With that threat, words were done. Shouting, Androkles quickly turned and attacked the first guard behind him. Androkles’s intuition had been right; the one right behind him wasn’t ready for the charge. The man was still fumbling to get his shield in place when Androkles opened his throat with a deep slash. The man stumbled and collapsed with terror on his face, spurting blood from his neck.
Lunging for the second man, Androkles aimed high again, but this one held his mace ready and deflected the blow, then tried to bash Androkles with his shield. Androkles grabbed the shield and stepped back, yanking to throw him off balance. It worked, and the man stumbled. Androkles slid around him and stabbed him deep, just under his shoulder blade. The man took two steps and toppled.
“I can and will kill all of you,” he said, staring at the others fiercely. “I didn’t survive twenty-five years in the world’s finest army to be struck down by fuzzy little mice like you.” He tried to call up a good killing intent and cow them with the force of his anger, but there was nothing there; a long night and little sleep had left him almost completely enervated. Perhaps he could convince them to hold off for a moment while he put on a shield, he thought with a faint smirk.
With scorn in his voice, Tulga said, “I think I’ll feed you to your little animals. Since they’re starving, and all.”
The remaining four encircled him, hoping to box him in. The one with the neck tattoos dropped his mace and braced his shield with both arms, crouching behind it and moving forward. Androkles frowned; that was the move of a skilled man, and one who trusted his companions.
Turning his head, he saw from the corner of his eye that Pansy was now directly behind him. She lunged with her mace, which had a sharp point on the top for stabbing. Androkles darted directly away from it and charged the shielded man with full force, trying to bull him over and escape the circle.
The man braced for impact properly and deflected Androkles onto a rock. Androkles tripped and fell, but used his momentum to roll to his feet. Having escaped the circle, he grinned darkly. Now, which one to attack first? He would never get around that shield, not with the other three to harass him.
Theodoric looked the least ready, so Androkles charged him as the man braced himself for impact. Androkles ducked and swung his xiphos at Theodoric’s ankles, but the man lowered his shield just in time. Keeping his xiphos loose in his wrist, Androkles circled the sword around his head and came down in a vicious swing for Theodoric’s left temple. Theodoric raised his shield to block, then whipped his mace forward to strike.
Androkles dodged out of the way, and then instinctively leaped to the left. He moved too slowly and caught the edge of Tulga’s mace in the flesh below his ribs. Even though the blow only glanced him, Androkles could feel the fire of torn flesh. Had that blow struck directly, it would have ripped apart his guts and killed him. The man truly had an arm.
Androkles went down to one knee, wincing and surreptitiously grabbing a handful of dirt. When Tulga came in for the killing blow, Androkles lurched out and tossed the dirt into Tulga’s eyes. That was an old, silly trick, and a soldier would never fall for it. Shields are for blocking, after all, but Tulga had dropped his guard, intending to swing with full force.
Trying to blink away the dirt, Tulga unconsciously lowered his shield even further to get a clearer view, and that was all the opening Androkles needed. With another leaping thrust, he buried the point of his xiphos so deep in the fat man’s neck it came out the other side. A look of surprise crossed Tulga’s face and he fell to the ground a few heartbeats later, blood pumping from the wound.
Once six, now there were three. In the fury of battle, Androkles could ignore the pain in his side. He could tell it was bad, though; he could feel the blood dripping down into his skirt. He needed to end this quickly, before his strength gave out. He could only push so far beyond exhaustion before he had nothing left.
“New offer,” said Androkles, “is drop your weapons and flee, and I won’t chase you. I get the cart.” The shield-man lurched, charged with full force before Androkles could spin away. He was knocked completely off his feet, but rolled with the momentum again and stood.
Pansy was on him with a scream, having dropped her shield in favor of her knife. She used her mace to knock Androkles’s xiphos aside, then lunged in with a stab. In a motion he’d practiced countless times, Androkles turned slightly to avoid the thrust and caught her wrist with his free hand. He raised his xiphos to sever her arm, but she punched for his ribs with her mace, and he had to release her and dance away.
