Caravan Draft Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine
Curfew Rings

Rol was in pain, exhausted and plagued by fears. He had no idea where his parents and sister were, caught in the upheaval wrought by the uniformed invaders. He held his eyes closed and huddled close to the dogs. Still, he felt secure and cared for with Tun, whom he had known all his life. A very close friend to his father. One of those men referred to as Uncle, though bloodlines do not define the relationship so.

Often we find the bonds of heartstrings ignore such empirical identification. Indeed, it is our threads of heartstrings that strengthen and embroider the fabric of our lives, build them up and embellish them in so many ways, regardless of their origin. A truth found in every pack.

Comfort and rest were denied the men crammed in the tiny hide shelter in the wailing, brutal, sub-freezing night, buried under a mound of dogs seeking the same, elusive relief. Rol painted a dreamscape for himself. Perhaps distraction would tempt his weary mind to sleep. Perhaps partly to will away the stabbing pain in his feet, the constant chill across his shoulders. The dread feeling he has no respite from the cold, save one.

The image began to form in his mind. It was home. Great herds of reindeer milled about on the hill beyond. The sun was shining, and crystal waters made tinkling sounds as the ancient glacier slowly melted with the season. He was in the hot yaranga of early summer. His father Evgenii sat bare chested beside his mother, telling a tale of his childhood, of herding with his own father. Mother was feverishly conditioning hides to make a new mackinaw for his sister. She would work the skin vigorously, then shake it out, crumple it up, and begin again scraping with a mussel shell. The younger sibling, now sporting most of a mouthful of second teeth, lay curled in a ball between three dogs coiled similarly, and napped in the quiet afternoon.

Rol could smell the smoke of the fire, and tea, freshly brewed and ready to serve. He sat cross-legged and poured the steaming beverage into three cups. In spite of the milder weather and the heat of the dwelling, the hot tea was still satisfying. As they drank, his father continued speaking, telling him the best place to go for fish tomorrow, and plans to rebuild their fish wheel on the creek, destroyed by an early ice-up on the waterway last fall.

Mother sipped at her tea. She paused to stare at Rol, which brought a smile to both.

“You’re getting so big, Alban.” she called him by her pet name for him. “You look identical to your father when we first met. He must have been about your age.”

“Younger!” his father insisted, “Your mother is a baby-stealer!”

The three laughed heartily, causing his sister to rise from her sleep.

All three dogs picked up their heads simultaneously. They looked toward the door of the yaranga, and sniffed at the air. Badna, the oldest dog, pressed his snout against the leather flap door, and squeezed his way outside. He let out a single “Woof!”.

A moment later, they began to hear a bell ringing from a reindeer team. Friends or neighbors or perhaps new acquaintances, approaching Evgenii’s camp. Visitors at this time of year often brought the bounty of their winters to trade for reindeer to replenish their supply. Pelts and hides, antlers and bones, meats and fish to be made into jukkola and jerky. Sometimes a kindly giant would bring treats for children, gifts for parents.

The ringing of the bell drew nearer and repeated with the steady rhythm of a walking team. It competed with the bellowing wind until it cut through the darkness, and Rol suddenly realized the tones rang out from the real world. He listened intently to the sound as it kept its steady canter and grew louder. He reached his frozen hands to his hood. He had to check to see if he was hallucinating. The bitter cold felt real. The stinging pain in his toes felt real. Still the bell rang out, drawing nearer with each surreal moment.

Rol stood abruptly, throwing off like a madman the hide that had shielded him from the black night and the Arctic gale. Both feet were numb, and failed him immediately. He stumbled and fell onto a heap of dogs and Tun, all of whom sprang up with indignant surprise. Without apology, Rol scrambled hastily over the pile, disregarding placement of hands and knees, digging frantically over the annoyed dogs. He crawled as one pursued by wolves around the edge of the windbreak. He was sure he was awake and alive now. Nightmares and death itself could never be this painful, nor could a simple clarion be a hope as bright as the sun.

Rol tried to call out to Tun, but found his lips frozen together. He pressed his tongue against them and pulled at his mandible with one hand until they separated, tearing away a few layers of skin.

“Ell!” croaked forth frigid air driven by his frozen lungs through numb lips, barely at the level of speech. His lips would not obey the command to nest together and form a “b”.

“A gell!” he groaned, heaving at his diaphragm to be heard above the deafening wind. He raked at his hood with two mitted paws, trying to throw it back so he could hear, so he could stare off into the pelting snow and be pummeled with ice pellets. He forgot the drawstring pulled tight at his throat, and swatted at the hood as if a swarm of bees had attacked him.

