Weary. Cold. Legs, when he tried them, less than stable, threatening to betray him, spill him face-first in the snow but this did not disturb Einar too greatly, for he’d reached his destination, settled himself against the trees to watch, wait, and was confident that the enemy would soon be walking up right below him, directly in his line of fire, no chance of spotting him for the light screen of baby firs that shielded his position, and he would have them. Wouldn’t need his legs until after, when they’d been dealt with and he was hurrying back to Liz to get her out of the area before another team could be inserted, and by then, judging from past experience, they ought to have regained a useful amount of strength, world grown a bit less strange and baffling around him. His only real concern at the moment was that the episode might have affected his aim; he seemed to grow so dreadfully cold after the incidents, wholly drained of energy and less than steady on his feet for a time, and the thought that this might reduce the efficacy and accuracy of his dart throws was a disturbing one, but there wasn’t too much he could do about it, not now, would simply have to put all his concentration into the effort, hope nothing else happened, and throw…
Time passed, sun climbing and spilling its golden brilliance into the basin below as Einar sat freezing against his two trees, atlatl ready, raven keeping a silent vigil above him in a dead snag that jutted out oddly from one of the living evergreens to providing a ready perch, and they didn’t come. Somehow, he must have miscalculated. That bothered him. The possibility that he could no longer trust his own judgment, the deeply ingrained instincts and the tradecraft that had seen him alive and free if seldom entirely unscathed through so many near situations--without that, he’d be lost. They would all be lost. Had to get it back, somehow get his mind engaged as it ought to be and make sense of the situation. Where would they have gone, these strangers dropped into his basin at dawn, if not up through the natural and heavily timbered channel beside which he waited? What made sense? Was it possible that he’d somehow managed to misinterpret the entire situation, the nature and identity of the intruders, themselves, rendering his understanding of their likely future actions so inaccurate as to be useless? Such doubt would be the end of him if once he ever allowed it to take hold, and he pushed it aside, struggled to focus his eyes on the snowy timber that spread out below him, studying the white spaces between trees for any sign of motion, the areas of deeper shadow that might conceal a line of tracks, intruders already passed by and he urgently needing to be on their trail lest they reach the cabin ahead of him, but seeing nothing. Likely as anything, he told himself, the strange episode had simply distorted his perception of time, left him anticipating company far sooner than they reasonably could be expected to arrive. He would wait. And did. For too long.
Needed to move. Was beginning to feel that odd prickling sensation at the base of his scalp which many years and a good number of near misses had taught him he could ignore only at his own great peril, and then from above him somewhere in the timber he heard a rustle and a crunch, something moving in the snow, something far larger than the chickadees and Oregon juncos he’d been watching as they scratched and searched for seeds amongst the fir needles in the more protected and snow-free areas, and slowly--wide awake now, world back in sharp focus--he turned, scanning the densely-growing trees, saw it.
Just a flash of movement on the edge of vision, no color or definite form to tell him what he’d seen, everything white between the trees and the deep blue lines of their shadows, but it had not fit, the thing he’d seen, as if a portion of the snowy forest floor up there had heaved and rose and moved for a brief second, and he knew that wasn’t right. Someone up there. Above him. Enemy had worked their way in behind where he had expected them to pass and was stalking him, likely had already seen him and suddenly he found himself fully immersed in his worst nightmare, living it--one of them, anyway--as it seemed to be playing out around him, enemy about to take him, incapacitate him in some way and leave him bound and helpless for the next team to deal with as they followed his backtrail to the cabin, where no one would be there to prevent them having their way with Liz and little Will. And he, drugged, beaten and secured in the back of a Blackhawk--they’d take no chances this time, none at all--would be whisked away to who knew where, wouldn’t even be around to sift through the ashes this time, let alone make his final stand up there, holding the enemy off for a day or two while they made their escape as he fully intended to do.
Not going to end that way. He wouldn’t have it. Was on his feet, moving swiftly and with only a slight stumble here and there off into the timber, dart held at the ready and every sense alert for the location of his foe, determined to find the pair and stop them. They would be armed, well fed--and fully in control of their faculties, which, admit it, you’re really not right now, Einar. You’re a mess. Unreliable. Near useless--and thoroughly briefed on the area and what they could expect, but still he had the advantage. Knew the place nearly as well as it could be known, and was fighting not only for his own life but for something far more precious. And--searching for some positive aspect to a situation in which he was deliberately seeking to pit atlatl and darts against rifles, pistols, heck, they’ve probably got grenades, satchel charges, who knows what else?-- when he’d taken them, which he had no choice but to do, he would have access to whatever firearms they were carrying--almost certainly even radios, and this time, before the end, he might well find cause to use them--which would put him in a stronger position for the siege he’d got planned for up at the cabin The delay and distraction which would allow his family to escape, and to live.
Higher into the timber, hands and knees at times to prevent himself slipping backwards on the steep snow, belly low to the ground, glad his parka blended reasonably well with the surroundings, if not quite as well as the snow camouflage he was certain concealed his opponent. Had to gain the advantage, the high ground, and it was difficult to do when he had no solid idea of where the men might have gone, but he would find them.
Tracks. He hadn’t expected to find tracks up this high, had been sure he must by then be above them but clearly they’d gone on before him--two men, one heavier and taller than the other but both carrying packs, traveling on snowshoes to prevent their sinking too deeply into the snow calling for more speed on his part if he was to place himself between the enemy and the cabin, which he absolutely must do. Must not follow their trail too closely, though, as he knew it was likely an ambush, a trap, tracks left where they knew he’d find them in the hopes of drawing him in and allowing him to be taken with little risk to the invaders, just as he had intended on doing with them. How had it happened? How had he lost not only the high ground to these two strangers, but most of his advantage, as well, almost as if they’d been there before?
No time for why. Not now. Time only to move, seek, and destroy. They were, no doubt, attempting to double back on him by now if they knew he was there, and he couldn’t allow it. Took off at nearly a right angle from the line of tracks, working his way through some of the heaviest timber he could find and not getting another look at those tracks until he was up nearly at the level of the overlook, which, much to his dismay, appeared to be their destination. Not good. He could still work his way in above them and get the shot he so badly needed, but at this point it meant keeping himself below the rim of the overlook--a fragmented landscape of nearly sheer cliffs, icy, uncertain--until he reached the timber on its far side and allowing them to be up there above him the entire time, waiting, listening, perhaps, to his struggle and popping over the edge, if they chose, to take him, shoot him, drop him seventy five feet to the waiting rocks below. If his own weakness and lack of coordination didn’t do it to him, before they ever had the opportunity.
Enough. Got no other choice. No better choice, and you better make it quick, too, because if they aren’t busy setting up an ambush as you expect, they may well be halfway to the cabin by now, and you pretty nearly too late. And he was doing it, leaving the timber to venture out onto a narrow ledge of rock which stretched nearly horizontal but very icy out across the cliff face, edging his way forward with hands gripping roots and rock spurs and jammed into icy crevices for purchase, body arching out over the abyss.