“We could have waited to leave in the morning,” said Char.
“You told me yourself there’s a lot to see at night, and we are exploring. I figured we might see some new animals at night. ”
“Meat-eaters hunt at night,” said Char.
“Anything worse than a Vaseth?”
Char shook his head. “No, mostly small ones in this area.”
“You see? I learned something already. The other reason for starting at night is that it’s a lot hotter in the daytime than when I got here. The daytime temperature is at least seven degrees hotter than we thought it would be in the summer, at least around here.”
“You have a point,” said Char.
“It will only get hotter carrying the backpacks, so it just made sense to start out at night when it’s cooler.”
Char pushed two of his thumbs under the shoulder straps. “It is already warm on my back.”
“You’ll get used to it. Now, do you think we should go down to the river the way we came back after the fire?”
“That sounds reasonable,” said Char.
“Then let’s let going,” said Taylor as she led the way into the dark of the forest.
They were halfway to the Asook grove when Taylor stopped. It was nearly pitch black under the thick canopy of leaves, but Taylor could see everything clearly.
“What is it?” asked Char.
“I was just remembering the first time we walked this path at night. I couldn’t see a thing.”
“Much has changed since you got tree fever,” said Char.
Like I can see in the dark and talk to trees, and who knows what else, thought Taylor. “I can’t see any animals.”
“You are still too noisy. But also you do not pay enough attention. Do you see over there, in the low branch of that tree?”
Taylor looked where Char pointed and spotted a small nest of woven twigs, all in shades of grey. “I see it. What lives there?”
“Have a look, but be quiet, do not touch.”
Taylor took off her pack and walked carefully towards the tree, careful not to step on any twigs. She pulled herself up onto the branch a short distance away from the nest. She leaned over to take a look.
“Not too close,” whispered Char.
Taylor nodded and pulled her head back. Inside the nest were three small furred shapes, each about the size of a mouse. Each had a long tail with a thick coating of fur. One of the babies looked up at her with four tiny eyes. “Killer squirrel?”
Char nodded, issuing a quiet whistle. whit-whit-tweet. “Mother will be back soon to feed her young. Do not touch the nest.”
“Or the mother will abandon the babies?”
Char shook his head. “The babies have sharp teeth, they would give you a nasty bite.”
“I’m sure I could handle that.”
“Killer squirrels are similar to Vaseth,” said Char.
“You mean the babies could paralyse me?”
“One bite from a baby would cause numbness. But once one bit you, the others would bite as well, many bites. It would slow you down until their mother came back to paralyse you. Then big meal for many killer squirrels.”
“You didn’t tell me that before,” said Taylor. “Just that killer squirrels would eat my toes.”
“I did not want you to worry. But they do not approach large creatures, only to defend their young.”
“But you sent me up to look at the nest!”
“You want to learn, see animals. Look, but do not touch, do not get too close and you will be fine.”
“Thanks for the warning. You could have said something.”
“Would you have gone to look at the babies?”
“Uh… probably not.”
“Do not worry, I would not let them eat you. But in order to learn, you must see.”
“Uh-huh. Any other surprises before we get to the Asook?”
Char shook his head. “No, we have made too much noise. No other animals will be nearby.”
They walked in silence until they reached the Asook grove in the centre of a large clearing. The Hunter moon was a thin slice in the sky, the Mouse moon not yet visible. They walked over to the centre of the clearing and stopped just outside a low wall of vines.
“They look the same,” said Taylor as she pointed at two dozen large leaf-wrapped lumps, each about the size of an Urlock, which was a bit bigger than Taylor would be if she curled up into a ball.
“Asook is not yet finished. Soon.”
“Can you tell how many Urlock the Asook captured, compared to other creatures?”
Char shook his head. “No.”
“It is likely, but I do not know how many. Many types of creatures come to this Asook grove during mouse-catches-hunter. Sploor, Urlock, Vaseth, large Nak, many others.”
“What do the Asook do with the animals they captured?”
“Wait and see. It will not be long,” said Char. “But it is a special time. Until then, the vines protect.”
