Cabin bright, cheerful and beginning to warm, though slowly, Einar and Liz hovered close to the fire, absorbing its welcome heat and starting to think about supper. Liz had been thinking about it, actually, the entire way back to the cabin, thinking how good it would taste to have a pot of hot stew after two days of living on the icy, gelatinous pemmican-type mixtures she had prepared them, and though Einar, if asked, would have said something to the effect that there were times when he’d lived for weeks on less, and under much more challenging conditions, he, too, looked forward to their hot meal. Mostly though he was just thinking about his half frozen feet, the hurt of their returning circulation blocking out most other matters for the time being as he sat attempting to warm them and wondering what could have ever led him to think it was a good idea to make such a lengthy trek barefooted. Hadn’t been thinking too much at all, apparently, or he would have at least carried the boots along to give himself the option should he end up spending more time out in the snow than he had anticipated, and it disturbed him somewhat that such an idea wouldn’t have even occurred to him before setting out. Well. He’d remember next time, would have a hard time, he was pretty sure, forgetting the amount of pain he was currently experiencing as the feet thawed, and surely that would serve as a reminder the next time he considered setting out on a long, barefooted hike through the snowy woods. Needed his feet. What was left of them. Food was beginning to heat on the stove as its rocks warmed, Liz busying about happily and Einar watched her, amazed and pleased at the difference so small thing as the return of fire--it’s not small though, it’s everything. Out here, it’s everything--had made in her demeanor. She seemed genuinely happy, going about her work with a smile and he hoped very much, for that reason as well as for so many others, that the skies would stay quiet for a while.
Warm as the fire already felt to them after the constant cold of those past days it took the bulk of the stone stove a good while to thoroughly heat, leaving their stew of sheep, nettles, bear fat and serviceberries slow to simmer, steaming gently after a time but still full of mostly frozen meat, and Liz, anxious to have something hot, put on a pot of water to boil for tea. All this time she had paid Einar little mind, stepping carefully around him as she worked and glad simply to see that he was willing to sit near the stove and allow himself to begin warming rather than shedding the parka and retreating to shiver himself to exhaustion in his dark little corner but now, work done for the time, she noticed for the first time the degree of hurt his feet seemed to be causing him, wanted to scold--really, you ought to know better than to have made that sort of walk without boots, especially seeing as you have plenty of past experience with frozen toes and surely can’t want to have to go through that whole process again…I don’t want to go through it again, and I’m not even the one who lost the toes--but knew there would be little purpose. Sat down beside him instead, hands outstretched to the radiating warmth of the stove.
“Feet a little cold?”
“Mind if I take a look?”
“Nothing to see, really. Bad as they hurt, I don’t think any damage was done. I’d worry if they didn’t hurt…”
“Me too. You wait a minute though, don’t go putting on your socks yet or because I’ve got something here that might help.” Rising, she sorted through the numerous pouches and containers that contained her store of medicinal plants, coming out with a small packet of the sweet-smelling, resinous cottonwood leaf buds she’d gathered from down in the valley that past spring and carefully saved, pouring five or six of them out into her hand and crushing them between two rocks, releasing their delicate fragrance into the cabin. Mixing the crushed buds with a bit of stove-softened bear fat until it began taking on a very definite orange hue she set the concoction on a warm stone to further heat and combine.
“Ah! Balm of Gilead, a real hastily improvised version, but it ought help an awful lot. Thanks. Wasn’t gonna put my socks on anyway. Feet too swollen. Got to wait until it comes down.”
“The swelling can’t be helping your circulation, can it? And I don’t think it must be too efficient right now to start with, because it seems like you’re purple half the time lately--or on the verge of it--even when it’s not all that cold.”
Einar shrugged, not important, but she appeared to be looking for an actual answer. “Yeah, not too good I guess. Heart rate’s too low a lot of the time, that’s part of it. And I haven’t been moving enough. Got to try and find ways to improve it, or I’m gonna start losing bits and pieces again this winter, and I sure don’t want that.”
“You’ve been moving plenty. Too much, some days. Hot pepper would help. Or, since we don’t have any of that, simply making an effort to keep yourself warmer….”
“Eating. Lots of eating.”
He grinned, sniffed the air. Ok, you win this one. Stuff smells awful good. “Let’s get started.”
“We’re about to! The stew’s finally up to a boil. These rocks do take their time to get warm, but the good thing is that once they heat up they stay that way, radiate warmth all night and help keep the place warm for morning. It’s a good stove.”
Muninn, as if knowing very well what time it was getting to be--which he probably did--returned from his daily rounds and stood outside the front door rasping and beating his wings, wanting very much to be let in for the night so he could have his share of the supper and perhaps spend the night warm and out of the wind on his perch behind the water barrel. The memory of being quite forgotten and left out in the cold that past night fresh in his mind he began making quite a fuss when neither of them responded immediately to his demands, prompting Einar to crawl hastily to the door and pound it with his fist, somewhat alarmed at the racket and wanting it to stop.
“What’s your hurry, you mangy old vulture? Didn’t have any success out there searching for winterkill to scavenge, or what? We’ll let you in I suppose, but you don’t have to be so loud about it. And when’re you planning to start using that back door, anyway? We put that thing there for a reason, and the fact that you don’t particularly care for tunnels is no good reason to be avoiding it, and making us open up the front door whenever you want in or out. I don’t especially care for tunnels myself all the time, but you know what? The more you make yourself do it, the easier it’ll get. So. Last time on the front door, fella.”
Not seeming too concerned about Einar’s proclamation, the bird hopped boldly into the cabin as soon as the door had swung wide enough to allow him admittance, depositing at Einar’s feet an item which he took at first to be a strip of inner bark from a long-dead aspen, but it appeared too regular, too even, and he picked it up, examining it in the firelight. Definitely not tree bark. Not this. Not again. Do you absolutely have to bring back every scrap of manmade material you find out there on the mountain? And then, he recognized it…