That morning he gave extra effort to his exercises, doing more than normal to overcome the sense of restlessness that disturbed him. He wanted to get moving, but he couldn’t. Not until the kits could walk on their own, unless he wanted to carry them. Or pull them in the cart, which he didn’t. Or bury them, which would probably anger the Trickster, who had tossed them into his lap.
After exercising and rinsing off in the stream, he didn’t feel like doing anything productive, so he took Pansy’s knife and tried to whittle a naked woman out of a likely bit of wood. He’d never had a talent for that sort of thing, but everyone started somewhere.
The longer he worked at it, the more frustrated he got; he would get distracted, thinking about Della, his money, and his oath, and then make a mistake. Then he’d have to cover it up, and the cycle would repeat. The kits tried to watch him but weren’t able to find a good viewing angle from their bed, and after he didn’t move to accommodate them, they gave up. Every so often, he glanced at them to see them simply laying there and forlornly gazing into the empty sky.
As he worked, the silence began to feel awkward, but he couldn’t think of what to say. He had no need to keep them entertained, of course, after saving their lives; and he certainly wouldn’t lower himself to engage children in small talk. Still, their little brows were furrowed with deep worries of some kind, and it seemed like they were trying not to look at him because they were afraid of annoying him, even though he’d told them he wasn’t mad.
After accidentally cutting the nipple off of his carving’s ever-shrinking breast for the last time, he tossed it into the fire with a sigh.
“What was the matter with it?” asked the black one.
“It just wasn’t any good, boy,” replied Androkles.
“Oh,” said the kit, looking disappointed.
Then, after another awkward moment of silence, Androkles decided that he was being a boor. “You boys look like you’re thinking about something. What do you have on your mind?”
“Just … lots of things,” said the white one.
“Well, start by telling me your names. You first,” said Androkles, pointing at the black one. He took a seat near them and poked at the fire a bit to make sure the coals were still good.
“Pepper,” he replied.
“Pepper?” asked Androkles, blinking in surprise.
“Well, my real name is Peperuwan of Wolves, but everyone just calls me Pepper because I’m too young to use it. It means antidote. Peperuwan does,” the boy explained. His voice sounded stronger than before, although it was still a bit breathy and raspy. Perhaps that was just how it was.
“So they just call you Pepper? As a joke, because your hair is all black?” Androkles asked, amused.
“No, because it’s short for Peperuwan. But also probably because my fur is black. I’ve never seen pepper, though. I thought pepper was red.” Pepper said.
“Pepper is black, but you can only find it in the south, except in big cities with lots of trade. Do you know what it’s for?” said Androkles.
“You put it in food, I think. It goes on meat and it’s supposed to make it taste like your tongue is on fire. That’s what my mother said. She didn’t like it so we never got any,” replied Pepper.
“She probably couldn’t afford it. It’s expensive. Very expensive, in some places. It’s like eating gold, this far north,” said Androkles. The boys, as though on cue from a stage director, looked to the side and licked their lips, as though imagining what fire and gold would taste like together. As though they’d ever be worth the money it’d take to let them taste any. Then, almost without a pause, Androkles added, “But it just so happens there was some in the cart. I’ll mix it in with some broth and let you try it, if you want.”
When they didn’t immediately agree, he grinned at their hesitation and said, “It doesn’t taste like fire. It’s pretty good.” They nodded their consent.
“Where is your mother, anyhow?” Androkles asked. “Do you know?”
“She’s dead,” Pepper said, looking away. His voice sounded weak again.
Androkles sighed. Of course she was dead. He thought for a moment whether he even wanted to even hear the story. But when he was young and suffering after his father had killed himself, Diokles had heard everything Androkles had to say, and it had helped. Kept him alive. He supposed it would be unjust not to show them the same mercy he’d received. In a calm voice he asked, “What happened to her?”
Pepper didn’t answer immediately the white one reached over, took his hand, and held it tightly. Androkles could tell the boy was having a hard time finding the words, so he waited patiently. His voice almost a whisper, the boy finally said, “Our village caught on fire and everyone had to run out, but it was some stone men who did it, and they were catching people who ran out. They caught me first and then Mama when she came to find me. She said Papa died in the fire when the roof fell on him from our house. Then they put chains on our feet and made us march for a long way, and said we were slaves and they were gonna sell us, but then they ran out of food and couldn’t feed me anymore, so they wanted to leave me and keep Mama to sell and they just chained me to a tree. Mama didn’t want to leave me so she pulled hard on the chains, and they started hitting her, so she fought back. And she hurt one of them really bad with her claws, so they stabbed her with spears until she died. Then they took the chains off me and slapped me so hard I fell over and told me to run away and never come back. And I had to leave her and I bet she never even got buried.”
And then the boy stopped talking and shut his eyes tightly. Androkles’s heart felt heavy, despite himself, despite even knowing the story would be bad.
“That’s a heavy thing to carry, boy. A heavy thing for a little boy like you,” he said. Truly, the world could be a vile place. Slaves from debt and war were one thing, but raids on simple villages, even barbarian ones, was another. The northmen were called barbarians for a reason.
“I wish I could see her and Papa again, but I just don’t want to die,” said the boy, trying hard not to cry. Trying very, very, hard, and holding his breath. Androkles could see the silent tremors of weeping shaking his little frame, naked and brittle.
Before Androkles had thought of a response for that, the white one began, “My mother is still alive. And my dad and my brothers and sister. They just all didn’t want me anymore because I’m so weak.” At this he clenched his eyes shut as well, tears flowing freely. Something in the way he said ‘weak’ felt full of despair; it was too much for Androkles, and he felt his throat catch and mist come to his eyes as well.
The boy, with sudden strong emotion, his voice high and wavering, said, “I can’t hunt, and I get sunburns so easy because I’m so white. So they took me to the road and said to never come back, and it’d be better if I died. But I don’t want to die either!”