“You and your secrets,” sighed Taylor as she continued walking across the clearing.
“Not secret, there is a time for learning things. You cannot learn all at once. You have a lifetime to learn, do not be in a hurry.”
“Unless you use a memory tree,” said Taylor. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t let me try learning from the hall of memories. I was able to receive memories from Heather just fine.”
Char shook his head. “Illiya brains are different, it may not work for you. ”
Taylor sighed. “Yeah, but if it did, it might help with some of my Xenobiology assignments, there would be plenty to learn about the local plants and animals from the Urm. I imagine they would have seen a lot.”
“The Elders do not want you to take shortcuts for learning.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for telling them how long human schooling normally takes.”
Char smiled. “Memories learned the hard way are the best, you said so yourself.”
“Yeah, I did, but that was different,” said Taylor as she lightly touched a tree trunk with her fingers as they entered the forest on the far side of the clearing. Her fingers tingled.
Char shook his head. “No different. But the Elders said when you are finished your human responsibilities for your ‘degree’, they would consider allowing you to go to the hall of memories. Until then I will teach you about Aeden, and you learn from the stars for your degree.”
“Well, as long as they’ll let me try the Urm at some point,” she sighed.
“They are pleased with your progress here,” said Char.
“I didn’t know that.”
“The Elders are spare with their praise. They do not wish to affect your learning.”
“But they’re still going to keep me here forever.”
Char nodded. “Judgement was passed. It is final.”
“Pretty black-and-white judicial system here,” said Taylor.
“The laws are simple and judgements are clear. But I think you could become a good… ambassador for the Illiya. They may consider it, in time.”
Taylor put her hand on Char’s arm. “Thank you Char.”
He kissed her on the top of her head. “But for now, there is much to learn, and more walking to do.”
They walked through the forest until morning and stopped just short of the river. Taylor recognised the broad pool where she had dragged Char out of the raging waters months before. The water level had receded through the summer, leaving a shallow dusty basin dotted with large rocks. The river itself was now little more than a large creek on the far side of the scattered boulders.
“It doesn’t look very big now,” observed Taylor.
“It should be easy to cross,” said Char.
They walked back up into the forest and began to collect fruit as they walked along the riverbank. When they had a couple of armfuls they stopped and Taylor put some of her clothes back into her pack. The rest she used to layer the fruit as she loaded Char’s pack. They nibbled on fresh fruit as they walked, until finally they came to a large moss-covered tree that had fallen across the river long before. It was the same tree they had used to escape the forest fire, and from which Char had fallen and nearly drowned after being paralysed by a single Vaseth claw.
“The tree survived. It’s hard to imagine that this creek was a raging flood only a few months ago,” said Taylor as she stepped along the rounded rocks and passed under the large tree.
The tree was thoroughly blackened on the far side, but Taylor wasn’t about to climb up to see if it was safe.
“We could cross here again,” pointed Char.
“I’m not sure. It looks pretty badly burned on the other end. It might look solid, but I wouldn’t want it to collapse underneath us. We’ve had one near-drowning here already.”
Taylor looked past the far end of the fallen tree to the blackened landscape, which was a stark contrast to the lush green forest behind them. For as far as they could see, all that was left of the forest where they had been lost were the blackened skeletons of trees and charred stumps. The ground itself was a mix of black and green, as low-lying plants had already begun to take hold in many places and were beginning to cover over the blackened stumps.
“It will regrow,” said Char. “But little would have survived. Do you know where to look for Heather?”
Taylor looked up at a rock-covered hill in the distance. “I was wandering around the base of that hill, so I think we should go up there to have a look to see how far the fire spread.”
“We should not rest long. I do not want to walk in the dead forest at night.”
“Why not? Afraid of ghosts?”
Char looked at her strangely and shook his head. “No. There will be many hazards, things to trip on and catch your feet. We need good light to pick safe paths.”
“Oh, good point.” Taylor watched the air shimmering above the stretch of burned out forest. “I agree with you, but that ground looks really hot in this sun, and it’s only going to get hotter. We should wait until it cools down later in the day.”
