Sasha could hear the pounding of her own heart in her ears as she hastened along the snow-covered frozen trail. Without conscious will, she had assumed the same demeanor and posture as the other dogs. Her tail was pulled down and close, and she hunched as she ran to reduce her profile, ears laid back on her head. She breathed heavily but held in her tongue. Her muscles trembled though she wasn’t cold, and her stomach seemed to be rolling and roiling inside her. These were the physical manifestations of fear, something of which she had learned a great deal in a very short time.
The party with whom she was fleeing stretched out in a single-file line, racing their way over the East Woods trail at a punishing, reckless pace. Ahead of them drove their beloved human companion and driver, Tun, an eight-dog substitute team pulling his overloaded cargo sled. Behind Tun rode their young friend Rol, driving Tun’s slim, ornate racing sled, it too heaped with belongings. Rol drove a single reindeer in harness, and slapped the reins across its flanks, compelling it to move faster. They stole looks over their shoulders, hunching and trembling like the dogs.
Surrounding Sasha was her pack, her dogsledding teammates, her family. Ahead was Dak, the skilled lead dog, and Stone, the oldest. Beside her, her own brother Anchu, and behind them energetic Alexei and his brother, strong wheel dog Larik. Umka, the seventh on the team, ran beside Kotka, Sasha’s mentor and longest-held friend, a slight limp betraying his healed broken leg. The entire entourage ran as fast as they could manage toward the summit of Tun’s mountain to escape their pursuers.
What had been one of the finest days in Sasha’s short life was subsequently overshadowed by harrowing and mysterious events. The Summer Festival at the tiny village of Tunkan brought Sasha and Anchu to their first dog sled race. An unexpected and exciting win was a sweet surprise, and the team reveled in their success.
Before a day passed, they were called upon to travel with Rol to Sasha and Anchu’s birthplace, the homestead of Bek, Nina and their son Jiak, to determine the reason for their absence from Festival. Sasha was eager to see Jiak, her first love and dogsledding driver, after two moons in her new home. She was equally eager, if not perhaps more so, to see Mother again, and relate to her all the exciting things that had passed since their parting. She would see Kotka, and all the dogs of her former team.
Upon arrival the home was found to be deserted, and every dog in the yard was gone except Kotka, who had fled to the woods. He described a frightening incursion by strangely-clad invaders, taking all the dogs and people with them. Bek had called them “soldiers”.
When they returned to Tunkan, the laughing village, host of the Summer Festival, they found it pillaged and torched. The fearsome intruders from the west were responsible for this, and none of it made the least sense to Sasha or her teammates.
Now Tun and Rol pressed eastward, fleeing their persecutors, last to leave in a long string of refugees. Chavchu reindeer herders drove their animals ahead of them, and more than a dozen dog sleds carried people, families and their belongings. A number of orphaned dogs followed with the group, similarly driven from the only homes they had ever known.
Both sleds were loaded to capacity with all that could be hurriedly made to fit. The air was crisp and cold, and the snow well-packed, yet Tun’s team struggled as the trail pitched uphill. He stepped off the runners and trotted behind the sled to reduce the load. Higher and higher they continued to climb until they emerged from the forest near the peak of the mountain. The next leg would be the most difficult, as the steep slope loomed before them.
“Whoa now.” Tun called to the team, ”All dogs down.”
Most of the dogs laid down in their traces, panting hard and welcoming the rest stop. Two dogs up front, who looked enough alike to be twins, stood staring ahead at the trail, awaiting the command to move again.
The imposing peak of the great mountain stood before them. Ancient etched and jagged granite, with strips and stripes of glacier, snow and ice. An intimidating incline without a trail or cover, the wind careened up its face and threw itself from its top to form billowing clouds of blowing snow in the sky.
