Though reasonably well assured now as to the identity of the intruders and doubting any ill intent on their part, Einar was determined that the first contact between them, if such was inevitable, should take place on his terms. Not wanting to return the way he had come, lest they be waiting for him at the top, he scoured the walls for other options, knowing they existed as he had previously used a different couloir to climb up and out, but seeing nothing anywhere near his present location. No great trouble for he could simply reverse his descent, splitting off where the chute divided and taking the branch he had not previously traveled. Not ideal, but likely to keep him out of an ambush, at least.
It was good to be climbing again, Einar having grown so cold while stalking the camp on the canyon floor that it took him a good half hour to begin feeling hands and feet again, Muninn hopping and flapping from outcropping to outcropping as he made upward progress, patiently waiting for his human friend to catch up. The raven’s presence concerned Einar, for he knew that as he approached the trio up on the rim, the bird’s appearance might give him away before he was ready to reveal himself. Not a problem under most circumstances, as people would not normally suspect anything unusual about the appearance of a raven, but Kilgore and his companions would likely know the meaning, should the bird appear. A chance he would have to take. The bird was staying quite close so far, and perhaps could be persuaded to continue as he neared the top.
Though in something of a hurry to move things along so he could eventually return to Liz and let her know what had been going on, Einar could not seem to make very good time on his return climb, legs just not working well at all and threatening to spill him to the ground in some very inopportune places. A long way down if one was to take a fall in that couloir, and determined to avoid any such incident he was able to keep moving so long as he really pushed himself, but whenever he eased off on that effort a bit and took a break his legs hurt so badly that he was beginning to find it quite distracting. With an ambush to conduct, and very possibly one to avoid, Einar did not want to be distracted…
Steeper, then, grew the couloir, clear water ice sheathing the rock in places so that he had to maintain his hold here and there by applying counter-pressure with knees, elbows and back simply to avoid losing his hold and taking a fall which would have almost certainly spelled the end of his movements for the day, if not longer…
Finally, the top. No great clattering of rockfall, nothing which ought to have betrayed his presence to those above, and it was with great care an stealth that he started into the timber just back from the rim, making his way towards the spot where he had spent the previous night. Faltering, failing were his legs, frustration as he fought to stiffen their collapsing sinews, remain on his feet. Partial success, and he carried on, expecting at any minute to run across his quarry. Wouldn’t let them see him like this, must not, and he found a stick to aid his balance, let his arm take some of the load for a while so perhaps his legs might prove less ready to betray him.
The stick helped, and somewhere along the way he acquired a second, moving with a bit less clumsiness as he neared the spot where he had last seen the trio. Chances of them remaining there on the rim seemed fairly slight, the more he thought about it. More likely was the possibility that Kilgore would have found and chosen to follow his backtrail, knowing it would lead eventually to whatever shelter they were currently calling home, and, if she wasn’t with him, to Liz. The tracker would know by now that he was not alone, would know a lot of other things, too, including more than he wanted known about his physical condition, thoughts and current planning process. Well. Nothing to do about any of that, for the story was already written there in the snow for anyone with enough experience to decipher and read. He could only influence the future.
Which future, Einar realized with a start, was about to begin in earnest, for from somewhere not too far ahead, he heard voices. This sudden materialization of humanity where he had expected to find only long-cold tracks was a startlement to Einar, but surprise did not hold him back for long, soon giving way to a level of stealth and caution above even that which had brought him safely and undetected up the great loose ice-glazed chute of the couloir. Closer, moving at a slow stalk, he moved until within several yards of the small party, lowering himself to the snow in the dark shade of a stand of small, wind-gnarled firs. The raven, seeming to sense a need for quiet, perched shiny-eyed and silent on a single dead branch just above his head. Someone—Einar was pretty sure it must be the tracker—was speaking, and he raised his head to be better able to make out the man’s words.
“…up here through the trees, see? He was tryin’ to be sneaky, and did a pretty good job of it, too, but I see where he came from. We can follow this thing, and probably should, before that old coyote shows up here and puts a couple atlatl darts through our rib cages…”
So. It was clear that Kilgore had discovered his nighttime hide, confirmed his presence and found the path by which he had initially come to the rim, and would end up leading his companions up the timbered slopes and to the shelter, and Liz, if he did nothing to prevent it. No sense delaying the inevitable, he figured. Might as well meet them now. Closer, then, he crept beneath the firs, moving with barely more speed than the moss which grew green and waiting for the full coming of spring beneath the sparse cover of remaining snow, until at last he was satisfied with the twelve feet which separated him from Kilgore, Susan and Roger Kiesl—for he had now confirmed without doubt the identity of the other two interlopers.
Waiting for a momentary lull in the conversation Einar rose and stepped out of the firs then, wild, white-streaked black hair and snow-matted beard framing his gaunt features like the mane of some weird, emaciated lion, limbs too long for its body and a fierce grin adding to the savagery of the picture. Kilgore, showing only a moment’s alarm, burst out laughing.
“Well if it ain’t the old wolverine himself, crawled out of his cave to come say hello! Wondered when you’d be showing up. Been feelin’ your eyes on the back of my neck for a day now, and was hoping they weren’t watching through a rifle scope..”
The raven settled on Einar’s shoulder, and his wild grin faded.
“What are you doing here, Kilgore? Besides ruining our cover and giving the enemy a clear path right to our front door…”