Steam and smoke slithered around the cauldron and hissed over the hearth. Reeve hooked his poker into the lid and removed it. He ladled marshy chunks into a pie tin. When he handed it to her with a flick of his wrist, its stiff lumps remained mudded to the center of the tin. Yellowish skin peeked through the ooze. A pungent, earthy odor rose to assault her along with thick greasiness, bitter scents of overcooked greens, and something like burnt hair. Her lips withered. She pressed them between her teeth to hide the grimace.
“Thought you was hungry.” Reeve sat on the hearth and glared at her over the heap on his plate.
As her sour gut backflipped, she forced a smile. “Oh, yes. I am.”
“Then you best eat up.” He stabbed his fork toward her pie tin.
She stirred hunks of stringy flesh and wilted vegetation. Bile clawed its way up her throat and attacked the back of her tongue. She swallowed. “What if I have food allergies and I don’t remember?”
Mossy bits clung to his sneer. “Then we’ll find out soon enough.” His expression flattened as he shoveled up another bite. “Eat. You’ll need your strength.”
Rayanna held her breath as she raised a bite. She decided not to chew it. The pasty sinews clung to the surfaces in her mouth. She swallowed, fighting against her resistant gullet to force the first bite down.
A glimpse of fur caught her eye. A dog? She flicked her attention to the floor. No such luck. Instead of a dog to help rid her of this stew, it was the rug she’d tripped onto when she entered the shack. Over five feet wide and nearly twice as long, its onyx hairs glistened in the firelight. The skinned beast’s head and paws stuck out from the edges, but didn’t help identify the creature. With feet larger than human hands and a set of menacing jaws, it looked like something from a roadside monster museum.
“Was that some kind of bear?”
He smacked his lips, food lolling around his reply. “Nope.”
“I assume you hunted it yourself. Big for a timber wolf, isn’t it?” She thinned her meal across the surface of her plate.
“I did. And that ain’t no timber wolf.”
She forced another bite down. “What is it, then?”
Instead of answering, he scraped all the sludge from his plate and sucked his fork clean. “That there’s a story to prickle the hairs on a dead man’s arms.” He clattered his plate onto the stone surface beside him. “And it’s what we need to talk about.”
*** TO BE CONTINUED ***