Making their way through the neighborhood had not been so bad, Francis thought. Olah and his team were so practiced at the process that it ran simply, smoothly, little more than hopping from car to car. They would gather near the edge of the car frame, still in its shadow with a weapon ready, peering up, and around to look for anything that may be hunting them. Under this overwatch a veteran would dash out from under the frame and make for the next car, and once there take up overwatch of their own. Then it was just a game of mice from both ends watching, another darting across, and then watching and waiting for the rest to make their way. A long process, but a safe one.
After six cars were hopped in this way and Olah an Agri had crossed over, a large shadow swept across the road between the split party, causing them all to recoil further beneath the car frame for a time. .
“Little petty hawk,” Lamark hissed to Francis as they waited. “It’ll swoop down on some other creature soon and be out of our way.”
After some minutes huddled, Olah peered out from his car and signaled for the journey to proceed. A somber seriousness beset them as they went, but two cars later, after all but Lamark had crossed he began his sprint across. Once again a large shadow swept above, soliciting shouts from those waiting on the other side and a cry of alarm from Lamark. Instead of passing over, the shadow slowed and hung over the frantic mouse. The flapping of quick wings as a large avian form slammed its feet to the road sent Lamarck rolling and flailing and shrieking as he tried to flee. The others aimed their weapons, and even Francis reached to unsling his bow, but no one fired. Despite Lamark’s shouted demands to “Shoot the damned thing,” there was no point.
The avian settled on the ground and tucked its wings, and let out a long, wallowing coo. It glared with dull eyes, turning its grey-feathered head, turning to reveal the light bands on its neck and wings- a mourning dove. The veterans chirped with laughter as a panicked Lamark turned to see the monster that pursued him, and then cursed with anger and embarrassment.
“Dumb bird,” Lamark ranted as they went to the next car. “Damned dumb bird. Stupidest beasts on the planet. Why’d it do that? Why would it swoop down then and right there? Dumb thing doesn’t know we could put one through its head.”
“Or it knows you won’t, frozen with fear as you are,” Olah retorted with a sneer, catching a hiss from Lamarck in return.
. The encounter served to lighten the team once relief set it, and though they remained serious, the joviality returned, even too Lamark once he calmed. After twenty cars had been hopped and the full party was together, they looked out from under the frame further down the road. There was no next car, not even much more road; a field began. It was easy to guess that it had once been a cultivated farm field, but it had long ago begun the process of being retaken. Tall grass, not unlike that by the shelter, went on for as far as Francis could see, billowing in golden waves. Here, though, shrubs dotted in the field, some growing quite tall. A few young trees were scattered about as well, some black, charred, clearly licked by the flames of some prior fire that had probably served to suppress the retaking of the field as forest. No honeysuckle polluted here. A long ways out, perhaps as far as the road they had just travelled, a collection of tall trees covered in vines created a wall of green. A small island that had probably existed while the farm field was still in use.
“That’s where we’re heading,” Olah said with a sardonic grin. “Can see why no one bothered to check out there before, eh?”
Francis agreed, and the groans from the others seemed to echo their agreement as well. It was a long way, without much protection, but tall grass was better than cracked road when it came to being in the open.
The sky was clear of looming wings, and they forged ahead. Lamark, recovered from his scare, took to climbing the grass to see ahead of the group, leaping or scurrying from stalk to stalk and blade to blade. Francis found the beating sun warming, almost relaxing, but after having been so cautious to stay under the cars before, being under a few waving stalks of grass for protection was unnerving. Agri seemed to think so, too, compulsively glancing about so fact Francis thought he might hurt his neck. They moved quickly, nearly a full sprint, leaving little time to worry. The sky remained clear of anything bigger than a blackbird, though, and there was no nearby scent of cat or coyote to cause alarm.
After a time, Francis was heaving from exertion, ready to rest but unwilling to risk pausing in the open, or earn any ire from his companions. He was almost grateful when Lamark called from above to hold- or would have been had he not been alarmed.
“Something ahead, stirring about,” Lamark called, trying not to let his voice carry too far while still getting their attention. Weapons were readied, aimed toward rustling stems, though it was hard to tell if it was just the wind or something moving. Even Francis grabbed for his little sword, and Agri shakily notched an arrow. They waited a moment, and it became clear that the rustling was not merely the wind. Francis gawked upward, concerned something would come from above while they idled. The rustle drew nearer, and Olah shouted,”
“Stop there. We’ll shoot.”
A momentary pause, then then it carried on, closer, to no one’s surprise. It couldn’t have been anything large, or they would have seen it. There was no scent, either, nothing discernable or distinct. Something small- a snake?
The veterans seemed ready to leap, but Lamark kept looking from above. Eventually he let out a familiar curse and relaxed.
“It’s a mouse. Wild, looks like- nothing on it, sniffing about.”
“Could still be one of the exiles, or a mixed offspring,” Olah whispered to the group. “Might be a trap, might be dangerous. They’ve played the part before.” They moved ahead regardless, straight toward where it seemed to be. Half a foot closer and the small brown mouse was clearly visible through the grass, looking for seed. Once it noticed them, it approached them, curious. “Stop, we will shoot,” Olah said to it again, with as little effect as the first time. “Don’t shoot unless it does anything,” he ordered. Their weapons stayed trained on it as it came up to them, taking in their scent. It crawled toward Emilie in particular, even going to far as to put a paw on her weapon to reach and smell her face, but quickly released it to make its way around her.
“It’s wild and dumb,” Olah said at last. It continued to prod and sniff around Emilie, who forcefully shoved it away, causing it to roll hard onto the ground. With an angry squeak it scampered away. “Good work, Lamark,” Olah called up in earnest. “Damn wild ones- rarely give us any trouble themselves, and when they do its just a matter of whacking them around a little. They like to check out the females, more than anything. But you can never be sure.”
“It’s good he’s here,” Emilie replied. “Makes for better hawk prey than us.” Their coarseness surprised Francis, but he wasn’t sure why. He could recall a brief time when a wild mouse had been brought to the shelter, to be examined and serve as an exhibit, to learn more about where they all came from. They were the same, but they weren’t. Seeing the poor thing aimlessly wander the enclosure they had prepared, a pup in a fully grown body essentially enslaved to study and spectation, was upsetting to some. It did not live all that long- another big difference between it and them, but it seemed wrong. What, exactly, seemed wrong Francis could not articulate, and he similarly could not express why their treatment of this mouse in a field bothered him.
He did not have much time to ponder it. The sprint resumed, this time with renewed vigor after the rest. Drawing near, it was clear the island of trees was actually quite small, relative to what it appeared from a distance. Dense as it was, the farmhouse they were looking for was not even visible until they were quite literally at the tree line, and even then it was greatly obscured. But it was there all the same, waiting for them to search it under the protective shade of the canopy.