Traveling carefully, keeping as much as they could to the timber to avoid leaving tracks in the occasional drifts and skiffs of mostly melted snow Einar and Liz worked their way over to their chosen cache location along one of the steep-sided gullies that cut the slope beyond the cabin, searching for the dead snag of a spruce that had marked their previous cache and finding it. Not much remained of that original emplacement after they’d used its food and fat while stranded nearby during that first early snowstorm of the season, but it still contained the atlatl and spear points which Einar had carefully wrapped and tucked inside, in addition to a few bits of yarrow, pitch and mullein. Not wanting to break the seal on the new cache to add those items, Einar instead carefully wrapped everything but the herbs in a scrap of hide and tied them to the top of the new cache basket. The old one would come back with them to be refilled and placed in a different location. Though he’d always known they needed more caches, the track scare--your own tracks, you big fool…can’t believe you let yourself get to the point where you couldn’t even recognize your own tracks. Got to do better than that--had returned the project to the top of the list, providing a forceful reminder of its urgency and of the trouble in which they’d find themselves if forced to abandon the cabin during the winter without adequate backup.
On the return trip Einar found himself having to wait more and more frequently for Liz, pausing to give her time to catch up and at first he attributed the change to the healing that was beginning to take place with his ribs, deep breaths coming a bit easier to him and with just a bit less cost in pain but he kept pulling further and further ahead, finally stopped and sat down to wait for her. Though doing better, he had certainly managed to wear himself out with the pace he’d set, was beginning to feel a bit light-headed, ribs aching terribly and a dry cough increasingly tormenting him, figured he could use a short break. Needed to figure out what was going on with Liz, besides. She was starting to worry him just a bit, seeing as she was normally able to move a good deal faster than himself, of late. By the time Liz caught up Einar had managed to stop coughing for the most part and get his breathing back to something like a normal rhythm, doubled over with one hand pressing the offending ribs and eyes staring straight ahead. Things weren’t, it appeared, quite as healed as he might have liked to believe, and the quick climb had taken its toll. Liz didn’t look so good either, sat down beside him without saying a word and just as wordlessly grabbed the water he offered her, drained the container. Hers had been empty for the past hour or more.
“You getting enough to drink?”
She shook her head. “No. Need more.”
“You alright, Liz?”
“Keep having…think I just need more water but keep having contractions and they’re kind of starting to…” She stopped, seemed to be concentrating hard on something for a few seconds before looking up at him again. “Starting to hurt. Feel stronger. It’s too early!”
“Aw, you probably just need more water, and maybe a little rest. Was a long way over to the cache, and we kept up a good pace. Come here and sit down, how about, here where the ground’s good and soft from the squirrels going at the cones and leaving piles to cushion us. I’m gonna make you a prop with our packs, and you lie down for a while, take a little rest, and I’ll go find us more water. Saw a seep back there behind us, and would have stopped if I’d known you were out. You and Hildegard just need more water.”
“I don’t want to call her Hildegard! And it’s too early, she can’t be coming yet…”
“Ok, alright, just settle down, now. Sit back down. We can call her whatever you like, anything at all, and hopefully we’re still gonna have a good long time to think about it, too. Now stay here, and I’ll be right back.”