Char nodded and turned back towards the green forest. “Let us find a good place to rest.”
Taylor picked her way back through the rocks towards the steep bank rising up to the forest. She used several exposed roots to pull herself up, then brushed off her knees and followed Char to a nice shady patch under a nearby tree. Char settled in beside her and picked a couple of pieces of fruit from the top of his pack. Taylor chewed her fruit slowly, taking sips of water every so often. The warm breeze and soft sounds of the forest behind her soon lulled her to sleep.
“Taylor, wake up,” said Char as he gently shook her shoulder. “The sun is low in the sky.”
Taylor shivered as a cool breeze blowing along the small river raised goosebumps on her arms. “Okay, let’s get going.”
Char held out a hand and pulled her up off of the ground.
Char nodded and handed her a backpack.
Taylor smiled and shook her head. “Nice try. That one’s yours.”
Char shouldered his pack as Taylor walked around him to retrieve hers. She checked her pack carefully to make sure everything was secure before slinging it over her shoulders. She adjusted the straps on Char’s pack and waited while he jumped down into the creek bed and helped her down the steep slope.
They made their way to the edge of the water, balancing on the smooth boulders half-buried in the damp riverbed. When they reached the flowing water, they walked a ways upstream looking for a good place to cross. The centre channel was still quite deep and a slip or fall could get either of them into trouble, especially with the large packs on their backs.
“Unclip your waist belt,” said Taylor.
Char did so and immediately complained. “It is heavier on my shoulders now.”
Taylor looked over her shoulder. “Better than drowning if you fall into the river again.”
Char fell silent as he studied the rippling surface of the water. “I think we should cross here. There are stones just below the surface.”
Taylor came back to stand beside Char. “Some of those might be deeper than they look. The light refracts as it goes through the water, making things look closer than they actually are.”
Char looked at her blankly. “Re-fract?”
Taylor sighed. “Light bends as it enters the water and then comes back out again, making an object appear in a different position than it actually is.”
Char frowned. “I see.”
Taylor pointed at the nearest rock in an uneven line of submerged rocks that looked like it could make a good path across the small river. “Just walk carefully, and expect the rock to be deeper than it looks, and not exactly where you see it.”
Char nodded as Taylor unclipped her waist belt and grasped her walking stick tightly in her right hand. She dipped the walking stick into the water, and instantly felt the pull of the current dragging the tip downstream.
She angled the walking stick, pushing against the water as she tested the surface of the first rock. She pushed down on the walking stick, but the rock remained stable. “Well, here goes. Walk where I walk.”
Taylor stepped out onto the first rock, the water rising above her ankles as the river pushed around and between her legs, leaving hollow back-eddies against the bottom of her calves. She reached out with the walking stick and tested the depth and solidity of the second rock. Moving in this fashion, it took several minutes for Taylor to make it part way across the river. Just past the midpoint, the water reached halfway up her thighs, forcing Taylor to use the walking stick as a brace against another submerged boulder to prevent her being pushed off the slippery rock and into the current.
She finally stepped off of the last submerged rock onto the damp mud on the far side of the river, only to look up at Char with surprise. “I thought you were behind me!”
Char grinned. “Illiya know how to cross rivers, Taylor. I have been waiting for you.”
“Well, good for you. That was hard work for me.” Taylor walked a few more steps until she found a large rock to sit on and catch her breath. She slid the pack off of her shoulders and let it slide down onto the ground beside her. She rubbed her shoulders for a moment, then opened the top of her pack and pulled out Henry’s boots.
Her feet may have toughened up, but there was no telling what hazards lay hidden in the blackened undergrowth. She put on two extra pairs of socks, then tugged the boots onto her feet.
“Are you sure your feet will be fine?” she asked Char as she tightened the laces to try and make Henry’s boots fit a bit better. She didn’t want to get any blisters, but wearing the too-large boots was much better than cutting her feet on a broken branch.
“I will choose a path carefully. It will not be fast.”
