Einar never got to use the spear. Wasn’t room in there, wedged and tight as everything was between the bulk of the main boulder and the angled pieces that had fallen from it, wished, when he began hearing the breathing, that he might have had more room to maneuver, but knew he’d have to make do with what he’d been given. Could do it, had done it before, and the knife was already in his hand as he left the spear behind, crawling towards the sound--labored, clearly distressed; the bear was not doing well--of that breathing. Couldn’t be far back; from the looks of things on the outside, the opening didn’t go too many feet back, not nearly as far as some of the other dark and dripping tunnels into which he’d crawled blindly in search of the enemy over the years, and besides, he told himself, very deliberately pausing, breathing, working to slow his heart, which seemed to be threatening at the moment to come right through his aching ribs, this is not the enemy, this is just a wounded and probably dying bear who is almost certainly gonna be your supper tonight. He may be able to hurt you, alright, but he sure can’t whack you in the side of the head with a weapon, capture you and haul you off to a little cage somewhere, nope, not happening, so you can just put all that other stuff out of your mind and focus on the bear…
Up ahead the breathing had stopped momentarily, changed, sped up and grown irregular; the animal was aware of his presence. Einar resumed his slow and deliberate progress towards the source of the sound, struggling to sort and separate it from the dripping and gurgling of leftover rainwater as it made its way down through the channels of rock overhead, dragging himself with his elbows and then he saw light, just a hint of light filtering down from above, and as he worked his way forward the light grew stronger, until at last he could just make out the massive form of the bear bulking there between the two walls, wedged, entirely filling the space, head on the ground and body oddly raised as if it had been unsuccessfully seeking a comfortable position from which to take its last few breaths. Did indeed seem to be on its last few breaths, as Einar could hear a distinctive gurgle and hiss to its respirations that told him it was not doing too well at all, likely had only a short time left. Which meant that the wise course of action for him probably would be to wait, fall back and wait for the great creature to stop breathing on its own, rather than rush in and risk injury to finish it off prematurely, and he had almost talked himself into doing so when the bear, seeming to gain a second--and probably last--wind, came at him, head up and ears back as it moved in his direction, letting out an angry, airy sound and swatting at him with a great paw.
Missed, but barely, leaving Einar to press himself quickly into the ground in avoidance of motion that was more scrape than swing there in the narrow confines of the rock cleft, but still would have been potentially quite damaging had it made contact. The bear tried again, hurting, struggling for air and apparently enraged at having missed him, and this time its aim was better, catching Einar hard across the back before he could worm his way back out of reach, raking him with its claws, and it would have torn his scalp wide open had he not been protecting the back of his head with crossed arms, a hasty and instinctive action that saved him from worse injury. A good thing. The initial injuries were bad enough. Felt like all the air had been crushed out of him, ribs shattered and backbone snapped in half, but he knew it couldn’t be nearly that bad, must not be that bad, he must not let it, fought to ignore the crushing hurt of it and concentrate on the lunge he was attempting at that bear, time slowed down to a crawl to give him the opportunity to do it, catching the creature in the neck and driving the knife up and in with all the force he could muster, which was considerable, even allowing for the tight squeeze of the place and his injuries.
