It surprised Einar, once they’d started down, to discover just how far he had climbed that previous day, ascending thousands of feet above the basin in what must have been only a few hours, judging from the time he knew he’d spent waiting in ambush for Juni and then waiting some more, while she sat trapped in the rock crevice. Rather a major feat it must have been, but the time had passed in a blur, legs carrying him somehow up and over that immensity of steep, snowy rock and timber and mind managing to stay sharp enough through the whole thing to allow for an effective evasion and ambush of his student. He shook his head, resumed following Liz as she led the way down through an especially gnarly band of timber, legs trembling and threatening to give out beneath him. Would be better if he was still climbing, still measuring his own steps and in control of…yeah, that would really be better, wouldn’t it, if you were directing this thing? So you could go right back to pushing yourself up that ridge until you were all used up and fell down for the last time, and that was the end of it. Yeah, lots better than this. Now be quiet, won’t you, and pay attention to the rocks before you really do fall and go tumbling down this thing, right to the bottom. Fine mess that’d be, and besides, it’d delay Liz’s plan for the day, whatever that may be…
Far from the devious qualities Einar’s mind strove so hard and entirely without his bidding to ascribe to it, Liz’s plan was very simple, and extended, for the time, no further than getting all of them safely down the slope and back to the cabin. This would, she knew, quite thoroughly disrupt any further hopes he’d had for finishing Juni’s survival course, and though this did concern her, by far the greater concern in her mind was the strong likelihood that the instructor would not, himself, have survived the remainder of the course. If he didn’t see it yet, she could only hope Einar might at some time in the future come to see the futility of such an exercise if actually carried to its finish, and forgive her interference. Seemed to be doing it so far, following with what appeared to her almost a disturbing level of meekness and compliance; she would perhaps have found herself reassured by seeing a bit more resistance from him, a bit of fight from time to time, but rather than stop and make a try at determining just how serious the situation might have become—she already knew, of course, but feared things might at last be nearing their end, had he entirely lost the desire or ability to resist, which as she had observed, always tended to grow stronger in him , rather than the opposite, as the struggle became more desperate—she decided to take advantage of it to make as much downward progress as possible, not knowing how long the unfamiliar new trend might last and well aware that whatever its origin and ultimate portent, she would be much better equipped to deal with the situation once everyone was back at home safe and secure in the (soon to be) warm cabin.
She hurried, then, setting a pace which proved a challenge to Juni and left Einar grabbing at trees and bracing himself against boulders in an effort to keep on his feet as he all but hurdled himself down the mountain, less than steady but entirely focused on the task at hand, using the terrain to his advantage and managing, more or less, to keep up. Until he bounced off of one too many boulders in the barely-controlled slalom that was passing as his descent, lost his footing and took a spill down between an angled slab of lichen-encrusted granite and the trunk of an enormous (for that elevation) and long-fallen spruce, the broken stump of one of its remaining branches getting all wrapped up in the parka Liz had insisted he wear for the descent. Dizzy and a bit disoriented after a pretty good knock to the side of his head as he went down he flailed about for a time trying to free himself, but not wanting to damage the garment, he managed to stop after a bit, still himself and look at things a bit more objectively. Not too badly tangled, really, was able to work his way free after a good minute of effort and get somewhat shakily to hands and knees, squinting out across the boulder field for any sign of Liz or Juni and hoping they hadn’t noticed his absence. If they had noticed, they were not yet giving any sign of it had not—thankfully—doubled back in search of him and determined to keep things that way he redoubled his efforts at speed, hop-limping across the remainder of the rocks before collapsing in a crumpled heap beneath the cover of the nearest tree, world spinning thickly around him even as he fought it with all the energy he could summon. On his feet, eyes pressed shut in the hopes of quelling the dizziness as he swept up the little spruce in a big bear hug, hanging on, swaying, sick.
Up. Stay up. She’s gonna come back any minute and see you here like this, and then… Then what? What’s the worst that can happen? Afraid she’ll realize that you’re not too steady on your feet, or what? Oh, she knows that already. Quit fooling yourself, you numbskull. She knows all about it, knows more than you do, and while she may not mention it every time because she’s trying to spare your dignity, you know there’s no fooling her. And you’re not gonna gain anything by trying. True, all of it, yet there was no way he could simply sink back to the ground and lie there waiting for her to come and find him, so after a time he eased his hold on the tree, took a few uncertain steps forward and soon settled into a rhythm which seemed likely to go on carrying him forward. Which it did, but only for a few yards, vertigo overcoming him once more and this time jerking the ground most inconsiderately out from beneath him when he tried to rise.
Tried again, similar results, and he was about to start crawling when he realized that he could almost certainly walk with a stick, something to help steady him and keep the ground in its place, and though the idea did occur to him that he absolutely must not resort to any such thing, lest Liz see and realize that something was amiss, he quickly dismissed the objection as so much mindless, prideful prattle, dropped back to hands and knees and searched about until he found the appropriate implement, which turned out to be the lower two thirds of a long-dead baby aspen, barkless and blanched a smooth, sparkling grey by several years of high-altitude sun. On his knees, testing the thing for sturdiness, Liz found him.
“What are you doing?”
He looked up—busted—gave her a lopsided grin and lowered his head, exhausted. “Gathering firewood. What’s it look like?”
“Looks like you’re bleeding. What happened?”
“Your head, right here. What’d you do, run into a tree?”
“Oh. Didn’t realize…” raised a hand to the growing knot on the side of his head, came away with cold-congealing blood. Well, she’d seen. Might as well be honest about it. “No, no tree. Just had a little fall in the rocks. No problem.”
“No.” She gave him a hand, pulled him to his feet and retrieved the stick when he dropped it, started off down the slope without another word. Einar, breathing a sigh of relief, followed. It would be good to be home.