When she returned, Liz was glad to see Einar so much more alert and awake than when she’d left him, Will on the floor and visiting--apparently happily--with his father, but her relief was short-lived, the look of steely resolution and distance in his eyes putting her on alert.
“You’re going somewhere, aren’t you?”
He told her. All of it, from Will’s hard-earned escape from the basket to his own near-miss in catching the little guy, why it had happened and what he believed he needed to do about it. Liz shut the door behind her, sat beside him on the bed and lifted the baby, studying his bed-basket in a show of trying to determine how to make it more tip-proof, but in reality she simply wanted a reason to delay answering Einar. Could not delay forever though, and in the meantime, he was going on with his preparations for leaving.
“I understand what you’re wanting to do, but please can I help you instead, right here?”
“How can you help? Won’t work unless I’m alone. Got to be alone for this.”
She was somewhere between exasperated and irate, and, for once, let it show. “Oh, live alone, struggle alone, freeze and die alone in the snow on a mountaintop tied to a tree striving valiantly with your ghosts for one last time and maybe finally making peace with them…that’s all well and good if you’re alone, but you’re not alone anymore, Einar. Your son…”
“Not going up there to die. I’ll be back.”
Maybe you will. I know you’ll do what you must, regardless of my suggestions. I’m just asking you to give this a try. Stay and eat and let your body gain some strength, see if that improves things for you…surely you know it would have to help!”
Einar shook his head. Had no desire to get into it with her yet again, try and explain why his strength this time must come from something more than soup and warmth and all the things she was with such well-intentioned but misguided intensity attempting to push upon him. Didn’t know that he could put it into words which would speak to her. Was done speaking of the matter, anyway; mind was made up, and all that remained was to get himself into his boots, if he could, and go.
Liz was done talking, as well. His mind might be made up, clearly appeared to be, but it was also malfunctioning, she was sure, if he was convinced that a visit to that tree was the best course of action just then. She waited, sitting serenely on the bed beside Will, while Einar struggled into his boots and chose a deer hide, wrapping it loosely about his torso--the only protection he was allowing himself to carry against the frigid night to come, and she doubted he would use it at all--and heading for the door. Which is when she struck. It was a dangerous thing to do, quick as his reflexes remained despite his debility, but she had judged well and acted with a swift decisiveness which left little room for response, and there was none, Einar dropping with a lifeless thud to the cold earth, front half sprawled out in the tunnel where he’d been headed. She pressed a quick lump of absorbent usnea lichen to his head where the force of her blow had loosed a slow ooze of blood, took him by the boots and hauled him back inside--forgive me, Einar, I did it for your son, and I hope you will be able to see the necessity of it, when you wake--rolling him inside the larger of the bear hides where, with the help of the hot rocks she intended to slide in after him, he could hopefully begin warming. That task done she lashed him securely into the bundle with the bulky coil of nettle cordage he had recently completed and took a seat on the floor with her back to the door, rabbit stick at her side and a fresh batch of soup beginning its slow simmer on the stove.
He woke, struggling in the darkness, couldn’t break the strong cordage lashings which held him in place against the rough, icy bark of that twisted old tree, and he might have been afraid had he realized just how cold he’d become out there in the wet and the wind, but he did not feel the cold and there was no fear, only a black, sightless rage that rose from somewhere deep within him, for the bonds were no longer the ones he had applied, necessary hardship intended to bring him strength through struggle, but those forced upon him by his captors. Fighting for breath in the cramped, stinking humid heat of that bamboo cage he fought them with all his fading strength, striving with a fury which after several minutes left his chest hurting and breath coming in ragged sobs, world dark around him and still he could not free his arms or bring legs down out of the horrid, cramped position into which his enemy had contorted them. Couldn’t seem to make the least progress, body held all but immobile by the combined strain of that cursed position and his own exhaustion, so he struck out with his head, the only thing over which he seemed to have much effective command, slamming it furiously into the tightly-lashed but somewhat flexible surface of the wall, determined to break his way out, destroy the hateful confinement of that cage and fall to the water below, even if it should prove the end of him, but succeeding only in rendering himself fairly quickly and efficiently unconscious.
Einar was warm, and that was wrong. Knew it was wrong, for he lay there in the snow where he had fallen when, apparently responding to the intensity of his struggle with what he’d believed to be his captors’ bonds--a dream, all of it, hallucination, something, for here he was in the snow, alone in the bitter night--the nettle cordage holding his wrists had given way, and he fought to open his eyes, but could not seem to get them to heed him. Dying. Wondered that he should even be aware of his plight, far gone as he must be in the hypothermic haze which would have quickly come over him as he lay unconscious in the snow. The sense of warmth and well-being which now surrounded him were so real, so present that for a moment he contemplated the possibility that perhaps Liz had come along in the night and found him, taken him somehow back home to the cabin and got him warm, but he knew better than to fall for such a ruse. The whisper of death was in its words, in the quiet comfort which bade him remain still, rest…knew he must fight it while he still possessed the capacity. If.
No room for “if.” Had to return to Will, and again he fought, limbs apparently so numb that he couldn’t begin to feel the snow when he rolled to the side and buried his face in it, attempting to take a bite, wanting to get himself a bit of hydration… No success. Couldn’t seem to get his mouth open and couldn’t swallow, anyhow, throat far too dry for such machinations, so he’d just have to do without water for the time, push himself somehow to his feet and close the distance, make his way home. More struggling, long time passing and in it great intervals of blackness during which he felt again the nearly-irresistible call of the cold, of the snow, sleep, sleep here in the softness of my embrace, no need to fight… Yet he fought, for still he was aware enough to know it as an imposter, but no matter the strength of his struggle he couldn’t move, couldn’t get his body to budge, finally passed out again despite valiant efforts to the contrary, God, help me, hold me up and let me stand, I need to return to my son…but his only answer was blackness, more blackness; he was near the end of his strength, past it, and surely this time it would be the end…
Light, and somehow in a desperate push whose details were entirely lost to him he must have made it, for there was Will, staring at him with those great grey eyes in the light of a single candle as he struggled to rise, to sit, Liz with him and the cabin walls all around, and it was achingly, unbelievably good to be home, if dreadfully unlikely... Still Einar could not do much to move arms or legs, and he realized that sometime between his struggle in the snow and the present Liz must have got him wrapped up in a bear hide, for there it was all around him, bound around his body like a cocoon and warm rocks pressed tightly to chest and sides within the bundle, and he was beginning to thaw…
She--sliding from the bed and coming to sit down beside him--looked into his eyes, her own appearing somehow immensely wise and sad as she pressed a gentle hand to the side of his head where a trickle of blood had appeared with the exertion of sitting up. “Forgive me…” and he had no idea what she could mean.