When finally Einar began recognizing with certainty the terrain around and before him, the night had mostly passed. Through the dark hours he had done his best to follow the trail of the elk and then, starlight blotted out by a bank of clouds that rolled through, to find remnants of his own trail from early that morning, not so easy to do, as he had hardly been breaking through the crust. Now, despite the night being advanced, he did break through, clouds serving to halt the typical temperature drop which had still over the past several days been serving to solidify the softened surface and form a crust on which travel was practical. This lack of a solid surface over which to move had not only slowed his progress, especially burdened as he was with the heavy elk quarter, but had sent him at times into heavier timber as he sought a route which would more thoroughly conceal his trail from the air. Knew he had to be leaving more sign than he had done that morning while covering similar ground, both because of the unstable crust and his own far greater weight, now that he was lugging the elk meat.
Falling. Did not want to keep falling—just made a bigger mess of the crust when he did that, left more sign—but couldn’t seem to stop himself. Leg would just give out at random, refuse to support his weight and down he would go before he knew it was happening, pinned, more often than not, beneath what was beginning to seem the impossibly heavy burden of that elk quarter. Couldn’t raise himself to standing with that thing on top of him. Not anymore. Had to slither out from beneath the thing, haul himself to his feet and then do his best to somehow get the load back up onto a shoulder, ready to move forward again.
The basin. Hardly recognized it at first, starlight gone and the night dark, but a faint whiff of old smoke confirmed what the changing terrain had suggested; he was almost home. This realization giving Einar a sudden surge of energy he moved forward at a better pace, hanging on with both hands to the loop of cord which he had tied round the elk’s hind foot and standing up a good deal straighter under the heavy load than he had found himself able to do for some hours. Had no intention of crawling into camp, not if he could help it.
Shelter in sight, bulking black and welcoming in the first dim light of the coming dawn, and Liz heard movement in the snow, rushed out to meet him. Hurrying to join Liz Einar went to his knees when the crust gave way, elk quarter shifting on his shoulder and putting him off balance so that he fell face first into a drift and Liz had to help him out from beneath his burden before he could rise again. Together they carried the quarter inside, Einar bracing himself so as to prevent his right leg going out from under him again and Liz bringing the fire back to life as soon as they were inside so they would have some light by which to see.
Einar had not been particularly aware of the cold on his nightlong journey, but now in the relative warmth of the shelter he shivered, standing all stiff-legged and wide-eyed with hands braced against the beams to prevent him falling again as he stared at Liz, at the elk quarter, and tried to remember what he had been intending to say. Right. Rest of the elk. They had to go after the rest of the elk. He’d meant to have the job done before the night went too far, and here it was nearly dawn. Liz was saying something, animated speech whose tone made him smile even as the words swam around him like ephemeral insects and were gone, impossible to grasp, and he focused on her, watched her face as she spoke but could not seem to make sense of her speech. Shelter going black around him, a sudden hissing in his head, and he was going down.
Crouching on the floor, fire flaring before him, and he could feel its warmth. Liz still trying to tell him something. Instructions, this time. He could tell by her tone. Seemed she wanted him nearer the fire, and he tried to do it, but his body wouldn’t respond. Better stay where he was. She asked him something about the elk, and he smiled in response. Yes, the elk. Got to go back for the rest of it… She did not respond. Had to tell her. With words.
“It’s a big elk. We… I couldn’t carry the whole thing. We need to go back.”
“We will go back. Looks like a good-sized elk, for sure! You take a break, have some of this tea and then we’ll go back.”
“Ate some liver up there. I’m good. Ready to go now.”
“I’m glad you ate liver up there! Is this the rest of it, here in your pack?”
“Yes. Didn’t want to leave it. Tried to slip away down the mountain, get away.”
“Slip away down the mountain? Hmm. Sneaky liver.”
Einar laughed, realizing how it must have sounded to her, but lacking the eloquence just then to correct his statement. Liz was easing the liver from his pack, setting it in a pile of snow to stay cool. “I’ll come help you take care of the rest of the meat, but I want to have some quick breakfast first, and this fresh liver seems like just the thing. I’ll fix you some more, too.”
All the while she had been speaking, Liz had been working over the fire, stirring something into a pot of steaming snow-water, and now she pressed the pot into Einar’s hands, insisting that he drink. Heat of the pot hurt his hands, blood just beginning to return after his night in the cold, but he couldn’t figure out what to do about this, so did nothing. Sleepy. Now that he was off his feet, keeping awake became a nearly impossible task, and Einar found himself nodding over his tea—or whatever it was that sent warm, sweet-smelling steam rising around him from that pot—and quite forgetting to try drinking any of the stuff. Liz did not let him forget for long, holding the pot up so he could have a sip and then returning it to him when the sweet liquid revived him sufficiently that he could manage on his own.
“Good stuff, Liz. What is this? Some kind of tea, you said?”
“It’s just honey and rosehips in hot water. Have some more. It’ll help you get warm. Here. Some liver to go with it.”
Einar tried to eat the liver, got a slice into his mouth despite shaking hands but couldn’t seem to figure out what to do with it then, so he just sat there staring into the fire with half closed eyes and listening to the pleasant little sounds of Liz preparing her own breakfast, Will’s sleeping breaths and an increasingly gusty wind outside in the spruces. Storm coming. Spring storm. Good thing. Would keep scavengers out of the meat until…
Einar fast asleep against the shelter wall and showing no sign of moving, Liz draped her parka over him for warmth, added a stick to the fire.