Lieutenant Little crested into view over the far ridge, sprinting for all his life’s worth.
“Full stop!” Francis called. Quickly, but careful not to hurry, he shrugged out of his boat harness. The sharp white rocks of the island clinked under his boots like broken china as he jogged to intercept the lieutenant.
Bowlegged on the bad footing, Little slid to a halt a few meters from him, bent double to catch his breath. “They’re here,” he managed. “They’re here—just as you promised.”
Francis took him by the upper arms and forced him, gently, to meet his eye. “Who’s here, Edward? Netsilik?”
“Company,” Little said. And, though he could barely suck in the breath for it, he laughed. “It’s the Company, come for us!”
The Hudson Bay Company, his mind completed; too cold and stunned to make it past his lips. To whose outpost he’d sent Lieutenant Fairholme and eight men, and in so doing pinned all their hopes upon them. Against all odds, and all impediments, they had succeeded.
Francis closed his eyes.
It was such a roar that went up among his bedraggled men when the Hudson Bay Company’s party crested the ridge that it nearly took Francis’s knees out from under him. He swept his cap from his head and wiped the moisture from his brow—and perhaps as well from the corner of his eye—and strode out to greet their leader, with a quick glance behind at James, who had not yet unharnessed himself from their sledge.
“Captain Francis Crozier,” he said to the man who came forward to meet him, “of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. Late of the Terror, and Greenhithe.”
The man had mutton chops so dense one could make a meal of them. His eyes appeared to loom out of his face like icebergs from a fog. Briefly, he shook his hand. “Wouldn’t believe it if the evidence weren’t of my own eyes. Your lieutenant was half-dead when he showed up at our door, saying something about a bear. Wouldn’t’ve come, ‘cept he had the gear.” The man nodded curtly, stepping back. “He had the gear. And here you are as sure as day. Name’s Rogers.”
Rogers was a head and a half shorter than Francis and swathed completely in pelts. Emotion surged in Francis at the sight of him: he had the strangest confusion whether to grin, or to bend the knee, or to embrace the man before him. He settled for clapping a hand on his shoulder and squeezing tight—Rogers would barely even feel it, under the furs he wore— and said, in all earnestness, “Thank you. We may owe you our lives.”
Rogers raised an eyebrow that rearranged his entire furry face. “As bad as that?”
“More than you could know.”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “Maybe.” Rogers turned and gave some sort of signal to his men. They were all as furred and bearded as he. “We’ve brought doctors. Who among your men is sick?”
The better question might have been who among them was not, but Francis sought one lined, wan face in particular. James was still harnessed; though he should by rights have come forward to stand alongside his captain while making first contact with their rescuers. Francis frowned as he strode towards James, motioning for him to unharness himself. Slowly, James did, swaying on the spot. Francis’s stepped quickly to his side so that he could grip his upper arm. All of James's weight--nearly more than Francis could support--shifted into the touch.
“Lieutenant Fairholme?” James murmured to him.
“Aye.” Francis let go cautiously. “He made it after all.”
Half-stumbling, James regained his purchase; ignoring Francis's worried hand and pulling himself up proudly. He raised his head to survey the men. It seemed to cost him an effort. Most of the crew had scattered and were mingling with the Company, and tents of heavy weather-proofed canvas were already going up; likely all the way from England, as their own were, but brighter than the grubby things they had been hauling for hundreds of miles.
For a long moment, James swept his gaze off behind them, towards vacant land; and ice. “You were right, Francis,” he said quietly.
“James,” Francis said.
James’s gaze stuck blankly to the north.
“James," he repeated. Close as they were, Francis could count the open sores decorating James’s cheeks, some of which had not been present a day ago. Francis’s eyes slid downwards. Broad bands of red soaked James’s clothes where the harness—good Christ, where the harness had dug into his chest. “Find yourself a—Never mind. I’ll fetch one myself.”
Goodsir, Bridgens, and what could only have been Rogers’ physicians were bustling in and out of one of the largest tents. He hallooed for Goodsir, and together, they half-supported, half-dragged James into the tent, ever careful of James's wounds; wincing as badly himself whenever James flinched in pain. One of the Company doctors shucked him of layers and settled him down.
