Snow. The storm did not begin with a few lazy flakes drifting down to settle gracefully on the boughs of the evergreens, a soft, silent thing, and marvelous to watch. It came rather as a howling, swirling squall that quickly obscured all sight of the basin and the ridge beyond it, encapsulating Einar in a tiny world that consisted of himself, his boots and two trees. Even his boots would have been difficult to see, had it not been for the shelter provided by his shield of closely-growing little firs. No helicopters that evening, not flying in such a storm, and he was glad, slouched there smiling beneath the tree, staring up at the snow as it came down and thinking that there was something he really ought to be doing, but unable to quite put a finger on it. Sleep. He could definitely do that, now that it was safe and he needn’t keep such careful watch for aircraft, and the idea sounded to him like a very good one indeed; he’d been way too long without sleep. Reclining in the soft snow as more howled in all around him and comfortable as only the man can be who, reaching the end of his rope and being forced beyond it, finds himself firmly in the grip of exhaustion and growing increasingly if obliviously hypothermic, Einar really might have gone to sleep then, had it not been for a nagging and persistent thought that there was something he must do, first. Just one thing. Right. Cabin. Got to get back to the cabin while the storm’s blowing, so it will cover my tracks and there’ll be nothing left for the choppers to follow. Didn’t really want to do it, especially at the expense of the sleep he had somehow come so desperately to desire, but of course he had to; who knew when the storm might end, and with it his only opportunity to make that walk without leaving more tracks in the freshly fallen snow?
Got to his feet, checked around to make sure he wasn’t leaving anything, which he was not, rolled up the rabbitskin blanket and tucked it a bit awkwardly beneath his parka--had to protect it as well as possible from the storm--and he was ready to be off. Only one problem, which was that in the fury of the storm, any landmarks that he might normally have used to guide him back home had been quite thoroughly obliterated, lost in that endless swirl of white, and he was having trouble getting his bearings. Well, he ought to be able to figure it out. Dropoff was, after all, behind him; he’d been watching it for days, ought to have a pretty good sense of its direction, and if he simply went in the opposite direction and stuck more or less to the ridgeline, that ought to take him right past the spring and along the trail to the cabin-clearing. But, it did not. Instead, he ended up very nearly walking right over the edge of the dropoff, brought up short at the last minute by the sensation of a vastness before him, a distance, and he knew it wasn’t right, dropped to hands and knees in the snow and inched his way forward until a jagged rim of limestone, scoured by the wind and protruding as it had not done before the storm, gave away his position. Not good, and not only because he’d just very nearly plunged to his death on the granite crags below. He had, in addition, just managed to leave further tracks, a wallowing, blundering monstrosity of them which, should the storm stop before thoroughly obscuring them, would stand out like a sore thumb to the rescuers when they did finally fly in. Not much chance of that happening, though, not the way the wind ripped and howled over that dropoff; his tracks would soon be blown over, and he was glad.
Now. Back to the task at hand. Find the trail. Liz’s trail, where she came up here last night. It won’t be gone yet, not down in the trees where the wind has a harder time reaching. That will keep you on course and lead you home. Searching for the trees, he found them when he ran headlong into a spruce, spat out the specks of bark--kept one of the needles he’d ended up with, its sharp tang seeming somehow to help in keeping him connected, prevent him from wanting so urgently to sleep--and picked himself up out of the snow, searching, finding at last some trace of the trail there in the heavier timber. Not an easy thing to follow, Einar, whether due to the wind and snow, the dimming light of evening, his own exhaustion or some combination of the three, managing to lose the trace on a fairly regular basis, each time stumbling and searching until he’d located it again.
At dark, this exhausting routine ended. He lost the trail, and was no longer able to find it again. Felt for the trench with his feet, crawled about on hands and knees searching with his hands for the place where the snow had been beaten down, but it was no use. For all he knew—and it frightened him some to admit this—he might no longer even be on the crest of the gentle ridge, itself, the one that held their route from spring to cabin, and without which certainty he was completely lost. Even the raven had apparently abandoned him, no answer when he howled the bird’s name out to the storm, so he simply kept moving, only thing he could do, trying his best to stay on course by being aware of the wind and from which side it struck him, praying he might be right.
Time passed, Einar stumbling blindly through the pitch-black timber, and he kept hearing things, thinking he heard them, at least, the sounds snatched away on the wind before he could be certain they were anything at all, anything more than the wayward ramblings of his chilled and failing mind, but then, he was sure. No wind in the trees could make such a sound, no long-dead spruce tops knocking together in the gale; he’d heard many strange things in the timber and seen stranger ones still, but the voice that now rasped and scolded so close to his ear could belong to one creature, and one creature alone.
It was Muninn, who by all that was right and just and ravenly, really ought to have been hunkered down on a sheltering branch hours ago considering the darkness and the weather, and miffed at receiving no audible response the bird landed heavily on Einar’s shoulder, delivering a hard blow to the side of his head. The weight of the bird was nearly enough to send Einar sprawling in the snow, a development which, weary as he was, might have proven disastrous just then, end of the road, but he managed to keep to his feet, catching himself against a tree. Crazy bird, what’re you doing out in this weather? And at night. You don’t fly at night. What do you want? Answering with another jarring peck to the side of the head, the raven was gone, rasping and carrying on and clearly wanting Einar to follow. Lost and without direction, Einar saw no harm in doing so, even as he doubted the bird’s nighttime direction-finding skills. Blind leading the blind, through a snowstorm in the dark of night…why not?
There were times, listening for the raven’s calls over the howl of the wind, that Einar became quite certain he’d imagined the entire encounter with the bird, tried to slow down and think, do his best to ignore what he was sure must be the conjurings of his own mind and think logically about what direction he must go, but there was no logic in that storm, no reasoning with the wind or with his own exhausted body, so he always fell back to following the calls of the raven; real or imagined, they were keeping him on his feet, moving, and without the movement, he was dead. Might very well be, anyway; despite trying his utmost not to dwell on the fact, he was wearing out, had very little strength left and knew the storm might well end up winning this one.
More time went by, and Einar, no longer even sure most of the time whether he was moving or not, stumbled into something solid and was brought up short against what he took at first to be a tree, for certainly it had bark and was solid, but its mass puzzled him, and its shape. Only when he reached the corner and went around it did he realize that his wanderings had brought him up squarely against the cabin itself, the very thing he had been seeking, and even in his rather thoroughly chilled and exhausted state, he was aware enough to recognize that such things do not happen by accident, and he gave thanks. Feel his way around in the darkness, then, go until he found the tunnel mouth, crawl inside, tremendous relief at finally being out of the wind, and he lay down, curled up against the wall, smiling. He had done it, and now, at last--if not for too long, with those skiers still trapped in the basin and rescue in some form likely on the way or about to be--could sleep.