The falling of night with its sweet, almost-fall chill brought to the little plateau and its inhabitants a peace unprecedented in the recent past, deep, quiet, interrupted only by the softest soughing of the night breeze as it wound its way through the spruce-tops, brushed the leaves of the aspens and set them to whispering their soft water-song. Susan heard them from her little camp not far from the start of the path to the spring, stirring slightly in her sleep, waking just enough to re-position the rolled-up fleece top that was serving as her pillow, shifting in her sleeping bag and, all quiet aside from the trees, allowing herself to drift back off into a pleasant sleep. Bud, also, heard the wind-song, its voice waking him and leaving him to lie for the space of several seconds motionless, rigid, wondering just what had caught his attention and ready to spring to his feet in an instant--well, it wouldn’t have been as graceful as all that, motions perhaps a bit lumbering, but he’d have made it--and head for the cabin if there was any sign of trouble. Was none, though, and listening for another minute, seeking the sound of Susan’s breathing over the wind-breath but not finding it--woman had gone off somewhere, insisted on finding a concealed little spot for her bed and tucking it in where it couldn’t be seen, and he didn’t guess he could blame her, much--and finally allowing himself to drift back towards a somewhat elusive sleep. Better get some while it’s there for the taking. Figure things’re just about bound to get loud around here sometime in the night, when Asmundson finally comes out of them doldrums of his and remembers what we were talking about yesterday…hopefully he’ll wake up good and solid and knowing where he is, take off for the woods to think things through rather than hanging around here to clear the enemy out of camp, but one’s about as likely as another at this point, way I figure it, so got to be prepared for either. Or neither, or both… And with that he slept, long practiced in the discipline of doing so when the opportunity presented itself, regardless of the circumstances, singing of the trees easing him comfortably if somewhat warily back to his slumber.
Inside the cabin Einar and Liz heard nothing at all, its walls certainly not thick enough or well enough sealed--a situation which, Einar had found himself thinking that previous day while working on the stove with Kilgore, must be remedied before the serious cold began to set in--to bar the gentle tunes of the trees, but their dead-weary sleep did what the walls could not do, and for hours the lay entirely unaware of anything aside from the presence of one another, the warmth of the bear hide around them, and that the merest whisper of a dream. The only whisper of dream, fortunately for Einar, as his mind at last seemed to have reached the point of--willingly or otherwise--seeking solace in the darkness, giving itself over whole and entire to the rest that he had so long and so badly been needing, allowing him the merciful refuge of sleep without dream, a blackness and a blankness interrupted only by the occasional dim recognition, a faint glow around the edges, nothing more, of Liz close by, and at such times he smiled in his sleep. Marveled, in a still, wordless, thoughtless way, at the fact of her presence, the grace of her being, grace, gift undeserved, unearned, given freely, and in the darkness of his dreaming, the wonder of it was more than he could fathom.
When morning dawned clear and cool on that first day of September, fall of the year, dawn of the day, dusk of the aspens, a hint of yellow beginning to show in the topmost leaves of those that danced around the cabin-clearing, it was Susan who rose first watching the sun creep its way down from the opposite ridge, rock standing all stark and exposed in the unmitigated brilliance of its light, grey-white in places, slashed through with red where sandstone intruded on the wall of schist and granite, flowing, frozen, like blood, she thought, at thirty below. Which, in a few short months, was exactly the sort of temperature the basin and its inhabitants would be seeing, and as she watched the sun-glow find its way down across thousands of acres of straight-combed spruces and into the aspens, setting them alight in a brilliance of living green and moving, molten almost-yellow, she could only pray that they would be ready, that she might, Lord willing, be shown some way to help them become ready. Which would--Susan always practical-minded--have to take a back seat just then to her starting a fire in the little outdoor pit they had used that past night, and beginning to prepare some breakfast for everyone.