She threw a small knife from her belt, but he knocked it away with his forearm, taking only a shallow cut. She threw another at his leg, which he twisted out of the way. She lunged for another stab with the mace, but feinted and stabbed at his ribs with her knife. The attack got through his guard, but came at the wrong angle. She gave him a long cut instead of an open lung.
She swung her mace again, but this time he was ready for her. He blocked her mace with his forearm, then delivered a solid front kick into her stomach which sent her to her knees. He kicked her in the face, knocking her to the ground, where he stabbed her twice, ending her life. Too bad they hadn’t met over a pot of beer. She’d seemed interesting.
The remaining two circled him warily, looking nervous. Androkles stepped back and rested his hands on his knees, catching his breath. Looking up at them, he said, “You boys wanna keep doing this? Because I’m exhausted from running half the night and I’d rather take a nap.”
They looked at each other and charged him again, shield-man slightly in front and Theodoric with mace held high. Androkles jumped back and circled behind a tree in an attempt to get them to split up, but it didn’t work. Try as he might, he couldn’t find an opening, and the further Androkles retreated into the trees, the worse for him. The terrain limited Androkles’s mobility.
Sensing that he was at his limit, he started making his way back toward the campfire and flat ground. Theodoric and the shield-man followed, but they walked between him and the fire so he couldn’t kick the coals at them. Oh well. It had been worth a try.
Androkles looked past Theodoric to see the kits sitting upright, hugging each other and watching the fight. He scowled. That was a lot of blood for a child to see. And they should really be laying down.
For a moment, Androkles and Theodoric and the shield-man just watched each other, trying to find an opening. Then they started walking toward him again, slowly but deliberately. Theodoric dropped his shield in the dirt and held his hand out, ready for a grab.
Then, to Androkles’s dismay, the white one jumped out of the blanket, grabbed the hatchet from near the firewood, and started running toward them. Androkles shouted, “No! Stay back!”
Theodoric and the shield-man didn’t look behind them, thinking it a trick. That was clever of them, he thought with a smirk. But he had to protect the kit, so he moved in.
The kit swung the hatchet with all his might at Theodoric’s leg. It didn’t even make it through the leather, but Theodoric’s surprise was all the edge Androkles needed. Theodoric jumped in startlement and turned to see what had hit him. The shield-man took his eyes off Androkles to look as well, and in that moment, Androkles lunged with all the speed left in him. He feigned a slice at the neck and the shield-man blocked high. But Androkles’s true strike was low and severed the man’s left leg just under the knee.
Theodoric raised his mace to kill the kit, but the kit had stepped back out of reach. He retreated, hiding behind the hatchet, holding it out in front of him like a holy symbol. The man turned his attention back to Androkles just barely too late to avoid the powerful slice at his neck. Theodoric’s head hit the ground before the rest of his body did.
Androkles stabbed the struggling shield-man where he lay clutching at his bloody stump, and then it was done.
Androkles put his hands on his knees and did his best to catch his breath and keep from falling over and passing out. After a moment he recovered, and stood again, groaning quietly at the soreness which remained in his back. He wiped the blood off his xiphos with Theodoric’s tunic, then slid it back into its leather sheath. He would have to inspect the leaf-blade later, and sharpen it again. He sure didn’t want to get caught with a dull xiphos these days.
Now, to get the kit back in the blanket, and figure out what to do about the corpses. And then, curse the gods, a nap. A whole series of naps.
He walked over and took the hatchet from the kit, who offered no resistance, then put his hand on the boy’s shoulder to direct him back toward the fire. The kit said, “Thanks for saving us again,” in a humble voice. He wobbled unsteadily on his feet, so Androkles took his hand to help keep him upright. He wanted to carry the boy, but he was somewhat soaked in blood at the moment and that wouldn’t do.
“I’m still working on saving you the first time,” said Androkles, sounding somewhat grouchy.
