Einar did not later remember much about that long, cold climb up from the valley, remembered taking care at every turn to render his tracks as little visible from the air as possible and remembered, when Liz asked him about it several days later, stopping once and doing his best to melt a bit of the squeaky, Styrofoam-dry snow between already mostly frozen palms out of dry-throated desperation for water, but mostly the ascent remained a giant blank spot in his mind and memory. A nothingness, and perhaps just as well.
Nearly dark when he began pushing his way through the tangle of willows just below the cabin-clearing, and overjoyed to see them, only half believing, he would have been greatly inclined to sink to his knees and go no farther, satisfied, home. Only he knew, in some dim recess of his cold-weary brain, that it would have been the end of him, and--had long ago forgotten why, but the urge was still there, the certainty, and it drove him on--he meant to live. Intended to do it. So, he kept moving. Slow, dreamlike through the deep snow, darkness falling fast when he caught the first whiff of smoke, tears in his eyes as he stumbled across the clearing and bashed himself, insensible to the force of the blow, against the woodshed.
She was with him then, holding him so tightly he could scarce breathe, and he would have wondered what the fuss could possibly be about, had his thought processes included anything resembling words, at the moment. But they did not, so he held her, too, sensing her distress and attempting clumsily, dumbly to comfort her, forehead on her shoulder, eyes closed and knees buckling quit unintentionally but he was a bit confused as she seemed not to want it, his silent reassurance; apparently it had been the wrong thing, for she lifted him, shook him hard by the shoulders and hurried him inside, briefly holding the door for Muninn as he hop-flew along behind.
Inside, Einar stood stiff-legged, braced against the wall as a wave of unbelievable warmth enveloped him, dazed eyes sweeping the cabin--cozy, neat, looked like she’d been doing a lot of cleaning in his absence--and coming to rest on the sleeping form of little Will, tiny, flaxen-haired head just visible above the sparkling warm white of the mountain goat hide. As he watched the rise and fall of the blankets in time with the little one’s breathing, he slid slowly to the floor, attempting at first a controlled crouch but losing his way and ending up in a rather awkward position with forehead on one knee and one leg off at an odd angle, dozing…
After adding a log to the fire Liz got Einar straightened up a bit, dragged him over so that he was leaning against the bed and got his parka off, slightly snow-crusted but not the least bit wet, thanks to the extreme cold of the night, shaking from it the bits of accumulated snow and setting it in the far corner behind the water barrel, dragging a bear hide from the bed to put about his shoulders. His hands were--aside from his general condition and the fact that his heart would likely as not quit on him if she tried to warm him too quickly--her first concern, but when she gently removed his mittens they appeared to her surprise to have faired reasonably well, fingers cracked and bleeding in places from the previous frostbite from which he’d been healing, but appearing to have sustained little additional damage, and she pressed them to her stomach for warmth, glad and relieved. Einar might have begun feeling a bit of relief too at that point--he had, after all, completed what had been for him under present conditions an enormously difficult trek back up the mountain, had reached his goal--had his hands not begun stinging so fiercely that he was able to think of little else. Until the circulation began slowly returning to his feet. That got his attention, alright, and Liz’s, as she carefully eased his boots from swollen, weeping extremities and slightly warmed a pot of water to being them thawing.
Einar, having been brought back a bit more to awareness by the awakening hurt, was glad of the pain, for it meant the feet were still alive, not as thoroughly frozen as he’d believed them upon waking that morning. Good news, even if it didn’t feel like it at the moment and probably would not for days to come. When he thought back on the year-long struggle which had followed his last bout with serious frostbite, resulted in the loss of all the toes on one foot and several times nearly cost him his life, too, as he fought serious infection and all of its consequences…narrowed his eyes, steeled himself against the possibility that he would have to start it all over again. Would probably be a losing battle, this time. He lacked the physical strength to effectively prosecute such a conflict, and he knew it. Healing would be slow, too slow, and infection would take him. The next few hours would be critical, would determine whether he… Warmth getting to him and a great, heavy coldness starting at the base of his neck and creeping quickly upwards, Einar promptly passed out.
Woke with Liz crouched above him, raising head and shoulders and holding a pot of something warm and steaming, smelled good and strong and salty, putting him in mind of the first time he’d met her, several years and what seemed half a lifetime ago out beside the river…different river, different circumstances…and she’d taken him to shelter as the search choppers passed over, given him broth and later, food. Pressed his eyes shut against a gathering dizziness, hauled himself up into a sitting position, nearly overturning the pot in which his feet were soaking.
“I’ll go back for the traps.” It was a croak, a horrid, hollow sound more suited to a raven than a man, and Muninn cocked his head to one side, made a soft answer.
Liz did not answer right away, holding up the steaming pot until he took a tentative sip, choked and coughed and tried another, which went down a bit more smoothly. “Don’t worry about the traps. Nothing will hurt them down there. You did the right thing. It’s going to be another extremely cold night I think, and I’m glad you’re here. We need you here. We’ll go back together.”
He nodded, eyes closing again. “Yeah, little chilly last night.”
She laughed--a beautiful sound to Einar's ears, incongruous and delightful, the music of life--didn’t know why because she did not find it the least bit funny, any of it, but somehow couldn’t quit laughing and this woke Will, who added his loud voice of protest to the ruckus, which by then included Muninn’s excited rasping, the raven seeing Einar’s pot of broth abandoned and wanting it for himself. Einar, meanwhile, sat staring and confused, a slight smile relaxing the deep lines of his face at Liz’s apparent hilarity, watching her as she reached for the baby, drew him in close so he could see his father. With rapt curiosity the child regarded him, crying stilled, Einar staring back with silent wonder in his eyes.
Liz wanted to hand him the little one, let them spend some time together but she could see that Einar was still shaking much too hard to be trusted with the task, appearing close to losing consciousness again--though far less likely to do so than before the child had wakened, and she was glad to see the change--so she laid Will in his basket instead, scooted it over beside Einar where the two could visit as she worked. Shooing Muninn away from the broth and giving Einar another drink of the stuff she rubbed his legs in an attempt to improve circulation, hoping to see a color other than the mottled purple which had almost continually marked their appearance since the arrival of cold weather that past fall, but without success. Core so thoroughly chilled and resources tremendously limited, his body simply didn’t consider the extremities critical enough to divert any extra blood in their direction. Liz had to disagree and knew Einar would, also, given the choice, glanced about the cabin for anything that might help remedy the situation and give his feet a better chance.