Androkles sighed and looked at the shabby little inn and wished he wasn’t so far from the Glories. The building was squat and run down, and he had only been able to identify it by a painting of a pot of wine on the door. It was entirely made of wood, too, not stone, and it looked moldy along the ground. It was also suspiciously quiet for only an hour past sundown. Five months into his journey, he was finding that the barbarian lands to the north were as bad as everyone said.
He knew he could march for another day or two before he really started getting hungry, but he figured there was no point. He'd managed so far, despite the gods making everything harder than it needed to be. He straightened his cloak to hide his xiphos, since the leaf-blade had a tendency to make uncivilized people nervous, clapped some of the dust out of his skirt, ran his hands across his hair to flatten any strands that had escaped his braid, and went inside.
Ducking through the doorway, Androkles saw that the lamps were still lit, although some had gone out and were not re-lighted. A series of undecorated wooden tables and chairs were arranged throughout the room, leaving space by the fire for a few sleepers wrapped in blankets. Everything was quiet and dead; only the wait-boy, who was no more than a pale, skinny child with disheveled brown hair, was awake. He was sitting on a table, idly swinging his legs. Upon seeing Androkles enter, he wearily hopped down from his seat and greeted him with a bow. “Welcome to the house of Keld, master. Please sit wherever you want.” Then he watched while Androkles looked for the cleanest chair and table and sat.
“You’re not closed, are you, boy?” Androkles asked. “Why is there no one here?”
“No, master. We’re open,” began the boy, but he had to stop to suppress a yawn before continuing, “We’re open and we have bread and cheese, apples, and plum-wine, and a warm fire. And we do have some guests but they’re asleep now,” said the boy, nodding at the fireplace and the people lying there.
“Will anyone show up? I was hoping to gamble," Androkles asked, not caring how annoyed he sounded.
"I don't know, master. I don't think so because it's getting kind of late and folks don't usually show up this long after dark. But tomorrow when everyone gets in from the fields they can gamble," replied the boy.
Androkles sighed with resignation. He opened his coin-purse, looked inside, and said, "Fine. It looks like I’ve got two coppers left. What’ll that get me?”
The boy gave him a look of nervous appraisal, then answered, “I think… a pot of plum-wine and an apple, I guess. Or some bread instead of the apple.” His gaze was on the xiphos, which had been exposed when Androkles sat, as though the sword would jump out and start attacking people on its own.
“Do you have any grape-wine? Or beer?” Androkles asked.
“No, master, just the plum.”
“How can you not have beer? I walked through barley fields half the day!"
"I don't know, master. We just don’t have any right now."
"Then a pot of plum-wine and the bread.”
The boy left to fetch the goods, and Androkles sighed to himself, wondering if he should bother loosening his sandals. Now that he was well and truly out of money, Della’s homelands were starting to seem mighty far away. He might have to resort to finding work soon, and who knows what the barbarians would pay him for. It’d probably be worse than slave work. The boy appeared again with a plain drinking pot and half a loaf of bread, which he placed before Androkles, taking care not to let the pot roll and spill.
He took a large bite of the bread. It wasn’t bad, actually—a little saltier than bread in the Glories, but it had been made with good grain. The wait-boy said, “Hope it does good by you, master.” Androkles just shrugged off the distraction.
But the boy tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Can I have the coppers, master?” Androkles sighed and held them out for the boy to take, but the child seemed hesitant. After a moment, the boy gritted his teeth and carefully took the coins from Androkles’ palm, trying not to touch his hand.
In the Glories, boys his age would have been tripping over themselves to serve a veteran like Androkles. Arms and legs thick with muscle and covered in scars, and having survived long enough to retire? They'd be sure he was a hero, and he'd have to swat them away to enjoy a meal.
Not this boy, though, because he was a barbarian with no sense of proper civilization. The boy quickly bowed and said, “Thank you, master." Then he immediately turned and headed toward a pile of cleaning supplies in the corner, where he began half-heartedly doing chores.
Nothing else to do, Androkles watched him. The boy was obviously not a Laophilean—flat, pale brown hair, too-pale skin, forgettable features. Completely plain child, nine or ten years old. His spotty, purple tunic had probably been white and properly fitted a year ago, but now it was getting too tight and only went halfway down to his knees. It looked like the boy was going to be cold this winter, too, if that's all he had. No footwear, either. One had to wonder if all barbarians dressed their children so poorly, or if the master of the house was a stingy bastard. The child was obviously a slave, but in the Glories a slave who looked like that was an insult to his master.
