At the lead, Dak held his eyes tightly closed, marching blindly at a plodding pace in the brutal Arctic night. The tornadic wind shoved menacingly at his chest, resisting his efforts, and hurled a never-ending onslaught of tiny frozen particles at him. Even if daylight, he would be unable to keep his eyes open.
Behind him, thirteen weary dogs shared the burden of the heavily laden cargo sled, similarly holding eyes closed, ears folded down, the bitter cold biting at their feet, their noses, their thinly-coated bellies.
Stone was behind Dak, so drained and tired that his closed eyes often convinced him he was asleep, and he would nod off while walking. He’d awaken to the harsh reality of the merciless night, suddenly feeling the frigid air and the relentless wind. Again he would remind himself that he’d seen worse. This malevolent storm still did not equal the pain felt the time he fell through the ice into the nearly-frozen water of the river.
Never before had he been rendered helpless. The water, a fraction of a degree above solid ice, almost instantly numbed muscles and arrested their motion, stabbed at every inch of skin like a thousand knives, drove the very breath from his lungs. A strong swimmer, he now found all four legs unresponsive, and they made just the slightest ellipses despite his greatest urging. He watched the water rise to consume him, to flood his open eyes and wash in agonizing waves into his ears.
He stopped breathing. His next breath would be his last, he knew. He was scared and saddened, but ready to escape the unendurable pain. He ceased his efforts to fight, and surrendered. A strange calm enveloped him, and he was surprised to find himself admiring the beauty of the sunlight as it danced on the crystal ceiling of ice above him.
It was not Stone’s time, however, and a force that seemed as mighty as the gods themselves clenched a great talon onto his vertebrate lifeline, catching at the last possible moment the last talonful of tail. Swords of pain shot up his back and up his neck as his entire body weight was hauled by this delicate appendage, against the current of the river and carrying the added weight of saturated fur. The agony of his spine rivaled that of being frozen alive, and with this he said goodbye to this life, and exhaled.
Instantly, his pain subsided, and for a moment, everything became brighter. Then he was running to his favorite thing in the world, Tun’s open arms. Then, as quickly as it came, the light faded.
Excruciating pain rapidly returned to Stone’s world when he awoke to find himself inches from the coals of a hot fire. It was not the heat that caused his suffering, but the return of warm blood to partly-frozen extremities. He couldn’t move, and saw with horror that his coat was solid ice as if it had been painted on layer by layer. It clad him like a suit of armor, prevented his movement, and laid on him like a ton of rock.
Stone stumbled and awoke again on the desolate tundra behind Dak, walking through the frozen night. His ears felt as if they were on fire, and he again recalled how this minor discomfort paled in comparison to the worst he’d felt.
Every dog, and Rol, maybe his reindeer, too, wondered how long they would continue. Some, perhaps, wondered how long they could continue without dropping from exhaustion. Mile by mile the world grew colder and the gale grew greater. Barely walking now, they moved slowly, step by step ever eastward into the withering wind, and there was no sign of stopping. More than one dog began to limp, hold up a paw occasionally, hopping along on three.
Anchu’s regular place was fourth in line, right behind his sister. On the East Woods Trail he first thought they were simply bound for another adventure. Still in his first year, he was slow to sense the fear in the air. Running to escape looks a lot like running a race on the surface of it. The clues slowly revealed themselves to the young dog. A lack of encouraging calls from humans, or rallying cries from teammates. No jovial exchanges between the people, or sidebar challenges between canine athletes. No one was talking, no one was laughing. No one was smiling.
Then Anchu saw the hue of trepidation and anxiousness, smelled the apprehension and dismay. Now the fear reached him and flooded over him. He was afraid, and didn’t even understand the reason to be fearful. Afraid of the fear itself. Now he trudged through the coldest, windiest, blackest night he’d ever experienced. In a place he was sure he’d never been, even further from his peaceful home on the moraine than he had been at Tun’s mountaintop Lodge.
He called to his sister, barely a dog’s length away, and could hardly hear his own voice above the hurricane. He tried again, but gulping the loads of frozen air required for barking brought sharp pains. He abandoned the effort. He was thirsty, but the windswept tundra was as clean as a kitchen floor. No snow to eat. Nothing but rock hard ice with bits of shale in it. He wished they’d pitch camp. Wished there was a fire and a hot meal. Wished he could talk to his brave sister, who always made him feel safe and protected. He wished they were Home, and this thought caused him to begin a whimpering that would continue through the night, unheard by any but the Ice Queen.