Francis rested two fingers against the end of James’s cot and tore himself away from the awful sight of those seeping holes. “How is he?” he asked the doctor.
Busy unpacking his bag of instruments and vials, the doctor glanced only briefly over his shoulder. “Tough to say. Surprised he was still hauling.”
This man—and the two surgeons with him—had accented speech. Perhaps American, or French. Perhaps Esquimaux. Working his jaw, Francis felt his expression grow cold as it wandered down to scrutinize James again. Only a man so still and unmoving as to be frozen solid could look so unapologetic to finally be at rest.
“I wonder if you could leave us, for a moment,” Francis said to the doctor.
With a slow nod, he withdrew.
Francis pulled a stool nearer James and sat with his hands folded between his knees. James was having trouble focusing: one moment, he met Francis’s hard expression levelly; the next his eyes roved over his shoulder or above his head. Yet he preempted Francis’s percolating remonstrations by speaking first, in a voice that was hoarse, but strong. “You would have done the same.”
“It were a foolish thing, James,” Francis reprimanded immediately. “You could have rested. The men would not have looked on you any lesser for that.”
“Would you have done it? Like John Ross?”
“This is not—”
“No,” Francis allowed, as though swearing. “As you well know.”
James resettled himself with a satisfaction that no half-dead man should have been able to muster. “There, then. We understand each other.”
“Be that as it may. You’re to rest now.”
“What else would I be doing?”
Unlacing and re-lacing his hands, Francis looked up ruefully, knowing that James must be told, but not savoring the necessity. “I’ll be sending Lieutenant Little with three of Rogers’ men to retrieve the crew we left on Terror.”
A great groan rose from James. He tried to sit, but his pain fought him. “I should be the one to lead them back,” he insisted. “Little has no overland experience—”
Reasonably, Francis said, “He has as much as the rest of us, now.”
James continued to struggle. Francis half-stood to lay a restraining hand to his sternum, against which James, at last, subsided.
“Are those your orders?”
“They are. And I’ve another, for you alone.” He waited until James met his gaze, but found that, under the regard of those dark and hazy eyes, the words wouldn’t come out properly. Studying some strange green vial setting upon the table closest to him, he tapped four fingers lightly against James’s chest. “You will stay here, and you will get well.”
James looked away after a moment and scoffed. “Forced bedrest. In all my days, never once.”
With a small smile, Francis rose and donned his cap. “Rest, James,” he repeated, peeling aside the tent’s flap.
“And you, as well.”
As much as James or any of his men, Francis did long for it. But rest was not yet a luxury he could afford.
He and Rogers oversaw the men as they erected a neat camp. Sets of tents merged into serried lines, grey giving way to tan; and that first night, neither of them slept. In the godforsaken half-light, over a desk that had been dragged all the way from Terror, they laid out in flat terms their numbers and supplies; their resources and their needs. Rogers proved to be a man after Francis’s own deliberate heart: long accustomed to managing the movements and needs of several score’ transient fur trappers across hundreds of miles and unreliable weather. Francis found him possessed by many of the same prerogatives as a captain. Perhaps more mettle; for captains— usually —at least only had to keep track of their men within the square footage of a ship, rather than the square mileage of an entire country.
By the wee hours, Francis’s fingers were rubbing at his eyes as often as they were gesticulating towards their ledgers. “Rogers,” he muttered. “Shall we pick this up in the morning?”
Bright eyes bored into him. “You must be tired.”
“I am,” he said, as if it were not obvious.
“Sleep, then,” Rogers declared, standing and stretching. “More capable commanders than you would have done worse to bring your men this far on so little.”
Wryly, Francis glanced aside at him; even though it cost him nearly the last of his energy. “From you, I will take that as a compliment.”
They had conferred for several hours. In that time, a new landscape of canvas and braziers had arisen. Soft laughter, echoing alien and frail in the Arctic stillness, sounded among them. Francis could not discern if it was the laughter of his own men or that of Rogers’. In the end, he supposed, it didn’t matter.
