Liz stopped him before he could leave the shelter of the cave, a good thing, probably, the way he was stumbling about and considering the narrowness of the ledge which had given them passage. “No! I didn’t mean you needed to go after the bag. Not in the dark, and with the wind blasting and blowing like it is. I just wanted you to stay awake until you could warm up a little. That’s all.”
Somewhat confused, Einar crouched staring out into the darkness. “Need the bag, though. All our…warm stuff, food…”
“It’ll be safe for the night where it is, don’t you think? And we can make do with what we’ve got, if we can make a little fire in here. That ledge was getting awfully slick as the snow drifted against it. Just don’t want us to risk a fall, not knowing exactly what’s down beneath us…”
“Cliff is down there. Air.”
“Yes, I know. Thank you. Guess I was kind of trying not to think about that…”
“Cliff bothers you?”
“Only when the ledge is all slippery with snow and it’s too dark to see where you’re putting your feet!”
“Doesn’t scare me. I’ll go.”
“In the morning. All we need is a little fire, and we’ll be fine.”
“Bag might show from the other side. Can’t risk having it seen.”
“It was behind that thick clump of currant brush. I don’t think it would show much, and besides, it’s going to be all covered in snow.”
Made some sense, the things she was saying, and though still half of a mind to go out and finish the task—would be your last task, likely as not, and then what a fix you’d be leaving her in, stuck here in this cave without any of her gear or food—he decided it could wait for morning. With which decision, suddenly unable to keep his eyes open, he might well have curled up right then and gone to sleep, except that she had said something about a fire, and that, at least, was something he could and should do, far less frightened of the void than Liz seemed to be, and without the constant and ongoing duty of feeding a growing child. Will had just settled down. No need to disturb him by sending Liz after firewood.
Dark outside, just as it was dark in the cave, but colder for the force of the wind, and Einar braced himself against it as he felt his way hand-over-hand forward along the wall, feet carefully exploring the slick and uneven rock of the ledge, headed for a spot where he dimly remembered seeing the snowy ruins of a long-fallen limber pine, found it, recognizing by feel its rough, barkless contours, did his best to warm numbed hands against his stomach so that he could tie up a bundle of branches for dragging back. Long way. Leg hurting, but he had to use it, and he did, couldn’t risk losing his balance just then. Liz was waiting for him when he returned, took hold of both arms and pulled him inside, not a bad thing, for he’d been swaying, about to fall…
When Einar woke, she had a fire going, flames making weird shadows on the pitted limestone with its white calcite adornments, curtains, he could now see, frozen waterfalls of the stuff trickling in stony stillness down one side of the tunnel; had it been liquid instead of living stone, slow, deliberate, each wonder the work of a thousand years, the place would have very soon been flooded, overwhelmed with water. Closed his eyes, world spinning around him. Fire was growing. Already he could feel its warmth, reflected and retained by the surrounding mass of rock, wanted to tell her to put it out, must not damage the delicate, humidity-dependent structures of mineral and moisture which grew in such stunning plenty from wall and ceiling, but he kept the thought to himself. Other concerns must take priority just then, and, brain slowly beginning to warm and function just a bit better, he knew he ought to be terribly grateful to her for starting and tending that fire.
Will was awake, happy, himself, at the newfound warmth and light, babbling excitedly as he crawled from one side of the tunnel to the other, marveling at the crystalline reflections of flame and shadow as they added their own ornate patterns to the already-intricate design of the walls. Einar smiled, sat up.
“Beautiful place you’ve got here, Lizzie.”
“You’re awake! Oh, good. I think Will was starting to get worried… Are you feeling any warmer?”
Einar considered the question, flexing his hands, or trying to, and just then becoming aware of the shivering which seemed to be trying its best to shake him apart, limb from limb. “Guess I feel…good bit colder, actually. But that’s a good thing. Means I’m starting to get warm.”
“Yes, it heats up nicely in here, doesn’t it? I’m afraid we don’t really have anything to cook in—or anything to cook—but I do have one water bottle, and if we’re careful, I think we can warm that near the fire and have some warm water to drink, at least…”
Without answering, Einar crept over to the cave mouth, reaching out and coming away with a handful of fir needles from a tiny, gnarled tree against which he’d bumped his head in leaving the cave, last time. “Can add these to the water. Make some tea.”
Needed to make something else, too, and creeping over nearer the mouth of the cave he began stacking rocks from the floor, having to squeeze hard with both cold hands to keep a grip on things but managing, after some time, to construct a barrier some two and a half feet high across the entire opening. Would help keep out some of the wind as they slept and, more importantly, would prevent Will from quickly and without too much effort crawling away from them and exploring out onto the ledge, where he did not yet have anywhere near the experience of life and the world to be safe. This task done he wanted to explore, take a flaming stick and crawl a bit deeper into the recesses of the cave, see what might await them there, but before he could get himself together to go make this exploration Liz was pressing the bottle of warmed, fir-infused water into his hand and insisting he drink. After which, further warmed by the tea and almost unbearably drowsy, he made no argument when Liz suggested they curl up by the coals of their fire, and sleep.
Soundly and reasonably warm the little family slept in the folds of the mountain as outside the spring storm raged on, spending its fury, subsiding; Einar, too, slept at first, but in the night, in his dreams, the shadows came, calcite and limestone fading, in the dim and dying light of the coals, to the burnished red of long-ago tunnels so that after a time he struggled to wake, wished to wake, but could not.