29 February, 2012

29 February 2012

After a time Einar got to his feet, still flooded with relief at the thing he had so narrowly avoided and wondering all the while why his tormentor had not yet returned to bash him upside the head and get him moving again, but not particularly interested in waiting around to find out. Not that he could go much of anywhere, as it was. Stumbled the moment he attempted to take a step, legs going out from under him and spilling him right back into the snow where he sat for some time, mind drifting and head bowed against the wind. Sure was howling. Some night to be out wandering in the snow. Seemed his keeper would have wanted to be getting to some shelter, as most sane people would on such a night, would have returned by then to hustle him along to such a location. But he had not returned, and so far as Einar could tell, he was all alone out there in the storm. A good way to be, as such things went, and he supposed he really ought to be making some effort to escape. Wouldn’t get too far. They’d seen to that, marching him until he was dropping in his tracks and it seemed they’d done something to his side, too, for even in the bone-numbing cold he ached fiercely from hip to shoulder all along the right side, ribs catching and burning when he breathed and his body wanting very badly to curl up into a position which carefully favored the injured side, protected it. Well, it couldn’t have what it wanted, not yet, for he must escape.

They’d never be able to track him in this blizzard, and it was looking like his one chance. Rose again, this time managed to remain upright with the aid of a gnarly little limber pine that stood bent and wind-twisted beside him, and he squinted into the storm, trying to get his bearings, decide on a direction in which to begin moving. Up. Was almost always good to go up, because they wouldn’t expect it of you. Would expect you to do the natural human thing and seek the easy path, follow creeks, end up in the valleys and that’s where they’d go and wait for you, wait to capture you, but they’d never expect you to start climbing. Especially in a storm like the one that lashed the landscape that night, and after they’d succeeded very well at marching you to the point of exhaustion and beyond it, taking so much out of you that you no longer even remembered your own name or much of anything else, other than the need to escape. No, they’d never expect it. Would figure you’d die if you tried a thing like that, and would expect you to know it, too, and would look along the creeks and in the sheltered areas of the valley. They had a point, too, because you probably would die up there in that wind, but really, what choice did you have? Couldn’t let them get ahold of you again. Anything was better than risking that possibility, so anything it was, and you started climbing.

Climbing, Einar. Be climbing. But he wasn’t climbing; he’d sunk to his knees once again, the entire scenario playing out in his head but body refusing to respond in the slightest. He was done. One way or the other, done. Might as well admit it, and he grinned fiercely into the storm, suddenly filled with a wild, bounding joy at the knowledge that where he was going, they would have no way to follow him. Free at last. Only something wasn’t quite right with the whole thing, something bothering him and he tried to remember, to get his flitting, floating brain to be still for a second or two and ponder the matter before he lost entirely the ability to do so. Should have lost it already, long ago, and the fact that he knew this and was able to sit there pondering it struck him as rather odd, if not particularly relevant, and then it came to him, the thing that had been troubling him so and interfering with the peaceful and happy departure which would otherwise have been his very shortly, and again he was on his feet, moving towards the tiny and mostly snow-obscured beam of Bud Kilgore’s headlamp. Confused, not understanding why the beam should be pointing straight up Einar slowly worked his way towards the light, its glow disappearing entirely at times as the snow blew in blinding curtains from the escarpments above and leaving him to wonder if the entire thing might be an illusion of some sort, contrived escape of his weary and failing mind but the snow was real, its icy, scouring bitterness far more true and present than the nightmarish scenes through which he’d found himself intermittently traveling over the past hour or so, captors driving him mercilessly through the jungle and taking out their wrath with sticks and canes whenever he sank to the ground out of pure exhaustion, and he knew the world he was currently seeing represented the real one, which left Kilgore over there at the end of that beam of light, unmoving and apparentlx in a very strange position indeed.

Working his way slowly over to the spot where the light stood as beacon, stumbling sometimes in the dark on rocky protrusions that stuck out from beneath the snow and thinking to himself more than once that it was probably a trap, some scheme to draw him in and bring him down, again, Einar finally reached the tracker, found him sprawled out and unconscious in the snow, partially covered by a drift that had tumbled down the steep slope behind him. Removing his snowshoes as quickly as he could Einar maneuvered in beside him, checking to be sure the man still had a pulse which, fortunately, he did.

“Done this…done…done it intentionally, haven’t you, you old buzzard? Here, come on, let me…got to get this snow dug away from your face so you can breathe, and then maybe you’ll be alright.”

The tracker wasn’t alright though; Einar could see the blood trickling down the side of his head, sluggish and slow in the cold, knew he must have hit it in the fall. Fumbling with the headlamp until he got its band stretched around his own head and the battery pack tucked down beneath his parka where the cold could not as readily reach it and drain the life from its batteries he looked the situation over, seeing through the swirling snow the spot from which Kilgore must have tumbled, no more than ten or twelve feet above but the descent had been rocky, providing numerous opportunities for a man to whack his head.

Making a hasty inspection to be sure Kilgore was losing blood only from the small gash to his head Einar proceeded to try and wake him, rubbing snow in his face and applying a bit of pain in an effort to bring the man round but he made no response, leaving Einar to make a quick survey of the area in the light of the headlamp. Just above the spot where the tracker had come to rest a small ledge of granite overhung, no more than a foot or two but it was something, had prevented the snow from accumulating quite so deeply just there and he thought it would be a good idea to move Kilgore over beneath the ledge, get both of them out of the wind for a few minutes. Hurrying--already he’d remained still for too long could feel the cold tightening its grip on him--he got his hands under the tracker’s shoulders and tried to lift him, move him, at least, out of the deep drift of powder in which he’d come to rest but the strength simply wasn’t there, arms shaking and cramping with the effort but little movement occurring.

You better…wake up pretty soon here man, and get to your feet. Because if I have to drag you all the way back up there we’re both gonna be… He shook his head, dropped to the ground beside the unconscious man, very nearly too exhausted to take a breath, let alone make another effort at moving the much heavier Kilgore beneath the semi-shelter of the little ledge, right side on fire where he’d bruised himself in his own fall, earlier that day. No sign of stirring from the tracker, and Einar knew he must act. Rolled the man to the side, got into his pack and found the portions of jerky and pemmican Liz had packed for them, the little wax-sealed bark vessels full of a precious ounce or two each of honey, and fumbling with one of the packets he managed to bits off its seal, retrieving some of its cold-slowed contents with a stick and choking them down. Needed more, knew there would be consequences later, but it didn’t matter; if he wanted the strength to do the thing before him, he’d got to have a significant amount of food, and set to work consuming it, washing globs of frozen pemmican down his throat with gulps of icy water from Kilgore’s bottle, choking, gagging but managing to get the stuff down, and keep it that way.

Ok. Energy. Hope it’ll be enough. Now we’re gonna have to either…build a fire here real quick and get some sort of shelter set up to cut down a little more on the wind, or get moving again, because I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty nearly done in when it comes to the cold. Body’s not working anymore. What do you say? The tracker, of course, said nothing, being blissfully unaware of the entire predicament and of his fractured leg, besides, a state to which he would no doubt finding himself frequently wishing he might return, over the following days. Einar didn’t know about the leg, had been too numbed and slow to inspect Kilgore that thoroughly once he’d determined the man was not losing blood at a dangerous rate, but he did know it would be dreadfully unwise to remain too long beneath the barely-there ledge in whose shelter they had taken refuge. Had no idea what the tracker had been thinking, leading them up that particular slope in a major snowstorm, nor where his mind had been when he followed, but it was clear to him now that the slope presented a major danger of avalanche, wind-loaded and unstable as it would almost inevitably be just then.

Comments from 28 February

Sixfifty said…

Argggh... I HAD to mention a cliffhanger yesterday!!! You're a hard man, FOTH; just had to go and do it.
Excellent stuff! Can't wait to see tomorrow's chapter

Oh, don’t worry. The cliff was coming, whether you’d mentioned it or not. : ) It was inevitable.

Russell H Whyte said…

intense chapter - can't wait to see how this pans out.


Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said…

Oh CARP! (Haven't had a fish moment in a while, have we?)

Something’s fishy, alright…

FrRichard said…

Wonderful, excellent, a perfect situation!!

I suppose it has the potential for being, if anyone lives through it!

Thank you all for reading.

28 February, 2012

28 February 2012

Up. They were climbing again, had been for some time and up there where the timber thinned out and rocks grew closer to the surface the wind only gusted more fiercely, tearing through the gnarled forms of subalpine fir and limber pine but hardly broken by their presence, blasting, scouring, and Einar, fighting the wind, could barely stand. At least the snow was not quite as deep, travel in some respects slightly easier than it had been down in the heavy timber and deep powder of the basin, and a good thing, too, for Kilgore was setting a pace which would have been a stretch for him even in the daylight and without snow the way things had been going those past few weeks, and straining to keep up, Einar was angry. Had forgotten again what might be the meaning of such a quest as theirs, the purpose of pushing on through that storm when really they ought to have been seeking shelter without delay if they wanted to make it through the night, but didn’t imagine the reason could be great enough to warrant the risks they presently found themselves taking. Surely in that case, he would be able to recall something about its nature.

Then, mind clearing a bit as he rested, he did recall, recalled also that the tracker had led them far, far off course and determined to call the man on what appeared to be an intentional and major deviation from their original plan he picked up his pace, closing the distance and approaching the bobbing, blinking, snow-dimmed light that was Kilgore’s headlamp. Too winded to speak he simply kept pace for a while, shivering, stumbling, struggling to keep on his feet. At last, wind slacking off for a moment, the tracker heard him, turned, waited for him to gather the words that seemed just beyond the ability of his chilled and failing mind to collect.

“Passed the…cache long ago, Kilgore.”


“What do you want? Why are we doing this?”