Freeing the knife as quickly as it had gone in he felt a warm surge of blood over his hand, scooted himself back in a hurry in the hopes that he would be out of range if that bear decided to take another scrape at him. Wasn’t much room to maneuver but he made it, listened as claws struck rock, sliding harmlessly across it, and then the bear was down again, throat rattling for breath, and he was down, too, resting his forehead on the rock beneath him and beginning to realize for the first time that he was soaking wet, muddy and terribly cold… Must have passed out for a moment, then, perhaps a good number of moments, fallen asleep, something, for his next awareness was of lying with his face in a warm ooze of bear’s blood and wishing he could crawl further into it, for he was freezing. Couldn’t, though, for Liz was calling to him from somewhere out there in the brightness of day, out beyond the dark confines of his little tunnel-world, voice sounding urgent and somewhat distressed, and he knew he must go to her, let her know that it was finished, bear was finished and they would be eating fresh liver that night…tried to rise, passed out again, woke fighting and kicking to the feeling that someone had him by the ankles, had grabbed him and was pulling, trying to drag him out and he fought his way free--weren’t supposed to be any enemy in here, just a bear, but you must have been dreaming of home again, because there aren’t any bears in this part of the world, and those were definitely human hands around your ankles, so you’d better keep sharp, here, or they’re gonna have you--dragged himself forward and pressed his body up against that of the bear, end of the line, nowhere else to go, turned to meet his assailant…
Liz--who had waited faithfully at her post outside, arrow at the ready, through the many terribly long minutes of his crawl into the tunnel, had heard the sounds of his struggle and then, worst of all, silence, too many minutes of complete silence before finally deciding that she must go in after him--saw Einar in the faint and filtered light of the crevice, wild-eyed, face, hair, beard smeared and crusty with blood which at first she took to be his own. She spoke to him, held out a hand, but did not recognize the eyes staring back at her and could tell he did not know her, either, not as a friend, anyway, had a good firm grip on that knife and appeared more than ready to use it so she retreated to a respectful distance, speaking all the while, saying his name, her name, talking about the cabin, the child, anything, everything in the hopes of jarring him out of whatever Very Bad Place he’d managed to slip into and get himself stranded. Very slowly it began to work, a bit of the tension leaving his face, body sagging with exhaustion as once again he began to feel his injuries, and when once more he looked up after scrubbing a sleeve across his eyes, struggling to free them from some of the sticky and drying bear’s blood that was beginning to interfere with his vision, it was to see Liz crouching there in the tunnel, face appearing white and strained in the shadows. She did not look to be injured, and that was good. He put out a hand, touched her arm.
“What…why…thought you were gonna wait outside…”
“Well,” she spoke up, suppressing as thoroughly as she could the trembling of her voice, attempting to sound cheerful and perhaps overdoing it just a bit, “I heard things get quiet in here, and figured I’d better come in and help you skin out this bear!”
“Bear…?” Einar turned, glanced behind him at the massive creature whose head has become his seat as he fought to distance himself from the “enemy,” looked it over as if seeing it for the first time. “Yes. Bear’s dead. This…this’d be the time to skin it, looks like. Be mighty rough trying to haul the critter out of here in one piece, so we’d better skin it out and do some chopping, lug it out in quarters.”
With which Einar wiped his knife on his pants, still shaky from his injuries, the mistaken but at the time very real belief that he’d been cornered in there by an enemy, about to be captured, and the cold of having lain so long on that wet, rocky ground--he’d been out a good while longer than he realized--but trying his best to keep his hands steady, turning to the bear and studying it in an attempt to find the best way to get started with the skinning and gutting, and he motioned to Liz to join him. She was not so sure.
“Hey, how about you come out with me for a few minutes first into the daylight, maybe have some water and let me get some of that blood washed off of you. It’s not yours, is it? I’m assuming it belongs to the bear…”
Einar really wasn’t certain, made the mistake of telling her so in a very matter of fact way which she did not find the least bit reassuring, and after that she redoubled her efforts to try and talk him outside for a break before they began the work of dismantling the bear. He didn’t want to do it, knew he was, indeed, hurt but was pretty sure also that his injuries weren’t life-threatening, and preferred not to have her fussing over him just then when they had so much work to do, but she was persistent, terribly persistent and he so weary that finally he relented, followed her out into the daylight, never even knowing that she had other, perhaps even more powerful reasons--more powerful, that was, than making certain he wasn’t badly wounded and bleeding out--for wanting to get him out there, out of the dim confines of that tunnel. She had not quite trusted the wary glint remaining in his eye, had feared his slipping back into a shadowy world in which she was the enemy, was intent on capturing him rather than simply assisting with the task at hand, and it seemed to her a very wise thing indeed to settle any question that might remain surrounding that matter before the two of them set about working together with knives in that rather small and confined space.
Blinking as he crawled out into the sunlight, Einar crouched against the boulder heap beneath which he had spent the past half hour, allowing Liz to begin looking over his injuries and not yet knowing just how fortunate a thing that little break would prove to be.