Its timing had been impeccable—Androkles had been too startled to decide between defending himself and catching his money, and accomplished neither. He almost struck whatever it was as hard as he could, but in a moment of clarity, it occurred to him that it might come away with a chunk of his leg. Shaking the haze of surprise away, he grabbed one of its snow-white ears and gave it a nasty tweak with his left hand and unsheathed his xiphos with his right.
Its ear was softer than he’d expected, and the thing let go surprisingly quickly as he gave it another twist. It yelped loudly and squirmed, but he didn’t let go. He grabbed its ear all the more tightly, holding the head away from his leg. It was a large albino coyote or something, and probably diseased given its hairless legs, which was just his luck; he would have to… Was that a shirt? It was wearing a shirt.
He dropped it in horror and surprise. Then he reflexively grabbed its tail as it tried to scamper away, unsure why he did so. It weakly tried to shake free, but he was far stronger. He clutched it by the shirt and held it up in front of him. It was surprisingly light for something that size, and oddly shaped, and squirming... Then it turned its head and looked him in the eyes.
“Oathfather!” Androkles cursed. He almost dropped it again, but didn’t. It was a Skythander kit, a beast-man’s child. White hair, white cat-ears and white tail, and otherwise like a normal person; human, more or less. “And every other last damnable god,” he added. At that moment, it lost all its fight and started crying softly, sounding exactly like a human child. It had gone completely limp in his arms. It… no, he. The kit’s shirt wasn’t long enough, and Androkles could see it was a boy.
“Oh, shut up!” Androkles snarled. He didn’t want to put the kit down, since he might try to run off into the woods again. Or bite him. What in Makron’s rotten garden was a Skythander kit doing out on a lonely road in the middle of the night? Other than the mercenaries, weren’t Skythanders supposed to stick to their kingdom most of the time? And why was this one attacking armed travelers? It’s not like the xiphos was easy to miss--it swung freely from the sheath on his belt. Someone must have put the kit up to this, and they would need punishment. Maybe Androkles would be beating someone purple after all. Starting with this kit.
“Seriously, shut up. Shut up!” Androkles scowled, and the boy, who hadn’t really been looking at him directly in the first place, shivered in terror and choked back sobs. He flattened his cat-ears like a chastised dog and curled his tail around his feet. It was an impressively pitiable sight, Androkles admitted to himself.
“Oh, quiet down. I should beat you for biting me, so do what I say and maybe I won’t. Now shut it. Quiet. Calm down… There you go. Quiet down.” The boy was struggling to regain his composure, or some semblance of it, anyway. Androkles waited with what he considered to be admirable patience, and eventually the kit quieted down.
“There now. How old are you?” Androkles looked intently at the boy, who only met his gaze in the briefest of glances and was clearly terrified. He looked to be of an age with the wait-boy from the inn, just barely tall enough to come up to Androkles’ chest.
“I’m nine. I’m… nine,” said the kit.
“Fine. Now, where are your parents?” said Androkles.
The kit just looked at him and tried very hard not to cry again. He was holding his breath, and began clenching shut his eyes. Androkles sighed. The kit probably thought Androkles was going to cook and eat him or something.
“I don’t know!” the kit finally exclaimed, and with the words he began crying again.
“What does that mean?”
“They left me… behind on... purpose and I… can’t find… where they went!” said the kit, in between sobs.
Had the boy been exposed? Whatever. Androkles looked him dead in the eyes, and the kit quickly went silent. “I see. So why did you bite me?”
“Please don’t kill me, master!” said the boy, almost breathlessly.
“Who put you up to this? Were you trying to rob me?” Androkles insisted.
The boy tried to answer, but he couldn’t find his breath and wasn’t able to spit out a single word. He was shivering fit to fall apart, probably from a mix of cold and fear. Androkles' old mentor Diokles would be kicking him in the ankles right now for interrogating a child, if he’d been alive.
A weak, child’s voice from the deep shadows on the side of the road said, “Please put him down, master. Please let him go.” Androkles scowled at the bushes he couldn’t see into and changed his mind about Palthos, who was indeed a rotten bastard of a god. Watch for his blessing, indeed!
Androkles looked carefully into the shadows but was unable to see anything. He told the white-haired kit he was holding, “If I put you down, you better stay put, understand? You run off and I really will get mad. Got it? You stand right there.” The boy nodded, so Androkles set him down on his feet.
“Now,” said Androkles to the bush, “You come out of there right now, or I’ll beat your friend purple.”
“He’s sick, master,” said the first one with a trembling voice. “He can’t get up anymore.”
