Castle Of The Giant

 

Through midday the troupe trod briskly toward their destination, Tun’s Lodge. Crisp, cold air and unbroken sunshine greeted the pack as they made their way up the mountain. There was more snow on the ground than when last they traversed this route. Along the way each would point out a hunting sign. A scent deposited by a tree, tracks on the ground, evidence of passing and feeding wildlife.

They were jubilant, and conversations bubbled throughout. The re-telling of the hunt, dreams of the future, and curiosity at what they would find at The Lodge dominated the jovial exchanges. They stopped to drink at Tear-In-The-Rocks Creek, most of it now frozen over. Eddies and inlets were sought for open water. All tongues occupied, the chattering voices ceased, and upon getting underway again, a quiet mood settled in. Each dog was lost in their own thoughts of what the future would bring.

It was exciting and a little scary at the same time. So many unknowns. Some of these unknowns were bound to be pleasant surprises, experiences new to all, sometimes learning about themselves in the process. Some of the unknowns were bound to be unpleasant. Things no one had thought of. Troubles not yet imagined. Yet herein lies the essence of adventure and discovery. If we always stick to the familiar trail, we will never see new horizons. If we don’t sometimes test ourselves, how will we know what we are capable of? Each day to come was filled with such bright promise, the wonders yet to discover.

By late afternoon, the pack crested the last hill before the Lodge, and beheld the campus that had become home to the inhabitants of Tunkan. Now they were greeted with another change. Half of the New Lodge Village was empty. All the Chavchu, their reindeer and yarangas included, were already gone. A half dozen dog sleds stood with teams in harness, their owners piling their possessions on board. Two teams were ready, and they started off eastward on the Woods Trail, which ascended still higher, to the summit of Tun’s Mountain.

The team raced across the clearing at the west side, into their former home. Sasha was anxious to find Kotka and speak with him. Umka and Anchu hoped to see Tun. Alexei wanted to do whatever the group did, and begged his brother to come to the Lodge with them. Larik stopped at the edge of the clearing, staring into the village, searching for good reason to go there. Finding none, with his eyes or his heart, he refused, and lingered at the edge of the woods.

Dak desperately wanted to know where Tun went, and hoped with all his will that he would once again find the giant man. Dak felt closest to Tun on a personal level, and worried for his safety. Anchu had not thought much about returning to the Lodge, but upon seeing it was overwhelmed with homesickness. He was overjoyed to be home, and hoped everything could go back to normal now.

Stone’s thoughts ran deeply. This was the strangest time of his long life. Everything in his world had a rhythm and cadence to it prior to the burning of Tunkan. There were no doubts about where they would live or what they would do day-to-day. No conflicts of loyalty or duty. The biggest decisions were where to take a nap or how quickly to finish a meal. At the same time, Stone had always had something of a fantasy, a daydream, about calling the wild mountains his home. He’d thought before of what it might be like to be a wolf, live in a wild pack, travel where you please and stay where you want to. He’d never really imagined himself doing so, simply admired the beauty of the free and wild life. Now, it had been suggested that he join the pack, to live in the wilderness along with their wolf cousins, and the appeal was overwhelming. True and dedicated to Tun, he could even see his way to believing Tun would understand, and in his inimitable way, would wish them “Good journey!”.

They sprinted into the village and fanned out. Dak and Stone headed to the main Lodge building in search of Tun. Umka, accompanied by Alexei, ran all over the campus checking the Storehouse, the run-in, the shed, and even the outhouse, looking for the big man. Anchu followed his sister to the Dogs’ House. She began calling from some distance, and as they arrived at the building, Kotka emerged through the dog door.

“Well, well. The wanderers have returned! Did you find Larik?” Kotka greeted them with a relaxed smile.

“Yes!” answered Anchu, excited to deliver the news. “He was at the fish wheel, but he doesn’t want to come live here.” he blurted out.

“Oh?” Kotka answered casually, “Well, we are free to leave if we choose. What about Alexei?”

“We had a meeting.” Sasha began, so nervous she didn’t even acknowledge his question, still unsure of how to approach the subject with Kotka. Looking into his face, she was reminded not only of how greatly she loved him, but also how greatly she trusted him. She knew she could say this any way it came out, and Kotka would be understanding, accepting, supportive, honest and open. This is one of the greatest values of the truest of friends. Come what may, including our own errors and shortcomings, a true friend will always understand, always love you.

