Following their discussion over breakfast, Einar and Liz each busied themselves with their own projects, Liz making a few additions and modifications to the half finished basket which was to serve as the baby’s bed and Einar doing his best to clean up after Muninn, whose inevitable mess beneath his perch--the raven seemed more than content to spend those long, stormy days inside, and neither Einar nor Liz found themselves particularly inclined to throw him out--was beginning to bother Liz. Einar didn’t particularly understand the strenuousness of her objection, seeing as she’d never shown an inclination to be particularly bothered by such things in the past, but figured it must have something to do with the nearness of the baby’s time, and wisely took care of the problem, himself, shooing the raven away from his perch and scouring the area around the tightly wedged stick until it was arguably cleaner than any other surface in the cabin. Liz, who had found herself inexplicably unwilling to go near the mess, though definitely wanting it cleaned up, was greatly appreciative if a bit surprised at Einar taking such initiative, cleaning of that sort not being his usual cup of tea.
Speaking of tea, Liz’s morning batch of raspberry leaf-nettle tea was beginning to simmer gently on the stove and she took it off, crouching near the fire to drink. Had gone as far as she could go with the baby’s willow basket, anyway, as she was out of willows. Needed more. Needed to get that basket finished up, and would have strapped her snowshoes on right then and there--abandoning the tea, set on accomplishing her task, and without further delay--and ventured out into the storm to gather them, had not she known Einar would insist on coming with her. She didn’t want that. Hoped he’d stay inside for the morning, for the day, even; despite having consumed a good portion of the breakfast stew he looked cold that morning, shaky, barely holding his own and seeming frequently to lose his train of thought, lose his way and stand staring blankly at the floor for what seemed to her far too long before he found it again, and she wished he’d go back to bed where he would at least be warm during those periods of lostness. The stove wasn’t enough, she could see it in the way he started trembling again every time he was still for more than seconds at a time, was glad that he had the cleaning work to keep him busy, at least, seeing as there was little chance of talking him back into bed. Well. Additional willows could wait, she supposed. Except that they probably couldn’t, for Einar, done with his cleanup around the raven’s perch, had seen the half finished basket, was inspecting it.
“Never seen you make such a big one, and this has a real special shape, too. For the baby?”
“Yes, I thought we ought to have a bed for him, someplace safe and warm where he can sleep, sometimes. I know he’ll be in with us most of the time, anyway, so he can share our warmth and be close to me when he gets hungry in the night, but I wanted something portable, too. This basket can even come outside on nice days and let him get a little sun, have a safe place to be while I’m working on the meat and tanning hides and such.”
“Real good idea. Looks like you’re out of willows, though. Did you get those from behind the cabin? Think we had a bundle or two left back there after making this insulation cage around the water barrel…”
“That’s what these are. Hope it’s alright that I used them up…”
“Sure! And I’ll go get you some more, too. Muninn and I need to get out and about for a while, stir around and see how the storm’s coming, so I might as well run down there to the willows and get you another bundle or two. Got to have that thing ready before the little one gets here, and on a day like this, I sure won’t have to worry about any tracks I might leave! They’ll be gone before I turn around, between the wind and snow.”
Yes, she wanted to say, that’s what I’m afraid of, and then how will I ever find you out there…but she kept the concern to herself. Did insist on accompanying him, though, both because she was somewhat concerned that he might lose himself out there in the storm--either intentionally, as was his usual way or, seeing how dizzy and disoriented he seemed at times that morning, accidentally, but the result would likely be the same, and not one she wanted to contemplate--and she find herself unable to follow his tracks and find him in time due to the ongoing ferocity of the storm, wind scouring, drifting, piling snow here and there in sharp-edged billows of flat white, and because she really did feel a need to get out of the cabin for a while, and “stir around,” as he had put it.
