Although the bright, cool morning should have been pleasant and invigorating, something heavy hung over the forested hills that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. At first, he couldn’t decide if it was his own feelings, but a thin, murky mist hung over the sky like it had before the storm, and the sky appeared almost oppressive. It seemed thicker now, clearly muting the blue sky with a tinge of brown.
In less than an hour of walking, he had passed the few small farms on this side of the town and entered a woodland. He found that that was odd; usually the areas between villages and cities were more populated, not less. And the numerous old and gnarled trees surprised him as well; forests like this were usually cultivated for firewood, especially in places where it got cold in the winter. Perhaps the subtle heaviness in the air made farming here unreasonably difficult compared with areas further south.
The further he went along the even, dirt road, the steeper the hills became, and evergreens slowly replaced the leafing trees. Every so often, he could look over the scenery through a break in the vegetation to get a view of the valley. The landscape, thick as it was with the points of evergreens, looked to him like it was covered with the beard stubble of some giant. It was strange how uniform the trees were, truly; sometimes it seemed he could see them unbroken for miles.
He’d seen his share of the world’s varied landscapes in his time with the army. Deserts of nothing but hills of sand, encircled by grasslands that ran flat and even to the horizon. The rough, austere mountains of the Glories, guarding calm and rolling pastures meandering toward the crashing ocean. He’d seen the immense wheat fields of the Rivermen, stretching a day’s journey in every direction from their river, and he’d seen the cedar forest of the Pesars, where some of the finest wood came from. But he had never, anywhere, seen a forest so uniform.
And that made him wish he had someone to talk to about it. He hadn’t ever really been further than a few paces from a fellow-in-arms for most of his life, had he? Except when he came home to Della, and then he was with her. His thoughts returned again and again to his Skythander kits, and what sorts of things he would explain to them if they were here. But he couldn’t. They weren’t here, and he’d never see them again. He’d do better to forget them.
In the afternoon, after a long stretch without any sign of civilization but the road, he began to find huts and small lodges close by to either side. He wondered what kind of person lived out here, but the little shelters all sat empty, as far as he could tell. He supposed they must be hunters, or perhaps woodcutters. They didn’t look permanent, certainly.
Closer to evening, he came to a break in the trees that allowed him to see frightfully tall mountains in the distance, many miles away. Hopefully, the ‘big city’ was on this side of them, because they looked awful to traverse. He wondered if that marked the border of the lands of men, beyond which there was nothing but endless dead mountains growing taller and taller all the way to the top of the world. He would have to ask. But surely, he hadn’t gone nearly far enough for that yet; the top of the world should be months further north. From the Pillar of the Just in Dikaia to the top of the world was supposed to be exactly thirty-six hundred miles, and Androkles had gone nowhere near that far, he was sure. That would be a full day’s travel, straight north, every day for three months.
As the afternoon wore on into evening, he started to smell wood smoke, and he sincerely hoped it wasn’t a forest fire. A short while after smelling the smoke, he heard sharp cracking and thumping sounds, but it was hard to tell how far away they were. Perhaps there were loggers around, although he heard nothing like the rhythms of axes or saws.
With curiosity and wariness in equal measure, he quickened his pace and checked to make sure his xiphos would draw smoothly if he needed it.
Up ahead where the road curved a bit, a man suddenly appeared, running as fast as he could in Androkles’s direction. He wore thick woolen trousers and a torn, bloody woolen shirt that trailed in the air behind him. Androkles didn’t have time to drop his bundle and draw his sword before the man passed him. The man simply shouted, “Tartalo!” and kept running, not even slowing down.
Androkles wondered what on the Kelthuar goddess’s scabby ass a tartalo was, but it was probably something bad. He looked after the man running and thought hard about dropping his sack of goods and following after him, but he knew he wasn’t going to. Not until he found out what a tartalo was. What was making all that noise? Good thing Euphemios wasn’t around to see it, or Androkles would never have heard the end of it. Euphemios had always said he was too foolhardy to live long.
As he got close enough to the sounds to find the source of the noise, he heard a man moaning in pain, followed by a scream, and then silence. For the second time, he considered turning back, but his curiosity would not be denied. Just a bit farther …
He passed silently around a large series of bushes, and found a devastated camp of some kind. A cook-fire burned low and smoky in the center, untouched, but everything else was destroyed. A mess of broken wagon parts lay strewn about, as though the wagon had been dashed apart like a pot against a wall. Several tents leaned precariously, torn and ragged, and a dozen more had been knocked over. An enormous boulder sat a few paces from the fire, and some of the trees just past it had been broken down as though it had rolled into the middle of camp. Well, that was awfully unlucky.
Androkles thought he could hear some deep grunting sounds from just on the other side of the boulder, and he knew that it must be the tartalo, whatever that was. He quietly stepped around the edge of the camp to get an angle where he could see it. Before he had made it quite far enough to see around the boulder, the boulder stood up.
Androkles stepped backward into a tree, almost losing his balance in surprise; the standing boulder towered over any living thing he’d ever seen except the Hewer, easily twice the height of a man or more. Its knobbly, stone-colored skin made its features indistinct, but its shape was more or less like a person, with head, arms, and legs. It huffed and turned to face the fire, allowing him to see that it had only one eye. Cyclops. A tartalo was a type of cyclops, and Androkles was a dead man.
The best he could do was huddle down into the brush and hope to go unnoticed. He could not help but watch it as it ate what was left of a man, ripping away flesh bite after bite, like a child eating a fruit.
