With supper eaten and Einar off to make a circuit of the camp area and have a look at the basin before darkness became complete, Liz and Juni worked together to gather firewood for the night, Liz also setting some snow to melt in the cook pot she’d brought, hoping Einar might consider the resulting water safer to drink and not go into the night so badly dehydrated. Returning with her last load of wood and seeing that Liz was struggling a bit with Will, who was quite fully awake, wanting to move and beginning to grow a bit frustrated with his continued confinement in the parka hood, Juni crouched beside her.
“Can I hold him for a minute?”
Einar, who had taken a brief pause in his scouting to check in on things in camp, looked doubtful, wary, but Liz nodded, waiting until Juni had seated herself before easing Will, wide awake and appearing not the least bit apprehensive in the presence of this stranger, into her arms. Rather than studying her face as Liz had expected him to do, the little one stared in fascinated wonder at the white sheen of the visitor’s ermine-fur coat, reaching out a tiny but increasingly sturdy hand and testing its softness, marveling, apparently, at the way the firelight glinted and sparkled from it with a most enticing radiance. After a while Juni moved, shifted position so that her stance would be more secure, and Will, frustrated that the spot on the coat which had most drawn his interest was suddenly out of reach, arched his back and retrieved it, getting a death grip on that particular handful of ermine pelt to which he had first staked his claim. Juni, a bit startled at the force behind his movements, struggled for a moment to keep hold.
“Wow, he’s strong! He almost got away.”
“Yep, just like his father. Before long, I suspect I’ll be having trouble keeping up with him!”
Juni glanced over at Einar, who had wandered some distance from camp and taken up a position on the slight rise above it, staring out over basin and shelter and the ridges beyond, atlatl at the ready, keeping watch. And well out of earshot. “It doesn’t look like you’d have too much trouble keeping up with his father, right now. What happened to him? He’s starving. Looks like he’s been in a prison camp, or something…”
Liz sighed, looked away, wanted to say, yeah, that’s not too far from it, and he’s been there for way too long, and I don’t know how to get him out, but it wasn’t her place to do the saying, and besides, she hardly knew this woman, this intruder who had just cost them the only stable home they’d known since going on the run together. “You’d have to ask him about all of that.”
“Will he be angry with me if I do? I’m sorry, I can’t help but be curious. It’s in my nature--and my profession. And because he seemed willing to tell me so much of his story before, I thought maybe…”
Liz could see where it was going, the sorts of questions this reporter might ask, regretted having said anything at all. “You don’t have any right to this part of his story. This is his life we’re talking about, and we’re having a hard enough time of it as it is. That little boy there needs his father to be here for him as he grows. You can be here with us for a while, you can share our food and see how we live or whatever it is you’re wanting to do, but…he’d give his life for me, you know. And just about has, a time or two, and I’d do the same for him. Give a life, or take a life. Please don’t forget that.”
Juni nodded, did not understand the strength of Liz’s warning and wasn’t exactly sure what it was she wasn’t supposed to ask about, but her curiosity had definitely been aroused, and she would be looking for clues, and for an opportunity…
Her opportunity to interview Einar was not to come that night, she could clearly see, for aside from his frequent checks to make sure things were going smoothly in camp, most of his time was spent prowling the timber above, eyes averted from the fire-glow, mind busy with the things he must do to secure his little family’s future existence and ears straining to pick up on any sound which might give away the approach of the enemy which--though he’d gone back, himself, and sorted through every piece of Juni’s gear until he had been as satisfied as possible under the conditions that no tracking devices were attached--he was nearly certain must be following her.
Long into the night Einar kept watch, and when finally--through some combination of repeated searching, checking and an analytic process of sorts which took into account all the information he had on the situation and combined it with a not-quite definable sense of intuition which had seldom let him down--he managed to assure himself that all was as well as it was going to be for the night, no enemy was following Juni, encircling the camp and waiting the best opportunity to attack, he found himself very nearly too cold and weary to move. Moved anyway, stumbling back to camp and taking a heavy seat beside the bed where already Liz and Will were resting warmly. It took Liz a good while to talk him into the bed and out of the idea that he must sit there awake though the night watching, and more convincing still before he would take a careful sip of the snow she had melted for him and carefully kept thawed with her body heat. When finally he did settle in and allow her to begin warming him, it was to a prayer of thanks on her part, and a plea that he find it possible to refrain from heading back out there to wander any more of the night away, lest he erase all the meager gains he’d made since beginning eat again, or worse. As time wore on, she knew she’d be doing well simply to see him make it through the night.
Badly wanting to help and not knowing what else to do, she found all the places where the bones were too near the surface, shoulders, hips, spine, the barely-covered slats of his ribs which protruded so both front and back that he never seemed able to find a comfortable way to position himself for the night anymore, gently striving to ease from him the deep chill that appeared to have settled in his very core, but it did not work. As she lay long into the night listening to the cold-ragged whistling of his breath and feeling the warmth progressively leave him despite all her efforts combined with the valiant ones being made by his own exhausted body to maintain something like a normal temperature, she began to fear that perhaps in the end it would prove to have come too late, all her striving and reasoning and the final acceptance which had left him willing to give her way a try. Perhaps he really was too far gone.
What Einar needed, she knew, was to fight, fight as he had been doing all winter; a dreadfully meager existence made all the more difficult by the extremes of his self-deprivation and not, she was pretty sure, at all a pleasant one, but she feared that in attempting to save him from it and from the finality towards which it had seemed inexorably dragging him, she had taken something of his will to fight on his own behalf. He had not been in a position to afford such a loss. Yet, what else could she have done? She’d been losing him, the thing spiraling quickly and progressively out of even his own control and he seeming unwilling or unable to recognize the fact and do something to reverse its course, and had she not insisted that he start eating again--and he committed to following her direction on the matter--she wasn’t at all sure he would still be living, just then. Not considering the rate at which his condition had been deteriorating. So, she had done the right thing, and so had he in going along with it, and now she would just have to find ways to get him through this time. Beginning with that night, and she drew the blanket more closely around the three of them, glad that Will, at least, seemed to be enjoying a very quiet and comfortable night, the camp quiet, their guest remaining in her appointed sleeping spot on the other side of the little clearing and the world, for the moment at least, going on. Sometimes, that was all one could ask.