Tun spoke to Rol and rifled hastily through his sled, extracting a gang line extension and a bag of harnesses. He called his loyal team to him; Dak and Stone, Alexei and Larik, Anchu and Sasha and Umka. One by one he placed their mushing harnesses on them, assisted by Rol, and commenced to connect tug lines to the long gang line, already equipped with eight strong Chukchi dogs. Despite calls, Larik did not report for duty, but Tun wasted no time returning to their climb. With fourteen dogs in tandem, the tiring troupe again attacked the ascent.
The early winter wind brought with it a haunting scent, climbing the slope and stampeding past the party. All the dogs seemed to detect it simultaneously as they lifted their noses to the air.
“The strangers!” Stone called to the pack, and they turned their heads to the timberline as it receded.
Fourteen dogs and a man were no match for the million-ton mountain which has stood for millennia. They slowed to a crawl, frequently coming to a complete halt. Tun would shove and heave, and more than once Rol needed to join him to move the long cargo sled foot by foot up the steep slope. Both men turned their eyes often to the backtrail.
At long last the crest of the summit drew near, as Tun continued to push the heavy sled, and every dog strained at the long gang line. One more step, one more step. Each inch of progress purchased with exhausted muscles and heaving breaths.
Dak, in the lead, was first over the top, right behind him Stone. Before Sasha reached the ridge, they disappeared over it, and so it went with each of the dogs in the long procession.
As Sasha crested the ridgeline, she was startled to discover they were on a bluff that towered hundreds of feet above the base. A narrow shelf ran perpendicularly, barely wide enough for a sled. The whistling wind inundated all with blinding clouds of blowing snow. Winds driven up the face of the cliff would collide with and part the curtain to reveal a vast, featureless plain below. As far as she could see, nothing but flat, frozen windswept tundra greeted her.
“Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw!” Tun’s powerful, booming voice could barely be heard above the Arctic din cascading over the mountaintop and shrouding everything in white. If not for Dak’s recollections of vague familiarity of this rarely-trod route, the sharp turn might well have resulted in disaster, and a blind helpless plunge into the rock-strewn abyss.
The group skirted along a narrow ledge, twenty feet below the driftcap, parallel to the cliff. The overwhelming blowing snow whited out everything beyond a few feet, making for a nerve-wracking transit, the precipice beside them a constant threat. It seemed one misstep could find them in mid-air at any moment, though the buffeting wind served to shove them back against the wall of granite. They continued along this seismic cut, guided only by Dak’s nose and their faith in his instincts. It crept its way down from the peak of the mountain, leading them eventually to the wide open tundra.
When finally they were on level ground again, they turned due eastward and struck out across the stark landscape. Sunset was drawing near, and here the wind raced across the open terrain without hindrance, and reached phenomenal speeds. Ice bits and even tiny shards of rock peppered the party like miniature gunfire, as they bore down directly into the Arctic headwind. They followed a freshly-laid trail, preceded by the others that had fled before them.
Their breakneck pace waned as the blistering wind blinded them and hammered them with brutal gusts. The sky grew darker and the numbing temperatures grew ever colder. The frantic pace of the hillclimb and the sprinting undertaken when they reached the plain began to ebb. Gallops slowed to trots. Trots slowed to walking.
Now as darkness fell, the gale increased in its fury, and cold was driven through dog’s coats and humans’ alike. Sasha pondered at these strange days.
“Why do the strangers persecute us?” she wondered. Surrounded by all those she knew and loved, led by their strong friend Tun, Sasha was less fearful now, yet apprehensive about the future. Mystery loomed before her, and she thought now of all those she had longed to see since the odyssey began. Her mother, her human family of the homestead on the moraine, all of her former teammates and other dogs from her first home. Dear Jiak.
In the howling wind Sasha swore she heard their voices calling out to her. From someplace deep in the darkness, perhaps high above the smothering storm, they sent their spirits to her.
“We are all of us a pack,” came their soothing thoughts, “and a pack is a forever love.”
The sounds faded into the roar of the polar barrage, and Sasha leaned into her harness, ignoring the pain in her paws.