Not yet ready to go in, Einar, past being concerned about planes, the way the wind was blasting and gusting off the ridges, left the tunnel and made his way to a nearby spruce, kneeling in the sheltered, nearly snowless area beneath its wide-spreading boughs. Driving his spear point-first into the snow and the hard-frozen ground beneath, he leaned on it, head bowed, silent for a long moment.
Long trail we got ahead of us, and the way is dark to me, real dark once we leave this country and start getting down into the world… Pretty sure I’m making the right decision here for Liz and Will and Juni, too, since things would have to go real different for her if we stayed, but Lord, I’m about to go down onto the enemy’s territory, here, walk right in at the gates, and I’m not ashamed to admit a little trepidation when it comes to doing that. Strengthen me for the fight that’s likely as not coming, give me the sharpness and wisdom to see trouble coming so I can shield my family from the worst of it, if You’re willing, shelter them in your hand and keep us from the talons of the enemy, for the net he’s surely got laid for us down there. Our times are in Your hands. Keep us, please, from theirs, and give us the strength to prevail.
That was it, the simple, direct request of a warrior on the eve of battle, and he rose, pulled the spear from its snowy resting place and walked with it back to the tunnel, head high and eyes clear, ready.
Quiet, resolute as he returned to the cabin, Einar met the expectant faces turned upon him, for all had by then heard the wind, guessed at its meaning. “Snow’s starting, quite a wind up high. Won’t be any more planes for a while.”
They all nodded at his announcement, knowing the meaning both of the change in weather and his acknowledgement of it, knowing the time had come. Kilgore, in a major departure from his usual way of being, was quiet, respectful as Einar and Liz went about the place making their final preparations, Juni even holding Will and doing her best to entertain him with a raven feather, a bit of cordage and an interesting flake of granite so the two of them could concentrate, have some time to themselves. At last it was finished, this final inspection, cache baskets and bags given one final glance and then they were ready, no sense delaying it too much further, for who knew how long the storm might stay?
Quite some time, Einar suspected, for the look of the sky had spoken to him of a great deal of snow waiting to fall, and though knowing it would increase the difficulty and dangers they faced on the trail—avalanches, especially after such a long stretch of clear, warmer weather to glaze and harden the existing snowpack, would be a very real danger as the new snow piled up and formed in places poor bonds with the lower layers—he welcomed the snow, hoped it might last several days at the least, covering all signs of their departure.
Leaving at last, Einar did not look back, but Liz, eyes hazy and throat suddenly closing up, did. It had been a good shelter, this cabin, the hidden little plateau, a home to them and the place where their son had been born, and she would for that reason always remember it with fondness though their lives there had at times been anything but easy. Hoping they might someday make their way back she turned, followed her husband out into the storm, Will chortling and singing happily beneath the shelter of her hood.
Einar, now that he had agreed to the trip and set his mind on its successful completion—whatever that might mean; he still wasn’t sure—wanted to lead, consulting frequently with Kilgore about the tracker’s intended route but always after these conferences pulling ahead once more to break trail and keep watch, a task requiring so much effort and stamina in the deep snow that Liz soon began to worry for him, knowing how exhausted he had seemed of late when simply carrying out regular daily activities, how near the edge the severity and deprivation of his life had left him. She said nothing of it though, still hardly believing that he had agreed to the trip in the first place and supposing that if he needed to take the lead in their travels in order to make it all work out, that would be a small price to pay. She hoped. Already there was in his gait a bit of the dazed stumble that she knew would increasingly creep in as his exhaustion advanced and the cold settled more firmly in his bones, and she could only hope that he might see the wisdom in letting someone else take over for a while, before it knocked him flat on his back in the snow and left him able to continue only at a crawl. She had seen him like that in the past, and the trouble was, he saw nothing at all wrong with crawling, if that was what it took. An admirable quality, to be sure, but one which would likely as not get him killed out there in that storm.
Muninn was not interested in staying behind. They had, of course, taken him out of the cabin with them, said their good byes and, with a flick of Einar’s wrist, sent him sailing off into the storm where they had hoped he would find a nice, sheltering tree to wait the thing out as any other bird would have done, but the raven had other ideas, and they kept catching glimpses of him through the increasingly heavy snow, keeping pace, following. Not too much they could do about it. Einar still hoped he might get tired of the travel and return to his own familiar territory, guard the place while they were gone, but Muninn knew his place, never straying more than a few dozen yards from Einar’s side, and after a time he gave up trying to send the creature back.
Nightfall, and the snow continued unabated, as did Einar as he led the little band up the high ridge opposite the basin and down the slope beyond. Duration of the storm uncertain and search planes likely to resume their flights with its passing, he had no intention of stopping, and was, besides, far too cold to think of pausing to make camp, even if the others were not. Wind seemed to be blowing right through him, chattering his teeth and leaving a dreadful ache in back and legs as they seemed always tense with resisting it, body numbed and always on the edge of shivering despite the good pace. Did not matter, none of it mattered, time would come later to rest, might come, at least, if they managed to successfully carry out the present mission and conceal the signs of their departure, so he kept moving, pressing forward and stopping only to squint into the howling dimness in search of landmarks by which he might judge their progress and position.
Terrain growing rougher on the ridge’s steep, rocky backside Kilgore and Juni resorted to headlamps to see the terrain ahead of them, much of it as was visible through the swirling, sweeping melee of blowing snow, and seeing as the chances of anything being up in the air just then looking for them were slim to none, Einar made no objection to the light. Used it, in fact, blinking and flashing from rock and tree as it shone from behind, to help navigate as he led them between two low walls of broken rock and down into the steep, icy confines of a narrow little snow-choked gully that seemed to him the quickest and most secure means of leaving the area of the basin. Wanted to use routes that few would suspect harbored paths capable of providing passage for humans, and in choosing the gully, he had certainly found one such, the going nearly impossible at times and Liz trying her hardest to focus on the task at hand—keeping her footing and avoiding spills—instead of giving in to worry over Will’s safety on the steepness. When, just over halfway down and all nearing exhaustion from the wind and the intense concentration needed to traverse the rugged descent, Kilgore called a halt beneath a sheltering overhang of rock, no one objected, Liz and Juni because they were more than ready for the break and Einar, though wanting to push on ahead, silent because he found himself too numbed and stiff with the wind to utter a sound.