“We decided- if Tun’s not here-” she spoke in starts and stops, “that we’re going to live as a wild pack. In the wilderness. If Tun’s not here.” She concluded thusly, leaving the question unasked. She could find no way to come right out and ask if he would go, or ask if he thought he was capable, or ask how a hunting pack would accommodate a handicapped dog.

Kotka sucked in a breath of surprise. His eyes widened and his whole face became brighter. Before he could speak, a tear welled in his eye. He spoke softly and evenly, and stared intently into Sasha’s eyes.

“I’ve always dreamed of living free in the wilderness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of it, wished for it. Just running away to the mountains. Freedom.”

“Really?” Sasha responded, “You’ve never said so.”

“But I have a pack. I couldn’t leave my pack over such a selfish notion.”

“Now your pack is ready to go!” she beamed. “But…” Sasha paused, swallowed and stammered, “Will you be alright? With your bum leg?” There. She said it. Her stomach was in knots and she wanted to cry, but she said it.

“Bum leg?” Kotka laughed as he dismissed her concerns. “It may stop me from racing on a sled team, but not much else. I was the fastest there was in my day, you know, and even with a bum leg, I bet I’m still faster than most!” His eyes were wide and a broad grin stretched across his face. “But Tun’s here.”

“What?” Sasha leaped to her feet, “Where?”

“I don’t know where, around here somewhere. He came back yesterday, and then all the others started to pack out and leave, heading seaward.”

“I must find him!” Sasha exclaimed as she leaped from the porch and began to run through the campus, calling out for Tun. Excited barks were coming from two packmates, near the center.

Racing directly to the front entrance of the main Lodge building, Dak and Stone found Tun’s cargo sled with a team in harness. They were acquainted with six of the eight dogs, the remaining two complete strangers. Behind the large cargo sled stood the narrower and shorter decorated racing sled, but pulling it was a single reindeer. Both sleds were heaped with everything imaginable; clothing and furs, cookpots and tools, traps and blankets and food.

The door burst open with a bang, someone moving swiftly, flinging the door open with his backside. A fur clad figure backed through the door, his arms barely managing the pile he carried. As he turned, the dogs recognized Rol, who dropped his load in shocked surprise.

“Dak! Stone!” he shouted.

A loud and fast pounding then met their ears. The sound of a giant, running through the Lodge.

Tun burst from the door, his eyes wide as saucers, with a look of disbelief on his face.

The moment his eyes met Stone’s, he fairly screamed. A high-pitched squeal formed of the simple word “O!”. He leaped in a single step from the doorway to Dak and Stone, fell to his knees, and wrapped one arm around each dog, as they wiggled and whined and licked his face.

“Rocky! Dak!” was all he could squeak out, and the big man cried unabashedly, his chest heaving with sobs. “Oh, Rocky! Dak!” he repeated. Basking in their attentions, his heart and senses were overwhelmed by the appearance of the cherished dogs, these ghosts from the trail. Dogs he had resigned himself to accept as gone forever. In a moment Sasha came running up to him, leaped up onto his chest and smothered him with paws and kisses.

Hearing the gleeful yips and barks, Anchu, Umka and Alexei streaked to the source of the exclamations. Tun opened his arms to Sasha, and held all three dogs, now kissing them atop their heads as they squirmed with delight. The next three appeared before him, and he could hardly believe his eyes. They were all here! Wait. All except Larik. Larik must be the only one lost to him. Tun laid on his back in the snow and let the dogs climb all over him. They pawed, they kissed, and few celebrations prior or since could compete with the level of joy and exhilaration.

Larik watched from the edge of the wood as the dogs swarmed into the Lodge campus and tore off in every direction. He saw Kotka emerge from the Dogs’ House and was immediately reminded of how much he liked, admired, even revered the old legend. He felt a bit sad and guilty, and disappointed with himself for having thought of him as simply an old, broken down dog. Kotka’s pride and character could be seen and sensed by his posture alone, the way he carried himself. Larik hoped his remarks would not make their way back to the honored veteran. Over at the Lodge, Dak and Stone suddenly ceased their staccato of barks, and now delighted yips and whines were heard. From the door emerged a man so tall he needed to duck down to exit the building. When again he stood upright, he could be seen to tower over everything but the buildings and the trees.

