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no more to roam

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He wants to protest, when the rest of the group says that they prefer the captain’s order- keep moving south, do not double back to attempt a rescue. You would leave our captain with that devil? he spits, and though a few members of the party avert their gazes from his in guilt they say nothing, do nothing. Half of him wants to be infuriated at their cowardice and their indecision. They outnumber the mutineers at least ten to one, and the mutineers have Goodsir with them, medical aid that will be desperately needed if they are to tend to the sick and dying. Though Captain Crozier’s command still rings in his ears when he cares to dwell on it, Little knows that he cannot leave his commanding officer in the hands of the mutineers, completely at the mercy of whatever that devil that calls himself Cornelius Hickey might dare to try when no longer impeded.

But as the mutineers are outnumbered, so too is he, by men who are starving and desperate. He hardly wishes to make enemies out of the men that he has led this far, waking up one morning to find his throat slit or a bullet lodged between his ribs. They must all work together if they are to have any hope of reaching Back’s Fish River, and there has already been enough mutiny occurring upon this expedition. He’ll be damned before he adds to it.

So it is that Edward Little bows his head and agrees to go along with the order, agrees that they must keep moving in order to get to safety and avoid the creature out on the ice. He casts a guilty glance back at the sick tent where Jopson and so many others lie dead or dying as they prepare to leave, his abandonment feeling so much like a betrayal. I will come back for you, he silently vows to every one of them, bowing his head in shame. As soon as I am able, I will come back for you. You did not deserve any of this.

(
He doesn’t see the way Jopson crawls out of the tent as they depart, feebly trying to call for them, dragging his broken body over the rocks as he pleads desperately to not be left behind. Seeing such a sight would have cracked his already fragile heart in two, to know that one of the men that had been left under his protection had been allowed to suffer so deeply before the end.)

They trek south, as is planned. There is nothing around them- no birds, no game, and no plants, just endless grey rock for miles upon miles. Any hope that remains of them finding the ever-elusive Passage has completely dissolved, along with any hope of rescue, and it affects the morale of the men the further that they go. Some of them openly weep as they walk in harness, and others still stare ahead at the landscape with a gaze that seems to stretch for miles. There is none of the easy comradery that was felt before this, no joking or laughter to be heard. Such things have completely faded after Commander Fitzjames passed. It is almost as if the man had taken whatever joy the men had still been saving for the long walk with him when he died, and the atmosphere feels almost empty without it. There is only the rocks, and the wind howling above their heads, as if to taunt them with how futile their situation seems.

Little cannot say which of the men fall first. They each grew worse with every passing day, the bruises spreading across their bodies like a macabre painting and blood oozing from their gums, and inevitably they begin to lose their strength. It could have been Vesconte, it could have been any of the other men that were under his command- their names are starting to blur together for him now, try as he might to remember them. Had Bridgens been with them, or had he fallen victim to the creature out on the ice? Peglar? Collins? It terrifies him to think that he can so easily forget their names, so easily forget what each of them have gone through, and in his head he swears to remedy it. Someone must remember the fallen, if they do indeed find rescue. Someone must, if Captain Crozier cannot.

(They eat from the tins first, though some small part of him acknowledges that this will only make matters worse. When those eventually run out, he becomes desperate, knowing that the party will need fresh meat to ward off the effects of the disease that they all carry with them. He cannot remember if it is him or another individual that suggests eating the flesh of the fallen to help them along, and though his stomach curdles at the thought of it he hopes that the dead men will understand the sacrifice that is needed if they are to survive. The cooking and preparation makes it more tolerable. If they cook the bones first, peeling the flesh back from the white, they can fool themselves into believing that it is a choice cut of beef that they rip into instead of human.

It is only meat. And they so desperately need meat.

It is only meat.)

Eventually, he forgets why they are walking, or even where they are walking to. If he’d had any knowledge that John Ross would eventually lead a rescue party to Fury Beach, Little might have had the sense to walk that way, might have had the sense to know that a change in direction would save them all. But he forgets more and more with every passing day, and it fills him with desperation as his men drop like flies around him. He pierces his face with the golden chains from watches that he finds, both as a desperate attempt to be seen and remembered and as an attempt to remember the men who have already fallen. He names each one after a man that he still remembers to be dead- Sir John. Gore. Collins. Fitzjames. Tom Hartnell. With a pang of regret, he even names one Jopson, when he is still coherent enough to regret his abandonment of the man.

He forgets where they are, forgets the names of the men. Forgets that they were on an expedition to begin with. Eventually, he even forgets his own name.

(And still, there is only the wind.)

Near the end, he sits alone- there may be other bodies near him, but in his delirious state he cannot bring himself to pay them any mind, cannot bring himself to wonder whether they truly live or not.  He is but a skeleton held together by chains and prayers, too broken to travel any further or to even know to rise to his feet in order to fight for whatever wisps of life he still clings to. The wind howls through the tent flaps and sends them flapping furiously, and the distant smell of rotting flesh comes to his nose, but he is so far gone that he cannot grasp the significance of such things, cannot force his stomach to churn over the knowledge of just how miserably he has failed the men left under his command. He sits like a ragdoll with haphazard stitching, waiting for the death that is so mockingly slow to come to him.

For a moment, he reckons that he hears footsteps crunching over the rocks outside, gradually growing nearer. But that is an impossibility. There is nobody here but him. There is no rescue, no hope, only him and the rocks pocking into his flesh as he sits there. Only the rocks and the wind.

Only the wind.