The old mine had many passages, more than one level, and Liz had no map. Before, Einar had been in possession of the maps previously owned and annotated by Susan’s late husband, Bill, their details serving to guide the pair along the treacherous corridors and, at last, up again to safety through a long abandoned vertical passage high up on the timbered slope. Liz did not have these maps, had, in fact, no visual memory of her previous trip through the tunnels at all, that adventure having come while she was suffering the lingering effects of snow blindness aggravated by the bright lights so cruelly misused during her federal interrogation. Relying entirely on Einar’s hand and his voice to guide her, she had seen nothing. Though the urgency this time was not nearly as great, the mission being only to find a warmer, less drafty place to conceal herself and Will as they awaited Einar’s return, she did not want to go stumbling aimlessly about in what could prove a very dangerous environment indeed, possibly slipping, falling, taking a wrong turn and not being able to find her way back…
And how was Einar to find them, when he did return? He might himself become bewildered in searching, especially in the daze of cold and exhaustion which was certain to have seized hold of him after his additional time out in the weather… She tried not to think too much about those details. Knew very well that she might very well not see him again, weather and his weakened state conspiring to do him in, even if the feds never laid a hand on him, and she shook her head, grabbed for Will, who had worked his way out of the afghan and was taking off on hands and knees for the shaft of dim, storm-muted light coming in through the rocks of the nearby entrance.
“Oh no, you don’t! I’m not going to have two of you out wandering in the snow, and that’s final. You’re staying right here with me and wait for your father. And you can’t just be crawling all willy-nilly around in a mine, either! You have to be at least eight years old before you can do that, according to federal child miner safety regulations, you know?”
Will did not know, but he laughed anyway, squealing his delight as he kicked and struggled, still wanting to head down that inviting shaft of dusty light, seeking out the adventure that surely lay concealed just around the corner in the wind-tossed shadows of a dozen skinny little spruces… She wouldn’t let go, though, put him up on her shoulder and wrapped the folded afghan around the two of them, tying it and shifting the knot so that it was just behind her shoulder, thus creating a carrying sling in which he could ride as she explored the mine.
Still there remained the problem of letting Einar know where they had gone, Einar, who would arrive half frozen and almost certainly without a source of light, and she wanted to wait right there to welcome him, warm him as soon as possible after his trek through the snow, but he had told her to seek shelter further inside the mine, and she knew he was right. There near the entrance where the outside air flowed freely and eddies of wind sought out the hidden spaces, she would have a real struggle simply keeping herself and the child warm and connected to life, let alone being ready to bring Einar back to it, should he reach them. When he reaches us. So. I’ve got to find one of these little side-chambers where there won’t be any wind, where the warmth of the earth will help keep us from freezing, and so that he’ll be able to follow us… Charcoal wouldn’t work, the signs she might smudge onto the walls of hewn rock surely passing unnoticed by a man with no light by which to find his way, and lacking a long string to pay out behind her as she went—briefly considered undoing a few dozen yards of yarn from the afghan and trailing them out behind her, but knew they could hardly afford to lose part of the only real layer of warmth they currently possessed—she used rocks instead, placing her arrows in the center of the path and making them large enough that Einar would all but trip over them, and be forced to pay them mind, no matter how weary and cold.
Liz did not have to go far, following a gently sloping passage off to the left, before the influence of wind and outside temperature were so greatly reduced that she saw little purpose in continuing further, and here she stopped, keeping Will on her hip as she carefully explored her new surroundings, feeling with feet and hands for any dropoff, any hole that might be looming to swallow the unwary. She found nothing, save a few scattered timbers which seemed to have been dragged there and left in some long-past time, covered as they were with a layer of thick fine dust when with careful fingers she explored their contours. A decent place, and though she would have liked to have a better look at it, any look at all, she could not quite justify using up any of the precious tinder pellets Einar had so carefully stashed away in the leather pouch he’d always kept around his neck. Especially when she knew they’d be needing a quick fire upon his return. Must save the tinder, so she remained in the dark, dragging several of the old timbers out into the approximate center of the little chamber and sitting on them with Will, afghan wrapped about the two of them for warmth.