“Doing it ’cause you’re intractable, Asmundson. Absolutely incorrigible, that’s why. And it’s killing you. You know I’d rather be back at the cabin with my bride, listening to the storm through them good stout walls of yours and anticipating a big breakfast of flapjacks, honey and fresh elk steak all eaten while sitting warm and cozy by the stove, but here we are, and here we’re gonna stay for a good while, it’s looking like. Just us and your spooks. What’s it gonna take, Asmundson, for you to kinda let all that go just a little and live? Live just a little. However you want to put it. Works out the same, either way.”

Einar shrugged, shivered, beat numbed hands on his legs in an attempt to restore some circulation. “What’d it take you?

“Me? Well that’s got nothing to do with it. And besides, you know I don’t believe in examining a thing too closely…unldss it’s critter tracks or human ones, of course, but not a thing like this…so I can’t really say. Just kept going, that’s all I did. Will admit there were times every now and then when I didn’t want to, but I did, and here I am.”

“If you don’t believe in examining it too closely, then why are you trying so hard to get me to do just that?”

“’Cause you need it, man. That thing’s still got a stranglehold on you, more and more every time I see you, it seems, and it’s dragging you down. Sapping the life out of you, and you can’t even see it.”

Tired. Brain not working too well or particularly quickly, either. Knew he’d lose the argument, if he chose to engage. So he chose not to do it. “Heard it before, Kilgore. Heard it all before.”

And he took off walking, slow, stumbling gait replaced by firmer steps, his backbone straight and determination in every move but Kilgore knew it wouldn’t last; the man was dying. Which was all well and good, just as long as he’d reach the end of his strength and finally let go, stop resisting, while he was still salvageable. Before he went so far that his body finally gave out and it would be quite beyond Kilgore’s power to bring him back. Was going to be a mighty delicate balance, especially under such uncontrolled conditions out there in the snow and the dark and the fearsome, killing power of that wind. Better keep close tabs on him, the tracker figured, check in every few minutes to see how things were coming along. The man was holding out a lot better than he’d anticipated, as weary and starved and close to the edge as he’d appeared at the start of the thing, and Kilgore had to allow for the possibility that it wasn’t working, this thing he’d been trying to do, that after a lifetime of training, conditioning, self-imposed torture, deprivation and regrets, Asmundson really might be more than capable of marching himself to death in that storm before he gave an inch. Might well be the easiest thing in the world for him. In which case it was just about time Kilgore recognized the fact and started trying something else--like shelter, a fire and some food--before it was too late. But he never got the chance.

Einar--perfectly capable indeed of marching himself to death in the snow, had he wanted to do so, but he didn’t, not that night; needed to go on living, though sometime in the past hour or so he’d managed to quite thoroughly forget the why of it--had finally reached the end of his rather limited strength, collapsing on his knees in the snow with tears of pain and frustration trickling down his half frozen face, ready to do it, give them whatever it was they wanted--or some carefully modified version of it, should he find himself still capable of that level of thought and deliberation--just to get them to stop, give him a few minutes of peace and respite. He’d tell them. Just as soon as they returned to level the next blow and force him up again for another stint of near-impossible marching, he’d tell them. But they did not return--had got lost out there, perhaps, in the storm--Einar sinking lower in the snow, head bowed, nearly sobbing in relief and exhaustion and shame at what he’d been willing to do, what he had very nearly done.

Meanwhile Kilgore, blinded by blowing snow despite the weak beam of his headlamp, made a critical misstep there on the steep, eroded edge of a rather substantial rock outcropping that he hadn’t even quite realized he was leading them up, snowshoe catching on a snow-hidden rock protrusion, twisting his lower leg with a sickening crunch and pitching him forward. Falling, the tracker was left with just enough time to be sorry he’d pushed Einar quite so far, forced him quite so close to the edge of his endurance and rendered him all but useless when it came to rescue and retrieval, before his head struck exposed granite and all went dark.

Comments from 27 February

Nancy1340 said...

Good chapter. Thanks

Thanks for reading!

Meplat said:

Good chapter, the women musing over how to live with men who have seen things that no human should have to. Shows an author’s depth of experience, or thoughtfulness, or more probably both. Bless you FOTH for this story that has kept me entertained and often on the edge of my seat for years now.



Thanks for sticking with the story, glad to hear that you’ve found it beneficial in some way.

Anonymous said…

Nice peaceful chapter, FOTH; like the calm in the center of a storm. Can't help but wonder what kind of "education" old Bud is imparting to Einar right about now. Pretty cleverly hidden cliffhanger, sir!

Well, sometimes I can’t very well do those “stormy” chapters one right after another, so it was time for a calmer one. Now, back to the storm…

27 February, 2012

27 February 2012

Quiet in the cabin as Liz and Susan ate their supper of stew, only the howl of the wind outside and the cozy crackling of spruce wood in the fire lending their voices to break the heavy silence that had settled on the place. Having cleaned up the supper things, Susan sat by the stove sorting the tiny warm clothes she’d brought for the baby, Liz feeding little Will until he fell asleep in her arms and then joining Susan by the fire, child still in her arms so he’s stand some chance of remaining asleep for a time. Even Muninn was quiet, sitting subdued on his perch and not so much as ruffling a feather in acknowledgement when Liz offered him a bit of meat from the stew. Wind as heavy as it had been when Bud and Einar set out and darkness nearly complete, the bird had not especially wanted to go along, and Liz, though she might have felt better had he been along to watch over the two travelers, had not had the heart to kick him out into weather which would have rendered flight quite difficult. So he sat, silent, watching, brooding, it appeared to Liz, and she wondered what the bird might be thinking, whether he was capable of experiencing a sense of foreboding similar to the one that seemed so close to suffocating her that evening.

Susan, too, was subdued as she thought of the pair out there in the storm; she trusted Bud’s judgment and knew his intention was only to help, but hoped Einar might end up surviving his methods. After their earlier venture to the basin and the hasty return after the chopper made its pass, she had been somewhat concerned about his making it through the night even there in the cabin, had intended to offer to stay up with him or perhaps take turns with Liz in doing so, just to make sure he continued warming and occasionally got a bit of broth to begin reversing what had appeared to her to be fairly severe and worsening dehydration, and now here he was being marched around the snowy timber in what was shaping up to be a fearsome storm. Wouldn’t have been her first choice for that night, not by a long shot, but it had been Bud’s, and she had to trust that he knew what he was doing. To pray that he did, and she prayed, sorting, staring into the fire and asking God’s guidance on the two of them, wisdom for Bud, strength for Einar and a safe return for them both. And peace for Liz, the patience to wait through the trial that I know this night has got to be for her, wondering, fearing, please give the confidence that it’s all in Your hands, that those men are in Your hands with You as a light to their path out there in that storm…

After that Liz did seem a bit calmer, speaking softly to Will when he stirred, whimpered and threatened to wake, singing softly and walking him back and forth from bed to wall and back again, snug in the sling Susan had made for him. Finally he quieted, and Liz sat back down.

“How long do you think they’ll be?”

“Ah, Liz, you’d know better than I would. The basin isn’t too far from here, but in this storm…well, I’d be pretty surprised to hear from them before sometime late in the morning, wouldn’t you?”

“He was hurt. Tried his best to hide it, but I’m worried about his ribs. I don’t think it would take much right now to break a couple of them, or re-break some of the ones that were hurt before. They can’t have healed up properly, and then for him to go falling off that cliff, even if he did land in the soft snow…well, I don’t like it.”

“Bud saw him fall. He’ll be aware of the potential trouble, look out for him.”

“He looks out for Einar with the heavy end of a tree branch! I’ve seen it. Or with his boot… If anything, he’ll probably just break more ribs.”

Susan sighed, shook her head. “I’m not saying I understand it, but you know that’s just the way the two of them communicate, sometimes. I believe he’ll be careful. He knows when to stop.”

“I hope so. That does sometimes seem to be the only language Einar understands, though. You’re right about that. He’s even told me so from time to time, apologized for not hearing me sooner on one thing or another and recommended I use the rabbit stick next time I really want him to listen…but I hate to do that! He barely lives through the stuff he does to himself, sometimes, sure doesn’t need me knocking him in the head in addition to all of it. But sometimes I still have to, just to get his attention.”

“That’s all Bud is doing out there tonight, I think. Getting his attention. It may be on a far different scale than what you would ever do, but the principle is the same, and I think they’ll both come through it alright. I pray that they will. It takes a lot of patience, doesn’t it?”


“Living with our fellas, that’s what. With them, and with all they bring along from the past, because it’s always there, isn’t it? Always in the room, even when they don’t know it. Especially then, maybe.”

“Sometimes I just don’t know how to reach him, what to do for him. It’s like we speak different languages, and I’ll never quite understand no matter how hard I try..”

“You probably won’t. I don’t think we can ever quite understand, if we weren’t there with them, and neither of us were. But you can have patience, that’s what you can do. Have patience, and love him. And it’s a little different with you and Einar, anyway, I would think. You two have been through an awful lot together, so you have that in common at least, that shared history in addition to all of the other stuff that you may never quite grasp. I’ve seen you with him. You understand him pretty well, I’d have to say. You’re doing great, and he’s really trying, too. You’re both going to come through this alright, and have some great years together up here with your little mountain tribe. Little Snorri Willis, first child of a new mountain tribe…” And Susan took the baby, slipped the sling over her own shoulder to give Liz a break, began pacing with him.

Neither of them felt much like sleep as the evening wore on, and after bringing in an armload of firewood to be sure they’d have enough for the night and early morning, Susan made some tea, lit the lamp and prepared to stand vigil with Liz through the night.

