Chapter 48 - Stray
It was past dawn when they finally found a campsite that was defensible. The men were weary, but they made camp, gathered wood and made a fire. Robert and two men disappeared and came back with several rabbits.
Robert walked over to the girl and threw one of the kicking rabbits within reach of her. Priest had somehow managed to tie her hands in front of her. She grabbed the rabbit out of instinct and then stilled.
Her eyes were wide with fear, and she was a sorry sight. Robert turned his back on her. In passing, he handed Priest, a rabbit before he walked over to Catherine and offered her the other.
As breakfasts went, it was pitiful. Seeing Priest’s laughter and guessing that Robert already adopted their little stray, Catherine shrugged and sank her teeth into the kicking rabbit.
She closed her mind off to the fur and concentrated on the blood that trickled into her mouth. She was ravenous.
It was really no more than an appetizer, but Catherine was tired beyond caring. She slit the throat of her rabbit and skinned it before she handed it to Robert.
The girl stilled, she had torn into the flesh, clawed the fur away with her bare hands and ate the rabbit raw. She seemed to realize her mistake and didn’t know what to do.
“Eat it, baby. Gary will bring more,” her eyes went to Robert as if she didn’t know if she should believe him and then back to Priest.
Priest nodded. He handed his skinned rabbit over to Robert, who expertly spiced the game meat before he skewered it on a sharpened branch and positioning it over the fire.
Gary did indeed bring more. Enough to still even Catherine’s thirst. By then the girl worked her way through the whole rabbit. She only left the bones and the entrails, when she moved to eat those too, Catherine shook her head.
“No, we do not eat those,” Catherine instructed. The girl stilled, her eyes frightened, but curious.
“Bring it,” Catherine ordered. She glanced from Catherine to Priest. There was horror on Robert’s face as he realized that she would have eaten the raw guts. She spat out the piece of intestine.
“Back off,” Catherine ordered, and she moved as far as the rope would allow. Robert picked up the entrails with a look of honest distaste, and the girl frowned.
“The Easterners, the bad men, they eat these. They believe that if they ingest the intestines, they absorb the power of the creature. I believe the jackals need to eat too,” Robert, explained quietly and she gently growled at him in warning. Robert walked away and put the intestines with the rest, ready to be disposed of.
“They eat the hearts of the men they kill in battle too,” Robert added as he turned the rabbits. The smell hung tantalizingly in the air, and the girl sniffed at it, unmistakably still hungry.
When the rabbit was halfway done, Robert cut off a piece and offered it to Priest. He nodded his thanks and ate. It was the one thing Catherine envied her brother.
He could survive for a while without blood, he needed the meat just as much as the blood. She ate because it was expected of her and apart from liking it, it served no purpose.
Robert cut off another piece. He sat down on his haunches with his hand just within reach of the girl. She salivated, her eyes were nailed to the food, but also his hand. It was a hazardous thing to do, both Catherine and Priest tensed.
The girl pounced, and Robert simply took the food out of her reach. He was not teasing her but cautioning.
“Play nice,” Robert warned sternly, and her eyes seemed to measure him. She moved to grab with her mouth like a wild dog.
“Hands. We take food with our hands and eat with our mouths, we are not animals,” Robert said sternly. For a moment she seemed hostile, but he remained calm and unperturbed.
Something in his expression made her a little uncertain. She reached slowly with her hand as if she expected him to take the food away. When he didn’t, she took it carefully. Then she skittered away from him growling to protect her food.
“Slowly, no one is going to take that from you,” Robert cautioned, but she paid him no heed.
She ripped into the meat, while she probably burned her mouth and tongue. The silence that hung over the camp spoke volumes. She still thought that if she didn’t eat quickly, they would take it away.
Their hearts all broke for the terrible things she must have suffered. Catherine knew that the next time they went out, they would all be a little less merciful than they could have been.
The girl kept sniffing hopefully, like a puppy, but Robert offered her no more. She already ate more than she should.
Finally, when the men were quiet and sleeping, he filled a bowl with water and put it where she could reach it. She drank like a dog, lapping at the water.
The sadness in his brown eyes brought tears to Catherine’s own. His own daughter would be as old as this girl now. The Easterners stole her from his village when she was no more than nine years old.
They raped and killed his wife, along with every woman in their village. They killed all the men and all the boys. They took all the girls and young women. Robert was out hunting, and when he came back there was nothing left of his life, but burnt wood and dead bodies.
“Wash your face, honey,” Robert said thickly, and she must have caught the reflection of her own face in the water. She scrubbed at the dry blood and frowned when a piece of soap landed beside the water.
“Don’t try to eat that now,” Robert said gruffly.
She gave him a look that spoke volumes and made Catherine smile. He fetched water three times before she even started to look remotely presentable.
She no longer growled when Robert came near her, but she watched him warily. He also never took any chances with her.