And with that, the boys lost all hope of composure and began crying inconsolably, loud and wild, hot tears running in steams down their faces. Androkles had suspected rightly, then. The boys had been exposed, simply abandoned to die in the wilderness. Damnable waste of a good child. Damned waste. Bitterness gathered in his heart, and he whispered to himself, “Some folks can’t get children for fifteen years of trying, and others just toss them aside like refuse.”
He picked them up and hugged them tightly, keeping his breathing steady to retain his dignity. Two orphans, age nine, each with a story more bitter than the other. Perhaps even bitterer than his; he’d been happy for longer. Androkles’s father had killed himself when he was ten. There was more evil than good in the world, that was sure.
They hugged him back with strength he didn’t think they had. For longer than Androkles expected, the boys cried and moaned, but eventually it declined into shaking and sniffing, and then even that subsided. All the while, Androkles gently stroked their heads, petting them like cats. It seemed to help. After a time, they were done.
Androkles laid them back on the blanket and covered them up again, drying their tears with the corners.
“My name is Flower, by the way,” the white one said.
“Flower? Is that your real name?”
“They never told me my real name because they said I’d never earn it,” said the boy. Androkles wondered if the kit was going to start crying again, but he didn’t. Tears were done, it seemed. “It’s because I’m a bad hunter. My prey always sees me coming. I never even caught a bird. Because of my fur. It’s white so I can’t hide or sneak up on anything. I couldn’t even feed me and Pepper when he was too sick to move.”
Androkles thought about that for a moment. The child would indeed have a hard time blending into the shadows with hair like that and a tail poking out besides. What kind of stupid barbarians judged the value of children solely on their ability to catch animals? How pathetically uncivilized. He said, “Well, you did catch me, so that’s something.”
“What, did you forget already? You jumped right out of nowhere and bit me on the leg. See?” he said, pointing at the bandage on his thigh.
“I’m sorry, master,” replied Flower.
“Ha! Don’t apologize. It’s something to be proud of,” said Androkles, tousling the boy’s hair with a sincere grin. Flower looked puzzled.
Androkles stood, put his hands on his hips, and said, “Have you ever seen a stronger man than me?” Neither of the boys answered, obviously considering whether they had or not. Androkles encouraged them, “I haven’t lost a test of strength in nine years. I once strangled a bull to death with just my arms. I can jump over a man without touching him. I was one of the fastest sprinters in the Games. I can throw a spear so hard it takes two men to pull it out of the target, and I always hit the target. Just the day before last, I killed six armed fighters before breakfast. Who is a stronger man than Androkles? Where is he, and what is his name? Who is his father, and where is his City?”
By this time, he was nearly shouting, and flexing with the greatest theatrics he could muster. Then he stopped, standing silently for the briefest moment. He pointed at Flower and said, “And one skinny little boy got the better of me.”
They didn’t reply, but they both grinned, eyes sparkling. He could tell the mood was lightening up, thank the gods; emotional torment was bad for recovery. If, after he died, Androkles ran into Euphemios, he would have to thank him for teaching him how to boast.
Androkles resumed flexing and strutting and said, “I’ve done a hundred things even greater than that. I’ve killed more men than you’ve ever met in your life. Who dares face me in battle? Who dares face me in the Games? Who, among all the creations of the gods, would dare to hunt mighty Androkles?”
“Just me, I guess,” said Flower, catching on and smiling widely, baring his sharp teeth.
“I bet I could catch you too,” said Pepper, with a look of mischief. By the Trickster, how quickly the emotions of children changed.
“Ha! We’ll see about that. Two sneaky kits trying to bite me on the legs. That’s all I need. I guess I better feed you, or you’ll start to get ideas,” said Androkles, with a mischievous grin of his own.
“Ya, feed us! Or start running!” said Flower. Both boys giggled.
Androkles sighed loudly, faking defeat. “Fine, fine. I’ll go get some more honeyed wine for now. Tonight it’ll be broth, though, with pepper and flour. For Flower and Pepper,” he said, quietly amused. It was indeed droll. “You boys just relax.”
The kits nodded, and Androkles folded them into the blanket again, petting them each briefly on the head. Both of them pretended to snap at him with a growl, laughing. They let him scratch their ears without complaint, however.
But as he stirred the broth, his good humor subsided; his heart was heavy, despite the jokes. He knew he didn’t have time to start caring for the boys. He didn’t want that at all. If only the kits had been less helpless, or older, or if Theodoric had been a good merchant and not a bandit. Or if Della were around to help, or any of the dozen friends he’d loved in the army.
But now he knew the boys’ names and their stories, and he’d held them in his arms while they cried. He was not ready to bear a burden like this right now. Damn the Trickster. The god should have led them to some farmhouse, not a veteran like Androkles. Even if he were the kind of person who tended children, and he wasn’t, there wasn’t enough of a heart left in him to care for anyone new.
The rest of the day was calmer than the beginning, thank the gods. No travelers came, which Androkles found odd, but that was that. The boys drank up all the wine, and that evening he made broth with pepper, which they loved. He made sure to give them extra water to make up for the tears. Toward nightfall, Androkles cut himself a robe out of the yellow cloth, making sure he remembered how before he made robes for the kits.
At dusk, Androkles changed everyone’s bandages and replaced them, washing the wounds and adding fresh salve. Finally, he made a nice bed of fresh grass near the fire for the three of them, since the ground had left him so sore last night. He gave the boys a roll of soft cloth from the cart to use as a pillow, then wrapped them up snug and warm. After preparing the fire to stay burning all night, he climbed into his travel blanket and lay watching the sickly haze come over the stars yet again until, by the Dreamweaver’s mercy, he finally slept.