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No Ill Wind

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"...it's an ill wind blaws naebody gude."
(from Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott)

***

Late at night, long after it was too dark to make out the numbers on their battered deck of playing cards and the last of the day's ration of rum was gone, the men talked about him - about the Yank sergeant.

When they mentioned his name, they spoke in hushed tones. Not because they were particularly worried about waking Lieutenant Greaves, or even because they were afraid of drawing enemy fire, although none of them needed any reminders about how well sound carried across No Man's Land. No, they kept quiet because they didn't want him to hear, just in case he came back early this time.

They weren't afraid of him, not really. Not much frightened a man after he'd been through a stint or two on the front lines - or at least that's what they told themselves. But there was something about the sergeant that wasn't precisely normal, although not a man Jack among them could have said exactly what it was.

Sergeant Wolf had first appeared in the winter of 1916, after the men had been in the trenches for fifty days running, still three weeks to go before they were scheduled to return to reserve duty. They were tired and they were dirty, and then he showed up, reporting to the lieutenant out of nowhere with some mysterious orders that apparently let him come and go as he pleased. The new sergeant - unshaven and red-eyed and smelling like a brewery - didn't look like anything special to them.

It only took half a day before they realized just how wrong their first judgement had been. There was a kind of raw power in the sergeant that none of them had ever possessed (...or if they ever had done, it had long since been leached out of them by the war), yet they all recognized it in this man. He always wanted to be doing something, even when there wasn't much of anything to do - and when there was something that needed doing, even when it was just the lieutenant needing to send out yet another patrol to repair barbed wire, the sergeant was the first to volunteer.

If he was around, of course. Every few days Sergeant Wolf disappeared. He never said where it was he disappeared to, and they never asked. Whenever he returned, though, he'd come bearing gifts: coffee, tobacco, chocolate, even roast beef on one memorable occasion. As Benton said, the sergeant was a damned strange sort of Father Christmas.

There were other things that were odd about the sergeant. The men all kept their hair cut short - all part of the never-ending battle they waged against lice and other insects - but not the sergeant. His hair hung down below his collar, and although they'd all seen him shave on occasion, nobody could actually remember seeing him clean shaven. Private Benton once said he reckoned maybe the lice were afraid of the sergeant and everybody had laughed, but it was a nervous kind of laughter; nobody wanted to admit they'd noticed that even the rats were nowhere to be seen whenever the sergeant was down in the trenches with them.

He seemed impervious to the cold, to the rain, to the mud. More than once, Sergeant Wolf had returned with what looked like bullet holes in his jacket or the faint scent of mustard gas clinging to the fabric of his shirt, but the idea that he was impervious to gunfire and poison gas as well beggared belief.

***

Immortality could only go so far.

For the third time that year, an unauthorized breakfast truce had been in effect. It had held for close to a week, but once Ian Holman inadvertently mentioned it in the lieutenant's hearing, the truce was cancelled immediately, the baby-faced corporal was caught out in the open, and when Sergeant Wolf went out to retrieve him, the enemy opened fire. Not even Wolf could survive for long with so much shrapnel in his body. After all, he was only human.

***

It was a somber group that stood vigil over the sergeant that night. Lieutenant Greaves had ordered an extra ration of rum for all the men, but nobody had taken a drink - not yet. Instead, they stood guard, even those men who were no longer on duty, as if by doing so they could somehow stave off the danger to the sergeant that had already entered their camp.

Ten men on guard, bayonets fixed, and not one of them sounded the alarm when the stranger appeared.

He was dressed in simple khaki and wore no collar pins or insignia of any kind, yet it was obvious to all the men that he must be an officer of some kind, and quite probably one of high rank, judging by the way the lieutenant stood to attention and saluted the white-haired stranger sharply.

"Sir!"

The stranger nodded to Lieutenant Greaves, then looked down at the unconscious sergeant. He took a deep breath, and when he let the breath out, the men felt a sudden chill.

"I'll be taking him with me, Lieutenant."

Everything about the situation was utterly irregular, from the man's mysterious arrival to his lack of identification, but Greaves offered no real argument. "Who shall I say took the sergeant? For the report, sir."

"You can say...North."

The lieutenant looked, finally, as if he wished to offer some sort of objection, but in the end he simply said, "Very good," and took a step back.

The white-haired officer lay his hand on Sergeant Wolf's forehead for a moment, before lifting him from the cot. Then, mindless of the possibility of a renewed enemy attack, North walked off into the starless night, holding the sergeant in his arms as if he were light as air.

***

The first thing he noticed was the clean scent of snow.

The second thing he noticed was how every inch of his body ached as if he'd just been caught in a hail of bullets...

...which he had.

He groaned, then slowly opened his eyes to see Snow White sitting on her desk and watching him.

She'd cut her hair. It was as short as he used to wear his hair when he was a boy, but nobody was ever going to mistake Snow for a boy, not in that cream silk blouse or that serge skirt that showed way more silk-stockinged leg than ladies had been showing before the war.

"Are you done ogling now, Bigby?"

God. He needed a cigarette.

"What am I doing here?" he said.

"That's what I was going to ask you," she said. "You just waltz back into my office after two years as if you...."

"I don't think I was doing any waltzing," he said, trying, for the sake of his ribs, not to cough.

"It's a figure of speech."

"I don't have any idea how I got here. I was in France, on the front line, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up on a cot by your desk." Bigby tried to sit up, but he groaned again and fell back. "Sorry, Snow."

She shook her head, the expression on her face as close to a smile as he figured he was likely to get from her for a long time. "Close your eyes, Sleeping Beauty. I'll see you in the morning."

"Night," Bigby said, taking one last sniff before she walked out into the hall, switching off the light and closing the door behind her.

The office was so quiet, without even the sound of Bufkin's usual chattering. Bigby couldn't remember the last quiet night he'd had. He started to shut his eyes, could almost feel the comforting weight of a strangely familiar hand, cool against his feverish brow.

A cool hand...

Strangely familiar...

Nah. It wasn't possible.

But Bigby's very last thought as he drifted off to sleep was, "Then how the hell did I get back here?"