For a time this arrangement worked quite well, neither intolerably cold, though Will was becoming somewhat bored with the limitations of his current arrangement, wanting very much to get down and explore, even if all about him was darkness. Though admiring the tenacity displayed by the little guy in his insistence that he be allowed down to go his own way—your father must have been something like this as a little boy, mustn’t he?—she could not, of course, allow him to wander about in the dark mine, finally convincing him to settle for a quick snack and some sleep, aiding him off into his slumber with a soft rendition of the old ballad Greensleeves, and several others.
Will sleeping quietly, Liz was left to her own thoughts there in the silence, mind retracing the route they had taken between house and mine, what paths he might have taken on the return trip and where he would be, just then. The images brought to mind by this question were not pleasant ones at all, a figure slumped over in a snowbank, breath of life barely disturbing the unhealthy stillness of his cold-pinched features, and she shook her head to rid it of this specter, praying for Einar’s life, for a safe return to his family, and after a time of this she turned her mind to the more immediate problem of the water that had somehow in the past several minutes begun finding its way through some crack in the ceiling, and dripping directly on her sitting spot.
Einar was indeed propped up in a snowbank at that moment, having departed the house some minutes before with the intention of making something of a wide loop in his return to the mine, circling around behind the house as he worked his way up higher and higher on the slope and pausing here and there where his increasing elevation would give him some view of the house, driveway, a means by which to confirm, perhaps, that the vehicles had not returned. A fine idea, but he hadn’t made it very far at all up through the timber before his legs began giving out with increasing frequency, spilling him into the snow and leaving him to worry lest he leave a far more defined trail than he had hoped to do. Could not be leaving tracks, not if he wanted to return to his family. Had he been entirely on his own, the inclination might have been strong just then to forget about the tracks, find a spot where he could hole up, back to the cliffs and with a good vantage of the land below him, conserve what strength he had left and prepare for a final stand, if that’s what they wanted to bring him. But with two people awaiting his return in the darkness and solitude of the mine, uncertain as to events up top and almost entirely without supplies, every ounce of his remaining energy had to go towards regaining their presence, and without leaving a trail the enemy could follow.
On his feet again he squinted back through the snow, trying for a last glimpse of the house and surroundings before losing himself in the especially thick timber just below the ridge’s crest and fighting all the while a hollow, hurting emptiness far beyond hunger that seemed to well up from within him whenever he stopped moving, brain and body seeking desperately for any scrap of fat or muscle that might be left behind, and could now be accessed and burned for fuel to meet the demands he was placing upon them. Nothing there, and the process hurt, left him all alone in the snow with the undeniable physical despair of a body far past its reasonable limits beginning to creep over and invade his mind, and he if he allowed that to go too far, he was done.
Well, you’re not done yet, you big wimp, so keep on your feet. Enough with all this moping and tottering. You’ve got a ridge to climb. So, decision made and body somehow brought into at least momentary compliance, Einar started once more on his path, steps chosen carefully so as to avoid the deeper areas where tracks might survive the storm.
Silence, occasional thin sing-song of wind gusting through the spruces, rasp and crackle of his own breath loud in his ears, body battered by branches, snow-hidden snags, too numbed to feel their impact, and before long the entire thing took on a sense of unreality for Einar, time a fluid, changeable thing whose passage he had no way to mark, grasp.
Lost in the whiteness, he soon became content to allow his mind free to sing along with the spruce-song, breath-song, death-song, and indeed it might have been, but for the soft sound of wings descending, black shape emerging from the storm, and Muninn was beside him, circling once, lighting on his shoulder and rasping words of encouragement—or perhaps of mockery, but Einar did not really care which—into his ear, Einar grinning, shaking the accumulated snow from his hair and pressing forward with renewed determination. Time to get the family all together again.