They left Heather and struck out straight towards the river. They had tried talking to her again before they left, but she was unresponsive.
They talked little as they walked, each lost in their own thoughts about the meeting with Heather. They reached the river by late afternoon. Taylor followed Char across the fallen tree, then went down to the water’s edge. She rinsed the charcoal and dust off of her boots, then tied them onto her backpack to dry. They walked along the edge of the river under the shade of the trees until the sun touched the trunks of the trees, then they stopped to eat.
Taylor settled back against the rough bark of a tree and Char sat down beside her. He pulled out several smooth-skinned Yargg and handed two to her. Taylor accepted them with a smile and bit into the smooth-textured fruit.
“So you know where we are going?” asked Char.
Taylor wiped her lips and nodded. “Upriver to a waterfall, then we look for a small creek. I should recognise the signs when we get close.”
“Why do you want the flyer? You know the Elders would not allow it.”
“It’s just a flyer. It can’t go off-planet, and there are no working ships here right now. Where would I go?”
Char considered this for a few moments. “You could explore.”
“Exactly,” said Taylor as she bit into the Yargg.
“Why not walk? You would miss much from up high.”
“We could fly to new places, and then go for a walk.”
“Ah,” said Char.
“And I could finally go skiing,” smiled Taylor.
“What is ‘skiing’?”
“Ah, sliding down a mountain on a good section of snow – tiny bits of frozen water, with boards strapped to your feet.”
“Why would you do this? It sounds dangerous.”
“It’s a lot of fun. I might just have to teach you.”
“Where would you find this snow? It is warm, it is not yet winter.”
Taylor frowned. “Well, that just gives me more time to make a couple pairs of skis. In the meantime, we could use it to have a look around Aeden.”
“But you do not know if the flyer will work.”
Taylor took another bite of fruit and chewed thoughtfully for a few moments. “Why would I be sent a message about the flyer if it doesn’t work?”
“Do you know who sent the message? Heather could not have seen it herself.”
Taylor paused. “Um… I don’t know, actually. The message itself didn’t say, just that nonsense from Heather about it being from Aeden and everybody.”
Char frowned. “Perhaps we should not go. It could be very dangerous. Do you know how far up the mountains it is?”
Taylor shook her head. “We’ll be careful. But we won’t know until we get there. Why does it matter?”
Char gently took her chin between the two thumbs of his right hand. “Aarden home is high in the mountains.”
“Do you still wish to go look for this flyer?”
Taylor finished off the fruit before she responded. “It would be really useful to have it, assuming it still works. And if we do find the flyer and it works, if we see any Aarden we can fly away, right?”
“You assume we would make it to the flyer. You are still very noisy.”
“Then teach me to walk quietly.”
“I can try,” said Char, “You must leave your backpack here. The fabric makes much noise.”
“Oh, no, not going to happen. I need a bunch of that stuff.”
“You may take important items, if you do not have room in your pockets, I have some room.”
“Fine,” sighed Taylor. “I’ll go through it and pull out what I need.”
In the end, Taylor selected only a few items they would need to carry. Her walking stick, a pocket knife, compass, map, a poncho and a small notepad and pen in a waterproof pouch. They would have ready access to food and water as they walked along the river.
She initially wanted to take her boots just in case, but Char shook his head. “Noisy, and too easy to track.”
“Why should we leave it here? Why can’t we go further upstream and then leave the packs?” asked Taylor as she watched Char climb up a tree. She handed him the two packs, which he fastened to a large branch using the waist straps.
“Because you need time to practice. Also, easy to remember this place to come back and get them later.”
“Fine,” said Taylor as she turned a stick over with her toe.
“I will teach you to be silent, however even if you are quiet, you will still be easy to see.”
“I can’t do much about that. This is the darkest shirt I’ve got.”
“You could take it off. Your skin is dark from the sun.”
“Not under the shirt, it isn’t.”
“We could always use mud,” grinned Char. “It would make you fearsome again.”
Taylor sighed. “If I need to, fine, but the ground is dry, not too much mud around here right now. Some days I wish I were able to hide like you by changing the colour of my skin.”
“Not all can be Illiya,” smiled Char as he kissed her on the forehead. “But now, we rest.”
Char lowered himself down beside a tree. Taylor sat down next to him and snuggled in under Char’s arm as they drifted off to sleep.
Char woke Taylor in the middle of the night. “Come, Taylor, time to go.”
Taylor yawned and stretched, then sat up and looked around her. To the left and behind her stood a healthy, living forest, in endless shades of grey. In contrast, the far side of the river was a deep black under the light of the two moons.
Char held out a hand and Taylor used it to pull herself up. “I’m up. So what do we do first?”
“Breathe,” said Char.
“I am breathing,” said Taylor.
“No, control your breathing. You make big rasping noises when you breathe.”
“I do not.”
Taylor listened closely as she breathed in and out. “Oh.”
“Breathe slow, deep, in and out. Not fast. Breathe fast makes noise. You try.”
Taylor watched as Char took in a slow, deep breath, then let it out. She could barely hear him.