Androkles looked away with disdain and stared into his pot, unable to bring himself to finish the second half. It tasted like it had been in a pitcher all day, and had been watered down too much besides. It had no foam, like the beer he had intended to buy. This far north, it should have been all beer, not fruit wine. Beer in the north, beer in the south, and the wine of grapes for the Glories, after all. And what were they doing with all that barley, anyway? He looked deeper at the drink, but it was just a flat, dark surface with no color. This whole journey was getting more obnoxious with each passing day. His friend Nikon would have been laughing at him, if he was still alive.
As if to deliberately break his reverie, the wait-boy suddenly knocked Androkles’ elbow with a broom handle, causing the pot to spill all down his front, soaking his dusty white cloak in purple plum-wine. Androkles shot to his feet in a fit of rage, knocking the chair over. The boy was too shocked to cower, eyes wide and mouth hanging open, holding the broom with both hands in front of him like a shield.
Fast as a snake, Androkles grabbed the broom away. “Turn to the side, boy,” he said darkly.
“…why?” asked the wait-boy in a small voice.
“I’m gonna beat you on the back of the thighs for ruining my cloak! Now turn!” said Androkles, scowling hard enough to cause lightning.
The boy got even paler somehow, cowered, and began pleading, “Please, master, please, I’m sorry! Have mercy!”
“Turn around or I'll beat your skull, you rebellious slave!”
“I’m not a slave, master, just an orphan! Please! You look strong enough you’ll break my legs!” said the boy, eyes wide with terror. He was beginning to tear up. That was a look Androkles had seen plenty of times in grown men, begging for their lives. It wouldn’t do the boy any good. It might have worked on his friend Diokles, but Diokles was dead.
“Turn around. Now.”
“Please, master, forgive me,” said the boy, not yet turning, but losing his resistance. He was holding his hands out in a gesture of prayer.
Androkles scowled at the boy, suddenly feeling a bit indecisive. That child was a scrawny, weak, pathetic thing. Underfed, no dignity, no family name or future. If a child like this died, no one would notice but his master. Sort of like a certain ex-soldier with no money, now that he thought about it.
“Master, please, if I’m hurt he’ll throw me out!” begged the boy.
The boy should know better than to ask Androkles for mercy. Androkles was not a man known for mercy. “I probably would break your legs, now that I think about it,” he said crossly, setting the broom aside.
It took the boy a second to realize that he was getting off the hook, but once he did, his relief was so thick in the air it could be touched. He knelt and bowed like he was in front of an idol to show his gratitude. Jumping up, he said, “I’ll get you another drink, master. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want it. The first half of that one was awful,” said Androkles. “In fact, everything about this inn is awful.”
Now the boy looked chagrined. “Yes, master. Everyone complains about it, and I’m really sorry. And I’m sorry I’m clumsy. But I’m an orphan and you had mercy, so I think Palthos will bless you in return,” said the boy, timidly reaching for the broom.
“The gods can’t see everything, boy. And I’d need a lot of mercy from a puny god like the Child.”
“The gods can’t see everything, master, that’s true. But some of them are kind, and Palthos is a kind one. He’s more powerful than you think. Even more powerful than the other gods think. And he’s certainly more powerful than you,” said the boy. With that pronouncement, he looked Androkles in the eyes, and Androkles noticed for the first time that they were a deep black color, not even brown, with tiny white flecks like stars. That gaze was piercingly sharp for the briefest moment, and then the boy nodded humbly and gripped his broom with renewed purpose. “Not to give offense, master. I’ll pray to Palthos to bless you tonight.”
“Pick a different god, boy. That one’s a trickster and meddler. Pray to a good soldier’s god, like Arkos Oathfather or the Hewer,” replied Androkles, taking off his cloak to deliberately wring it out on the floor. An impressive amount of plum-wine dripped from it and splashed all over, and the boy kept diplomatically silent as he began wiping the ground with a rag. Androkles added, “They call Palthos the Child and the Orphan, but he’s also a bit of a bastard, in more ways than one.”
With a frown, he wondered whether the gods had heard the blasphemy. Everyone cursed the gods generally, but it was foolish to curse them individually. It would be just Androkles’ luck that one of them would hide Della from him and he’d never see his money again. They were spiteful like that.
Since he hadn’t been able to gamble, he wouldn’t be able to pay for lodging when the master of the inn woke up in the morning. That made it time to leave, he supposed, so once his cloak was thoroughly wrung out he said, “I think I’ll sleep elsewhere. Boy, watch those broom handles from now on,” said Androkles, fastening his cloak around his shoulders.
“I will, master. And keep your eyes open for the blessing,” said the boy.
He snorted and said, “Unless it’s big enough to trip over, I’m sure I’ll miss it.” Then, wrapping his wet cloak once more across his shoulders, he left with as much cool dignity as he could fake.