Squinting, he established his bearings and set off, wondering in the abstract where Jopson was, and hoping his things had been moved carefully, and that there was still warm food to be had at this late—or early— hour. Food, that is, which would not slowly poison his insides with lead and madness.
All in his tent was as it should be. He took his pipe from its rag and considered the familiarity and warmth that smoking the last of his tobacco would bring. But the effort seemed monumental even in relation to those merits. Instead, he shucked his boots, unbuttoned his coat, and slept.
Uncertain dreams dogged him through the night. None of their details remained upon waking: only faint tendrils of anxiety. On such mornings, Francis always wished, bitterly, that his nighttime wakefulness would return. On mornings that dawned unbroken by sleep, he always wished, bitterly, that he could have had the dreams instead. He washed his face and shaved as he always had and always would, so long as there were men under him to look upon his example. Then, for the moment, he sat quietly by himself, and looked at his hands.
A week passed.
For all the joyous intermingling of the first few days in the combined camp, and of the doctors as they tended the sick, crew and Company kept mostly to themselves. Rogers gave his orders to his men, and Francis did the same for his own.
Sometimes, though, Rogers would seek Francis out in odd places; asking pointed questions very seriously. Mostly, Francis told the truth.
Pilkington's observations from the camp's perimeter were not one of the things he shared with Rogers. Standing alongside the private, far from the bustle of the camp, Francis asked, "Anything to report?” The careful emphasis placed on anything betrayed the fact that he was in fact asking after something very specific. They had not seen evidence of it since abandoning the ships. But Francis knew, for all the Arctic gave the impression of constancy—in unyielding horizon, in unending snowfields—this land and its creatures were anything but predictable.
“All quiet,” said Pilkington, keeping his voice low. “No speculation from any of Rogers’ men, either.”
Francis gave him a smile and a nod. “Good. And we are to keep it that way. But if they ask, you are not to lie. Do you understand?”
A sidelong look, and then Pilkington's "Yes, sir."
Francis trudged back to the camp with his hands dug into the pockets of his slops. Each day that passed without a sign of their white demon felt like another bag of ballast dropped from the gondola of a hot air balloon. With each, an accompanying surge of gleeful height, yes--but also the swoop of the stomach, and an increased wariness of the height from which they now could fall. Once, a drink would have been the cure for such aimless anxieties. The temptation was still there—still very much there. But now it was just another itch in his mind that he filed away with all the rest.
Francis turned his steps firmly towards the infirmary tents. Later in the day, he would make what he had begun to think of as his rounds: a brief visit to the men who were worst-off, be it from scurvy or lead or exhaustion or some combination thereof. He would tease Jopson about the indecorum of his sickbed being unbefitting of a newly-made officer, and Blanky would take one look at him and know to drive the dullness from his mind with something acerbic and wry between puffs of his pipe.
But first, he would visit James.
He cleared his throat at the entrance to the tent where he had been moved and received an answering rap from within: the signal they had worked out for come when James’s voice was not cooperating. Francis fell to his customary stool easily, arranging it so that he might best see James’s face, and the blisters on it which were just beginning to scab over.
He reached for the water jug. “Bad day?”
Eyes foggy, James nodded. His hair was dull and stringy and wanted washing. Francis couldn’t imagine the man had ever in his life allowed it to be so dirty. One of the surgeons, or perhaps Goodsir or Bridgens, might be persuaded to assist him with it; if it would give a little comfort. But James would never ask. All the same, Francis moved it aside from where it had got into his eyes as he helped him sit to sip the water, careful as ever of the slow-healing bullet holes. The back of his neck was warm, but not feverish.
With only the tent canvas and James to see, Francis leaned back and allowed himself to screw up his eyes for a moment. He sighed. When he opened them again, hands laced over his stomach, James was looking at him evenly and expectantly.
“Shall it be me doing the talking today, then?”
James raised his eyebrows, as if to say, Well, it certainly won’t be me .
