Night stretched thin, surrendering to the dawn, as they left the town. Released by the dissipating mist, furrowed fields of muted brown unfolded to the horizon, the scent of newly mown hay drifting on the breeze.
A smile tugged at the corner of Dale’s mouth. This might not be too bad, he thought as a colorful swath of wild flowers came into view. I could almost feel at home here, if it weren’t so primitive. Still, it’s pretty…. I could be stranded somewhere a whole lot worse. He looked up and watched the clouds shade from delicate pink to rich gold before turning his attention to his captive.
Kheri’s straight blond hair dangled in a rough cut a bit past his collar. Icy blue eyes looked out of a face wrapped in pale skin dusted with freckles, and he moved with the practiced ease of someone who traveled exclusively on their feet.
Dale nodded to himself. Early twenties, I think. Not very muscular and very inexperienced. Might have decent potential, given enough time. We’ll see. He broke the silence. “What do most people use for transportation around here?”
Kheri blinked, and then shook himself back to the present. “Horses mostly. Mules sometimes. Carts or wagons for hauling. Why?”
“Because I asked.”
Kheri gave an uneasy nod and returned to working out an excuse to get his uncle’s mothballed clothing away from his aunt. Five minutes later, he sighed, shook his head, and stopped walking. “Look,” he turned to face Dale, struggling to keep tension out of his voice, “I’m not really sure this is such a good idea.”
Kheri shivered and picked nervously at a fingernail, unable to determine what his captor’s tone meant. “Yeah, my aunt… well she’s pretty sharp and… she’s gonna want to know why I want my uncle’s clothes, you know?” He forced himself to meet Dale’s eyes. “And well I can’t…” he stopped as Dale crossed his arms. “Uh…” his knees threatened to give way and he gulped. “I… uh… I can’t think of… of…” He dropped his eyes and stood trembling, staring down at Dale’s feet.
Dale sighed, used to dealing with much more hardened individuals, and fought with his own impatience. “Kheri, let’s just get to your aunt’s farm. We can deal with what to tell her once we get there.”
Kheri sagged and nodded in resignation. “All right,” he replied unhappily, as he turned back to the road. “But don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.”
As the sun rose above distant mountains a short time later, its light painting the land with every color of creation, the birds broke into a riotous chorus of welcome as its first rays began to warm their nests. Dale found to his surprise that he was smiling. I might actually enjoy this. If I can get past the hurdles of no clothes, no food, and no idea when my powers will return. The thought was sobering and dulled the promise of the new day.
They walked in silence for the better part of an hour, each wrapped in his own musings. Dale kept a sharp eye out for any approaching traffic but the road remained deserted and at last, a farm came in sight.
It was a small place, with a tidy yellow house set back from the road and a chicken yard nestled against one fence. Tall rows of corn stood neatly to the side, golden tassels waving atop fat ears. A low mooing drifted towards them, accompanied by the jangle of cowbells and the scent of manure.
Kheri glanced toward the barn. “She’s probably milking the cow. It’s about that time of the day.”
“And your uncle?”
“Dead. Been dead for nearly thirty years. Got drunk one night, thought he could fly, climbed a tree to try it. Didn’t survive the fall. No loss.”
Dale lifted an eyebrow at Kheri’s back.
“My aunt says life got three hundred percent easier after he died.” Kheri shrugged, rambling from the tension he was under. “I dunno though, I didn’t know him. He was already gone by the time I came here to live after my parents died when I was six.”
Right, Dale thought, scanning the farm. “So your aunt lives here alone?” he asked as they neared the front gate.
“Yeah. Just her and the animals.” Kheri put his hand on the gate, and then paused and looked up at his captor. “Dale, don’t do anything to her, okay? Please?” He stood motionless, his eyes locked on Dale’s face.
“Is there a reason I should?”
Kheri took a deep breath and shook his head. “I hope not,” he muttered. He opened the gate, lead the way up the path, and around to the back of the house.
His aunt stepped out of the barn as they rounded the corner, a heavy metal pail in one hand and a basket in the other. She caught sight of her nephew walking across the yard, set the pail down, and put her hands on her hips. “I suppose there’s something you want, isn’t there. Well it can wait. I’ve got eggs to fetch and breakfast to cook and chores to do.”
“We just want….”
“It can wait till later,” Dale interrupted. “And we’d be happy to help you with your chores.”
The aunt peered at Dale, looking him up and down. “You sure are dressed outlandishly. Where’re you from, boy?”
“A fairly long way off, ma’am.”
Kheri’s aunt pursed her lips then nodded. “Must be. You ever collected eggs before?”