Larik’s stomach leaped into his throat as his heart started to pound. His knees went weak for a moment and he nearly stumbled where he stood, his eyes burning with tears. He watched the gentle giant hug two, then three, then six dogs at once in his massive arms, tears streaming down his cheeks. He saw the man lie flat on the ground to be smothered by the affections of his dearest friends. Without consciously willing it, Larik suddenly found himself sprinting across the clearing, barking all the way, “Tun! Tun! Here I am! Tun!”

Tun stood and looked to the barking. A voice he recognized. Larik flew through the air the last two meters and quite literally threw himself onto the man. “Larik! Larik! Larik!” Tun repeated as he held the dog, tears and sobbing continuing in unrestricted torrents.

As they gathered themselves, Sasha saw Rol, standing beside the reindeer. She ran to him, and gave him the same treatment as Tun; wiggles, whines and wet kisses abounded.

“The Great Spirit has smiled on us.” Tun said when again he was able to speak.

“I can hardly believe it.” replied Rol, “Just in the nick of time!”

“Okay guys,” Tun addressed the pack, “a couple more things and we’re ready to leave.”

There was a hurried nature to their movements, swiftness uncalled for if running a trap line or driving to the trading post. Their eyes kept turning toward the west trail leading up the mountain. Several sleds left just ahead of them, driving fast, as if they were racing.

Tun threw another parcel on the cargo sled, walked the gangline to check connections and dogs, and set his feet on the runners. He paused here, and looked for quite a while at each building, the grounds, the surrounding wood, as if saying goodbye.

“Let’s go. Eik! Det! Det!” he commanded, and his eight-dog team struggled to move the heavily laden sled, their driver lending welcome assistance. Sasha’s pack trotted alongside as Tun proceeded to the East Woods trail. Somehow, they sensed they would not be returning. Each dog looked back at the place they had called Home, some holding long gazes. They would remember fondly their times at their mountaintop hideaway, their retreat and respite.

As he entered the trail followed by Rol’s reindeer-driven sled and surrounded by his beloved dogs he thought he’d lost forvever, Tun did not look back again. He was grateful to be leaving with the things of true importance; Rol, and his closest canine companions.

The last tears of the joy of reunion mingled with new tears of parting as they left the Castle of The Giant, and set their course for The Mountain In The Sea.

 

Rabbit Rabbit

 

“Here! Here! Here!” Anchu’s barks sounded more distant than any had expected, and they all sprinted to follow his voice.

“Over here!” they heard Larik call in the low light of the foggy morning, still unable to see anything beyond the next tree.

“Here! It’s here!” came Dak’s voice from a different direction.

“I’m right behind him…Oh! Shoot!” was Larik’s reply.

“Here! Here!” barks came simultaneously from Anchu and Umka, at opposite ends of the group, now strung out in a long oval in the woods.

“How can it be in two places at once?” Stone shouted through the fog.

Dak again barked out, in broken fragments of sentences. One could almost hear the leaps and turns he was making. “Almost…got it…Almost!…”

At the opposite end of the oval, Umka and Sasha could be heard making the same fragmented calls, “Here!…Oh!…This way…Oh!”

It had been, previous to the dog attack, a perfect morning for Rabbit’s grazing. The thick fog reducing visibility,  providing some protection from predators. Green shoots still poked their way up through the season’s first snows. All the woods were quiet and peaceful. She froze at the sound of footfalls in the snow, approaching rapidly.

RUN! RUN! Escape her only defense. The dog saw her and let out a resounding call. Suddenly, the dog multiplied. It was a pack! They were everywhere, and a couple of them were very fast. One caught her scent trail, and was but a breath behind as she went through the drills: straight line across the opening then right turn and circle around to where you were. Stop. Freeze. Blend in. Listen.

Another dog from another direction and she was moving again. This time sprinting in a zig-zag line, changing course every few meters. Then the sound of dogs was in front of her. She bolted left, crossed the trail, and entered the dense thicket. Now she could hear the dogs’ barking begin to fade, as they raced off in a different direction. It sounded like they were now after her cousins, who had joined her for breakfast in the quiet dawn. Thicket drill: The smallest openings in the largest tangles make the best hiding places. She made a circle around the brush to throw the dogs off her trail, entered her secret lair and froze, stock still.

“It’s here! Here!” barked Larik.

“No! No! Over here!” Dak returned the call from the opposite end of the oval.

“No! Over here!” insisted Umka.

“I think we’re chasing more than one rabbit.” Stone called out. “Concentrate on the one nearest you.”