The black one was propping himself up on his elbow so he could watch what was going on, and he could barely even manage that. The white one didn’t quite fall into the blanket, but very near it. The black one lay back down as well, and Androkles told them to close their eyes and rest a bit. The white one lay there rigidly, teeth clenched and radiating stress, so the black one reached over and held his hand. That seemed to help.
It might be unhealthy to give them more wine too soon, but Androkles decided that a little might be soothing for them, so he gave them each a half mug. They drank eagerly.
“You rest for a while. I’m going to take care of the bodies,” Androkles said. In unison, they gave him a frightened look. He wasn’t sure why, so he asked, “What is that look for?”
Neither of them said anything, so he just watched them, puzzled. “Do you not want me to bury them?” he asked.
“I just don’t …” began the black one, too self-conscious to finish his statement. A look of serious concern glinted in his eyes, and the white one’s as well, that Androkles couldn’t fathom.
“You don’t want to eat them, do you?” Androkles asked. They both shook their heads.
“Are you afraid I’m going to leave you?” he asked. To this they nodded, giving him shy sideways looks.
“Ah. Well, I won’t. Got it? I’m not going anywhere.” Then he added, “I’ll even stay where you can see me, but you shouldn’t watch. Just rest, and when I’m done I’ll feed you again.”
The kits seemed satisfied at this, and the white one relaxed a bit further. Androkles stood and stretched again. It did nothing to alleviate the ache of exhaustion in his muscles. He took another deep breath and sighed loudly. Even though he felt tired enough to fall over, he would have to bury the corpses; he didn’t want those wolves he’d heard last night to show up trying to scavenge. He went to the cart to look for a shovel. All he found was a small one for digging fire pits and latrines, but it would have to do.
After a bit of exploration, he was pleased to find a spot just to the north where a wide pine had fallen, leaving a wide hole where its roots had been. With every muscle complaining, it felt like it took forever to dig a grave into the soft, dark soil. Once finished, he undressed the bodies and tossed them in, except for Tulga, whom he was too tired to pick up and rolled instead. After filling the improvised grave back in, he stamped fresh dirt all across the road where the fighting had been to cover the blood, making it look less like a battlefield and keeping down the smell.
In one precarious armful, he gathered up all the brigands’ clothing and dumped it in the half-barrel, where the cool water would leech the blood out. Most of it had been good leather, and after washing it would be usable again. Then he stripped as well, tossing in his skirt, which was almost entirely stiff from dried blood. Much of it his. He stacked the maces, shields, and assorted daggers behind the cart, although he put Pansy’s good knife near the fire to keep for himself.
The boys greeted him with expectant faces as he approached, ready to be fed again. He was naked but for his sandals and covered in blood and dirt, but they needed to eat, so he simply did his best to keep them at arm’s length and not get anything dirty while he fed them. He managed, and they lay back on their sides with contentment plain on their faces.
He nearly lay down to fall asleep right then and there, but then he remembered Thais once getting cross with him for not washing out a wound quickly enough. He’d been right. Wounds needed cleaning or they’d fester.
“Time for me to wash up. Just go to sleep, and I’ll be right back. The stream is just over there. You can hear it.”
Tension rose in the air as soon as he said it and he knew the boys must still be afraid. Looking around, he spotted the long metal spoon he had used to stir the wine. He shook it clean and put it near the white one. “If you need me before I come back, use this and bang on the pot. I’ll hear it. I’ll be close. Got it?”
They both nodded. “Good. You can sleep if you want, or stay awake. Whichever. I’ll be right back.”
He pulled his skirt from the half-barrel and walked into the light brush to find the stream. If he hadn’t been so tired, he thought, it would have been a lovely day. Well, the tiredness and all the killing.
“Oh, just the other day, I killed six men before breakfast,” he said, not too loud, but very close to laughter. That would have made an amazing boast in a public square. No one would have believed it. “That was after I rescued two kits from starvation and found this coin worth a hundred silvers.” It was positively hilarious. His friend Euphemios, best of all boasters, would have been jealous enough to spit, if he were still alive.