Time passed very, very slowly as the cyclops finished eating the first body, then contemplatively nibbled on another one as it looked at the smoking embers, or into the trees. Androkles had no idea what it was thinking. He couldn’t even tell if it was male or female; its skin looked like moving folds of granite draped loosely over a muscular frame, and there was nothing to distinguish its sex.
In all the Poet’s accounts of cyclopes, he’d never mentioned that they had no noses. When it closed its eye and mouth, its face was nearly flat like an egg, which made Androkles wonder how it was supposed to be able to smell him. The epics agreed that if you blinded one, it would find you by smell.
If that was true, then soon enough those hands, strong enough to break trees, would close around his torso and Androkles would have his head bitten off.
He wondered if his killing intent would be enough to drive it off. Not likely, though, not something known for brutality that was twice as tall as he was. His killing intent gave him no extra speed or strength like he’d led some to believe, and the last thing he wanted to do to a cyclops was make it angry. Some of them were supposed to be civilized and honorable, standing as guards in the house of Arkos Oathfather, but this one looked entirely wicked and brutish.
Finally, thank every last god, the thing lay itself down with a heavy thud, closed its eye, and appeared to go to sleep. Androkles decided to wait a time for its sleep to deepen before he moved, lest it hear him somehow. Night was just beginning to come, and the shadows of the forest were growing deep. If he could get a few hundred paces away before it awoke, it would never find him.
However, to his horror, a short-haired youth crept out of the shadows with a large spear in his hands, stepping with quiet intent toward the cyclops. He wore the same thick, woolen clothing that the running man had on, and was probably part of the same company. Androkles waved vigorously to get his attention, but to no avail. The boy had his sights fixed on the monster’s head, and he looked just old enough to be an idiot, perhaps fourteen.
When the youth got close to the monster and readied his spear for a lunge, Androkles sighed and snapped a twig. The youth quickly looked in his direction, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. Androkles quietly shook his head, then pointed at the youth and drew his thumb across his neck, trying to communicate that stabbing a cyclops was a bad idea.
The youth just gave him a grimly stubborn look and ignored him. Androkles tried waving again, but the youth wasn’t looking. He didn’t dare make any more noise or the thing would wake, but he wasn’t sure how else to get the youth’s attention.
Soon, though, the decision was made for him as the youth jumped and brought the point down as hard as he could directly on the monster’s closed eye. The point pricked the skin, but it wasn’t forceful enough to penetrate, not nearly. Androkles watched helplessly as the cyclops awoke in a fit of rage, flailing its arms and rising to its feet. When it saw the youth, it lunged for him, and Androkles was sure the youth was dead, but he somehow ducked out of the way.
The youth darted to the side and stabbed again, this time upward at the monster’s sagging belly, since he could no longer reach the eye with the spear; it did no good, of course. The cyclops brought its fist down in a hammer blow at the youth’s head, but he dodged away again, barely.
Now that the cyclops was after him, the youth had no more time for any kind of offense. The monster focused on grabbing its target, making broad sweeps with its arms that the youth was only barely able to evade each time. Before long, the boy stumbled over a discarded plank and the cyclops caught him with the edge of a finger as it made another sweep. The youth was thrown to the side, close to where Androkles was hiding. The youth looked directly at him with a piercing, pleading gaze and yelled, “Are you just going to watch me die?” Androkles noticed that the youth’s eyes were black with white specks, like the boy in the inn’s had been.
But Androkles had no time to notice anything else, because the cyclops brought its fist down in another hammer strike right where the youth was. Although he managed to roll away again, the monster looked up and saw Androkles, and the decision about whether to die fighting or live hiding was made for him.
The cyclops reached for him, trying to grab him before he had a chance to stand up and ready himself, but he rolled backward and rose to his feet, drawing his xiphos, not that it would do any good. The youth stabbed at the back of the monster’s knee, drawing its attention. Androkles took the opportunity to unstrap the shield on his back, which he could at least use to deflect the cyclops’s fists.
The monster took another swipe at the youth, who dodged away again, somehow. He was certainly quick on his feet. And lucky.
Androkles watched the monster carefully, trying to decide how to hurt it. Nowhere did it have skin that looked weaker than the rest, however, and its eye was too high to reach.
The cyclops growled in frustration, sounding somewhat like an enormous horn. It tried using both fists at once, spaced only a bit apart, to crush the youth. It threw several hammering blows in succession, but he rolled away from each of them, desperately clutching his spear. Then it turned on Androkles and tried the same tactic. He sidestepped each of them, but then the cyclops tried something new and clapped its hands together. Androkles wasn’t quite able to get away in time, and the monster caught him in its fingers. He screamed as it started to crush him, desperately trying to free his arm so he could stab its hand, but it held him in both hands and refused to let go.
But then it flinched and it howled more loudly than before. Holding Androkles tightly with one hand, it reached for something in its back with the other, unable to quite reach. Androkles’s head swam as he was whipped around when the monster began turning in circles to reach. The youth was scooting backward on his ass, look of pride on his face. He had managed to stab hard enough to get the spear stuck, it seemed.
After a moment, the cyclops stopped turning in circles and paused to look at the youth, huffing loudly. Androkles shouted, “Run!” with what remained of the air in his lungs. The youth looked at him again, then nodded. He rose unsteadily to his feet, then ran into the forest.
The cyclops howled after the youth, but did not pursue him. Instead, it began walking back into the forest, in the direction of all the broken trees, while it tried to reach the spear that had miraculously penetrated its back. Androkles found it impossible to breath in the thing’s grip, and soon his lungs started to ache and he felt lightheaded. That’s it, then. At least I won’t feel its teeth, he thought. He saw swimming points of light in his vision before felt his mind slip into darkness.