Einar listened as Liz’s footsteps crunched off into the distance above him, sound soon dimming as she climbed, trees coming between them until he was left all alone in the silence. In that silence, Liz no longer there to motivate him with her presence to restrain and conceal signs of such trouble, he gave himself over to the shivering which had been trying to seize him every time they stopped, head bowed and arms wrapped around his middle as he sought to let the shaking warm him. Wasn’t working too well, needed to be up and moving, he knew, if he was to have much chance of remaining mobile by the time Liz had finished her climb and returned to him. Standing there in the snow pit, swinging his arms and marching in place as well as his sore and swollen leg would allow, he lamented agreeing to stop and wait, in the first place. Even if slow, his progress up the slope would have served to generate some heat, and even now he could follow in her tracks, reach the top, perhaps, as she sat studying the maps.
Not a good idea, and he knew it. Should Liz for some reason return to his waiting-spot by some route other than that used on her climb, they might well miss one another and end up wandering about as darkness fell, walking in circles as each pursued the trail of the other. Bad plan, lightly equipped as they had come and with the brush in places so thick as to be nearly impenetrable, considering the depth and rotten quality of the snow… Might spend the entire night just shoving their way through the brush in search of one another, and while Liz might make it alright, he knew that he, realistically, would not.
So. Looks like you’re waiting right here, and you’re gonna have to make the best of it. Just keep yourself moving, and you should be fine. Give the leg a good twist if you start feeling sleepy, and there’s no chance of your losing awareness in the cold. That ought to be plenty to keep you awake. And then she’ll be back, hopefully with some good solid information, and we can all head down and sit around a good warm fire tonight, planning where we go from here and where we might want to start looking for a place to set up a more permanent shelter. Be good to have something like that in place before the next storm comes, because this time of the spring, we’re almost certain to have another good storm or two.
Thus occupied in thought and contending physically with the cold and with the hurt of his leg, Einar passed what he estimated must have been upwards of an hour in a wearying but effective routine of structured motion interspersed with brief if exhausted rests, mind busy all the time with the puzzle of their new location and of what it could mean that Kiesl had apparently dropped them in a place some fair distance from the one which had originally been intended. The pilot had not said much about their destination when, half an hour into the ride, he’d slid open the window between truck cab and camper shell, and struck up a conversation with his passengers.
The talk had mostly been about the technical aspects of the jump, at first, Kiesl apparently wanting to make sure that Einar remembered and Liz was somewhat educated about the particulars of the thing she would be doing for the first time several hours hence, but when he had somewhat assured himself as to the readiness of the pair, conversation had turned to memories of past jumps, missions, corners of the world whose acquaintance the two of them had made, if not always at the same time. Einar had enjoyed the conversation—as much as anyone can enjoy good conversation while confined in the back of a truck with one’s family, half expecting every moment to hear the squeal of tires as the feds cut off all avenues of escape—had done a good deal more listening than speaking, but would have liked time to further reminisce with the pilot.
Well. Not likely to happen now, hopefully not, anyway, as their best option appeared to involve removing themselves far enough from the drop zone that not even Kiesl or Kilgore would be able to locate them, in the future. If either man should have a mind to do such a thing. But first they must know just where they were, and in which direction good sense dictated they ought to travel, lest they end up placing themselves in more danger by unwittingly straying too close to civilization.
He wondered what was taking Liz so long. Supposed they might have been a good bit further below the ridge crest than he had estimated when they parted ways, prayed nothing had gone wrong and contemplated once again following her tracks and attempting to catch up to her, but once again decided against it. Would give her a bit more time, first. Time, he knew, can be a tricky thing when waiting for someone, can seem to pass a good deal more quickly than it actually is, and she might well be right above him, about to come into view. Straining ears and clamping jaws he sought to catch any faint and distant hint of crunching in the snow, moving branches, anything that might indicate her approach, but there was nothing.
Some two hours later, sun beginning to sink low and Einar rather past his capacity for maintaining anything like a workable body temperature without some serious movement, he made his decision, rose with considerable difficulty and started up the slope. She had taken big steps, anxious, it appeared, to reach the top and start back down, and as this pattern continued without any sign of letup, it only added to the mystery of her delay. And to the difficulty of his own travel, for though a good nine inches taller than she and anxious to use her footsteps lest he have to discover for himself all the pitfalls she had already made plain, Einar found himself hard-pressed to keep his stride as long as hers had been. Mostly he ended up stumbling about somewhere halfway between the halting, liming steps to which his leg was trying so hard to limit him, and the ones she had taken, floundering and flopping and generally making frustratingly slow progress.
Doggone it Einar, you’ve got to move faster, here. She could have reached the top, turned around and been back to your waiting-spot two times over, by now. Come on, you’ve got it in you. Just…right, yeah, just drag the leg. Thing’s all but useless by now anyway, as far as supporting your weight, and it just wrenches it worse every time you end up sticking it down through the snow. Yeah, this is the way!
New method of travel a good bit more effective if not nearly as graceful as the careful walking he had so far been attempting, things began to go a bit more quickly for him, trees passing by and the summit nearing.
When after nearly an hour’s climbing—slow going through all that down, snow-hidden timber, and the effort did not seem to be improving his leg any, despite his new method of travel—Einar finally came out on the ridge crest, the reason for Liz’s lateness became immediately plain.