Tun was awakened by his lost-balance alarm as his hands slipped off the back bow. He swatted at the air for the handle as the sled moved out from under him, and he fell, flat on his back on the rock-hard ice, intense pain radiating from his pelvis and lower back. He looked up to see Rol’s reindeer about to walk over him, and he rolled painfully out of the way.
“Whoa! Whoa! Hold up! Whoa!” Tun called as loudly as his hoarse throat allowed, but it was to no avail. The team could not hear him over the roar of the raging storm, and continued to walk at their slow, steady pace.
Rol pulled the reins and halted his sled, stepped off to assist Tun to his feet. Trembling, he moved slowly, stooping awkwardly as an old man. He could provide little help, his muscles weak, and he groaned with his efforts. Tun winced, holding his hand to his back, and urgently spoke to Rol.
“The team! Stop the team!”
The young man chased after the dog sled, taking up a slow and steady trot into the wind. He tried to increase his speed, but his body could not respond. He held this pace as the sled kept moving steadily eastward. The movement generated a little heat, precious little, and Rol welcomed it. Yet simultaneously, the heavy breathing required became painful as the sub-freezing air burned at his throat and lungs. He tried to call out to stop the team, but found his throat dry and frozen. A strange sound barked from his mouth, and he tried again, but now only raspy gasps came out.
Hot blood rushed to his hands and feet, awakening frozen nerves, and the pain grew greater with each step. Several agonizing minutes passed as Rol incrementally gained on the sled team, until he could reach out and grab the back bow, and hop onto the runners. He stepped both feet onto the claw brake, and it dug into the solid ice.
The dogs, who had been plodding so hypnotically they never noticed Tun’s weight come off the sled, now sensed the drag of the brake, the pull on their harnesses. There was not one among them that wasn’t thankful for the stop, and they longed for a camp and a fire. They stood, eyes closed and heads hanging down, hoping in the next few minutes for a man to unhitch them so they could huddle together. They all were desperate with thirst.
The pain in Tun’s lower back was so intense it wracked him with every step. In agony, he walked to the racing sled, stepped onto its runners, picked up the reins and snapped them on the reindeer’s backside. She lurched forward, and stabbing pains ran up Tun’s back. He gritted his teeth and gripped the handle of the sled. There would be no nodding off for him again, as long as this fire burned in his back and stabbed at his shoulder blades.
Several minutes passed as the ambling reindeer caught up to the halted dog sled. Here, Rol stood still as a statue on the runners. His exercise had warmed him, but also formed perspiration on his skin. Every movement brought a new sensation of cold, and Rol tried to keep his skin from touching the insides of his apparel. The pain in his toes continued to increase as warm blood flowed to them. It felt like being stepped on by a reindeer’s solid hoof, multiplied a hundred times. He tried to wiggle his toes inside his mukluks, but doing so was more painful, and so he ceased.
At the edge of hypothermia, coupled with physical exhaustion and dehydration, Rol’s eyes, too, closed as he stood gripping the sled. His knees unlocked and he awoke instantly, catching himself by wrapping a mitt around the handle at the wrist, like a paw, his hands unable to clasp fingers to thumb. Every muscle in his body was shaking, as if in the grips of Saint Vitus’ dance.
The blustering gale jostled both men, shoved at them like an insolent jester. It pushed dogs off their feet, causing them to stumble, and pressed at the sleds as if begging them to remain still. It roared and howled with power, whistled and screamed with ferocity.
Every bump in the solid ice was felt in Tun’s back, as he finally caught up to Rol. For a moment, he stood still as the younger man, clinging to the sled to hold himself upright against the badgering wind. He had achieved this goal, his mind told him, drunk with exposure, spent from his exertions. His brain stood idling. No thought entered into it. “I’m here.” he thought, “I made it.”
Deep from the recesses of his mind, his consciousness called to him. It seemed his inner voice was as muted by the storm as the men were. He called to himself again. An iron will and strong heart broke through the fog. “Keep moving.” was all it said.