They worked in teams around the thick undergrowth. One dog prancing and pawing around front while the other traced around behind, waiting for their quarry to burst from the tangle. They tracked scent trails, noses pressed to the snow. They formed a perimeter around the area they believed held their target. They ran, they barked, they pawed and beat the brush.

Rabbit relaxed, breathed a sigh of relief as she heard the dogs circling the thickets on the other side of the trail. The coast clear, she left the safety of her hiding place and dashed back the way the whole party had come from. One large circle to throw down a masquerade scent trail, and she darted into the warren. She did a quick head count. They were all still here. Safe and warm and sleeping until Mother returned, and now they all stirred. She had a little laugh to herself at how easily dogs could be misled, then laid down to let her litter nurse.

“You’re going the wrong way! It’s back here!” Sasha called to the pack, running still further from the rabbit den in their frenzy. “I’ve never been able to catch a rabbit.” she said to herself, and laid down, panting. She began to think about life as a pack. It would be this every day. Of course they’d have all day every day to hunt without humans restraining them or hooking them to sleds.

“He’s got it!” The excited shout came from Larik. “Anchu’s got one!”

All the pack ran to see Anchu’s prize. Anchu held his head high as he walked among his tribe, the trophy draped in his jaws. He laid it down in the center of the group.

“Breakfast is served.” he said with a big grin.

All the dogs were elated with the catch. It wasn’t about breakfast, or even food. This demonstration showed they could work together as hunters, and that they stood a fair chance of feeding themselves this way. Between rabbits and the Fish Wheel, food would not be a worry. They ate at a relaxed pace, like a pride of lions in the heat of the savanna, lying on their bellies.

“This is really good rabbit. Thanks ‘Onch’.” said Stone, shortening Anchu to a single syllable. The rest reaffirmed this with random comments and smiles. Split seven ways, it was more of a snack than a meal, but it was symbolic of their potential success. They bathed in the snow after finishing, and otherwise lounged about, preening, and some napping.

The sun rose higher and burned away some of the fog. By mid-morning, Rabbit crept from her nest to go to the other side of the brambles, home of her cousin. Normally, by this time of day, they would all return to their homes to care for their young, and to avoid the harsh light of mid-day, which served to increase their visibility to predators. As she entered her cousin’s fur-lined den, the brood raced to her. Her cousin was nowhere in sight, and here her eight charges remained hidden, awaiting her return. They were very hungry now, having missed the morning meal, and nursed hastily at the teats of their mother’s cousin. She would let them have their fill. It may well be their last meal. If Mother didn’t return, it was not starvation that would kill them, but the unrelenting cold. She didn’t know why, but Rabbit was compelled to adopt the orphans, and she regularly visited to nurse the litter until they were big enough to go out on their own.

In the first night, two succumbed to the frigid temperatures. Two nights later, a third. Taxing as it was,  Rabbit’s efforts paid off, and in little more than a week, five new faces emerged to populate the warren.

It was more of a celebration than a meal, or even a snack, to the Wild Pack. Spirits were high as they once again got underway, and set an overland course crossing Silver Creek, and on to Tun’s Mountain Lodge. The mists of morning lifted, and the sun shone brightly on the forest, filtering down through the ancient spruces, painting dappled shadow patterns on the snow. The air was crisp and the snow crunchy, and it seemed nothing could despoil this day.

Sasha thought again of her dear friend Kotka, and considered Larik’s premise, that a hunting pack has no place for a dog with a physical handicap. Suppose her pack went to the wild woods to live, and Kotka was unable to do so? How could she choose? Would she desert her pack, or the closest and longest friendship of her short life? How could she have both?

Answers eluded her, as she vowed to find a way, and lose neither.

 

A World Of Their Own

 

The dawn broke still and gray. A thick fog had enshrouded the world, the magical mist transforming the landscape. The spruces, the trail, the creek, the fish wheel and all the wilderness vanished. Now merely a cloud, slumbering on the ground. Without the slightest breeze, the air did not stir, and no sound fractured the crystal silence of daybreak. As each dog awoke, they beheld a tiny microcosm floating in smoky space. Each could see only the others in the pack, and the small patch of Earth that held them, seemingly all there was remaining of the universe. After a quiet round of stretches and yawns, and time enough to look about, taking in the curiously vaporous world, Larik was first to speak.

“I’m sorry I got so carried away yesterday.” he addressed the pack in a voice barely above a whisper. “I’ve been thinking about it all night. It was really nice of you guys to come back for me. I know I owe a certain duty to the pack.”