“Very well,” Francis declared, inching closer so that James could hear easily as he lowered his voice. “I’ll be as long-winded as you before we walk out of this place.”
A laborious eyeroll.
“Can’t see why I bother. You’ve already heard all my stories, and I’m no good at invention.”
Shifting against the pillow, James’s gaze slowly left his and wandered towards the ceiling.
“Burma it is, then,” Francis declared. Francis propped his elbow on his knee and his chin on his hand. “I was sixteen, and it was damnably hot. I think it was Burma drove me to the Antarctic,” he mused, “like a night of too much drink turns any reasonable man to water, at least for a few hours.” When he looked down again, James’s eyes were already closed, and he was breathing evenly.
One last time, he shifted the hair away from James’s face. “That bad, eh,” he said. Then he rose and saw himself out.
One of the Company surgeons—Joseph, he thought might be his name—accosted him just outside. “Mister Crozier! You should not be up and about so much. You need your rest, too, you know.” Joseph paired this with a fulsome smile, as though Francis were a recalcitrant schoolboy.
“Would you believe me if I said I was taking my rounds,” Francis said, “same as you?”
He laughed easily, as only a man unburdened by three years of scrabbling by the beds of your nails for survival could. “Your men are safe now, Mister Crozier. You can rest easy.”
Francis’s smile slipped, first a little, as he kept his teeth from grinding out captain in correction; and then a lot. His jaw tightened. “Nearly, Joseph. I’ll be done in a moment.”
“Alright then Mister Crozier.” Joseph moved by him with a waft of rough soap.
Francis saved Blanky for last.
“I’m most nervous,” Francis confided to him, “when we don’t see sign of it.”
“You must be nervous fairly often, then.”
Blanky meant it lightheartedly, but Francis was not to be turned from his brown study so easily. “How’s the leg?” he asked.
“Useless. But my tongue’s still as sharp as ever.”
Breaking into a smile at that, Francis leaned over to clap a hand atop his friend’s good knee. The other was swaddled in bandages—clean ones, of linen; no longer of torn-up shirts—and newly several inches shorter than the job MacDonald had done for him aboard Terror, months previous. “God keep you, Thomas,” he said. “God keep you just as you are.”
“Why couldn’t you have asked Him that a few months and half a leg ago?”
“I did,” Francis said, with false gravity. His eyebrows climbed his forehead. “I also asked Him for leads.”
The smile faded from Blanky’s face about as soon as it bloomed. “Bastard,” he muttered; to whom—God, or the Tuunbaq, or Francis himself—was not made clear.
“I won’t sleep well at night until I can lay my head down within wooden walls again.”
“Myself, as well. But I’m not saying a drink of whiskey and a shapely woman wouldn’t go amiss either.”
He sighed. “Perhaps He is watching,” he said. “The Company found us.”
Francis waved a dismissive hand. “That was men did that. Lieutenant Fairholme. Rogers.”
“Is it man that keeps that demon thing away from us now?”
Francis opened his mouth to correct, woman, but something held him back. When he met Blanky’s stare, he felt that his meaning had been communicated regardless.
Days passed, seeming both longer and shorter when spent in one place rather than travelling. Francis made his rounds and counted stores and convened officer’s meetings, such as they were able to; and slowly acclimated his stomach to the feeling of being decently full. (Many of the men had eaten of the Company’s provisions too much, too soon—Francis, having spent that first day in conversation with Rogers, had not been able to warn against the mistake in time.)
He settled into a pattern of waiting: for the weather to warm further. For news from hunting parties. For the men’s strength to return. For an attack he was not certain would ever come. And waiting for James to recover, so that he might not feel so guilty burdening him with these feckless broodings on top of an illness; such things that Blanky would laugh away and Rogers would snort away, but to which James would listen. Would listen.
James endured two weeks of steady but fragile improvement when fever struck unannounced. The doctors, who had mostly left well enough alone to allow rest and fresh meat recede the affliction, now ceased to ever fully leave James’s tent, and with Francis as well as a surgeon more often than not vying for space, it was unmovably crowded. Often, Francis retreated to stand just outside the entrance, his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes counting the stones on the ground.
