They had been walking for two days and the mood among the men was dipping ever lower. Partly it was because they had been rained on about every half hour since they crossed the stream, while the sun was still shining right ahead of them, so that they were soaking wet and blinking in the sun rays at the same time. Partly it was because their ration bags were nearing emptiness.
Tarwen and Rowan trotted behind Brian. Their feet made squelching sounds on the muddy ground. Rowan tried to ignore his rumbling stomach. Cat, the cat was following, a little to the side. Behind them, Rowan heard Hartmut grunting along. When Rowan looked up front, he could see Raina leading them up a little hill.
“About time we get to that blasted temple,” said Hartmut. “My stomach is rolling in on itself. To tell you the truth, that cat of yours is beginning to look like a decent meal right now.”
Rowan looked at the wild fen cat. He felt a pang of fear, but then reassured himself, thinking that there was no way that Hartmut would ever get the cat, or if he did, that Hartmut get out of the encounter alive. Rowan had seen the cat’s claws up close when it had been kneading his pack. He had a healthy respect for them.
“It’s not my cat. It’s just walking with us,” he replied.
Tarwen turned around.
“Is that why you don’t want to name it?”
Rowan nodded. He had no right to impose his idea of a suitable name on a wild creature like that. Of course, he was immensely pleased that the cat liked him and stayed with him, but he had no illusions about ownership of this particular creature.
Tarwen turned again and almost bumped into the man in front of him. They had stopped and now the group gathered around Raina.
“I am sorry it has been such a slow trek. The stream stole a day from us,” she said. “Let’s make camp for the night.”
The men made a flimsy lean to and went to gather wood for a fire. Rowan had little hope that it would be a warming one, because all the wood around was either fresh or wet, or both. He reached out to stroke the cat’s fur. But instead of butting its head on his hand and purring, the cat pricked its ears forward and slinked into the underbrush.
“All right then,” Rowan said.
Not long after, he heard rustling sounds in the underbrush. Mortimer, who was close to him, heard it too. He unsheathed a large knife and raised a hand to signal quiet. He tiptoed to the underbrush. It rustled then there was quiet; then more rustling. Rowan felt a shudder going down his spine. Who or what was making that noise?
Another noise of cracking twigs and leaves was followed by a sound that was a cross between a strangling scream and the squeak of and old, uneven barn door. Something brown broke through the bushes and flattered about.
“Sweet mercy, exclaimed Mortimer. “It’s a chicken!”
The chicken clucked and flapped around and stepped gingerly out of the way. Cat, the cat came out of the bushes after it. It had a few feathers near its whiskers. Cat crouched down in a waiting stance and watched the chicken intently.
Hartmut came forward with his knife.
“Let’s kill it! Let’s eat it!”
Mortimer grabbed Hartmut’s arm.
“No, we need not do that. Chickens come in groups. Where there is one chicken, there are many chickens. Let’s see if we can follow this one home.”
“All right, then we have more chickens to eat.”
“No, Hartmut. Think about it. Where there are chickens, there are eggs!”