Now that Einar knew beyond doubt the location of his foes he made good time, meaning to put them well behind him. The men, so far as he could tell, had neither the desire nor ability to track him, were by all appearances simply scouting for caves and more bats to observe and study, and he hoped he’d be able to remember that later, when darkness came and things began to seem a lot less certain and his mind began telling him that the entire thing was a ruse, designed from the start to put him at his ease so he could be captured. Such thoughts—and he knew they would come—would only slow him down, increase the chances of his having another unwanted encounter with the men, which might indeed lead, in the end, to a renewed search and to his capture. Just keep moving. Put some distance behind you. That’s what this situation calls for. Break contact. Just break contact, minimize the sign you leave behind, and you’ll be ok. Can go home.
For three days Liz had been running the trapline faithfully, finding, some mornings, a rabbit or two in Einar’s snares and sometimes finding nothing, but always benefitting from the time spent out on the trail with Will. At home, in the still, close darkness of the shelter, she tended to find herself brooding, mind wandering the distant timber in search of Einar and coming up each time with nothing, no sure sense of his situation, no certainty that he would be returning. At times, it was rather too much to take and it was then that she would make an extra run of the trapline, slipping Will into her parka hood and stalking up along the ridge beneath the timber, seeking out sign which would speak of the passing of a rabbit, squirrel or other small animal which might provide them food.
As she walked she would speak softly to Will, narrating for him the passing landscape and at times putting into words her growing concern for the boy’s father, the misgivings—much as she tried to push them aside—about his safe return. It had been so long, she told the child, so many days without word, and though she knew Einar was as resourceful and determined as anyone she had ever met or could imagine meeting—things happened out there, and sometimes, people did not come back.
She was—small comfort, but at least it was something—confident that Einar had not run afoul of any federal search party that might have been connected to the air activity of several days prior, for had this been his fate, she was sure the air traffic would have increased, if only for a short time, as they whisked him out of the area and commenced a search for the place where he had been living—and for the rest of his family. Still free then, and that was a good thought. She could only pray that he was also still alive, remembered them and was making some effort to return home. Wished desperately that she could be with him, wherever he might be, but had to content herself with her long walks in the timber, conversation with Will, and a good deal of prayer. He would either return, or he would not, and in the meantime, she had life to live, a son for whom to provide.
It was on her return from one of these expeditions, nine days after Einar’s departure and at two days after the point at which she had ceased counting the days lest the time only seem to stretch out longer, that Liz noticed something amiss upon returning to the shelter-clearing. Always she approached the place with caution, pausing with increasing frequency as she neared to watch and listen, wanting to have plenty of warning should the place have been invaded in her absence, and this time, though seeing no specific thing which aroused her suspicion, she knew someone or something had entered the space since her leaving earlier that morning. Looking for tracks, she saw none, heard no rustle or crackle of vegetation when she stopped still beneath the evergreens and could not define, when she tried, exactly what it was giving her pause. Yet long practice and some innate sense which rightly belongs to all humans, as it does to those of other species, and which had been reawakened during her years in the woods, told her that something had changed.
Though wishing to rush to the shelter, calling out for Einar all the way, Liz held back. Had to be sure. Could not risk Will’s safety, or her own, by accepting the most probable supposition. After a thorough reconnaissance of the area, Liz had still failed to determine for certain who—or even what—had invaded the little sanctuary, the odd bent or broken branch here and there confirming her suspicion that they’d had company in their absence, but no further clue presenting itself as to the nature of the visitor.
Finally, having done all she knew to do and deeming the shelter as safe as she was able, Liz moved forward, weapon ready, and entered. Only to find the place empty. Not only empty, but undisturbed. No one had entered in her absence. She did not understand. Thought perhaps she had misread the signs, let her caution run away with her and spooked herself into sensing things that never had existed, but she knew better. Had to find an answer. Leaving the shelter, she began by making a thorough circuit around its perimeter, seeking any sign which might further define the presence she was sure had touched the place in her absence. A broken twig here, depressed bit of soil there, but nothing definitive. Will seemed fascinated by the process, eyes riveted on the ground that his mother studied so intently and his voice stilled as if he sensed something of the gravity of the situation, wanted to help.
“Who was it, Snorri?” Liz spoke softly, barely above a whisper. “Who’s been visiting us? Was it your daddy? I sure hope so, but if it was him, where is he? Where’s he gone? Surely he sees us by now, if he’s out there watching…”
Will answered by mimicking her tone of voice, gravely whispering words which were no doubt of great import in his mind, but which could not be deciphered by his mother’s ear. “Alright, then. If you don’t know either, we’ll just have to keep looking. Maybe it was just a deer. Or a porcupine. But I haven’t seen any sign of them either, really…”
More searching, Liz wearying at the effort as she saw nothing that appeared particularly out of place and was again beginning to convince herself she must have dreamed up the entire thing—when she saw the track. It was only a partial, worn Vibram treads along an inner edge, but was without doubt human in origin, and the discovery excited her, set her to renewed searching. After some time and multiple, expanding rings walked around the shelter and surrounding area, she found a place where the snow had been soft enough to take several tracks in a row, three, to be exact, and the pattern and gait, though somewhat changed since the last time she’d seen them, were clearly Einar’s.