“You owe us nothing…” Stone began.

“Please.” Larik cut him off politely. “Let me finish. I’ve been thinking all night of what to tell you.” He paused, looking to Stone to ensure there was no offense. “Sasha should be able to go see Kotka, and Umka should see Tun. Anchu should be able to don a racing harness again. Really, it’s just selfish of me to pressure you guys into living in the wild wood. I don’t know myself if I can do it, or if that’s even what I really want.” He looked up into the fog where there previously stood trees. He looked beyond them, to the fog hiding the distant mountain tops from view. “One thing I know for certain,” he began again in a serious tone, then cracked a smile, “and that’s that you guys really stink like rotten fish!” He feigned disgust at the smell. “Can we get out of here? Anywhere but here! How could I have lived here for two days?”

Larik’s apologies, followed by humor, broke the mood of sadness and contention that had reigned over the pack. A feeling of bright good cheer and camaraderie again filled their hearts and spirits, as the pack began to trot eastward on the familiar trail obfuscated by fog. The world seemed to have evaporated, and all the cosmos was reduced to this caravan, loping through a ceaseless heavenly veil.

Conversations were simple, clear, honest and open. Feelings were expressed without undue emotional weight, without requirements for solemnity or serious consideration. It was as if the entire group had become a single mind, and these were the thoughts it thought in unbounded contemplation.

“Well, I hope there are no wolves, or wild dogs, anywhere around. We smell like a pack of marching salmon.” said Dak.

“I didn’t notice so much until you pointed it out.” Anchu added with a giggle, sprinting ahead to be upwind of the rest. He nearly vanished into the fog, just a dark Anchu-sized shadowy ghost, nearly indiscernable. Almost more sensed than seen.

“I’m curious to see what home looks like. To see if the band of vagabonds remains encamped.” Stone stated casually, trotting in his usual place, shoulder to shoulder with Dak, at the fore of the pack save for anxious Anchu.

“I wonder if Tun is there. And Rol.” spoke Sasha, in that moment a sense gripping her heart and stomach, as she considered the younger may well have moved on. “Rol.” The name rang from her with no further purpose than to hear it again, to evoke a smile and a slight shake of the head at her recollections.

“I just want to eat something besides fish.” Larik interjected. “Keep your eyes out.”

“Eyes out!” parroted Alexei, then he moved closer to his brother and asked quietly, “For what?”

“For food!” Larik nearly scolded. “Rabbits and weasels. Whatever you see.”

“I can see nothing in this cloud.” Alexei remarked, as he eased away from Larik a bit, maintaining the pack’s pace, then dropping back a little.

“I think we should do both.” Stone raised his voice and turned his head to address the group as they floated along, alone in the world but for the surreal passing ghost tree or ghost rock, half-solid in the translucent air.

“Weasels and rabbits?” Dak threw a crooked, questioning glance at Stone.

“To try living in the wilderness. If the Lodge has become a village without Tun, I’m game to give it a try with Larik.” Most in the group raised eyebrows or looked at one another.

“What do you mean “both”?” Sasha inquired.

“And you should see Kotka, Tun or Rol,” Stone responded, “Anchu can return to the team. Larik can remain in the woods and we can visit, and bring food.”

“That’s not exactly a wild pack, is it?” asked Dak, “How does that equal both?”

“And,” Stone continued, “if the Lodge is a village with no sign of Tun or Rol, we head out on our own.”

Thinking aloud, Larik parroted like Alexei, “On our own.”

“How can we go live wild if I’m with Tun and Alexei is with the team? And what about Kotka?” Umka moved closer to Stone as he spoke.

“And Rol?” Sasha added.

“Suppose none of them are there?” Dak looked to a passing ghost pine as he spoke, almost more to the ether than the pack, “At the Lodge.”

“Like Tunkan.” Larik expressed the remainder of Dak’s thought.

“RABBIT! RABBIT! RABBIT!” Anchu’s barking accompanied the rapid fading away of his ghost backside and tail into the dense fog.

Larik burst into a run up the center of the trail, barking orders.

“You two on the left,” he nodded without slowing, “and you guys on the right.”

He disappeared into the cloud behind Anchu.

Away they all flew, and the Wild Pack was off, on its first hunt together.

Wild Dogs

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to Wilderness.” Umka said plaintively, “What’s so different about it?”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Anchu responded to the open forum, “Where is it?”