Gods. Arkos Oathfather, Huntress, Hewer, Corpse-eater, and every other poxy, blighted god. This was beyond a bad joke. Blasted trickster Child.
He sighed loudly; he should really just leave at this point, he knew. It was unlikely there were bandits around, and Androkles was not a man known for helping children. The opposite, in many ways. He told the voice in the shadows, “Where are you? I’m coming in there to get you. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The owner of the voice coughed, then quietly said, “I’m in here… in… no, over here, under this one.”
“Why did you pick one with thorns?” asked Androkles crossly.
“Because of animals, they…” then the voice coughed again. “They’ll eat me.”
“I don’t even see you under here. Look at me. Move. Do something. Where are you?” asked Androkles again, digging around and scratching his arms on thorns.
Finally Androkles saw a hand waving weakly and found the rest of the child. He slid it out from under the thorn bush by the arms. It was also wearing a shirt, and also had no pants for some mysterious reason, and was also a boy. But this one’s hair, tail, and ears were deep black, where the other was white. Another beast-man kit. Of course it was.
The black one groaned and tried to hunch over, but was too weak to move. He was almost completely limp.
The white one, trying to speak humbly while his voice kept catching, said, “I just wanted your money for food because he’s going to die. Please, master, I’m sorry. Can you feed us?”
Androkles turned and gave the white kit a look that made him step backwards, trip, and fall squarely on his ass with a whimper. He looked at the ground and started choking out sobs again, this time through clenched teeth.
Feed them? He had to stop and think about that for a moment. It occurred to him that they might be orphans, and he’d just given his oath to feed the next ones he came across. It also occurred to him that if the Child had given him the gold coin, the god could just as easily have given the boys some bread and left Androkles alone. No, he was probably being meddled with; the gods had toyed with his father until the man killed himself, and apparently they weren’t quite done with the family line.
The boys just meekly looked at him, shivering in the cold and terrified. He couldn’t deny that there was something about the sight that moved him, but only a fool made his decisions from emotion. “Boys, why do neither of you have pants on?” Androkles finally asked, trying to look less menacing. “Even though you have shirts.”
The white one, pulling down his shirt for decency, said, “It’s because we’re lost. We didn’t have anything at all until we found these bags. They’re not even shirts; they’re just bags I made holes in with my teeth. We found ‘em and put ‘em on.”
“Seriously? Then why were you both naked? And why are you out here in the first place?”
“It’s because we’re lost! We don’t have anywhere to go. Or else we’d have food. And we’d be somewhere warm.” He looked at the ground and started sniffing again, trying not to break out into sobs.
“You cry an awful lot for a boy, you know that?”
“I can’t help it!” the kit nearly shouted. “I didn’t even cry at all until now, only just a little bit.”
Androkles had been expecting anger from the child, but instead, he simply looked crestfallen. It made him feel guilty, somehow. Or was that genuine pity? Curse the gods. Thais would have been smug about that, if he was alive. He’d always teased Androkles that his heart was too small for his body.
“Are you gonna help us? Please? Master, please, he’s really sick and I’m afraid he’s gonna die,” said the white one, still fighting back tears. “And me too, probably.”
Should he help them? They were not his, after all, and he had something important to accomplish. Perhaps he should just… But he knew in his heart that he had already decided. They were orphans and he had to feed them to keep his oath. Further deliberation was useless. Sighing, and looking up at the heavens with a scowl, Androkles said, “Well, I’m not going to just wander off and let you freeze to death. Come here.”
The white one nervously walked over to him, ineffectively trying to wipe the tears from his cheeks. The boy’s legs seemed thinner than normal, now that he got a closer look. Suspecting the kit was starving, given the circumstances, he lifted the bag the boy was using as a shirt to look at his stomach and chest. It wasn’t good. He was thin as a straw. After checking, the black one was even thinner, if that was possible, which explained why the boy wasn’t standing up. Androkles knew what starvation looked like, and these boys were on the verge of death. “You have to be kidding me,” he muttered under his breath. Two starving boys in the middle of nowhere. No wonder the white one was crying like a little girl—he was probably at the last, flickering end of desperation, about to lose all hope and die. Androkles had seen that before, too.
At least his cloak was dry. He spread it out on the ground, then gathered the boys into it. The black one was completely limp, although he was awake and looking around. “Now hold each other tight, and warm each other up,” he said. He wrapped them like a lunch, tight as he could, their heads poking out one end and a knot at the other to hold their feet in. Then he fished around in the dirt until he found the fat gold coin and slipped it into his coinpurse, which he tied tightly shut.