26 February, 2012

26 February 2012

Darkness was nearly complete under a bank of very low, wind-tossed clouds by the time Einar and the tracker reached the willow grove below the cabin, their sharp pungency beneath his snowshoes giving Einar pause and jarring him for just a moment out of the near-trance in which he had been traveling for the past half hour, head down and legs seeming at times barely able to support him against the blasting, chilling power of the wind. Willows. They were all around him, under, beside, their sweet fragrance enveloping him even as it was snatched away by the wind and he stopped walking, sank to his knees there amongst them, a brief smile passing across the weary lines of his strained face. Would be a good place to stay for a while, dig a pit, perhaps, in order to get out of the biting force of the wind, for he could feel already its chill in his very core, in his bones, knew he was near passing the point where his body could go on resisting its force. Would soon, if he kept on as he had been, fail even to realize anymore that it needed to be resisted, and then things would in all likelihood be over. Unless Liz managed to pull him out of it, somehow. Hit him a good one with the rabbit stick and force a lump of pemmican into his mouth, or some such. Seemed she’d done it before, but it was so dark and he hadn’t been able to see her there ahead of him for a good while now, doubted she’d be doubling back in that storm to find him. She’d go on to shelter, get a fire started and wait for him, only he’d never make it unless he took a break and got out of that wind for a minute. Yes, a good place to stop. Right here, right now. And he fumbled with half frozen hands at the straps of one snowshoe, finally managed to get it off and began halfheartedly digging at the snow beneath him, but stopped before he’d excavated more than a foot into the hard, crusty layer below the fresh powder, weary, unmoving, aside from his body’s rapidly weakening efforts to produce some additional heat and not at all sure what he had been doing, or why.

Kilgore, turning and twisting his head in the wind as he led by several yards, realized that he could no longer hear the crunch and squeak of Einar’s snowshoes behind him in the fresh layer of dry, Styrofoam-like snow that had already fallen since the beginning of the new storm and he stopped, began backtracking. While the tracker was carrying a headlamp he hadn’t yet used it and did not intend to do so unless absolutely essential, so he found his way more by feel than anything, reaching Einar after several minutes of searching and quickly assessing the situation--aw, man. Why’ve you got your snowshoe off? Something wrong with it, or has your mind gone, already?--before giving him a hard swat to the shoulder with a stout aspen staff he’d been carrying for balance. Caught off guard Einar grunted, nearly sprawled face first in the snow but caught himself, glad of the blow despite the way it hurt, feeling as though it might well have cracked his shoulder blade, for it meant that Liz was back, had come for him, and they were not separated as he had feared. Things would be alright now, and he spoke to her, soft words, something about the baby, shelter for the night and a roaring fire to drive away the storm.

Another hard blow from the tracker, this one better aimed so that it had him spitting snow from his mouth. “I ain’t your Lizzie. On your feet, Asmundson. We’re not there yet.”

Not where? Right. The cache. Should have been there, though. Long ago. Something was wrong. Perhaps Kilgore had lost his way, and either didn’t yet know it, or was hesitant to mention the fact. Not likely. The man was a tracker, possessed of a sense of direction--partially innate, partially learned, perhaps--appearing at times nearly as powerful as whatever it was led the geese to migrate and displaced dogs to walk five hundred miles finding their way home, and there was little chance he would have become befuddled on a simple jaunt down to the basin, a trip he’d made multiple times in the past. Something else must be up. Leading him astray. Leading…

Einar shook his head, kept plodding along, one halting but firm step after another, knowing the entire problem likely lay with himself. Within him. Sense of time all messed up, span of a few seconds seeming like an eternity and at other times the hours speeding by with such alarming rapidity that he could get to the end of an entire day and hardly know what had become of it, and he supposed that must be how it goes, when a person is…dying, Einar. That’s what you’re doing, and a pretty good thorough job of it, too. Couldn’t hardly do better if you were trying, and sometimes I wonder if that’s not exactly the case. It isn’t is it? Which of course it wasn’t; he wasn’t trying, and wasn’t dying, either, couldn’t be, must not allow it, for he had a mission to complete that night--recovery of the cache, now he remembered!--and a family that was counting on his return after that. So he could be drifting, had undeniably been drifting, but could not, must not be dying. Only you’re gonna be doing just that before too long here, if you don’t pick up the pace some and pretty soon find a way to get out of this wind for a while. Stuff’s fearsome powerful, and the way you can feel it blowing right through you like that, stiffening up legs and arms and slowing your movements…well, you’re just not gonna be long for this world if you don’t find some rocks or something pretty soon and take a break. Have something to eat. Maybe even a fire for a few minutes. Fire’d be safe in this storm, nobody watching in this storm, no one up in the air tonight… Which meant catching up to Kilgore and informing him of the plan, of the need to stop, and he redoubled his efforts, throwing every ounce of his failing strength into pushing through that snow in the tracker’s trail, intent on finding and stopping him.

Einar’s push lasted exactly one minute and twenty seven seconds, after which he lapsed back into the half-lucid wanderings which had so far marked more of his journey than not that night, silent sometimes as he gritted his teeth into the wind and struggled hard just to maintain his balance and keep moving, other times--believing her beside him and a few times even sensing her there, her presence--talking to Liz and carrying on sometimes extensive conversations with her when he found that she replied. Once, knowing that she must be growing tired, he offered to take a turn carrying little Will but when he turned back for her answer she was gone, leaving him quite utterly alone there firmly gripped in the teeth of a storm that he knew would kill him if he did not soon find some shelter, but there was to be no shelter for him that night, not until he’d reached his objective, and done what he had come to do.

There came then a long period of dreaming--seemed long, at least, but time does do some mighty strange things under such circumstances; it might have lasted mere minutes--during which Einar stumbled forward blindly into the storm, and sometimes it was summer, whispering green of the aspens surrounding him, surrounding all three of them as Liz dug the bulbs of spring beauty near the softly chortling waters of a tiny creek and little Will--the child was walking, new, unsure, teetering at times on the edge of falling, but walking, buckskin clad and barefoot in the soft meadow grass--played nearby, sending tiny atlatl darts flying from a miniature weapon with surprising accuracy in the direction of grasshoppers and butterflies and occasionally letting out a squeal of delight when he came close to hitting something, but then there came another kind of squeal, one of sheer terror and when Einar looked again in Liz’s direction it was to find that her features had become those of that Montagnard woman from so long ago, Will--beautiful child, nearly a year old now--her son and not his own, and he knew how it was going to end for both of them, how it had to end and he wanted to warn them, to take them away where it could not reach them, the thing that was coming, but they were already gone, out of reach if not out of sight and suddenly the stench of charred flesh and burning bamboo rose up to overwhelm him so that he was brought to his knees in the snow, retching.

It cleared his mind somehow, the terrible nausea that had come over him, swept from it just enough of the cold-haze to allow him to realize that he knew the place where they were, recognized it by the dimly visible treeline over there to his right, by the feeling of a vast openness down below, and just as surely he knew that they’d gone well past the cache location and up the opposite slope towards the high, windswept barrenness of the red ridge itself, and seeing a light coming towards him he stopped, waited. Kilgore. Staring into the tracker’s eyes there in the dispersed glow of the headlamp-light off of the heavily falling snow, Einar could see that he knew it, as well. Knew exactly where they were, and intended that they be there. The long detour had been no mistake. Beyond exhaustion, he sank to his knees in the snow. Only to receive from the tracker a kick so hard that it made his teeth jar together and sent an electric surge of white-hot pain all the way from knee to shoulder blade on his right side, the hurt seeming oddly warming to his numbed extremities.

“On your feet. Now. We’re not done yet.”

Einar coughed, hesitated--felt that he couldn’t do it, not one more time, not if his life and his honor and all that he held most dear should depend upon it, simply couldn’t bring his exhausted sinews to carry out the motion--but then he was up, leaning nearly doubled over as he fought to regain his breath, and then the tracker knocked him back down again into the snow, a brutal blow that took his breath and turned his entire world into a void, a place of blackness and shattered, falling shards, glass falling around and on and through him as it went, down, down into depths unknown, and then he knew. Trying to break me, that’s what you’re trying to do. Drive me beyond what I’m capable of sustaining, and break me, and, feeling his own weakness, the nearness of the thing and his own lack of ability to hold it off much longer, Einar was afraid. Terrified at the blackness that rose within him at contemplating the thing, and he met the fear with a response so conditioned into him as to be nearly automatic, one which would have been very hard to overcome had he been trying, which he certainly wasn’t, and that consisted of responding to terror and weakness with resistance--courage shall grow keener, clearer the will, the heart fiercer, as our force faileth--the words came to him out of nowhere, unbidden, a thing remembered, sustaining, one which he had lived, and more than once; a line with many translations…will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens…but the meaning was the same, and it gave him strength--renewed resolve welling up within him and with it a grim determination not only to hang on to the end and right through it, but to go down fighting, if down was indeed where he should prove irreparably headed.

Kilgore saw that fire in his eyes--a thing of greatness, or at least one out of which greatness could be born, and often was, but in this case it was going to kill him--determined to crush it out. Easier said than done, as the mission would only be a success should he return the fugitive alive to his little family up there in the cabin, which was looking a rather tenuous matter even without further aggravation on his part.

Comments from 24-25 February

Nancy1340 said...

Very good chapter. Thank you.

Thanks for reading!

Sixfifty said…
We can only hope that Kilgore succeeds in finally getting Einar to accept his advice and get to eating and building his strength up before it is too late. Great chapters, FOTH

He’s trying…

Apple said…
I can imagine Liz and Susan having something to say about a non appearance, don't cross us women we may feel soft and curvy but we have our ways.... Grrrrrrr

Oh, I don’t think anyone’s underestimating the resolve of Susan and Liz! They know they’ll be in trouble if they don’t return in a timely manner.

25 February, 2012

25 February 2012

No word from Einar or Kilgore, yet…if either of them shows up again (hopefully by tomorrow, when I intend to post another chapter!) perhaps the story can go on.

Thanks for reading, and for your comments and discussion. :)

24 February, 2012

24 February 2012

Liz was none too pleased at Kilgore’s suggestion, thought at first that he was simply making a very bad joke in stating his intentions to head out into the coming storm, wanting to mess with Einar in some way--and it appeared to be working, too; only Kilgore could do that, and Liz somewhat resented his ability--which would have been bad enough, but when she realized he was apparently serious, she put her foot down.

“You two have already been out all day. It would be foolishness to head out again right now and spend the whole night wandering around in a storm, and before you’ve had supper, too! Surely it can wait. Maybe it’ll still be storming in the morning, and if not, we can retrieve the cache later, the two of us. I saw you and Einar looking at maps together. We can find it.”

