Circling back around, silent or as close to it as he could come, Einar sought the source of the speaking he had heard. For all he knew Juni might be talking to herself but he had to be certain, and was pretty sure he’d heard two voices… Dark by then, entirely dark and would be until the quarter moon rose some two or three hours on into the night, so he navigated by feel, a pretty sketchy thing in that terrain and not lending itself well to quick travel. For a time, working his way through a dense stand of tiny, stunted firs, he lost track of the voices, no sound reaching his ear but the soughing of the wind through the trees around him and below, in the bare, hollow bones of the rocks.
Cold. No way he could begin to keep himself anywhere near warm while traveling so very slowly and inevitably wet from the snow which seemed endlessly to be falling on him from the hopelessly tangled mat of timber through which he struggled, and once, huddling for a moment of damp and somewhat miserable rest beneath a slightly larger and less snowy tree, he contemplated the possibility that he really might have imagined the entire thing, mind constructing the scenario by cobbling together quite without his permission jumbled fragments of memory, suspicion, supposition, voices never real and the only person out there in the night, aside from himself, his lagging and probably exhausted student, Juniper. Which if true would mean an end to his search or at least a great reduction in its urgency, a good thing, for he was by that time so far past the point of exhaustion that he could barely bring himself to lift his head, let alone contemplate effectively prosecuting the remainder of that search. Wishful thinking, and he knew it, the sort that would get a man killed, or worse, and he was on his feet again, shoving wet-numbed hands briefly beneath his arms and beating them against his legs in an attempt to restore some circulation and stave off the frostbite which constantly threatened as the cold of night deepened.
Time to go, knew he wouldn’t be getting anywhere very fast until somehow he made his way out of the patch of dense, black timber which now clawed at arms, bruised shins and knocked him in the face every time he tried to move, so very deliberately he resumed working his way through the stuff, creeping, crawling, moving on all fours like a marten or an ermine, low to the ground and stretched out full length in an attempt to avoid something of the worst of the tangle. This new strategy, though a bit rough on hands and knees which, insensible with cold and moving continuously along the ground, ended up quite thoroughly lacerated and bruised on exposed rock and broken branches, resulted in his getting clear of the timber after only a few more minutes, back out onto the rocks where he crouched shivering and out of breath, nearly sobbing in relief at the sight of the stars overhead. Ok, Einar. Get hold of yourself, why don’t you? Now the voices are…you’ve decided they were real, just about had to be real, so you’re gonna need to be working your way in closer and trying to do something about that, aren’t you? Figure out if that goofy Juni girl’s just taking to herself, as you’re prone to do on occasion—though almost never out loud—or if she’s met up with whoever it was you sensed following you earlier, and is actively plotting your destruction. That wouldn’t be good, because slow as your brain and body are moving right now and them probably equipped with night vision, infrared, warm clothes and plenty to eat….well, you’re gonna be mighty hard-pressed to out-plan them, let alone outdistance them, set and ambush and get the upper hand in this thing. But you’ve got to do it.
Which he fully intended to do, and, having decided on the necessary course of action, would have without further delay had his chilled and under-nourished brain not picked that particular moment to go into the sort of half-sleeping daze which had become all too common for him over the past weeks. It was a thing he hated, fought for all he was worth and usually won—when he was aware of its insidious, creeping approach. Which more and more often—as in this case—he was not, so he sat, slumping out of his crouch to lean on the scraggly form of the nearest spruce, eyes closed, mind drifting, threat from below all but forgotten. All but a nagging little glimmer somewhere in the corner of his brain, and though it might just as easily have gone ignored as he passed from daze into sleep and the frigid night took him, it instead grew, intensified and roused him after a time, body stiff and unwilling but mind possessed of a great determination to press it into compliance, rouse it to action and settle the matter before him.
Slowly and with a good deal of reluctance and protest on the part of his physical being, Einar managed to get himself more or less upright again, atlatl and darts found and collected as he set off once more across the rocks, startled and somewhat alarmed at the realization that the glow he saw emanating from just below the horizon before him had to be the moon, which had not, according to his last awareness of the matter, been supposed to rise for nearly two hours. Must’ve been out for a while, then. Not good at all. They could have circled around behind you in that time, found you, made a plan… He shuddered—nothing to do with the cold, this time—and stopped stock still to listen, hoping to catch on the night breeze some indication of whether or not he was alone in the immediate area. Seemed to be, all quiet about him and the feeling of the place—often though not always an accurate indicator—one of silent repose, exactly as he would expect a winter night at such elevation to be. Reassured somewhat that his enemy was not lying in wait for him just on the other side of the timber but distressed at the lapse in discipline which had allowed for the possible escape of said foe—and certainly of Juni, as well, whether or not she was working in collusion with them—he started out across the rockslide, hoping perhaps to catch another whisper of the voices which had drawn him down to that area, in the first place.
Nothing. No sound in the frigid night save the soft crunch of his boots in the skiff of dry, sun-hardened snow on the rocks and occasionally, tiring of suppressing the tendency or spurred uncontrollably by a thin gust of wind howling up thin and piercing from the basin below, the hurried and rather desperate-sounding chatter of his own teeth, breath puffing and whistling in concert. Then, just as he was about to turn and head back up the slope, despairing of finding anyone down there below—must have slipped around past him as he’d sat in his daze just below the timber—and his need to generate a bit of heat beginning to take precedence over nearly every other concern, the wind stilled and he again heard the murmur of voices.
Closer. Must get himself closer, for he could not make out their words, could not even determine for certain whether one of the speakers might be Juni, and if the second was male or female—might make a difference, for the thought had occurred to him as he dozed, creeping up from some dark recess of his mind, that perhaps Liz had taken a notion to follow them, might have caught up and found Juni, though the possibility seemed to him somewhat remote—and slowly he crept forward, inching his way over the slick rock lest he give himself away by too sudden a movement. There. Just over in the next little island of timber, and now, wind still hushed, he could begin to make out some of the words. Low, urgent voices, and they were talking about him. Which confirmed everything.