Up on the rim the hunter crouched, inspecting the spot where his quarry had lain, seeing in the small scuff marks and tiny displacements of rock and vegetation more than simply the position and movements of the man’s body, reading there a good deal about the man’s intentions, his habits, his physical condition and, in the way of all good trackers, something of his soul, as well. Rising, straightening, stepping back from the rim so as to avoid being spotted from below, the hunter smiled, turned away, assured of his eventual success.
* * *
Wet and slushy was the ground beneath the willows, slush in his eyes, caked in his nose as he tried to draw a breath, but this did not trouble Einar for long, rolling quickly to he did to one side and coming back upright all in a fraction of a second, instinct demanding that he meet his assailant on his feet. Shadows. Nothing solid with which to contend, Einar turning this way and that in search of his opponent before it could strike him a third time. Nothing, no sign of his attacker, and, much to his surprise, no third assault, either, Einar crouching, freeing in place with his back to the carcass of a solitary spruce that stood black and moisture-rotted amongst the sea of winter-yellow willows. Then, from the bare branches of the tree far above him came a slight stirring, a ruffle of air and a chorus of sort, chortling sounds whose tone and meaning were familiar to him. Knife still held at the ready lest his senses prove to be deceiving him Einar cautiously looked up, still fearing a trap but spotting in the branches above a familiar form, blacker than the blackened spruce-boughs, and moving, swooping down.
This time he was ready, bracing himself as the bird landed hard on his shoulder, Muninn the raven, full-grown now and rather larger than the last time Einar had seen him, some months before. Starting to shake now with unspent adrenaline after the sudden dissolution of the threat Einar sank to the ground, bird still on his shoulder, knife in hand.
“Well now, that’s a fine way to say hello. How come all of my friends seem to have such abrupt manners when it comes greeting a fellow? Is it something about me? That’s the only way you feel safe approaching, or what? Probably wise, in that case.”
No words by way of answer, but the raven did grab a loose strand of hair from beneath Einar’s hat, twisting, chortling his delight at having discovered a long-lost friend. Einar nodded, putting away the knife. “Yeah, kind of missed you too, you old buzzard. We got a problem though, don’t we? Problem and an answer, all in one, because we can be pretty sure now whose camp this is we’ve stalking. No way you found us all by yourself, not over all those miles and with no idea where to go, much as you may have wanted to do it. Question is, how did they know? How did they find us? And why on this good green, half-frozen, slush-covered earth did they want to come poking around in our new territory and putting us all at risk like this? Can’t have been just to bring you home, can it? No, I’m sure that’s not it. Not even you can be that much trouble. Half tempted to round up all their tents and gear while they’re up on the rim and make that stuff disappear…”
Still somewhat shaky Einar rose, keeping close to the spruce-carcass and the small degree of concealment it provided, and taking stock of his situation. Not too far from the camp now—a few feet of travel through the low willows and he was fairly certain he would have it in view, and though assured by the presence of the raven as to the identity of at least two of the intruders, he was too wary to walk out into the open and approach the site. No telling exactly why the party of three had ventured up into his high country realm, and though he more or less trusted Kilgore and his motivation, there was too much at stake to place too much trust in anyone, any group. Circumstances down there in civilization were simply too changeable, individuals too subject to influence, entrapment or worse and the enemy—assuming he was still out there and still looking; one must always assume thus—too clever in his surveillance and tracking abilities. Was always a chance that Kilgore and his companions had been followed, some item of their gear fitted with a transponder, too many potential ways this could all go very bad.
Which left Einar with only one good choice regarding the camp, and that was to turn around and retrace his steps before any more closely approaching it. Quite a shame, and the decision grated on his very nature, reappearance of the raven having reawakened in him, it seemed, something of the nature of the trickster, and he wanting very badly to stalk into the camp and work some form of mischief before retreating back to his mountain lair, but dutifully he turned, picked his way back into the shelter of the little band of subalpine firs which had covered his approach, and then into the heavier brush beyond. Stopping here, raven perching beside him as if unwilling to again allow him out of its sight, he again considered his options.
Best of all would be to avoid contact entirely, work his way by some roundabout route back to the shelter and warn Liz of the situation so they could be without fire for a few days and keep their location secret and secure…but he knew it was a little late for such possibilities, for several reasons. Chief among these was the fact—and he was sure it was indeed fact—that Kilgore already knew he was there in the canyon, had spotted or at least him on the rim and was even now locating and perhaps preparing to follow his backtrail up to the little basin, to the shelter, and to his family. A problem, for sure. Looking as though contact of some sort was more or less an inevitability, then, but he could at least strive to have it happen on his own terms, and on the ground of his choosing.
An important advantage, that one, if he could pull it off, “and I know Sun Tzu would agree with me, you old vulture, and so would you, if you could express yourself in words. Yep, expect you know a lot more about the principles of warfare than you’d ever let on, don’t you?”
The raven was silent, and Einar began his climb.