“These your boys?” asked someone nearby. It was a tree, to which he had been talking before being interrupted.
“Hmm?” Androkles replied to the tree.
The tree asked, “Are these boys here yours?”
Androkles looked and the tree’s boughs hung heavy with children hung by ropes from their feet, or hands, or necks, all of them squirming and in pain.
Someone lightly kicked him in the side. He sat up in shock, then remembered where he was. The tree had been a dream.
“I’m awake. I’m awake. Weaver, what a dream.” That image would be with him half the morning, he was sure.
“Sorry, master, but you wrote to wake you up, so I did,” said someone. Adult. Male. Friendly. Androkles tried to open his eyes, but the bright light made that impossible.
“That I did. Thank you. Glad you can read. Gods, I could sleep another whole day and not notice,” he sighed. “Don’t wake the kits if they’re still sleeping. I need to get some breakfast for them. Rod of Arkos, it’s cold!” said Androkles. He felt more tired than when he’d gone to sleep, and the temperature wasn't helping.
“Sun just barely came up. Chilly night to be running around without a shirt on,” said the man.
“Or pants,” replied Androkles, thinking of the kits.
“Ya, or pants, but your skirt looks warm enough. What happened to your thigh, there? That’s quite a lot of blood.”
“I got bit by something,” replied Androkles sourly. “Last night, on my way here.”
“Huh. Well, you came in awfully late. We were all sleeping like the dead before you snuck in. Glad you’re friendly. Here, let me help you up,” said the man, extending his hand.
“Thank you,” said Androkles, trying to rub some sense into his eyes. He took the hand and stood. And immediately regretted it. It was too early to be this sore. Arms, legs, and back. Gods.
After a moment he could see. The sun shone gracefully through the evergreens, having just crested the gentle hills to the east, and filled the area with rays of sunlight suspended in the dust. The man who woke him was a soldier or guard, with a heavy club at his hip and a shield on his back. His arms looked a bit weak for that line of work, however. His pale skin and light eyes marked him as some kind of northerner, although he seemed civilized. The man clapped him on the back and said, “You seem a bit wobbly, master. You alright?”
Androkles, attempting a friendly grin, said, “I’m good enough. I was up late, but rest doesn’t come easy on the road. Time to be up.”
“So I assume those kits are yours? No offense, master. I’m only asking because they’re Skythanders and you’re not,” said the guard, with a tone of voice that Androkles suspected was meant to be disarming, but came across as suspicious.
“Sort of. I found them on the way here. I’m looking for their parents. Seen any Skythanders, or know where I can find any? Traders like yourselves, perhaps?” said Androkles, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“Nope, afraid not. And I haven’t heard of any at all this far northwest, although I suppose those ones came from somewhere,” said the guard with a grin.
“Well, that’s too bad, but I guess that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? And I doubt they sprang from rocks, so there are bound to be more around. Anyway, they’re starving and sickly, and I need to buy some food and clothing, if your master is selling it,” said Androkles, stretching his arms and groaning, hoping some of the fog would dissipate from his mind. It was too early.
“We have dried mutton, hard biscuits, plenty of beans, and both young and fermented wine, if you’re buying. Salt, too. What do you need?”
“I’ll take some of all of it, if you can give me something to carry it in. For now, I just need the young wine and maybe some biscuits. And a pot. And spoon, and mug or bowl or something. And do you have any vinegar? Or sugar?” said Androkles.
The guard replied, “No sugar, but I have honey. No vinegar that I know of. You looking to buy the pot, or just borrow it?”
Androkles stopped for a minute to think about that. He would have to figure out how to carry it, but he was a couple days away from the next town, he estimated, so he’d be cooking again. Probably several times, since it would be a week or more before the kits were ready to travel, and he hadn’t really enjoyed carrying them. Even the thought of doing it again made him feel tired.
Not that he had a week to spare, just sitting around. He wasn’t making good time catching up to Della, who moved faster than he’d expected. Perhaps the Skythanders would happen to show up in the next couple days, but perhaps not, leaving him to take care of the kits. Maybe the merchant would want to take them? He’d have to test the man’s willingness in a bit.