Kilgore stopped his preparations, turned to Liz with a look of weary resignation on his face. “Ma’am, not sure I could explain to you my reasoning in a way you’d find acceptable, but it is absolutely imperative that we do this tonight. Imperative. Very likely a matter of life or death.”

“Yes, I agree, because you’re going to kill my husband if you drag him back out there so soon. Unless you have some knowledge that we’re about to be attacked, in which case I would have to hope you’d have informed us of the danger by now, then I don’t see why on earth this whole thing can’t wait a day or so.”

“Well I know you don’t see, and I can’t exactly tell you. No, I don’t have any knowledge of an impending attack of any kind. That not something I’d keep from any of you, you can be real sure. But you got to give Asmundson more credit than that. He don’t kill so easy, even if that was my intention, which it is not. I’ll bring him back. Now how about you help him into his warm things, so we can get started with this. Sounds like the storm’s not waiting.”

The storm, indeed, was not waiting, hard pellets of snow already scouring the cabin walls, wind-driven, and Liz, instead of doing as Kilgore had requested and helping prepare Einar to venture out into that melee, turned her attention to the fire. Nothing would be flying in that weather, and it was time they got the cabin warmed up again, cooked some proper supper. And, if she had her way, got Einar seated near the stove for some broth followed by a long, quiet evening of warmth and food and hopefully before too long, sleep.

Einar--boots already on, parka in hand as he stared confusedly at its still somewhat damp fur exterior, turning it this way and that and trying to sort out where his arms were supposed to go but making surprisingly little headway--appeared to have other ideas, and leaving the newly started fire in Susan’s care, Liz went to him.

“It can wait. Come and eat.”

“No. Have to go do this.”

“Tell me why.”

Couldn’t tell her why. Hardly knew, himself. Knew he had to get the parka on though, if he wanted to last the night, and still couldn’t figure out how the sleeves were supposed to work. Liz saw his trouble, gently but insistently took the garment from his hands, hung it over the stove in the hopes that it might see some drying before they set out, assuming she proved unsuccessful in convincing them not to go. Einar wasn’t happy at the removal of the parka, was struggling to get to his feet and go after it but Liz held him in place with a firm hand to the shoulder.

“It has to dry, and besides, you need something under it. Let me help you with a sweater.” Ribs and shoulder all bruised and stiffening from his fall movement was proving increasingly painful for Einar, but when Liz asked him about it, he just shrugged, shook his head wearily as if to say, it’s nothing, finished twisting and contorting himself into the sweater. She wished he would have used words, instead of confining his communication to nods and shrugs. Seemed he had lost the ability--or perhaps just the energy--to do much speaking there over the last little while, and the trend concerned her. Sweater on, she helped him back to his feet, steered him over to the warming stove in the hopes of getting some broth in him, at least, before he ventured out into the storm. Kilgore, holding his gloves over the stove in an attempt to finish their drying, saw where things were heading and did not like it. Needed, for his purposes, to get Einar out the door in a hurry and ideally before he’d had too much time to catch his breath or warm thoroughly as he eventually would all plastered up against the stove like Liz had him, now. It would only prolong things, make the night a good bit more difficult for them both. Time to get going.

Einar did not want to go. Was dreadfully weary, hurting, liking the feel of the warming stove-rocks against his back and wanted nothing more than to curl up against them, and sleep for a very long time. Which was exactly why, in his mind, he must go, and Kilgore--his own reasoning very different--knew it, and was taking advantage of the fact. Making it all but a sure thing that Einar would not change his mind, and stay.

“Laziness, Asmundson. Don’t let me see any of that laziness. I would have expected more out of you. On your feet, and this time you stay that way.” Which he did, Liz having barely enough time to hold up the pot of broth up and get him to take a few quick swallows before they were gone, Kilgore hustling him through the tunnel into the waiting darkness outside.

In the cabin things were very quiet for a few moments, both women listening to the howl and rasp of the wind against the logs and in the trees all around them, darkness nearly complete and the storm in full swing. Susan was the first one to break the silence, rising and setting a pot on the stove. “Well, the two of us might as well eat, at least. We’ve got a good fire going here, plenty of meat in the house and maybe before we get this batch of stew all eaten up, they’ll be back to have a share.”

Comments from 23 February

Kellie said…
Finally caught up, some great chapters, thanks so much! If I was Liz, I'd be grabbing that rabbit stick and using it on Kilgore! IF Susan did not beat me to it!!

I'm hoping that Einar is not too far gone. It seems that he takes one step forward and five back.

I also would not have been able to restrain myself as long as Liz has. I would have had it out with Einar about his NOT taking care of his body long before their guests arrived. Heck by now, Will should be able to "sit on him" and keep him down.

Great story! thanks again.

Glad you’re all caught up! I think Liz has had it out with him several times, but sometimes it can take a while for things like that to sink in, with someone as stubborn and occasionally thick-sculled as Einar.

As for taking the rabbit stick to Kilgore--no! He doesn’t need the rabbit stick. He’s just trying to keep Einar alive…

Nancy1340 said…
Very good. Thanks

Thanks for reading!

23 February, 2012

23 February 2012

Detailing the failed expedition in broken little snatches between shivers, Einar told Liz the story--not that there was much to tell, really--she keeping him talking as much to monitor how he was doing as to learn about the trip. Was doing none too well so far as she could see, speech all slow and drifty and his eyes trying their best to drift closed, too, whenever she would leave him alone for more than seconds at a time, and she supposed the best thing, really, would probably be to let him sleep just as soon as he’d warmed a bit more and had something to eat. The hike down to the basin was not a terribly long one, but would have been hard work for anyone in that deep, fresh powder, and based on the way she’d seen him struggling over the past few days simply to keep awake, on his feet and doing simple tasks around the place, it would have taxed him very nearly beyond his limits. She had to wonder what Kilgore could have been thinking, insisting that he go. That cache must be mighty important business, and now they might or might not get another opportunity to visit it together. The day was fast approaching, she knew, when Bud and Susan must go meet their plane, and the thought of their leaving made her throat go a bit tight.

She wasn’t to have much time to contemplate the upcoming parting, as Will woke just then to send his thin but strengthening wail skyward, protesting the lack of ready food but quickly quieting when she picked him up from his little nest of mountain goat wool and rabbitskin blanket. Occasionally--with the occasions becoming fewer and farther between--she was still trying carefully depositing him either in his own little bed or in the larger one when he fell asleep, hoping to snatch a few minutes here and there with her arms empty, but the attempts never seemed to last very long, and she was beginning to doubt that they ever would. She was fated, it seemed, to have a baby glued constantly to her side for the next year or two, and though the realization differed some from what she had expected--and from what she had seen of other babies and their mothers; perhaps they had the same needs, but if so, they must have simply given up after a time of not having them met, ceased protesting so much when deposited in one device or another for safe keeping--she figured it was probably for the best, anyway. The time would come all too soon when the little one would be out on his own wandering the timber and in all likelihood giving her every bit as much grief and worry as his father must have given his own mother, as a child. Which, if it was half as much as the man gave her on an almost daily basis, must have proven a sore trial indeed for the poor woman! And having a great time doing it, too. Might as well keep little Will close and safe while he was still willing. Baby fed, content and amenable to being handed off to Susan for a while Liz stirred the broth again, repositioning it slightly lower over the flame of the oil lamp to speed its warming.

Einar wasn’t getting warm there in the chilly cabin, not even with the bear hide wrapped snugly about him, shivering heavily and looking dreadfully exhausted in the flickering glow of the candles and Susan’s improvised oil lamp, didn’t much seem to care but Liz did, knew he hardly had the energy to spare on that kind of shivering and would only further exhaust himself--very possibly without raising his temperature significantly enough to do him much good--if she couldn’t come up with some supplemental source of heat. Hot rocks would have been good, but they weren’t available and would not be until sometime after everyone reached a consensus that it was safe to build a fire, once more. She wished he’d just hurry up and get some meat on his bones already, so he’d be able to produce his own heat again like a normal person. Like he used to be able to do before becoming such a skeleton, and suddenly she was very angry with him, angry with the entire situation and wanted to tell him so, but knew it wouldn’t do any of them much good. Swallowed the anger, checked the heating broth and found it still not quite ready. Slow process.

They needed a qulliq if they were to be doing too much cooking without the stove, but hadn’t got around to making one for that winter. Which was beside the point at the moment, and she returned her thoughts to the immediate situation, and to Einar, who appeared to be fading fast, trembling growing visibly weaker despite the fact that he was still freezing. Barring his immediate and rather impractical gain of some thirty or forty pounds--which would, itself, only be a start on what he needed to do--the easiest solution seemed to be simply to get him in bed and join him there but he looked little inclined to go, all stolid and stubborn and immovable as stone as he watched Kilgore out of the corner of one half-opened eye--still thinking, she was sure, about the helicopter, weighing the probability that it might come back, that it might, even, have something to do with Kilgore’s presence; with Einar, even in trust, there was doubt, and he wouldn’t be willing to sleep for a good while--so she guessed the broth would have to do. And would have done quite nicely, at least as a start, had the tracker not interfered in a most untimely manner.

Kilgore was restless, pacing about the cabin and stopping now and then to glare at Einar, looking rather as though he wanted to give the man a good hard kick or two or three, but restraining himself on account of the womenfolk. And the baby. And the fact that the doggone fool had just taken quite a tumble and appeared barely able to hold his own at the moment against its effects and those of the cold on his undeniably and grotesquely emaciated body. Best leave him be for the time, let him recover a bit of his physical wherewithal and get his wits back about him if he was able, for he was going to be needing both in a big way, just as soon as conditions allowed for a return trip to the basin. While recovery of the cache had been a primary goal of the day’s failed expedition, Kilgore had gone with another mission in mind, as well, and with the time fast approaching when he must leave, he found himself impressed with a growing urgency on both accounts. But especially the second one. And in that case, the sooner we can go back out, the better. Don’t want to do the fella in, but it wouldn’t hurt to come mighty doggone close. Get to him while he’s down, vulnerable, pound him into the ground and see if from there, things might look a little different to him. Seems the only way to get through to the stubborn old buzzard, really, and he definitely still needs some getting through to before I clear out of here, or he’s liable not to see the end of winter. Yep, might as well take advantage of his current state of exhaustion and befuddlement. Means less work for me, and that’s always good. Good for both of us, in this case.