Taylor slung her backpack onto her shoulders. “Okay, I’ll follow you this time. Not that you actually followed me. How did you get across so fast, anyway? You didn’t even look wet.”
Char grinned. “I crossed the fallen tree.”
Taylor shook her head. “I thought it was best to avoid that, seeing what happened last time.”
“The tree was dry, no Vaseth nearby. It was easy to run across. Besides, you made crossing in the water sound dangerous.”
Taylor sighed and concentrated on placing her feet where Char walked as they entered the blackened land.
Taylor could feel the reflected heat radiating up her legs and burning the back of her knees, her face dripping with sweat as they made their way across the scorched land. With no shade to protect them and the blackened wood reflecting the heat of the day, even the late afternoon sun was broiling. Taylor was happy to have her boots on, but she was increasingly worried about Char.
“How are you doing?”
Char grimaced. “Feet are okay, but it is very hot with the backpack.”
Taylor handed him a water bottle. He drained it in a few short pulls. “Thank you.”
Taylor kept glancing back over her shoulder. The river still seemed very close but the top of the hill was slowly getting nearer, bit by bit.
The sun was just touching the horizon when they reached the field of waist-high boulders at the bottom of the hill. Grasses were already growing in between the rocks, and if you didn’t notice the blackened tree at the top of the hill you could have easily imagined that the fire had passed the hill by. Char followed Taylor through the maze of rocks up to the lone tree. A small twisted pile of metal crunched under her left boot.
“Leigh’s bug drone.”
“We seem to keep coming back to this hill.”
“You said we should go up here,” said Char.
Taylor shook her head. “That’s not the point. You abandoned me here-”
Char stared at the ground, his skin turning grey. “I am sorry.”
Taylor took his hand. “It’s also where you found me again. And you promised to never leave me.”
Char nodded. “I will always come back.”
“Good. It’s not a bad place, Char. Good things happened here too.”
Char remained staring at the ground. “Illiya do not forget. I am ashamed.”
Taylor wrapped her arms around his waist and looked up into his eyes. “Look, that’s in the past. We’re alive, and together. Let it go.”
“No buts. We’re on holiday! I want to enjoy this together, and we’re not running for our lives or anything. So smile a bit, okay?”
Char kissed her forehead and wrapped his arms around her. “I will try.”
“Good. Now, let’s find someplace nice to rest. I want to look at the stars.”
“Is this more homework?”
Taylor sighed. “I want to share the sky with you, Char. It’s a clear night, and we should have a good view. Maybe you can tell me another story if you have one.”
“A hunter moon story?”
“Never mind. It looks like I’ll have to start making up stories to keep things interesting around here.”
They took off their packs and set them on top of a nearby boulder. They lay back on the soft grass and stared at the sky as the daylight faded into twilight, and the stars slowly came out in their thousands. The hunter moon was yet to rise, and the broad curve of the Milky Way soon dominated the sky.
Taylor took Char’s hand and squeezed it. “You don’t see this much sky from the village.”
“Very pretty. Big sky.”
“Human history is full of stories based around what they saw in the sky at night, Char. Gods and demons, animals and monsters, they picked out patterns in the stars and made up stories about them. We don’t have a hunter moon on Earth, but we do have a great hunter in the sky, well at least one. But different cultures made up their own stories about the stars, so there is some overlap in their celestial mythology.”
“Tell me of this hunter in your Earth sky,” said Char as he began to stroke her hair.
“I thought you might want to know about that one.”
“Yes, and others too, but first, your hunter. What does it look like?”
Taylor coughed. “Well, it doesn’t really look like a person or anything, just a few points of light that mark the feet, and shoulders. And it has a belt, like the Illiya do. He also has a sword, which is a metal stick that cuts things.”
“Does his belt have pockets?”
Taylor laughed. “I never saw it drawn with pockets, but I suppose, why not? Well, this pattern of stars – we call them constellations – is pretty special, really. It can be seen from most places on Earth at different times of the year.”
“This hunter travels, like our moon?”
