Liz knew they were being stalked, had spent enough time out in the backcountry and in danger to know that one ought not ignore feelings such as the one that crept along her spine as she crouched in the thicket with Juni and so, hand on the other woman’s arm by way of quieting and ears alert for any confirming sound from the rocks around them, she waited. Nothing, no sound for a very long time and she was about to rise and be on with their search, for she knew Einar was out there and Juni’s account of the past day had only added to her concern for him, but something held her back, some instinct of the hunted animal when in proximity to a dangerous predator, and as the instinct had more than once in the past been responsible for keeping her alive, she hesitated to neglect its voice. When for a good ten minutes no sound came from the snow-crunchy rocks outside, however, she began to doubt, not yet ready to make a move but less cautious than she had been about quietly speaking.
“He didn’t say anything about where he was headed next? Before you left the camp, I mean.”
“He didn’t say much of anything, other than to answer my pleas for food with the offer of a stomach full of raw, indigestible usnea lichen. Said it would fill me up if nothing else, and I didn’t much like the sound of it but finally quit asking about food, because it was obvious that he had to be so much hungrier than I was, and he wasn’t eating anything, either. I don’t think he brought anything—part of the course, I know; this is quite a course—and he didn’t seem interested in hunting or snaring. Seems that isn’t part of the course, and I get the concept, but I’m a little worried that in this cold and as far as we’ve climbed…”
“I know. But it’s useless to try and tell him about it, because half the time I think he really does believe he can go on indefinitely like that without any serious consequences.”
“It isn’t true. Might have been at one time, but now…”
“Yeah. These past couple of weeks, he’s only been eating because he promised me he would—when I gave him things. He’s stuck to it as well as he’s been able, but when I’m not around to hold him to it…well, before that days and days would sometimes go by, and if I’m not around to insist he stick to our deal, I’m pretty sure he’ll just get right back into those old habits, and they won’t take him very far, right now. I need to find him. He doesn’t want to admit this either, but he’s going to freeze out there.”
“I can believe that. I’d like to help you look, but I lost his trail about dark. All he said was that I’d better save my breath for climbing, which made me think he planned to head up for a good while, still. I don’t know what’s up there…”
“Just the top of the ridge, about five hundred feet above where we are right now. We’re almost there. But it’s all short little timber and jumbled rock between here and the summit, and he could be just about anywhere. I think he’s close, though. Keep getting the feeling that we’re being watched”
“Do you think he knows it’s us?”
She shrugged in the darkness, reached back to check on little Will, who had been asleep on her back for the past hour or so. “Ought to, the way we’ve been talking! But you never can tell. I’d feel better if we had some good way to let him know, before he gets in too much closer and maybe decides to take care of the situation with his atlatl…”
“He’s good with that thing, even when he’s half frozen from sitting behind a rock ambushing you while you climb…”
“About noon or so, today.”
“Yep, he’s good with the atlatl. Even in the dark. So we’d better try and keep it down, until we find some way to let him know it’s us.”
They were not, fortunately, to have to do much further thinking on said method of emergency identification, Muninn the raven, who had stuck with Liz instead of Einar over the past day and had--much against the instinct of his kind and his usual pattern of behavior, both--followed her even into the dark hours of the evening and night, setting up such a fuss that all could not help but pay him heed. This included Einar, who was even then creeping up on the two women, convinced nearly beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were his enemies and must be destroyed, the harsh, demanding rasps of the raven piercing somewhat through the haze which had descended so heavily upon him and stopping him in his tracks. Not right.
Not right. Ravens didn't fly at night, did not, heads tucked in for the night, so much as peek out at the world from beneath the shelter of their feathers unless gravely and violently disturbed. This he knew from long experience, from observing the bird which had shared for so long their cabin and their camps, and he wondered now at the cause of this bird’s alarm, supposing perhaps the enemy—led by the reporter Juni and whoever she happened to be with—had stumbled across the raven in its sleep and startled it from its perch, Bad news for the bird, good for him, and he dropped to the ground, silent, creeping, knowing he must both get in closer in order to further assess the situation and his best course of action, and that he mustn’t risk being discovered in the doing of it. Mighty risky thing, but he had little choice. Enemy could be all around.