Snow curled down heavily from a leaden sky with the coming of a muted dawn, Einar feeling all hollow and heavy after the cold, sleepless hours of the night, in no hurry to move. Moved anyway, eventually, no sign of stirring from Liz, who had herself only recently drifted off to sleep, and the realization weighing heavily on him that if they were to be getting through this storm, they would need a place where they could have a fire.
Freeing himself from Liz’s grasp and from the confines of the sleeping bag—just beginning to feel a little warm in there, and he half hated to leave—he crept out from beneath the lean-to tarp which had, in combination with the heavy spruce boughs above, served to keep them almost entirely out of the snow for the night, standing, swaying, squinting and shaking his head in an attempt to chase away some of the dizziness. Didn’t work too well, but there were plenty of trees to use for support whenever he began losing his place, and with their help he made reasonable progress. By daylight, such as it was, the place looked even more bleak and dismal than it had done at twilight the evening before, tumbled masses of downed timber interspersed with hulking, black-sided boulders that looked as though they might have been ejected from some long-dead volcano to tumble down the mountain before coming to rest on this forsaken slope. Not true, Einar knew, for the boulders were some close relative of granite and therefore not volcanic at all, but still the impression remained, adding to the feeling of mystery that hung heavily about the place.
Snow increasing, visibility narrowed down to a few yards and Einar found himself stopping frequently to look back in search of landmarks, not wanting to go too far and end up unable to return to Liz, and their camp. It was a real danger given the circumstances, and the last thing he wanted was for her to come out looking for him, and lose her place, too. Could be disastrous. He was careful. Between looming boulders, swirling snow, tree-skeletons that rose seemingly out of nowhere to bruise shins, trap legs and send him sprawling, it was no easy task, this keeping of landmarks and remembering his path, but he did it, and when at last he stumbled down a fairly steep decline and into a tiny basin where the force of the wind was noticeably less and little timber had fallen, he did know how to get back to Liz.
The place was a singular one, oddly sheltered from the ravages of wind and weather both by a sharp rise of ground on the downhill side which made it, in effect, a pocket, and by the heavier-than-usual fringe of black timber, spruce and sublpine fir, which rimmed it on all sides. Crouching against one of the few stunted aspens that graced the hidden basin’s floor, Einar bowed his head and fought to catch his breath, thankful for the near-absence of the wind and noticing for the first time since leaving camp how very cold he had managed to become. Could barely feel hands or feet, crop of fresh bruises on shins and hips from his many slips amongst the fallen timber present only as a dull ache, barely noticeable. Not a particularly good sign, he told himself, not if he wanted to make it back to the spot where Liz and little Will lay sleeping, and wanting to stave off the drowsiness that he knew would soon be stalking him if he remained there immobile in the cold—sweet, comforting, and almost certain to prove deadly, under present circumstances—he rose, kicked a stout aspen branch free from its resting spot in the crusty snow and worked at his shins and legs until some feeling had been restored and there was no mistaking the bruises, no chance of drifting off to sleep where he stood. Was noticing them then, for sure, and raising his eyes to the shelter-slope above, he noticed something else, too. While largely shielding the place from the wind, that rocky rise would serve another function, too. Would protect them entirely from visual detection by anyone in the canyon or on its rim, provide a barrier dense and thick enough to conceal any fire they might have from detection by any instruments those newly-erected towers might support, and, he could not help but think, rendered the place quite a viable consideration in their search for more permanent shelter.
Permanent or not, he knew they would be needing such shelter simply to get them through the remaining fury of the storm, lessening of the wind no small thing when dealing with low temperatures and wet weather, and the prospect of being able to safely have a fire perhaps the most important thing of all. Well, don’t just stand here thinking about it, because your legs are already starting to go numb again, and unless you want to keep whacking them with that stick just to keep yourself awake, better be moving on.
Moving back, rather, and wearily climbing up and over the rise which sheltered the tiny basin he began one by one searching out the landmarks he had set, counting the steps between one and the next simply to give his brain something concrete on which to focus, hopefully prevent his getting lost inside himself, sitting down and sleeping. Strategy must have worked, for there, after what seemed a very long time, he recognized the spruces in which they had slept, stumbled forward on wooden feet and parted their boughs, anxious to tell Liz what he had found and relieved beyond words that he had managed successfully to retrace his steps in that storm. Only to be met by more downed timber, emptiness and a wall of swirling white.
Nothing there amongst those trees, no black boulder, no tarp and worst of all no Liz, which meant—on hands and knees now, all the strength seeming to have gone out of him—that he had no idea where he was, where they were, or how to reconcile the two. Had to try, couldn’t simply sit there and let the cold take him, which he knew it was even then in the active process of doing, and forcing himself to his feet he went on, stumbling across the little clearing—and right into something which crinkled and protested under his hands, gave way, unable to support him. Confused, Einar sat for a moment where he had fallen, trying to make some sense of this strange substance, but he was not to be left long in suspense, the whole mess moving, rustling, rising and from its center emerging a heavily armed and somewhat irate human, ready to do battle with whatever creature had so suddenly and inconsiderately intruded on the shelter where she had been sleeping with her small son.
Liz. Einar fell back in the snow, shaking with silent laughter and with cold and the exhaustion of his trek through the storm, no words to explain when Liz came to him, raised him and hurried to brush some of the snow from his face, but he went back with her to the half-ruined shelter—tarp! Of course, it was the tarp I ran into, couldn’t see it for the snow and couldn’t see the boulder, either, whitened as it was—and crept somewhat unwillingly into the sleeping bag at her rather sharp insistence, not feeling cold in the least, everything right with the world, now that he had found his way back.
Only it wasn’t quite right, for still there remained the task of moving camp to the sheltered spot he had found, and before they could do that he must tell Liz about the place, let her know that there, they could have a fire, hot soup, all the things she had been wanting…but still, the words would not come. Honey, she was offering him honey, insisting he have some and though his mouth seemed stuck shut and he couldn’t make himself swallow when he tried, he did take the honey, cramming a bit of snow in his mouth to help it go down, and he would have added more had Liz not stopped him, pointed out that they had water which had been kept unfrozen overnight in the sleeping bag. Much better alternative, and he drank, resting for a minute, finding his voice.
“Found us a shelter up there. Good place. Can have a fire, and everything. Let’s pack everything up, and I’ll show you the way.”
Liz could only hold him, hold back the tears, realizing how long he must have been gone and knowing that once again, she had come close to losing him.
Moving slowly in the snow, carefully lest it drift into the sleeping bag as they worked, Einar and Liz packed up the small camp, loaded everything into the drop bag and set out for the spot Einar had found for them. Though his tracks were mostly drifted over Einar was, by some not-quite-definable sense, able to lead them straight to the little sheltered spot behind the rocky rise, Liz immediately noting the easing of the wind when they dropped down over its rim and Einar, dropping his end of the bag beneath a tree, grinning back at her as if to say, here it is, our home for now, maybe for later, too… but Einar did not stay long standing with Liz as she surveyed the place, some slight movement having caught his eye and then he was moving towards it, knowing, recognizing, stealthy steps bringing him within striking distance and he made his move, heavy stout aspen stick flying, taking the bird right in the midsection and knocking it from its branch. A good, fat grouse with which to feast and celebrate their coming to this new place.