The warm spring sun sparkled on the melting snow, and icicles wept as Liv and Ivar gazed out the window at the rolling white ridges. From the wooden tower they could see their lonely ski tracks winding through the fir saplings.
“I feel as though we’re the only people left in Norway,” said Ivar solemnly.
“Looking at the mountains makes it seem that way,” Liv agreed a little uneasily. “But we know it isn’t so. Papa and Mama will soon be back from their skiing tour to Hornfjell. Let’s go back now so we can be at the hut before they arrive.”
Ivar was only six, and Liv had not intended to bring him so far. But the sight of the fire-watcher’s tower in the distance had tempted them to continue just when they had been going to turn back.
“Remember, we are the only family in the area this vacation,” Mama had warned Liv before she and Papa had left that morning. “That means you have to really take care of yourself and Ivar. I think twelve is old enough to do that.”
Her stomach growled, and Liv wished she had brought some sandwiches. Papa never went anywhere on skis without food and extra clothes in his backpack. “It’s best to be prepared for emergencies,” he always said. Thinking about Papa, Liv wanted to hurry. She hated to have him see that she had gone exploring unprepared.
“We may be the only people around here, but we are not the only animals,” said Liv as she stopped to fasten her skis. “Look at all the mouse tracks.”
“Where are the mice?” Ivar asked.
“They live in tunnels under the snow,” explained Liv. “They eat moss and seeds and sleep in grass nests. In the spring they come out and enjoy the sun.”
Ivar squatted and stared at a hole in the snow.
“Is it warm down there?” he asked.
“I think so,” said Liv. “The snow is like a blanket that keeps the wind and cold away.”
As Liv pulled Ivar’s cap down over his ears, she said, “Let’s go back along the north edge of this ridge. If we stay out of the trees we can go much faster.”
The snow was hardening in the late afternoon cool, and every kick gave them a long glide as they sped along.
“Look how long my shadow is, Liv,” called Ivar. “I’m a giant—a hungry giant.”
“We’ll be home soon,” she called back.
But Liv was pushing away fear. It seemed to her that they had skied farther now than on the trip to the tower. Maybe she had been wrong to take a different trail above the trees. They could be going astray.
“Let’s climb to the top of the ridge and see if we can see the lake by our cabin,” Liv suggested as she turned to face her brother. But Ivar was not behind her. He had been skiing more and more slowly until he was far behind.
“I can’t climb that hill,” Ivar sobbed when he caught up. “I’m too tired and I’m hungry.”
“I know you’re tired, but we have to get home before dark. I have a piece of chocolate I’ll give you at the top.” Liv’s heart was pounding, but she forced her voice to sound calm.
Slowly zigzagging up the short slope and urging Ivar along, Liv willed that the summit show them the way home. But when they reached the top, all she could see was another snowy ridge, and then another.
With shaking hands, Liv took out the chocolate bar and broke it in half. Ivar gobbled his piece in two bites, but she put hers back into her pocket. They might need it later.
Liv tried to think, but her mind was racing, leaping from idea to idea: They were not going to find the lake before dark. They were lost. It had already turned cold, and the slushy snow would soon be ice. As long as they exercised, they might keep warm enough, but how much longer could Ivar go on? “Let’s get off this ridge. The wind is coming up.” Liv’s voice wavered as she fought back tears.
Branches caught at their clothes, and buried stumps tripped them as they picked their way down through the trees. When Ivar fell, he lay listlessly in the snow until Liv pulled him up by the arm and set him on his skis again.
At the bottom of the hill there was a meadow, and as the last light faded, Liv thought she could see a shed on the other side. Despair ran through her like ice water when the shed turned out to be nothing more than four posts and a roof to protect hay from rain. A few armloads of last summer’s hay lay scattered about.
Ivar was shivering. He was silent except for an occasional whimper. Like a little mouse, thought Liv sadly.
Of course! Like a little mouse! Suddenly she knew what to do. “I’m going to make a mouse house, and you can help,” she announced with all the enthusiasm she could muster.
She yanked a loose shingle from the hay shelter. Finding a sapling bent almost double by the snow, Liv began digging under it as fast as she could. The branches would provide support for the roof of a tunnel.
“Bring that hay over here, please,” she called to Ivar.
Ivar slowly gathered an armload of hay and shuffled over to Liv. When he saw how the snow was flying, he hurried for the second load. The more he hurried, the warmer he got.
When the tunnel was deep enough, Liv stuffed the old hay inside. “Now,” she said, “the ‘mice’ are going to crawl into their warm grass nest.”
Ivar chuckled, and the two of them wiggled feet first into the snow cave. Liv pulled hay over the top of them, and they curled up together. It wasn’t exactly toasty, but Liv knew that at least it wasn’t going to get any colder.
After an eternity of holding the gently snoring Ivar, Liv heard the skreek, skreek of skis on icy snow. She wriggled out of the tunnel and peered across the meadow. There, not ten meters away, was a looming figure with a bright lantern attached to its forehead.
“Papa!” cried Liv bursting out of the cave in a flurry of snow and moldy hay.
“Thank goodness! There you are at last.” Papa sounded angry, but when Liv told him what they had done to keep warm, he started to laugh and she knew everything was all right.
As they hugged each other, Ivar popped out of the hole. “Did you know mice live under the snow, Papa? Liv did.” Ivar danced with excitement.
Papa put down his heavy pack. He had brought a small tent, warm sleeping bags, plenty of gjetost (goat cheese) and kneipbrod (brown bread).
“How did you find us?” Liv asked when they were settled inside the tent.
“I followed your tracks. They froze solid before the wind could cover them. Since no one else is around here, I knew they were yours.”
Later, when Ivar was sleeping, Liv whispered, “Are you cross with me, Papa, for being so foolish?”
“No,” he said softly. “You broke the safety rules, but you saved Ivar and yourself by using your wits.”