Restful sleep eluded Sasha her first night in the new iteration of Home. Her bed, designated by no more than her scent, had been scattered and re-purposed in her absence. Two dogs, nearly twins, now occupied the space, and so it was with the six other scented-and-otherwise-undesignated beds of her teammates. She wandered about, looking for a quiet, comfortable place to rest. A long overdue rest. Finally, sneaking in through a slim gap in the door, she found the shed from which the racing sled had emerged to contain none other than Kotka. He lay sleeping on a crumpled oilskin tarpaulin, directly in front of the door, and in the darkness she set a foot down on his snout. He leaped up with a yelp, sneezing twice and chuffing between.
“I’m sorry!” Sasha quickly offered to the unknown dog in the dark, “I didn’t see you. I’m terribly sorry!”
“I’m okay, Sosh.” Kotka said softly, recognizing her voice.
“Kotka!” She ran up to snuzzle him. “I’m so glad it’s you! Well, I don’t mean I’m glad it’s you I stepped on,” she continued in a nervous flush, “I mean I’m glad it’s you in here. I’m glad you found a quiet place. I didn’t see you…”
“It’s okay.” Kotka interrupted her blithering, “I’m glad you found me, too.”
The simple comfort of familiar company was enough to warm their hearts as the cold grew deeper through the night. Curling beside one another added the practical benefit of warmth, and they slept soundly for the first time after their long ordeal afield.
In her dream, Mother arrived at the Lodge. Unable to find Sasha, she stood in the center yard calling her name. She repeated it three times, then another voice joined in the search. In that strange world of sleep Sasha felt herself lying still, eyes closed, while Mother called over and over. She felt paralyzed, unable to open her eyes, move, or even speak. Kotka’s deep voice came through next, and on his second repetition of her name, her mind began to shift from sleep to waking. A moment of confusion and panic gripped her, in that space between dream world and the real one. In a moment, she fully awoke and took in the surroundings.
“Sasha!” Kotka called again, more loudly, adding a nose nudge.
Then she heard her name called again from the yard. And then again in the second voice, though now neither belonged to Mother.
“They’re searching for you in the yard.”
She leaped to her feet and squeezed out through the door of the shed, out into the gray morning. She was immediately struck by the cold, the world having fallen into a deep, frigid slumber while they all slept.
“Sasha! Sasha!” It was Umka, trotting the perimeter, scanning the faces of the innumerable dogs encamped now in these environs.
“Here! Umka!” She answered.
He snapped his head in the direction of the call, and galloped the short distance to her.
“Your brother is looking for you. He’s been trying to find you.”
She accompanied Umka at a fast trot across the snow-covered yard to an area behind the Dogs’ House. There stood Anchu, with Stone and Dak beside him.
“Anchu!” she called out, “What’s the matter?”
“There you are!” he replied, his tone of relief underpinned with impatience. “We’re going to find Tun.”
“What do you mean? I mean, how?”
“We caught a trace of scent on the Coldward trail, and we’re going to follow it.”
Dak and Stone nodded their heads and looked to the forest at the Coldward trail as if readying to go, hoping for Tun’s return, or imagining what fate may have befallen him.
Sasha replied hesitantly, “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. Suppose he returns here?”
“It’s the six of us here, and no one else knows us. We belong with Tun.” Dak offered.
“Five of us.” Stone interjected. “Alexei left this morning to find Larik.”
Stunned, they all stood in silence for a long moment, each sorting and weighing the situation in their own hearts and heads.
“This isn’t good. Not at all.” Sasha shook her head. “We’re a pack, and we need to stay that way. What’s happening to us? We should all be going with Lexi to find Larik. We never should have left him.”
“We didn’t really have much choice.” came Umka’s response. “We had to follow our driver’s commands. And we were starving. If Larik had come with us he could have gorged himself on fish.”
“No, no. We should have gone right back.”
“We were bound by duty,” Dak volunteered. “Getting Rol home safely was our priority.”
“Oh, I know.” Sasha said with reluctant resolve. “I know. Of course. But we should have gone back after we got Rol home.”
Silence again reigned over the group, sorting the many and sometimes conflicting feelings.
“But Tun.” Anchu posited, wavering in his commitment to the only plan he’d yet thought of. “We’re not a team without a musher.”
Sasha looked from one to the other, momentarily holding the gaze of each; Dak, Stone, Umka, Anchu. They stood in a sort of semi-circle, all eyes fixed on her. Silent. Beckoning. Almost pleading, as if she alone had the answer to all of this.
Clarity came to her quickly, as it so often did when she let her true and valiant heart guide her thoughts, feelings and actions. She raised her head as she confidently and matter-of-factly stated her summation.
“We need a musher to be a team, but we only need us to be a pack. We need to be a full pack before we can hope to be a full team again. Tun is capable of taking care of himself and everyone around him. Larik is one of us, and without us, may as well be one alone.”
Her last word, alone, seemed to float in the air around them, to ring in the trees and bounce from the snow beneath their feet, at which they were all now looking, heads hung.
“Of course you’re right, Sis.” Anchu acknowledged, seeing in her brief soliloquy the simple logic, the truth that is the heart of a pack.
“Thanks Sosh.” Dak said, raising his head to address her.
“Yeah, thanks.” Stone added, the others nodding their heads in agreement.
Without further conversation or hesitation they began, and headed for the trail back down the mountain. Nearing the trailhead, Sasha looked back at the crowded campus. The New Lodge Village was waking. Thick smoke billowed from fires starting up for the day. The sounds and signs of myriad activities began to fill the yard as it receded.
Then, at the edge of the clearing, she saw Rol. He was standing and watching Sasha and her teammates trot away down the trail. His face seemed to grow longer, his shoulders drooped. His hand went to his eyes as he turned and walked slowly and forlornly back toward the buildings.
Then The Lodge disappeared behind the hill.