The next morning came late and the sky hung low with dark and heavy clouds. The wind had blown all night, and Androkles didn’t feel properly rested. The humid cold bit through cloth and sucked the heat out of fire. Such weather came to the Glories in the winter sometimes, but only rarely, which was another reason it was better to live there than here.
The boys had been buried under an increasingly large series of blankets, and when he dug them out to make water and eat breakfast, they shivered from head to toe until he got them back under the covers. He could almost hear their knees rattling together as much as their teeth.
He found several fresh bear tracks in the dirt, passing only a few paces from his head. He shuddered involuntarily, knowing what could have happened. But not only had the bears not woken him, they hadn’t disturbed any of the food on the cart. He had no idea what to think about that, although it certainly gave credence to the soldier’s warning.
He spent the morning getting the cart organized for travel, suspecting it would soon be time to leave whether Pepper was ready or not. He also made himself a soldier’s shelter out of one of the bandits’ shields, which basically meant turning a shield into a wide hat to keep the rain off by attaching straps to go under his armpits. A wad of cloth went between his head and the wooden shield to make it more comfortable. It looked ridiculous, but it was better than being rained on.
The boys, not wanting to get out from under the blankets, still managed to play with their slings by using them to scoop piles of dirt and pebbles together. Androkles had to smile at that. It must be agonizing for them, having a new toy they couldn’t make proper use of.
The rain he dreaded arrived some time near the middle of the day; the clouds made it hard to tell. It started as a light drizzle without any wind. The kits constantly flicked their ears to shake off raindrops and looked annoyed, and Androkles decided that he would indeed have to make them hoods at some point. But not today. Today, the kits were going under the tarpaulin of oiled sailcloth on the cart, and Androkles was breaking camp.
After deliberating about it all morning, Androkles had decided that it would be best to take the cart and head north toward the next town. He could either keep the rain off the boys or off the cart, but not both at the same time unless the boys were on the cart. And if the boys were going to be on the cart, it may as well be moving. Furthermore, the gods only knew how long the rain would last. What if it rained for a month, then turned to snow? He needed to get them indoors, in a proper home, as soon as possible.
If he couldn’t and they took a chill, that would be that—he’d be digging shallow graves and continuing unhindered. It’d make his journey faster, but it would also be a waste after he’d already put so much effort into their recovery. May as well make sure they didn’t die.
Because, gods be cursed, he knew he was growing the slightest bit fond of them. Maybe he was simply getting lonely, so long away from the army, and without any family or friends. Hopefully he’d be able to get rid of the boys somewhere before doing so was painful.
Androkles scowled and put on his soldier’s shelter, which the kits found highly amusing. They said he looked like a mushroom. Then, between the three of them, they managed to make a little nest of sorts under the bench, with the pillows and some travel blankets so the kits could lay cozy and snug while Androkles hauled hundreds of pounds of cart through the mud. Lovely.
With the tarpaulin tied down and everything ready to go, he grasped the pull-bar with a series of sincere curses for the gods and weather sprites and began pulling the cart up the road.
The rain quickly grew heavy, as did Androkles’s rain-drenched robe. He watched steam rise off his arms and wondered why his teeth were chattering. He decided that the wet cloth was wicking the heat out of him and he’d be better off without it, so he stripped to his loincloth and continued onward. It wasn’t much warmer, but it did weigh less, and that helped.
The dirt road soon became mud, and Androkles found that if he stuck to the sides, he could get foothold in the grass, and the cart didn’t get stuck in ruts as often. Of course they wouldn’t have a good stone road up here in the north. Of course not. Not on any road he needed to pull a cart across. It was enough to make a man seriously wonder why anyone bothered to trade up here.
Throughout the rest of the day, the rain came and went, but it was the wind that made the journey truly miserable. Before long his hands and feet were bumpy like raisins, and every joint in his body grew stiff from the cold. Androkles wished, aloud, probably a hundred times over the course of the afternoon, that he had a good oiled cloak to keep the rain off and break the wind.
