Muninn, as usual, was somewhat puzzled at his human companion’s behavior, launching into the air out of startlement when first Einar stumbled and went down but not going far, circling over him and scolding until he stopped sprawling about on the ground and made an effort to rise once more. Took a good deal of effort, but Einar did at last get himself to his feet, found his spear where it had ended up partially hidden in the brush when he lost it in the fall and managed a few dizzy steps up towards the willows, Muninn leading the way and scolding all the while, his harsh, rasping voice keeping Einar somehow connected to the present and to the task at hand when his mind very much wanted to wander, drift away into the willows somewhere…willows are safe, glad I found the willows…and leave him once more sprawled out on the ground, this time almost certainly asleep within minutes as the damp seep of the willow ground crept up around him. The bird was apparently every bit as anxious to get home as Einar himself, and while Einar expected his eagerness might have a good bit to do with the fact that his accustomed scraps of meat had been entirely absent over the past day or two--aside from what he’d been able to steal from the searchers’ campfire--he was nonetheless grateful for the bird’s persistence, followed his wheeling progress in the sky as he covered the remaining distance up to the cabin clearing.
No smoke coming from the chimney, the place having a strange, quiet feel to it and he stood there silent for a short time, still concealed within the timber, worried for Liz but not wanting to walk into a potentially dangerous situation without first gaining some understanding of the circumstances. If only he was capable of understanding, of observing and piecing together whatever clues might lie in the clearing and forming a clear picture of what had happened, but he could in reality barely keep to his feet, head spinning and the world trying to go black around him. He fought it, steadied himself with a few deep breaths--deep as his ribs would allow, at least--and stared hard at the cabin, knowing he must make some sense of it all, and then, without further hesitation, act.
Perhaps the entire thing had been a setup, the searchers’ activities nothing more than a ruse to lure him away from the cabin and keep him occupied while others moved in and took Liz, and if that was the case they’d almost certainly be waiting for him out there, too. Even waiting in the cabin, perhaps, and the thought came to him that slow as he’d been in his climb, Kilgore and the others might well have had time to circle around and make their way up to the cabin since their parting that morning, plenty of time to talk Liz into coming with them or perhaps even taking her by force, had she refused. Which was certainly the less ominous of the two possibilities--that the “searchers” had in fact been associates of Kilgore’s rather than members of a federal search team, but it sounded unlikely; surely Kilgore would have let him know somehow in that case, given him the choice to come with them, to return to Liz and bring her along…which left only the theory that Kilgore had simply and likely without his own knowledge been used to draw him out and keep him busy while they made their move up at the cabin. The strategy did not entirely surprise him; the enemy had, apparently, discovered at some point the location of the cabin, and had wanted to separate the two of them before moving in to make the capture. Which meant that they must intend to take him alive--otherwise they would have simply obliterated the place one night when both of them lay sleeping--and probably had already done so with Liz. He had to know, had to get some sense of the situation but must be extremely careful in the process, lest he find himself at the wrong end of a tranquilizer dart. He had no intention whatsoever of allowing things to end that way. Which meant more watching, perhaps a cautious circuit of the cabin, keeping to the heavy timber and ready at every moment to engage whoever it was might be posted about the place. Taking out his atlatl he fitted a dart, was about to fade back into the trees but something made him wait, a slight rustling sound from somewhere over on the left of the cabin.
Liz. Heard her before he saw her, knew her by the sound of her walk as she came around from behind the cabin with a pack on her back, wearing her parka and appearing prepared for a long journey of some sort as she made her way around to the cabin door and checked it, jamming an additional aspen log against it as if concerned that bears might attempt to breach it in her absence, which means she thinks she’s coming back…so they can’t have been here! Never would have left her alone like this if they’d been here, anyway, would have had a chopper in here within minutes to whisk her away before I could make it back, and he didn’t understand any of it, convinced as he’d become of the fact that he’d been set up and Liz taken, but couldn’t deny what was before his own eyes, wanted to go to her, as she appeared about to leave again, but couldn’t seem to get himself to move. Time all distorted, world growing strange and dim and unfamiliar around him and he fought to get his bearings, make his body move, but it seemed about the best he could do was to go on standing. Muninn, glad to see Liz and hoping for a snack, took to the sky and made a dive at her, Liz’s taut face breaking into a smile at the sight of the raven.
“Muninn! Where is he? I know you wouldn’t leave him, so he must be close. Right? Take me to him, will you? Let’s go.”
The raven just hopped a bit closer to Liz, tilted his head and let out a series soft chortles, still hoping for food but she didn’t have anything readily available, shooed him back up into the air and watched intently as he sailed across the clearing and into the trees, following him with her eyes, looking straight at Einar. That got him going again, and he loosed his grip on the branch that had been keeping him from toppling over, lowered the atlatl and went to her, ground moving strangely beneath him but he didn’t care; Liz was safe, and so, apparently, was the baby. She caught him by the shoulders, wouldn’t let him go despite his efforts to finish crossing the clearing; he didn’t have much left, could feel it, and did not especially want to have to crawl those last few yards but she had a good grip on him, so he quit moving.
“What happened out there? What happened to you?”
Einar put his hands on her belly, the baby moving beneath them, and he smiled. “Bud Kilgore.”
“Kilgore’s here? Is Susan…”
Shook his head, pulled out of her grasp--was getting dizzy again, losing his place and knew he was about to fall, didn’t want to take her down with him--and got himself as far as the woodshed before sinking to the ground against it, Liz hurrying to unbar the door. “No Susan. And he wasn’t here. Below. In the valley. He’s gone now.”
Liz helped him to his feet, into the cabin. He didn’t look good, all gaunt and starved and hollow, eyes sunken and the little indented spots at the sides of his head deeper than she remembered, favoring his ribs once again and seeming quite short of breath. No matter. He was back. He’d be alright. Hurrying to prepare a fire, Liz nearly overlooked the fact that Einar was becoming terribly unsteady on his feet once more, about to fall, glanced around just in time to guide him down onto the bed where he sat, chin on his knees, trying to breathe away the dizziness. Wasn’t working, but Liz knew what he needed, quickly stirred a generous spoonful of honey into some water, pressed it into his hands until he accepted, drank.
“I was about to go looking for you, thought you’d hurt yourself on the way back down from the cache and I didn’t want to leave here with the baby…trying to come like that, the other day, but had decided to do it and then just as I got up to the top of the overlook I started hearing a raven, thought it might be Muninn and came back to check…”
“Saw that there was no smoke in the chimney when I got back just now, place all boarded up and I thought…well, thought a lot of things. Glad you didn’t get far. Hate to have you and the little one wandering around out there for something like that… Should have told you where I was going. Wanted to tell you, but it seemed pretty urgent at the time that I hurry down there and have a look…”
“Oh, you can tell me all about it now--after we have some supper!”