Liz, who truly had not expected to see the raven again, was delighted at his return. Their little family had somehow not seemed quite complete without him, and she guessed Einar must not be the only one who had “got used to” the presence of the clumsy, over-sized creature; she could not help but laugh at the sight of Einar, heavily laden with his pack board of goat meat, spear in hand and the gleaming white ruff that was the rolled-up goat hide draped around his neck and hanging down almost to the ground in the front--his own beard, not nearly as white as the goat’s hide, but approaching it in a few places, seeming quiet appropriate to the scene--standing there with great awkward bulk of the raven looking so very much at home perched on his shoulder. The entire picture somehow looked so ancient and timeless and strange that she knew she should have been quite alarmed to stumble upon any such thing while out roaming the hills--would have almost thought herself transported back into some ancient Norse narrative, Odin and the Ravens, perhaps, only in this case there was only one raven, and Einar, fortunately, still possessed both his eyes--but the fact that it was Einar standing there, her own Einar working so hard to remain upright under the weight of his chosen load, swaying a bit dizzily and looking at her with a question in his eyes…well, that somehow left the whole thing appearing to her a good bit more humorous than alarming. Although, she had to admit, he does seem on occasion rather ancient and timeless and strange…minus the ancient part, I guess, because he certainly isn’t that, though lately he’s been looking it, just a bit, and she went to him, moving slowly so as not to startle the raven back into flight, put a hand on his where he was gripping the spear for all he was worth in the struggle to stay on his feet.
“Ready to head for home?”
Einar nodded, stared for a moment at the timbered ridge opposite them across the narrow draw that ran below them, water flowing gently but quite audibly over rock at its bottom. “Yep, ready if you are. Like to be away from that chopper, in case they take a notion to come looking for elk over here. Figure we’ll cross the draw, start up the other side and see what things look like from the top. Easiest would probably be to…just top out on the red ridge again, follow it until we were looking down into our basin, but of course we can’t risk that sort of exposure with aircraft and men and who knows what else all in the area today. So it’s gonna be a lot of up and down for us, I’m afraid. Lot of ridge crossing until we get back closer to the cabin.”
"I know. It’ll be slow, but we’ll get there."
Taking to the sky again as Einar began walking, Muninn trailed out in front of them, seeming to scout their route as he skimmed the treetops, making it to the summit of the opposite ridge in well under three seconds and swooping back to meet them; Liz wished for a moment they might be able to travel like that, but supposed she’d have to settle for watching the bird, enjoying the freedom of his flight and benefiting, on occasion, from the warnings he might give them of potential danger, as he had done up on the red ridge when he’d saved Einar from stepping out into the open in full view of Oscar Bennington and the elk survey.
Reaching the bottom of the draw fairly quickly, it was slow going as they started up its opposite side, terrain steep and their way blocked here and there by downed trees that left Einar struggling very nearly at the limits of his endurance as he hauled himself up over one and then another of them, finding himself very nearly pulled over backwards with every step by the load on his back and looking to Liz, when she glanced back, far less like the hero of some ancient saga than a man fighting hard for his life and continued existence in a struggle whose outcome was as yet rather undetermined. Which is exactly the sort of thing legends are made of, when it comes down to it, but none of that mattered at the moment; she just wanted to find some way to help him up that slope, ease the burden that appeared to be crushing the life out of him, pulling and twisting his ribs as it left him continually fighting to maintain his balance. Einar, of course, denied any difficulty when she returned to the spot where he stood hunched forward, supporting some of the pack’s weight with his hands and working to take a few full breaths before resuming his climb.
“Little slow today, but I’ll get there. No problem. If you hurry…might have time for a little nap at the top of the ridge while you wait for me…”
Liz sighed, smiled and offered him some water. I see that you’re making light of things as you usually do when the situation is especially dire and you don’t want to look at it for what it is…Einar, I don’t know how to talk to you when you’re like this. I’d like to just come right out and say, “look, I can see that your ribs are killing you, and you’re probably tearing things up worse inside by insisting on lugging that heavy pack up over all these trees, bending and twisting and I’ll be surprised if you get up to the top of the ridge without puncturing a lung at this rate,” but that wouldn’t be especially useful, would it, because even if I don’t believe you when you say nothing’s wrong and you’re doing fine--I’m not buying that for a minute--you really do believe it, don’t you? Have got yourself convinced, and if I do anything to shake that certainty in you, it seems you really may not make it up this slope! So, I won’t do that. “I’m not looking to take a nap, just want to find a better way to carry things! I was wondering how it might work to real quick build a travois-type thing for the meat…more like a stretcher, really, because we wouldn’t be dragging it, not through all this downed timber. I’d carry one end, you the other, and maybe it would be easier than hauling the meat on our back.”
“Are you having trouble with your pack?”
“No, I’m fine, but I thought….”
“If the pack’s working for you we’d better go ahead and stick to them, because carrying something like you’re describing, while it would work, would really slow us down, too. Harder to maneuver over trees and around obstacles with it…can be a fine plan if you’re hauling an injured person and have the luxury of choosing your route based on what’s gonna be easiest on them--and on you--but we really don’t have that today. Need to stick to the heavy timber where we’ll be hidden if that chopper makes a pass over here on its way out of the area, later.”
Injured person on a stretcher…yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid here, because if you end up with a punctured lung, I’m either dragging you along behind on a travois of some sort and beating you half to death on trees as we make our way home--which I might just be in the mood to do, if you keep pushing yourself until that happens!--or we’re camping until you either get better or die, and it’s probably going to be the second and it won’t take too long either, will it? Einar didn’t answer, of course, and as he took Liz’s silence to mean that she had understood his reasons for not wanting to try the travois and did not disagree, he started moving again. Had to keep moving, or he wasn’t going to be getting too far with that meat and hide. Could feel it. Liz was right there beside him, looking, when he glanced at her, as if she very badly wanted to say something, but she never did, and together they reached the top of the ridge some time later, Muninn the raven waiting for them there in the topmost branches of an old, fire-blackened limber pine. On the far horizon, separated from them by several more deep, timber-choked gorges, Einar recognized the distinctive granite spur that marked an area not too far above the cabin. Though two or three miles and surely, considering the terrain, even more hours than that distant, home was within sight, and the sight was a good one.