Dale stared at her, a blank expression on his face. “Uh…” He shook his head. “No, I haven’t.”
“Didn’t rightly think so.” She held out the basket. “Kheri, take this and go get the eggs. Take your friend with you. I’ll be in the house.”
Kheri bit his lip to keep from laughing at Dale’s reaction as he took the basket. “Come on,” he jerked his head to the side. “The hen house is this way.”
His aunt shook her head while watching them walk off, and then picked up the pail of milk. “City folk,” she muttered. “Ain’t never done a useful lick o’ work in his life mos’ like. Well the hens’ll give ‘em some exercise.” She lugged the milk into the house, the screen door slamming behind her.
A wire fence circled the chicken yard and hen house, enclosing them both in an unbroken ring penetrated by a single gate. Kheri paused before the gate. “Chickens are kinda funny. They can’t fly, but they’ll try to run out the gate. Don’t let ‘em or we’ll be chasing ‘em all day. Also, the hens don’t like it when we take their eggs, so they get kinda nasty. Oh, and watch out for the rooster.”
Dale surveyed the birds milling around inside the yard. “All right. What’s a rooster?”
Kheri’s eyebrows shot up and he stared at Dale. “You don’t know….” He pointed to a rather large, imposing chicken with brilliant blue, curved tail feathers and shining brown wings. “That’s the rooster. He’s the only male in there and he thinks it all belongs to him. He’ll think we’re invading his property once we go in there. He likes to pick fights and that beak’s sharp. So are those spurs on the back of his feet. He’ll cut you wide open if you’re not careful, so watch out for him.”
Great. Dale studied the rooster as it strutted around the yard. One more thing to add to the list. No clothes, no money, no food, no access to my powers, and now I’m about to be a sparring partner for a bird with a bad attitude. I can’t wait to see what else is lurking in the wings! He grimaced before nodding at Kheri. “All right, let’s get this over with.”
Kheri opened the gate and slipped inside, shutting it quickly behind him.
Dale glanced at the rooster then followed suit.
The chickens scattered, squawking loudly, as Kheri strode toward them swinging the basket.
The rooster jerked around and gave an angry crow. Flapping his wings, he drew himself up to his full height, stretched out his neck and charged.
Kheri fended him off with the basket and sprinted for the hen house, disappearing inside with the rooster in hot pursuit. A second later, he dashed back out of the hen house with the basket over his head and the rooster close behind. He vaulted over the fence, caught his foot on the top, and landed in a heap on the ground.
The rooster, satisfied he had driven off the intruder, strutted away to take up sentry duty among the hens.
“I see what you mean,” Dale snickered, trying not to laugh as he gazed at the pile on the ground. “Did you get any eggs?”
A muffled sound came out from under the basket and Kheri pushed himself up on one arm. “No, I didn’t get any eggs! Here!” He tore the basket off his head and flung it in Dale’s direction. “Let’s see you do any better,” he growled, his temper frayed beyond control.
Dale caught the basket with one hand and shrugged. Moving cautiously, he made his way across the chicken yard, trying to avoid scattering the hens as Kheri had. The rooster eyed him with suspicion, but seemed content not to react since the hens remained unruffled. He reached the hen house without incident, opened the door, and then stepped inside.
The hen house was small and rather dark with the door shut. The smell of chicken hung heavily in the air, mixing with the scents of dust and old straw. Dale blinked a couple of times while waiting for his eyes to adjust, wondering where the eggs were located.
Nesting boards had been nailed around the hen house walls, and several chickens were currently nestled on top piles of straw, contentedly snoozing. Peering curiously into a pile that lacked a hen, Dale spotted several white objects. Ah, he grinned. So this is where they come from. He retrieved the eggs, placing them into the basket. Working quickly, he collected eggs from the rest of the empty nests, and then stood back considering the dozing chickens.
The basket was almost full and the possibility of raising a squawk, and then having to dodge flying rooster, outweighed his desire to check under the hens. He cracked open the door and glanced around the chicken yard.
The rooster was busily worrying a bug in the grass on the far side of the yard, and didn’t appear to notice him.
Dale stepped outside the hen house, shut the door, and then made his way to the gate. He half-expected Kheri to have fled, and was pleasantly surprised to find this wasn’t the case. He opened the gate, stepped through it, and then handed Kheri the basket, an innocent expression painting his face. “What was so hard about that?”
Kheri frowned at the basket, glared at the rooster, and then stalked off toward the house without responding.
The smell of something cooking drifted from the house and Dale’s stomach growled. He winced in pain, trying to forget the fact that he hadn’t eaten in over two days before following Kheri into the kitchen.