Tulga thumped his way out of the aspen, straining beneath the weight of the water, which splashed from the half-barrel with every step he took. It looked heavy. With an impressive thud, the thick man set it down within arm’s reach of the kits, then winced and groaned and held his back as he stood back up.
“Now there’s a good pack mule,” said Theodoric. “Your wife told me to work you harder and turn some of that fat into muscle.”
“I’m too winded to be amused, master, forgive me,” said Tulga with a half-serious pained look.
Androkles stood and announced, “Looks like the wine is warm. Master Theodoric, could I enlist one of your company to help feed these boys while I wash them and dress the wounds?”
“Sure. Won’t take too much time, will it?” he asked.
“Nope, just long enough to pour some wine down their throats. Give me the full list of supplies I’m buying and name your price, and you can be on your way before the sun gets hot,” said Androkles. Once he heard the list, he’d have to be careful to make sure Theodoric didn’t try to charge him a half-day’s wages for the help. Or stab him.
“You got it, master. Tulga, where’s your wife? Ah, there you are, Pansy,” said Theodoric, seeing her approach.
Her name was Pansy? Androkles looked at the woman, who was very unlike any kind of flower at all, and the fat, mighty, sweating man who was her husband. They made quite a picture. But he and Della had been an odd match as well, according to absolutely everyone. A bad match, it turned out.
Theodoric said, “Master Androkles here wants to feed his kits while he washes them. You will be helping. Here’s a mug,” which he produced from a sack he was carrying and handed her. “Thank you.”
She took it gracefully, nodded, and said, “Master Androkles, was it? What do you need me to do?”
He picked up the cloth and salve, and said, “Just take the mug, fill it up, and let them sip it very slowly while I clean them up. Slowly, only little sips, else they’ll throw it up, and each time that happens the Corpse-eater gets a tighter grip on their throats. I put in plenty of honey, so one full mug, and no more.”
Hunching over the boys and opening up the cloak again, Androkles was pleased to see that they were both awake and aware. He had been worried that the black one wouldn’t wake up, truth be told, but he did. For the first time, he got a good look at the color of their eyes. Bright yellow, almost like polished gold. That really was something.
“How are you boys doing?” he asked.
“Bad,” said the white one, with accuracy. The black one smiled weakly, which gave Androkles a bit of hope for him. The white one asked, “Do him first. Please master? Do him first.”
“You sure do care about your brother, don’t you,” Androkles said, giving the boy a gentle and approving smile. Loyalty was first among virtues, after all.
“He’s not my brother,” said the white one. “But ya.”
“Huh. Well, we can talk about that later. I’ll do him first. Now, let’s get these awful bags off,” said Androkles.
With a lightning-quick motion, he stole the woman’s knife right off her belt before she could flinch. Let her chew on that for a bit. He used it to cut away the bags, which were the cheapest rough-spun cloth he’d ever seen and close to falling apart anyway, and tossed them aside. Then he politely handed it back to her.
She took it with feigned apathy, putting it back. Then in an even voice, she said, “Black one first?”
“Yep. Hold on, though. Now that I think about it, I’m going to carry them over to the grass,” he said. “If I wash them on that dirty cloak, they’ll never get clean.” Then he gently picked one up in each arm and deposited them in the softest-looking spot he could find.
“Alright, go right ahead. Slow and easy. Make sure he keeps the sip down before giving him another,” said Androkles. Then he looked at the black-haired kit and said, “Listen, boy, I know how hungry you are, and you’re going to wanna drink it all right up fast as you can, but you can’t do that. Your stomach is as weak as the rest of you. Slow and easy. Got it? You’ll get fed just fine. Slow and easy.”
The boy nodded. Pansy lifted his head, frowning when she felt how limp he was, and gave him a sip of the wine. When she took the cup away, his lip began to quiver. If the kit had more liquid in him, there would probably have been tears. A child should never be that happy to get a sip of wine. It made Androkles scowl.
Since Pansy was feeding him, Androkles started the washing at the kit’s feet. He took care to only use small amounts of water from the pouring-bowl; wiping, rinsing, then drying with clean cloths. Too much at once and he’d take a chill. The boy offered no resistance, although he did shudder a few times from the cold water.
