Remainder of the day passing in relative peace, Liz tending to Will and Einar working on small projects around the place--repairing a damaged food basket, adding to his most recent length of cordage, staring, from time to time at the wall and wishing he was out in the snow--darkness descended and supper was fixed, the three of them gathering around the stove for the meal.
Seeing that the ongoing pain of cleaning and dressing his still-recovering feet was adding somewhat to his difficulty in managing the meals she put before him, Liz after supper made a strong solution of willow bark, sweetened it with honey to take off some of its sharp edge of bitterness, and added it to his pot of juniper tea. Ready to gulp the tea down as he had been doing, Einar immediately smelled the difference and stopped, glancing accusingly at Liz when she looked his way. She made no effort to deny the change.
“Yes, it’s willow. Go ahead and drink it.”
“You know why. It’s to help your feet.”
“Already done all the good it could do for the feet days and days ago. I don’t have any new frostbite. Don’t need a blood thinner.”
“Alright, if I have to spell it out, the willow’s not so much to help the feet as it is to help you. Your existence. You might deny it, but I can see you’re in a lot of pain, and I think a big part of it has to be the feet at this point, hasn’t it? I can see that it makes it hard for you to eat sometimes and, it seems to me, causes your mind to slip more easily into places where it really doesn’t need to be right now. So if there’s any way to lessen it…”
He shook his head. This was where he drew the line, absolutely, definitively; she wanted him to eat, and he was, to stay warm, but when it came to intentionally altering his perception of the world…he returned the pot to her, a definitive “no.”
“Einar, It’s just willow. Not going to do you any harm, make you sleepy or groggy or anything like that—just let things hurt a little less, maybe. That’s all. Why can’t you do this? Why do you have to hurt all the time? Can’t you just…exist? ”
“I don’t think so.”
She let it be at that, not wanting to press the matter further just then but knowing she would probably have to sometime in the not-too-distant future. He was indeed eating, doing a fine job so far, and she didn’t want to interrupt the course of things by being too insistent about the willow. Setting it aside--for later; she intended still to do her best to prevail upon him as to the wisdom of taking it--she prepared him a fresh pot of juniper tea, watching as he gulped it down with a slight shudder, and she couldn’t blame him. The stuff didn’t taste too terribly bad, especially when sweetened with a bit of honey, but it did have the unfortunate effect, in addition to helping the kidneys keep functioning efficiently enough to cut down on the swelling, of inducing sweating and a slight fever every time a significant amount was taken. He kept at it though, had so far not complained in the slightest at the discomfort, and she was glad.
The following morning before dawn Einar lay face-down and fast asleep in the bed, warm and for the first time in what seemed a very long while not in pressing, immediate danger of dying in his sleep for lack of nutrition--the starving body has a way of working to salvage itself even in sleep, bringing Increasingly restless slumber and thoughts of food through the night, waking a person and urging him up to find something to eat, though Einar had seldom possessed the energy to do so of late, even if he’d had the intent--when Liz’s voice reached him soft but insistent through the heaviness of the hides.
“Wake up! Time to get up! We’re running your trapline this morning, and you get to carry Will. Let’s go!”
He didn’t immediately respond--wanted to, but sleep still lay too heavily upon him--and she plunged her hands beneath the hides, icy from the morning chill of the cabin, found him, tracing across shoulders and down his spine so that he shivered, smiled, rolled over to face her, grinning.
“Well now that’s a pretty fine way to greet the day! If I go back to sleep, will it happen again?”
“Thought you might like that…but no. We’ve got work to do, places to go, and I was jut trying to see if you were still alive, in there!”
“Oh, I’m plenty alive. Getting up.” Which he did, rolling from the bed with such enthusiasm that, legs unexpectedly failing him, he hit the floor shoulder-first with a great crash, sprawling for a moment in such a tangled, twisted heap that the sight would have proven quite comical had Liz not seen how it pained him. Einar quickly got himself straightened out, sat up and rose shakily to his feet.
“See, you’ve spoiled me already, because usually I’m the first one up with no trouble at all. Getting all soft and lazy here, and we’re not even two days into this thing…”
“Lazy is definitely not the word I would use, not something I ever thought of applying to you… But don’t worry. You’re not going to have any time for laziness this morning, because we’re about to leave.”
“Leave? Thought I heard something about the trapline, but had pretty nearly convinced myself I must’ve been dreaming.”
“Nope, not dreaming. Better get your boots on, because I need you to carry Will this time, and it’s a lot harder to get into your boots, with the little guy on your back.”
“He’ll fit just fine in my parka, even though it wasn’t made with a baby-carrying pouch like yours. Plenty of room in there. Just have to tie a wide strap of some sort around my chest to keep him from slipping too far down, and it ought to work just fine.”
“Yep, I figure you could probably get three or four little ones Will’s size in that parka with you, but we’re working on that. Before too many months, maybe it’ll actually start fitting you, for the first time! Which reminds me. Will and I have already had our breakfast, and I’ve kept yours hot on the stove. Elk steaks and stewed serviceberries. Better hurry up and eat, so we can head out before too much more of the day slips by!”
“Don’t know that I can eat too fast this morning…maybe a good idea to wait until we’re back, so I won’t be weighed down while we…”
“Weighed down? That’s not funny! Now you sit right down here by the stove and have your breakfast, or there won’t be any trapline!”
Later, a quarter mile above the cabin with Will on his back and Liz breaking trail, Einar’s legs felt heavy, entire body so leaden that he feared finding himself unable to continue, but already Liz was pulling far ahead of him and he struggled to keep up, Will speaking soft, mysterious words on his back and Muninn chortling overhead as his own breath and blood sounded so loudly in ears and head as to nearly shut out everything else, and had he been alone, he might have sunk down in the snow for a rest. That, or, angered at his weakness, driven himself until he fell face down in the whiteness and could rise no more, but he could under present circumstances do neither; Liz was counting on him to keep up, and Will very much needing him to keep on his feet for the duration. It was a difficult balance to reach, but he managed somehow, arriving at the first snare mere steps behind Liz and standing with one arm braced against the small spruce which shielded the set, puffing and panting for breath and blinking away a sudden blur that rose before his eyes to see her working to free the remains of an ermine, snared two days prior and mostly devoured by some roving scavenger. Which scavenger, he saw upon closer inspection of the ground, appeared most likely to have been a mid-sized bobcat, tracks circling the area and a few tatters of white fur all that remained of the ermine’s carcass. A definite risk when one couldn’t make daily checks of a trapline, and Einar felt badly about losing the creature, but supposed bobcats had to eat, too--and they could always make an effort to add the cat’s pelt to their collection of warm furs.