Liz was somewhat alarmed at the sudden earnestness in Einar’s eyes, the way he clung to her, and she stopped in her bustling excitement over the soon-to-be rabbit stew, sat down beside him. “Tracks. I saw tracks on my way up here.”
“What kind of tracks?”
“They were…I might have seen wrong, but looked like they were human tracks. Headed down.”
She was on her feet, staring hard at him and looking angry and scared all at once. “I don’t think you can have seen wrong. You don’t see wrong when it comes to tracks. Human tracks, and you’re just now telling me?”
“Just now remembering… I wasn’t quite awake when I saw them, which is why I’m hoping I just saw wrong, imagined them, something…but I’m starting to think they may have been real.”
“Where? Where area they?” Liz was moving as she spoke, shoving items into her backpack and tossing Einar’s to him, demanding that he hurry, pack, get things together. They were leaving. Had at least to be prepared to leave, because there was no way she was sitting there in the cabin and waiting for some unknown individual--she hoped it was and individual, and not an entire group whose tracks Einar had crossed, but wasn’t sure he would have told her at present, was not certain he would have been able to remember--to happen upon their cabin with them in it. Or to make his way back down to the nearest spot where he could get a phone connection, and call in a tip… Einar got the idea, began packing--didn’t have to add much, as he kept that pack ready to go when he wasn’t using it for other purposes, loaded down with as much as he could reasonably carry should they have to hastily abandon the place in the night--alarmed at the realization that Liz had been the first one to think of the step. He took another spoonful of honey, hoping it might help him wake up, be a bit more quick on his feet.
“Down in the willows they were, between here and the tarn. Just a single set of tracks, heading down. But before we act, I need to go back and make sure. Like I said, could have been imagining things.”
“Einar, you…oh, let’s go. I’m coming with you. Don’t forget about your hands. You don’t want to freeze them again. Better keep them tucked inside your shirt part of the time, under a hide, something. Here. I’ll wear my parka, you take both hides. You’re still freezing from earlier. I can see it. My pack is ready.”
“Mine too. I’ll put out the fire.”
Silently they set out together across the clearing and into the timber, moving cautiously, Einar’s atlatl and darts slung over his back, spear grasped tightly in one hand despite the still-painful results of the morning’s minor frostbite as they descended through the trees, heading for the spot where he believed he had seen the tracks. Wished his memory might be clearer. Figured it would have been, had he eaten some breakfast that morning before setting out.
There. He remembered that twisted, fire-blackened old stump of a limber pine where it jutted out over a grove of lively little willows, enduring victim of some long-ago lightening strike, and he pointed to it, nodded to Liz and traded spear for atlatl, holding a dart at the ready. Hand hurt, but he wasn’t even feeling it. As they advanced on the remains of the tree, step by silent, stealthy step, moving slowly so as not to make crunchings and cracklings in the still-frozen morning snow, Einar found himself wishing Muninn was with them, as the bird seemed quite adept at surveying a scene and giving warning when it was due. The bird had flown off first thing that morning, though, taking advantage of the break in the weather to skim across the treetops and down across the basin in search of a bite to eat, and he had not yet put in an appearance.
Careful. They may be waiting to ambush you. Tracks may have been a decoy to get your attention and keep you looking in the wrong direction while they set up their ambush, and suddenly things took on a very dangerous feel, Einar wide awake and motioning to Liz to keep low, follow him into the willows. Beneath the concealment of the little trees he crouched, waited until she drew so near that he barely had to whisper to make himself heard.
“Up there…you see the little stand of firs just up the hill?”
She nodded. “Get yourself up there, real slow, real quiet, and wait for me. Don’t like the feel of this. Don’t want the little one in the middle of it until I get some idea of what’s going on. Wait for me there. I’ll come for you in a minute.”
Liz did not even consider protesting. His tone of voice left no room for protest. She went, swiftly, quietly, to wait for him, praying that he would make the right decisions down there, conduct himself with caution and be ready should the situation prove more dangerous than either of them yet knew.
Through the willows Einar moved, twisting, turning, barely brushing a stalk or a shoot, despite the density of the patch as he wound his way closer to the blackened tree that was connected in his memory with the sighting of the tracks. Not a sound, not a breath of wind stirred the willows as he moved, and despite the persistent chill of the morning, the place was beginning to seem terribly oppressive. Nothing. Reached the tree without seeing anything out of the ordinary, and he was relieved. Would be embarrassing to have to admit to Liz that he had imagined the entire thing, dreamt it, but he couldn’t have cared less, knowing what those tracks, had they been real, would have meant for the two of them. Einar’s relief was short lived, and he stopped, frozen in his footsteps, staring into the brush around him and listening, listening, but hearing nothing. Sensing nothing. Hoped he could trust his senses. Knew they had been failing him, of late.
Time to go back for Liz, no immediate danger detected in the area, no ambush, and Einar beginning to grow more and more uncomfortable at the idea of her being up there in the trees alone. She was waiting exactly where he’d asked her to wait, bow ready, arrow in place as she crouched behind a small outcropping of granite, peering over its top in readiness. Recognized Einar, lowered the bow. Come, and his voice was barely a whisper, barely a breath, and they reached the burnt-out tree together, Einar pointing to a small clearing just beyond it.
There in the snow, neat and so crisp that she could nearly read the word on the logo in the center of the tread, lay a single line of boot tracks, heading down.