The shallow stream only came up to his knees at its deepest point, although it was wide enough to flow slowly, mostly flat and calm. It looked frigid, however. Clear, pellucid water, making all the stones at the bottom look bigger than they were. It seemed it should have ice floating in it, like he’d heard about once. He groaned as he sat near the stream; all that being knocked about had made his body even sorer than when he woke up, somehow. His fingers felt stiff as well, making it hard to untie his sandals.
He stepped into the water and immediately regretted it. Even colder than it looked, the chill of the water quickly seeped into the bones of his legs, making them ache fiercely. He would have howled, but he feared it would terrify the kits. Oh well. He found a deep spot and fell in backwards, getting the worst of it over with. For a moment he gasped and splashed uncontrollably, but eventually calmed down and resigned himself to the frigid water. After a time, it became tolerable.
In the cold, he became acutely aware of all his injuries. The bite on his leg and the wound on his side were the worst of it, and they stung like rot before the cold numbed them. The long cut on his ribs turned out to be shallow, but ached all the same.
He rubbed and scraped his body clean, letting all the blood and dirt wash downstream. After cleaning out his skirt as well as he could, he decided to unbraid his hair and rinse that too, since it surely had blood in it and would stink and rot if left alone. Then he lay back to soak and relax for a moment.
He found it soothing to just lie there, gazing upwards and watching stray rays of sunlight shining through the branches, although the day seemed dimmer than in the Glories. The faintest of hazes hung over the sky now, just enough to make the color seem … off. But it was nothing to be concerned about—who knew how clouds behaved in barbarian lands?
A loud clanging sound broke his reverie. The kits were banging on the pot.
“Curse the Trickster!” he swore. He was too tired for this. With the angriest splashes he could manage, he emerged from the stream, gathered his things as fast as he could, and ran at a dead sprint for the campfire. Arriving at the camp, he saw no immediate threat. The white one sat up by the fire, watching for him with wide eyes, and the black one was laying down. There was no one else around.
“What’s the problem?” asked Androkles a bit gruffly.
“I …” the boy started, but then he sheepishly looked at the ground.
“There’s no problem, is there? You banged the pot just to see if I’d come, didn’t you?” said Androkles. He tried not to glare, but it was hard because the situation was annoying.
“We just got scared because it was a long time. I’m sorry. We won’t do it again,” the boy finally answered. “Please, don’t …”
“Don’t what?” Androkles asked, but the kits didn’t answer. He sighed and said, “Get back in bed. And don’t do that again unless there’s danger.”
The kit quickly complied. Androkles hung his skirt on a nearby branch to dry out, then grabbed the mug and fed the kits again. The white one still seemed scared, and the black one noticed and held his hand, fingers clasped tightly. Androkles wondered if perhaps he should hug the boy or something. He didn’t.
By the time they had their fill, he noticed that the sun had finally done its job and the weather was nice and warm. The black one asked, “Will more stone-men come?”
Androkles gave him a puzzled look and said, “Stone men?”
“Ah. Probably. But you don’t have to worry about that. I’ll take care of everything if they do, so you just rest and get better for now,” said Androkles. He considered asking them about their families to see if they had been traders and might know where to find them, but looking at them, he decided against it. He wanted them to calm down, relax, and recover, and the answer wouldn’t make any difference right now anyway. The kits both seemed anxious; they kept looking up and down the road with furrowed brows. He found himself reaching down and stroking their soft hair like he was petting a cat, which they seemed to enjoy. The white one even started to relax. They soon closed their eyes, and after a little while, they had fallen asleep again.
Not wishing to miss this opportunity, Androkles quietly lay down right next to them. In the quiet, he thought he could hear howling wolves somewhere in the distance despite the daylight, but he was too tired to care and fell asleep almost as soon as his eyes were shut.