The hurricane-force breath of the Ice Queen took no pity, made no notice of this tiny mammal clinging to its life by threads. She exhaled a gust for fun, enough to rock a lazy ship drifting at sea. Enough to blow down those mighty spruces and ancient hemlocks and weakening willows whose time has come. The wind struck the boy square on, filled his hood like a sail, threw all of his weight onto his frozen toes and he tumbled backward and sideward onto the ice. His arms and legs made helpless repeated motions, trying to rise, as depleted muscles and frozen joints were unable to respond, unable to comprehend their own state of inability.

Tun leaped for Rol, his heart pounding. Shock and heartache added to the freezing wind and pelting snow, his hands shaking.

“Gell! A gell!” Rol repeated, lifting his arm in the direction of the sound, immediately ahead of them on the trail.

Tun’s stomach sank, as he thought he was watching the death throes of his dear charge. His only concern was to bring the boy back from the hypothermia and dehydration. The former could be done with dogs and body heat. The latter remained a challenge at this temperature, so far below freezing that water turned solid instantly. Even the salty tears that now froze to Tun’s eyelashes.

He tried to lift Rol, but the younger resisted his efforts. Stood, as it were, on his knees and gestured toward the trail.

“Deer gell. Trail. Here.” Rol barked out.

Tun next heard the clanging, and spun to face the wind and sound, momentarily perplexed. The thought crossed his mind to grab the rifle from the scabbard. In these strange days, nerves were on edge. He quickly reasoned that the soldiers would not, probably could not, traverse this desolate, featureless tundra in the black Arctic night.

Rasping breaths could barely repeat the words, but Rol continued, “Gell! Gell!” With this, he collapsed onto Tun.

Tun cradled the boy in his arms and leaned in close so he could be heard.

“Yes,” he said almost at a whisper, into the hood of the parka, hugging the lad, “I hear it.”

Caravan Draft Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven
Legends And Spies

Anchu held closed his eyes, shielding them from the stinging, wind-driven ice crystals, as he pressed as quickly as he could into the raging blizzard. He was desperately cold even before he emerged from the impromptu shelter Tun had erected. Now the wind whisked away all the warmth it could steal, and called upon him to expend double the effort to overcome its immense power. It slowed him considerably from the top speed he was capable of, a fact not lost on Anchu. Striving to reach the caravan somewhere ahead in the void of the Arctic tundra night, his feet endured more pain with each passing minute. The muscles required to maintain this pace called for oxygen, and he sucked in the subfreezing air, chilling him from within, as his exhalations took with them still more of his body heat.

He’d been out here running at this gait for an interminable length of time, his spirit and focus driven by an all-consuming compulsion to save the lives of his loved ones; his sister, the pack, Tun and Rol. So, too, the many uprooted dogs that accompanied them.

“How far could it be?” he asked himself, and the answers that rushed into his brain were unwelcome. The first twinges of rational fear and doubt began to creep in, to drive out the adrenaline and adroitness. To claw at the calls for compassion and courage that propelled the young dog on his potentially suicidal mission.

Suddenly, he slammed face-first into a solid object, running full speed in the dark with his eyes closed. His snout was shoved down into his chest, and he heard a little cracking noise in his neck as the rest of his body weight pressed his wrenched head against the black wall until he crumpled to a heap on the ice.

Anchu looked up from where he lay, and saw the storm-filled predawn sky had taken on an umbrageous cobalt glow. Against it, he saw a dark silhouette, nearly imperceptible. It was a dog. A big one.

“Stop right there!” barked out an authoritative voice. “This is a private camp. Move on.”

Still a little dazed, Anchu was tremendously relieved his trial was over, and he had reached his destination without dying.

“My friends…” he began to explain breathlessly, “I’ve come to get help for my friends. They’re out…”

“There’s no help for you here.” the silhouette cut him off mid-sentence. Now the barely-perceptible silhouettes of two other dogs faded forth from the dark to stand just behind the first.

“Move on.” the voice said pointedly.

“Do you think he came from the invaders?” number two shadow asked of the first. Anchu had apparently run into a dawn patrol outside the caravan. A lieutenant and his platoon.

“It doesn’t matter. Keep moving!” the lieutenant shadow took a step toward Anchu.

“We’re all part of the same group!” Anchu offered excitedly, “We got left behind and now all the rest are stuck out on the tundra!”

“It’s a trick!” number three, a young corporal, barked as he mimicked the lieutenant’s step toward the intruder.

