Androkles awoke late the next morning with an incredible headache, a weak stomach, and a slowly dawning realization that he’d had far too much to drink, far too quickly. It felt like his mind was waking up piece by piece. He tried to open his eyes, but the light burned all the way to the back of his skull and made him groan.
He jumped in startlement when he suddenly felt a bunch of little hands on his chest, shaking him. Someone called his name, and …
By the gods, his boys! Where were they? He sat up quickly, head pounding, and shielded his eyes from the sun, trying to look around. He was outside, and it was too bright to see anything.
“Master Androkles, are you awake now?” asked Pepper.
After moaning with sincerity he lay back down, covered his eyes, and muttered, “I’m awake. Gods, what happened? Is the other one here?”
“He woke up! Should we give him the eggs first, or the tea?” said Flower.
A man’s voice said, “Wait for a minute. Let him sit up first. He’s still waking up. You can do the rag, though.”
That man sounded familiar, and although Androkles was still not quite sure what was going on, he had heard both of his boys, indicating they were still alive. Relief eased some of the tension in his mind, although it did nothing for his headache. He shivered as someone put a cold, wet rag on his forehead. After just a bit longer, he had awakened enough to open his eyes and look around.
Flower and Pepper were sitting to either side of him, leaning over him with anxious creases in their brows. He lay near the village center, it seemed.
The man with the familiar voice said, “What did I say about sleeping outside like a vagabond?”
Androkles turned to look and found Kemen sitting on his haunches, stirring a large mug of something steaming. The man didn’t look angry, fortunately. More amused.
“You said not to. How much did I drink? I remember until the second pot.”
“You drank two whole pots, apparently. Two. Half a pot is enough to put a Kelthuar past wobbly. I suppose someone should have warned you that the goddess blesses our harvest, and our beer is strong. And you, Master Androkles, are very heavy, so we left you where you fell.”
At the moment, such unimportant details made his head hurt. “Actually, I’m about to lose my stomach, I think.”
“Hold that thought. Here, give him this,” said Kemen, handing a fat spoon to Pepper, who stuck it dutifully in Androkles’s mouth. It was honey, which was exactly what he needed, it turned out. After a moment, he lost the urge to empty his stomach.
Once it was clear that Androkles would keep the contents of his stomach, Kemen handed the mug he’d been stirring to Pepper and said, “Make him drink it all. Slowly.”
Flower put his hands underneath Androkles’s shoulder and tried to help him sit up. It was comically ineffective, of course, but Androkles sat up anyway. Flower held Androkles’s head while Pepper slowly poured the tea down his throat, like they were treating the dying. Pepper managed not to spill any, either. Androkles could not help but see the irony in being tended to by the kits he’d rescued a week ago, and in the same manner. They were being very serious about it, which he found endearing, even through his splitting headache.
The boys then took turns feeding him hard-boiled eggs, five or six of them. Androkles tried to take them and feed himself, but Flower gave him a stern look and flatly declared, “No! If you eat them too fast it’ll make you lose your stomach. Let us do it.” It was droll enough that Androkles assented.
Kemen said, “Those are some awfully sweet children, Master Androkles. They slept curled up on either side of you to keep you warm. I think they got the blanket off your cart. They’ve been worried about you all morning, asking everyone who came by if they could help you. I explained you were just drunk.”
He snorted, then unplugged a bottle of something and swirled it around. “Then they started begging me for remedies for drunkenness, just in case.” He handed the bottle to Androkles. “So here you are. All the remedies for drunkenness I know of. Take two long swallows of that, then another two around noon with a lot of water.”
“What is it?” asked Androkles, wincing from his headache. It hurt to talk. It hurt to listen. It hurt to be alive.
“Vinegar from apples.”
“Ah. Perfect. Thank you.”
“You know about vinegar down south?”
“I think everyone with wine knows about vinegar,” said Androkles. He dutifully took his two swallows, grimacing. Then he capped the bottle and set it aside. “Where should I go to make water?”
“There should be a bucket near the house you’re staying in. I’m heading out to the gate. I fed your boys already, by the way. You owe me.” And with that, Kemen nodded and left.
After Androkles had made water and made sure the cart was still there, the boys took his hands and led him into some shade under a small tree. Pepper put a pillow behind him, and Flower uncompromisingly pushed him down onto it to rest.
A cool, wet cloth was reapplied to his forehead and left there.
“Just let me sleep a bit more of this off, boys, and I’ll be fine,” he mumbled.
“I’m kind of tired too,” said Pepper, laying down beside him.
Flower said, “Me too,” and lay down on the other side.
Androkles mumbled, “Week or two for you.” If they were tired already, then they must still be weak from the starvation. Or had they been awake all night, scratching at the gate? He couldn’t think about that now. His head hurt too much.