“Move!” the voice repeated, and Tun heard the address. “Move!” it said again, as if to imply the last chance to do so may be rapidly approaching. Tun could sense his unresponsiveness. The thought of moving pranced across his mind, but made no connection to the neural and muscular systems required.
It was not logic that parted the curtain of consciousness, but fear. Healthy fear that Tun had acquired through his many years of living in this merciless country. Fear of frostbite, fear of freezing to death. “Frostbite. Death. Frostbite. Death.” The voice continued until he began to move. Slowly at first, as if unsticking himself from the sled. Then awkwardly, as he tried to keep his ailing spine from flexing as he walked.
Suddenly, a picture flooded his senses, returned him to a day and time long, long ago, when freezing and death visited him in the most cruel fashion. He sucked in a breath in shock, as he did that very moment in the past, and immediately his heart was filled with worry for Rol. He made his way to the young man, or the boy, as Tun thought of him, for he was somewhere between the two.
Rol stood hunched over the back bow of the sled. His hood was drawn completely closed, without so much as a gap through which to exhale. Tun placed his hand on the lad’s shoulder, and felt his quaking frame. Rol did not move.
“How are you doing?” the big man shouted at the side of the hood.
Rol made the slightest turn toward Tun, and shrugged his shoulders. He moved his numb, mitted hands to the hood, fumbled with it, trying to find the opening, his hands visibly shaking. He pressed the hood to his face so his mouth was at the gap.
“Wa-when w-will w-we s-stop?” he shuddered forth words in a strange, growling sort of voice, immediately pulling the hood closed again.
“We must keep moving, Rol.” Tun shouted to the hood, “If we stop moving out here, we’ll die.”
Rol made no response for a moment. One could only guess what was happening inside the hood. Then it moved up and down twice, in a silent nod of affirmation.
There was little by way of shock or drama in Tun’s statement. For men or almost-men that live in this harsh place, these were simply facts. Freezing and death were natural elements, like the sun and the snow, and their presence loomed over these men, and all other animals of the peninsula, human or otherwise. Like the wind and cold, death is an everyday part of life for those who live hand-in-hand with the Ice Queen.
Rol stepped off the runners and went limp. He fell face-forward and slammed onto the ice like a rag doll thrown down by an angry child. If not for his thick fur hood, pulled closed all around his head and face, he might have cracked his skull. He laid there, unmoving.
With every ounce of strength, ignoring the searing pain in his back, Tun dragged the boy to the racing sled. He would have lifted Rol, but was unable to do so in his present condition, and he rolled the lad up onto the heap of belongings on the sled. He tied the trailing line of the cargo sled to the reindeer’s harness, and placed several hides over Rol, covering him entirely. He had to lash these in place to keep them from blowing off. With those preparations complete, he moved in his stilted fashion to the cargo sled.
“All dogs up! Let’s go! Eik! Eik! Eik!” he barked out froggy commands. The team did not respond, could not hear him over the wailing wind. In stiff, painful steps, he walked the length of the sled and the fourteen-dog team until he came to the lead at the end of the long gang line. There remained hope as long as his loyal team could hold up. He had pressed them harder than he had ever pressed dogs. Well beyond the limits of reason, bordering now on abuse. Their flight was desperate, and all members of the party were pushing their luck. They needed to keep moving, or die doing so. He found he could not bend, and so fell to his knees and shouted.
“Pick it out, Dak! Eik! Pick it out!”
The dog looked at him in confusion. The sled was not moving and the driver was not on the runners, prerequisites for such a command. His voice weaker with each word, Tun pleaded now.
“Eik! Dak, please! Eik! Pick it out. Eik! Eik!”
Dak sensed urgency and desperation in his human friend’s cries, and responded to Tun’s orders without further delay. He stood on four painful feet, thirteen dogs doing the same behind him, and again the weary entourage moved on.