Passing Einar again in his pacing Kilgore gave him a hard kick in the shins, kept walking. “On your feet, Asmundson. Wind’s howling up another storm out there, and soon as we’re sure it’s really gonna snow enough to cover our tracks, we’re heading out again to get this thing done.”

Though confused at the tracker’s sudden outburst--confused in general, actually, the world not making a great deal of sense since his return to the cabin--Einar nonetheless recognized its commanding tone and was on his feet before Kilgore made another pass, swaying, leaning heavily on the wall for balance and rubbing his bruised shin as he blinked a bit dazedly into the lamplight, wondering if he had heard correctly that the tracker wanted to head back out that night--into a storm--but not surprised in the least that such might be the case. The man never had been afraid of a challenge, and had always possessed a unique style and drive that others tended to find baffling. Einar could respect that in a fellow, for sure. Listening intently, he could hear that the wind was indeed beginning to pick up, and after the way the clouds had been looking just before they came in, a storm seemed quite likely to be in their near future. Guessed he’d better get his boots back on

22 February, 2012

22 February 2012

No chapter today, but there will be another tomorrow.

Thank you all for reading!

21 February, 2012

21 February 2012

Einar woke partway back to the cabin, violently freeing himself from Kilgore’s double-handed grasp and springing to his feet with a speed which surprised them both, immediately sinking past his knees in the deep, fluffy snow and standing there somewhat unsteadily glaring at the tracker, at the sky, rubbing a sore shoulder and trying to remember just how he had come to be in such a position, but without too much success.

“What’s this? What did you do to me?”

“Shoved you over the cliff, Asmundson. What’d you think?”

Gazing up at the rocks above, at the spot where he’d landed--and having a limited ability to recognize sarcasm even at the best of times, let along just after a thirty foot head-first fall--Einar nodded, seeing by the disturbances in the snow that he had, indeed, gone over. “What for?”

“For your own good, that’s what. And I shoulda picked a higher one.”

Which Einar, strangely enough, seemed to accept without question--sounded like something Kilgore would do; perhaps he’d be able to recall the exact circumstances, later--taking off for the cabin, falling, trying but failing to regain his feet and immediately beginning a slow but enthusiastic crawl through the deep powder. Kilgore shook his head, grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Come on, let’s see if you can stand up. Almost home, but you still got to get there if it’s gonna do you any good, and it’ll take a mighty long time, this way. You’re already half frozen, and while myself, I think you tend to get along better with life in that state, I don’t know that anyone else,” nodding significantly towards the cabin, “will think so. And get that blood wiped off your face, too, or your wife’s gonna kill me.”

Complying as well as he could with Kilgore’s barked demands Einar swiped at his cheek with a handful of snow, rose heavily with the help of his spear and took a few tentative steps towards the screen of firs which currently separated them from the cabin, managing this time to keep to his feet despite a fair amount of dizziness. Didn’t like being out in the open as they were, standing there just waiting for the next aircraft and leaving a jumbled mess of sign that would look to anyone who might be observing rather like a half-asleep bear who had been stumbling about on a little hiatus from hibernation; not unheard of, but probably enough to get the attention of searchers, should they get a glimpse of the mess. Good thing another storm was coming, for--squinting hard in an attempt to right his blurring vision--indeed a major change in the weather appeared fairly certain, low, heavy billows of grey having replaced the swift-moving streamers he and Kilgore had been watching scud across the deep blue morning sky on their descent to the cache location, and shivering in the piercing wind as he struggled his way to the fir-screen and through it, Einar hoped the storm might hurry up and arrive.

Inside, the cabin was cold, dark save for the single candle that Liz had allowed them in the wake of the chopper’s visit but to Einar it felt quite warm, absence of the wind providing him relief he hadn’t even realized, in his numbed state, that he might be needing and he sank to the floor in a snowy heap against one wall as Kilgore pushed his way through the tunnel door, dragging the remainder of their weapons and gear. Liz was on her feet in an instant, lighting another candle and taking Einar’s snow-encrusted parka, Susan doing the same for Kilgore.

“Did it pass right over the basin? Were you hidden? It came here but I barely had the fire going at that point and got it put out in a hurry, so I really think we’re Ok. You’re back early. Did you call off the trip?”

Einar nodded--yes to all of it, and good job on the stove--too weary and befuddled to find words but glad Liz had been on top of things there at the cabin as he had trusted her to do; indeed they ought to be alright, if past history was any indicator. Someday though, it wouldn’t be. Someday the variables would…vary just a little too much, would all align just right, and things would catch up to them. But not that night. Storm was coming, and everyone could rest for a while. He couldn’t rest though, not just yet, for Liz had discovered the gash on his cheek, the fact that he still had snow packed in one ear and matted rather disproportionately in the hair on one side of his head and she set to inspecting him--bruised shoulder, arm, ribs along one side--shaking her head and not, apparently, liking what she saw.

“What happened to you out there? Is all of this from diving under a tree to hide from that chopper, or what?”

“Slid off a little cliff, I guess.”

“What are you talking about? What cliff? There aren’t even any cliffs between here and the basin, yet somehow you managed to slide off of one?”

The cliff. Back behind the cabin. Was up there to check things out, make sure the cabin looked Ok before we approached, and then…” Then his memory ended--perhaps Kilgore really had pushed him, but he hadn’t wanted to unnecessarily subject the tracker to Liz’s sometimes rather substantial wrath--and, brain grinding along far too slowly to provide him with further embellishments to the story in a timely manner, he sat silent, smiling up at Liz and beginning to shake harder as the warmer air of the cabin reached him and loosened up cold-stiffened muscles, hands and feet tingling with the deep, stinging ache of returning circulation.

Seeing that she was somewhat unlikely to get a straight story from either of the men and recognizing in Einar the signs that he was beginning to be in serious trouble of one sort or another--whether from the fall, the cold or simple exhaustion after his exertion in the snow she could not know, but suspected a fair bit of each--she hurried to get him into dry things and sitting near the stove, whose stones still radiated some warmth, while she lit several more candles and got a pot suspended above the group of them for some hot broth. The stuff would, she knew, take a good while to heat over the three small flames but as she had not got the fire going again after the chopper pass and highly doubted Einar would be amenable to its lighting anytime in the near future, the improvised heat source would have to do. Susan had another idea, scooping a portion of bear fat into the mess kit she’d brought along and had been using for her meals, adding a fat-soaked piece of cloth as a wick and lighting the improvised lamp. Its flame and heat greater than the other three candles combined, the lamp soon had the pot of broth simmering as Susan hovered over it, adding bits of meat, bear fat and starched from crushed lily roots.

Einar had in the meantime managed to wriggle free of both Liz’s rather too attentive grasp and the bear hide in which she’d wrapped him and wedge himself between the water barrel and the wall were he hoped to find some solitude for a long enough time to begin sorting out what had happened up there on the cliff. No such luck, Liz following and all but dragging him out, over to the bed where she got the bear hide around him and threatened action with the rabbitstick should he make any further attempt to escape its warmth. Half laughing but knowing he’d better be taking her pretty seriously Einar stayed put, Liz sitting down beside him.

“Now tell me about this cache you two were going after. Where is it? Or did you not get that far before the chopper came over?”

20 February, 2012

20 February 2012

Briefly Einar debated the merits of going back by a different route than the one on which they had come, but quickly decided that there was little sense in making a second trail through the snow, thus effectively doubling the chances that the enemy, should he return, might get a glimpse of their sign. Kilgore agreed with Einar’s decision, following close behind as he led them along their back trail, every sense alert for the possibility that they might not be alone, that there might somehow already be people on the ground, lying in ambush along their trail. Or waiting for them up at the cabin. Didn’t make a lot of sense, the dreadful foreboding which clenched at his breathing and hurried his steps up through the snow-choked timber; the chopper had not hovered over the cabin, hadn’t doubled back or given any indication that the area had drawn its attention but still he worried that there might have been a wisp of smoke, some signal to draw the attention of the chopper crew and tell them here, take a closer look, get boots on the ground and make a closer inspection

The thought of it lent him a swiftness quite beyond the ability of his battered and exhausted body and very nearly beyond Kilgore’s ability, too, the tracker huffing and puffing and struggling to keep up. In the willows some distance below the cabin Einar paused, went to the ground in the snow, eyes white and wild when Kilgore flopped down beside him and gave him a cursory inspection, wanting to make sure he was doing reasonably well, likely to keep on breathing for the immediate future, at least. Figured he could do at least that much for Liz, after having so adamantly refused her request that he make sure Einar got plenty to eat on the expedition. Breathing he was--mighty hard, actually--but didn’t look too good otherwise. No matter. They were, near as he could recollect, almost back to the cabin. He’d make it on his own two feet.

“Almost there, aren’t we?”

No answer from Einar, who crouched with head tilted, hardly appearing to breathe at all anymore as he listened, straining ears and squinting eyes and seeming to peer right beyond the limits of normal hearing and sight as he scoured the landscape for any sign of the intruder, trying to place the nearly frantic feeling of warning and of doom that had come over him. Couldn’t do it. The world was snowbound, silent, yielding nothing but the softest sigh of the wind in the evergreens, a scattered flitting and trilling of the tiny feathered creatures who called the willow grove their home. Nothing. Let out his breath, gasping for air after the extended breath-holding, mouth gaping and eyes looking more wild than before as his body struggled for oxygen. Maybe he’d been wrong, brain playing tricks on him. Wouldn’t be the first time lately, but could by no means afford to assume so. Leaving their earlier trail he cut up into the timber beside it, climbing, leading Kilgore up onto one of the high slopes that stretched away above the cabin-plateau, pausing at frequent if irregular intervals to listen once again, study and scour for clues, but always his answer was the same. Silence. Nothing but the pounding of his own heart in his head, so loud it would nearly have drowned out any aircraft that might have been making its rounds of the area, but Einar was sure no such was happening. He still would have felt the vibrations, even if cut off from hearing them. Time to approach.

