Snow crunched under thick boots, compressing into the earth as I trekked further north. I raised my scarf against the breeze sweeping through the trees that brought a frostbite chill to my nose. Not much further; it should start soon. A thump to the left caused me to turn sharply; the only sound besides the wind and my own footsteps. The branch of a tree had been strained too long, finally releasing the built up snow weighing it down. I was unclear why; the wind wandered its way through the forest carrying not a single snowflake. The sky was clear, the stars out in full force, rank upon rank of glittering soldiers. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face as I walked – strained as it was – one slow step after another. With no set destination, I wandered forward; away from civilisation and the pollution of light it brought.
It was still difficult for me to believe what I was doing. The amount of money and time it had taken to plan this was one of the reasons Dad and I had never managed to go together. The trees began to thin, their encroaching hands drifting apart until they disappeared entirely, and I came to a clearing. No trees, no snowfall, just the sky and I – this would do us. I slipped off my bag and stretched at the newfound freedom before dragging out the fold up stool, forcing its legs through the snow to sit upon the ground before digging through my pack to find the thermos. I had to remove my outer gloves so I could unscrew the top and pour myself a cup yet the warmth between my palms seemed far more efficient than any number of layers. Another snowfall made me jump again before I carefully pulled out the photo, propping it up next to me and pouring a second cup of coffee to put in front of it. I cheers’d the cup with my own; “I told you we’d make it Dad.” Taking a deep sip, I held my cup steady and stared upward, waiting. We’d talked about it so much; the culmination of all our other trips, all our other hikes. The one thing we were both desperate to see and had never had the chance to. We never had a chance. Years later now, maybe we did.
It was still difficult for me to believe what I was doing
We waited. In the frost time became meaningless and without the coffee, I wouldn’t have lasted long. Then it started. A streak, a flash, never long enough to be sure it was there until the flashes grew stronger, the streaks combining into a flowing river. Green waves danced across the sky, rippling to an unknown beat. They spread and morphed, greens became blues, blues faded into pinks and purples. The sky was bruised, a midnight rainbow. The coffee was already long forgotten and I felt the tears begin to freeze as they rolled down my cheek. I picked up the photo of my father and I standing atop a mountain. How strong he had been. How full of life. How little that meant at the end.
A howl cut through the night, ripping through the silence and bringing new heat to my bones as adrenaline surged. A second howl answered it, and yet more still. I leapt to my feet, knocking over the coffee and staining the snow whilst grabbing the knife off my belt. I placed the picture on top of my pack and fumbled for my phone. No reception. I turned on the flash, lighting up the clearing further as the Aurora continued to dance above me, oblivious to the events below. Glinting eyes appeared on the edge of the trees, one pair, two, then five. I slowly turned in a circle as the wolves left the shelter of the forest. They were big, yet thin. Even in the dim light, I could see their ribs pressing out through their fur, saliva dripping from their jowls. They circled, getting closer though none seemed ready to strike. More snow thumped somewhere off in the trees – I shouldn’t have come alone. Wolves were meant to be uncommon in these parts but that was the first rule of hiking – don’t go alone. The Aurora pulsated above, and I found myself strangely calm. I’d gotten to see them with Dad and that was what mattered, damn the wolves. I yelled and screamed at them but they inched forward steadily, there was no running from this.
I heard it just in time, lurching to the side as a wolf sprang at me from behind, clipping me enough to throw me off balance. I fell to the ground as they swarmed and I stabbed out wildly, tucking in my head so they couldn’t get at my neck. I hit one and it jumped away as the rest bit deep. It hurt like hell but the thick winter clothing kept them from doing any serious damage, for now. I stabbed out again until one of them latched onto my arm, shaking wildly. The pain exploded like lit gasoline and I dropped my knife. One part of my mind registered another snowfall at the edge of the clearing. The Aurora hadn’t stopped, adding its light to reveal the new stains seeping into the pristine snow beneath me. I turned my head to the side to stare at the photo of my father and I. “See you soon,” I said, closing my eyes as a wolf seized the opportunity to go for my neck.
The snow shook, and the air filled with thunder. A white giant bowled over me, knocking the wolves’ aside like flies. The bear grabbed one of the wolves in its jaw, shaking it like a ragdoll before launching it across the clearing with a yelp. The wolves scattered as the Winter King let out another roar; circling uncertainly before wisely fading into the forest. The polar bear stalked around me, looking out into the trees as I slowly sat myself up. It was hard to tell under all the layers, but I didn’t seem to be bleeding too badly, though already I could feel the pain beginning to rise as adrenaline faded. The bear turned towards me and I froze. It lumbered over each step an earthquake, stopping only inches from my face. I didn’t even dare breathe. It sniffed the air and leant in closer, opening its mouth. A chasm of canine teeth and I saw my end as its tongue licked my cheek. Then it sat down next to me. I turned slowly and locked eyes. The bear cocked its head then leant back and looked up to the sky. I followed its gaze. The Aurora hadn’t slowed in the slightest if anything it was growing stronger – rainbow sand rippling across sky dunes, waves rolling on a star speckled ocean. I slowly leant towards the bear until my head pressed against its fur. It kept looking at the sky, and so I did the same. We made it Dad.