“I’m Anchu. Part of Bek’s team. I mean Tun’s.” he stammered as much from fright as the cold, “Tun and Rol are back there…”

“Tun sent you?” the lieutenant asked.

“I came by myself. To get help for the people. They’ll die if we don’t…”

“We can’t take on any more, little guy. You need to move on.”

“But I…”

With a snarling growl that would have shown teeth if it was light, the lieutenant lunged toward Anchu, “Beat it! Move on!”

As Anchu laid down on the ice in a gesture of surrender, a deep, gravelly voice rang from the darkness behind him.

“He’s with me.” Larik said confidently and boldly. Two corporals had now become three, and they bunched up just behind the lieutenant.

“Well, you can move on with him.” was the reply, “Hit the trail.”

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me.” Larik said in the same level and confident tone, as his shadow stepped over the prostrated Anchu and walked up to the lieutenant, nose to nose. “I said he’s with me.”

The lieutenant shadow puffed out his chest, tensed his muscles, held his tail out straight and still. In spite of his best efforts to stretch, Larik was still taller by a head.

“No one gets in this camp, I don’t care who you’re with.” the lieutenant growled, bravely standing his ground against the larger dog. He took his responsibility very seriously. And had backup.

“I’m Larik.”

Despite the howling wind, Larik’s utterance was apparently heard by the whole platoon. At the mention of his name, all three corporals snapped their ears flat, lowered their heads below their shoulders, held their tails down and close, and spun around to take two steps away before turning again to face the confrontation.

Hearing his name, the lieutenant’s ears fell back slightly, his swelled chest deflated, and he took half a step backwards.

“Oh!” the lieutenant said, as if this meant the end to conversations. Then, in a tone that sounded more curious if not flat-out conciliatory, he asked “What are you doing here?”

Anchu had made his way to his feet and stood slightly behind Larik.

“I’m here to support my brother Anchu on his mission. He’s going to the camp to fetch help for our pack.” Larik spoke matter-of-factly, as if he was now in charge. As if the lieutenant had had the misfortune to encounter and defy a general. “Right, Onch?” he finished, shortening Anchu to his pack nickname.

Anchu took a step forward, though still maintaining a comfortable distance from the lieutenant. His mouth opened, but no sound came out. Then a squeak in his voice preceded his nervous reply.

“Yeah. Yeah, the camp.”

With this, the three corporals turned as if on command, and began a trot toward the encampment, still out of view in the half-light of dawn.

“Gosh, I’m sorry, Larik.” the lieutenant continued apologetically, “I didn’t know it was you!”

Larik spoke smoothly again, with conviction and authority, “You shouldn’t be denying shelter to any dog, or any other animal, in this weather.”

“Of course,” the lieutenant agreed readily, “it’s just that it’s been crazy the last few days. The war party and escaping to the tundra. We didn’t know if you were with the invaders.”

Larik seemed to ignore the lieutenant’s explanations, and brushed his shoulder against him as he walked past.

“Come on, Onch.” He looked behind him but saw no Anchu. Turning the other way, he found him snugged up against his side, keeping Larik between himself and the patrol.

Despite their exhaustion, Larik and Anchu trotted at a steady gait toward the camp, the lieutenant driveling on in apology to Larik. The corporals had disappeared into the darkness.

The low light of dawn tried to press through the storm clouds, though it was still too dark to see any distance, or objects in detail. Bit by bit they drew nearer, and sensed more than saw an encampment that appeared to grow larger with each passing step. Now large dark patches could be seen. The light of the ice beneath the sky’s dim glow was painted black by the occupants, and the reindeer herds spread out across a massive area. They could smell the smoke of dung fires burning within the yet unseen yarangas assembled in their midst.

“So who are you looking for?” the lieutenant asked Larik.

“Anyone who will help. Maybe someone we know. Tulaen? Evgenii?”

The lieutenant shook his head, recognizing neither name.

Larik searched his memory for the names of other people that would have accompanied Tun. “Evgy? Sarut? Dorik?”

“Dorik!” the lieutenant shouted. “I know where he is! Follow me!” He turned abruptly left and evaporated into a great herd of reindeer. Larik was gone right behind him, and Anchu hastened to keep up while finding his way through the thousands of reindeer legs. He lost track of Larik twice, but found him once again, just as they emerged from the herd in front of a large yaranga. It actually consisted of two such structures combined, with a doorway inside to pass between the two.

