Einar had been sleeping lightly, cold again after having at some point disentangled himself from Liz’s embrace and rolled to the edge of the bed where the hides did not so thoroughly cover him—the night was full of shadows, and he did not want to be so close to her should he accidentally fall asleep and find himself facing some of them—and troubled by a series of vivid dreams which had crept in to leave him waking wide-eyed and staring whenever he did doze. It was in this context that the sound reached his ears, a movement in the snow outside, something between a scrape and a crunch and so faint as to be somewhat past the edge of normal hearing, but there was nothing normal about Einar’s hearing on most days, and especially not after having just wakened from one of those dreams. The entire world was alive with sounds for him, soft, slow monotony of Liz’s breathing, gentle, reassuring, Will’s still-faster rhythm weaving in and out of her own as he, too, slept, and across the room the sound of Juni stirring slightly in her sleep, fabric of her bag rustling softly. Then there were the routine sounds of the night—sigh of wind through the spruces, crackling of cabin logs as temperatures continued to plummet, a soft scouring sound as a skiff of newly fallen snow crystals, icy because of conditions, were caught in a stray eddy of wind and swirled against the back side of the cabin near where the tunnel connected and the hollow, almost electrical-sounding echo in his own head as he for a moment lost the rigid control he’d been maintaining over his body, and shivered violently for the passage of several seconds. These sounds were all greatly amplified by the intense, crackling alertness that always attended the aftermath of such dreaming as he’d has that night, but were not unfamiliar. Not a threat.
For a time he was unsure whether he had truly heard anything threatening, anything out of the ordinary, lying perfectly still and holding himself rigid against his own shivering, could have all been in his head, wouldn’t have been the first time, especially in conjunction with such dreams as had been accosting his consciousness during the dark hours, but then it came again, and he, devoid now of any trace of sleepiness, was sure. Someone—or something, but if it wasn’t human, it had to be awfully close in both size and gait—was out there. Was moving. Approaching.
Swiftly and with more stealth than he was normally able to summon of late, Einar was out of bed and crouching on the floor, once more listening, not hearing the sound again but knowing he must go and investigate. Slipping into a sweater—parka was too bulky, would slow him down and make some noise of its own, at least to his ears—he silently retrieved the rifle from its place in the corner, checking to see that one was in the chamber, which it was, always was but still he had to check. Pistol already in his back pocket and knife ready to grab he crept for the door, ever so slowly ease open the tunnel easing it open, muzzle of the rifle leading and he following on soft, silent feet, crouching to hands and knees and pushing the door closed behind him.
Out in the tunnel it was cold, still, not a sound other than the normal night noises he’d been hearing from inside, and for a full minute he waited, weight of the rifle beginning to drag at him so that he could no longer easily hold it up, but he didn’t feel it. Needed to get some sense of the direction from which the danger might be coming, wanted to know before venturing out of the concealment of the tunnel but whatever it was seemed to have stopped moving, sensing, perhaps, his own motion or perhaps simply having reached its intended destination. Frightening thought. Even now, the man—or men, if indeed the intruder proved to be of the human sort—might be lying in wait with the tunnel mouth in full view, prepared to take him out the moment he emerged and then come for the others… Sneaky buzzards. Wished he had a third entrance. Did not, though, and upon a bit of reflection realized that things probably weren’t quite as grim as he’d initially made them out to be, even should some shadowy adversary be lying in wait.
The area around the tunnel mouth was so heavily timbered as to prevent the snow ever getting particularly deep there, unless drifted in by the wind. If one turned right upon emerging, instead of left as they usually did to begin making their way around the cabin, the trees were denser still, a stand of such thick, tangles little firs that he’d had rather a hard time pushing his way through, last time he’d tried. Those trees, if he could reach them without being spotted, would give him the concealment he needed to put some quick distance between himself and the cabin, hopefully allow him to work his way around to a vantage from which he could look back and watch the place, spot and intercept whoever was sneaking around out there. If indeed there was anyone at all. Hadn’t heard a sound since entering the tunnel, not a whisper that seemed out of place, and was almost beginning to wonder whether he had imagined the entire thing, letting the dream-shadows run away with him again, when he heard it.
Not too far away this time and distinctly human, the footsteps crunched through some old snow, stopped, did not start again. On his belly in the tunnel mouth, squinting into the faintly starlit darkness, Einar knew this could mean only one thing about the location of his adversary or adversaries, as there was only one spot nearby where the wind always kept new snow polished from the ground, allowing for the sound he had heard, instead of the much softer mute thud of a human foot in fresh powder. Turning his eyes on the place but keeping them somewhat averted in the knowledge that one’s best vision, in such lighting, is on the periphery, he scanned for any unusual shape, anything that might give away more exactly the position of the intruder, but he saw nothing, and could not risk simply firing at random into the area and hoping he hit whoever it was; the timber could be teeming with the man’s cohorts, and he absolutely must not risk giving himself away.
Only one thing to do then, and that was to try and work his way in closer, get to a place where he might be able to see something and determine more exactly the nature of the threat, and then he was moving, slithering on his belly into the soft snow beneath the firs, worming his way through as quietly as possible. Which was pretty quietly, for in his rather skinny state he passed much more easily and flexibly between the close-growing little trees than otherwise he would have found himself capable of doing, and with an almost-smile creeping across his face despite the direness of present circumstances, he decided he might have to mention the fact to Liz, next time she got after him for not eating enough. Liz. Wished she was out there with him, instead of fast asleep in a cabin which almost certainly represented the target of whoever stalked the night out there, her, and Will with her, for what chance would the two of them have should the place be stormed while they slept? Even with Juni there to help—provided she would help—it was little more than a death trap. Mustn’t allow that to happen. Must find and deal with the intruders, before they could have hope of closing the distance. If he could only find them. Still nothing over where the crunchy snow should have been, nothing visible, only just then, peering at last through the final screen of firs before a small open area beneath the cliffs back of the cabin, he thought he saw a flicker of movement, just a tiny thing right on the edge of vision, but it was enough.
Rifle aimed in the starlight, pale, tenuous starlight—would much rather use a knife, and probably would end up doing so if the man remained stationary and he was able to approach, but for now must keep him covered and watch for a minute—he lay there waiting, praying there weren’t too many, for he had no chance now to return to his family, warn them, see them off into the timber before the shooting started…