Lacking wings and floundering at times in the deep snow--he hadn’t worn his snowshoes, having left the cabin with the intent of scrambling up the cliffs rather than making a long trek through the timber--Einar struggled to keep up with the bird, but Muninn was patient and kept returning for him, urging him on. The raven’s behavior changed as they approached the spring, flying further afield and returning each time with what appeared to Einar a new urgency, rasping and swooping and generally telling him to hurry. Which wasn’t happening, something near his top speed for the morning having been reached some time ago and maintained best as he could--which was not tremendously well, considering the swollen state of his lower legs and feet--and by the time he began nearing the spring, he was beginning to be seriously worn out, fighting for breath. And growing tremendously cautious, too, steps slowed nearly as much by anticipation of what he might be about to discover there as they were by his exhaustion, the sense of warning, of danger which had pulled him from bed that morning growing stronger with each step until he was moving at a snail’s pace, dart placed in the atlatl and arm all but ready for the throw.
Watching the raven’s behavior, he half expected the object of his search to be found at the spring itself, wondered if it might be a winter-kill elk or deer or perhaps even a wolverine, but when he carefully skirted the spring, keeping to the timber and watching the raven out of the corner of one eye, he saw that the trouble in fact must lie somewhere beyond it. Not so much as a track--aside from a lone lynx trail--marred the area around the fast-frozen spring, and he breathed a half sigh of relief, took a moment more to inspect the area--despite all the ice which had accumulated where the water left the ground, it appeared to him that the little pond they’d dug and dammed up might still contain some liquid water, and he would, under other circumstances, have been greatly tempted to try and chop through the ice, test his endurance for a time in a frigid bath; some other day--stalked out towards the dropoff, still keeping close watch on Muninn.
With very little timber growing along the edge of the dropoff itself and Einar reluctant to expose himself to whatever danger might lie beyond, he took his time making that final approach, and though Muninn would have liked him to be moving more quickly, he seemed to accept the strategy of stealth, seating himself in the branches of the long-dead evergreen at whose base Einar had months ago undergone his lone ordeal, and waiting. Shielded by a stand of scraggly firs Einar belly-crawled out to the edge of the overlook, every sense alert for sign of the trouble that had brought him there, but in the end, all he really needed were his eyes.
Slashing across the steep, open slope beneath the red ridge, the three sets of ski tracks were unmistakable, their graceful turns sharp and appearing tremendously fresh. So fresh, in fact, that their makers could be seen off to the side where the basin grew rocky and dotted with islands of stunted timber, skis strapped to their packs, climbing up for another run. Not exactly the sort of behavior he would have expected from the tactical team sent in to capture them, but still Einar’s blood ran cold at the sight of it, watching, wondering how long the men had been in the area, and whether they might have got wind of their fire, that previous night. Two men and a woman, actually, for when he pulled out the binoculars for a closer look--hadn’t brought much with him, but had at the last minute remembered to tuck the glasses beneath his parka--he saw that one of the party was indeed female, all three of them appearing quite young and, based upon their choice of terrain, gear and the relative speed with which they made the ascent, fairly experienced in the mountains.
Both good news and bad, he supposed, for the likelihood that they were in the area for any nefarious purpose was seeming reasonably small, yet still the danger was tremendous, any human presence in such proximity to the home place a threat which could easily prove their undoing. Especially if the little party should happen to stumble across sign which had been left in the basin by the Kilgores on their recent visit, or by him and Liz when they went to retrieve the cache. Not terribly likely, considering the storms which had scoured the area since that time, but always possible, and Einar knew what he would likely have to do should any discovery be made. Either way, the little party would certainly have to be watched, every move carefully observed until they were well and thoroughly out of the area, and though he regretted taking leave of Liz for so long without a better explanation than the one offered in the brief note he’d left her that morning, he could see little choice. Certainly couldn’t let them get out of his sight for long enough to return and tell her what he was about; in that time, the little party could easily end up climbing up to the dropoff itself, finding his tracks near the spring and following them, and he absolutely could not risk having any such occur. Looks like we’re in this one for the long haul, Muninn, you and I.
Scooting back on elbows and knees until he was a bit farther from the dropoff, no longer in danger of being seen as part of the horizon from certain angles, Einar began settling in to watch, carefully cutting a few fir branches from the backsides of nearby trees and laying them on the ground beneath him, a bit of a shield from the immense chill of the snow. Hardly enough of one though, and as he cooled from his climb through the timber he began shivering, the tremors greatly impeding his use of the binoculars and all but preventing further useful study of the three intruders. Fortunately their progress was easily charted with the naked eye as they ascended the steep snow that lay below the red ridge’s crest, dark colored parkas, pants and packs standing out in sharp contrast with the snow and giving Einar another reason to believe that they were likely just what they appeared, a party of skiers enjoying some early spring snow, and nothing more. Though of course his mind, always suspicious and, considering the circumstances, rightly so, did leave him considering the fact that perhaps this was exactly what his enemy wanted him to think, the party sent to capture him observed and then dismissed as harmless backcountry skiers, moving in and doing their deeds as soon as he’d let his guard down just a bit. Well, that wasn’t happening. They ought to have known better than to try and pull anything like that on him, if indeed any such was their intent. He’d not let them out of his sight until they had definitively left the basin, left the area and shown no inclination to return. Meanwhile, the three were still climbing, a good deal of work for two minutes’ worth of free flight down the steep, snowy bowl, but he knew those minutes were worth all the effort, the joy of that flight a most incredible thing. Wished they might hurry up and finish the ascent though, get on with things.
Cold as he waited, trembling uncontrollably despite his low profile in the wind and the fir boughs insulating him from the cold ground, Einar felt for one of the first and only times in his life almost out of place in that high, snowy world as he shifted position in an unsuccessful attempt to alleviate the pressing hurt where bony hips, elbows and ribs contacted the ground, and he didn’t like the feeling; this was his home, had always been his home, and so distressed was he by that unaccustomed sense of not belonging that he found himself sorely tempted to shed his clothing right then and there, and begin working to train his body once more to the cold. Didn’t do it, knowing, in some practical corner of his mind, that he had better be doing everything he could to make sure his hands remained as warm and flexible as possible, the chronic hypothermia with which he continuously lived and which threatened constantly to progress to something much more serious kept at bay as much as possible, so he would find himself able to effectively use weapons if the need arose. The training could come later, and would, and with an intensity which he had seldom known in the past. Had to. For the moment though, he must give his whole attention to the trio over on the basin wall, and he did, trying his best to keep his breaths slow and regular in an attempt to reduce the shaking so he could once more get a clear picture through the binoculars as they began their second descent, swooping and turning through the deep powder.