Morning, so early that no light yet showed anywhere, and Einar lay wide awake listening to the slow thump of his heartbeat in the silence, perturbed and perhaps even a bit frightened because he couldn’t remember how many days had passed since his return from the valley. Had it been one, or two? He was pretty sure more had not passed, but could not be absolutely certain, the way time seemed to alternately drag out, compress and otherwise distort itself of late. Tried to reconstruct the days by counting the dressing changes they’d done on his frostbitten feet—memorable events, for sure--but could not remember how many they had passed by. Which only served to further disturb him. Really losing track of things. Not that he cared too much about the day, itself; days of the week, knowing the precise date at any given time, these were things which had largely ceased to hold any import for him with his final and complete severing of all ties to the civilized world down below. What really concerned him was his seeming lack of ability to keep even the most basic details of day to day life organized to any useful degree in his mind and memory. If he had lost entire days, what other potentially details might have he missed, sights and signs which otherwise might have served as warnings of coming danger? No way to tell, no way to know, and the thought nearly sent him scrambling from the bed to hurry outside and test the wind, scramble up the cliffs to watch, listen and do his best to find remedy for his negligence…provided it wasn’t already too late. Probably would have done it, but for the logs that held him firmly in place beneath the bear hides when he attempted to rise. Had forgotten about those, also.
By the time he’d wormed his way out of the bottom of the bed, evading the logs, he’d had time to rethink his resolve to make a trip up the cliff, and had talked himself out of it. Wouldn’t do the feet any good, and he seemed to remember promising Liz that he’d take care to keep them healing. Give them a chance. Which it seemed as though they might still have, for despite pain that hit him like a white hot, smothering wave when in rising he inadvertently put a bit too much pressure on the blistered portions of the extremities, there remained that morning no telltale odor of rot, decay, and certainly no hint of the horrid, sickly sweet stench which almost certainly would have spelled the end for him, as well as for the feet. Good news, and he’d better do his utmost to keep things headed in that direction. The cliff was not a necessity; he’d simply got a bad case of the jitters due to spending so much of the last…well, he still couldn’t remember, for sure…in a shadowy state somewhere between unconsciousness and sleep. Might well be other reasons for the not-quite definable anxiety he was feeling that morning, and he knew better than to fail to investigate, but it was in all probability not the pressing thing he had earlier taken it to be.
Liz was watching him. He could feel her eyes on the back of his neck even if he could not see them in the pitch blackness of the early morning, and he stopped moving, hair standing up as he wondered how greatly he might need to fear the imminent application of the rabbit stick. It did not come. Finally he moved, and she moved also, hides rustling around her as she slid from the bed and crouched beside the stove. Her voice was soft in the darkness.
“Where are you going?”
He didn’t answer right away, breath still ragged from the agony of putting his weight on the feet, instead shuffling over to the water barrel and gripping its side with all his strength as he lowered himself to his knees on the floor, Muninn taking an opportunistic swipe at his hair and coming away with a good chunk of what was left; not much, and he wished the critter would find another target for a while.
“Nowhere much. Just…getting some water.”
She lit a candle, said she could use some water, too—had wanted to point out to him somewhat indignantly that they had plenty of water sitting right there on the shelf by the bed where it could be easily accessed without a fellow blundering about the cabin in the dark and freezing himself half to death in the process, but had thought better of it—and sat down beside him where he had ended up, back against the water barrel, legs out straight and hands clenched into tight, white fists in his lap. She didn’t like the way his hands were all drawn up towards the wrists, elbows pressed hard against his sides; it didn’t look entirely natural, somehow. Feet were hurting him—whole body appeared to be hurting, actually, judging by the odd way he held himself, and she wondered what was troubling him, how serious it might prove to be; perhaps he was simply sore and stiff still from his climb, but somehow she knew that wasn’t the entire story, and the uncertainty of it worried her—but she could see he wasn’t about to admit it.
“Want some more willow stuff to go with the water? To help your circulation…”
Silence, eyes closed and head back, appeared to require a lot of effort to lift it, and when he opened his eyes to look over at her, he seemed to be having trouble getting them to focus. Blinked and shook his head, gulped a hasty mouthful of water and nearly choked getting it down. “No need. Did all it’s gonna do in the first twenty-four hours or so, and the feet…think that stuff must have helped. Feet seem to be doing better.”
“Well, how about for…there’s nothing wrong with having a little more of it just to…”
Einar smiled, shook his head. “Not my way, Lizzie. Not doing things that way.”
“No.” She understood. Did not necessarily agree, but it was his decision, and not one in which she had any business interfering. Unlike some of his other recent decisions. She had insisted upon the logs, the second helping of broth; he could refuse the willow if he wanted to. He was more than likely right about the feet, she knew. The blood-thinning and clot-reducing properties of the willow had probably done as much good as they were capable of doing, within the day or so after the initial thawing of the feet. In offering him more, she’d simply wanted to reduce his pain. If he did not want the same…
“Well, that’s up to you. Breakfast is not. I intend to see you eat a good portion of it just as soon as it’s ready, to be clear about things, and if you claim not to be able to eat due to the feet hurting…that’s when I just may have something more to say about the willow! Either that, or do some talking with the rabbit stick. Fair enough?”
Not really, so far as he was concerned--couldn’t help thinking that he would prefer the rabbit stick to more of the willow under the circumstances, figured if he refused the one he’d be pretty sure to meet with the other, and it was good to have a backup plan--but he certainly didn’t have the energy to challenge her just then, nodded and tried another sip of water. Could barely get the stuff down without choking himself. Stew was going to be a major challenge, but she didn’t need to know that, just yet. Figured he might as well help her with the preparation, make himself useful around the place any way he could, and he crept over to the stove, began taking thin slices from the half frozen chunk of elk she’d set out to thaw. Which reminded him. He needed to get out and take inventory once more of the frozen meat that remained hung securely in trees outside the cabin, keep the two of them working to slice and dry it before temperatures warmed to the degree that spoilage became a concern. Unlikely as it seemed after several nights of temperatures so far below zero, spring was indeed coming.