When the cabin came into view it was with great relief that all three travelers viewed its rough logs, nestled as they were up against their protective cliffs, five travelers if one was to count the raven and little Will, though Muninn had no strong opinion on their return home, having been fairly content merely to shadow the mobile series of camps, scout out ahead and receive at mealtimes his allotted portion of scraps, and Will lacked an opinion entirely, being fast asleep on Liz’s back. Einar’s relief was tempered with the usual apprehension he experienced upon approaching the place after an absence, the need to watch, determine whether anyone might have been around while they were away, but at Liz’s urging he was able to content himself with only an hour of watching and scouting , rather than the more usual three or four. Inside—everything was, indeed, exactly as they had left it—she and Juni got a fire going, driving off some of the chill while Einar, himself rather desperately fighting sleep, entertained Will with some pieces of elk bone and a few ptarmigan feathers.
Later, an afternoon meal simmering on the stove and the cabin comfortably warmed, even if Einar was himself still white, pinched and shivering with chill, Liz sat down beside him, determined not to allow the momentum she had seen building in their earlier talks fall by the wayside. Determined to keep it going. “Now that we’re home, how about you let me get you comfortable in bed for a while, see if you can’t manage a little sleep before it’s time to eat? What do you say?”
He gave her a weary grin, don’t push it too far, Lizzie… and gently freed his arm from the rather insistent grasp with which she sought to aid his rising. “I think…it’s quite enough that I’m back here at the cabin with a warm stove going and soup bubbling over it, instead of out there finishing a week-long course as I was supposed to do. No need for me to go anywhere near the bed, not until sometime well after dark.”
She looked a bit exasperated, and he figured he’d messed up. “Why won’t you just relax a little and let me help you? You want to get stronger, don’t you? Now that you’ve kind of realized the situation and seen that you’ve ended up pretty far in the wrong direction, physically…”
“Sure, I want that. But can’t… Well, it won’t work for me to just sit around and let you do things for me like that. Won’t work”
“Why not? And besides, I was hoping you’d actually lie around for a while, instead of sitting. You’d get more rest that way, recover faster and maybe give those sore spots on your sitting bones a chance to heal, too.”
“No, no, can’t do that either.”
“Well, it’s…uh… I don’t really like to talk about it when…” he nodded in Juni’s direction, Liz understanding, but at the same time dismissing.
“You can talk about it. I need to know, and she’s been around for some of this. It probably won’t be entirely new to her, you know…”
“Yeah. See I can’t let you do it because in some way, reasonable or not, the whole idea sort of reminds me of…well, after I found my way back out of the jungle all those years ago and they put me in the Field Hospital to patch up my leg and various other wounds and stuff…it wasn’t a good thing. Not a good thing at all. They…chained me down, fed me through a tube, wouldn’t let me leave.”
“They chained you down? With chains?”
“With…I don’t know. Maybe not. Probably not. They were more like heavy cloth things, I think, but it didn’t make any difference. Might as well have been chains. Or the thin, twisted cords my captors had used. Wrists and ankles, I couldn’t move and couldn’t leave and just lay there in the day with the fever coming and going—pretty nasty case of malaria, they told me; happens out there—wanting to be out and back with my unit so I could lead them to Andy, and in the night the dreams came and I was right back in that bamboo cage with my arms all stretched out behind me, couldn’t move, couldn’t free myself, and then when I woke and I really couldn’t get free, well, that just confirmed everything and sometimes I’d struggle and fight until my wrists bled again and they’d send a couple guys to try and hold me down…it was not a good time.”
“I can’t even imagine. Why did they do that?”
“Because I wanted to leave. Tried to leave. First day or two in there I was too dehydrated and doped up on whatever they’d given me when they cleaned out and sewed up my leg—thought I was going to lose it for a few days there, far as the infection had gone—to really know what they were doing, but after that I took real active interest in what was going on. Watched their every move, pulled out my IV when nobody was looking—I knew the right way to do that, from some of my training over there—and headed at kind of an awkward limp for the door, thinking I could re-join my unit and lead them to Andy, lead a rescue before it was too late…"
"Well, that didn’t get me very far, just got me forcibly dragged back and tied to the bed until they could be sure I wasn’t going to try it again, which of course I was, but didn’t let them know that because it would have been real counterproductive. Meantime I’d also started refusing the pills and stuff they were trying to give me—never did take too well to that sort of thing, and I was Ok by then on the mend and I knew it—and this didn’t please them very well. So they started hiding some of the stuff in my food, knowing that I really, really wanted that food, because at that point it’d been well over a month since I’d had anything like a decent meal, or even a good-sized bowl of rice… Needed it awful bad but trying to avoid those ground up pills and things I quit eating what they brought me, so it was back to the tube again—they’d done that when they first got me, because I was in and out of consciousness so much and I guess pretty badly in need of some nutrition, but I’d pulled it out as soon as I was awake, and gone in search of some real food—and this time I couldn’t do anything about it because they chained me down.”
He shuddered, jaw working as he stared into the shadows over behind the water barrel, and Liz thought he looked as though he was going to be sick, but the moment passed. “It was like I’d…like all the effort I’d put into escaping, evading, finding my way back…like it was all for nothing. Not a reasonable way to look at it, I know, but to me at that time, it was almost like I got to spend a couple extra weeks in the hands of my captors. That’s what it seemed like. Felt like. And at night…well, it really might as well have been, for all the difference it made to me. Finally after about two weeks of constant struggle this guy came to talk to me, this Colonel who had been at my debriefing, wanted to try and talk some sense into me I guess, but instead I ended talking him into helping me appeal the medical discharge they were intent on giving me, and he did, but it didn’t do any good in the end, and they sent me home. After all that, just stuck me on a plane and sent me home.”
Liz was quiet. They had to send you home, you know? Couldn’t have let you stay, not like that… But she didn’t say it. “They were only trying to help you in there, you know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah, guess I do now.”
“And you know that I want to help you, and that I’m not them, any of them, and this has nothing at all to do with what happened there…”
Shook his head. “Afraid it does though, and probably always will.”