"Wot's that lorry doin' parked way out here? Suspicious, right, K'walski?"
The trickle past the snowy verge of the road contained only inches of water, so Private's march was truly a March. Intel said that the trickle turned into a sizable moat around the impressive castle. Pfft, some defense by a puny moat, snorted Kowalski to himself, as if penguins would ever use water as an effective tactic for protection. Kastelholm lay miles in the distance and personally, Kowalski preferred sliding in the snow to marching. He studied the logo on the lorry's side that depicted starry-eyed parents emoting over their brand new home while a little girl clutched her stuffed polar bear and cried. "Let's consider that Åalanders move house as much as anyone else does in life, Private, and continue until the castle. Skipper, sliding is the optimal method of transport at this point. Permission to slide?"
"Yeah, my feet hurt, too. Commence sliding on my mark." The four lined up abreast as if competing in the Penguin Olympics 200-meter Breaststroke event. "Mark." The verge was wide enough for four little penguins to slide in a row. After a moment to find proper placement, the team kicked, wriggled, and steered in a perfect formation. Anyone watching would have noted four bodaciously fast seabirds zipping like a Blue Angels aerial routine along the quiescent island countryside. The miles slid away, too, until a slight rise in the landscape made them resume walking.
Kowalski consulted his abacus. "Kastelholm is still a mile away, Skipper." Some woods sheltered the road, deciduous trees bare and sad while the evergreens supplied spotty cover.
Skipper brushed ice crystals from his pristine front. "We should march single file."
After another quarter mile, Private could no longer keep silent. "Skippa, I'm lonely."
"The March is mostly single file. It's tradition. Suck it up."
An agreeing squeak issued from Rico at caboose position as he stomped along in close order march behind Kowalski as Kowalski's attention seemed elsewhere. Another quarter mile passed with Private at point and Skipper next in line waiting for the next gripe. It would likely be not long in coming, and then he could put his compromise in place if needed. If he felt like it. For the good of the team, of course. Always think ahead, Skipper thought to himself, a plan B is preferable to being caught flat-flippered. And Private was so damn, um, cussed young, he mused. He wasn't coddling him, he wasn't.
"Are we there yet?"
It was best to give reasons for orders when time allowed. "We walk single file so that anyone pursuing can't gauge our numbers."
"Who would be followin' us?"
"You never know."
The snow was plain white in these woods. Kowalski found the regular color boring now that he had experienced watermelon snow.
"Skipper, I think we're all right."
"It's my job not to."
Two hundred fifty steps later, Private sighed loud enough to be heard but didn't crab anymore.
"Private, don't make me turn this March around --- okay, fine. Traditions, laws, customs, made to be broken, I say. Did you ever hear New Yorkers talk about something called Prohibition? Fall out and take five."
"Skipper, come look at this." Kowalski ought to have been nearly invisible in the shade of a mighty roadside pine at night, but he wasn't. An eerie glow illuminated his long form and he looked like a Central Park lamppost in travel size. "Phosphorescent moss and lichen and some fungi known as foxfire."
Skipper scratched at the lichen and some flaked off on his flipper. He sniffed it. "This could be useful to weaponize. Kowalski, analysis."
"It's bioluminescent to glow in the dark, but it's unpredictable. Analysis is that a Maglite is more practical. Rico can nearly always upchuck one of those."
After a moment, Skipper cocked his head. "And Rico isn't unpredictable? But good analysis, Kowalski. Not everything needs to be a weapon."
"A monumental concession for you, may I say, sir. Sometimes we just appreciate Mother Nature." Kowalski studied his leader. "You look all green like you did when we thought you were a zombie."
Skipper stretched out each flipper and waved the one that was broken during that fiasco. "Why bring that up?"
"I did poorly with the team. Maybe I need a do over on training as your second in command."
Skipper glanced over to where Rico and Private made penguin snow angels. "It was weird and stormy out that night. Your imagination got the better of you. You did all right in the end."
Kowalski moved away from the glowing moss and was invisible once more. "My imagination does that a lot."
"So? We all have weaknesses. I just don't like to talk about mine. Hah, there's the sign for the bridge to the castle, see it down the road? Rico! Private! Two minute warning!"
"Something else, Skipper. Do you like the northern or the southern lights better?"
"The southern lights are just the same as here, but as an Antarctican through and through, I like them better. I'll never claim to be a citizen of the world. Antarctica is home. Answer your question, Mr. Science Guy?"
Kowalski put on his softest voice. "Getting to the homeschooling, the odds are 0.005231 against that there will ever be a new Viking uprising. Look around you. Isn't this about the most peaceful place we've ever been?"
Skipper got strident before Kowalski caught his second wind. "Homeschooling would do that, now wouldn't it! All these little kiddies being rested up to learn bright and early tomorrow morning about how to conquer the outside world, prepped by their mommies and daddies. No school dances, no talent shows, no schoolkid crushes, no back to school nights, just work work work."
Rico and Private came over to see what the loud talk was about. Kowalski tried not to cave in front of them. "Sir, it could be that the woman was encouraging her child to study hard, you know? If I ever had hatchlings, I would do that to help them --- "
The door to discussion slammed shut. "Do you know that? Do you? Nope. There was a definite solid plan there. I could feel it. We march." Kowalski ignored a loon's laughing cry somewhere around the nearby fjord as he took up his position in the small column.
They crossed a bridge and stopped at the base of a smallish hill.
"So this is Kastelholm."