“No. It stays in place in a line along the celestial equator, but because of the tilt of the Earth and its orbit around our sun, it looks like it moves north and south with the seasons. It’s a summer constellation – it can be clearly seen in the southern hemisphere from November to February, and in the northern hemisphere the rest of the year.”
“Taylor, this does not sound like a story, more like a lesson. You are sure it is not astro-fisiks?”
“Sorry. I’ll need to work on my storytelling. Well, this hunter that travels the sky from north to south-”
“Looking for something to eat,” suggested Char. “Perhaps a Drazen?”
“Uh, yeah, okay, but I don’t think there are any mice in our stars back home. The hunter travels the sky, looking for something to eat. Well, this hunter is called Orion.”
“Orion,” repeated Char. “With a belt.”
“Orion‘s belt is very easy to see – three bright stars in a straight line.”
“Are there stars in its pockets?”
“Uh, not sure about the pockets. But it is surrounded by other stars. You could use your imagination about that.”
“I would do this. A belt should have pockets.”
“Okay. Well, there are lots of other constellations in the sky that people in ancient times imagined looked like lots of things. The ancient Greeks named dozens of them. Aries – the ram, Pisces, the fishes, Pegasus, the flying horse, and lots of others. Animals, people, monsters, all sorts of things they used in their stories.”
“Your sky must be full. You must have many moons also.”
“Uh, well, there are a few actually, but you can only see one with your eyes. The others are very small, much smaller than the mouse moon. For a long time humans thought there was only the one moon orbiting the Earth. But Earth’s moon is quite a bit bigger than the hunter moon, actually.”
“With only one moon, there would be nothing to chase and the moon would be lonely. So instead they made stories of other creatures for your moon to talk to as it went by.”
“I never thought about it like that.”
“A moon should not be alone.”
“Like an Urm.”
“Yes. There needs to be balance.”
“I really hope Heather’s okay.”
“We will look for her in the morning. Perhaps you can think of some stories for our stars, but do not tell them like astro-fisiks. The stories should be more interesting.”
“I’ll have to work on that,” sighed Taylor. “What stars do you find interesting, Char? Do you see any patterns?”
There was a long silence. Taylor had begun to think he had fallen asleep when Char finally spoke. “Over there, sometimes I think those stars look like a bit like Asook in flower, see the brightest star? That is the bulb, and the curve of stars around it is like an Asook leaf.”
“We’ll start with that constellation, then, Asook in the sky. Any others that you see?”
Char slowly pointed out clusters of stars until the Hunter moon cleared the horizon and a cool breeze began to blow over the hill. After a while, Taylor got up and pulled a blanket out of her pack, then snuggled into Char as he spread the blanket over them.
“Enough stars for tonight, I think, Taylor.”
“Good night, Char. Thank you.”
Char smoothed out Taylor’s hair and gave her a tender kiss. “Good night, Taylor.”
“Don’t go anywhere.”
“Good. Just checking.”
Taylor stood alone on top of the blackened hill, the stars slowly turning overhead. As she watched, the sun slowly rose in the sky, revealing the blackened forest below her. She felt a tickle under her bare feet and stepped to the side. Where she had been standing, a green sprout pushed out of the earth. As she watched the growing sprout, the sky flickered between light and darkness as time passed. Soon she was standing underneath a tall, white barked tree, its leaves flickering into existence and then disappearing as the seasons passed. She looked out over the now-grown forest, full and rich with life. A skittering noise beside her drew her attention. A little brown Drazen sat on the rock beside her, nose quivering.
“Hello, little mouse.” She reached down and the Drazen climbed up her arm to sit on her shoulder. Together they watched the seasons pass, with little changing other than the colours of the leaves.
Then suddenly, time slowed down and froze. The full hunter moon sat still in the sky, set like a jewel in the middle of the broad curve of the Milky Way. Taylor watched for a long time, but all remained still. She turned her head to look at the Drazen, when the sky suddenly changed. One by one, the stars began to fall from the sky, and where they touched Aeden, the forest began to burn. Each small fire joined together until they formed a single wall of flame rushing towards her. She saw the curling of the flames and felt the scorching heat of the fire as it swept up the hill toward her and-