“I guess I’ll buy the pot, if you have a pack I can carry it in. First thing I want is a fat lump of honey and plenty of young wine to dissolve it into. I also need a pot to warm it up in so it goes down easier. And while I’m at it, got any robes or anything that’d fit those kits?”
“I could make some robes, but I’d be cutting up good cloth. I’ll have to see a coin before I do that,” said the man. Beneath his bronze helmet, which didn’t fit him particularly well, his hair was cut short, almost shaved. Most guards grew their hair out in braids, like soldiers.
“Wait a second,” said Androkles. “You’re not a guard, are you? You’re the master of the company.” He felt somewhat clever for figuring it out so soon after a rough night. It was odd, though; merchants usually prided themselves on hiring others to do their violence and dressed to show their wealth.
The man grinned. “You caught me,” he said. “This is rough country, so I dress like a guard. The bandits don’t know who to shoot.”
“Makes sense,” Androkles said. “So why are you breaking your own camp?”
The merchant chuckled disarmingly. “I usually get up before these thugs I hired. They’re not as eager to get moving as I am.”
“That’s not fair, master,” said a deep, rumbling male voice near the fire. “Well, the thug part is fair.” Then he yawned loudly.
“Don’t wake the kits!” Androkles said crossly.
“Keep it down, Tulga,” said the merchant. “He’s a customer.”
“Fine, fine, I’ll be quiet as a mouse,” said Tulga, standing. He stood every bit as tall as Androkles and twice as heavy, a hulking giant of a man, fat and ruddy, with dirty reddish hair and beard.
“That’ll be a first,” said the merchant with a smile. Then he turned to Androkles and said, “Alright, master, show me some copper, and I’ll get you all you need. I’ll even wake these rascals up quietly and get things moving for you now, to help out a bit. All I need to see is some copper or silver.”
Androkles thought about that for a moment. Did the man not trust him? Or was he just hoping to see how much money Androkles had? He said, “All I have is gold. Got a four-weight I’ll need you to split. I assume you have change?”
“I … I’m sure I do. Of course I do. Can I see the coin?”
Maybe it was the exhaustion, but Androkles couldn’t help starting to feel a bit wary about this merchant. Who ever heard of a trader that wasn’t sure about his money? But the man could’ve cut his throat this morning if he’d wanted, so he probably wasn’t a threat. Probably.
Androkles untied his coin purse and pulled the coin out, showed the merchant, then put it back. The man gave him a smile that seemed somewhat greedy, then replied, “No problem, then. Just give me some time to get things ready.” Turning to leave, he stopped and asked, “Say, master, do you mind letting me see the boys? I’ve never seen a Skythander kit before.”
Androkles looked at the man appraisingly, trying to decide if he was too wary about him to try give the boys into his care. He said, “I suppose I should check them for injuries, so feel free to come take a look.” The merchant nodded.
They made their way to where the kits were sleeping. In the haze of weariness, he’d put the boys right between Tulga and the merchant, and now that those two were up he had plenty of room to work with. Androkles untied the bottom of the cloak and unwrapped the boys. He scowled at what he saw; he’d more or less expected them to be in bad shape, but seen in the early morning light, they were a genuine mess. The merchant gave a low whistle and asked again, “So where did you find them, exactly?”
Raw scrapes, scratches, bruises, and plenty of dirt covered them almost from the tips of their ears to their toes. The black one had several swollen cuts around his ankles, and they both had rashes where the dirty bags they had been using as shirts had worn away the skin. The fur on their tails and heads was matted and ragged and filthy, like a sick dog’s.
A lump started forming in Androkles’s throat when he noticed that they had given each other bruises where they held each other for warmth during the night. It reminded him of his friend Arkoleos, who’d held him tightly during surgery and recovery, more than once. The man had been closer than a brother before he died. Androkles cleared his throat, not particularly wanting to spend more emotion on the kits than necessary.
