Starting up through into the timber after a brief rest and watering stop at the spring, Einar and Liz made steady progress up over the wind-downed spruces and moss-slick rocks of the well-shaded slope, its steepness increasing near the top and the rocks--boulders, really, great hulks of granite looking ancient and somewhat mysterious all hung with moss--increasing in numbers, nearly taking the place of the soft, springs forest floor until they found themselves climbing through a timbered boulder field whose trees were rapidly becoming shorter, more stunted and farther between. Nearing treeline, and Einar felt it, maintaining adequate levels of oxygen only through a careful management of his breathing, deep, deliberate breaths whenever their pace slowed in the crossing of one obstacle or another to help counter the still too shallow respirations that seemed to have become all but unavoidable at other times, and as hard as he was working to get enough breath, an equal amount of intensity was going into his effort to appear more or less normal to Liz. Wasn't sure how well it was working and he somewhat resented having to do it at all just then, but knew the effort was both a good discipline and hopefully a step that would ease things for her, giving her less to worry about so she could think about her own climb. Couldn't be easy ascending that steep slope while carrying the little one, not as easy as without, at least, though she never did show much sign of having trouble with it.
Either she’s adapted rather well to the pregnancy, or she’s better than I am at concealing troubles like that. Maybe a little of each. She does seem to be doing awfully well with carrying the little one, looks like she's getting enough of the right things to eat and hopefully so is the baby...ought to be, with all the marrow and liver and good nettle greens she’s getting pretty often. Seems she’s made a real effort to get that pot of raspberry leaf tea every day too, and has been doing it for several months, so that ought to help things go better at the birth. Though I guess...he paused, about to hoist himself over yet another waist-height fallen spruce, its branches too tangled to allow for ducking beneath as he would have preferred to do, fighting for air and suddenly a bit more faint than he was comfortable with feeling, guess Susan had a point when she mentioned the wisdom of me having a shelter all fixed up for her a couple thousand feet lower, in case it looks like the baby’s gonna come early. Oxygen can be...real challenge up here if a person’s having any troubles of that sort, and a not-quite-ready little one almost certainly would be. Well. Next project needs to be that birth shelter, it looks like. Can make things more efficient by also using it as a cache location, place to put stuff we might grab if we had to take off out of here in a hurry, and also a good sheltered spot to spend a winter night or two if we ever got caught away from this place, or chose to spend the night out. On the trapline, possibly. I hope to trap that valley this winter, beaver, muskrat, and it' be good to have a place to stay while we're out, especially if heavy weather moves in. Might trap the other valley too, the one where we went scouting for acorns a month or so ago, but not sure yet. It'd mean leaving tracks out in the open in the snow of the ridge, and those could be real easily spotted by any aircraft that happened by, either as part of the search or not, and would tend to get their attention, too, since the elk will be long gone from here by then. Might get the area tagged for a second look, and we sure don't need that. So, may stick to the other valley, the one just down from the cabin, where we'd be covered by timber for most of the descent, Tracks and trails could still be a problem if anyone’s looking, but not nearly so obvious. We’ll just have to see. Have to get to that point, first. And get to the top of this ridge, before that.
Which was going to be a great enough challenge for that day, though getting his mind off the rib troubles by inspecting their present situation and planning for the winter had helped him significantly, carried him a good distance up the now-treeless rockslide without so much as thinking about pausing for a breathing break. Liz was thinking about it though, was not entirely buying the carefully-constructed facade of normalcy with which he had thus far pushed himself up the slope at speeds that she herself could hardly exceed, saw the unmistakable strained paleness in his face and knew he was not getting enough air.
