Beelo woke the next day and as he got dressed, he noticed that Baro was watching him.
“Good morning,” Beelo said.
“Hi,” answered Baro. “I have one more question.”
“How could you possibly have more questions?”
“Did you see one?”
Baro rolled his eyes, certain that Beelo was playing stupid.
“You know,” Baro left the sentence hanging in the air.
Beelo was honestly confused. He had no idea what his brother hinted at.
“Did you see a slink?”
The question came out as a whisper.
“No, I didn’t,” Beelo answered and swallowed a lump that built in his throat.
Beelo waved to his little brother and went downstairs for breakfast.
The excitement he felt for today’s excursion was dampened. He ate more slowly than yesterday and his father noticed a lack of gusto compared to yesterday.
“Are you okay,” Beerok asked the boy.
“Yeah,” answered Beelo as he put the last bite of gruel in his mouth.
“If you’re not feeling well, we can do this tomorrow.”
“No, I’m fine. I’m ready.”
Beelo grabbed his bowl and his father’s dishes and brought them to the sink.
Naru was standing there, packing some food, water, and tea into a small travel bag. She took the dishes from Beelo, put them in the sink, and wiped her hands. She turned and took her son’s face in her hands.
“Whatever you’re worried about, just remember that you are out there with the second-most fearsome warrior of the Téchni,” Naru said. “You will be completely safe.”
Beelo looked questioningly at his mother, “Second-most fearsome?”
“Well, you were escorted yesterday by the most fierce.” Naru smiled.
“Today,” to finish her sentence she held up her hand with two fingers extended and then pointed at Beerok.
Beelo smiled and Naru winked at her son. Naru handed him the travel bag and Beerok headed to the door. Beelo turned to follow him and stopped to look over his shoulder at Naru. She smiled again and waved. Beelo met his father outside and they pushed the door closed before heading down to the ground.
Beerok patted his son on the back and took the travel bag from him.
“I’ll carry it on the way out, you carry it on the way back.”
Beelo smiled. He knew the bag would be empty on the way back and so did his father.
Beerok led them out into the forest, but he took a more direct route to the river than the wide arc Naru followed yesterday. They reached the river in a little more than an hour.
Beerok stooped and used his cupped hands to take a drink. Beelo did the same. The water was cold and Beelo was shocked at how it felt in his hands. However, the pace his father set was quick and Beelo was already sweating. The cold water felt good going down and Beelo gulped another handful.
“Take it easy,” Beerok said. “If you drink too much and we keep moving this fast, you’ll puke.”
Beelo laughed like he did when his mother had talked about diarrhea.
Beerok winked at his son and said, “Ready, little bug?”
Beelo nodded and followed his father. Beerok began to cross the river. He picked his steps carefully and looked for stones to step on so he didn’t slip and fall in the icy current. Beelo could not keep up and Beerok stopped on the far shore to watched with pride as the boy jumped from one stone to the next.
“In the spring, the water is so high you can’t cross by foot,” Beerok said as he reached down for one more handful of water. “The mountains shed their snow and cover all these stones with water higher than your head.”
Beelo turned and looked at the stones that just barely stuck out of the river. The idea that he would drown if he stood in the same spot in the spring made him feel uneasy.
“The water moves so fast that none of the Téchni can swim against the current. No animal can, except for the fish that swim upstream to spawn. By the autumn, the water is half as deep as it is now. Then, in winter, it freezes over and you can walk right on top of it.”
Beerok looked at Beelo with his eyebrows raised. Beelo took it to mean he was supposed to be impressed. He didn’t want to tell his father that Naru told him the same thing yesterday.
“Wow,” said Beelo.
Beerok jerked his head to the southwest.
Beelo had to jog to keep up with his father’s pace. Beerok was taller and his long legs gave him a distinct advantage, especially when they left the stony riverbed behind and walked through tangled scrub brush. They left the scrub behind as they climbed. Beelo had trouble keeping up. Beerok noticed how the boy panted and he was about to suggest they rest for lunch when Beelo stumbled on root.
Beelo fell in the dirt and rolled onto his back, clutching his knee. Beerok approached and held his hand out. Beelo took it and let Beerok pull him to his feet. Beerok got down on one knee and inspected the scrape. It wasn’t bad and he figured Beelo wouldn’t even feel it in a few minutes. Beerok took the travel bag off his shoulder and set it on the ground. He looked up at his son.
“If we cut the leg off now, we can stop the infection from spreading to the rest of your body.”
Beelo’s eyes widened and then he saw his father smile. Beelo stuck out his tongue and Beerok laughed. Beelo remembered the way his father’s laugh would fill the doma. Out here in the open, it rang off of the cliffs and echoed back to them.
“Let’s eat,” Beerok said. “We only have a little farther to go and we’ll need our energy.”
They unpacked the travel bag and ate without talking. Beelo watched the distant river and Beerok kept his eyes to the west. Beelo turned his attention from the water to his father’s face. Beelo recognized the look that came over Beerok’s face when he was deep in thought and turned to see what held his father’s gaze. The place where they sat and ate was near the top of the slope. The crest of this rise was rocky and treeless. Beerok’s eyes seemed focused on the place where this ridge extended to the west and disappeared behind another downward turn.
“This next part,” Beerok started solemnly. “This next part of our walk will take us somewhere very dangerous.”
Beelo turned back to his father. Beerok looked Beelo in the eye. The laughter from earlier was gone. The man’s face was serious, almost stern. Beelo had never seen his father this way and it unsettled him.
“You will need to stay close and watch me carefully in case I give you a signal. It is better sometimes to be quiet and communicate with your eyes. Do you understand?”
Beelo nodded yes. He forced down a mouthful of bread with a hard swallow. He packed away the rest of the food. He knew he couldn’t eat any more even if he was still hungry.
Beerok rose to his feet. Beelo joined him and shouldered the travel bag. Beerok nodded and headed up to the top of the rise.
From this high point, Beelo could see the entire valley that cradled the river. If he looked carefully, he could see where the evergreens gave way to the willows. Beelo knew that if he could look just a little further he would be able to see the doma tree in which they lived. On the other side of the ridge, the ground sloped down again, but not very far. There were fields of grass and shrubs with a occasional small stands of trees.
Beerok walked carefully at the top of the ridgeline, which pointed due west. Beelo felt like he was walking on the branch of a massive tree. The world fell away from him on either side and he could feel something pulling on him. Something that would make him fall, if he let it.
After another half hour of walking, Beerok stopped and held his right hand up with fingers extended. Beelo froze where he stood. Beerok’s fingers bent to beckon the boy closer.
Beelo sidled up to his father and his breath was taken away by what he saw.