“Listen when I breathe fast,” said Char as he took a quick, deep whistling breath and let out in a big whoosh.
Taylor copied Char, breathing slow and then fast. “Quite a difference. But what if we’re running?”
Char shook his head. “If you are running from Aarden, it is too late to breathe quiet, just breathe and get away if you can.”
Taylor nodded. “I’ll practice my breathing. What next?”
“Next, you need to learn to move silently. Bare feet are best for this.”
They slowly began to make their way upriver as Char showed her where to place her feet, what types of ground to avoid, and when they reached the bottom of the waterfall in the first light of day, Char nodded his approval. “Good. We will practice more, but for now we must eat and rest.”
Taylor plucked a couple pieces of fruit from a nearby bush and began to chew.
Char shook his head. “Quietly.”
Taylor sighed, then practised biting and chewing more slowly to make less noise. “Are we in Aarden territory yet?”
“No, but we will be there soon, I think.”
“Great,” sighed Taylor. “And only four more signs to go.”
Char collected some fruit and they both took a good long drink from the broad pool at the bottom of the waterfall. Taylor cast a glance up through the mist towards the top of the waterfall far overhead, then began to climb the steep slope behind Char. They followed a narrow track that wound back and forth across the slope, holding onto branches and roots in the steepest sections. About thirty metres below the top of the waterfall, Char found a small path that led under the thundering cascade itself into a large flat-bottomed cave, hollowed out over the centuries by the action of the falling water.
Taylor followed Char into the cave. The mist covered everything in a fine layer of moisture. She shivered. “Is it safe in here?”
Char nodded and settled down against a smooth boulder. “It should be. We will rest until afternoon and then continue upriver. Best to be out of sight as much as possible.”
Taylor sat down beside Char and snuggled in under his arm. The rocks and the air gave her a chill, raising goosebumps on her arms, but Char was warm and soon the chill passed. They watched the sunlight cast moving prisms of light through the wide veil of the waterfall. The hours passed slowly and they both drifted in and out of sleep, soothed by the sounds of the falling water. When the sun no longer shone directly through the spray of the waterfall, they got up and stretched their stiff muscles. Taylor checked her pockets and the damp rocks to make sure she had left nothing behind, then followed Char out of the cave and into the warm afternoon sunlight.
They climbed up to the top and ate as they walked, practising moving silently as they worked their way upstream. It was just getting dark when they came across a crooked tree hanging across the width of the river.
“So far so good,” said Taylor. “Now how are we going to find a grinning skull?”
“Very easily,” said Char in the barest whisper.
Taylor looked where he was pointing and gasped. Just ahead along both sides of the river stood rows of wooden poles. On each pole sat a grinning skull, the sharp spike at the end of each pole sticking through the top of each skull. Several of the skulls still had meat hanging off of them, and were being pecked at by small birds. Most of the skulls were of the same type but different sizes, with long, rounded muzzles and sharp teeth. But the one that caught her attention was the single, white-boned grinning human skull less than a hundred metres from them on the far side of the river.
Past the wall of death
“We must cross,” whispered Char. “Unless you want to turn back.”
“They don’t look too friendly,” whispered Taylor.
“Aarden are vicious,” said Char. “There is much danger. Perhaps we should go back.”
“But I want to find that flyer. We’ll just need to be really quiet.”
Char sighed. “If we must find the flyer, then we must cross now before we lose the light.”
“The river’s moving too fast here,” said Taylor.
“We can use the tree to cross,” said Char as he moved under the hanging branch of the tree. It was just within his reach, but too high for Taylor to touch.
“I will lift you up, then you climb across. I will follow.”
Taylor nodded and Char lifted her up by the waist. She grabbed the branch with both hands and swung her legs up to grip the smooth bark, then pulled herself up and turned around to face the far side of the river. She crawled carefully along until she reached the far side, then climbed down out of the tree as quietly as she could. She watched Char confidently swing himself up onto the branch, then walk across towards her. A few moments later he dropped beside Taylor onto the round river rocks.
“Are you sure about this? We can still go back,” whispered Char.
“We’ve come this far,” whispered Taylor, taking Char’s hand.
They cautiously worked their way across the smooth rocks covering the riverbed until they reached the first of the wooden poles. They scrambled up the small ridge running along the edge of the forest, then walked towards the gruesome display. Char ducked as he passed through the wall of skulls. Taylor paused a moment at the human skull and looked up into its hollow eye sockets. “I’m sorry, Sean.”
“Who is Sean?” Char stopped and looked back at Taylor.
Taylor glanced up at the grinning skull. “He was one of the first ship’s crew. The first time I met Heather she told me he flew off during the first Aarden attack, and the flyer was covered by Aarden.”
“Now we know what happened,” whispered Char. “You must be very quiet, to avoid ending up like that.”
Taylor shook her head and followed Char into the strip of forest along the edge of the river. They turned left after a few dozen paces to follow a small creek that headed higher up into the mountains.
A pair of green eyes watched as the pair entered the steep valley, then disappeared into the forest.