Above the willows the going become more difficult, partly because of the steeping of the terrain, the way the timber closed in and seemed to conspire with the deep snow to make Einar’s job nearly impossible and partly, though he was too far gone to realize and correct the situation, because he’d so thoroughly exhausted the small supply of energy given him by his earlier meal down in the basin, and had nothing left with which to work. Still he kept himself moving, having to stop with increasing frequency, fumble with the headlamp until he got it turned on and follow the traces--hanging onto them, pulling himself, using them as a guide lest he wander off course and walk headlong into a tree while attempting to cover the three feet which separated him from the tracker--back to his burden, freeing the still-unconscious man from the branch or bush which had most recently entangled him and starting out again, following his own tracks back to the point where he’d stopped and leaning into the improvised harness.
Steep. Kilgore kept digging into the deep snow on that slope, slowing him to a crawl by which they inched painfully forward, Einar digging his spear into the more solid layer of snow beneath and grabbing a tree branch in the other hand, grunting, pulling, finally getting them moving again and as long as they kept up some forward motion he knew they’d eventually make it, get past the terrible steepness of that section and on to something a bit more manageable but before that happened it all became too much, body out of energy and locking up on him. Weary, strained and focused as he’d been on simply putting one foot in front of the other, he hadn’t even felt it coming until he was on the ground with his limbs stretched out all straight and stiff and useless, head back and mouth open as he tried his best to fight it, but to no effect. Knew he must rise, commanded his body to move, legs to lift him, but nothing would respond in the slightest and then the thing was over and he could move again, weak, exhausted and drifting somewhere near sleep, trying to make some sense of the world through the fog that had come over him in the wake of the incident. Had to get up. Felt all hollow and sick inside when he tried, head fuzzy and limbs aching fiercely but he made it to his feet, not at all sure of himself but sure that he must keep on moving. Pulling. Destination was up there, and he must reach it, must get his companion to friendly territory just as soon as possible, before the enemy tracked them down and took them. Again. The rest of it didn’t matter.
Only it did matter some, because he couldn’t seem to get the load moving, not this time. Strength just wasn’t there, and no matter how hard he struggled and strained, his burden remained stuck fast. Headlamp on, he turned to try and figure some way out of the situation. And saw the problem. The tracker’s snowshoe head-protector had hung up fast in the gnarly remains of a long-dead old fir whose still-sturdy remains barely protruded from the surface of the snow, and he worked to break the entanglement, finally succeeding only to have the same thing happen again just as soon as he’d once more begun pulling. The area was littered with fallen, buried trees, their branches just waiting to grab and hold anything that slid past, and the knowledge sent Einar into something of a frenzy, stomping and breaking and trying to locate anything that might be in their path, clear a way so they could pass through and on to--hopefully--easier going beyond the windfall area, but after several minutes of this, panting for breath and barely able to lift his legs anymore, let alone bring them down with enough force to break the offending obstacles, he shook his head and gave it up for lost. No way he was going to clear enough of a path to get them out of there without hanging up every three or four steps and probably causing a fair amount of injury to his cargo in the process, which left only one way, as he saw it.
Checking to be sure that Kilgore’s pack and his own snowshoes were securely lashed to the tracker’s body he got down on hands and knees beside the man, lashing his arms together at the wrist and getting his head through the loop thus created. Tracker’s weight seemed to be crushing him already, mashing him into the snow but Einar didn’t quit, did not dare allow himself time to contemplate the thing, grabbing nearby branches and hauling himself laboriously to his feet where he stood gasping and shaking for a moment before shifting the tracker’s weight slightly, grabbing hold of his legs to keep them from dragging on the ground and setting off. One…two…three…a stumble, mustn’t let yourself go down…four…five, he counted off the steps, breath coming in ragged sobs by the time he’d reached twenty and his legs giving out at sixty three, but it was enough, had got them through the worst of the deadfall and he sank to the ground, freed himself from Kilgore’s limp-armed grasp and got the man rolled once more onto his back, snow brushed from his face and snowshoes, pack and other gear lashed again to his chest, ready for more pulling.
The light of morning was beginning to show by the time Einar began working his way up through the final band of timber below the cabin-clearing, just the faintest hint of grey but it seemed to him the lifting of a darkness much greater than night, a sign of hope. Made the traveling slightly easier, too, as trees began to show themselves a bit more clearly--headlamp had died hours previously--but only slightly, for his eyes hadn’t seemed to work quite right since the strange episode in the snow some time ago, waves of dizziness assailing him and turning the world into a strange, contorted place which seldom made much sense. Didn’t matter. Morning was coming, he recognized the place despite its strangeness, and they were almost home. Safe.
Nearly out of the timber and Kilgore was half waking, groaning, and Einar stopped, checked on him and cleared away the snow that had crusted itself around the exposed bits of his face where the balaclava did not cover it. The tracker was shivering, had, it seemed, finally begun to be affected by his long hours of immobility in the cold, despite being well dressed in warm things and insulated somewhat from the ground, but there was little Einar could do about it, knew Kilgore ought to be alright until they got to the cabin, where he could be warmed. Einar didn’t like the fact that he’d remained unconscious for so long, figured it meant he’d likely sustained quite a blow to the head but the groaning and twisting seemed to be good signs, meant he was beginning to come around just a bit. Perhaps he would be near waking by the time they reached the cabin. Perhaps they both would, for he was himself drifting rapidly towards sleep, head bowing until it touched his knees and a great sigh escaping as his body relaxed for the first time in hours. Snow in his face. Wide awake again, much as was possible under present circumstances at least, and he was on his feet. Keep moving. Now is not the time to sleep. Not yet.
The clearing. Grey and smooth in the predawn light, it opened wide and welcoming before him, cabin not quite visible through the gloom but he knew it was there, sharp smell of smoke reaching his nostrils and spurring him on. Supposed the most sensible thing would be to go around back where he could drag Kilgore into the tunnel and enter without waking the womenfolk and for a brief moment he was inclined to try it but then his legs gave out again and this time refused to respond when he tried to rise, and he crawled forward in the harness, dragging himself and Kilgore and collapsing against the front door of the cabin absolutely spent, beating on its timbers until he could make out a faint stirring and scuffling inside, and knew he’d been heard…