“Never mind. No more talking. Ouch.”
* * *
Around noon, Androkles awoke again feeling much, but not completely, better. His boys had run off somewhere, but after thinking about it, he decided they were probably fine. He was glad they weren’t right nearby, though; he felt a bit guilty about his behavior, and damned if he was going to show it. It wasn’t his fault the beer was too strong, leaving him helpless and watched over by anxious little boys. If the gods wanted to send him more humiliation to flavor his destitution and loneliness, then that was their business. All he could do was keep pushing onward past the obstacles in his path.
Even if some of them made his journey pleasant. He had to get his boys into some home soon, he knew. If he waited too long, it would be hard. Androkles was done losing people he cared for. His soul felt more deeply scarred than his face or sword arm. The boys were becoming affectionate, and he was starting to think of them as his, and not as strays he’d picked up for a time.
This was a good town, even if he wasn’t entirely sure how it all fit together. It lacked much of what made a City, and even though it was small, people were friendly and things seemed to run smoothly.
Barbarian nations were usually something like Cities run on a larger scale, usually poorly. They had no mind for self-governance and usually required a King who acted more a tyrant than a leading aristocrat. Perhaps Kelthuars, if they thought of themselves as one nation, were like that. People had mentioned the ‘big city’ a few times, so perhaps that was the City, and this was a village under its wing. Androkles wanted to leave his boys somewhere civilized. Somewhere peaceful, with good music and good harvests. Somewhere people honored the gods.
Hearing children’s laughter, he looked across the village center to see his boys playing some kind of game with a horde of smaller children and one older one. Some of the elderly sat nearby, weaving and keeping a twinkling eye on the group. All the children old enough to carry a basket were probably out hauling in the harvest, but the knee-highs wouldn’t be useful out there.
His boys were having the time of their lives. Flower’s giggling sounded like a noisy, pleasant little stream, and carried on the wind somewhat like his singing had done. Androkles was glad he could remember that, at least, from the night’s events. Pepper, on the other hand, laughed in short, loud bursts, sort of like a drum. He darted left and right between a cluster of knee-highs who tried to grab him and pull him to the ground. Flower, of course, had been caught and was rolling around in the yellowing grass getting his robe dirty. It was nice to see them acting like boys. It’d wear them out pretty quickly, since they were still weak, but playing would do them some good, body and soul.
Androkles winced as he rose to his feet; his headache wasn’t quite gone. He headed off to the cart to grab some food. He also needed to find a well and get some water to dilute the fire in his blood, or the sickness of wine would take forever to fade.
Later that afternoon, while his boys were napping in a haphazard pile with a dozen of the knee-highs, he went to speak to Kemen at the gate. He found the lanky guard sitting on a rock and whittling a figurine from a fat stick, taking in the sun and looking contented.
“I’ve got some questions for you, Master Kemen,” said Androkles.
“I guess I have some time, until folk need me to tally,” Kemen replied. He did not cease his whittling.
“First thing I want to know, is have you seen any adult Skythanders? Four of them with one regular woman? Or I hear that traders from Skythand come this far west every so often. Know anything about that?” Androkles asked.
“Ah. Well, no, not really. None have shown up here for quite a while. Up north in the big city, rumor has it they come by once or twice a year. Never seen one here except a few travelers, and not since last year,” said the guard.
“Really? None at all? Is it possible some came through, bought food, and kept moving north?”
“It’s possible. We didn’t start keeping guard until the wolves got bad about ten days ago. If they came before that, I might have missed them. You’d have to ask everybody. But if you’re looking for beast-men, you should ask around the big city, not here.”
Androkles tried not to look too disappointed. He knew his road would be ever longer still, but it would have been nice to confirm he was moving in the right direction. He said, “Oh well. Had a few steal from me, and I keep hoping I run into them. I have a few questions about the village, too. Who runs this place? Are you in charge?”
“Me? Sort of. We don’t really have much disorder here, Master Androkles. I’ve heard you have all kinds of laws and offices down south because none of you know how to behave. So if you’re asking me who sits around passing judgment, we don’t need anyone like that. If you’re asking who makes the important decisions, that’d be the king and Mari’s priests, who spend most of the year in the big city,” said Kemen, a hint of pride in his voice.
“You don’t have any laws? What happens if someone murders?”
“The family of the murderer would pay reparation, depending on the age of the person. But that hasn’t happened as long as I’ve been alive.”
“What about fights where someone loses an eye or a toe or something?”
“Payment would be made to the victim, probably decided by myself or one of the Honored. And I see you’re about to ask, so I’ll just answer—the Honored are those who made an important sacrifice to the goddess. Agurne is one of them. They can more or less do what they want as a sign of our respect.”
