The spot was perfect, backed up to the timber on one side where approach would be safe and quick escape an easy thing, tracks, if one was to leave any, mostly concealed beneath the heavy trees, and Einar had to admit it would have been one he’d likely have chosen, himself, had he been needing to scavenge a winterkill elk carcass for food while keeping concealed and leaving himself a safe way out of the area… The intruder had not seen him, back turned, crouched over the remains of the elk with what Einar recognized as the single-minded intensity of a very hungry individual, hacking away at the frozen meat with a sharply fractured sliver of granite and not seeming to have much success. Clad in what appeared to be a snowmobile suit, boots and fur jacket of some type--white, all of it; stealth had obviously been a consideration, the person appeared somewhat slight of stature, but it was difficult for Einar to be certain, crouched as they were. He didn’t see any weapons, saw only snowshoes and a small daypack, in fact, white, also, set over some distance to the side, with what looked like perhaps a tarp-covered bedroll bound beneath it, but he knew better than to assume the intruder was unarmed--or alone; mustn’t use the pistol, except as a last resort--keeping the atlatl raised, ready as he eased his way back by a few steps.
Motioning for silence, Einar quickly retreated around the shoulder of snow, leading Liz into the nearest stand of stunted subalpine firs and crouching there with her, much to the dismay of Muninn, who set up a horrible scolding racket as he continued to circle the fallen elk. Good, Einar said silently to himself, that’ll cover any sound we might make if Will gets tired of sitting and starts to whimper, or worse… The child was, for the moment, fast asleep on his mother’s back, and Einar prayed that he might stay that way, at least until they figured out what they were doing, and took some action. Liz still had little idea what had spooked him, knew better than to ask aloud when he had that strained, listening look about him, but watched him with silent, questing eyes, hoping somehow to determine whether the threat might be real…or simply a product of his mind, imagination and the exhaustion that she knew must be closely stalking him by that time. Not that it would have been much less of a threat, in that case, but she did need to know which sort of threat might be facing them.
Einar saw the question in her eyes, leaned close and spoke in a low whisper, barely audible. “Guy there behind the snow bank. Going at the carcass. Didn’t see me.”
“Don’t know. Looked like it, but…”
She nodded, glanced at the sleeping Will on her back.
“Yeah, I want the two of you out of here. Got that one open area to cross before you’ll be back on the other side of the basin, and then it’s timber all the way. I’ll stay right here and cover you, then work my way around for a better look. At a better distance.”
“I don’t want to leave you.”
He put a gentle hand on the warm hat of corded and crocheted mountain goat wool that protected Will from the chill breeze. “You’ve got to.”
“Yes,” and she went, moving silently across the hard snow, swiftly, stopping only when she had attained the dark safety of the timber and expecting all the way to hear gunshots, to look back and see that Einar had fallen to a dart or been rushed by some unseen force hiding in the nearby trees, elk carcass merely the bait designed to draw him in, draw them in, and it was with great relief that she looked back to see him still there, crouched exactly as she had left him, watching the open area with the pistol, ready to do battle on her behalf had any enemy shown his head. Now, safe in the trees, Liz wished he might join her, leave the intruder, whoever he might be, to his own devices and come home safe, out of reach of whatever dangers lay out there. But of course he did not come, had to know what, exactly, they might be, and she knew he was right in wanting to know, for should they return home without gaining more thorough intelligence on the matter, they would not safely be able to so much as have a fire to warm the place and cook by, and Einar, she knew, would stew over the potential threat down in the basin until it either drove him mad, or back out into the snow to look. Or both. Best settle the thing now, while she was, if not near enough to be of any actual assistance, at least within sight, and intending to remain so. Just as long as Will could be kept quiet, which for the moment was not a concern, as he remained fast asleep.
Nodding to Liz to let her know he’d seen her reach safety--and meant for her to stay there--Einar started out across the open space, himself, moving swiftly and silently as he was able and keeping the high snowdrift bank always between himself and the elk carcass, one eye on the surrounding timbered ridges lest he miss some clue that they held additional enemy, and the other on Muninn, knowing the bird would tell him should the intruder rise and make a move. Nothing, no glint of glass or metal from the ridges, no sign from the raven that anything had changed behind the snow bank and then he was in the timber, far below Liz’s position and to the north of it--didn’t want to draw any attention in that direction, should there be attention which could be drawn--breath coming hard and every sense alert for the slightest sound, motion, but there was only the wind. Good. Maybe he really is alone. But can’t count on it, yet. Got to have a better look. To which end he began with painstaking care worming his way through the low, close tangle of firs which provided him concealment, wanting to see around the snowdrift and wishing he’d thought to bring the binoculars on this particular expedition.
Before Einar had quite worked his way around far enough to see the carcass, Muninn gave the warning he’d been looking for. Tipping a wing and banking sharply sideways, the bird ended his circling and scolding, soaring off to the stand of timber in which Einar and Liz had first taken refuge after discovery of the intruder. Einar watched, closely studying the bird’s actions, as nothing was visible, of yet, in the other direction. Clearly, based on Muninn’s message, the intruder was on the move, and Einar moved, himself, more slowly than ever but still covering ground, not wanting to lose the man should he be traveling up into the timber behind his position. Turned out not to be a concern, for instead of keeping to the timber as Einar would have expected an enemy scout to do, the man had taken off across the open area of the basin, heading more or less for his own position. Not good. Had he been seen? No, surely not, for such a sighting would have inspired caution on the part of his adversary, and not the nonchalance, boldness or whatever it was allowing the intruder to waltz unprotected and unafraid out into the clearing surely meant that his presence was not suspected. That, or the man was bait in a scheme designed to induce him to reveal his presence, planned, deliberate, no action taken until he was within range and perfectly positioned…and he would not be falling for it. Unless he already had, of course, and was even then doing exactly as the enemy intended him to do, cooperating in his own demise. The prospect got to him, nearly paralyzed him for a moment but that wouldn’t do, either, and then he was moving again, belly-crawling in the snow as he sought to be somewhere other than where the enemy, if they were out there, would have last sighted him. Which might have worked quit well, had not Will just then awakened and taken vociferous objection to some aspect of his present existence before Liz was able to quiet him…