Eight, then ten feet out on that ledge, and Einar was really struggling, clinging with all his might to his last set of handholds and suddenly finding himself unsure what to do next, not feeling like himself, all the usual confidence which normally saw him through such situations gone and the abyss tugging at him like he’d never in his life felt it do before, and for a moment he was sure he was going to fall, the certainty so powerful that he was nearly persuaded, in that brief moment, to let go, surrender himself to its inevitability. The feeling passed, Einar returning to himself again and continuing sure-footed, face twisted up in a weird, triumphant grin--beat you, ya buzzard; bet you thought you had me this time--as he picked his way across that ledge, but his hands were becoming a real problem, growing numb and wooden with the cold and refusing to work properly when he attempted to grasp roots, bits of brush, protrusions in the rock, and he paused, carefully jamming an entire hand into a wide crevice and making a fist to hold himself there--that, he could still do--pressing his free hand to the flesh of his stomach in an attempt to thaw it a bit and grinning again at the fierce burn and ache of returning circulation. Right. Good. That’s what I was looking for. He switched hands, then, a careful maneuver which left him for a moment unprotected, entirely vulnerable to a fall and the feeling of it seemed to give him new life, quicken his heart a bit and set him to grinning all over again, transfer complete, other hand warming, warm, ready to go…
Quietly and with a swiftness of which he would have doubted himself capable he completed the first half of that traverse, the going becoming a good bit more difficult after that simply due to the volume of ice which had cemented itself to the rock upon which he was attempting to find purchase, snow melting on the plateau above and dripping down, freezing, leaving everything terribly slick and uncertain and leaving him twice to rely on his the tenuous security of his handholds, feet going out from under him and slamming him into the wall as he scrambled and scrabbled for anything firm on which to place a foot. Found it, resting and exhausted for a moment before that grin returned, something telling him to be on his way, moving; to allow for any hesitation in that circumstance would, he knew good and well, be to set himself up for a rather swift and nasty end. Everything was icy, and worst of all, the ledge which had seen him safely along so far appeared to have disappeared, wall growing more sheer beneath his feet and he could only think--catching himself again, a mighty near thing--that he’d better be awfully thankful for the ice, for without it he would surely be knocking loose rocks and sending them crashing to the pile below, loudly advertising his position to the enemy. Once more, inching his way across the icy steepness, his hands were beginning to grow numb, but this time there was nothing he could do about it, no chance for even the slightest respite, for his legs were beginning to shake with the strain, threatening to give out; just had to pray his hands would continue working, and go on.
Made it. Almost. There was the timber, so dark and welcoming and…not vertical, its safety only feet away from the spot where he clung spider-like and trembling to an icy little protrusion in the rock, fingernails doing far more than their fair share of the work and feet flat against the steep ice, braced on nothing, body held in place only by the counter-pressure of his gripping hands and leaning body. Mighty tenuous. Not gonna last much longer like this, and then he was moving, launching himself nearly sideways off of the cliff with arms outflung and hands grasping, eyes locked on a little fir which clung spindly and twisted to the last little bit of nearly level ground before the world dropped away in the tangle of icy cliffs he’d just traversed, reaching it, wrapping desperate and half frozen fingers around its little trunk and hanging on as his body slammed into the rock face and then--he didn’t have the strength, wondered later how he’d ever managed that last feat-- hauling himself inch by inch up beside that tree until both feet were on the solid if steep ground of the timbered slope, scrambling, putting some distance between himself and the treacherous, yawning maw of that edge before finally he collapsed in the snow, body wedged securely behind the comforting solidness of a good sized spruce.
Get up. Got to see where they are, make sure they’re not onto you yet and then go do your thing, but his muscles refused to respond as he lay there exhausted, strength all spent, trembling uncontrollably after the strain and effort of the traverse, and he jammed wooden hands beneath his arms in search of some warmth, lay there for a few seconds trying to slow his breathing and listen before trying again to force himself upright and this time, he made it. Freezing. He hadn’t felt the cold in the least as he worked his way across that icy cliff face--aside from the progressing numbness in his fingers--but now that his focus had eased a bit it hit him full force, stiffening limbs, further interfering with his coordination and giving him a real struggle when he attempted to retrieve atlatl and darts from his pack and make himself ready to go on the hunt once more. No sign of the invading pair when he crept forward and peered down at the open area just behind the overlook and the cliff face he’d just traversed, no tracks out there in the open but of course there would not be tracks, they’d know better than to leave tracks where none needed be left, but the unmarred sweep of snow was a relief despite yielding him no clues; at least they hadn’t been watching his struggle, peering over the edge at him and retreating to the trees to wait for him to poke his head up above the cliffs where they could get a bullet or--worse--a dart into him.
A relief, but not an answer, and he knew he must act quickly to locate them, break any ambush they might have laid for him and intercept them on their path to the cabin, if indeed it was their destination. Which it appeared to be, tracks making themselves plain the next moment when he inched another foot forward through the timber, a simple chunk of snow out of place there at the edge of the sunny clearing providing his first clue and then, studying the spot through the glasses, a double line of snowshoe tracks in the shadows, mostly obscured by timber but unmistakable; he’d found them.
