Softly, almost beyond hearing the footsteps approached through the snow, and Einar, fighting sleep, thought at first that he must be hearing things, brain playing tricks on him, but the footsteps were definitely real. Which left the possibility perhaps the woman had left her lonely vigil beside the injured skier, climbed up around the dropoff and found him. He did not want to be found, must not allow himself to be found, not by her or anyone else, and he pressed himself down into the snow, flattening out on his stomach with his knife grasped in both hands beneath him, hoping not to be spotted, but ready… It was dark. No way she ought to see him, yet something had brought her up there, if indeed it was the woman he heard crunching softly through the snow, hesitantly, and not some large animal, cougar or bear or…no, had to be human. No bears out that time of year, and this creature only had two feet, not four; that much, he could hear. So he waited, hoping the person would pass him by and trying not to let his teeth chatter, clamping his jaw, hardly daring to breathe.
Footsteps stopped. Person was very near, and it was all Einar could do to keep himself still and suppress his urge to flip over and go at the invisible threat with his knife before it should have the chance to spot him, form a plan of its own but he kept still, knowing there was some chance he had not yet been seen, might still avoid a direct confrontation like that. Too cold. Losing control, shaking so hard now that he was sure the human presence standing there so nearby would be able to hear the snow shifting and crunching beneath him; he could certainly hear it, the sound terribly loud and obvious to him over the electrical echoing of his own shivers in his head, and he tried to keep still, breathe away the shaking, but could not do it. Had gone too far. Too far gone, and as the minutes slid past, he began to doubt his ability to use the knife if need be, doubted he could even hold onto it, if he was to rise just then. Wished she would move on, return to the basin, for surely she must know the injured man needed her. What was she doing up here, seeking him, stalking him, freezing him to death in the snow as he tried his best to avoid her detection? Had he done something to give himself away, to reveal his position to the little camp down there beside the mass of slid, solidified snow? Had the woman perhaps seen something when, responding to his silent shout, she had glanced up his way and almost appeared to make eye contact before hurrying on to find the avalanche-trapped man? He figured it was a possibility, and perhaps now, desperate to find a way to make it through what was shaping up to be a rather doubtful night, she had come in search of him.
Shivering, he repositioned himself, tried to think, and, failing, tried his best to get numbed hands up inside his parka and press them to his stomach without moving enough to give himself way, managed it, only to find his stomach just as numb and icy as the rest of him. Doubted it was the woman from the basin. Didn’t make a whole lot of sense. If she was going to venture away from camp, surely her first action would be to feel around amongst the nearby trees, find fuel and rekindle that fire, so as not to leave the injured man alone and freezing while she searched the dark mountainside for…what? The ghost of a shadow that she thought she might have spotted, earlier in the day? No way she’d come all that way in the dark looking for him, or for anything. Which left the mystery of the presence he had heard approaching through the snow. He was getting awfully cold, had been that way ever since before sunset; perhaps he had imagined the entire thing, chilled brain conjuring up some company for him, an imaginary threat for the purpose of keeping him focused, awake, and ultimately, alive. Sure. Could happen. But in that case, why could he hear it breathing, this useful apparition that his mind had created for itself? Surely he was not imagining that, was he?
Shook his head. Who knows? He knew one thing, though, which was that he could not stay there indefinitely as he was, face down and freezing in the snow, not if he wanted to see morning, which he not only wanted to do, but must do, as in the morning, that valley would likely be filling up with rescuers on whom he must keep a close eye to insure none of them headed up his way or spotted a suspicious track. So, he had to move. Slowly--not that he was capable of doing it any other way, at the moment--cautiously, pausing frequently to listen, he got himself up to hands and knees, and once, weight shifting and the snow beneath him giving out a soft little groan as it compacted, he thought he heard the breathing over there beyond the nearest tree stop, as if its owner had heard, also, and stopped to listen. No way he was going to be able to exit the area without being heard, not if the intruder’s ears were so sharp as they seemed. His only hope was to keep still and wait, hope his adversary would tire of standing there, and move on to seek him elsewhere. That, or try his best to close with the man, or woman, or whoever it might be, and hope enough strength might remain in his half frozen limbs to finish the job. Risky business. Both options were risky, but he chose the first, hoping the intruder lacked a solid fix on his location and might still move on so he could make his escape.
