Alexei continued his low whimpering as the team plied the eastbound trail, having left his brother Larik behind at the devastated village that had been Tunkan. The trail paralleled the river, and presently they came to the village fish wheel. This is a water wheel with baskets instead of paddles. Fish lifted in the baskets would be dumped to the side as the wheel came around to the holding bin. Herein could be held a hundred fish or more. Normally, folks from the village would empty the holding bin every day or every other at most. Now neglected several days, the bin overflowed, with many frozen, rotted or half-eaten fish lying on the ground. Fish now thrown onto the pile slid off, and they flipped and flopped until gravity returned them to the safety of the water.
Rol stopped the sled a few meters from the wheel, grabbed a fish for each dog, and tossed it to them. Having traveled two days without food, the team was ravenous, and Rol offered a second helping to those that ate their fill and looked for more. He then filled the sled bag with all the frozen fishes that would fit, all the while watching his perimeter for any signs of threat.
With the best intentions for feeding the hungry dogs, inexperienced Rol inadvertently hobbled the team. Now with full bellies they would be lethargic, and any strenuous work would result in stomach cramps and vomiting. As the boy tried to press the team eastward, the dogs ambled along slowly, until finally Stone stopped and sat behind Dak at the lead, halting all progress. The rest of the team followed suit, exhausted and stuffed with their meal, and laid down on the spot. No amount of coaxing from the driver could force them to stand, and finally Rol capitulated. They would rest here several hours, during which Rol sat on the sled until he dozed off. When he woke, snow was falling heavily. He and the sleeping dogs had a thick layer of snow on them. The boy rose, returned to the river to fetch water for the dogs, slaking his own thirst as well. Afterward, the group again began their eastward trek.
Before traveling far, the trail split around a spruce bog. The main trail bore right, leading around the swamp, back into the forest, the route to the river and the Dezhnevo Trail. The track to the left was much less worn, clearly used more by the wild inhabitants of the area than humans or dogs or sleds. With intent to avoid the merciless soldiers, Rol drove the team onto the narrow, northbound trail that skirted the bog before ascending the steep terrain. Snow continued to fall heavily, and the sky grew darker. The end of the day drew near. The sun, blocked from view by the snow storm, commenced its half-dip below the horizon. The occasional deciduous tree could be seen preparing for winter, dressed now in its autumn raiment of yellow, red, gold and brown leaves. Low growing plants set forth seeds, falling or blowing about, or transported by wild friends. The squeaky honking of a flock of snow geese could be heard crossing the sky, bound for milder climes. The air grew colder with each passing hour. The trail underfoot became hard as rock, and the snow accumulated on it.
As the team left the bog behind them, Rol spotted a flag hanging from a tree branch that arched over the trail. Several strips of leather had been tied together and hung. Perhaps this is a marker for a cache of goods, Rol thought. As desperate as his situation was, Rol would not disturb such a cache. Not only would it be unheard of to take something that doesn’t belong to you, but a cache on a trail could be a re-supply someone may be counting on. To rely on such a repository on a trek then find it to be missing could spell tragedy under the harshest conditions. As the team passed the flag, Rol saw the strips were fringes with a distinctive color pattern. When he saw it was the same pattern repeated on the racing sled and harness, he realized this flag was left by Tun. This caused him to pause and consider perhaps this was a message meant for him. Could Tun have cached provisions for the boy, having known he had just two days’ food and would find no re-supply at Tunkan? Maybe the fleeing group chose to lighten their loads by leaving some cargo behind. Knowing Tun’s thoughtfulness, it would be like him to leave something for Rol. Something from the Gifting Giant.
The sense of familiarity, the known, the link to someone fond of him brought Rol some warm comfort out on this lonely, cold trail. He stopped and secured the snow hook, and walked to the tree to look for a secreted stash. He walked all around the tree, kicking at the snow, and looked up the trunk for a pack tied above the reach of bears. He explored the adjacent area and trees, searched intently for anything that looked disturbed, out-of-place, or heaped in a pile. He could find nothing. Perhaps the flag was reference to something that no longer existed, or was simply a trail marker. Returning to the sled, the party again commenced to move steadily along in the snow-filled evening.
Not infrequently, the trail seemed to vanish through Larch stands, thickets, gaps between huge boulders. Often Rol could see no trail at all, and more than once feared he had missed a turn or made some misstep that led to a dead-end. Dak at the lead and the rest of the team never hesitated, and seemed to pick out the trail where none could be discerned, continuing on with steady uphill progress.
Before long, the group came upon another flag made of Tun’s jacket fringe. Rol again searched for a cache of goods, a map, anything that might be indicated by the marker. Again, his efforts were fruitless, and they pressed onward, presuming these were trail markers, yet encouraged by the thought that this was Tun’s trail. The team continued their ascent up the craggy side of the mountain, through narrow ravines in the ancient bedrock, across flat spans of granite covered in ankle-deep snow, across a tiny frozen creek where Rol stopped for water.
The half-set sun cast a surreal orange glow in the snowy sky as they came to a lean-to. Here, high on this hill, far from the main trail, Rol finally felt they could stop and pitch camp. He started a fire, keeping it small to avoid a plume of smoke that might advertise his presence. He gave another fish to each dog, and roasted one in the fire for himself. The first mouthful of fish seemed the finest thing Rol had ever tasted. He ravenously ate all the flesh he could strip from the bones, and crunched a few of the bones down as well. Fed and tired, he curled in a corner of the lean-to, wishing he’d grabbed a hide or blanket from the pile around Chimlik. The air grew increasingly colder, and just as he began to shiver a little, the wild Black and White Husky came over and curled beside him, pressing his body close to warm the boy. Rol was asleep in minutes, and in his slumber laid his arm across the big dog.
All the dogs slept deeply, except Alexei.
He would wake often, and stand facing the backtrail, staring for long periods of time. The steady snow piled atop him as if he were a statue. Only the occasional soft cry betraying his thoughts.