On the occasions when James was not unconscious, he was delirious. On the first time he was neither, and Francis turned from him to let the doctors do their work, James protested.
Francis looked helplessly to the surgeon, who was trying to lay a cloth across James’s forehead at the same time as prepare a tincture, all while dancing a careful ballet around Francis and the doctor.
“I’ll come back, James,” Francis said.
James turned beseeching eyes upon the doctor. “He stays. Christ—make him stay.”
“He can’t help you, Mister Fitzjames. Be reasonable.”
“I am being."
It was then that his shuddering rendered him unable to work his jaw without danger of biting off his tongue, and Francis, for lack of recourse, sat himself upon the edge of James’s cot, resigned to mutely holding that which the doctors stuck in his hands and giving it back to them when it was demanded.
Three days came and went like this before James had weathered the worst of it. His wits were about him again, but the pallor in his cheeks had returned, and his eyes were still bright. Francis lay a hand over his brow to check for himself that his fever was indeed broken.
“I haven’t been myself lately," James said quietly. "I don’t remember—” He paused. “Or rather I do remember—”
Francis moved his hand down to feel the pulse in James's neck, a new technique he had but lately learned. Muscles contracted beneath his palm as James attempted to speak. “Don’t try to talk,” Francis said. “Sleep. I’ll stay, while I can.” He wreathed his face in a smile that felt as hollow as an empty Goldner’s can.
Spasmodically, James swallowed.
“May be sleeping myself,” Francis added. “It’s been a long few days.”
As August died, he and Rogers began to speak of moving on.
A strange agglomeration of men trickled into the command tent, called at their joint command, and settled wherever there was space. There were doctors both Company and Navy, as well as the wardroom officers and Rogers’ lieutenants, and, finally, Blanky; who limped his difficult way to the upturned crate that had been cleared for him. Francis moved to offer an arm, as did Goodsir; but Blanky waved them both off and settled himself. The only men missing were Jopson, still too weak to spend much time out of bed; and James, likewise.
“We will come to order,” Francis said. He shared standing room at the head of the table with Rogers, who was silent. Fidgeting ceased gradually among the men.
“Most of you know why you are here. We must needs discuss the next leg of our journey.” There were nods all around. Francis glanced at Rogers, but the man was, for some unfathomable reason, staring upwards at the place where the guy ropes held up the center of the tent. “Master Blanky has told me that the season is coming to an end. Within three months, there will not be enough daylight for overland travel, and at our current latitudes, exposure will make quick work of us without proper shelter.” He searched the countenances of those gathered, starting with his officers; feeling for their fear and resolve. “Goodsir. Doctor Janson. What of the men? Are we ready to walk out again?”
Goodsir gestured for Doctor Janson to speak first.
“Some of them will have a hard time,” Janson said. “Not as bad as when we found you, but enough to make a delay.”
“Could we make use of the sledges again?” Francis asked.
Janson looked to Rogers and said nothing. Francis twisted his torso to regard him, and, this time, did not relinquish him from scrutiny. Finally, the man took a breath. “No sledges. Not if we want to outrun the season.”
Francis nodded slowly. Looking down, he pursed his lips. “We can’t pack our supplies out. It is six hundred miles to Fort Resolution.”
“We could,” Blanky spoke, tilting his head to the side. “We’d buy time and warmth, the farther south we went. Back Fish River might still be clear. Could be fishing to be had. It’d be a hard push without the sledges, but nothing we aren’t used to.”
They both looked to Rogers. He nodded almost immediately. “Don’t have the means to winter in place,” he said again. “If the doctors give the clear, we’ll march.”
To the room, Francis said, “So we are settled.” He rapped his fist upon the table. “Home is within reach, gentlemen.”
A smile cracked across Blanky’s chapped and reddened face. “Thanks be to God and these fine men.”
Privately, Francis would thank the latter before he would praise the former. “I will confer with Commander Fitzjames--”
Sharply, Rogers interrupted, “You haven’t, already?”