Wasn’t working. Instead of moving on, the person seemed to have turned towards him, perhaps even taken a step in his direction for the breathing had grown slightly louder, and he froze in place, elbows pressed to his sides in another failed attempt to still his shaking, but at least this time less of him was in contact with the snow, minimizing the scrunching, squeaking sounds that he had previously feared might give him away. Still, the person was moving closer. Then she spoke, barely a whisper, mere feet from his position, and it took Einar a minute to sort out what he was hearing.
“Einar, is that you? What are you doing?”
Liz. Trembling nearly as much now with relief as from the cold he reached for her, fumbled with the knife until he got it put away, found her well concealed beneath a small fir and grabbed her, clinging, glad but at the same time apprehensive, not knowing why she was there, wishing she had not left additional tracks by coming and hoping desperately that she wouldn’t speak aloud and give them both away before he could convey to her the seriousness of the situation.
What are you doing up here, Lizzie? I left you a note, said I’d be back, didn’t you believe me…? Quiet. We’ve got to be quiet, or they’ll hear us down there.
She wasn’t answering. Didn’t seem to have heard him, which was no wonder at all when he realized that he hadn’t been speaking aloud, had not even made the effort, and when he tried, couldn’t seem to get his mouth to form the words. Liz was not waiting for words, pressing him close and getting the rabbitskin blanket around the two of them, hurrying to rub some warmth back into him and searching her pocket for the little container of honey she carried, similar to the one he had earlier consumed, and she gave it to him, making sure he was working on getting its entire contents down, but he was having trouble, couldn’t feel his mouth or reliably keep hold of the little container, and she helped him.
“Einar, what have you done? Have you been lying out here in the snow all day? You’re frozen. Come on, finish the honey. You need it.”
Finished the stuff, wanted to tell her a number of things, and in a hurry, but communication was still coming with a great deal of difficulty for him, so he stuck to the basics. “S-skiers…came. Slide. Guy…injured. Chopper coming...rescue. Quiet. Right down there. Can’t leave tracks.”
“Chopper coming? How do you know?”
“Skied out. Third man…skied out. Get help. Thought you…woman from slide. Climbed up. Didn’t know how you found me.”
“What? Oh, you thought I was one of the skiers, climbed up here to find you? No, it’s only me. I found your note, waited all day for you to come back but when it got dark with no sign of you…well, little Will and I got tired of sitting there in the dark without a fire wondering what had happened, and we tracked you by starlight. Let’s go home, Einar. The injured skiers aren’t here to bother us.”
“Can’t. Got to…wait here and make sure they don’t see our tracks. Chopper, when they come. You go. Be warm for the night. Don’t want Will out here. Might cry. Skiers hear.”
Liz shook her head in the darkness, tightened her grip on him and slid a hand beneath his parka, trying to return some warmth to the rigid, frigid lines of his shoulders, bones sharp and shivering beneath her fingers. She could tell that he was determined to stay the night in his current position, make sure the intruders wandered no further into their territory and she could see the need for such a watch to be kept, but wished he might let her take a turn at it. He’d been right about the possibility of Will crying, though. Even with food always ready and quickly available to the little one, there was certainly no guarantee that he might not let out a squall or two before she could quiet him; there were definitely still times in the cabin where it took her a while to figure out just what it was he needed, and there was no way they could risk him giving away their position with two strangers in the basin, and possibly more on the way. Best thing, then, seemed to be to send Einar back to the cabin with Will, where both of them could keep warm while she stood watch for a while, but seeing Einar’s condition she had some doubt about his ability to keep himself on his feet long enough to make it back to the cabin without some significant warming and refueling, first, and she certainly didn’t trust him, in that state, to get the little one safely back there, despite the effort that he would surely put into such an endeavor. Not much choice then, and she was all quiet and scared inside as she rose, prepared to start back before Will woke and started using his voice. Not just yet, though. Had to try one thing, first.