He also wished Athanasios were still alive to teach him some new rude things to say. The man cursed the gods with more skill than a poet praised them, and that’s what the day called for.
With no real idea of the time, he rested whenever he felt like it. The first time he stopped, he could almost hear the kits’ stomachs rumbling through the sound of rain, so he gave the kits biscuits and water to soak them in before eating, and that kept them occupied. Between the two of them, they ate what seemed like dozens of them all by themselves, Androkles discovered later.
Perhaps leaving them with nothing to do but rest and eat was a good idea, though. He could hear them chatting from time to time, but it was hard to make out anything they said, so he ignored it. And frankly, it was starting to worry him that Pepper still hadn’t made soil. If it didn’t happen soon, Androkles figured the most likely scenario was a sudden, horrible death in which the boy burst apart from the food he wasn’t able to pass. Hopefully, all that bread he was munching on would push the rest out.
Due to the heavy, roiling clouds, night came sooner than he expected but later than he hoped. When he finally realized he was allowed to stop, a bone-deep weariness came over him as the effects of a day in the cold rain made themselves fully known. He dried off as well as he could, which wasn’t very well since it was still raining, and climbed in with the boys. Although they squirmed and giggled whenever his cold, wet skin brushed against them, and Pepper gasped so hard he started coughing when Androkles accidently placed his hand in the direct center of the kit’s back, they worked out a passable arrangement of bodies that kept Androkles from freezing to death. The impromptu bed was uncomfortable, too small, and cramped, but at least they were warm.
* * *
In the morning, Androkles was almost too sore to move. Sleeping at odd angles after a half-day of pulling a cart had given him cramps in his legs and arms and a stiff back besides. But there was nothing for it except to climb out of bed and get moving, because that cart wasn’t going to pull itself.
It wasn’t raining at the moment, at least. The clouds were still heavy and low, promising rain later in the day, but for now Androkles had time for a fire and warm breakfast and a strong inclination to make them. The wet cold of the morning was biting, and it made his fingers and toes numb all over again, but he found enough dry tinder to get a fire going while the kits gingerly climbed out to find a tree and make water.
Androkles saw that they had stopped in a small valley dotted with light brush, nestled in between hills, and the pleasant scenery helped improve his mood somewhat. As the morning progressed, the rain evaporated into bands of fog that hung low against the ground, winding up and down the hills and floating gently overheard. Soaked from the rain, the greens and yellows of the leaves seemed brighter and more vibrant than usual, and dozens of birds were all in chorus complaining about the night’s rain as they called out to each other in the damp autumn air.
The boys came shivering to the fire in just their loincloths. Androkles could almost hear their knees rattling. He asked, “Do you not want to get dressed? It’s cold out here. I’m sure you noticed.”
Pepper replied, “I don’t want to get any mud on my cloak.”
Flower added, “Or on the robe either. Besides, you don’t have one so we thought it might be warmer over here.”
“Nope. It’s cold as Raphos’s shrively egg-purse out here, even by the fire. Let me grab you some blankets. Sit down here by the fire. There you go,” said Androkles. The boys huddled together, leaning as close to the small fire as they could possibly manage without falling into it. Once they had a blanket tossed over them, they acted less likely to freeze to death. Androkles draped one across his own shoulders as well, wondering why he didn’t do so earlier.
“Oh, Pepper, by the way, have you made soil yet? Or just water?” asked Androkles, trying not to sound too concerned.
“Just water, Master Androkles. I haven’t made soil for a long time, I think, but I haven’t thought about it. Why?” replied the black-haired kit.
“No reason. Just wondering. Let me know if you do,” said Androkles. He considered ordering the boy to go try and see what he could push out, but decided that might be worse. If Pepper put unnatural pressure on guts that weren’t ready to move, it might make them split open internally. And Pepper was in good spirits, which Androkles didn’t want to ruin with worry. He would just have to wait, and do the worrying himself.