Waking, seeing the sun-glow through the as-yet unfilled gap above the cabin door and unable to shake a feeling that he must have slept a very, very long time, days even, perhaps, Einar rolled out of the bed, bracing himself, stretching like a just-wakened dog in an attempt to get his limbs to cooperate, coordinate, serve him as his mind intended, and when Liz woke and appeared about to rise, herself, he smiled, put a gentle hand to her cheek and urged her, silently, for he could not seem to find the words, to return to her rest. Sensing that he needed some quiet, a solitary start to his morning, and not being in any great hurry to leave the warmth of the bed, herself--nose cold-numb in the chill air but the rest of her immensely cozy--she let him go, curled back up for a few more minutes’ near sleep, hoping only that he might recall the presence of their guests in time to put on some clothes before venturing outside… She might have mentioned it to him, had not the idea of breaking the morning silence seemed to her such a bad one. Einar fortunately remembered to clothe himself, though only at the last minute and after having begun to open the door, and in doing so seen Susan, her back to him, stirring something over her breakfast fire.
Out into the clearing, then, across it, for he truly did hope to pass unnoticed and disappear like a shadow into the trees, but it was in the end his own shadow that gave him away as it fell long and distorted and, in the slanting light of the early morning sun, even leaner than he was, himself, though not by much, and when he raised his arms it was to discover sun meeting sun across the narrow breadth of their shadow, cutting his arms in half at several points, almost not there anymore, almost invisible, and the sight struck him for some reason as immensely funny, made him want to laugh, but he knew Liz would not see it that way, would not like it, and kept the laugh inside, for her sake. Saved thus from giving himself away through untimely laughter Einar was still discovered, his almost-not-there shadow throwing itself across the area where Susan was working, causing her to look up, see him, and in doing so she beckoned to him, invited him to sit across from her on one of the bench-logs, and when he appeared reluctant she thrust a bundle of greens into his hands, shepherd’s purse and violets and a few dusky, fall, wilting nettles, and he got the impression she wanted him to sort and prepare them for breakfast. Perhaps she’d said as much. He could not be sure, wasn’t entirely sure she had spoken, at all. Took a seat, began the task, nettles hurting his fingers but it was not a bad thing to feel the hurt, was not much, just enough to keep him focused, and did not slow his progress as he stripped leaf from stem--stems were way too tough to be easily chewed, that late in the season, even if you did boil them first, and apparently Susan must know this, too, or why would she have assigned him the task? No wonder Liz had been able to learn so much from her--and allowing them to fall from his hands into the waiting soup-water. The task finished he rose, stood staring at his nettle-reddened hands, gathering himself for movement, ready to take off into the woods as had been his original intent.
In addition to the soup, Susan had a pot of tea simmering, and she lifted it from the flames, quickly stirred in a bit of honey and held it out to him. “Will you have some tea, Einar? Sit for a while and have some tea?”
He didn’t want to do it, found himself mildly annoyed at Susan for interrupting the forward motion that he had worked so hard to initiate, but was, come to think, awfully thirsty after the travels and travails of the past day and his long night--two nights? Three? Time was feeling terribly slippery, uncertain just then, and he was just aware enough of the trouble to be mildly alarmed by it--of uninterrupted sleep, had forgotten to get a drink before leaving the cabin and thought it might help. Knew something wasn’t quite right, hoped it might be as simple as a lack of water. Sat back down, took the pot and promptly burned himself when its rather hot base came into contact with his knee, where the denim cloth was worn quite thin. Didn’t much matter; he kept his grip on the wire bale of the pot, face a passive mask--didn’t even take any effort, that morning, not a bit--successfully prevented Susan from realizing the extent of his injury. Good. That’s good. Got to be good. He tried the tea. Something very tasty. Raspberry leaf, he guessed, spiced up with an unknown ingredient or two, perhaps something from Susan’s pack, and sweetened with honey. Had probably been intended for Liz, and he felt a bit bad about consuming it, but Susan had been insistent, and he was terribly thirsty. Nearly drained the pot. Knew he ought to thank her, but the words just wouldn’t come that morning. No words. Susan was watching at him, staring at him, and it was beginning to make him a bit uncomfortable. Wanted to get away, but she was speaking, and as he had just accepted her hospitality and drunk the tea, and done so without thanks, he figured it would only be right to sit and listen to whatever she had to say, too. Seemed like something pretty serious, from the look on her face, and he returned her gaze, eyes clear and still and--to Susan, at least--just wild and strange enough to be very disconcerting.
“Einar, I need to talk to you about the baby.”