Keeping still to the heaviest timber he could find--wouldn’t do to start leaving highly noticeable tracks now, wouldn’t do at all--he worked his way back down closer to the cabin, coming out at last in the trees just above the rocky overlook on which he would sometimes sit and watch the valley. No smoke coming from the clump of evergreens which shielded the cabin, and he supposed that was a good sign, meant Liz had got things got put out when she heard the chopper but did not, of course, tell him whether she had done so in a timely and efficient enough manner to have prevented detection. Edging his way closer to the dropoff itself Einar inched forward on hands and knees, not wanting to disturb the billowy, wind-carved cornice that had formed where the rock sheered off but needing to get a look at the area outside the tunnel, give himself some idea of who had come and gone from the cabin in their absence. Sheltered by trees all the way to the edge, a narrow shelf of rock on which had accumulated no cornice allowed him the best look yet but it was slippery, angled, and he struggled to keep from losing ground on the snowy granite. Still couldn’t see what he needed to see, tunnel mouth blocked by a low-growing stand of firs but he knew he’d been able to make it out from that high vantage in the past, edged a bit further forward, ignoring Kilgore’s growled warning and freeing himself with a quick kick and a twist when the tracker attempted to get a grip on one of his ankles.

There. Could see around the trees now, tracks in the snow appearing no more numerous than they had when he and Kilgore had made their exit, certainly not plentiful or chaotic enough to indicate that any unwelcome guests might have made their presence known in his absence and Einar found the sight reassuring, something uncoiling just a bit inside him at the realization that the cabin--and its occupants--appeared unharmed. Whether due to the slight relaxation of his tense sinews or simply the inevitable and inexorable pull of gravity Einar would never quite be sure, but one way or another he found himself slipping, body sliding forward at an alarming rate as he lost contact with the icy granite surface beneath him and made one desperate scrabbling attempt to prevent his going over the edge, failed, tumbling, head down, no time even to try and right himself before reaching the bottom some thirty feet below and disappearing in a great puff of fresh powder. Muttering, cursing and quite unwilling to follow Einar down the way he’d gone--See now? “Don’t leave sign,” he keeps telling me, “stay in the trees so we don’t leave sign,” and far be it from me to step one foot out of the timber and leave sign, lest I risk being run through with that doggone spear of his. Thought you were trying to keep from leaving sign, Asmundson! What the blue blazes do you call that giant sinkhole you’ve just gone and made?--Kilgore turned and quickly retraced their trail into the timber and down the steep slope that paralleled the dropoff, arriving at Einar’s side some eight minutes later.

At least--maybe a good thing, maybe not, depending on the extent of his injuries--the durn fool was still alive, had to be, for the snow around him had been disturbed as if someone were making an effort to dig out, and using one of Einar’s snowshoes--which the fugitive had left on the ledge when he fell, having removed them before making his fateful approach to the edge--he began digging, finding first a shoulder and then an arm and resisting his first impulse, which was to pull. Mustn’t do that, as any untimely movement would risk further damage to a potentially already-damaged neck and back, so instead he got down on hands and knees and began carefully following the shoulder sideways, looking for the attached head so he could clear a breathing space. Einar saved him the trouble, bursting up out of the snow with a great gasp, face all purple and blotchy with cold, eyes wild, hair and beard plastered with snow and blood streaming from a gash on his left cheekbone, but appearing otherwise unharmed.

“Well you sure took the fastest way to the bottom, didn’t you? I know you’re mighty fond of that lady of yours and haven’t seen her all day, but couldn’t you maybe wait ten more minutes, and take the more sensible way down?”

Unable to speak for the moment Einar just shook his head, coughed and snorted to clear a bit of the packed snow from nose and mouth and sat there with head bowed, shivering, wheezing, taking in air and fighting the blackness that seemed to be trying so hard to take grab hold, an icy chill creeping up the back of his neck to squeeze his brain in its iron grasp. Might have won, too, had he not taken it upon himself--glancing about and realizing with a great deal of alarm that he was sitting right there in the open, exactly where he did not want to be--to try and rise just then, but he did, making it halfway to his feet before collapsing sideways in the deep snow, out cold. Terribly cold and getting colder fast, Kilgore could see, and he figured he’d better take matters into his own hands at that point, get Einar inside.

“Alright, Asmundson,” the tracker growled, freeing Einar from his pack, laying it--along with his snowshoes--atop his body for the ride and taking hold of both his legs, “might as well stay the way you are for a while here, ’cause you know, you’re an awful lot easier to deal with when you’re not awake.”

19 February, 2012

19 February 2012

Liz and Susan had, in the absence of the two men, done a good bit of straightening up and cleaning around the cabin, Susan sweeping the polished dirt of the floor with the neatly constructed broom of thin-tipped willow wands Liz often used for the task and remarking at what a good job it did. Muninn had gone with Bud and Einar so she cleaned his corner, also--Einar had been doing a fairly diligent job of keeping it neat since just before the baby came, when Liz had objected to the slight mess which had accumulated, but had in the recent days let things slide just a bit--sweeping, scraping and scrubbing until everything shone. Working together, tidying up and working on meals for later in the day, both Susan and Liz found themselves enjoying what seemed a much more relaxed feel to the day; things really had been pretty tense with both Kilgore and Einar crammed together under that roof, and the break was proving not a bad thing for anyone.

Seeing that Liz wanted to take a more active role in helping around the place that day but was having some trouble due to having both hands full--quite literally--with the baby, Susan took it upon herself to solve the problem, making a sling of deerhide for little Will, so Liz could more easily carry him while working, at times when she didn’t necessarily want or need him to be tucked away down in the cozy parka-pocked under her hood. Taking a single deerhide--one which Liz told her was not yet spoken for, she tied it at one end to create a pouch for the baby when Liz slipped it over her head, and, sliding the device on over her own arm and shoulder and across her front, she demonstrated how it could be used to carry the baby in approximately the same position on one’s body as when the child was in the womb, therefore keeping him very close to the mother’s body and easing the strain of carrying him. Liz tried it, finding the sling so comfortable that she hardly knew the little one was there, compared with carrying him in her arms. Yet there he was, right in front of her where she could keep an eye on him and tend to his needs, even--Susan showed her how--feeding him without taking him out of the carrier.

“While he’s an infant like this you’ll have to be careful to let him stay lying down or at least leaning against you in a comfortable position, make sure his little chin doesn’t get pressed too far down against his chest because that can make it a little more difficult for him to breathe, but once he’s sitting up, or nearly ready to do so, you can sit him up in the sling, too, facing forward like a little kangaroo in its mother’s pouch. Some of mine really liked that, liked being able to look out at the world as they rode, and it helped them be more content and less fussy as I worked.”

“Plus, that way you can talk to them about whatever it is you’re doing, cooking, tanning a hide or whatever it may be in your case, and even if they’re too young to have language, themselves, to use it, you’d be surprised what they can pick up. They’re listening and observing and learning, even at this age, and it’s a shame that so many people underestimate their capabilities. They’re little people, just like us except that they haven’t been around as long, don’t have as much experience of the world. But yes, I was saying…when he gets even older and is able to hold himself upright with his stomach muscles--and keep himself from toppling over backwards so easily--you can rest him on your hip in the sling, and that will take even more of the weight off your shoulders, and make him easier to carry as he gets older--and bigger. And of course, he can ride on your back this way too, if it’s summer and too warm to use the parka. Yes, sometime around the middle of summer he ought to be ready for a thing like that.”

Liz took the finished sling, tried it on and with Susan’s help got Will settled comfortably in it, curled up against her stomach where he immediately went back to sleep, liking the movement and the warmth of being held so snugly and so close. “I wish you lived closer, so you could show me more things like this as he grows.”

“Oh, you’ll get it figured out, you and Einar. Most of it is just real straight forward stuff, just a matter of doing what makes sense and attending to his needs in the most efficient way possible--for both you two, and him. People tend to make it way too complicated, this business of raising little people. I did it five times, and you know, there’s really not all that much to it, in these early years. You’re just meeting their needs, keeping them fed and warm and close, showing them that they’re loved and introducing them to the world. The two of you are going to be great at it. I’ve seen Einar with that little guy. He’s going to be a great dad, and of course, you’re already doing great as a mom! This little one doesn’t know how good he has it!”

Liz nodded, watching Will as he slept and wishing she could share Susan’s confidence. It seemed at times that she had so much to learn, still, and never in her life had she been vested with a responsibility which even began to approach that she had to the tiny life now in her charge. Their charge, and Einar was, indeed, stepping up to do his part and demonstrating a love and tenderness for the little person which she wasn’t sure she’d ever see from him, under any circumstance. They were going to be just fine. She hoped. Hoped Einar would make it back whole and in one piece from his little outing with Kilgore, worried, considering his condition over the past several days and prayed, cold sunlight outside beginning to be obscured by a fresh round of clouds that were blowing their way in over the ridge, that he was well, on his way back or nearly so. Which is when she began feeling the first inkling that something wasn’t right.

Susan couldn’t hear it, and neither, really, could Liz, that rumbling just past the edge of perception but she nonetheless had some awareness of its coming, something, perhaps, that she was gradually picking up from Einar, a bit of his uncanny ability to sense and pinpoint approaching sources of danger rubbing off on her, and she dropped the pile of hides she’d been gathering on her way out to the tunnel to hang them in trees and beat the dust from them, freshen them up, made a dive at the stove and quickly closed off the chimney. Susan was staring at her, alarmed and curious and wondering what she ought to be doing but Liz left her no doubt.

“Chopper,” she hissed, “I hear it! They don’t usually come in the daytime like this. We’ve got to stop the smoke.”

“Need me to do anything?”

