Molly, the older woman Aria had met in the cookhouse, rushed over. “You’re wasting time, Brooke. Keep looking!” She waited until Brooke moved on. Then she took Aria by the arm and spoke low and close, as rain rolled down her full cheeks. “We didn’t see this coming. None of us expected a storm. ”
“Who’s missing?” Aria asked.
“My grandson. He’s barely two years old. His name is River. ”
Aria nodded. “I’ll find him. ”
The others were working away from the trail, heading deeper into the woods, but Aria’s gut told her to search nearby. Moving slowly, she kept close to the path. She didn’t call out. Instead she strained to hear the slightest sounds through the wind and the rain. Time passed with nothing but the slosh of her footsteps and the rush of water pouring downhill. The shrieks of the Aether grew louder, and her head began to pound, the noise of the storm overwhelming her ears. A humming sound stopped her in her tracks.
She moved toward it, slipping as she crept down the slope. Aria crouched before a leafy shrub. Slowly she pushed the branches aside and saw nothing but leaves. The skin on the back of her neck prickled. Whirling, she drew her knives. She found herself alone with the swaying trees.
“Relax,” she muttered to herself, sheathing her blades.
She heard the humming again, faint but unmistakable. She rounded the shrub and peered inside.
A pair of eyes blinked at her less than a foot away. The boy looked so small, sitting on his knees. He had his hands pressed over his ears, and he hummed a melody, lost in his own world. She noticed he had his grandmother’s round cheeks and honey-colored eyes. She looked over her shoulder. From where she knelt, Aria could see the trail back to the compound, no more than twenty paces off. He wasn’t lost—he was terrified.
“Hi, River,” she said, smiling. “I’m Aria. I bet you’re an Aud, like me. Singing helps keep out the sound of the Aether, doesn’t it?”
He stared right at her and kept humming.
“That’s a good song. It’s the Hunter’s Song, right?” she asked, though she’d recognized it immediately as Perry’s favorite. He’d sung it to her once in the fall, after much convincing, his face red with embarrassment.
River went silent. His lower lip wobbled like he was about to cry.
“My ears hurt too when it’s this loud. ” Aria remembered her Aud cap and reached into her satchel. “Do you want to wear this?”
River’s hands curled into pudgy fists. He slowly drew them away from his ears and nodded. She pulled the cap over his head and tugged the earflaps down, tying them under his chin. It was far too big for him, but it would buffer the noise of the storm.
“We need to get inside, all right? I’m going to get you home safe. ”
She held out her hand to help him out. He took it, and then sprang into her arms, wrapping around her ribs as snug as a vest. Holding his shaking little body close, Aria hurried, looking for Molly and the others along the trail. They came on her in a mob—soaked and enraged.
“Don’t touch him!” hissed Brooke, tearing River away. Cold rushed over Aria’s chest, and her balance faltered at the sudden absence of his weight. Brooke snatched the cap off his head and tossed it in the mud.
“Stay away from him!” she yelled. “Don’t ever touch him again. ”
“I was bringing him back!” Aria shouted, but Brooke was already dashing for the compound with River, who’d begun to wail. The others filed after Brooke, some casting accusing looks at Aria, like it was her fault River had gotten lost.
“How did you find him, Dweller?” asked a stocky man who’d stayed behind. Suspicion lurked in his eyes. Two boys Aria guessed to be his sons stood nearby, shoulders hunched and teeth chattering.
“She’s an Aud, Gray,” Molly said, appearing at her side. “Now, go on. Get your boys inside. ”
With a final look at Aria, the man left, hurrying for shelter with his sons.
Aria picked up her Aud cap and brushed off the mud. “Brooke’s not related to you, is she?”
Molly shook her head, a smile tugging at her lips. “No. She’s not. ”
Aria shoved her cap back into her satchel. “Good. ”
As they hurried back to the compound together, she noticed that Molly was hobbling.
“It’s my joints,” Molly explained, raising her voice to be heard. The shrill sounds of the Aether funnels were growing louder. “They hurt worse when it’s cold and rainy. ”
“Here, take my arm,” Aria said. She supported the older woman’s weight. Together, they moved more quickly toward the compound.
Minutes passed before Molly spoke again. “Thank you. For finding River. ”