They were still shivering inside the cloak, and the black one might die soon no matter what Androkles did, but at least they’d start warming up now. And if he could find wine and vinegar, and maybe some sugar, and make a nice warm fire, he might steal them back from Makron Corpse-eater’s grim claws after all. Oh, and water. They would need water as soon as he could find any. Too bad that gulch under the bridge had been dry.
For a moment he considered how to carry them. The easiest for him would be to toss them over his shoulder like a sack of grain, but he’d been carried like that several times after being wounded, and it was hard to breathe. No use rescuing them if they were just going to suffocate. He finally decided to hold them crossways against his chest, like a mother nursing a babe, almost. It would make his arms tired, but it would have to do. Fortunately, starving children didn’t feel particularly heavy.
“Are you both okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the white one.
“Ya,” whispered the black one, rasping a bit. That one probably wouldn’t make it.
“Then we’re off. I don’t have any water or food, so I have to carry you until I find some. This might be uncomfortable so say something if you start to have trouble. Got it?” asked Androkles.
"Yes,” said the white one.
“Ya,” whispered the black one.
“I’m serious. I’d rather have you complain than die.”
“We will,” said the white one. “And thank you so, so much.”
Androkles hadn’t seen any Skythanders in the last village, so it wouldn’t do any good to go in that direction. The crossroads ahead was rumored to have a well, and he should be getting close. And if the parents were there, he could punch them until they agreed to take the boys back. They’d deserve it after making him go through all this trouble.
Androkles started walking at a brisk marching pace, which he had done a thousand times before in the army, and with worse wounds than the bite in his leg. A soldier was never too tired to march, they always told him. Fortunately, the bite had not been deep, since the kit’s mouth was small. It would be a bloody mess in the morning, but he could ignore it for now. He’d have to beat the kit for it, but that could wait until he was less likely to die from starvation.
The full moon was enough to keep him from falling over any rocks and smashing his cargo, thank the Path-clearer. Or the moon herself, perhaps. With dark humor, it occurred to Androkles to be glad the boys were starving, or they would have been a lot heavier and slowed him down.
Although, now that he thought about it, the wounded were much heavier, and he had carried the wounded many times, sometimes for miles. And if the wounds were bad, they got lighter as he went along.
Now that was a dark thought, he thought with a smile. Good soldier’s humor.
After a while, the kits started getting heavy, despite his efforts. Not enough to stop him, of course, but his arms went from tired to aching to burning to growing numb. This would have been much easier in the late morning, after a good sleep and with a belly full of breakfast. Perhaps he could convince the black one to hold off dying while he took a nap.
It took longer than he had hoped, and the sky was turning from black to indigo as the moon fell behind the hills and his arms felt like deadweight, but he made it to the crossroads. The kits hadn’t made a peep, but every time he checked they were both breathing.
Turning the last bend, Androkles saw the wide, flat clearing he’d been expecting, and by the Path-clearer, there was a pull-cart and a few travelers by a faintly-smoking firepit. Some merchant had made camp here. Perhaps the kits’ lost parents were hired guards or something. Or even merchants themselves.
He made his way to the fire and looked for somewhere to put the kits. Six unmoving figures in travel blankets encircled the fire pit like daisy petals, and there was room between them, although he frowned when he saw that none of them were Skythanders.
The boys were asleep, somehow. He could not imagine the exhaustion that would allow them to sleep while carried by a marching soldier. Well, actually, he could. Quite well at the moment. Since he was the marching soldier.
He laid them carefully so as not to wake them, then stoked the fire and put a few more logs on. Looking around, he saw that he had been right about the well, thank the gods. He filled the bucket, which hung there by a rope, drank his fill, and poured some of the rest out; the kits only needed a little. Too much and they would be sick. He took it back to them and carefully lifted their heads, one by one, and helped them drink. They hardly woke, but they did drink. As soon as he was done, they were asleep again. Let Diokles or Thais complain about him now, he thought. The kits would be fine until morning.
He stood and looked at them, cat’s ears poking up above their little heads, soft fur, white and black, where a man-child would have hair. Androkles had never seen a Skythander kit before, let alone a gaunt one. The adults had quite a lot more fur. Perhaps they grew it in like a youth growing a hairy chest. But these two were alive and sleeping, and that was a success.
Food could wait until morning. If the company was so weary that not even one guard was awake, then he didn’t want to make them upset by waking them up. There was something strange about a merchant company with no one awake to stand guard, but Androkles was too tired to think about it right now. He took a rock and wrote “Wake me up” in the dirt by his head, then lay down and was out like a candle.