Long seemed the way back to camp, Einar increasingly weary as he went, starting to stumble, canyon walls going all shimmery and translucent until he almost began believing he could step right through them if he tried—would be less wind in there, and he could feel the wind rapidly sapping his strength; would be ok to have some shelter as he walked—strange, but he’d seen stranger things in his day, and found himself not tremendously concerned with the development. Until he tried to act on this new discovery, this less-than-solid state of the walls…and ran face-first into hard, cold limestone, slightly bloodying his nose.
Well. Not so real after all, he had to conclude, and apparently one cannot always fully trust one’s eyes. Too bad, because he sure couldn’t much count on his other senses, head all numb and strange and a hissing in his ears, dizziness churning in his stomach and threatening always to throw him off balance and to the ground…
He kept going though, stayed on his feet until he saw the boulders bulking huge and solid against the ephemeral light of the stars, picked up a whiff of pine smoke and stood stalk-still until he was able, from amidst the soft and distant gurgling of the mostly-frozen creek and the sighing of the wind through bare branches, to discern the soft sounds of breathing from amongst the boulders. Feeling his way, creeping lest he wake anyone, he eased into camp and curled up against a rock several feet from his family, content, for the moment, simply to be in Liz’s presence again, not wanting to wake or disturb her, entirely exhausted and already nearly asleep before he finished drawing knees up to chest for warmth.
Einar did not remain long there freezing against the boulder for Liz had heard him come back into camp, went to him, laid a careful hand on his shoulder and when it was clear that he was awake, knew her, she helped him to his feet.
“Come to bed, Einar. It’s cold.”
“Ok here. Too…I’m too cold for bed. Don’t want to make you guys cold.”
“Silly, come on in here. No way I’m going to make you spend the rest of the night over against that cold chunk of rock. Come in the sleeping bag with me. Will’s wrapped in a blanket so it won’t bother him, and you’ll be warm soon enough.”
“Think I’m…kind of a mess.”
“We’ll clean you up. Let me get the fire going again, heat a little water. It’ll be good to have some tea, too. I’d like to have some tea.”
“Just want to sleep, Lizzie. All done, home, can sleep now.”
“Soon. Sit here by the fire, we’ll get you fixed up, and then you can sleep.”
Liz’s insistence turned out to be a good thing in the end, Einar having bled a fair amount where the ropes had dug in and the bleeding still going on, a situation to which he had, himself, been wholly oblivious; he’d attributed the growing weakness and vertigo he’d felt on the return walk entirely to his situation and to the cold. Liz did not say a word as she helped clean and bandage his arms, wrapped his canteen cup in cloth to prevent it scalding frost-nipped fingers and sat with him as he drank peppermint tea, honey-sweetened, energy-giving, enough energy, perhaps, to see him through the night. As he drank, his mind was on the morning, the caves, darkness of the past hours behind him, its work done, accomplished, and when finally he crept—all shivery and stiff, but warm enough to make it through the remaining night and finally headed in the right direction—into the bag with Liz, sleep was good. Body hurting but soul satisfied, quiet, he passed the remainder of the night, Liz holding him tight as if afraid she might otherwise wake to find him gone again and Will sleeping happy and oblivious, dreaming of fire, of snow-laden spruces, of all the wonders yet to be discovered in his small but expanding world.
It was not the cold that woke Einar sometime just before daylight, nor was it the persistent twisting ache in back and shoulders where they protested the past night’s treatment, though those things were certainly present. Instead, it was a softly willow-scented breath of air, warm, humid and entirely out of place which roused him from his slumber. Thinking at first that he was simply waking and becoming aware, again, of Liz’s close presence, he did not bother immediately opening his eyes. It wasn’t Liz, though, for the breath came again, dank and damp and smelling as much of fermented vegetation as anything, and with it came a great moist snort. Liz did not snort.
Einar’s eyes came open, body held rigidly still in response to a deeply-ingrained instinct designed to prevent giving himself away should an enemy be present, and there in the half-light Einar found himself staring up the ponderous length of a deep brown hairy nose and into the slow, placid eyes of an enormous moose. Wisely, he kept still, waiting for the behemoth to finish its inspection of his face, hand inching almost imperceptibly upwards all the while and towards the spot just outside the bag where he had left his pistol. By the time he’d reached it the moose had raised its head, apparently satisfied that the strange creature presented no immediate threat, required no action, and for the moment Einar took no action, either.
Wanted to shoot the creature, add its meat to the sizeable but dwindling supply of food in the drop bag, but it did not take a lot of figuring to see that if he felled the beast while it stood in its present position, its bulk would almost certainly slump forward between the two boulders, and come to rest squarely on himself—and the sleeping Liz and Will. The possibility of being crushed beneath such an enormous mountain of food was a risk he, himself certainly would have been willing to take, but as he wasn’t about to do any such thing to Liz and especially not to someone so small as Will, he had for the moment to let the moose go.
Going, meandering slowly between the camp boulders and out into the willows the creature lumbered, Einar wriggling free of Liz’s grasp and pursuing on hands and knees through the snow with the pistol, wishing he’d had time to grab the rifle instead but not wanting to give the moose time to get away and knowing he could do the job with the weapon at hand, so long as he could get in close enough and place the shot well. Hands hurt, stiff and strange with the past night’s frost damage, but they were more or less working, which was all that mattered to him just then.
There. In a nearby cluster of willows the moose had stopped, head down, eating, and whether it was due to his own innate stealth or because the animal had already inspected and dismissed the man it would be difficult to say, but it seemed not to notice as he crept nearer and nearer, fifteen yards and then ten, until he lay stomach down and trembling with cold no more than eight feet from the feeding creature, looking straight up at its belly.