He shrugged. “Will he disagree?”
“No,” Francis said again.
Across the tent, Blanky met his eyes; inscrutable, as Rogers spoke again. “Snows won’t come this far north. But we should leave soon. One week.”
“It’ll be enough,” Goodsir said, from the back.
Someone had washed James’s hair when Francis went to relay the news.
“I look somewhat less of a street urchin,” James informed him, sitting up in bed.
Francis pretended to pull a face, as if debating whether it were really true. James waved him off. “So—we’re moving on at last.”
“One week.” He rearranged his expression, serious, now. “Are you ready, James?”
“Francis. I keep to my bed more as a formality than anything.”
“That’s not what the doctors would have me believe.”
James spread his hands. “Perhaps you can carry me, then; across your back—like the rickshaw men do in Shanghai.”
Francis raised an eyebrow. “Now you consent to be carried? Less than a month ago, you would have rather died.”
It was a poor choice of words. Francis knew it as soon as they left his mouth, as did James; who merely wet his lips, and grasped for something to clear the air. “You needn’t be ridiculous to cheer me, Francis. My spirits are as high as any man here.”
Softly, Francis replied, “I never said they weren’t.”
Yet a silence dropped between them.
Abruptly, James asked, “Where would you go? Once we’d returned?” There was something distant in his voice.
“Do you doubt we will?”
“After all we’ve faced, you'll surely allow me my reservations.”
“After all we’ve faced,” Francis said, leaning forward, “we are still here. Does that not account for something?” James was no longer the same shade of pale as his bed linen, and his eyes were undimmed by laudanum or wine of coca. Pride swelled in Francis’s chest to see it. “You are like a cockroach,” he observed, too quickly to register any insult it might import.
James stared. “A what, now?”
Francis spread his hands, warming to his conceit. “Ever tried to kill one? It’s an impossible task. You grind your heel over it, and it scuttles between the planks. Bait it with turpentine and it walks across the top, untouched, like Christ over water.”
A rattling laugh bloomed from James’s throat. “Good lord, Francis. Have you ever paid a man a genuine compliment?”
Francis grinned crookedly, and found it felt good. “I just have,” he insisted, but his grin did not abate, robbing him of his credulity. “The Unkillable James Fitzjames. He will outlive us all.”
James reached out to stab a finger into Francis’s arm. “You shouldn’t tempt the devil with such words.”
Outside the tent, men could be heard talking and laughing within the camp, and the sun’s bright rays pierced dully even through the heavy canvas. News was slowly spreading: they were going home, and the men rejoiced—even those of the Company, who itched to be back to their traps and their trading and their families. The Tuunbaq had not been sighted in over a month. The rest they could take as it came. It would feel light as feathers compared to the burdens they had shouldered these past three years.
“There are no devils left before us to fear,” Francis said, and he meant his words.
In a thickened voice, James asked, “Do you promise it?”
Francis set his hand atop the edge of the bed close to where James’s arm lay over the blanket. He recalled draping a hand across his face during the fever, not a week past. The flap of the tent was stuck open and clearly admitted the footsteps of the surgeons on their rounds. “I do promise it. We will see home again, James.”
His throat bobbed with a harsh swallow, but a smile leaked across his face, and his arm twitched; brushing his shirtsleeve against the tips of Francis’s fingers.
Rocks crunched at the entrance of the tent. Francis twisted around to see Janson, waiting, with an armful of bandages. He nodded to himself, and then to James; and with one last reassuring smile he withdrew his hand and ducked out of the tent to give James his privacy.
In the brightness outside, Bridgens nearly ran into him going the other way. He had six books in his arms and dropped one as he went. Obligingly, Francis knelt to retrieve it.
“Thank you, Captain,” Bridgens said. “And by-the-by, he’s been asking for you. Wants to know how the meeting with Rogers went.” Bridgens tilted his head to indicate the line of tents from which Francis had come.
Francis raised an eyebrow. “I have already spoken with him, not a moment ago.”