Swiftly, silently, ears straining for the slightest clue that the pair might have doubled back on their tracks and be waiting in ambush, Einar worked his way nearer the spring, twice losing the tracks in the timber as he watched from fa distance but finding them again where they crossed the small clearing that lay between the water and the dense stand of spruces opposite it, and there he saw something that made the breath catch in his throat and a slow grin soften and split the mass of hard lines and strained intensity that was his face.
Two sets of tracks over there and two white-clad, hooded and goggled figures crouching in the snow before a dense grouping of firs just below the spring and he froze--got you!--sinking slowly to the ground, glad their backs were turned to him and ready to act, taking one and then the other in quick succession but something wasn’t right, one of the men oddly hunched over and then--reaching for the binoculars but didn’t even need them--he realized that one of the figures wasn’t real, couldn’t be real, proportions all wrong and the lifeless list with which he sagged to one side suggesting either a carefully arranged and propped dead man--seemed unlikely--or perhaps simply a stuffed coat left there as decoy, and the knowledge came almost too late, but not quite, Einar sensing some presence behind him--tricked me, the filthy buzzards, and I fell for it--hitting the ground, rolling hard to the left and loosing a dart from his atlatl, missing--heard it hit wood--tossing the weapon and coming up with his knife as the other man dropped from the low branch on which he’d been concealed and hit him a hard blow from above, knocking the wind from him and attempting to pin him to the ground.
Einar, possessed of the insane strength of a man accustomed to existing very near the brink and fighting at the moment for something far dearer to him even than his life, managed to roll free of his assailant with the help of the soft snow but he’d lost his knife, had no backup aside from the spear, which was beyond arm’s reach and the man was coming at him again so he used his body, slamming him from the side and pinning him by the neck against a rock with one arm, grabbing, searching with the other for a pistol, knife, anything, but not finding it and then his attacker, much heavier if not necessarily stronger under the circumstances, threw him, a hard kick to the side of his head trying to send him careening into blackness but he hung on, blinking hard and straining against the roaring emptiness as it sought to claim him, lunging, making contact once more and knocking his foe to the ground, mashing him into the deep powder with the force of his strike and this time he had the advantage, had a good firm hold on the man’s throat with both hands and was well on the way to squeezing the life out of him when he was brought up short by a familiar voice which he thought at first must be Liz’s.
They had her. Must have her, a hostage, were attempting to use her as leverage against him but he didn’t see how it could be; they’d not had time to make it to the cabin and back and why would she had ventured all the way up there of her own accord and what about the baby? but he couldn’t let go, mustn’t let go before the job was done for then he’d still be left with two opponents to face and would have little chance of freeing Liz, for his strength was nearly gone and the man would have him. Hands on his shoulders, Liz’s voice again and though it wasn’t Liz’s face there before him, inches from his own, it was a face he knew, and then he knew the one down there in the snow, too, turning all blue and bug-eyed in his grip and he eased up, let the man breathe again, sitting back on his heels and watching as Susan brushed the snow from Kilgore’s face, helped him sit up, gasping for air as he began regaining his color. A few coughs and chokes later and beginning to breathe fairly normally again, Bud fished around in the churned up snow beneath him, coming up with Einar’s knife and returning it to its owner, Einar quickly tucking it away, hand remaining ready to grab the weapon as he leaned against a tree for balance, eyes wide and wild, panting for breath and by all measures worse off than the tracker, despite the man’s rather near miss with death.
Seeing that Einar appeared unlikely to take anymore sudden action Kilgore staggered to his feet and, followed closely by Susan, retreated by a few steps, huffing and puffing and swiping the sweat from his face as he sat on a rock from which he kept a wary eye on the fugitive lest he decide to make another move. Doubted it, but can be hard to tell, sometimes.
“Well now that’s a…real fine way to congratulate a man on his honeymoon, Asmundson! And I even set things up so we could talk first this time from a safe distance before anybody went and made any rash moves, only you end up sniffing me out and planting yourself directly under my hide, pretty nearly driving a dart through my neck before I could get a word out. Now, what about that? Thing only missed by an inch, if that. Your aim’s pretty good, man, especially for having not even set eyes on me before loosing the thing.”
“Told you I was gonna kill you if you ever dragged your mangy hide up here into my basin again, and as for the dart, I could hear you breathing up there. Just didn’t hear quite soon enough, or you’d be history just about now.”
“We’ll all be history soon enough, so let’s not artificially hasten the day, how about?”
“Now about this little visit to your mountain kingdom, Asmundson. I know you strictly forbade any such attempt but we’re on our honeymoon, man, so cut us some slack! And besides, we’ve just come up here to extend our greetings to the new little prince or princess of the mountain domain, if said child has happened to put in an appearance, so what do you say? Got your permission to proceed?”
No. They did not have permission. Not until he’d thought it over good and thoroughly, searched them body and soul and he meant to tell them so, but the fight had taken all his strength, exhausting the meager resources with which his body had somehow been propelling itself forward after the exertion of the cliff, and Einar could feel himself slipping again towards the strangeness that had been lurking all day at the edge of his consciousness just waiting to claim him, was terrified at the prospect of having one of his episodes in the presence of the two interlopers and thus exposing to them a vulnerability which he would have greatly preferred to keep hidden, but had no time to get away, nowhere to go, had to settle for throwing himself behind a spruce as it sank its talons into him…