“The wilderness is not a place.” Larik began with an uncharacteristically positive and bright tenor. “Well, I mean it isn’t one single place like a village or Home. I mean The Lodge.” His face and voice took on the lively and engaging beam of the storyteller, the vendor, the preacher. “The wilderness is everywhere around us in every direction. Any place that has no humans. Woods to provide hunting grounds, meadows in which to sleep out under the stars. Rivers for drinking and ponds for swimming, and all ours any time we want it!”

“Any time we want!” Alexei parroted, “Whenever we want.”

“I myself would rather sleep in my own bed any day.” Dak shook his head as he spoke, “Any night, I mean. Especially when it’s brutally cold and the wind is blowing.”

Larik continued with his energetic air of persuasion. “We’ll make our beds in caves! Warm and sheltered. And, may I remind you, there are no more beds for us at home, I mean The Lodge, from what I hear.”

“No more beds.” Alexei confirmed Larik’s statement.

“Actually” Sasha chimed in, “I had the shed almost to myself. Just me and Kotka.” Only at this moment did she remember her oldest and dearest friend, expecting her to return to The Lodge with her team.

“We’ll need to go get him.” she finished.

“What?” countered Larik, “That old gimp?”

Sasha spun swiftly and put her nose up to Larik’s, the offense of the remark like a personal insult to her.

“I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue!” she snarled, “I won’t have you disrespect him.”

Larik took two steps back from Sasha’s toothy growl, a bit stunned by her reaction. Anchu swiftly moved to his sister’s side. “That goes for me, too.” he said.

Larik was unperturbed by their emotional outbursts, and began to speak before being interrupted by Stone. “That was uncalled for.”

Larik dismissively stated “Aw, it’s just a phrase.”

Alexei had mirrored Anchu’s move, and stood at his brother’s shoulder, “Just a phrase.”

Dak stepped toward the pairs and barked authoritatively, “Alright, let’s get back on track.”

“Okay, okay.” Larik resumed, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m just asking what kind of pack has an old…” he searched for a word, “…encumbered dog that can’t run and hunt.?”

“The kind of pack that came back for you!” Sasha snapped.

Dak spoke again to divert attentions away from Sasha, and from Larik’s remark.

“I don’t know any wild dog packs, so I couldn’t say. How many wild dogs are there? How many have you seen?”

“I’ve never been allowed to live in the wilderness,” Larik answered defensively, “so how would I know?”

“I’ve seen plenty of wolves and wolf packs without living in the wilderness.” Dak responded.

“If there are no wild dogs,” Umka added, “perhaps it’s for good reason.”

Larik was getting irritated hearing questions and objections for every point he made. He couldn’t conceive why the other dogs were not as enthusiastic as he was about living wild and free.

“So maybe we’ll be the first wild dog pack ever.” Larik said with some frustration in his voice. Sensing his concept was not favored by the majority, he softened his tone.

“What are you guys afraid of? You’re telling me little rabbits and baby reindeer and tiny birds can all live well and free in the forest, but we can’t?”

It was an excellent point. One that made the group stop their picking apart the plan and consider its merits.

“But I’m not a deer or a rabbit or a bird.” Stone stated with an edge of annoyance in his voice, “I’m a domestic dog. Born in a human’s nest and hand-raised by people. Learned their rules and commands. And I’ve lived a great life of comfort and adventure. I’ve never needed to worry where my meals came from or where I’ll bed down. On top of that there are a lot of bonuses to life with people, including attention and petting, treats and a certain sense of security.”

“Where was the security when Willow and Rika were being ripped to shreds by the bear?” Larik’s voice grew louder and faster. An underlying fear disguised as anger drove his thoughts and emotions, including his dream of a life in the wilderness. Away from gang lines and polar bears. “I had to stand there and watch them stomped and I couldn’t even reach the the bear because I was lashed to that abominable sled.” Larik’s fear-driven anger continued to boil. His eyes fixed to a single point of focus as he relived the horror in his mind’s eye. Again. He pounced on his forepaws, and in a frenzied rush of words he laid bare his resentment of any compromise to his liberty.

“I can’t!” he shouted, still pouncing, each pounce accentuating a word. “I can’t go back to the harness, being tied to anything. I don’t want to be tied to anything. I don’t want to be restrained in place while I watch my friends killed or I get my nose ripped off. I can’t do it, understand?” his voice reached a crescendo, “I can’t!”