It occurred to Androkles that if he did a shoddy job of this, the problem might just take care of itself. If the kit got sick when he was this weak or if a wound turned rotten, he’d die in his sleep, and the other one would be easier to carry alone. He smirked as he carefully cleaned out the cuts on the ankles, which made the kit inhale sharply and squirm a bit from pain. With the wounds clean, he pasted them with salve. By the Matron’s mercy, it was the red stuff, which was the best. Finally, he tied a fresh cloth as a bandage, tight enough to stay but not tight enough to get sore, then kept washing his way upward.
Those cuts around the kit’s ankles almost certainly came from manacles, and the woman probably knew it too. If the boy turned out to be an escaped slave and Androkles got accused of stealing, Androkles would have to find a complete list of the gods and curse them all. The last thing he needed was to be chased around by barbarians intending to enforce some law.
But there was nothing for it now. He continued washing, and Pansy continued (slowly, to her credit) feeding.
The trader Theodoric dropped a fresh, thick blanket next to Androkles and said, “Here. I don’t like seeing them shiver like that. Wrap them up once they’re clean. That cloak should be burned.” Androkles smiled politely, nodded, and spread the blanket out by the fire where his cloak had been.
When they leaned the boy on his side to wash his back, he kept tipping over, so Pansy held him up while Androkles did his best to dig the grime out of the fur on his tail. After applying salve to the worst of the bruises and rashes and bandaging him up properly, Androkles laid him in the fresh blanket.
“Thank you,” the kit said weakly, and Androkles was pleased to see a bit more life in his eyes.
“You’re welcome, boy,” said Androkles. Then he and Pansy gave the same treatment to the white one, who had to be held back from drinking too quickly. He was overeager and kept trying to inhale it, which made Pansy scowl and scowl harder with each sip the boy took. It seemed hard for her not to feed the hungry child all he wanted, but she did what Androkles said.
Since the white one had fewer wounds, it took less time to wash him, but Androkles made sure the job was done properly. After he was cleaned and fed, Androkles lay him on the blanket next to the other one, then tucked them in to rest. Then he grinned and said, “You owe me, boy.”
“I know. Thank you,” said the white one, with sincere emotion in his voice. Then he smiled, fighting not to let it turn into a frown as tears gathered again in his eyes.
Androkles rose to his feet, slowly, wincing at his soreness as he straightened his back and legs. He said, “I want you boys to sleep, if you can. I’ll wake you up in a little bit for some water and more wine. Speak up if you need anything other than more food. Got it? I’ll stay where I can see you.”
“We’ll see if we can sleep,” said the white one, as though there was any doubt. It took a few minutes, but sure enough, they faded and slept before a count of thirty. If there was one thing Androkles could recognize from his time in the army, it was tired. If there was another thing, it was dead, he thought, smiling. Athanasios would have laughed at that, if he wasn’t dead.
Over by the cart, Pansy and Theodoric were deep in animated discussion about something, and Pansy kept nodding in Androkles’s direction. Tulga listened with arms folded, nodding in agreement from time to time. None of them looked very happy about the subject matter. The other three were packing up and preparing for the day’s travel, each warily keeping an eye on him and trying not to be obvious about it.
Androkles sighed, suspecting a quickly-forming plot against him. They were probably discussing whether to kill him, or keep playing the ruse of being honest merchants. He was pretty sure it was a ruse, anyway, and the longer he played along, the less likely he was to get cut open. He sat on a rock and started to make a show of sharpening his xiphos and looking nonchalant.
It had been a while since he’d taken the time to sharpen and oil the leaf-blade sword properly, he realized. Not since midsummer at the end of the fighting. Only summer, but it seemed years had passed. It made him feel old, before he pushed the thought away.
It was a fine morning, even if he ached all over and wanted to collapse and sleep for a week. The sun wasn’t high enough yet to warm up the ground, and the fall air tasted sweet and pleasant, almost like grapes plucked from the vine right after the first frost. Trees of pine and cedar, and some with flat leaves he didn’t recognize, encircled the crossroads like a fortification. Autumn lay thick in the air, crisp and refreshing. Much of the green had been replaced by bold yellows and vibrant reds, as far as he could see. Songbirds of every variety darted around whistling at each other. If he paid attention, he could just barely hear the stream, and he could smell the humidity in the air.
