The boy beside her raised his hand. He said nothing, but it was evident that he was eager to please.
Benedikt raised his eyebrows, a slay smirk spreading across his angled face. "Two volunteers—" he was genuinely surprised, but she was leery of the stranger. She searched her memory, trying to recall if she had ever seen him before. "—And on a night as cold as this?" He tisked with his tongue, the clicking sound echoed. "Adamski," Benedikt gestured to her, his smile widening, sending cold bumps down her spine. "Seems you have some competition."
Adamski bit the inside of her cheek, unwilling to speak out. Benedikt appeared to be in a jovial mood, but she wasn't willing to test it. She didn't mind that someone other than her was volunteering for a change. It meant that some poor kid from the Galleys wouldn't get picked randomly, causing her to worry about them as well as herself.
In the month that she had been here no one else had ever volunteered besides herself. She understood why they didn't, but still, the ten rubles that the army would pay her and the prospect of a warm pallet by the fire come morning with a hot breakfast in her belly made her take the risk without question every time.
Benedikt sauntered over to the boy. It was evident that he had the same suspicions that she did. "Name?" Benedikt waited but the stranger didn't respond. He fumbled his fingers into the air clumsily, trying to spell a word out with his long bent fingers. She wondered when they had been broken, and why they had not heeled properly. Even in the low light she could see the white foamy skin stretch over his knuckles—where the bones must have jutted out.
Benedikt wasn't amused. "I said name?" The stranger didn't speak, but continued to wave his arms frantically. She tried to search his face but all she could see was his profile. He was taller than her and looked to be the same age, possibly older. She wasn't willing to lean forward, possibly attracting Benedikt's attention, just to get a better look.
"I think he's mute, sir." Jacasta, one of the artisans from the Galleys, said. Her voice was quite, like tinkling bells. Adamski thought that someone with a voice like that had never screamed. Never cried out in pain or fear.
Benedikt sighed, exasperated with the boy and with Jacasta. "Can you make your mark?" He expected the boy to answer with a nod but the stranger continued to gesticulate with his mangled hands. "Never mind," the flesh of his upper lip curled, obscuring the light-colored fuzz that was growing in. "Go over there." He pointed to Jacasta at the registry and the boy obeyed.
Adamski had learned not to step forward before she was instructed to; otherwise she would have followed the mute. Benedikt stepped closer to her, obscuring the register table and the boy. "This may be the last time I allow you to do this," he whispered, his words meant only for her. His breath was hot against her face. She smelt something sour and tried to look down but he grabbed her chin and lifted it until their eyes met. "I have other plans for you, pretty girl." He tried to be seductive but it sounded more like childish banter to her ears. He waited for her response, but she refused to speak or acknowledge what he might have in store for her, although she could easily guess. "Go then," he sighed again, releasing her.
She tried to shake off his touch when she got to the table. Jacasta handed her the long strip of white cloth and she pinned it to the front of her coat quickly. She was antsy to get this over with and go to bed, she would worry about everything else later. In one of the other rooms she could hear the artisans kneading the dough for the morning bread. Her stomach rumbled. The air filled with the earthen scent of yeast and flour. It smelled like the wheat fields back home.
Jacasta tried to explain to the boy what he would need to do. She handed him a pack and used a dummy bomb to show him how to set into the ground lightly and turn the corkscrew top to activate it. Adamski could block most of this out, she already knew what needed to be done.
When Jacasta was done, Adamski snapped her fingers and the boy followed her out into the night. The darkness was deep, and the cold made it seem layered and edgy all around her. Her leather boots crackled underneath the frost on the ground. She lifted herself up onto the tips of her toes to muffle the sound, and the stranger mimicked her.
When she reached the barrier she gestured for him to make no other noise by bringing a cold finger to her lips—she remembered that he was mute only after she did this, and the gesture seemed trivial and awkward in retrospect. The Polle stretched out in front of her for miles although she could only see a few feet ahead of her. The thick darkness was uncut by the low hanging full moon which was hidden behind cloud cover. She took off her gloves, her hands already numbing against the air, she needed to be able to feel her way. Adamski got onto her hands and knees, crawling further into the darkness with the mute following behind her.
When she heard muffled voice on the other side of the Polle she knew they had gone far enough. "Here," she gestured to the pack that was slung across the boys back. "I'm only going to show you this once, so pay attention." The boy didn't respond, just watched.
