Morning, and the elk were gone. Einar did not at first believe his eyes, crouched there blinking in the dim predawn light--he’d awakened with the first hint of grey on the eastern horizon, rolling stiffly from their evergreen bed, huddling close beside a boulder in hopes of avoiding some of the wind and working to restore some flexibility to cold limbs--scrubbed his face with a sleeve in an attempt to clear up his vision but when he looked again there was no doubt, and he could not understand it. Breeze sighing up from the valley below--that it had been doing so all night he was quite sure, having felt its every gust and whisper quite keenly through his thin covering of deer hide--could not possibly have tipped the creatures off to their presence, as it put them directly upwind of the bedding area, and certainly neither he nor Liz had done anything in the night to spook the animals. What, then? Squinting into the dimness he searched for an explanation, knowing such animals, once bedded down for the night, would not tend to leave before daybreak without some serious provocation, and urgently needing to know what might have prompted their departure. Nothing made itself immediately obvious when he retrieved the binoculars and got them focused on the area--not an easy task, as he found himself unable to quite still the cold tremors in his hands, entire body soon trembling in the sharp morning breeze, and he knew he needed to eat--the elk meadow looking exactly as it had that past evening, except that it was now devoid of elk.
Perhaps, he thought to himself, he’d simply overslept, got the wrong idea about how early the creatures might leave in search of water, and slept through their departure. Interesting thought, and a good bit less sinister than some of the other possibilities, but Einar knew better. It was practically still dark, and he’d observed enough elk to know that they ought to just be beginning to stir about, a few early risers lumbering up from their grassy beds to begin nibbling at a bit of breakfast. Something had spooked them, caused them to leave in the night, and Einar, holding his breath and trying his best to keep the glasses from dancing and jerking, searched out along the ridge to the spot where it dropped away steeply to the valley in a jumble of sharply fractured red sandstone reminiscent of the rim on which he’d balanced so joyfully that previous afternoon, and there, amongst the broken rock and scattered, snow-patched timber at the edge of the world, he saw them. Not the entire herd so far as he could see, but three or four elk were clearly visible there amongst the timber in the strengthening light, large, dark-maned shapes standing out clearly against the patch of snow on which they stood, watchfully observing the vast open space of the meadow and appearing tense, nervous, ready to bolt at any moment. Beginning himself to feel rather the same way, Einar dropped to his belly and crawled back over to Liz where she lay still peacefully sleeping on her mattress of live fir--alone, he noted, for Muninn the raven had disappeared too, sometime in the night, not like him at all--hand on her shoulder until she woke and looked at him. Silence, he motioned to her, silence, and follow me…
Crawling together back over to the boulder from which the elk meadow was visible--it wasn’t easy for Liz, heavy with child, to low-crawl anywhere at all, but somehow, sensing the urgency in his demeanor, she managed it--Einar pointed in the direction of the departed elk. Liz saw at once the problem, her heart sinking as the prospect of a fairly easy and successful hunt faded from before her eyes, but she could not understand Einar’s insistence on silence, the urgent, furtive energy behind his movements--would have understood had the elk moved closer in the night, been within earshot, but she had already looked, had seen nothing--tried to ask him about it but he hushed her once more, voice a mere breath of air that she had to lean close to hear.
“Quiet. Got to keep things quiet. Sound really carries up here.”
“Carries where? What are you concerned about? They’re already gone…”
“What do you think spooked the elk…?”
“Well, I guess it could have been just about…” She stopped, looked at him with eyes suddenly wide, face gone white, and he knew they were thinking the same thing.
“Yeah. Exactly. Not many things up here that can prod an elk herd into moving before dawn, and until we get our eyes on whatever did it this time, we got to assume we have company up here.”
Liz got very quiet then, rolling to her side and scooting back until she was mostly concealed beneath the mat of evergreens on which they’d slept, not wanting Einar to see just how alarmed she was at the possible implications. It’s so open up here. What are we going to do? We’ve got nowhere to go, nowhere at all without exposing ourselves as we cross hundreds of yards of open meadow…they’ll see us if we try to get away! Ashamed at her moment of near-panic and seeing that Einar appeared entirely calm--dead-calm, actually, deadly calm and looking more like a hunter, a predator than he had in a very long time--she took a big breath and tried her best to push aside the rising frenzy within her--wanted to run, to get down into the lowest area she could find and make a run for the timber far below--slow her thoughts and come up with some way to help. Einar already had a way, was rolling up the hides under which they’d slept, loading them into packs and she helped him, quickly getting into her own pack and--she hadn’t forgotten about his injured ribs, even if he seemed to have, for the moment--easing Einar’s onto his back. Nodding his thanks, he crouched beside her, face close to her ear.
“See in the timber over there on the edge? Where the land falls away? Three, four elk over there still, so I think that’s where the herd went. Gonna have to be real careful how we handle this one since whatever spooked the critters may still be in the area, but if we keep down below this little rise of rock here, walk kinda stooped over and even crawl at times, looks like we can probably work our way over there without being spotted by anyone who might be over beyond the elk meadow, on the ridge. Elk were looking over in that direction just a minute ago, like that’s where the threat was. I still intend to take an elk if we can. Plus, that’ll give us access to that timber so we can hopefully drop down into the valley without much chance of being seen, afterwards. Not many good ways out of this place, but that looks like one of them.”
Nodding, Liz thought that sounded like a very good idea, especially the part where they were able to get away off the terrible open expanse of the ridge without spending too much time out where they would be visible to whatever unseen enemy might be lurking in the dark rock-shadows or behind one of the tree islands similar to the one which had sheltered them for the night--she was sure beyond any doubt that the elk had been spooked by a human or humans, though she couldn’t have explained the cause for her conviction, had Einar asked her just then--for she had not seen how they were to accomplish anything of the sort. Motioning to her to follow, Einar started off along the low rise of rock behind which they had passed the night, himself keeping low and urging her to do the same, pausing now and then to carefully raise himself by the few inches necessary to give him a view of the open expanse of the ridge beyond their somewhat concealed route, never seeing a thing out of place but always alert for any sign of human presence. Aside from the odd behavior of the elk…
It took them a good fifteen or twenty minutes to work their way along those rocks, keeping low and moving cautiously until the rocks ran out, a good hundred yards short of the area of broken rock and timber where Einar had spotted the remaining elk, and their route off the ridge. Einar stopped, lowered himself to his stomach on the ground and squinted across the wide open expanse of yellowing grass before them. Hadn’t counted on the rocks running out, had been prevented by a dip in the land from seeing that they didn’t extend all the way to the timber, and the unforeseen occurrence left him somewhat unsure how best to proceed. Motioning to Liz to keep low he peered up over the little ridge; nothing in sight save a nearby snow bank, some scattered red rocks and a lot of short-cropped grass, nothing to prevent their reaching that band of timber, and safety, and he was about to lead them quickly out into the open and across, when something caught his eye, a flash just on the edge of vision almost behind them on the far side of the ridge, and he stopped.