Double checking to make sure everything had been secured high up in trees out of the reach of scavengers, Einar and Liz each prepared a small pack containing a few essentials, hoisted the moose head up into a spruce for later roasting and use, and set off up the draw which Einar had previously identified as leading to the caves. Weird and wild was the steep timber that morning, wreathed in fog, visibility still so low that Einar found himself unable to check their position by looking back at the canyon floor from which they had started out, let alone over to the opposite wall where they had sheltered during the storm, and, climbing with Liz close behind so as not to lose him, he could only hope that he’d taken them up the correct draw.
The fog, he had expected, would begin to clear as they climbed, allowing them to get a look at landmarks from time to time, prevent their wasting too much time and effort in a draw which might end in cliffs, rather than caves, but it was beginning to look like the stuff was there to stay, no sun showing to burn it away. They would have to go by memory, by feel, and though Einar normally would have been fairly comfortable with such an arrangement, having reasonable confidence both in his keen visual memory for landscapes and his innate sense of direction, that particular morning he found himself blundering along with mind as sightless and befogged as his eyes.
Had to be the fever, he knew, and with hands full of snow and an unzipped coat he sought to halt its advance, but this only left him shivering and nearly immobile with cold during the times when it would ease off. Well. Should all average out, right? He shrugged, filled his hat with fresh snow and resumed climbing. At least with the fog so dense and concealing, he didn’t have to worry about Liz seeing his struggle and asking questions which would have required too much energy to answer. All her focus was of necessity devoted to simply keeping him in sight and preventing their being separated.
Will, who had no such concerns, was thoroughly delighted with the entire situation and especially with the new sensation of moving through air so thick one could brush it aside with an outstretched hand, and he sang and chortled happily on Liz’s back as they climbed, making noises like an owl and shrieking in delight when Einar answered him in kind. For several minutes the two carried on conversing in the language of owls, Will’s imitation becoming more precise and Liz simply shaking her head and smiling at the two strange human-creatures between whom she found herself traveling.
She wasn’t smiling several minutes later when, Einar having gone silent and stopped moving, she caught up and took a closer look at him. Though indistinct through the fog and no doubt made a bit stranger by its effect, Einar’s wild eyes, sweat-matted hair and hollow-pinched face were enough to convince Liz he needed a break before they climbed any higher, and failing to convince him of the fact she simply sat down in the snow, and waited.
With no intention of leaving his family behind in the fog, it didn’t take Einar long to return and crouch beside Liz, eyes closed as he worked to catch his breath, hoping it wouldn’t take long, whatever she had stopped to do. He needed to keep moving. She wasn’t moving, and finally he looked up.
“Let’s have some water, and then I’ll be ready.”
He nodded, waiting, but she neither drank nor rose to go, and after a time he realized that she was holding the bottle in front of his face, waiting for him to take a drink. He didn’t think he needed it—had been eating snow in an effort to cool his brain whenever things started getting especially weird—but she was insistent so at last he had a swallow, the water feeling like life itself as it moistened his parched throat. He’d had no idea. Took another gulp, clumsily replaced the lid and stowed the water in his pack.
“Long climb. Water is good.”
“How far do you suppose we are from those caves?”
He peered up through the fog, but to no avail. “Thousand feet still to climb, maybe. Real hard to tell in this whiteness, but doesn’t seem we’ve come more than a thousand, and map says it’s about twenty-three hundred from floor to rim. But the caves are below the rim by a bit. Guess we’ve come more than half.”
“Do you still think it’s a good idea to go on? We could come back another day, when…well, when the fog is gone.”
Quiet for a moment he met her eyes, held them, something she had seldom seen him do. “Fog is good. Covers us if there are any exposed sections. This is something we’ve got to do. Got to find that cave.”
She did not try anymore to persuade him to turn back, seeing his determination and sensing that behind it lay some greater reason which he had not yet mentioned, some urgent need to find and explore those caves without delay.
Climbing again, and the fog seemed to close in more densely than ever, draw growing steeper so that their pace was slowed dramatically and Einar no longer had to struggle so hard to find the energy to maintain a greater speed. A good thing, for all the strength and focus he could muster were being demanded of him simply in choosing their route, now, picking their way between limestone outcroppings that loomed up out of the fog and threatened to halt progress before they should reach the level of the caves.
This in turn caused him to begin doubting just a bit his judgment in choosing the draw up which he had led them that morning. Had been reasonably sure, studying it from the far side of the canyon, that the middle draw of the three which climbed steeply up through the timber ought to go all the way to the level of the caves, which sat just above the trees and immediately below a sheer wall of limestone some two or three hundred feet high. In his mind, he could picture precisely its striped, streaked surface, hundred-foot vertical orange smears running down in several spots where centuries of iron-rich minerals had been deposited from the rock and soil above…
But, had he indeed taken them up that draw, and not one of the two which lay to either side of it, and which, to his memory, would likely leave them cliffed-out and stuck before they ever neared those caves? Only one good way to find out at that point, and stuffing a bit more snow under his hat by way of combatting a rising wave of heat, he led on between the steep outcroppings, upwards.