Einar got pretty quiet after that, thoughts turned inward, and while Juni expected she might be able to keep the conversation going a bit longer if she really tried, that seemed a good time to end it, at least for the night. Liz agreed, heating a final pot of broth over the coals of their dying fire so everyone might have a chance to start the night warm, if not to finish it that way, and when it was ready she laid the by-then soundly sleeping Will in his nest of furs and crept in behind Einar, chin on his shoulder, holding him close as he worked on the broth. The stuff was warm, good, and felt to Einar like life itself after the his long time sitting alone in the chill of the evening, fire’s warmth reaching him, but its strength not nearly enough to keep the cold from his bones. He was just now realizing this, the oppressive heat and humidity of the jungle having kept him quite warm through the bulk of their conversation. After a time Juni took her leave, retreating to her sleeping bag and leaving the two of them alone before the fading coals, stars glimmering with a cold, still light in the valley-path of sky above their heads, barely even blinking as the cold of the night deepened.
Silent, warming, with Liz’s living warmth pressed close all around him, Einar watched the stars, losing himself in wonder at their distance, their numbers, the sheer glorious vastness of the universe out there, and for a moment, fleeting but very real, he felt himself entirely safe in that world, tiny, lost, securely concealed in its limitless enormity but held at the same time in the hand of the Creator, the very palm of He Who numbers the stars, the hairs on our heads, the innumerable grains of sand, and from that spot Einar saw the world, and it was a very good place.
Didn’t last long, unfortunately, Einar’s truce with the world, as he fell asleep there staring out at the stars, and with sleep came the dreams, and a violent shattering of his peace. Liz, sensing the trouble, was anxious to free him from her grasp lest he find himself confined, trapped, and begin struggling, but she dared not move too quickly in doing so, knowing that such suddenness had in the past led to trouble of its own. Didn’t want any trouble at all, moving slowly and steadily to disentangle herself and rise, but it was not quick enough, Einar suddenly startling more fully awake and rolling swiftly to the side, coming up short against the trunk of the tree which was to shelter them for the night and nearly knocking out his breath, in the process.
Which only reinforced his already rather firm idea that he was in their hands again, forest and stars only a dream, brief if beautiful respite from the terror of his present circumstances but he realized something else, too, which was that he did not seem to be bound in any way, movement, now that he’d struggled free of the human arms which had been grasping at him, fairly free, and he took full advantage of the situation, scrambling away from the solid object with which he’d had such firm contact and gaining the shelter of some densely-growing vegetation, even as he struggled to regain his ability to take in oxygen. Hands on his ankle, and with them a voice, stop! They were shouting at him in English to stop but he did not, struggling fiercely against the hand that held him and finally getting in a successful kick at his assailant, successful, for he was free again but then he hit another obstacle, wall of solid rock or cement or some other dreadfully unyielding substance, and when he tried in desperation to climb, claw his way up and away from his soon-to-be captor , he found no purchase on the steep, slick surface of the rock. Somehow managed to launch himself, anyway, a few feet off the ground, hitting the solid surface of the wall and clinging with fingers jammed into the impossibly small fissures which ran across its surface, inching upwards, limbs trembling with the strain of it and then, reaching, one hand breaking contact with the rock, he fell, landing hard on something solid, shoulder first, rolling, rising, and he was gone.
Freedom, and the night swallowed him, stars standing sentry overhead, still, silver, but it was wrong, the scent of the place, spruce-sharp air and the sweeping smell of snow from unseen heights, even the look of the stars was wrong, unfiltered, unblinking, high, he had to be up very high for things to look the way they did, higher than the highlands which were, in any case, nowhere near his present position, higher, in fact, than he could possibly have gone. Stopped, thin air tearing at his lungs and a sudden certainty welling up around him, speaking to him in the voice of the river—very near now, for he had been heading towards its sound, wanting to avoid being trapped again up against the cliffs and hoping it might provide a clear avenue of escape—an icy, wintry voice, telling him that he was home. Could stop running, and he did, sinking to the crunchy, icy snow there in the willows—dear, good willows; one is always safe in the company of willows--beside the ice-encrusted river, life once again far too good, too sweet to be fathomed.
Footsteps in the snow behind him, and almost he nearly took off running again before he could remind himself that he was home, safe enough, no need to flee or…yeah, or to use this…and he put away his knife, not even knowing how it might have come to be in his hand but immensely thankful that he hadn’t known to look for it earlier, when the unseen hand had grasped his ankle; he’d been sure, then, that he was unarmed, and a good thing, too. Waiting, silent, the footsteps drew nearer, their owner slowing some, casting about as if for his trail and he knew he ought to have spoken then, helped out, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, and kept quiet until he saw her silhouette showing black against a patch of snow beyond, but before he saw her he heard, and she was breathing hard, seemed almost to be sobbing. Liz. He knew her, rose, took a reeling step back and nearly ended up in the water, ice crunching and cracking beneath his boots as she darted forward, “no, don’t go in there, Einar, it’s me…come back!”
He had her hand then, or she his, and she was pulling, urgently leading him away from the river’s edge, ice-edge, place where he’d nearly gone through, and she did not stop until the two of them were safe together on the snow beside the cliff once again, both panting for breath and too worn out for words. Together, then, they returned to camp, guided by the glow of a fire brought back to life by Juni as she waited anxiously for their return—keeping, as she did so, an eye on Will, as Liz had hastily instructed her in leaving to go after Einar—listening, hoping somewhat desperately to hear two pairs of feet crunching back through the snow and tremendously relieved when they appeared together, Einar appearing a bit crooked as he unknowingly favored the side on which he had fallen, but otherwise unharmed.
Liz, though, was bleeding, a long, ugly gash in her cheek appearing a good deal worse than it felt at the moment, and when Einar saw he put a hand to her face, realization slowly coming into his eyes and with it an immense sorrow and a shame, and he bowed his head, pressed a bit of usnea to the wound.
“I did this…”
But before Liz could answer Juni was there beside them, offering more usnea and presenting Liz with a cloth soaked in cold water. “No, I did this, and I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” Liz asserted, speaking first to Einar, who was genuinely horrified at the discovery that he had unwittingly made contact with Liz in his earlier struggle to escape what he had been absolutely convinced was the enemy, “I shouldn’t have grabbed you, not then… And no, Juni, you didn’t do it, he’s like this half the time anyway, and I just should have known better. Now why don’t the two of you quit moping and we’ll get some tea going, and maybe even a little soup. It’s a cold night, and certainly doesn’t seem anyone’s in the mood for sleep, not yet! So we might as well eat, and be warm.”