Liz had not really expected to see Einar back by dark, not the way he’d kept hinting that the trip might take a good bit longer than she was anticipating, but still she hoped, found herself venturing out into the clearing more than once after dusk to stand beside the largest of the lichen-covered granite boulders, listening, waiting, but hearing only the wind in the trees. The evening was clear and achingly cold, stars beginning to show still and unblinking through the timber tops, partially obscured by the rising clouds of her breath, and she drew the sheepskin cloak a bit closer around her shoulders, hoped Einar was keeping himself warm out there. And eating. Her portion of the supper she had enjoyed with relish, excited about the success of one of her first bread-baking experiments on the new stove. The lily fritters had been a simple flat bread for which she had pounded and rubbed dried lily roots between two rocks until they became a fairly fine powder, picking out some of the fibers but leaving most to add bulk to the flour. Lacking the eggs she would have liked to stir into the mixture she had satisfied herself with adding bits of water and melted bear fat, stirring until she had something resembling a sticky dough. This dough she had patted into flat cakes with her hands, placing them on the hot surface of the stove and flipping them now and then until they began taking on a nice brown color. The resulting cakes were rather crumbly and dry but pleased Liz nonetheless, for they tasted starchy and satisfying and she knew the texture could be adjusted by the addition of more water and fat.
When sliced in half and spread with bear fat and honey, she found the cakes particularly delightful and hoped Einar, in his travels, would do the same. Her hope in thus experimenting was to come up with a formulation that they both enjoyed, practice several times making them and then try her hand at collecting wild yeast and making a high country version of sourdough. Though their location and situation made grains a nearly non-existent part of their diet, they had collected a good quantity of starchy roots of one kind or another, and could indulge in the occasional treat of bread or ash cakes. Liz had heard of using the white powder that collected on the bark of many aspen trees as a starter for wild sourdough; Einar had, in fact, mentioned doing such while living at his cabin years ago before all the trouble started--said the powder naturally contained and nurtured some form of wild yeast, as did the similar waxy coating on the berries of the Oregon grape plant whose roots they so valued for the making of their berberine preparations--and she wished she had asked him to describe the process in more detail. No matter. She could ask him when he returned. Which--shivering; time to go in for the night--she hoped would be soon. Important as was the placing of that cache, they had a good bit to do in and around the cabin still in preparation for winter--wood to haul, walls to finish chinking against the wind, snow pants, mittens and boots to construct, as well as Einar’s parka, which she supposed she would be doing herself, as he had so far shown little interest in the matter, painstakingly sewing her baby carrying garment and then, apparently, considering the job finished--and she hated to think of him arriving back after several days of wandering in the high country, likely as not hungry and exhausted, and having to return immediately to the work of the season. Which she knew he’d insist on doing; rest seemed not to be a part of his vocabulary, unless it was literally forced upon him by circumstances.
Well. She had plenty to do, herself, and would in the doing pray for his safe and speedy return. Wasn’t much else she could do, really. Returning to the cabin she barred the door. Einar wouldn’t likely be returning that night, it was seeming, and if he did, he could knock. She didn’t care for the idea of a late-for-hibernation bear deciding to join her inside for a bit of a midnight snack, as one might decide to do if it came along and found the door in an easily moveable state. Speaking of a midnight snack, the idea sounded pretty good to her, and though it was still hours from midnight she broke a few pieces of jerky into the pot in which she’d been simmering the bones of their last two rabbits all evening, enriching the broth with bits of bear fat and dried nettles and making herself a quick bit of soup. Wished Einar was there to share it with her and prayed, as she readied herself for bed--had to try for some sleep; the baby needed it--that he would find his way safely through the night, wherever he might be.
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Easing his way through the trees, Einar took up a position behind a low rise of granite, eight or nine inches only of cover but it was enough; he was able to make himself very flat, and did, inching forward until he was looking down at the camp, dodging and ducking his head to get a view through the small breaks in the timber. The camp was a modest setup, a single black dome tent standing amongst the spruces and a stone fire ring not far from it, carefully placed--a detail which did not escape Einar’s notice--beneath the most densely-boughed tree of the bunch as if with the intention of seeing its smoke dispersed before it ever reached the sky. A familiar tactic, and its use added to Einar’s growing unease. The place looked a good deal more like something he might have himself set up than it did a typical elk camp. He saw at first only one man, a short fellow in a camouflage jacket and green wool watch cap who crouched bent over the fire, facing it, doing something with the breakfast, the smells of which reached Einar more strongly than ever and would have left him quite literally drooling, had not his senses been entirely occupied in searching for further danger, just then.
Having heard voices from his vantage above the camp, he strongly doubted that the man was alone there, scanning the nearby woods for any sign of further human presence, scalp prickling at the thought that the second man might already know he was there, might even then be working his way in above with a firearm or--worse, far worse--a dart gun with which to neutralize him, leave him floundering helplessly on the ground while they came in and took him, and the possibility very nearly sent him scrambling to his feet to take off running at his top speed into the timber but he forced himself to keep still, and the moment of panic passed as he had known it would do. Still, silent, watching, Einar kept thinking he heard something from the slope opposite the camp, a faint rustling in the brush and he focused in on the area, catching little glimpses here and there of movement, a hint of color that did not belong, patches of green not quite the green of the spruces behind which it seemed intent on concealing itself and the next moment the figure rose, revealed itself and was joined by another.
So. Three men. Down at the fire the first appeared still thoroughly preoccupied with his breakfast duties, the other two--similarly dressed, camouflage and watch caps--had paused in their descent to the camp and were quietly conversing over a small black box that appeared to Einar to have an antenna, and he expected it might be related in some way to the fragment of broken electronic circuitry the raven had brought to him. Wished he could make out what the men were saying, but they were too far away, and then they stowed the device, walking down into camp and sitting around the fire, ready for their breakfast. Much as Einar wanted to make his way closer and have a listen, he hardly dared do so, not knowing just what sort of sensors they might have protecting the camp. Needed to spend more time observing before he made a move, get a better sense of the place and the men, what sort of threat they might represent to himself and his family up in the basin, and exactly how active he might need to be in neutralizing that threat.