The sun cresting the horizon brought up the brightness of the grey-blue sky, and a dusky twilight revealed the vast reindeer herds circling the yaranga on all sides. There was barely enough room to accommodate a few dogs, and after their passing, the herd filled the gaps and squeezed closer. Larik was tracing the wall of the shelter, looking for the entrance. When he found it, he immediately launched into a barrage of “ATTENTION!” barks directed at the hide flaps of the door. He repeated them again and again, bouncing on forepaws, staring at the entry.

The herd parted slightly, and one of the corporals approached, accompanied by another half-dozen dogs. They crowded together some distance from Larik, and could be seen to be conversing closely. Just a moment later, another corporal emerged from the forest of legs, also followed by a small group. They stopped behind Anchu.

“Is it really Larik?” he heard one ask.

“He said he was. He’s big enough to be.” replied another, as they shifted laterally to get a better look, but ventured no closer.

Larik continued an unabated volley of barks, inches from the fur-covered door. Finally, it flipped open, and a person crawled out and quickly closed the flap behind him. The flap opened again and another person joined the first. Larik barked and turned westward, then barked again in the universal gesture of “Follow me!” He repeated the motions several times as the people approached to address him.

“You know Larik?” Anchu asked of whosoever was speaking behind him.

The group responded with a chorus of yeses and a “who doesn’t?”

“Everyone knows Larik, The Bear Killer.” one said.

“Did you see his face? His snout is half scars!” another observed with a shudder.

“You came here with Larik?” Anchu recognized the shadow and voice of the corporal.

“Well, yes. Actually, he followed me. We’re on the same team.”

An instant shift could be sensed and seen in the group crowding Anchu. It was as if some magic radiant light had begun pouring out of his eyes. Most took a quarter-step back and seemed to bow slightly in reverence. All eyes were fixed and wide, and a few mouths hung open briefly, before the bitter wind snapped them shut. There was absolute, awe-struck silence, broken only by Larik’s continued barks, and the barks being exchanged by the people.

“What do you mean ‘Larik the Bear Killer?’” Anchu asked the corporal.

“Everyone has heard of how he killed a bear to save his pack.”

Anchu snickered, “What?”

The corporal gave a questioning look at Anchu. “I thought you said you were on his team.”

“Well, actually it’s Tun’s team, but Larik and I are both on it.”

The corporal continued to eye Anchu suspiciously.

“So you’re the only dog on the peninsula that doesn’t know Larik, but you’re on the same team.” He posed the question as a statement. He stared intently, recalling the original suspicions this stranger had aroused, and moved closer to Anchu.

“Of course I know Larik!” Suddenly, Anchu felt threatened by the questions, the inquisitive looks of the corporal, the attention of the mob of dogs that surrounded him. A moment ago he was a hero, now he seemed a spy. “We just won the race at Festival together!” Anchu raised his voice insistently while trying to take a step back from the corporal, only to have his movement blocked by a wall of bodies.

“Everyone knows Larik’s team won at festival. That proves nothing. How about the Ukliat? Can you tell us how you did there?”

Unknown to Anchu, Tun and his team, with Larik, had attended the race at the village named. The story had already spread about a fight Larik had with a dog on an adjacent team. It actually amounted to little more than a scuffle at the starting gate, a place where dogs are crowded together, and anxious to start the race, nerves wound tightly. The fight only became elevated to noticeable when Larik inadvertently drew blood, a gash on the nose of his opponent, which forced the replacement of the injured dog on that team in order to continue the race. By the time the story was repeated from place to place, the legend had Larik sending an entire team of six dogs running off with their tails between their legs.

“I don’t know what you mean. We’ve only been together a couple of moons.” Anchu offered in defense.

“What did you say your name was?” the corporal now scowled, as he moved even closer, menacing.

“Anchu. I’m Anchu.”

“Don’t know it.” The corporal fanned his head symbolically at the mob, “Anybody ever heard of an Anju?”

The mob shook their heads in unison, and pressed ever closer.

“Anchu!” Larik bellowed across the space between them, “Let’s go!”

It was as if a bolt of lightning had struck the ice in front of them. The corporal spun quickly, tucked his tail, laid his ears flat. The entire mob expanded instantly, moving backward, moving away from Larik’s teammate, fearing they might meet their demise if their previous actions were observed by The Bear Killer.

Now emboldened by this testimony to his position, and feeling Larik, his body guard, was mere steps away, Anchu could not help but express his displeasure, his disdain for the corporal and the crowd’s treatment of him. He made a lunge, snapped at the air, and watched as the corporal threw himself to the ice, belly-up.

Anchu straightened and composed himself. He addressed the crowd in Larik’s level, confident tone.

“Let that be a lesson to you.”