Last night, the white one had been just tall enough that the tips of his ears reached Androkles’s chest, and the kits were the same height. Now that he could look them over again, they didn’t seem stunted, as far as he could tell. That meant they’d only been starving for weeks, not years. If they recovered, they’d grow normally and wouldn’t be stunted and useless.
Weakness and hunger prevented the kits from reacting much to the cold morning air. They could almost pass for mummies, skinny as they were. The black one was indeed worse, since the thickest part of him was his joints, but the white one wasn’t far behind. Their shallow breathing seemed to shake them. Raphos Corpse-eater probably thought he had a snack on the way.
“I brought you those children you wanted, Della,” Androkles muttered.
“Hmm?” asked the merchant.
“Just muttering to myself,” replied Androkles, rising to his feet. “I found them on the road about three hours’ walk that way,” he said, pointing. “The white one tried to waylay me and the black one was under a bush. They said they were lost.” Then, with a dark grin, he added, “Lost is not the word I would have used.”
The merchant nodded thoughtfully and said, “Your story is hard to believe, but I’ve seen enough fighting men to know which ones you don’t question.” Then he clapped Androkles on the back and said, “You’ll have all you need and more. I have salve and clean rags, and some poultice herbs. I might also have a good pack. Let me check.”
What on earth had the merchant meant by that? Which ones you don’t question? Androkles suspected he should be insulted. He knew he looked a bit ragged right now, but he was a man of the Glories and a veteran besides.
The merchant went about his business, quietly waking the others. The merchant’s party counted a taut, hard-looking woman among their number. That was strange, but not unheard of. Not all women could be home juggling babies on their breasts.
After wrapping the kits back up to stay warm, Androkles watched the merchant rummage around in the cart for the supplies. It took longer than he was expecting, almost like the man was seeing it all for the first time. Androkles scowled, growing warier. He found himself absent-mindedly rubbing the pommel of his xiphos.
The woman, adjusting her leather armor after sleeping in it, walked over to see the visitors. Her torso seemed bony and tough, and it looked like she couldn’t get the armor to fit right no matter where she pulled. She had a narrow-looking face and her light brown hair was tied back in a braid beneath her leather helm like the others wore. She gasped with her hand over her mouth when she saw the boys.
“They look so skinny!” she muttered hotly. Walking over to Androkles, she looked him directly in the eyes and said, “Are those boys yours?”
He almost replied, ‘No, they fell out of the sky and I’ve never seen them before,’ but he didn’t want to offend anyone before he’d bought what he needed. He couldn’t help but wonder how many more times he would be answering that question. Trying not to sound too aggressive, he said, “Sort of. I found them and I decided to revive them.”
“You have to feed them better. They’re just children,” she said. Even though she kept her voice flat, Androkles could sense her dismay and stubbornness.
“I found them last night. Late, as it turned out. I intend to feed them as soon as your master gets me a pot of young wine and a mug,” Androkles said, meeting her gaze. She didn’t look away. He knew that perhaps one man in ten could be expected to hold his gaze.
“Why young wine?” she asked, never looking away.
“Anything fermented will kill a starving person, so it’s young wine,” said Androkles.
“Unwrap that blanket and let me see them,” she commanded.
“Why?” he asked crossly. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something felt off, and being exhausted wasn’t going to brighten his personality.
And he had every reason to be wary; he didn’t know if these people might try to rob him now that their master knew how much money he had. If they decided to kill Androkles and take the boys to sell, no one would ask for proof of ownership, not this far from Skythand. In fact, if he even got fair change back for his gold, he’d be lucky.
The woman shrugged and said, “Do what you like,” then went to hang the bedrolls to dry out. Androkles resolved to keep an eye on her.
Since he had nothing to do until the merchant found the goods, Androkles worked at getting the fire hot again. A hatchet rested propped against a small pile of rough logs someone had gathered. He carried the hatchet and a likely log a couple paces away from the sleeping kits, then started making kindling. He shaved off a few good handfuls of the hair-thin stuff, then thicker and thicker to make a nice easy fire.
