Despite the urgency of his mission, Einar was glad and perhaps even a bit relieved to be outside by himself, able to breathe again and move without being under the constant watchful eye of others. He had not gone far, however, in the blessed, quiet cold of that still winter evening, traveling cautiously beneath the brush until he was far from the house and in the timber, before he was rather forcefully reminded of the fact that it wasn’t simply the watchfulness of others which had been making it difficult for him to move freely. He was, in reality, barely able to keep on his feet, knees threatening to buckle beneath him after a few steps and a rising dizziness assailing his every move, threatening to halt him. Chest felt tight, breath coming with difficulty and had it not been for a gnawing anxiety which came with the lack of adequate oxygen, he would have felt rather like lying down to sleep. Disgusted with himself—had really believed the majority of his trouble lately could be traced to the fact that he was closed up in the house without useful work to do, and so was becoming soft—he gritted his teeth, squinted against the vertigo and went on, heedless of the fact that he was already stiff and nearly shaking with cold, despite Bud’s borrowed winter clothing. Didn’t matter, any of it. All that mattered just then was the mission, the need to scour that ridge for any uninvited human presence, discern its purpose in the area and secure the safety of his family.
All of which would be an awful lot easier to do if you could stand up straight and make it more than a few feet before the world started closing in on you, don’t you think? Those women are right, you know. This is absurd. Can’t go on this way, or you’re gonna get yourself killed, and worst of all, probably your family with you. Go on up that hill, finish scouting and then get in there and eat like they’ve been telling you. Yeah, I know, it comes with its consequences, that sort of surrender, but do you think this doesn’t? This stumbling around in a daze barely able to see straight while the feds potentially surround the place? Talk about consequences… Shaking his head, he continued up through the timber, Muninn flapping along beside him and occasionally going out ahead, scouting, sure, he believed, to warn him of danger should it be present.
Nothing on the ridgeline, at least not in area where Einar first met it, everything still save for a light but persistent wind which swept down from the higher peaks beyond, whispering in the spruces and setting their tops to swaying, all quiet when he paused for several minutes to listen. Continuing then on towards the spot where the raven had seemed to be looking when he’d raised his alarm in the house, Einar kept below the ridge’s crest, slipping from one clump of heavy timber to the next as he kept as sharp as possible for any unexplained sound or movement.
Darkness. It was coming quickly, especially there beneath the timber, and while Einar wanted to think it would be to his advantage, he knew he might well be seeking a foe armed with infrared scopes, night vision goggles and other technologies which would put him at a definite disadvantage. Hoped he might find them—if there was anyone to be found—before that time.
The snow was helpful, ground still thoroughly covered and its white surface reflecting just enough light, even beneath the trees, to allow him some measure of vision still, but it presented a challenge as well, crunching softly in places beneath his feet so that he had to take great care to stick to the more solid areas where the action of freeze and thaw had created an icy surface through which he would be hard pressed to break, even should he rise and jump up and down. Beneath some of the denser areas of timber where sun never reached, the snow was still soft and deep, trapping Einar temporarily as he crawled through these areas, and leaving him trying his best to avoid them. Tracks, though he was leaving some, did not concern him, as he was not going anywhere. Just up the ridge, and back, as Kilgore frequently did, so any tracks left ought not present much of a concern.
Pushing silently through a dense cluster of little spruces he felt open air ahead—nearly too dark to see the difference—and froze.
Something up there, he had a sense of it, couldn’t say why but was certain he was no longer alone on that ridgeline. The raven, unfortunately, gave no clue, encroaching darkness greatly limiting both his ability and his will to be up and flying, searching; Einar was on his own. Thought he detected movement over to his left, the sensation more feeling than sight, and he inched lower, dropping to a crouch behind the shelter of the nearest tree and working to slow his breathing so he could get a better sense of his opponent, how many they might be and whether or not his presence had yet been detected.
For a long time he waited, still, listening, finally creeping forward only after no sign presented itself, meaning to complete a circuit of the ridge, sweeping the place before heading back down. Wind coming up. Good for him, as it covered his movements as he crept with meticulous caution though a slash of oak brush which cut the timber there near the ridges’s summit, making slow progress while it blew and freezing as it abated, waiting for another gust.
Freezing. Was more than a figure of speech for him just then, chill of the night somehow having managed to work its way through his borrowed clothing and into his bones, stiffening muscles and leaving him always on the edge of shivering, the strain of resisting it only adding to an already pervasive exhaustion which threatened to leave him sprawled on the ground an entirely unaware of his surroundings before the mission could be completed. Which must not happen, and in an effort to bring himself back to full alertness he rolled over onto his injured hip, resting his full weight on the bruised, swollen area which had been most troublesome. Caught his breath, forehead pressed against the snow beneath him. No danger of sleeping, now. No chance of hearing much of anything, either, and for a time he lay still, waiting for a lessening of the hiss and sizzle in his ears, moving forward only after some measure of silence had been restored.
Perhaps it was because of the blood rushing in his head, the harsh struggle of his own breath in his throat and the blackness which rose increasingly to obscure what little vision he had left in the failing light, or perhaps it was simply due to the stealth of the other man—though upon later reflection he was to conclude it was almost certainly the former—but Einar never heard him coming, never had a chance to resist as he was knocked hard in the side of the head with some very solid object, laid out flat in the snow.
He awoke a short time later to a dim but quickly sharpening awareness of pain in his hip, arms—couldn’t move them when he tried—the realization that he was somehow missing most of his clothes, and the sensation of cold.