Somewhat stunned at his sudden outburst, the rest of the pack looked on in silence. Larik turned from the group and trotted to the treeline, speaking in a low voice, addressing himself, the sky, the trees, the wilderness, “I can’t. I won’t.” The rest of the group remained still, looking at the ground. Those that witnessed it remembered fully the details of the attack, and knew Larik was close to being the third dog killed before the bear was stopped.

Sasha inquired quietly of Dak, “Is that how he got that scar on his nose?”

“Yes it is.” he replied, shifting his gaze to Larik, who stood facing away from them. He realized how much more traumatic it was for Larik, inches from the bear yet unable to defend Willow, Rika, himself, or the rest of the team. It was a horrible experience for them all, but undoubtedly the worst for Larik. The other witnesses, Stone, Umka and Alexei, were spellbound by their own recollections of the event, and their own realizations that this terrifying encounter had left more scars on Larik than the one that could be seen. Scars deep in his heart and mind.

Anchu walked slowly to the place Larik stood and heard him repeating his mantra through tears, “I can’t. I won’t.”

“Gosh Larik,” Anchu spoke gently, “I didn’t know about all that. I’m sorry those things happened to you, and your team. Your pack.” He paused, and stood beside Larik in a brief moment of reverence. A moment mourning for those lost, and for Larik’s loss of peace of mind. His loss of an innocent and peaceful life that knew no such torment before that day. “Now I understand why you’re so determined to live wild and free.”

Larik looked up at Anchu, his face distorted in a grimace of anguish. “You weren’t there.” he said softly, between sniffles. “It was before your time so you don’t know. It was horrible… I’m sorry, it has nothing to do with you.” He turned and walked further from the group. Once out of sight, he threw himself to the ground, sobbing.

Back at the fish wheel, the group remained paralyzed in silence. Alexei moved a short distance away and laid down, pouting. The rest stared into the darkness, or at the snow beneath their feet, deep in agonized and conflicting thoughts.

In a voice barely audible to the rest, Umka whined, “I want to go home.”

“Well,” Stone concluded, “I guess we’re going to be the first wild dog pack ever.”

Consortium

 

Sasha quickly descended the mountain with Anchu, Umka, Dak and Stone. With no sled in tow, they moved rapidly and were able to take several shortcuts, and by afternoon, smelled the fish wheel. Or rather, it should be said, they smelled the heaping pile of fish, the stale and putrid aroma filling the surrounding landscape. As they approached, they spotted Alexei, standing not far from the wheel. And there was Larik! He laid in the snow, motionless, as Alexei leaned over him.

“Lexi! Larik!” Sasha called loudly, a couple of the other dogs adding their hoots and bellows, thrilled at having caught up with the errant brothers, overjoyed to have the pack together again.

Alexei lifted his head slowly and regarded the oncoming dogs with a forlorn countenance. His head turned back to look again on Larik, who remained stock still. Alexei sniffed and sounded on the verge of tears.

“This is terrible. We never should have left him!”

“What’s wrong?” Sasha asked, freezing in place, shifting her gaze from Alexei to Larik, laying there without the slightest stir.

“Larik’s dead!” Alexei cried, “He ate too much fish!”

The hitherto joyful group stood in shock, their mouths hanging open. Then at the last of Alexei’s comments, they heard a snicker.

Stone trotted over to Larik, pressed his snout into the corpse’s rib cage.

Larik leaped up, laughing uproariously. Alexei joined in with a howl, and they could hardly contain themselves, falling and rolling on the ground in front of the stunned onlookers, effervescent with delight.

“Oh! I should bite you just for spite!” Stone laughed, as he jumped up to wrestle Larik.

“You guys!” Sasha scolded, “I could have died from the shock! That wasn’t funny!”

“Well, you didn’t die,” Larik chortled, “And we thought it was hysterical!”

“Howl-larious!” Alexei echoed.

The joy of their reunion easily overcame any temporary fright wrought by the gag, and they all pranced and wrestled around one another in joyous revelry. Greetings abounded for Larik, as each had a remark.

“We’re so glad we found you!”

“It wasn’t the same without you.”

“Did you miss us?”

“I voted we go look for Tun instead!”

Larik guffawed and chuffed his way through the wave of mushy emotional stuff.

“I thought Lexi was the only one to remember me.” he pretended to sniffle.

