The night passed much like the one before, with wolves howling in the distance and sounds at the edge of camp waking him up from time to time. He woke only once or twice, however, which seemed like a blessing from Abraxia Dreamweaver herself. The fire burned hot and bright all night long, and the boys never woke.
Still, when morning came he was groggy and it took him awhile to wake up. He lay for a while, half asleep and wondering where all the animals he kept hearing were going, and whether it would present a problem for chasing after Della. Finally, he felt a tap on his shoulder and opened his eyes. It was Flower, and he said, “We have to make water again. Sorry to wake you up, but we can’t wait anymore.”
Dutifully, Androkles arose and helped them over to the bushes. Flower walked on his own, and Pepper could keep his balance if he held Androkles’s hand. It occurred to him that this would probably be the last time he needed to help them, since Flower could hold Pepper’s hand as well as Androkles. In the army, servants had tended to things like this for the injured, and it was getting tedious.
After eating and feeding the boys, he did his military exercises, which helped wash away the last of the weariness that still remained from the previous night. It also helped him clear his mind and push away worries about how much further Della must be getting this morning. There was nothing he could do about that yet, not and keep his oath to Palthos Orphan-minder, so it was useless to fret over it. He almost successfully convinced himself of that.
Androkles spent the rest of the morning making clothing for the three of them. It’d be easier to give the boys to a good home if they weren’t naked, after all. He spread the yellow cloth out on a grassy area, then brought the boys over to lie on it so he could measure. He cut it into rectangles just taller than they were and double their arm span in length. He then folded the rectangle into a square and sewed the edge opposite the fold closed, leaving an arm-hole. He sewed ties along the top, leaving room for a head to pop out, and cut another arm hole in the fold. Finally, he cut belt-sashes to tie across the waist, and they were finished.
“Who’s first?” he asked.
Flower, probably because he was stronger, dug his way out of the blankets first and stood ready to be dressed. Pepper was not long behind him, however, and the boys both seemed more excited than the situation warranted.
“Arms up!” commanded Androkles. The boys both complied, and he draped the robes over them, pleased to see they fit. “You boys ever wear robes like this?” he asked.
“No, Master Androkles. We have different clothes,” said Flower.
Pepper added, “Probably because of our tails.”
Androkles peered behind the kits with a scowl. Their tails made little tents behind them. He had not even considered the unique aspects of Skythander anatomy in the slightest, and now it looked rather awkward.
“What do you wear?”
“We have skirts like yours sometimes, but usually pants made from leather. We tie them together over the tail so the back part comes up and covers your, your um …” explained Pepper, indicating vaguely with his hands.
“Your ass?” said Androkles.
“Ya,” replied Pepper with a bit of humor in his face.
“It is uncomfortable to have your tails stuck under the robes?” Androkles asked.
“It makes your back hurt if you keep your tail pushed down all the time,” said Flower.
“That must be why you like to lie on your sides.”
Androkles thought about that for a moment. It was nothing he couldn’t handle, however. He made a mark where their tails were, then pulled off the robes and laid them flat again. He folded them to find the center, then cut a slit about the length of his hand where the mark was. Then he strengthened the sides of the slit so the cloth wouldn’t unravel and sewed some ties on so the boys could tie the robe shut around their tails.
Once he showed them how to tie the belt so it wouldn’t come loose, the kits spent some time admiring each other and posing, plain joy on their faces. The softness of the yellow linen made quite an impression on them, since they were used to leather or wool. Androkles spent some time making a robe for himself, then cut cloaks for the boys from the warm, thick, red cloth.
He instructed Flower to stir the honey into the wine while he made some loincloths. Boys in the Glories usually didn’t wear them unless they wore nothing else, but it was cold up north. He had to modify the design a bit to adjust for the boys’ tails, but it wasn’t difficult.
After they ate lunch, Flower surreptitiously took the small shovel and went behind the trees to make soil. Upon his return, Androkles asked if it had been liquid, which would indicate serious illness. It hadn’t been. That was that, then—the boy was recovered. All he needed now was enough food to put some meat on his bones, but he was out of danger. Androkles was surprised to find himself feeling sincere and deep relief that the boy would be fine, which made him nervous.
Pepper was able to keep down a biscuit soaked in honeyed wine, which was a good sign as well. It might be another day or two before Androkles would know if he would recover, but the boy had color in his cheeks, and his arms didn’t shake when he held his mug.
In the early afternoon, Androkles stepped away to bury the dead wolf from the night before, lest the stench attracted other predators.
But when he returned, he found that three riders had entered the camp and were pawing through the goods on his cart. They wore armor of undecorated, treated leather and conical bronze helms, and were armed with sheathed swords and short bows hung across their shoulders.
