Moving with relative ease over the morning’s hard-frozen crust of snow and spurred on by a pressing need to generate some warmth after getting back into his icy clothing, Einar hurried down across the narrow, semi-open saddle that lay beneath his sleeping spot, breathing a sigh of relief when he could once more enter the dark timber and begin his ascent up the steep, timbered slope beyond. Had not cared for the thought of encountering one of those planes while not under what he considered to be adequate cover, and hoped very much that as he neared his target area, the trees would continue to offer him the concealment he needed. A period of quiet as Einar climbed, the planes, it seemed, having completed their task for a time and taking a respite, but their recent nearness and the knowledge that the last one had never made its return flight and so must remain on the ground somewhere down beyond the summit of the timbered rise kept him moving with a speed and alertness approaching what he had been able to manage in previous years.
Topping out on the rise, Einar remained frustrated in his quest for a clear view, timber and terrain conspiring to block him, but at least he was that much closer to his goal, and knew it. Could remember enough of the surrounding territory to know that, should he keep to the high ground while heading in the direction of the canyon’s head, he would have to either reach the meadows or run into the canyon, itself, at which point his intended direction would be clear.
All good news, for it meant he could keep moving, and without movement, he could feel that he was going to be in real trouble, at least until he got those clothes dried out. Not waiting around to find out just what form that trouble might take or how serious its nature—had a pretty good idea, from past experience—Einar took off through the timber, this time angling downwards slightly as he traveled, plotting his course in keeping with where he believed the canyon to lie.
Some time later—difficult to tell exactly how long, as high, thin clouds had swept in to conceal the sun—his movement was halted by a series of weird metallic popping sounds not at all in keeping with the type of woods through which he currently traveled, and far too near for comfort.
Stopping, crouching behind the nearest concealment—a cluster of bare, leafless wild rose canes; better than nothing—he got his knife into his hand, kept quiet and waited to hear it again. At first all was quiet, soft sounds of seeping meltwater in the moss and an occasional sigh of wind through the spruce tops unbroken by harsh, unnatural outbursts such as had first seized his attention, and after several minutes of stillness Einar found himself beginning to wonder if the entire thing might have been the unfortunate and all-too-realistic creation of his overly tired and still under-nourished brain, an auditory illusion of the sort that had from time to time been known to plague him in the past under such circumstances.
He doubted it. For one thing, he’d been eating far more regularly and a greater amount of late than he’d done in months, and ought as a result to be seeing fewer such incidents, if anything. And, despite passing the night in fairly significant discomfort due to his damp surroundings and inadequate cover, he had actually managed a fair amount of sleep, which two facts taken together really ought to make any odd sounds he heard external in origin. And thus a mystery which must be solved, before he continued too much further.
No solving the mystery by remaining crouched behind his little cluster of thorn bushes, not unless the thing intended on stepping out of the timber and walking his way, waving a white flag, and seeing as this had not yet occurred—and that his injured leg was beginning to ache and cramp terribly in his current position—he carefully rose, keeping the knife at the ready, and slipped into the denser timber that stood in the direction from which the sound had seemed to emanate.
If Einar had retained any doubts as to the external origin of the strange sounds which had halted his travel, these doubts were quickly dispelled when a gust of wind, stronger than those which had come before, flattened the lithe spruce tops and brought with it an unmistakable flexing and popping which reminded Einar of a tin roof being torn apart by the wind. Metal, for sure, and certain now that he was on the right track, Einar kept low as he moved through the trees, slipping like a shadow from boulder to boulder and pausing frequently to listen, like a deer that’s got wind of some danger but is not yet certain of its position or exact nature. There, ahead, lay a gap in the trees, and Einar’s pace slowed even further, body dropping and his posture resembling that of an animal stalking its prey, moving in to cover the final few yards.
No prey in sight, however, and no danger either, once he painstakingly made it to the edge of the trees and looked out across what must have been hundreds of acres of snow-splotched grassland, its flattened, muddied surface appearing in wide swaths where action of the sun and wind had only recently set the snow to melting. Very recently, Einar could see, for still there remained the whitish spider web pattern of fungus which grew beneath the snow and never survived its passing by more than a few weeks. The meadows, then, but in them no hint of the planes or any human activity which might hint at the purpose of the aircraft in making so many trips back and forth, but neither did he see anything which might have begun to explain the strange metallic sounds he had been hearing whenever the wind came up, so he knew further exploration was in order.
There is was again, the sound coming this time from a place far closer and just off to his left, so that Einar went to the ground again and began scrambling silently through the brush, stomach and elbow as he sought to stay low and avoid leaving marks which would give away his presence or his passing should the enemy later end up in that spot to investigate
Several dozen yards to the right and nearly half an hour later, Einar’s efforts were rewarded with the first glimpse of a sight which might begin to explain both the strange sounds of the afternoon, and the planes which had originally brought him to the area, a series of tents, tarps and even a small generator all neatly arranged neatly within a half circle of large limestone boulders in a shallow depression some hundred yards from the timber’s edge. A natural place for a camp of its size, sheltered somewhat by its unique terrain from the winds which otherwise whipped and howled unbroken across these vast meadows of snow and grass, and Einar could not help but admire the abilities of whatever person had chosen the spot.
No one seemed to be around, a fact which puzzled Einar as he lay studying the camp from his position just inside the timber and half beneath the rotted remains of an ancient log, and he fought off a strong and sudden urge to dash out across the open space separating him from the camp, and quickly explore the place before its absent occupants could return. He would be doing nothing of the sort, would, he knew, now have to begin a slow and painstaking process of scouting and surveillance which he could only hope would lead to answers about the place and the sort of threat it might or might not represent to his little family some eight miles distant in their basin shelter. Besides which, the place presented him with one immediate mystery to solve, which was the location of the last plane to have flown over, the plane that had not returned. As yet, he had seen no sign of the aircraft.