So well had Einar and Liz insulated the little shelter that its walls had prevented Einar from realizing just what the weather had done in the night, hints and whispers of frigid air finding their way through small cracks here and there by way of clues, but the full force of the thing hitting him only when he pushed aside the improvised door and rolled out into the snow.
Quickly pushing the door shut behind him and taking in a cautious breath of air which froze the hairs in his nose and caught in his throat, he scrambled to his feet and stood inspecting the surrounding country, everything standing out in sharp relief and the snow squeaking like Styrofoam beneath his feet. Took another breath, this one slower, more measured, and he managed to avoid choking and coughing on it. Above him stretched the huge, arcing vault of the sky, looking somehow different that morning in a way he had only seen it a few times before, edges purple behind the pines and the cloud of his breath rising wide and white into the vast pale white-blue overhead, leaving ice on his eyelashes as it passed. Einar shivered, hurried off into the trees to do his business so he could return to the shelter before he started losing the feeling in his toes.
Cold morning, colder, perhaps, than almost any they had seen that past winter, or at least so it seemed to him, and he could tell that it would take only minutes of standing still in its iron grasp, lightly clad and raw-boned as he was, before the unshakable grasp of inertia would begin to set in. An interesting experiment, perhaps, and one on which he might have been greatly tempted to embark, had he been alone—stand there unmoving until he felt its hand heavy upon him, see how far he could go, and still bring himself out of it; does a man good to stretch his limits—but inside his family awaited him and he had no such intention that morning.
Almost found himself unintentionally engaged in the experiment, anyway, long as he had stood there pondering and observing, for when he tried to turn and head back for the shelter his legs would hardly respond, leaving him to stomp and jump somewhat frantically for a few seconds as he strove to beat some life and feeling back into them. A mad scramble for the shelter, then, teeth rattling all the way and his breath seeming to come tightly and with some difficulty, and when finally he rolled laughing and gasping back into the shelter, it was to a look of concern and consternation from Liz as she pressed his white-cold hands between her own.
“What happened to you out there? Have you been lying in the snow or something?”
“No, nothing...just…kinda chilly out there today.”
“I would say so! You need breakfast, and some hot tea. It looks like your blood is hardly circulating, or something, and you’re going to start losing fingers and toes if things keep on like this.”
“Yeah. But kinda…fun to try...see how far I can push it.”
“Oh, you and your goofy ideas of ‘fun!’ You know what I think will be fun? When you’ve gained about fifty pounds and can go out for a few minutes in the morning without nearly freezing to death. Now that will be fun!”
“Aw, ruining it for me…”
“You’ve got that right! And if you don’t want a dent in the side of your head, besides, you’d better get into your parka, get warm and sit here by the candle while I make us some breakfast and tea.”
Einar grinned, sat down heavily beside the candle—lot of good it would do, that single flame against all the huge, hollow expanse of the frigid-cold high altitude sky, but it was all they had—and warmed his hands before reaching for Will.
“Let me watch the little guy for a bit, while you get the breakfast going.”
“You’re not going to drop him because your hands are so cold?”
“Drop him? Of course not! And even if I did, he’s big enough to stand on his own…hands and knees, now. He’d do just fine. He’ll be running around here catching ermine with his bare hands, before you know it.”
“Yes, he probably will. Just like his father… Who is now going to have some breakfast! I’m sorry it’s not going to be hot, but at least it’ll give you some energy. You’re going to need it today, as cold as things seem to be starting out. I’m kind of concerned with the way the weather seems to be going, especially since we’re not really able to have heat in here…
“Yeah, me too. I’m mainly concerned about that plane. If it comes back and does happen to be looking for us, or even for wildlife and using any kind of heat sensor…well, any amount of heat we’re putting out is going to show up pretty clearly against the great icy whiteness outside, even if we don’t have a fire. Big contrast, with the temperature being so low. Lot bigger than usual.”
As if in answer to Einar’s concerns—perhaps, he told himself, I shouldn’t have spoken them, but he knew it was irrelevant—a sudden hum grew swiftly and steadily louder, plane cresting the ridge and dropping down the side of the mountain almost before they were aware they were hearing it, dropping down into the canyon and droning away between its walls until no longer audible. Einar glanced over at Liz, her face strained and white in the candlelight.
“Well. Just have to hope they’re not looking, won’t we?”
“Yes. But how will we know?”
Strange, he thought, for her to be asking that. It was usually his place to do so, he who was by this time contemplating the mad dash up the mountainside, the abandonment of all material possessions and hope of good, solid shelter in deference to the protection of a liberty which might or might not actually be in clear and present danger… “That is the dilemma, for sure.”