“Ah. No, not Jopson.” Francis paused. Bridgens’s furry brows did not in the slightest relax from their puzzlement. “Nevermind, John. I’ll go to him now.”
In the week that preceded their leaving, seemingly the longest of all they'd spent in the camp, Francis’s mind wore itself into ruts with repetitive thoughts. Inventory. Morale. The men. And England, which would come back to him in small, irrepressible snippets that had long been no trouble to him: the smell of daisies in the streets at Michaelmas. The precise light blue of a spring sky over open ocean. Snow flurries, caught and suspended in Sophia Cracroft’s hair.
“Do you have a wife, Rogers?” Francis had asked him, once. It occurred to him then that he did not know the man’s given name.
“A trapper’s life is none for a wife,” Rogers had told him, as though it were the silliest question in the world, and Francis supposed it was; when the answer was so familiar to himself that he had to look down, and smile something that was not quite bitter. He looked up again to find Rogers regarding him with those coal-scuttle eyes.
Francis shook his head.
“I presumed,” Rogers said. “But I couldn’t be sure. You fight like a man who has something to go back to.”
Francis lifted one shoulder. “My men do,” he said. “They deserve to see their homes and their loved ones again. And more, beyond that—but for now, I’ll settle for seeing them back on English soil.”
He thought of Jopson’s mother, raising a young son alone, dependent on laudanum. And the sweetheart whose picture Irving had passed around the table in the officers’ mess, shyly, exactly once; who would now never marry. And Sophia—Sophia, who would need to be told of the death of her uncle. Francis had a brief vision of taking her hands in his, speaking the words, and seeing the light go out in her eyes as grief shuttered down on them--or, worse, blame.
“I’ll settle,” he said, “for the peace it will bring the families of those who are gone to know they died well.”
The night before they struck camp, sleep eluded Francis. He lay on his back, his knees sighing their relief, and shoved his hands behind his head. For a time, he kept his eyes closed, until he found that staring at the underside of his eyelids was even less amusing than staring at the canopy of the tent.
If he was to be awake—and he had come to know quite well when those nights were to be, although he could well wish it had not been this night; when they were to move out in the morning—he would at least look upon something decent. He pulled on his boots and draped his coat around his shoulders. At the flap of his tent, he paused; seeking the outline of James’s with his eyes. There was no light lit within. He went off instead some little ways from the camp. There would be no one out that way except the occasional marine sentry, guaranteed to move on, and not to linger.
But he was mistaken. Doctor Goodsir stood to the east, a dark silhouette from his curly hair down to his black boots, head canted upward to regard the stars. It seemed a shame to disturb him—but it seemed stranger for them to be two men, up at godless hours, both gazing skyward but neither acknowledging the other. Goodsir turned as he heard him approach, his perpetual small smile firmly in place. It seemed to Francis a little less sad than usual. Above them, the fingers of a weak aurora flicked in and out of the firmament, living as shooting stars and then dying.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Goodsir murmured. He was not quite looking at the stars. Around them, the ground was bright with the aurora’s light, a shadowless, pervading texture. Francis lowered his chin and gave him a searching look.
“Yes,” he allowed. “That’s the trouble with it, I suspect.”
Goodsir turned to him. “Trouble?”
“Like a siren.” His voice was soft, for his words did not come to him with any surety; like picking his way over crack-riddled summer ice.
“I suppose. Parts of it. But is the siren inherently troublesome? Perhaps it is the men who wander into her abode, unwanted.”
At that, Francis had to laugh; and he found he could do so more freely than he might have even a day previous. On the morrow, they were leaving. On the morrow, they were headed home. Goodsir, too, was letting a grin bridge his dark facial hair, eyes alight in a way that made him seem older; or perhaps younger.
“We shouldn’t jest,” Francis said, a thumb idly wiping at the corner of his mouth, “while we remain in hostile territory.”
“Does it hate us, do you think?”
“Not as much as we hate it.” Unconsciously, Francis’s eyes darted eastward, toward the rise of ground which obscured the rest of King Williamland from view.
“I wish,” Goodsir said, “that things could have been different.”