Using her fingers and a knife that she kept at her belt she dug a shallow hole; the frost resisting with each nick of her blade. When she was done the boy handed her one of the devices. She laid it gently into the earth and clicked the top half to activate it. After that she cupped the dirt back into her palm and let it drop back over the device, careful not to put any additional pressure on it. "Don't touch it after this," she spoke in a whisper, but her tone was severe. "Otherwise we're both dead." The boy nodded. She thought he looked a little confused and she resolved to watch him carefully.
She wondered if she could be quick enough to roll away from him in enough time if he were to accidently set off one of the devices.
She dug another hole while he got another device ready. Her hands starting to harden and lose feeling but she ignored it. The thought of the warm fireside when she got back drove her onward.
They continued this pattern for several more tries. She dug the holes in a zigzag pattern, working their way back toward the Galleys where they had come from. Making it so each blast would come as an unexpected surprise to the Gryaz at the other end.
Nearly half way back she glanced up at the sky. The wind had picked up and it was moving the clouds away from the moon. Around her she started to make out shapes—a few scattered trees in the distance, and beyond them, directly in front was the enemy camp. With a start she stumbled, dropping the knife against the stony earth, if she could see them then they could see her. "Get down," she hissed.
Above them the moon stretched out from the darkness, ghostly milk light filled the field. She and the boy laid flat against the ground, their faces leaning up toward the night that had suddenly betrayed them. The voices of the Gryaz became louder to her ears, although she assumed that was only because she could now see the bob of their heads across the barrier.
She reasoned that if any Gryaz saw them they would think them merely more dead corpses from the fighting earlier in the day. She cursed under her breath.
"It's alright," his sudden voice at her side made her head jerk, an action she immediately regretted. "They haven't seen us."
The fact that he could speak startled her, but his accent made her hiss in anger. "You're one of them!" She spat, her anger was an erupting volcano contained in a quick whisper. His accent was strange and foreign, ultimately dangerous.
"It's not like that," he tried to calm her.
Her eyes went feral and while still on her back she slid herself away from him. The bag of devices was still at his side. She felt vulnerable with just her small knife aslung into her belt.
"Move again and they'll see you."
He was right and she tried to still herself. "Who are you?" Names like spy and traitor rattled around in her skull.
"My name's Elias, I—"
"—Are you Gryaz?" He didn't answer right away and a stone of dread fell into her stomach.
"Stop moving," he pressed. He must have seen her twitch and writhe away. "They're going to catch us."
The night around her seemed to be getting brighter, the Polle going from black wasteland to brown hostility. The moon was unnatural; she had never seen it this big before.
"What are you doing here?" she stammered. "You're not one of us…" She felt helpless, like she was a child again. Her strength seemed to drain out of her and seep into the cold ground like acid.
"He called you Adamski back there—what's your real name?"
"What does that matter? What are you doing here?"
"I just—" she watched him struggle. She could see his eyes dart back and forth. "—I had nowhere else to go."
"Gryaz!" She spat, wriggling further away from him. She felt bruises forming across her hips.
She didn't speak to him after that, instead she lay quiet and still, listening to the strange voices of the Gryaz on the other side of the Polle past the barrier. She knew that at first light the soldiers would stampede over the hill and bare down on them. She could pretend to be dead the whole day but it wouldn't stop her from being blown to bits when one of them stepped on their earlier handy work.
She cursed again. Exasperated. An animal caged in an open field of space.
"You don't have to be afraid of me." His whispered found her even though she had scampered further away. "What's your name?"
She closed her eyes, lusting after the darkness that she had known when she first entered the Polle. "Adamski."
"That's the name your father gave you. What did your mother call you?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"I saw you the other day when you came back from the Polle—before they broke through the last barrier. You looked haggard and lonely. I wanted to know why you did this every night."
"Ten rubles and a warm bed." It was the truth, but he acted like he didn't believe her. "I'm no hero, I'm not some lost girl looking to do a good deed. I don't need to be studied. I just want to get through the war. This is the only thing I know how to do right now."
"What did your mother call you, Adamski? I want to know."
She sighed, the moon so low and bright that had she wanted to she could have cradled it in her arms like an infant. She figured it didn't matter anymore anyway. "Gabriela," she breathed into the darkness. "My mother called me Gabriela."