“No. It’s all done. That should take care of it. At least the sun’s out, the heat from our chimney and the rocks around it won’t have such a chance of showing up, but it is still an awfully cold day, and the smoke…well, there could still be a little out there, despite all the trees and me using only very dry wood during the day. You just never know.”

By then the rumble had become close, insistent, and Liz crouched on the floor beside the bed, bent over Will in the sling as if to shield him--that part of Einar, it seemed, had rubbed off on her just a bit as well, and she found herself increasingly alarmed by the presence of anything airborne; not that she was without reason, under their present circumstances--as the great beast approached, thundering up through the basin, over the ridge and passing. Into silence. Blessed silence. Please let that be the only pass. Don’t let him come back, not this time, not with Einar out there

Comments from 17 February

Anonymous said…
Looks like E is starting to use K as a sounding board.

Now that Einar is beginning to regard him as a bit less of an enemy, such things may be possible.

Nancy1340 said…

Progress at least.

Thank you

Thanks for reading!

Apple said…
I have a horrible suspicion about what they will find back at the cabin, I hope I am wrong.

I hope so, too, in this case!

18 February, 2012

18 February 2012

No chapter today, but I'll be back with another tomorrow.

Thank you all so much for reading, and for your comments/discussion!

Hope everyone is having a good weekend.

17 February, 2012

17 February 2012

The tracker couldn’t hear a thing but dropped instantly to the snow at Einar’s signal, eyes on his hands rather than on the sky, knowing from whence originated the more immediate danger. For a few long seconds Einar didn’t move, dart already placed in the atlatl, body taut behind it like a coiled spring and then he was running, nearly knocking Kilgore flat as he took off for the denser cover of the timber behind them. Made it, crouching once more at the ready as the tracker huffed and puffed up beside him and concealed himself beneath the spreading boughs of a still-snowcovered spruce, glaring at the sky and at Einar and wondering what could have got into the man, what spook-shadow he’d got himself chasing, this time. The answer came moments later and rather unequivocally in the deep, guttural growl of a Blackhawk--impeccable timing, boys. You filthy rotten scoundrels. Who made today’s schedule, anyway? Thought that was my job, and I left flight schedules for the entire time we were gonna be gone--as it rose up out of the valley and skimmed the basin, just as quickly disappearing over the ridge opposite them. Way too close for comfort, and Kilgore could only breathe a sigh of relief that the storm would have more than covered all the tracks he and Susan had left after their jump.

For Einar there was no such relief, all his inevitable suspicions about Kilgore seemingly confirmed in the appearance of that chopper, and for several minutes things were very tense indeed between the two of them, Einar giving very serious consideration to taking defensive action against the tracker before the man could move to somehow incapacitate him, prepare him for capture when that chopper should return and disgorge its cargo of fast-roping assault team members. Something held him back though, a sense, perhaps, that if Kilgore had been involved in a plot of that nature he would already have made his move, would have made it at the first indication of trouble, as Einar knew he would have, under similar circumstances, and when after a good minute or two--time stretches out so strangely--the chopper had made no sign of returning and Kilgore himself had shown no inclination to leap at him with a tree branch, knife or concealed tranquilizer dart--and besides, the tracker looked every bit as alarmed as he, himself felt, and perhaps a bit angry, too, irked--Einar lowered his atlatl slightly, relaxed his guard and allowed Kilgore to move himself into a more comfortable position there beneath the tree.

“Whew! That was a low one. Do they usually skim so low when they come over? Been trying to direct things away from the area altogether, but looks like somebody messed with the flight plan after I left…”

“They’ve been this low. Not lately, but they’ve done it. Been coming over the day after a storm, without fail, for about a month now. Taking advantage of the deeper cold to look for anomalies, no doubt. When nothing happened last night, I thought we were in the clear, this time. I was wrong.”

“Glad we hadn’t ventured out in the open at all down here. Way you kept us to the timber, I doubt there was really much of anything for them to see.”

“Not from us, but Liz will have had a fire going.”

“They didn’t go over the cabin.”

“Close enough. Sure don’t like it. She’s real careful during the day, keeps the smoke to a minimum and the trees we’ve got over the cabin help a lot, too, but someday, they’re going to see something. And we won’t know which time that is, until it’s almost too late to do anything about it.”

“Got caches?”

Slow to answer, Einar bowed his head and rubbed numbed hands together, shaking, beginning to feel once more the biting chill of the cold morning, the consequences of the past minutes of enforced stillness. Didn’t feel too steady at all, actually, now that the urgency of the low flight was beginning to fade, wanted pretty badly to lie down but knew he absolutely must not give in to any such impulse, mustn’t even allow Kilgore--who of course knew already, had known from the start that Einar was operating at maximum effort simply to get himself out the door and down that slope--to guess at the trouble. “Got them. Need more.”

“What you need is a change of location, man. I’d go nuts sitting up here waiting for the next chopper or plane to come over, wondering if this trail or that fire was the thing that’d finally give me away…pretty rough way to live.”

“I’ve seen worse.”

Kilgore nodded thoughtfully, unable to dispute the assertion. “How’d you even hear that thing, anyway? When you did. Mighty early. I didn’t hear a thing until a full minute or after you got all weird and quiet like that.”

“You learn to hear things. Feel them. Vibrations in the ground, or something. Liz always asks me the same thing, but I feel them, alright. Sometimes minutes before she does, and she’s got pretty good ears.”

“Yeah, but she’s not half wild critter like you are. Fortunately for your son, he’s at least got some normal human genetic material from one side of the equation! Though out here in the jungle--or tundra, or whatever you call it--your way really is an advantage, I suppose. So he’s doubly blessed.”

“We’re not going out into the basin today. Not with the possibility that that thing may come back.”

“Do they usually come back?”

“They’ll make a second pass every now and then, but not usually. Still not risking it.”

“No, I should think not. I will mention though that our chutes and the cargo chute both are white, and would make excellent snow camouflage if you could get your lady to turn them into parkas for you, ponchos, heck, all you’d really need to do is whack a section off and put a head hole in it, and you’d have a good concealed way to travel in the winter.”

“Sounds like a good idea. Still can’t finish this today, though. Got to come back during a storm, or just before it’s looking sure to blow one in. I shouldn’t have ever let us leave the cabin, this morning. Real bad timing.”

“Seems the clouds have been gathering ever since we left this morning, so possibly another storm’s in the offing. Maybe we can try this again tomorrow.”

“Hope so. Kinda curious now what you may have brought! For right now though, I want us heading back up to the cabin. Make sure everything’s alright up there.”

16 February, 2012

16 February 2012

Liz tending to the baby and Susan cleaning up after breakfast, Bud and Einar prepared themselves for the day’s travels, laying out snowshoes and cold weather gear and nearly emptying packs to give themselves the means to more easily carry back the cargo which was their objective. Skies clear and no sign of additional snow imminent, the idea of leaving tracks all over the new snowfall struck Einar that morning as far less wise than it had seemed in their discussions the night before, and it was only because of Kilgore’s keen tracking--and anti-tracking--ability and willingness to avoid leaving sign out in the open whenever possible that he found himself reluctantly agreeable to going ahead with the expedition. No flyover had disturbed their night, the first time in a good number of weeks that such activity had not followed the lifting of a major storm and Einar was suspicious, thinking at first that he might simply have slept through the intrusion but Liz and the others assured him that they hadn’t heard anything, either.

Strange. Perhaps it was some indication that the search, having found nothing of interest in their immediate area after several well-timed scourings, had shifted its focus a bit, simply moving on to another series of ridges and basins. He certainly hoped so, had considered encouraging Liz to put the fire out for the day just in case something ended up coming over while they were gone, but had refrained. Couldn’t see why they would have missed the opportunity to take advantage of the sub-zero night only to make a pass by daylight, and in the absence of any strong reason to anticipate trouble during the day, those staying at the cabin really did need the fire. Temperatures remained well below zero as they made their final preparations, and he knew that if the fire was allowed to go out, the cabin’s interior would slowly begin to assume outside temperatures, the water barrel would freeze up and life would generally become more difficult for a mother with a new baby. Something they could live with if they had to, but not a hardship he wished to impose on Liz in the absence of any real evidence of its necessity.

Liz, blissfully unaware that any such had been under consideration but working hard, indeed, to keep the place warm that morning, had tucked little Will in amongst his rabbit skins for a few minutes of unaccustomed solo slumber--seldom was he willing to remain asleep for more than seconds if set down, that morning seeming an exception--and was busily laying out all of Einar’s cold weather clothing and some articles which didn’t strictly belong to him, too, insisting that he wrap himself in as many layers as she could round up. Which insistence fell mostly on deaf ears, Einar having already decided just what he did and didn’t intend to wear, but he did make a concession in the form of accepting a wool scarf Susan had brought--she’d intended to leave it with the two of them--and allowing Liz to wrap it about his neck as a seal to help keep the cold air from seeping down into his parka as he traveled.

Even dressed fairly lightly as he was, Einar felt somewhat weighed down and cumbersome as they made their final preparations to leave, but reminded rather sharply of the potential consequences every time he had to use his still sore and tender frost-nipped fingertips, he made no effort to further trim down his load. He was pretty sure Liz would have knocked him flat on his face with the rabbitstick, anyway, had he tried. She seemed to be watching him like a hawk that morning, urging additional broth and meat gelatin slices on him every time he turned around and refusing to be satisfied until he’d made at least some effort to consume the offerings, and he really couldn’t figure what might have got into her, but tried his best to be accommodating. It wasn’t too difficult. He really was terribly hungry that morning, wanting more than his body seemed willing to allow, in fact, but having to content himself on frequent slivers of Susan’s gelled broth and the occasional taste of roast elk, as the larger chunks still seemed liable to choke him. Which was not a productive use of time, tended to interfere with preparations for the day and besides, he could see that it upset Liz.