“I see. What if they couldn’t agree on what should be done?”
“Master Androkles, you’re asking questions that don’t make any sense to us. Maybe you southern vagrants have ignored the truth you were given at birth, but we’ve lived in exactly this way since our first parents walked out of that stone ring. We know what’s right and just and wrong and evil, because it’s simply part of who we are. Everyone works and honors the goddess, and she makes sure we have enough food every year to never be hungry. We don’t hurt each other, and we don’t hold grudges. And even if we wanted to, none of us would dare offend the goddess, because she always gets her way. Believe me about that, if nothing else. Her dwelling-place is actually not far from here, perhaps a dozen miles into the mountains,” said Kemen.
“You seem awfully proud of not having any laws,” said Androkles.
“I’ve talked with enough travelers to know how you people live. And you southerners, I can’t imagine anyone living so far from the Birthplace and still having anything that looks like society. I think that’s why you need all those laws—you’re violent and distempered and foolish, and can’t even agree to get along from one year to the next,” said Kemen, holding up the figurine to consider the angles. It looked sort of like a little person covered in leaves.
“Perhaps it’s because we have things worth fighting over. Not a lot of that up here, from what I’ve seen,” said Androkles crossly. He could see where the man was coming from, even though he was completely wrong. He explained, “Laws, as everyone civilized knows, are made necessary by wealth. But wealth is necessary for a man to truly find his highest excellence. If you live without wealth, your society has no great works. No great temples, no fine apparel, no plays or games. You might have three hundred people here who get along, but that’s not really a true civilization. You need thousands, tens of thousands, living together, each doing what he does better than anyone else, to have a real civilization. Society on a scale like that needs laws.”
Kemen snorted patronizingly at that, and said, “You know I’m the only fighting man in the village? Those soldiers on the road are all from the big city. And don’t get any ideas, by the way. I’m more dangerous than I look. But I’m the only man between here and the big city who knows how to use a spear, except to hunt. Why do you think that is? You southerners always talk about your great works and mighty heroes and all that nonsense, but you don’t have peace. You can’t trust the neighbor you’ve known all your life. All that wealth makes you sick. So does living so far from the Birthplace.”
“You think that stone ring is so important? Then why isn’t the big city here?”
“That’s because the goddess only lets so many people live here. Anyone she doesn’t want here has to leave. You might not be impressed, Androkles son of Paramonos, but this is how the goddess wants it, and we’re honored every day of our lives, just by being here,” said Kemen.
Androkles thought about that for a moment. This goddess of theirs sounded a bit demanding, if she’d make someone leave his property just because. If anyone here even had property; it was hard to tell. Still, the village did indeed seem harmless, and the people were kind, even if a bit primitive. “Someone mentioned your goddess is upset at something,” he said.
“Yep, they messed up a sacrifice up in the big city. But they’ll take care of it soon enough, so don’t worry about it. The goddess doesn’t care about foreigners much.”
“Fine. Master Kemen, here’s the thing.” He took a deep breath and found it harder to continue than he anticipated. He said, “I need somewhere to leave my boys. The boys. They’re not really mine, since they’re not slaves and I haven’t adopted them. Well, I guess they could be slaves if I wanted them to be. But I don’t. So they aren’t slaves, and anyway, I’m looking for somewhere to leave them.”
“You’re babbling, Master Androkles. I thought you people prided yourselves on your poetry.”
Androkles gave the man a mean glare. This was turning out to be harder to say than he’d expected. He was already attached to those kits, whether he liked it or not, and now it was affecting his dignity. It was time to leave them.
“Men of the Glories do not like to be mocked, Master Kemen,” he said coldly.
Kemen chuckled with clear condescension. “Sorry, Master Androkles. It’s wrong of me. I just have a hard time taking southerners seriously. You’re always so ceremonial about everything. But truly, I apologize for mocking you. So you need somewhere to leave the kits? For how long?”
“I can’t take care of them, Master Kemen. I have an oath to keep, and it might take me years. It might take the rest of my life. The boys will only slow me down, and I can’t leave it undone. I rescued them just over a week ago because they were starving on the side of the road, and would have died if I didn’t pick them up and take them with me. But that doesn’t mean I owe them the rest of my life,” said Androkles.
There was a period of silence during which Kemen looked at Androkles carefully. Androkles had no trouble meeting his gaze, of course, he could not help but feel exposed in some way.
Kemen finally said, “You don’t really want to give them up, do you? And you said it was, what, ten days? What’s wrong with you, to make you grow so attached so quickly?”
Androkles gave him a sincere and menacing scowl, “There is nothing wrong with me. You said yourself how sweet they are. I will not be mocked any further.”