The moon was full and bright and nearly halfway across the sky as he made his way northward through the village. It was cold, but only enough to be annoying. Just chilly. And he really should have beaten that boy for ruining his cloak; there was no way he could sell it now. He would have to sell his xiphos next, and there was no hope of getting a fair price for a good iron sword in these lands.
Being angry was making him less weary, so he decided to walk a few miles into the country and sleep in late tomorrow morning, enjoying the moonlight and the solitude.
No sooner had he stepped beyond the rickety wooden walls of the village than he noticed the wind, which made that cold feel awfully biting. Maybe he wouldn’t be going far after all. He also started wishing again that he still had a shirt. Selling it hadn’t bothered him at the time, since no one really wore them without the armor, but it would have kept the wind off. His sandals were in good repair, at least, and his skirt.
The road ran roughly northwest, and the moon lit up the hills and mountains so they glimmered like old silver. The thick trees that draped along the hills looked almost like raw wool in the moonlight, spread evenly over the landscape. He cast a long shadow, which seemed a bit longer than moon-shadows in the Glories. Perhaps it was because he was further north.
East, west, and south—he had seen all of the civilized world, and much of the barbarian lands, but never had the army taken him north. All he knew about the barbarian north was what Della had told him, and she had always been vague, preferring other topics. So far, he wasn't impressed.
After an hour or so, he knew he was making good time and his mood was improving, but he was starting to get nervous that the boy really would pray to the Child and the god would decide to meddle with his affairs. Unless the gods were going to drop Della in his lap with all his money in a sack, he’d rather they kept to themselves. He didn’t have time, resources, or inclination to honor them; better just to be ignored.
As he was crossing a small bridge over a dry gulch, he stubbed his toe brutally on something sticking up from the wood, stumbled, and fell over. He immediately looked around to make sure no one had seen it; the roads were still empty, of course. With a loud curse, he sat back and examined his toe up close where he could see it in the moonlight. It wasn’t bleeding. Or broken. Just stubbed, and it hurt like a dozen beestings. He felt around for the nail that he had kicked, intending to yank it out and toss it as far as he could. When he found it, it was all the wrong shape. It was round and flat on the sides and…
Yanking it from between the boards and holding it up to inspect in the moonlight, Androkles had to grin. It was a four-weight gold coin that had somehow fallen between the boards and been missed. That was impossible. A four-weight gold was worth a hundred silvers. That was a full season of work for a soldier. Looks like he had been merciful to the right orphan! He couldn’t help but laugh, so he did, loudly, into the empty night.
“Thank you, oh great god Palthos! I’ll use some of this to feed the next hungry orphans I come across,” he promised to the starry sky. After a moment, he added, “And I’m sorry I called you a bastard.”
When he stood again, he found a new spryness in his step to match his good mood. He began flipping the coin in the air, listening to the ringing sound it made as it spun. Although he could hear a large pack of wolves howling over the hills, they didn’t seem close enough to cause any concern, and they wouldn’t want his gold anyway.
What a coin it was! His friend Euphemios would already have been trying to convince him to split it or make a gamble, if he’d been here and not dead, Androkles thought with a grin. Euphemios would have found a way to lose or waste it before the sun came up; the man’s wages had always been gone after a week. No, the best thing to do was split it somewhere and use part to buy another cloak, and probably a tunic or robe. And some beer, hearty and heady. And whatever else he wanted, for months.
Maybe another mile down the road, he’d find Della’s corpse, clutching a sack with all his money in it. Then perhaps he could give the gold coin to some widow to honor the gods, and she and her brood of ten hungry children could eat for months. It would be a heroic thing to do: suddenly appear, war veteran with noble head held high, in front of a weeping widow clutching a sickly babe to her breast. She would of course be starving, and this would happen in some sunlit City market where she was begging with a lot of people around. And they would all see him walk up to her and drop this giant gold coin in her hand with a beneficent look on his face, full of resolve and mercy, and they’d use him as example to teach children.
Ha! And then he’d retire to his manor house and farm and get himself a new wife and she’d give him four handsome sons and one beautiful daughter, in that order.
That was a cheerful thought. The gold glinted admirably in the moonlight. It certainly did. Higher and higher he flipped it, straining his thumb to send it soaring into the air. After perhaps another mile, flipping the coin every so often, he was pleased to note that the light wind had done its job and his cloak was finally dry. Stained, but dry. He walked along, flipping his coin ever higher. It was heavy, which was wonderful. Let some bandit come and try to take it! Androkles would give the man’s blood to the earth as an offering for the Hewer, and the bandit would meet Makron Corpse-eater. Or whatever god took the wicked dead in these lands.
It was at the very moment when the coin reached its highest point that a white thing shot out from behind a bush and sank its teeth into his thigh, right through his thick linen skirt.