Chapter 49

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"Let's go, then. We can probably make it before dark," Teshin said.

"Probably?" Leithan asked, a pang of worry sneaking through. He had brought a coat rolled in his backpack, but that was it.

Teshin shrugged, and Leithan sighed. He took Teshin's hand and was almost tempted to pull him back in, but opted not to. Instead, he let Teshin help him up. And they waded back to dry ground.

Leithan took off his shoes and wrung the dark fabric of his pants as best he could. Then, using the shoes' laces, he tied them to his backpack's strap at the top, so he wouldn't need to carry them. Leithan hoisted the backpack over his shoulders, testing it. The extra weight was a bit annoying, but it sure as hell beat walking in them while they were soaked. He would just hike barefoot.

Teshin wore his leather strap sandals and was of course, just fine and peachy. They began again, Teshin leading the way.

From the waterfall and up, the path Teshin chose was twisting, narrow, wild, much less trampled. It was a challenge for Leithan, with bare feet. He wasn't used to stepping on branches, plants, twigs, roots or rocks and often winced despite himself. Teshin was a few feet ahead and didn't seem to notice, which was fine by Leithan. He was sure he'd get used to it soon enough.

The sharp, jarring sensations under his feet weren't the only things causing him to frequently pause, however. They weren't that high up the volcano yet, and already Leithan saw things he never had before.

There were tiny lizards or long insects with nifty camouflages; they looked just like tree bark or lichen, and it was only from up close that Leithan could realize his mistake.

He saw green, yellow, and orange butterflies. And hummingbirds, once in a while, delicate and multicolored, reaching inside deep flowers thanks to their long, slim beaks. Leithan also glimpsed a bird with a fun, flowing red tail and found it beautiful, until he heard its rather irritating cawing.

Most of the time, though, Leithan didn't actually see the animals or insects. He could only guess at what was there, hiding within the bright-hued foliage. As he trekked behind Teshin, from either side of the path came the occasional hints, like slinking, thrashing, scuttling, and rustling, as well as the constant clicks and screeches of some bugs.

One time, through the brush, he glimpsed the pale brown frill of a lizard's neck. Another time, he thought he could see the snout of a small mammal through the fronds.

The smell of the forested slope was an intoxicating mix of sunshine, warmth, fragrant blossoms, but also the damp, more pungent scent, closer to the ground, of moss, logs, and earth that remained shaded and could not completely dry.

Time breezed past unnoticed – Leithan wasn't wearing his watch today, but had it in his backpack – and at some point Teshin announced they were stopping for water again. Leithan followed him as they left their path, entering instead a tangle of trees and vines. Soon, Leithan could hear the pleasing sound of water cascading and trickling down rocky ground.

They emerged into a small gem of a place, much as earlier. The stream here was tinier, more like a rivulet. Sunlight filtered through, making both the water and the rocks beneath it sparkle. Leithan saw two tiny green frogs atop a streamside stone. No other creatures revealed themselves, but the forest's song was always present, humming, full of secrets.

Leithan let his backpack and shoes drop with a contented sigh. He kneeled by the water, washed his hands and arms. He splashed water on his face, hair, neck and back. His spine twitched as a cool drop streaked down to his lower back, tickling the skin there. Then, imitating Teshin, he drank some water, which felt heavenly. They also filled up their canisters.

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