For breakfast, Androkles cooked some of the softer vegetables from the cart and split up some dried meat for them to eat slowly. No biscuits—those were starting to run low, and Androkles didn’t feel like making flatbread. While they ate, Androkles checked Pepper’s bandages and his own to see if the weather had made their injuries fester. It hadn’t, and they were healing nicely. He bound them with fresh cloth for what he hoped would be the last time.
Androkles dreaded returning to the cart before he absolutely had to, so he took some time to do his exercises. The familiar motions warmed up his blood and got his limbs a bit less wooden, which made him glad he’d taken the time. The kits watched as he went through the standard routines: stretch, jump, slash. Stretch, squat, punch. Stretch, pushups, kick. Over and over, until he was done.
When Androkles began packing up the cart again, the boys asked if they could sit on the bench. Androkles saw no harm in it if it wasn’t raining, and they climbed up and sat, looking pleased with themselves. Androkles tossed a series of travel blankets over them and gave them some pillows to lean on. Flower sat upright, and Pepper sort of draped himself over the armrest. He would probably be asleep again before long.
Androkles grabbed the bar and was about to start pulling the cart again when he stopped, turned around, and said, “Boys, listen up. I don’t know how far the next town is, so I’m telling you now. If anyone asks, tell them you’re slaves and you belong to Androkles of Dikaia. If anyone tries to steal you, scream as loud as you can. Got it? Bite them if you have to.”
The boys both nodded gravely and said, “Yes, Master Androkles.”
Androkles nodded. As he began to turn around, Flower quietly asked, “Are we slaves? It’s fine if we are, but I’m just wondering.”
Androkles thought about that for a moment. The boys looked everywhere but directly at him, somewhat ashen-faced. He said, “Let me put it this way. Both of you were exposed, Flower by his family and Pepper by the man-catchers. That means they left you behind to die. So if anyone decides to save you, you’re slaves if they say you are. But I have something important to do, and I can’t keep you and haul you halfway across the world with me. So my plan is, I’m going to put you in the first safe, warm, place I can find, where I know you’ll be fed and taken care of. If that means you’ll be slaves for a gentle master, then you’re slaves. If that means you’re free servants in a wealthy home, then you’re free servants. If that means you’re adopted sons of a good farmer, you’re adopted sons. Whichever it is, right now, you’re my property, and I’ll take good care of you. I might tell some people you’re my sons, and I might tell others you’re my slaves. You just do what I tell you. Got it?” Androkles explained.
The boys nodded.
He pressed them, “Then what do you say if someone asks who you are?”
“We’re slaves of Androkles of Dikaia,” said Pepper. He had a hint of emotion on his voice, but Androkles couldn’t tell quite what it was.
“Right. And if anyone asks, you can tell them your names, and that I’m a retired soldier. Tell them I’m jealous of my property, which, by the way, is true. And you can tell them what I look like, since I’m tall and these scars make me easy to find. But that’s all. Don’t talk to them or follow them. Someone who wants you to follow is trying to steal you. So if we get separated somehow, run away from anyone who wants you to follow, and keep looking for me. I’m taller than almost everyone, so I’ll be easy to find, or I’ll find you,” he said, concluding his directions with a stern look.
“Yes, Master Androkles,” they replied in unison.
“Good boys. Now, anything else before we get moving?” Androkles asked.
Pepper, after a moment’s hesitation said, “My stomach feels weird.”
Androkles’s brow furrowed in concern as a flash of panic rushed through his body. He said, “Weird how?”
“It feels like … I don’t know. It’s just … I think I have to make soil,” the boy replied, with a look of surprise.
Androkles hoped that he meant strange in the sense of ‘unusual,’ not ‘I’m about to die horribly, screaming.’ He dug the camp shovel out from under the tarp and handed it over.
Then he asked, “Do you need help? Or can you do it on your own?”