They had their backs to him and hadn’t heard his approach. Glancing at the boys, he saw that Flower sat upright, holding the spoon close to his chest with one hand and biting his fingernails on the other. He wore a look of distress, and Androkles figured he couldn’t decide whether to bang the pot or not. Androkles waved and got the boy’s attention, then put his finger to his lips, hoping Skythanders knew that meant to be quiet. Flower nodded, quietly lay back down, and joined Pepper in hiding under the blankets.
Androkles had no idea what the riders’ intentions were, but he knew they were searching his cart. It was highly unlikely they would do that if they weren’t expecting to steal something. He took a deep breath, flexed his muscles hard to get the blood flowing, then charged them with every mote of speed he could gather.
They heard him running but were too slow to turn their horses. He grabbed the closest of the riders from the neck-hole in his armor with one arm and slapped the horse’s rump loudly with the other, shouting “YAH!” The horse leaped away, and Androkles pulled the man from the horse and threw him to the ground, then punched him hard in the stomach. The man’s leather armor did little to soften the blow, and his face went red as he lost his breath. Androkles then stole the sword from the man’s sheath, despite a lifeless attempt to stop him.
Androkles stood at full height, puffing his chest forward to make sure the others saw his strength and his scars. Although they were on horseback, he stood nearly eye-to-eye with them.
They gaped and hurriedly drew their swords with shaking hands.
With a calm voice, he asked, “You weren’t thinking about stealing from me, were you?” Then he pointed the tip of the sword at the ground to give them hope of talking their way out.
It took the shock a moment to wear off, but once the soldiers had come to themselves, one said, a bit too loudly, “We thought it was abandoned! There was no one here.”
The other one added, usefully, “We didn’t see you anywhere.”
“I can see how I’m hard to miss,” said Androkles with a level glare. One of them gulped. They looked young, now that he had a moment to look at them. No older than twenty.
He reached down and helped his victim to his feet, then handed the man back his sword. There was an awkward moment when the young man tried to take it back without making any sudden moves. As the man was climbing back onto his horse, Androkles said, “Perhaps you can answer a few questions for me to make up for it. Have you seen any Skythanders lately? Any traders, or maybe a small group heading north?”
“No, master, we haven’t. The roads haven’t been safe for a while now. We thought the cart abandoned. It wouldn’t be the first,” one said.
“I’ve heard the lands of the Kelthuars are near here. Is that true?”
“You’re Kelthuars? How far to your cities?”
“The closest is east, but they’ve closed their gates. You’ll find no refuge there. Next town is north, about a day by horse. And master, seriously, you need to get behind a wall. There’s something bad on the wind. The priests aren’t saying anything about it, but the rumor is the goddess is angry and she won’t restrain the beasts. More than one family has been attacked already, and at least twelve are dead. You’re likely to be attacked,” said the rider.
“Not just children, either. Grown men have been found half eaten, right in the middle of the road,” said another.
The one Androkles had attacked was edging his horse away from the area, indicating to his fellows that it was time to leave. All three of them seemed anxious, and, when Androkles agreed to consider their advice and bid them on their way, they left at a quick trot.
That left him alone with the boys to wonder just what the men had meant. He’d heard wolves almost constantly after leaving the last town, but only the one had gotten anywhere close, and it was sickly and deranged. It was true that no other travelers had come by, so perhaps the rumor was widespread. That orphan in the inn had said that Skythanders were sometimes seen at this intersection, so this must be a busy road, generally speaking.
But even if the roads were safe and currently being traveled, it was unlikely in the extreme that the Skythanders Androkles was looking for would show up during the few days when Androkles was just sitting around keeping boys alive. Not only was he getting further behind Della, but it no longer seemed he’d have any luck at this intersection.
However, Pepper was still at risk, and it would be silly to put all this effort in just to let the boy die. He hadn’t made soil yet, and until he did there was no way to know if his guts would start working correctly. The boy needed rest. And the kits’ health aside, the day was half over and Androkles hadn’t readied the cart for travel, so they weren’t leaving today, and that was that. Perhaps tomorrow.
To spend the afternoon, he pulled out the roll of hemp twine and set about making a good sling, since those always came in handy. The boys both sat up and watched him braid the twine, their legs crossed, elbows on their knees, chins in their hands, tails swishing about idly from time to time. Pepper had to lean against Flower, but he managed to stay upright.
To entertain them while he worked, Androkles told them stories about the years he had spent as a slinger, boasting about his accuracy and power in days long past. He told them about the time he’d killed the enemy captain from behind his own lines with a lucky shot, and the time his life had been saved by a bird, which flew right in front of a stone aimed at his head. He told them about the time he’d lost a battle, and the enemy had taken all their food and weapons and clothes and they had to march back in nothing but their sandals; Androkles and a few others had made slings from the leather sandal-straps to hunt with and gone barefoot, but armed.