Pushing snowshoes before them they crawled out through the tunnel to emerge gasping and spluttering into a world of swirling, blinding white, not even Einar having been prepared for the ferocity of the storm which met them. Wind was relentless even there between the cabin and cliff, cutting like a thousand tiny knives and taking their breath as they struggled to don snowshoes and get the hoods of their parkas pulled up, Einar helping Liz--she would have had a difficult time managing it even under the best of circumstances, with the baby so much in her way--and then she crouching down to help him, nearly losing her balance in the process but managing to remain upright. Out across the clearing, then, clinging to one another for balance in the deep snow and blasting wind but then Einar handed Liz his spear, went out front and began breaking trail, shuffling slowly through drifts of new snow sometimes three or four feet deep but managing to stay for the most part on top of them, sinking only inches instead of feet, as he would have done without the snowshoes and making a path for Liz into the timber, where the snow depth was not as great, wind a bit less ferocious, and the difference was immediately apparent. Relief. Could breathe again. Hands pressed to numbed faces, pressed to stomachs, after, to warm them and stave off the frostbite which always stalked around the edges in such weather, even through the marten fur mittens Liz had recently got done making them, and for which Einar found himself tremendously grateful; he’d have lost fingers that day without them, no doubt, and a couple bundles of willows were, after all, a fairly silly thing over which to lose fingers…
Willows. Almost missed them, would have pushed right on through and gone on walking out into that formless whiteness, bewildered, had it not been for the smell, sweet, pungent, unmistakable, and Einar stopped, fumbled about beneath his snowshoes--thought at first that he might simply have damaged one, be smelling willow from the scraped and injured bit of the snowshoe, as they were primarily composed of willow, but this smelled fresher, more alive--until he came up with a handful of flexible, living willow wands. Success, and he stopped, waited for Liz to catch up. Too cold to speak, they worked in silence to cut armloads of the lithe, lively little shoots, pausing frequently to rewarm numbed hands, Einar at one point pressing palms to the sides of Liz’s face, seeing there the telltale whitish patches that meant she would soon be in danger of serious frostbite if something wasn’t done, never even realizing that he’d long ago passed that point, himself, and when she tried to reciprocate, warming his cheekbones where the skin stretched thin and purple and appearing about to break from the sharpness of the bones beneath, he shook his head, not necessary, and she had to become very insistent before he’d allow her to do it.
Done, then, each with as many willows as they could reasonably carry through the deep snow and they started back, bundles slung over shoulders and each with a stick to help their progress, Einar with his spear and Liz using a long aspen staff he’d found for her, struggling uphill in their trail, which was almost completely gone in places already, wiped out by the wind. Taking a good bit longer than had the descent, the climb had them facing directly into the wind, squinting against its ferocity and blinking to clear eyes crusted with snow, blinded, blundering, lost the trail, Einar stopping when he was sure of it, waiting with his back to the wind for Liz to catch up. She was moving slowly, more slowly each minute, it seemed, and he didn’t understand it, knew that he, with his stumbling gait and failing legs, ought to be the slow one and was concerned for her, glad when she finally made her way up beside him. Alright, she appeared to be doing alright, slowed more by the awkwardness of carrying the baby through all that snow than by anything else, and with that realization he allowed himself to relax a bit, big mistake, toppling over in the snow and lying there very nearly too exhausted to breathe, until her shouts turned to kicks, hard, pummeling blows with the aspen staff that brought him back his senses, back to his feet, this way, follow me this way, we’re not far…and he was right, cabin in sight before they even realized they’d made their way out into the clearing, and they hurried to get around to the back, to the tunnel. Snowshoes off, drop the willows, drop to the ground, immense relief as the wind was blocked, blessed, blessed relief, and coming just in time…Liz had to help him those last few feet into the relative warmth of the cabin; he’d fallen asleep in the tunnel.
Warmth, it seeped in all around him, hurt his hands, arms, feet as the blood began to return to them and Einar stirred, sat up, waking as if from a dream to find Liz crouched beside him, holding a steaming pot of tea and urging him to drink. Startled--lost some time, there--he sat up straighter, tilting his head and listening hard to make sure the wind was still howling outside, which it was, good, must not have been out of it for too long, and he got to his feet, teeth gritted against the hurt of it, body rigid as dizziness tried its best to take him.
“Quite a storm, wasn’t it?”
Liz seemed surprised at his speaking, even more so to see him on his feet. “Yes, it sure is. I’ve really never seen the like! Wouldn’t have ever gone out after the willows if I’d have known just how vicious it was out there….”
“I would have! Needed to get out for a while, and this is the weather we’ve got. How’d it go for you? Little one doing alright, not too active after all that?”
“No, I think he’s just about as worn out as I am, he’s pretty quiet. I did have some cramping on my way back up, but it’s gone now so I think everything’s alright. It’s probably good I haven’t been doing the trapline runs with you this past week though, or I get the feeling he might be here already…”
Einar got very quiet at that, eyes sober and still. “Not too far right now from the time we’d estimated…two and a half, three weeks it seems, so while it would be better if he waited, well, the time is getting pretty close.”
“Yes, it is, and I’m going to go ahead and finish that basket in a little while here, after we’ve got warmed up some. It was a good morning’s work, wasn’t it? But I’m glad all the critters are fast asleep, so you don’t have to run the trapline for a little while.”
Einar wasn’t so sure about that last part, half of him wanting to turn right around as soon as he’d got some of the feeling back in his extremities and do it all again just to prove to himself that he could, but the other half--and it won out, this time--happy and content to remain right there where he was with Liz, listening to the storm rage on outside and preparing for the soon-to-be expansion of their little family.