Something in the boy’s voice shocked Androkles into full consciousness, and he sat up to see a sickly, mangy wolf pacing back and forth just a few feet from the boys’ blanket. Half its hair was missing, and its skin had shrunk over its bony ribs, giving it a monstrous appearance. It looked about as hungry as the boys did, and its bared fangs seemed to glow in the pale early light.
Androkles awkwardly crawled out of his travel blanket as fast as he could and charged the wolf with a shout. He got close enough to let it know he meant business, but stopped to let it run away if it wanted. It took a few steps back, then raised its hackles and snarled at him. He yelled at it again, but it didn’t move.
He darted forward with a kick, but it dodged away. The wolf crouched for an attack, and Androkles held his arm up for it to bite. The wolf took the bait, jumping in the air to grab him and wrestle him down. Androkles was faster, though, and he was ready. At the last second, he pulled his arm away from its jaws and grabbed its throat with the other hand. Once he could feel that he had a grip, he used both hands to squeeze its neck as hard as he could, holding it out of reach to avoid its claws. After bracing himself, he quickly changed his grip and spun the wolf’s body, snapping its neck like a cook killing a bird. He tossed the body just past the bushes where he wouldn’t have to look at it.
The boys’ terrified expressions had turned into something like hero adoration, it seemed to Androkles, so he grinned and acted like it had been a minor matter, just to impress them further. “What’s that look for? All I did was kill a wolf,” he said.
“How did you do that?” asked the white one.
“I grabbed it and spun its neck, obviously. Weren’t you watching?” said Androkles, highly pleased with his joke.
The boys gave him confused stares for a second, then the black one said, “No, we mean, um …”
“I know what you meant. Wolves aren’t that dangerous if they’re alone. The only really dangerous part of them is the teeth. I’m three times as heavy, stronger, and have two fists and two legs. I’m also smarter. One wolf isn’t a threat to a fighter like me. Ten wolves is,” he explained.
They didn’t respond, and they looked like they were trying to decide if they could believe him. Doubtless all the people they’d known had been cowards, and ran and hid from wolves instead of fighting. Androkles walked for a moment toward the center of the crossroads, looking in every direction for more wolves, but saw nothing. It had been alone, then. A sickly one left behind by its pack.
He quickly noticed how cold it still was and hastily scampered back to his travel blanket, hoping the warmth hadn’t all escaped. It hadn’t. “Nothing else here, boys. Go back to sleep,” he said. Then he settled in and closed his eyes, hoping to get another good hour or so once the adrenaline wore off.
After only a moment, though, he felt a hand on his chest again. “What is it this time?” he asked.
“I have to make water, Master Androkles,” said the kit, meekly. “I know you want to go back to sleep but you said to tell you.”
“I have to, too,” said the black one.
Androkles sighed and sat back up. “I said that? I guess I did, didn’t I? I need to take you, I suppose,” he remembered. “Gods, it’s cold this morning. Too cold up north. Are you boys warm in there?”
“Yes,” they replied in unison.
“Good,” said Androkles, climbing out of the travel blanket for the second time and rising to his feet. He hadn’t noticed a moment ago, due to being distracted by a wolf, but his entire body was stiff and sore, enough to make him wince. That was lovely. Too much being knocked about by shields yesterday, he supposed. The kits had better be grateful. It was their fault.
“Here, climb out sideways so the blanket stays closed behind you. It’ll keep the heat in for when you come back,” he said, helping the boys out of their bedding. He pulled the black one to his feet and was surprised again at how light he was. He was so weak and unsteady on his feet that he couldn’t really walk, so Androkles hugged the boy to his side and held him up. The white one was a little less wobbly when Androkles pulled him to his feet, but he still held tightly to Androkles’s hand just in case. The white one lost his balance a few times and almost fell over, and the black one was more or less being carried, but it worked.
Androkles marched them over to the edge of the clearing, where the three of them made water standing side-by-side, like old friends holding each other upright after a night of heavy drinking. Neither of the kits produced much, which probably meant their bodies were absorbing the water instead of rejecting it. It didn’t take long for their skinny little bodies to start shivering, either, and they acted with more urgency to get back into bed than they had to get out of it, and they huddled together tightly once they were back in.
Androkles got the fire going strongly again, ate a biscuit, and put on more young wine and honey for the kits. As morning progressed, in between keeping the kits fed and watered, he hung out the bandits’ clothes and leather to dry, sharpened his xiphos and Pansy’s knife, and spent a half hour getting his stretching and strength exercises done. Although he kept a careful eye on every shadow for more wolves, it seemed that the danger had passed.
By late morning, the hot sun had burned away the morning cold in a most pleasant manner along with much of the haze in the sky. When finally the kits pushed the blankets away to soak up the warm sunlight like lizards on a rock, Androkles walked over and took a moment to compare them. They seemed restful and content, and he could see signs that their bodies were reacting to his care. Their stomachs were both beginning to become rounded, but that was because a starving man’s guts were like a heavy cart—it took them a while to get moving again. They would swell up like a cake, but flatten in a few days. The black one’s feet were starting to swell up as well; his body didn’t know where to put all the water. That was normal. He didn’t see any new open sores or rashes, which was good. Sometimes the skin of starving men started falling apart, but the kits looked healthy enough.
He spent the afternoon digging through the sacks of grain and meal and beans to find the merchant’s silver. He didn’t find it, despite looking through all the sacks twice.