He almost jumped when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see the hard-looking woman from before regarding him without so much as a proud smirk. She said, “Here,” and handed him a sparker. He hadn’t heard her approach or felt her presence in the slightest. No doubt she had done it on purpose, to show him her skill. So it turned out she truly was dangerous, and keen to let him know it. He would have to be politer, he decided. And wary.
By the time the merchant finally showed up with the pot of young wine and some honey, the fire was close enough to ready. The merchant set up a tripod over the fire for the pot, then said, “I’ll be back with more. Just give me a minute.” He went back to his cart and continued to look over his goods, as though they were out of order. Androkles stirred the pot to make sure the honey dissolved properly, and to make sure it didn’t get too hot before he fed the kits.
The woman, still standing not quite directly behind him, said, “Theodoric told me what they look like under there. Do you know what to feed people who are starving to death?”
“Sure do. Learned in the army,” said Androkles. “I learned a lot of things in the army.” Hopefully she picked up on the threat.
“There’s a poem about that,” she said. “It’s ‘wet the first week, second meat, then the rest is safe to eat.’ Or was it, ‘wet the first week, bread the next, then the meat is safe to eat?’”
“It’s the second one. No salt or solid food the first week. Second week, you still soften the bread. You don’t give them anything tough to chew until the third week or it’ll make them sick.” Then he blew on the bottom of the fire to strengthen it. “The third week, you can feed them as much as they want. Start fattening them right up.”
“All your experience won’t do much good if you don’t start treating them better,” she said.
“I found them last night. I said that. Think about that for a moment. Last. Night,” said Androkles. Then he turned his head and briefly gave her a dirty look.
After a moment, she said, in a milder voice, “So you did. Guess I was distracted. Never seen a beast-man’s kit before. Pay me no mind.” Then she walked off again, her pace brisk and deliberate.
The honey had started dissolving in the young wine, but it was still too cold for them to drink. It would need a while longer. Androkles stirred as he considered his options in the event that these people tried to call up the Hewer and kill him. No matter how many years he’d spent in the army, six people was a tough fight for a man alone, even with a proper shield he didn’t have. He surreptitiously began sizing them up, considering who he’d want to kill first if they attacked.
The merchant came back with what looked like a bottle of salve, a pouring-bowl, and a bunch of clean squares of cloth. He peered into the cook pot, nodded, then placed the items on the ground near the kits. Turning to Androkles, he said, “Tulga will be here any moment with a half-barrel of water from the stream for you. Did you want to wash them with oil, or just water? I’m afraid I don’t have any scrapers.”
Androkles replied, “Just water. When they get that skinny, a scraper can rip them right open.”
The merchant replied, “Wise man. I’ll have someone count out some cloth for robes. Or would you prefer tunics, or a shirt with pants?”
“What did all the boys have on in the last town you were in?” Androkles asked. “I haven’t been paying attention.”
“We came up from the east, from Cherrywool. Lots of southerners there like you. Mostly shirts and pants, but some had tunics or skirts, usually with a cloak against the cold. Robes are warmer, and they make decent bedding in a pinch, but they’re a hassle. Dunno if you’ve tried to keep a boy contained in a robe before, master, but they never stay tied,” said the merchant helpfully.
“I’ll take robes. I don’t expect these kits will be doing a whole lot of fidgeting and climbing trees before I get them safely tucked away somewhere. Master merchant, I don’t think I caught your name. Mine is Androkles son of Paramonos of Dikaia,” he said.
“I’m Theodoric of the Blue Merchants. Pleased to make trade with you, Master Androkles,” said the merchant, extending his hand. Androkles shook it firmly.
“That sounds impressive. You sure you don’t know of any Skythanders in these parts? I’ll pay for good information.”
“I’m afraid not, Master Androkles. This is my first time out this far. I’m looking to open a route to the Kelthuars to the north of here. I understand they’ll pay good money for cloth and spices,” replied Theodoric.
Androkles raised an eyebrow at that. What kind of merchant went blind into unfamiliar territory? His friend Nikon would have been begging him to get the jump on them now, while their guard was down. But Nikon was dead, and despite the odd circumstances, the merchant seemed respectable enough. Maybe things would work out after all.