Behind Anchu walked people-loving Umka. After a separation from Tun, he was overjoyed they were together again, and eagerly anticipated the time they would go back to their regular, adventurous and fun lives. Following Tun as he puttered and worked. Curled beside his bedroll at a trail camp, or winning a race for him at Summer Festival. Umka thought of the innumerable evenings on the porch of the dogs’ house at The Lodge, Tun singing his songs, patting and petting his dogs as each drifted off to sleep. He dwelled on this vision, and despite the bitter cold, felt warm within.
Alexei was equally grateful for having reunited with his brother Larik, after Larik quit the team to stay behind in the smoking ruins of Tunkan. After the grueling round-trip to Bek’s, and Rol continuing without a break, he refused to stand and return to the trail. The pack would not accept this, and returned to retrieve him after their duties were fulfilled, delivering Rol safely home. Alexei vowed he would never be apart from Larik again. He would stick beside him through anything, even face death itself by his side.
Umka, too, would make such a silent pledge. Once together again, he swore never to separate himself from the smiling giant.
Behind Rol’s sled, out of view of Tun and the team, Larik followed amidst several orphan dogs who had attached themselves to their fellow emigrants. The hasty nature of their meetings, without introductions, left them unaware of one another’s names. The subsequent race up the mountain then into the storm perpetuated this condition, and the insistent wind extinguished any possibility of conversation.
His thoughts argued with themselves, alternately seeking to justify or curse his presence here on this pitiless plain. He should have stayed in Tunkan, where he’d decided he would separate from the team, live independently, emancipate himself from the harness and the sled and the life of a working dog. The vision of living free in the wild expanse of the Chukchi Peninsula called to him. He was ready to get on with it when his brother returned, and Alexei was keen to do anything for Larik, to be together as they had since birth. Apart barely a day, Alexei could see no light in his world without his ever-present brother, and went to find him. He made no consideration of what he would leave behind, and without knowledge of what the future would bring, it was then Alexei vowed that it was life with Larik, or he’d as soon have no life at all.
Now Larik thought of that day, when the rest of the pack came to find him and Alexei. How they decided democratically that as long as they were separated from Tun and at a loss as to his whereabouts, they would join Larik and form their own wild dog pack together. That mild morning was like a dream, and the happiness, joy and revelry of the day was Larik’s fondest memory.
Still, he was thankful and glad to be running with Tun, now that they’d found one another again. He hadn’t realized until he saw him again just how much he loved him.
“Great.” came the response from the other side of Larik’s thoughts, “so now we’re out here and not even with the pack. Surrounded by dogs we don’t even know. Freezing. This is the worst storm I’ve ever tried to mush through, and the people aren’t stopping to camp.” He thought again of the dream, striking out on his own if need be, to live the wild and free life. “I could start right now I suppose.” The debates continued in his head. “I could pitch my own camp and make a bed right here. Well, if there was anything to make a bed in. Can’t just sleep on the ice on the open tundra, you’d just freeze solid.”
He continued to walk as he argued with himself, occasionally opening one eye as best he could against the stinging ice pellets. He’d look to assess the dogs around him, maybe recruit them for his wild dog pack. Sometimes he’d try to look ahead, to see his brother, Tun, Stone or Willow.
This thought startled him, as he remembered Willow, the pack mother that partly raised him, had died last winter in a bear encounter. It was Sasha now. Sasha was now their pack mother.
Sharp pains flashed up his left foreleg as the sub-freezing miles wore on. He could see nothing ahead, not even Rol’s back, darkness and wind-driven snow unyielding.
Now he felt he wished he had reported for duty in answer to Tun’s call. At least he would be near them. Behind Stone and Mother, and Tun right behind him. He longed to be with them now, and tried to move through the train to catch up to them, but the pain in his leg was amplified by the effort, and he could make no gains.
Larik saw the dog beside him begin to lift the same paw. He drew closer to him to be heard above the raging storm.
“I’m Larik.” He shouted into the dog’s ear. The other leaned in, “Omok.” he replied.
They each opened ever-so-slightly the eye facing the other. The blistering wind and stinging snow seemed to subside a bit, seemed more bearable now, to facilitate this meeting. They held this look for a moment. This was not an ordinary introduction. This was the kind of instant bond born of shared calamity.
To be vexed by life’s ills and difficulties is unavoidable. To face them alone is unimaginable. Larik and Omok, who had each felt the isolation of this desperate flight, muzzled by the roaring winds, now felt some kinship.
Kindred in the face of their foe, the mighty Ice Queen. Each thinking that now they felt less alone as they began to wonder if they had pressed too hard, gone too far.
As they began to wonder if this is the place they would die.