It was so simple and so large a truth that Francis could make no answer to it. He could only stare upwards once more, and watch as the aurora turned from green, to violet, and then to nothing.
Francis did not go back to bed, and therefore did not so much rise with the dawn as beat it to the punch. To his surprise, Rogers was already arisen as well; smoking a gigantic pipe and chatting with his second, his kit already packed.
“All has been made ready with my men,” Francis said. “And yours?”
“All good,” Rogers’ second replied.
Rogers turned to the man. “Give us a moment, won’t you?”
That left him, and Francis; who sat when Rogers nodded for him to, curiosity beginning to turn to dread the longer Rogers refrained from speaking. “I know you keep things from me,” Rogers eventually said. He was standing. There were a few furs laid around the spartan place that he now donned. Francis leaned back, to keep him in sight; to catch his eye, if he might, as the dread buried itself in his heart where there should only have been freedom from weeks of inactivity and the prospect of their impending march.
“That is our prerogative, as leaders of men, no?” Rogers continued. “But we are not blind. We are not deaf. Conversations cease when my men approach yours. And even a fool knows he is not trusted when he is not permitted to set guard over his own camp.”
Francis looked down at his hands. Once, he opened his mouth, and then closed it. After all, what could he offer to this man—this man who had saved them without blinking—except more omissions of truth? “Believe me to be most sincere,” Francis said, “that there are things we keep to ourselves not from selfishness, or lack of trust, but rather the abundance of it.”
Rogers’ eyes narrowed.
“Please.” Francis reached for his hands. Rogers jerked back, but Francis held fast. “It is better that you do not ask why.”
Between his palms, Rogers’s hands twitched. Francis let go. “We break camp today. In two months, we reach Fort Resolution. At the first sign of spring, you and your men leave for New England.”
And wasn’t that all Francis had ever asked for? From an indifferent God? From whatever fell spirits held dominion over this damned land? He held Rogers’s gaze and nodded once. Rogers left the tent.
With the return of Little and the six men left on Terror, their company was swelled to forty-two naval men and sixteen Company men. They were heading home with a third of the number that had left Greenhithe.
But they were heading home.
Francis fielded reports from Little and Hodgson; Janson and Goodsir. As the hour of their departure closed in, he caught himself looking more and more frequently towards the medical tents, which were the last to come down. James was laggardly in joining him: he would have appreciated his help in directing the officers’ questions; to have a face to turn to when he caught Rogers’s blank, even stare across the open stretch of the camp.
In the hubbub, however, he nearly did not catch James’s eventual arrival until he was upon him, striding firmly—though with the aid of an icepick as walking stick—upright amongst them at last; hair clean, clothes washed. Face scarred, but no longer seeping his body’s fluids. He wondered if James would rather have had a steadying arm than an ill-formed crutch--but he could not offer that. Not with all the men’s eyes on their commander. He would not shore up James’s physical strength at the cost of diminishing his presence in the men’s eyes. The dangerous, half-triumphant warmth that bloomed in Francis’s breast would have to find other expression. Firstly, he would smile, and prop his hand on his hip, and enjoy the sight of his friend on his feet once more, and know, in his bones, that they would make it home. For if James could weather this, then James could weather anything—and they with him.
“You’re looking well, James,” he greeted.
James’s lips twitched as though trying to contain a smile. He flicked his eyes out over the men, and only then did he allow the smile to come through, just slightly.
“How will you tell it now?” Francis asked him, half-mocking, half-serious. “The story of that musket ball?” He gestured towards James’s chest.
“Same as always, I suspect,” he said, twisting the tip of the icepick into the ground as he shifted his weight away from his bad side. “Except I shall change the title—and I’ve had the time to think on this, believe you me—”
“Oh, have you, now?” Francis found himself smiling, knowing James to be having him on, and perfectly content to be, for the moment—
“Francis!” Rogers barked.
He turned, expectant; letting his smile even out.
Francis gave a firm nod. He opened his mouth to give Little the order to move out, but then, before he could draw breath, he heard Rogers’s bellow over him: