Morning, and despite the protection of the cave and the slight if fading warmth of the past night’s fire they woke cold, Einar pressing himself into the ground and attempting to get back to sleep but Liz rising, coaxing the coals back to life and adding sticks until the fire climbed fresh and orange and lively for the ceiling. This sudden infusion of light served to rouse Einar sufficiently that he sat up, arms wrapped around his bent knees for warmth as he stared out at the almost-darkness beyond the cave mouth, snow still falling, and then began studying its interior, finally rising taking a flaming brand from the fire and doing a bit of exploring. He was not gone long, tunnel lowering and bending so that soon he could no longer see the light of Liz’s fire when he looked back; with his own improvised torch sputtering, the night’s strangeness beginning to noticeably close in around him and no other source of light close to hand, he did not wish to risk becoming separated from his family.
When Einar returned to the fire and sat down, Liz saw the shadow in his eyes, wondered at its origin.
“What did you find down there?
“Just more tunnel. This place is an awful lot like the caves I used to explore when I was growing up, sheer limestone cliffs just riddled with caves, used to think they must have all been connected down underneath there, and they probably were, too, if I could have just found the passages. Too small to squeeze through, a lot of them, but sometimes you’d feel the air coming through, moving, and know they went somewhere. Met the surface.”
“You spent a lot of time in caves, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yeah. Always was one of my favorite places to be. Underground. Like a whole different world just waiting to be explored, and I always felt very much at home in a cave. Except… Well, when I first came back from overseas and tried to get back to caving, it didn’t go so great, at first. Was really looking forward to getting back out there, thought it would be something I could do where I’d be away from my family some, because as much as I know they were trying to help me in those first couple months back, I really just needed more space. Lot of space in a cave. Lot of solitude, anyway, which I guess is what I wanted more than anything, and I really planned that first trip, was excited as I decided where to go and packed my gear, had no idea it would be anything other than the way it used to be, but once I got down there… Well, I was about half an hour into it, cave I’d never explored before, some interesting chimneying problems complete with slippery mud on one of the walls, having a great time but then I got down to a spot where there was some water in the passage, just a little bit, not even enough to hardly come up over my boots, but that was all it took, and I was back in between the walls of that red-brown burnished clay tunnel where they took me, just absolutely certain it was about to happen again.”
“The water made you think so? Reminded you of coming up out of that tunnel where you had to dive, and being captured?”
“Yeah, guess that must have been it. Anyhow, I turned around and started running—which you never, ever do in a cave—and of course ended up in a passage other than what I’d started in, heading deeper into the mountain instead of out towards daylight, which I might have realized, had I been able to use my light…”
“You lost your light?”
“Nope. And I had backup, anyway. Never gone into a cave without at least two backup lights...until being on the run, that is. Just couldn’t use it, because ‘they’ would have seen me. Stumbled around for three days down there in the dark, near as I could figure afterwards.”
“Three days. How did you find your way back out?”
“Don’t know for certain, but do know that it sure wasn’t entirely my doing. I was lost. In more ways than one. Remember just seeing the daylight, this little blur of daylight as I crawled along checking for tripwires and such, headed for it…still took me what must have been the better part of that day to reach it, because it was starting to get dimmer by the time I got near, was just sure that it was some sort of trap, that they’d be waiting for me just outside…but they weren’t. Took me until after dark just to decide everything was ok and work my way out into the open air.”
“Still wasn’t so sure about things, but it was the trees that finally kind of brought me back, made me realize where I was. Smell of the firs, sound of them bending in the wind and their shapes against the stars… Found my way to the truck and went down, but headed back up there the very next week and did it again, same cave, determined to make things go differently that time.”
“Not a lot, not at first. Things started going all strange soon as I was in there where the tunnel started closing in and things got really dark, but I hung on, just determined not to let it get me.”
“What did you do? How did you keep it from getting you?” Because those same tactics might, one would think, do you some good these days when things start getting strange, if you could remember to use them…
“Oh, mostly just bashed my head against the cave wall. Not much fun, but it helped. Took a lot, those first few times back underground, but I got better at it with experience.”
Well. Forget that idea! Sometimes I just don’t know about you, Einar… “Better at bashing your head?”
“Ha! Better at keeping my place in the world. Wasn’t too many months before I was actually enjoying caving again, maybe not exactly as I’d used to as a kid—nothing ever looks quite the same, after you’ve met reality the way I met it over there—but close.”
“I’m glad. And today? How is life in this cave, today?”
He grinned, crouching beside the fire and glancing over at the still-sleeping Will. “Awful lot better than it would be out on the cliff face in that storm, that’s for sure! Good thing you spotted this place. Looks like we’re going to be here for a little while, at least.”