No matter. He’d be able to eat more later, hopefully, when they returned to the cabin and the smell of a supper which he was sure, if the past several days were any indication, would be absolutely superb, and supposing there proved to be any time for such things while on the expedition, Liz had certainly packed a good bit of food for him to take. He’d even heard her instructing Kilgore when she thought he wasn’t listening--rather adamantly; seemed there might have even been a threat in there somewhere--to be sure he took regular breaks and finished most of the food she was sending before the two of them returned, to which the tracker had responded that, Ma’am, no offense to you or the fact that this here is your house and your territory and all, but there’s no way on this good green snow-covered earth I’d ever agree to be responsible for such a thing. Rather pole vault through a minefield in a lightning storm, thank you very much. While herding cats. Blindfolded. On a doggone unicycle. Liz hadn’t seemed to find it too funny but the remark had left Einar doubled over in a fit of silent laughter, turning his back and continuing his preparations so they wouldn’t know he had heard. Wise man, that one…

Ready at last they took their leave, both men on snowshoes as they pushed their way through the heavy drifts around the cabin and into the timber, Einar leading the way as he kept them carefully to the trees. New snow deep and powdery, the going was not easy even in snowshoes, fallen trees and the low-sweeping branches of the evergreens conspiring to trap and entangle them, slowing Kilgore’s progress and leaving him to grumble under his breath but spilling Einar several times onto his face, floundering, struggling, finally managing each time to right himself, progressively more exhausted but trying hard not to let it show. Despite his difficulties Einar set a pace which surprised Kilgore and which, at times, he found himself working very hard to maintain, zigzagging down through the timber and pausing at irregular intervals to still his breathing, slow the pounding of his heart and tilt his head, listening, hearing only the small sounds of the chickadees and juncos in the trees, and the occasional soft whump of snow falling from their boughs.

The more closely they approached the basin and the spot where Kilgore had concealed the cache the more spooked and jumpy Einar became--sure he was hearing something but not quite able to identify it, and the ambiguity was really getting to him--until finally the tracker pulled up beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. Big mistake. Einar whirled about and nearly ran him through with his spear. A near thing.

“Hey, want me to take point for a while, man? Hard work breaking trail through all this snow.”

Einar shook his head, staring at the sky and signaling for Kilgore to be quiet.

Comments from 15 February

Nancy1340 said...

Sure hope they retrieve the supplies without any problems.


Yes, that would be a good thing.

Eric said…

All caught up reading again. Thanks for all the hard work! Hope that Kilgore brought some presents for Einar and his crew to offer him some feeling of true protection. I think that will help quell the demons he has. Maybe give him the opportunity to begin the mending process.

Glad you're all caught up!

Yes, I think Einar would greatly appreciate that.

Thank you all for reading!

15 February, 2012

15 February 2011

Having been without detailed maps of the area since arriving there, Einar took a keen interest in the topo sheet produced by Kilgore, scrutinizing every detail of its contours and nodding approvingly when they matched up, more or less, with the image of the place he’d developed over the months in his head. When Kilgore showed him the resting place of the cached supply drop, able to be certain of its exact location due to a steep-walled draw which dumped out into the basin exactly opposite it, Einar liked his choice of placement. A good, heavily timbered area which offered more than one well-concealed approach and prevented their having to cross any open ground in order to reach it.

Despite his approval of Kilgore’s cache location and a very active sense of curiosity which left him anxious to go and explore the drop’s contents, Einar remained somewhat apprehensive about the expedition, a cautious little voice in the back of his mind--would, several days prior, have been the only voice in his mind, but two days of broth and food had done him some good and there was at least now a bit of internal competition--telling him that the entire thing might well be a trap. Might be some elaborate scheme by which to lure him away from the safety of the cabin, from Liz and then take them both when they were in separate locations and unable to come to each other’s aid. Wouldn’t, on second thought, even have to be a very elaborate scheme in order to have a good chance of succeeding, and the worst part was that Kilgore wouldn’t necessarily even have to know about it. Could have been arranged without his knowledge, he and Susan acting as unwilling pawns in a snare designed to trap and destroy them all as sensors and tracking devices were imbedded in some of the gear he’d dropped, recording devices and transmitters even, which could alert the enemy to the precise moment when Kilgore returned for the stuff, and let them know who was and wasn’t with him, too. At which point, nowhere to go in all that fresh snow without leaving tracks that could be followed, the choppers would be launched, assault teams put on the ground and the two of them wouldn’t even make it back up to the cabin before the end came. If they even had reason to risk mens’ lives; seemed to him the most certain way of handling things would involve something in that bag acting to incapacitate the two of them, remotely activated gas canister deployed to render them unconscious until the team could land and secure the situation, and the thought of it was very nearly enough to prevent his wanting to go. But not quite.

“Where’d you pack this stuff, anyway,” he demanded of Kilgore, the urgency of his words pulling the tracker from his squint-eyed map study in quite a hurry.

“Pack it? Well, the final packing I did up at Susan’s the night before the wedding so I could take it down the hill in the morning, but some of the stuff I’d been assembling for weeks, keeping it in the toolbox of my truck. Nobody touched it. Any of it. I’d stake my life on it, and my new bride’s…oh yeah, I already have, haven’t I? So you know how sure I am. Not looking to get you captured here, Asmundson, any more that I’m looking to get the two of us tangled up in a thing like that. Come with me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m sure not gonna be able to haul everything back up here by myself, and besides, I might leave tracks where you’d rather not have ’em.”

“Oh, I’m coming. Just trying to figure out exactly how roundabout I need to make our path, and how heavily armed I should travel…”

“Yeah, we could take ’em, you and I. Would be a real interesting day. But they’re not coming. Not likely.”

Liz, listening, tended to agree with Kilgore’s assessment of things and was glad to see Einar taking things slowly and reasoning through them, but much as she wanted them to get their hands on whatever extra supplies the couple had managed to smuggle into the basin, she was not particularly excited about the prospect of Einar making that journey the next day. Not unless he was able to get thoroughly warm in the night, sleep soundly and have a breakfast somewhat more substantial than the slivers of gelled broth on which he had been subsisting that day but she knew there would be little talking him out of it, especially with Kilgore fully on board. She must simply hope the tracker would have the sense to realize how close Einar remained to succumbing to the cold and his own depleted condition, and act accordingly on their expedition. Not terribly likely, perhaps--Bud seemed more likely to beat him half senseless for one reason or another than to take any special care in seeing that he ate and remained warm, and was perhaps simply waiting for a time and opportunity to do so--but at least she knew she could count on him not to return alone. Einar would be coming along with him, one way or another, and that was some reassurance, at least.

Determined to see that Einar stay warm through the night, at least, she urged him into bed rather against his wishes soon after the others had gone--despite an immense and all-encompassing weariness Einar hesitated to commit to spending that particular night in such close proximity to her and the baby, knowing the sorts of dreams into which he seemed so apt to sink every time his eyes began drooping in slumber that day--and got him tucked in beneath the bear hides, near the end of his strength and finally too weary to go on resisting, limbs not even cooperating when he tried to draw them into the bed after him. He would, he told himself by way of justifying the concession, roll out of bed sometime after Liz was sound asleep and curl up on the floor for the night, safely removed from everyone and content, more or less, in his self-imposed exile. A plan which never came to fruition, Einar so exhausted that his last glimpse of the day consisted of the blurry image of Liz’s face hovering over his own, her words having something to do with worrying that he wasn’t breathing, asking him if he was breathing, which of course he was. Had to be, even if not too often, but found himself too far gone to stir and tell her about it, and then he was out, world going all black and soft and silent around him, sleep coming at last. Liz, unsure whether he’d passed out or simply fallen asleep but hoping he could finally get a decent amount of rest, either way, tucked the bear hide in carefully around him, pressed herself close for extra warmth and got little Will all settled in for the night, hoping everyone could have a long, quiet night for a change.

That night did indeed prove quiet, silence interrupted only by Will’s occasional soft whimperings as he sought another meal and the cracking and snapping of the cabin logs as temperatures plummeted outside, all slumbering soundly in sleeping bags, beneath bear hides and, in the case of Muninn, perched cozily near the water barrel, feathers fluffed against the encroaching chill and beak tucked beneath a wing.

Morning, and the cold in the cabin was intense, biting as Einar shivered his way over to the stove and dug about for live coals with which to restart the fire, pressing quickly numbed hands to the still slightly warm rocks surrounding the firebox--had been half numb when he woke, entire body stiff with cold despite a night spent tucked snugly beneath the hides; seemed it just wasn’t enough--and keeping them there until they’d regained some feeling and flexibility before breaking up bits of kindling, arranging and giving them some air, glad when the heat of the coals proved enough to ignite them. Wasn’t sure he would have been able to manage striking sparks that morning, between his shaking, the numbness of his fingers and their still somewhat swollen and tender state after the slight frostbite damage of the previous day. Would have to take care on the hike, he knew, if he was to prevent worsening the damage and having it seriously interfere with his ability to use his hands for a few weeks, or worse. Really couldn’t afford that, but ought not have to worry too much, so long as he kept his mittens on, elk hide on the outside, lined with rabbit fur and very warm.

Hoped it would be that simple, anyway. Cold as he’d been over the past several days--chill seeming to come nearly as much from inside him as it did from out, a strange, slightly disconcerting sensation if only because he seemed so powerless to shake it off--he wasn’t sure just how much difference the mittens might make. Well. They’d have to do, because he sure wasn’t going to be carrying any twenty pounds of stove-heated rocks in his clothes just to keep his hands from freezing, not a chance of that, and he figured he’d be just fine as soon as he really got moving. That had to be half the problem, as it was. Not enough movement. Too much sitting around, stagnating. Needed to get his heart pumping, body generating some heat. But he knew that wasn’t the only thing at work, could sense slowing within him, a winding down, and though most times this only made him want to fight harder, strengthen his resistance and his resolve, there were moments when the undeniable weight of the thing would seem to sit solidly upon him, nearly crushing out his breath, and he would be afraid. Such moments were few and far between, however, which was a good thing, he told himself. There was little he could do about any of it other than to push right on through, as he always had done. And for the moment--fire crackling merrily, others beginning to stir and wake--it was good to be going somewhere, good to have a plan.