Finally, Pansy, Theodoric, and Tulga came to stand around him. They weren’t carrying armfuls of supplies for him, so they weren’t approaching to close the deal. Instead, they wore maces at their hips and shields on their backs. Androkles didn’t stand for them.
Master Theodoric smiled and said, “Master Androkles, we’ve got a proposition for you.”
“And what would that be, master merchant?” Androkles replied, feigning disinterest. He’d played this game before.
“Those kits don’t rightly belong to you, do they? Since you said you just found them last night. Pansy here has taken a liking to them. She and Tulga haven’t been able to conceive after ten years of marriage. We’d like to take them off your hands. We’ll even replace your cloak and give you a day’s rations for your trouble,” he said. While he spoke, Androkles heard careful movement several steps behind him. That’s where the rest of the guards were, then.
Androkles didn’t reply. He had suspected they’d try for the kits, and now that he thought about it, he didn’t feel like giving them up yet. Not until they grew a bit stronger. And certainly not to bandits. Being tired and ornery might be clouding his judgment, but even so he didn’t trust them to keep the boys from dying. Were bandits just going to wait around for a week with a stolen cart, feeding the boys until they recovered? Not likely. At best, they’d throw them on top and hope the gods felt charitable. No, for Androkles to well and truly keep his oath, he had to make sure the boys survived, personally.
Still playing at sharpening his xiphos, Androkles carefully watched Theodoric out of the corner of his eye. As soon as the man opened his mouth again to speak, Androkles interrupted him, “You know, Master Theodoric, my wife left me for the same reason. I couldn’t get her with child, not for fifteen years of trying.”
Pansy opened her mouth to say something, but Theodoric motioned for her to keep it shut.
In a conciliating tone, Master Theodoric said, “I’m sure you understand the pain of loneliness, then, that a barren couple must endure. I pay my people well—those kits will be cared for and live in a good home. Surely you can’t mean to raise them yourself, a man alone on the road?”
Androkles nonchalantly asked, “And what if I do?”
“Then you’d be better off selling them into slavery, where at least they’d learn a skill and get regular meals,” replied Theodoric flatly.
“How much do you think I’d get for them?” wondered Androkles, not that the company would buy the kits at this point. They’d wait until he lowered his guard and open his skull like a nut with one of those maces.
Master Theodoric almost answered, but chose to demur. Pansy, however, could no longer stay silent and blurted out, “Get taken by crows! You stole them in the first place from some slaver. You’re just going to sell them anyway, if you don’t manage to starve them to death before you find a buyer. I know a rogue when I see one, and you’re the worst kind.”
A rogue? Androkles? He did his best to hide the flash of anger he felt; she’d insulted his honor directly. The shades of his fathers were probably all shaking with indignity. How dare a barbarian bandit say something like that to a man of the Glories?
Before he could come up with a proper retort, Tulga said, “Where’s your shield, army man? Soldier’s no soldier without his shield, is he?” The man rubbed the head of his mace, hungry for bloodshed.
“Sold it. It was heavy,” said Androkles, starting to get genuinely angry.
Tulga said, “You got those scars in the arenas, didn’t you? Stole a coin and fled like a ferret.”
Androkles simply snorted derisively at that.
Theodoric said, “Master Androkles, I’m sure you understand how this looks to us. I’ve heard a soldier retires with a heavy bag of silver and a farm in the country, yet all you have is a single gold coin. Where did all your money go, and you out alone on the road, travelling with no supplies? And your story about finding them on the road, like a worn sandal with a broken strap? And you’re a mess. You look like a vagrant or worse.” He threw up his hands in a gesture of nonchalance, then added, “I was just going to let you pass, since I don’t want trouble and you have money, but Pansy here wants those kits, and you’re a kidnapper and a thief. I have to respect my people.”
“What’ll you give me for the kits?” asked Androkles, carefully eyeing the edge of his blade. The men behind him would be less ready than the others. Perhaps he should attack one of them first. He might catch one off guard.
