Einar’s rest did not last long, hushed conversational tones of the others as they as they enjoyed dinner pulling him from his sleep to lie for a moment unmoving, frozen, eyes closed and hands ready for action as he tried to get a grasp on his surroundings, come to some understanding of the voices he heard, and it took him upwards of a full minute to realize that he was right where he wanted to be, there in the cabin with Liz and the baby. Kilgore’s voice had thrown him off, meshing oddly with some of the dream-images that had come crowding in nearly as soon as his eyes had begun closing in slumber. Along with Kilgore’s voice, though, he recognized Susan’s, soft, lyrical, and best of all heard Liz adding to the conversation and knew her, voice like the wind in a grove of aspens in the summer, and she was talking about the evening meal. Which explained the wonderful aroma of roasting elk and spicy, simmering gravy that seemed to surround him so heavily that he could almost taste it just by breathing, setting his stomach to twisting and cramping with hunger and leaving him, in his state of half-dream, to see vivid images of all manner of wonderful but unobtainable food.
Home, then, and relieved indeed he was to discover it, drawing knees up to his chin for a bit of additional warmth and wondering how he had managed to grow so dreadfully, intractably cold, smothered as he was beneath the hides. And--took him a bit to figure out the source of the hard lumps that seemed to be surrounding him there in the bed--packed with hot rocks, too. Had he been outside again, and forgotten? Doubted it. Hair didn’t seem to be wet as it surely would be had he been out in the snow, and he was certain, despite the occasional periods of haziness which had undeniably marked the past several days, that he would have remembered a recent trek out into that storm. The one in which he’d become so hopelessly if briefly turned around that morning, leading to…yep, wasn’t imagining about the fingers. Really are a little frostbit, just as I thought. Strange thing about the storm though. He couldn’t seem to hear the wind anymore, wondered if it might have quit. Must have quit. Must have cleared off out there, for the air rolling off the walls to be so deeply, nose-crinklingly cold. He shivered--hadn’t quit shivering since he’d wakened, actually, and it was exhausting him, leaving him weary all the way to his aching bones, wanting to go back to sleep--tucked his chin down against his chest and breathed for a moment the warmer air beneath the bear hide, eyes drifting closed.
Couldn’t stay there. Must make sure Liz had what she needed, see that plenty of firewood was stocked for the night, snow cleared away from the tunnel mouth and door should more be on its way soon and contemplate--perhaps in consultation with Kilgore, perhaps not--the wisdom of banking the fire and allowing it to burn into the night, considering the seemingly inevitable pattern of low and concerning air activity that had followed the breakup of every major storm in recent memory. That thought did it, set him in motion and got him up against every urging of his body--stay, sleep, you’ve got to get warm and sleep--as he shook off the hides, swung his feet to the floor and pressed palms to the ceiling until a wave of dizziness passed, and he could see again.
“Got any of that supper left for a hungry, scrawny old mountain critter who’s got no idea what he could have been doing in bed this time of day, but is most apologetic for the inexcusable laziness?”
Liz laughed--a beautiful sound it was; he couldn’t remember hearing that laugh too often, lately--hurried across the room and caught him just before his legs collapsed and dumped him on the ground, bracing him, keeping him on his feet as he stood swaying, arms around her, chin on her head and a big smile sweeping across the grim, almost desperate lines of his face at the sweet, tangy scent of willows which seemed always to follow her, clinging to hair and clothing and putting him in mind always of the gentle, soft green sunlight that filtered down through the slender whispering leaves of willows near the water, vibrance, quiet joy and a solace beyond words.
“Well, what’s so funny about dinner, anyway? Can’t a fella be hungry? Stuff smells awful good…”
“Nothing! Nothing’s funny about it at all. I’m just so glad to see you awake and ready to eat, that’s all. I missed you. Come on over by the fire. You almost froze a while ago just sitting on the floor, and I can see that you’re still pretty cold. That’s why you were in bed. Needed to get warm. Don’t you remember?”
Einar shook his head, followed her over to the stove where he nodded his acknowledgement to Bud and Susan. Really didn’t remember, and the fact bothered him. Couldn’t afford to be losing time like that, bits of the day gone beyond his ability to recall, especially not with others present, as they currently were. Well. Guessed he really did need to eat something, perhaps prevent himself, if possible, from becoming so thoroughly chilled that his brain began shutting down, which near as he could piece together seemed to be what had happened. The supper smelled even better now that he was standing over it, remaining portion still hot and steaming and setting his mouth to watering so that he could hardly restrain himself from seizing the pot and digging in, but suddenly he was overcome by an incredible wave of dizziness, sinking quickly to the floor and blinking back the blackness that tried to overwhelm him. Which is when he saw what Kilgore was doing, saw him carving and scraping at those bone dart heads and was on his feet again in such a hurry that he very nearly toppled over right onto the hot stove before getting himself back to the floor in front of the tracker.
“Hey now, what’re you doing to my darts! Had those things almost finished when I conked out or whatever I did, and now you’ve gone and scraped them all up so I’ve got to start over!”
“Whoa, take it easy man. These aren’t your darts. No way I’d touch your darts. They’re right where you left them. Just figured it was time to try my hand at a few of my own, so I helped myself to a few bone scraps, and have been giving it a go. Not half bad, don’t you think?”