“I think I can do it on my own,” said Pepper, climbing out from under the blankets and jumping off the cart with haste. His legs were still weak, and he fell face-first into the damp dirt when he hit the ground, but he got back up and rushed into the brush. Thank Diorthodon Path-clearer the ground wasn’t too muddy in that particular spot, or he would have had to find a way to give the kit a bath before letting him back into the blankets. Assuming he survived.
Flower, more carefully, climbed down as well, explaining that he needed to go, too, now that he thought about it. Androkles waited, nervous and impatient until the boys returned. Upon seeing the Pepper walking a bit straighter and in good spirits, a wave of relief pushed away a miasma of worry that he hadn’t fully appreciated. “Was the soil liquid?” he asked.
The boy didn’t immediately answer, but after thinking about it decided, “No, it was normal.”
“It was. I saw it,” added Flower, looking slightly embarrassed.
Androkles smiled honestly and said, “Good to hear. That means you won’t die. At least not from that, anyway.” The boys seemed unsure if they should be reassured by that or not.
Both boys shivered fiercely with chattering teeth by the time Androkles got them bundled back into blankets and up onto the bench. Then he wrapped his cloak tightly around his own shoulders and hoped it wouldn’t start raining again anytime soon. His shoulders ached from wearing his soldier’s shelter all day yesterday, so he chose not to put it on today. With luck, he wouldn’t need it. He gripped the bar at the front of the cart, and they were off.
The morning passed quietly, with Androkles keeping a steady pace and the kits placidly taking in the scenery. He couldn’t push the heavy cart very quickly, especially uphill, but at least the rain didn’t return. The wind was minimal, thank whichever spirits drove the wind this far north, and the clouds seemed to feel like staying put for the time being.
Around noon, or his best guess as to when noon was, he dug out some almonds, fresh chickpeas, and figs for himself, and gave a soft fig to each of the boys to go with their biscuits, along with instructions to eat slowly and chew thoroughly. They were so pleased at the taste that Androkles suspected he would have been able to see them in the dark, from the glow. When Androkles resumed pulling the cart, the boys lay down and fell quickly into naps, and remained like that for what seemed like hours.
In the late afternoon, the boys munched on their biscuits and chatted, sounding something like chirping birds as they laughed at each other’s jokes. Androkles found himself enjoying listening to them, even though they were just children. Without the rain he could actually understand what they were saying, and perhaps he was just in a better mood.
It struck him that their conversation was not too different from young men in the army. They talked about the acts of gods and heroes, and hilarious exaggerations about past exploits. Pepper insisted that he had once jumped and kicked a melon off of his father’s head, and Flower wasn’t sure if he believed it. Flower had no exploits of his own to brag about, but he talked about the things he’d seen other Panthers do, such as, apparently, punching a tree so hard it fell over. Pepper sounded impressed, and gave a list of funny things it might have fallen on, complete with pantomiming, which sent both boys into fits. Even Androkles chuckled from time to time. Not because the boys’ jokes were funny, but because of how funny the boys thought the jokes were.
His thoughts returned often to Della, though. He imagined finally catching her, thinking carefully about just what he’d say. But aside from that, he wondered if she would have liked the boys or if she would have sold them along with everything else and vanished all the same. He could almost picture her sitting between the kits, riding along on the cart with a smile on her face and the wind in her wild hair, green eyes glowing like jewels. Braiding flowers into the boys’ hair like a champion’s, smacking them when their jokes got rude. The kits were skinny and young, and there was a large empty space on that bench where she belonged. It was hard not to think about. It made his eyes watery, and he was glad no one was around to notice.
As the day drew to a close, they made camp on the top of a small overpass which looked into the next valley. It was farmed land, but no village to be seen. Tomorrow would be another long day.
The boys were at first excited to be back on the ground, but quickly had to accept that the day had worn them out. He fed them and helped them rebuild their nest under the tarpaulin to sleep in. Then he laid out a travel blanket in front of the cart, gambling against more rain, and was asleep almost the instant he crawled in it.