Day warming rapidly as the sun climbed, the remaining snow was soon made soft and soggy, crust giving way as Bud, Roger and Einar made their way lower in search of willows for the elk drying rack. Einar was able to stay on top of the snow longer than the others, still skipping lightly across the surface after the Roger and Bud had begun punching through, and after a time he had to stop and wait for them to catch up. Crouching in a patch of sunlight between two aspens he caught his breath, moist, living smells of the awakening loam rising around him; springtime. He smiled, inhaled deeply and could almost taste the new life waiting to burst forth from beneath the snowmelt-nourished ground, rock dust and time, minerals reaching roots, glacier springs seeping, soaking, and soon the avalanche lilies would emerge, bloom…
Voices, and Einar woke with a start, scrambled to his feet, dismayed at the realization that he’d managed to doze off after mere moments of stillness. Hoped Bud and Roger had not noticed.
If they had observed Einar’s lapse, the two did not let on, animated conversation as they struggled through the rotten snow and arrived at his location panting and out of breath, but appearing to thoroughly enjoy the excursion.
“Quite a mess you’ve got here, Asmundson. What’s the big idea, anyway, with this snow that’ll let you pass, but traps and trips anyone who tries to follow you? Quite a trick when even the snow is on your side.”
“Snow’s neutral, Kilgore. You’ve just got to lose some weight if you don’t want to break through.”
“Ha! And end up a scrawny old sack of bones like you?”
“Has its advantages.”
“Right, ‘till a fella starts nearly freezing to death every night because he’s got nothing to insulate his organs anymore and no energy to produce heat—and then he starts doing the same thing every time he stops moving and sits still for a couple minutes during the daytime. Nah, I’ll just flounder. Floundering’s fine. Now, where are these willows?”
"Willows are near water, and water is in the gulleys, up here. Or basins. Ought to find some down in the bottom of that draw," he pointed, indicating a dark, evergreen-choked rift which cut the slope between their position and the adjoining ridge."
"Huh. Long way down. Let's get moving," Kilgore growled. "At least the snow ought to be more solid in under those trees where the sun hasn't hit quite as much, shouldn't it?"
Einar nodded, starting off down the slope, Muninn lumbering into the air flapping ahead as if he already knew and approved of their destination. The quest for willows, as it turned out, was not to take them all the way to the bottom of the gulley, Muninn discovering a small seep where snowmelt saturated the ground at the base of a series of low limestone cliffs. Wheeling, descending, the bird stopped to investigate, Einar visually following his flight, motioning to the others to go after the bird. He had learned, through previous months spent with the creature, to pay close attention when something caught his interest. More than once the raven had, in this way, either led Einar to an object of interest, or alerted him to some approaching danger. No danger this time, unless one were to count the fact that Einar came rather close to losing his footing in the brittle, crumbly snow at the upper rim of the low limestone wall. Stopping short just in time, Einar stepped back, searching for the best way down.
“Well look at this, you buzzard. Found us some willows, didn’t you? Nice little limestone formation, too. Looks like cave country, right here. Kinda surprised to see this sort of terrain up where most everything is some variation of shale or granite, but it’s a good thing to find.”
Reaching the bottom base of the outcropping before the others, who were still struggling though the rotten, collapsing snow, Einar began cutting willow wands, finding a number which were the right diameter to use in making the jerky drying rack. Stooping to sever another of the lithe, flexible stems he paused, crouching lower for a better look. There beneath a foot of so of overhanging limestone, nearly invisible in the current lighting because of the brilliance of sunlight on snow all around, lay a little pool of meltwater, black, cold, concealed, and Einar had to get a closer look. Filtering, dripping, water from above caused a cacophony of sounds to echo about the small space as Einar drew nearer, small, but not so small as he had at first thought, for what had from a distance appeared to be merely an overhang of rock soon showed itself as a limestone grotto, walls white with time-deposited calcite.
Squinting into the dimness beyond the little pool, Einar thought he saw the hint of a continuing passage, promise of more space to explore, might have crept around the water on the little rim of surrounding evaporate and sought out the mysteries concealed by those shadows…except that not far behind him now he heard voices, the others coming. Instinct telling him to remain hidden, concealed, he hesitated to move, waiting, watching from the darkness of his little overhang. They would find him, no doubt; Kilgore the tracker could not be so easily thrown off, even had he been trying, but Einar could not suppress a grin at the momentary confusion of the pair upon their reaching the boggy, snowless willow seep, and losing his trail.
“Found his willows,” Kilgore growled, poking with the toe of one boot at several cut stems which would have clearly marked his passage even if his tracks had been entirely indiscernible. “But looks like the old buzzard is playin’ some sort of trick on us, here. What’s your deal, Asmundson? Think you can lose us here in the timber, slip away and never hear from us again? Hmm. Forgot who you’re dealing with, if that’s the way it is.”
Which statement produced a sudden response from somewhere beyond the willows, feather-shafted atlatl dart flying out of the darkness to stick into the moist ground only inches from Kilgore’s boot, Einar emerging dripping and grinning from his grotto hiding place to find both Roger and the tracker flat on their bellies in the willow-marsh, weapons drawn and not appearing nearly as jovial as he might have expected, considering that his dart had hit exactly where he had intended.
“Last time I ever come help you cut willows,” the tracker grumbled, rolling stiffly to his feet and doing his best to brush the bits of mud and broken ice from his clothing. Roger, though, was grinning right along with Einar, glad to see that the fugitive’s aim remained true and his arm good, despite the man’s rather harried appearance and the fact that he was presently shaking so from the cold and damp that it seemed nearly unbelievable he’d been able to hit anything, at all.
“Have to teach me to use one of those dart-thrower things sometime, if you’re willing.” The pilot pulled Einar’s dart out of the ground, closely examining its construction before returning it. “Used a lot of different weapons over the years, but this isn’t one of them.”
“Pretty basic, really,” Einar wrung some of the water out of his sleeves, vigorously shook his hands to restore some circulation and secured both darts and thrower to his pack, “but takes some practice to master the throw. If you’re here long enough, we can do some target practice.”
“Yeah, you’ve done plenty of target practice already there, Asmundson. Never did care for being a target, myself.”
“Me either. And who was hunting who, just now? I’d call this self-defense.”
“Right… Speaking of self-defense, I’m thinking we’d better hurry up with these willows and get on back up to camp, or I know two ladies who will be on the war path about our being late. They’re waiting on us to finish drying that elk meat, aren’t they? And I saw the way your lady looked at us as we were leaving. She’ll have my hide if I keep you out here too long. I’ve seen how she wields that rabbit stick of hers, too, so it’s no joking matter!
Einar just shook his head, returned to cutting willows.