Einar was laughing, shaking his head and inspecting the carved bone creations, which really were, he had to admit, none too shabby. Close replicas of his own. “Yeah, looks like you got a knack for those things. If I were you, I’d increase the angle just a little bit where the two edges taper together, make the things just a little sharper, and you’ll be just about ready to get out there and kill you an elk or a sheep or something. Planning on sticking around?”
“No, you’ve said yourself there’s not room for the two of us up in this particular basin, and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you’re correct on that one. But I’d hate to pass up on the opportunity to add another weapons system to the arsenal I keep here in my head, so now seemed a good time to learn the art and science of producing accurate and lethal bone arrowheads.”
“Yep, looks like you’re well on your way. And I’m gonna leave you to it, too, because I got to try this supper I’ve been smelling, but not…” voice hushed, low, he knelt beside Susan, held out his arms for the baby and sat there staring into the silent, sleeping little face, “before I visit with my son for a minute. How’re you doing there, little one? Getting plenty of sleep it looks like, and that’s good, real good, you just sleep and grow and before you know it, you’ll be crawling all over this place and helping me prepare traps and tan hides and do all the things you got to learn to do, living up here…no time at all. Here, you go on back to your mama now, ‘cause it looks like Susan’s busy over the stove and besides, you’ll probably be waking soon and whenever you wake, it seems you’re hungry, yep, just like me…”
Liz took little Will, breathing a sigh of relief that he hadn’t been wakened by Einar’s handling--he was incredibly gentle with the child but, at the same time, Liz found herself occasionally worried about the clumsiness that came over him in the cold, afraid at times that there might be some risk of his losing his grip--and sat with him beside Einar as Susan dished out a generous helping of the remaining supper, glad to see Einar’s eagerness and hoping he’d finally be able to get a good solid meal in him.
Crouching over his supper like some oversized if mostly starved bird of prey Einar did his best to put away a good portion of the wonderfully spiced elk roast and gravy, chopping everything finely and trying to chew well enough that he might not have a problem but having to stop after nearly gagging himself on the first bite of elk he tried, despite the precautions. Tried again, same results. Just not working. Discouraged if not particularly surprised--might as well leave it for someone else to enjoy, though he did scoop up a bit of the gravy before abandoning the stuff--Einar set his dish aside, sitting back against the wall, nauseous, worn out after his effort and already trembling in the chill air that seeped in despite the well-insulated walls.
Susan could see the direction in which things appeared to be headed, took his dish and returned the remaining food to the pot, draping one of the bear hides around Einar’s shoulders and serving up a good-sized slice of her gelled meat broth concoction, instead.
“This isn’t warm and I know it’s not as good as elk with gravy, but it’s nutritious and I think you’ll be able to get it down, at least. Give it a try. Tomorrow if we can get out and take a rabbit or something, I’ll try to make you some blood pudding. That ought to be just the right texture, and it’s full of iron, too. You and Liz could both use the iron.”
“Whatever this is,” Einar remarked, trying a little sliver of the stuff and finding it quite delicious as well as fairly easy to eat, “you sure do a good job of making it. I ought to get the recipe. Would go well with my fermented bear stomach pudding!”
“Oh, it’s not fermented but it is a bit unusual, I have to admit. Just a way of making do with what you have, stretching supplies…”
“Speaking of supplies,” Kilgore glanced up from his arrowhead project, “I’ve got a little expedition I need your help with in the morning, Asmundson. Assuming the weather cooperates.”
Einar looked slightly skeptical. “What’s that got to do with supplies?’
“Lots. Wasn’t too much we could pack in on our backs that first trip up here after we jumped, but that don’t mean we didn’t bring more with us…” After which the two of them went on to discuss in depth the logistics of the coming expedition, Einar concerned about leaving tracks and going over with Bud several routes by which they could minimize such danger, the two women listening with interest and tossing in a terrain detail or other consideration now and then. Engaged though he was in the conversation Einar was clearly struggling hard just to stay awake, and despite trying not to notice--he wouldn’t have liked it--Susan and Liz thought he looked just unbearably cold sitting there against the wall with his knees knocking against one another and shoulders shaking as he spoke but it didn’t seem to bother him much other than that fact that it was obviously tiring him so badly, and as they’d already given him the bear hide, neither did anything to interfere for a while.
After a time Liz--unable to bear watching him sit there and freeze any longer and wanting very badly to help him get warm--offered to help him over nearer the stove and supply him with a few hot rocks but he just declared that it was plenty warm in the cabin--which, indeed, it was; the little stove proving quite effective on even the coldest nights--and besides I like the cold and if I’m freezing it’s my own doggone fault for being so scrawny. Which, indeed, could be argued, but Susan worried that it could be the end of him if he didn’t start taking more interest in getting himself warm, perhaps even allow them to help out just a bit. She could see how much energy his body was expending just trying to keep his temperature up to minimally functional levels--and only half successfully, at that--and she knew it was energy he really didn’t have to waste, but was hesitant to press him too hard on the matter, as she had a distinct impression that the oversight was more intentional on his part than it was accidental. Still needed to say something, make an effort to get the situation turned around, and would have, had Bud not saved her by heaving himself to his feet and retrieving a map from his pack, wanting Einar to point out in more detail just which route he intended the two of them to use, in the morning.