With Liz resting Einar scrambled down the steep slope they had just ascended, aching burn of his ribs quite forgotten as he sought the little seep he remembered seeing, passing, mind racing despite the matter of fact calm with which he’d made Liz comfortable. It was too early, far too early for the baby to be coming up at that altitude--anywhere, really--and without any help, unless they’d seriously miscalculated the time but they couldn’t have, not by that much, it just wasn’t possible, and besides, Susan had confirmed it, their timing, had said… Slow down, Einar. You can’t breathe well enough yet to panic, even if you wanted to. Which you don’t. Won’t help a thing. Now you go on down there, get Lizzie some more water and in all likelihood she’ll be just fine, be able to finish the walk home in a while and keep the little one cooking for another good month or two before we have to worry about this again. Please Lord, let it be so… Moving at his top speed and finding himself a bit less than calm despite his efforts to remain so Einar very nearly scrambled right past the little seep, smelling it at the last moment--the good rich scent of damp earth and moss--and stopping, throwing himself down beside the little trickle of water and scooping at the soil with a hand, clearing it, deepening the depression created over time in the springy loam by the slow flowing of water. His own throat was terribly dry, was making him cough again which hurt his ribs so that it brought involuntary tears to his eyes and he paused, scooped up a double handful of water for himself and let it trickle cold and bracing down to his stomach. Good. Was able to quit coughing then, carefully lower first Liz’s water container and then his own into the scooped-out spot in the spruce needles, filling them. Back on his feet then and up the hill at a dead run, wanting to see Liz, to get his eyes on her and make sure nothing had changed in his absence and it didn’t appear to have when he got there except that she was eyeing him with obvious concern, rising to come to him and he didn’t know why until his legs gave out and he collapsed on the soft, springy ground there beneath the spruces. Up again in a hurry, Einar took the water to her, urged her to sit once again, drink. She put a steadying hand on his shoulder, dabbed a bit of water onto his face.
“Not until you have some. Looks like you need it worse than I do. Here, have a scoop of honey, too. I tried some and it really helped.”
“You’re alright? Any more contractions?”
“It seems I’m alright unless…” She stood, sat back down rather abruptly. “Unless I try to stand and go somewhere. Then everything tightens up pretty quickly again. Something about the way my weight shifts, I guess…” Which was exactly what Einar had been afraid of.
“Finish the water. One container at least. You may have let yourself get dehydrated without realizing it. Drink, sit a while, and then we’ll try again. Walking, I mean. We’re only about two miles from the cabin, but I don’t want you walking before you’re ready.”
For a good half hour more Liz rested, drinking, taking an occasional taste of honey and trying a bit of the sheep jerky Einar offered her but finding it somehow difficult to stomach, setting it aside. Evening was coming, shadows lengthening and the last thing she wanted was to be stuck for the night out beneath a spruce with the possibility that--she had to say it, had to allow for it, even while hoping desperately for another outcome--the baby was coming, when home was so close. Time to be getting back. She rose, called for Einar, who had recently disappeared up the slope for the fourth time, seemed to be making one circuit and then another up and down the hill as if he simply wanted to keep himself moving. Quickly he came to her, offered more water but she didn’t need it.
“I’m ready to go home. Don’t know how fast I’ll be able to move, but I’m ready.”
“Good. We’re gonna take it real slow, just step by step and you let me know if you need to stop and rest, if anything changes…”
The day, though sunny, had turned cold sometime shortly after noon, wind rising and refusing to let up as they worked their way along the slope, traversing, gaining elevation slowly and Liz pausing whenever she felt the need. Einar stayed at her side, offering a hand or an arm whenever she began looking a bit unsteady but wishing there might be some way he could keep a bit more distance. He didn’t want her to know that a large part of his reason for moving so quickly prior to her difficulty had involved trying to keep his body warm enough to function at a useful level--a major struggle, he had been finding, and the reduced speed soon left him cold, trembling and striving his hardest to conceal the fact from Liz, knowing that she didn’t need any additional worry that day. Wasn’t working. He wished she’d quit looking at him, stopping to try and re-arrange the deer hide that was supposed to keep him warm, just focus on getting herself and the baby safely up that slope and back home. He could take care of the rest. And did. Got himself up that hill and into the cabin clearing, Liz beside him, still clearly struggling but doing what was necessary to get herself home.
While Liz rested inside Einar used the remaining daylight to shingle the roof, hauling load after load of the pitch coated aspen bark squares up and cementing them in place with more pitch, working fast to keep himself warm. He did not know what the next few days might bring or when next snow would be coming, but wanted to be ready. Still Muninn the raven had not returned, and Einar watched for him as he worked, wondering what could have become of the bird.