That evening, he cut a cloak for himself from the red cloth and managed to get the edges hemmed before nightfall. He used the clasp from his old cloak, since the silver lion of his military service was too sentimental to lay aside. And someone might recognize it and call him ally, even in barbarian lands. One never knew, after all.
For the kits, the day passed uneventfully. They ate, they slept, they made water a couple times, and they kept to themselves. It made him feel lonely somehow, like he should be entertaining them. His mentor Diokles certainly would have; the man had loved children like nothing else in the world. Which was fortunate for the lost, sad boy Androkles had been, all those years ago.
As those memories came again to his mind, a small rush of anger, resentment, and regret passed through his heart; Diokles taught him not to be consumed by loss and anger, but it had never fully left him. Diokles had been the father Androkles had needed then, preparing him for the army and giving him his first spear. Exactly the man Androkles had needed in his life. All of his friends had been that way, and they had all taken part of him with them when they died.
These kits needed someone as well, someone like Androkles had had. But although the kits were handsome enough, or would be after a few weeks of steady food, he didn’t want them to take a liking to him. The best thing for them would be to find someone to take them in, someone other than him. Someone who wasn’t a wanderer with an oath to keep. And he didn’t want to take a liking to them, either, for the same reason. Still, it seemed a bit lonely, the three of them quietly passing the time.
And so that night, as they settled in around the fire, he sang songs from his days in the army, even though he had no lyre or drum to accompany him. He had a soldier’s voice, not a Chorister’s, but he sang well enough. He started with The Battle of Seikopolis, in which he’d fought as a youth; the melody was lively and pleasant, and the boys seemed to enjoy it. Then he sang two of the love songs Della had taught him; they were in a strange key, but easy to remember.
Then he fell quiet for a moment as he thought about what to sing next. The boys both turned their heads toward him to watch him expectantly, clearly hoping he wasn’t done. He noticed for the first time that he found their emotions strangely easy to read. Perhaps all children were that way.
But he could only think of one last song to sing, an old one he’d sung many, many times. It had no name, really, and the army had simply called it the Hymn.
Shine while you live;
Suffer nothing at all.
Life exists only a short while,
And time demands its toll.
Dance with pure joy,
And sing with mirth,
Drink wine and eat your fill,
For death must come someday.
When he finished, he felt a bit plaintive; he’d sung that song over the graves of irreplaceable friends. He thought of conversations they’d had about the scent of the harvest and plentiful wine, and visiting each other’s farms in turn. One by one, they had been killed. Diokles, first, after only a few years; then Euphemios and Athanasios, who had been closer to him than brothers. Arkoleos, who had held him during surgery more than once, while he screamed in pain. Nikon, who had bought him his first night with a woman. Thais, who taught him medicine. All of them dead, most of them cut down while standing right next to Androkles, guarding him with their shields like the finest of soldiers.
For a time, Androkles stared into the fire, thinking of days and people gone forever. The kits didn’t say anything to disturb him, either; something about them seemed mournful, somehow. Perhaps they were considering the burden of memory themselves. He almost asked them for their stories, but decided not to. He didn’t want to sit by a fire remembering them as well, someday, once they were gone from his life. He didn’t even really want to know their names.
The time for singing now over, he fed the boys yet again and made sure they were settled in for the night. Then he crawled into the same blanket he had slept in the night before, since he hadn’t awoken covered in fleas. This time, however, he kept his xiphos and Pansy’s knife within easy reach, just in case.
* * *
The night was much like the last one, with the feeling of something angry deep in the ground troubling his dreams. Several times throughout the night he awoke when he heard things moving around in the brush, but each time he saw nothing, stoked the fire, and went back to sleep.
The kits slept through it all, and the next morning he was up before them and had breakfast ready by the time they finally awoke. He thickened the wine with a little flour to make it more nutritious without making it harder to keep down, and if they noticed they didn’t complain. As he took them to make water, he found the white one much steadier on his feet, and the black one seemed to have a bit of strength in his legs, which he hadn’t had yesterday.
The warmth of the day came sooner than it had yesterday, and the sun seemed brighter. A group of songbirds came and flitted around, chirping, giving music to the air. Light breezes rolled across the hills and shook the golden leaves of the pale-barked trees, looking not unlike waves of water. In fact, it was nice enough that Androkles could understand why anyone would want to live here, although the sky was dimmer and the food was inferior. No wine and no olives, unless imported. But that breeze was lovely, after all, and the scenery as pleasant as a man could wish for.
Although she had never talked much about the scenery, Della was from somewhere in the north, somewhere beyond the maps in a place her people called “the Meadow Lands.” The only details she gave him were that they kept lots of sheep and the land was rocky and cold. If he never caught up to her and her bodyguards, then Androkles’s only plan was to wander until he found such a place and hope she was there.
If she was even still alive. If bandits killed her bodyguards, that would be that. He scowled as he imagined, for the thousandth time, some bandit buying himself a farm and some slaves and living the good life in the country.
“Master Androkles, are you angry about something?” asked the white one shyly.
“Hmm? No, I’m fine. Did I look angry?”
“You just looked really mad, and you do that a lot. Is it because of us?”
The boys both looked deeply nervous, like they thought themselves in trouble. Androkles had to smirk at that. They looked like they’d been caught stealing a basket of figs and weren’t sure yet if they were going to be punished.
“No, it’s not because of you. I’m just a man who looks angry, even when I’m not. Don’t worry about it,” he said. He didn’t need to tell them that they were indeed at least somewhat at fault, since he was sitting here and not travelling. The kits both relaxed and gave him sheepish smiles, which he had to admit was a bit endearing.