Theodoric gave Androkles a blank look. “I suppose … let me think about that for a moment. The price of children is down under a hundred silvers in some places, and those kits are sickly and on Raphos’s doorstep. I suppose I could give you one-hundred and fifty silvers’ worth of goods, whichever you require, in fair exchange.”
“Why can’t you pay me in silver?” Androkles asked with a smirk.
“I don’t have that kind of silver on me,” replied Theodoric, and immediately paled, clearly regretting giving up that information.
“You don’t have that kind of silver on you? You have enough cloth to make twenty cloaks, and that’s just the cloth. You don’t have a hundred and fifty silver? How were you going to make change on my gold? That’s worth at least a hundred silver itself, and you know it,” said Androkles. The most important thing would be to get out of any circle they tried to put him in. Without his old hoplon, he had no real defense. Maybe he should have gone hungry instead of selling it; a shield like that made a fight like this much, much easier.
Androkles looked at the three in front of him for a moment. Under the gaze of his scrutiny, they grew visibly uncomfortable. He heard no motion behind him, but he could feel intent to kill rising in the guards standing there. He could feel it in his gut. Did they really not know he was on to them? Or were they playing the same game he was?
Master Theodoric said, “I have enough to make change, of course. I have plenty of silver. Just not enough to give it all to you and have enough to do business.”
Androkles asked, “Who packed your cart?” The real dangers would be Tulga and Pansy, most likely. He’d have to deal with them early, if he could.
Theodoric looked surprised. “I … one of my men did. While I was busy,” he said lamely. “Why do you ask?”
Looking over toward the fire, Androkles noticed that the kits surreptitiously watched the proceedings. The talking must have woken them again, after only a few minutes of rest. How would they feel, to be listening to this? Not that he cared much, he reminded himself.
“You said what I look like to you, so let me tell you what you look like to me. I thought it was a bit strange you dress like a guard, but that was fine. You had a good explanation. But it was strange that you took so long to find things in your cart, like it was the first time you inspected it. I bet you haven’t found the silver yet, have you? You don’t know where it is,” said Androkles, loud enough for the boys to hear, “because you are bandits and you stole the cart.” Then he gave Theodoric his best intimidating stare, which was a pretty good one. They had no reply.
Androkles stood with a wince as he straightened his back and legs. Even though he stood quite a bit taller than any of them except Tulga, to their credit they didn’t flinch. “You have to be kidding me,” he said to the sky. “I’ve got things to do. First the kits, and now this. The gods are bastards. You know that, Theodoric? The gods are bastards.”
Androkles made a show of stretching his arms and legs, flexing. Then he declared, loud enough to make sure they all heard every word, “I’m not going to sell you the boys because you stole that cart and probably killed the merchant who owned it. It’s my duty as a just man to kill you all, actually, so here’s my deal: You’re going to give me whatever supplies I want for free and leave me and the kits here. You won’t tell anyone about us. You’ll say nothing about slaves or runaways or anything of the sort. In return, I won’t kill you and hang your corpses for a warning. Sound like a deal?”
Someone snorted behind Androkles. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the three guards stood with maces ready, several paces away.
Theodoric said, “We seem to be at an impasse. I have no doubt we can kill you—no doubt at all—but there’s a chance you’ll take one of us with you. Is the money you’re going to get from those kits worth dying over?”
Androkles said, “I’m not giving anything to thieving trash like you. And they’re not even really for sale. I’m either going to find their parents, or some other good home, and not give them to slavers or rogues.” He surprised himself a bit with that, but as soon as he said it, he knew it was right. He was obligated now, and that was that. The kits were staring right at him, their intense golden eyes bright in the morning light. He sighed in mild frustration that he didn’t truly feel.
“We’re not as bad as you think, southerner. We might be bandits for now, but it’s not like …” said Pansy, but she was interrupted by Androkles.
“You’re every bit as bad. Tell me, did you stab your master in his sleep, or was he awake for it? I’m curious.”
Theodoric readied his mace and shield and said, “This is getting absurd. Let’s just kill him like we should have in the first place.”