The return to their encampment took much longer than the trip out. The body of the animal suspended between them was heavy and ungainly. They could not travel too fast across the forest floor because the hanging body would begin to swing to the point where they could not travel in a straight line together. There was a cadence that had to be met, and therefore a forward speed much slower than they might otherwise be able to travel. The cat traversed back and forth across their direction of travel, staying just ahead of them, nearly invisible except when not directly searched for. The boy would catch a tiny glimpse of something moving to the front and he would know. It could only be the cat, as anything else would have made its presence known somewhere much earlier along their course of travel. The warrior walked in back, controlling the swaying of the deer’s body as best he could from behind, allowing the boy to choose their path through the forest. The way was clear down along the inner edge near where the river waters still ran fast, cold and deep, although the bank was too dangerous to move along. There was no point in letting the other nearby tribes know they were bringing in a large chunk of the hunted game. The forest further inland was covered with stacks and broken strands of pine trunks and other nearly impassible debris, able to be moved through quickly but only if using one of the age-old paths that had been cut long before either the warrior or the boy had been born, and those paths usually didn’t go where one intended to travel. The aroma of the river water, blown by a mild wind from that direction, and the loamy forest floor itself brought a smile to the boy’s face. He loved the forest and everything about it, except for the uncommon but always problematic interaction with other humans.
The cat appeared in front of the boy, not ten man-lengths ahead. It was stopped, facing sideways to their direction of travel. Its face was turned toward the boy, its dark eyes piercing into his own. The boy jerked to stop, unbalancing Cetan at the back to the point where the warrior let out a disgusted growl.
“Something’s wrong,” the boy said, lowering his end of the spear litter they’d formed to haul the animal’s body.