigarette from her rear pocket and giving it a light. “You’ll be wanting to kill unborn babies before Thanksgiving.”

He sighs, his heart sinking with the realization that the conversation is pointless, that no explanation exists to justify his exit. “It isn’t a big deal,” he says in a desperate effort to end the discussion.

And to his surprise, the words work. She leans back against the steps, cigarette between her full lips, her lungs pulling in and out, bringing an orange ember at the end of her mouth to life. Cars pass by, some strolling in search for parking, others honking in demand for more space, and they watch in collective silence. Their path together has come to an end despite the lies they say, despite the promises they share. He knows she’ll find someone else and she knows he’ll never return.

“Are you staying over?” she asks, ignoring the situation that’s come to pass. The whiskey has gotten to her, and she’s ready for more company, ready for comfort from her departing friend.

His elbows dig into his knees. His feet grind on the stairs. Turning, he looks back at her and the concrete steps leading to her door. “Sure,” he says, disappointed by his own relenting. “I guess I can stay.”

Their eyes lock, and she smiles. “Come on,” she says with a tilt of her head. “Let me make you another drink.”

He agrees, though the beverage in his hand is untouched. Together, in tired unison, they step inside.