The boys listened intently and didn’t speak; they just chuckled or laughed when the story was funny, and their bold yellow eyes sparkled in amusement. Because he had a captive audience who seemed to enjoy his stories, Androkles took longer than he needed, braiding it with more care than necessary and enjoying himself, but eventually he finished.
He stood and measured the sun three fists above the horizon, giving him roughly that many hours of daylight left. That was plenty of time to try to kill a few birds and cook them before dark. Some fresh meat would do him good, even if the boys couldn’t eat it yet. Maybe he could put just a tiny bit in some broth, though. And the guts, like the liver. That would be good for them.
“Alright, boys, you ready to see a master at work?” Androkles said, picking up a few likely rocks from a rain-rut in the dirt. They gave their assent.
Androkles pouched the rock, held the sling over his head with the rock forward, army-style, and took careful aim. Then, with a single circle overhead, he flung the rock with full force at the tree. He smiled with satisfaction as he heard two cracks—the sling cracking like a whip, and the rock smacking the tree. Three feet higher than he wanted, but it was a hit. The boys clapped and hooted, impressed.
“I wanna try!” said the Pepper, his black ears twitching eagerly.
“You can barely stand up to piss, boy. Maybe in a few days,” Androkles said.
“I bet I could,” came the futile reply.
Androkles let another rock fly, right on target. He was pleased to see that he hadn’t gotten too rusty.
“You can’t. You just stay put, got it? Wanting to get better fast won’t make you get better fast. Resting will,” he said. Then he walked over and handed the spoon to the Flower, who beat his white tail back and forth eagerly. “You know what to do with this. I’m going to go kill a few birds.”
“Can’t I come?”
“And leave him to get eaten? No. Stay put.”
Flower nodded, and Androkles quietly made his way into the trees, looking for some likely prey. If he dared wander a mile up or downstream, it would be easier to find something, but he didn’t. He needed to stay within earshot of the camp, because it’d be just his luck and theirs that something awful would happen if he went too far. He’d return to find nothing but blood and little tufts of fur everywhere. Those kits were more cursed than he was.
True to his expectations, his hunting was cut short by a child’s terrified scream, followed by the sound of the spoon frantically banged on the pot. He cursed and sprinted back to the campfire, then cursed again when he arrived.
Not one, but four wolves had invaded the camp this time. They circled around the boys, who huddled as close to the fire as they could get without falling in. The wolves looked thin and rickety, not to mention particularly vicious. Doubtless they were starving as well. More insane rejects from the pack. Almost reflexively, Androkles started to gather his killing intent to scare the beasts off, but he stopped himself when he realized that his anger would hurt the boys. They might pass out and fall into the fire.
He charged the wolves with a shout, and they stepped back from the boys and retreated several paces. He picked up his xiphos from where it lay by his blanket and tried to come up with a plan. He stepped toward them menacingly, but the wolves didn’t let him get close. Neither did they flee, either. Instead, they spread out to encircle him.
He kept close enough to the boys, knowing the wolves would try to drag them off at the first opportunity. They moved in and out of his range, never letting him get close enough to strike at them with his xiphos. Even though they were starving, they were quicker than he was, and despite every lunge and feint he made he couldn’t hit them.
The worst of it was how they worked together. If he stepped toward one, the others moved in to flank him. If he turned, the first one stepped in. He thought about offering his forearm like before, but he didn’t want to be charged by all of them at once. He could probably still kill them if that happened, but he’d get torn up in the process. And if he were fully occupied, one of them would drag the boys off and all the effort of saving them would be wasted.
He moved his xiphos to his left hand, then held his sling in his right. Backing up toward the fire, he said, “One of you put a rock in this.” Then he shouted at the wolves again, since they had started to encroach again.
Pepper was the first to find a good rock, and he loaded Androkles’s sling then slunk down to give him some room. Androkles held his xiphos in his left hand, then readied the sling and fired. He hit one directly in the ribs and it stumbled, squealed, and started limping, but didn’t fall.
“Again!” he said. This time Flower was ready with a rock.
He fired the stone, but the wolves seemed ready for his attack. The one he aimed for kept moving and Androkles missed by several feet. The next rock Flower put in the sling was barely larger than a pebble, and even though he aimed true and hit one in the ribs, it probably didn’t even sting.
“Bigger rocks!” shouted Androkles.
“There aren’t any! It’s all dirt …” yelled Flower. He sounded like he was about to split apart from the terror.
“Just get down, then. Under the blanket! Now!”
The kits sank beneath the blankets and tried to make themselves as flat as possible. After seeing how still they were, he said, “Don’t hold your breath! You’ll pass out! Just breathe slowly.”
He dropped the sling and tried to leap for the nearest wolf, which darted away before he caught it with the xiphos. The others darted in and tried to grab him and pull him down, but he spun swinging the sword wildly and caught one on the head. The blow glanced off, but it drew blood and pain, and the wolves backed off again, circling him and snarling.