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.

 

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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.