Hence ensued the most jubilant afternoon any could remember of recent days.  Oblivious to everything but one another, the day filled with golden moments, laughter and touching, eyes meeting and gazes held. Joviality, favored company, rambunctious playfulness and heartfelt thoughts populated the hours. Gloriously long, rich hours, sharing of mutual affections, embracing the synergy. Indeed, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Hearts filled to overflowing, inscribing these warm memories indelibly on their souls. This tiny patch woven into the fabric of time, stitched to the quilt of their lives. All seven wore bright smiles as they regarded one another, together again. The wrestling continued between various pairs until they became weary from their exertions.

They all had a filling fish dinner and laid about preening themselves and telling tales of the best of times. Satiated and exhausted, physically and emotionally, one by one they curled beside one another for a welcome afternoon nap.

When again they began to stir, the skies were darkening, the quarter moon had already risen, and the clouds above were painted gray and lavender and purple at the last light. The sky hung low and blanketed the Earth. Though it was very cold, the still air was comfortable. The group formed something of a circle, most lying down, Dak and Stone pacing as they conversed.

“Well, now we need the next step in our plans. Where to from here?” Dak asked.

Six in the party were all ears, and all eyes turned to Sasha. It took a moment for her to realize the question was directed to her, and the group sat awaiting, seemingly expecting her answer. She recalled the first day she and Anchu had met the new team. How The Original Five spoke of the tragic loss of their pack mother, Willow. Alexei concluding with his plea to Sasha, “Will you be our mother now?” Clearly they trusted her guidance, and eagerly anticipated new orders. She gathered her thoughts and was about to begin to detail their options when Larik spoke.

“Why do we need to go anywhere? We could just live here.”

“Plenty of fish!” Alexei added.

“Or,” Larik continued “we could just go up the mountain and live in the forest like the wolves. Wild and free.”

“”And come back here for fish whenever we want!”  came Alexei’s follow-up. Misty clouds of vapor floated from their mouths at each expression.

“But The Lodge is Home.” Sasha offered contemplatively. “What about Tun?”

Focus shifted between Sasha and Larik, presenting points and couterpoints.

“Alexei tells me Home is overrun by more dogs and people than the place will hold. And no Tun.”

“Yes, that’s true. Still, Rol is there.”

“Rol? Who needs him? And without Tun, it’s not Home.”

“Suppose Rol or Tun need us?”

“There are lots of dogs.” Larik dismissed the question, “Let them need someone else. They just want more work out of us anyway. Pulling their sleds.”

Between blackened clouds could be seen the first stars of the evening slowly lighting in the heavens. The world had fallen into the silence of night, all activities of the woods in daylight ceased, no bird graced the air, nor their song, and similarly, an uncomfortable silence settled over the group. It hung on the air around them like a fog, as each considered Larik’s remark. One couldn’t argue with the fact that life with humans was work much of the time. Between tasks, however, there was more to the relationship, and this, it seemed, Larik overlooked. There was affection shared in both directions, and sometimes play. Comforts abounded: hot chow, a warm bed, good company, shelter from inclement weather.

“But Tun loves us.” Umka chimed in, not eager to contemplate life separate from people. A lot of good things came along with the association. “Don’t you think he’d miss us?”

“He can get new dogs.” Larik countered nonchalantly, “Just like when Willow and Rika were killed.”

The mention of their names, the reminder of their deaths and the events that preceded today filled their minds. The packs and teams, families and households they belonged to before this longest of winters. The struggling along with a team of five. The welcome new recruits and how they quickly became part of the team, the family, the pack. Sasha and Anchu recalled the lives they were living when these beloved dogs were killed. Though they never knew them, they were part of the pack ancestry.

“How can we be a racing team without a musher or a sled?” Anchu was next to share his thoughts. His newfound skills at dog sledding made him feel accomplished and valuable. Without racing, he would once again be Plain Old Little Anchu.

“What do you guys want to be?” Larik posed the pointed question rather flatly, as if calling for a vote, “Free and wild dogs or pets and workhounds?”

Stone walked to the middle of the circle and stood, slowly shifting his gaze to each of the dogs before him, indicating his desire to be heard.

“You’ve given us a lot to think about. Don’t we deserve to be free?” He walked and paused as he spoke, letting the words sift into the listeners’ ears. “But are we prepared? Are we trained to live as a wild pack,” making eye contact again with the group, he finished, “in the wilderness?”.

“Don’t think of it as the wilderness.” Larik responded with a sparkle in his eye as he stood, took a step toward Dak and turned to the group, “Think of it as Home!”.

A Pack Divided

 

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.

Flight To The Mountain

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.