Goofy guy. Doing this almost as much for your own benefit as for mine though, aren’t you? Can handle the whole thing a lot more to your satisfaction if you can manage to fool yourself, and not just me, which you seem to have got pretty good at doing... Well, it’s getting you up the hill, and if you have to pay for it later--which I imagine you certainly will--maybe it will turn out to be somewhat of a blessing, especially if it means you actually getting some sleep tonight. It's been two or three, I'm pretty sure, since you had much at all, and you’re probably going to start seeing searchers behind the tree islands and danger in every passing aircraft pretty soon, if you don’t get some sleep. Like happened on a couple of your solo hunting trips. Not that there isn’t danger out there, probably more than I’m aware of, at times, but surely you’d know what I’m talking about, wouldn’t you? If you were willing to admit it The dangers that aren’t there can be just as bad as the ones that are--and sometimes even worse. So you just go ahead and wear yourself out on this climb, make it so you won’t have any choice but to sleep, and things ought to go alright up here. I hope.
Meanwhile Liz was beginning to have a difficult time keeping up with him, did not mind hiking at the back of the line for a while if that was how things worked best, but at the same time did not at all relish the thought of catching up to him ten or fifteen minutes later, only to find him sprawled on his face in the rocks. Knowing from past experience that he was more than capable of pushing himself to that extreme and, at times, rather beyond it she picked up her own pace, catching him within minutes.
"Einar...hey! Little Hildegard needs some water, and maybe a few minutes for her mother to breathe, too. Sit with us?" Which Einar, having found a pace and managed to force himself to stick to it, was not particularly anxious to do, but she'd said the baby needed a break, and who was he to contradict such a thing? So, he sat.
Muninn had been following them, stopping when they stopped to take up a post in the tree that provided him the best vantage or, lacking a tree, sometimes lighting on a rock until they were ready to move on again, taking to the air then and scouting on ahead, circling back to pick them up again. This pattern he kept up with great consistency as they climbed, up until a certain point from which--resting momentarily on a rough outcropping of granite--they found themselves within sight of the summit. It was then, chin on his knees as he stared back down into the valley-depths below them, that Einar first began to notice the raven behaving oddly, swooping down into a small hidden spot some three or four hundred feet below them and good bit to the North of the route they had taken, circling, returning and again making a quick return flight to the spot. After three or four of these cycles the raven made a hurried descent on the resting pair, seated himself roughly on Einar's shoulder and gave him such a sharp tap in the side of the head that he very nearly got himself turned into stew meat right on the spot.
Somehow managing to restrain himself from wringing the bird's neck Einar, already on his feet, watched in puzzlement as Muninn took off in an enthusiastic dive for the little pocket of aspen-surrounded meadow grass that had become his focus, taking up once more a position above it and circling, circling, floating on what appeared to be a column of rising air and appearing rather disinclined to stop. Liz was on her feet by that time, too, dabbing with a clump of usnea at the little trickle of blood that ran down the side of Einar's face from the raven's rather emphatic message.
"Do you think he's trying to tell us something? It looks like he wants us to come down there to that little clearing, and..."
"Yep. Sure looks like it to me. Why he's so intent on us following I couldn't say...don't know the critter well enough yet, but I do know what it usually means when a raven or crow circles a spot like that."
"Food. It means food, doesn't it?"
Einar nodded. "Food of some sort, but it's real hard to say whether or not it's anything worth our while to go find out about...most anything tends to count as food to a raven."
"As it does, according to my observations, to an Einar! When he's eating at all..."
A grumbled reply, something about being an opportunistic omnivore, when he did eat, and Einar stirred restlessly, hitching the pack up a bit higher on his back and staring down into the still somewhat green depths of the tiny basin over which Muninn continued to circle. It seemed the raven must be onto something, and though Einar knew the bird with its sharp senses might well have picked up on something as small as the bones of a weeks old dead ground squirrel, something told him more was involved. Might be well worth their while to take a short detour down there and find out. Having secured Liz's agreement--seeing the relentless pace at which he had settled into driving himself up that slope, anything that might allow him a bit of rest seemed a very good idea to her indeed, just then--Einar scanned the terrain below them, picking out what looked to him the most likely route through the sparse and stunted firs and aspens that lay between them and the basin.