Androkles heard his children at the door to his bedroom, but he pretended like he was still asleep. For a moment, he thought of the days when he was his own man, before his children controlled every minute of his schedule. Pepper and Flower yelled at him through the door to wake up! It’s time to see the bulls! But he knew it was still too early for the festival to start. And he was tired, after all, and sore all over from training the army recruits in the spear. Some of them were good, and he’d gotten a good number of bruises.
So he ignored them for the moment, even though he knew they’d find a way in sooner or later. But then he heard a little girl. Oh yes, his daughter. She wanted to go as well. And she was whispering through the door, louder and louder, “Wake up! Please don’t be dead. Please wake up.” And then she was in his room, shaking him awake.
His room began to slip away as his mind edged into wakefulness, and he realized he was not in his room at all. And that he was still alive. What was he laying on? The ground was hard, except for what felt like a severed limb under his lower back. In horror he sat up and made sure all his parts were still attached. They were, thank the Hewer. The area was dim, but not too dark to see. He was in a cave, it seemed. Or more accurately, in a pit in the back of a cave. He could see light coming in from above, illuminating the rock ceiling. It flickered like lantern light in a gentle breeze.
Looking behind him, he found that he had been laying on part of a rotting horse. He scooted away from it, horrified, and learned that one part of the dream had been true: he was indeed sore all over. And no wonder, after being carried by the cyclops like a doll in the arms of an enthusiastic child.
A small voice said, “You’re alive! Oh, you’re alive!” He turned in surprise to see a little girl with shoulder-length pale hair and wearing a torn woolen smock, filthy from head to toe. “Oh, I’m so happy you’re alive!” she said, putting her hands on top of her head. Then she folded them in front of her chest. Then she knelt forward and placed them on the ground. She couldn’t sit still, the little thing.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Garbi, and I’m seven years old, and I’m a girl, and I’ve been in this pit for a really, really long time, and I’m in there because the tartalo puts things down here that he wants to eat later, so he put me down here, but he can’t reach me, so he can’t eat me. And whenever he tries I just have to hide.”
“I see. I’m Androkles son of Paramonos of Dikaia, far south of here.” Androkles did not have a lot of experience with girls, especially little ones. Were they all like this?
She continued, “And when the tartalo put you down here, I could see your chest moving so I knew you were breathing, and Wolfscar said you were still alive, so I made you this for when you woke up, but then it took a long time and I thought you might die anyway. But I made you this,” she said, handing a surprised Androkles a small necklace made of some kind of hair with rocks tied in, probably from the dead horse. It wasn’t quite big enough to fit around his head, so she placed it in his hair like a garland.
“I made it so that you would rescue me,” she said. Her eyes grew misty as she looked at him expectantly.
“I see,” he said. The gods were not done toying with him yet. And even though he was pretty sure he knew the answer, he asked, “And where are your parents?”
“It ate them,” she whispered. She then kept staring at him, eyes wide in apprehension, unsure what he would do.
Androkles scowled at the ceiling and the gods somewhere beyond it and muttered, “So this is my life now? Grimy orphans in distress?” Then he gave the little girl a mean look, unintentionally.
When she saw it, a look of utter defeat crossed her face, and she slowly folded her knees to her chest and started crying into them.
And immediately Androkles felt like an utter bastard. “Wait, calm down, calm down. Of course I’ll help you. I didn’t mean to look at you like that. It’s just that I’ve done this once before. I think the gods are playing games with me. But I’ll help you.”
She looked up, relieved, and nodded. “I prayed to the Orphan over and over and over to send me someone. I knew he would,” she said. “But I was still worried.” Then she reached over and adjusted the circle of horsehair on his head, as though to remind him it was there.
“What have you been eating?” he asked, looking at the rotting animal carcasses with disgust.
“Wolfscar brings me food. Sometimes he can’t find any for a while, or he just forgets for a while, and so I have to just get really hungry and wait. But I tried nibbling on a little animal once but it was too gross and I couldn’t eat it. So I think I’d starve to death if he didn’t bring me any food, but he does.” While she talked, she fidgeted constantly, always in motion. All the while looking at him then quickly looking away, over and over. He supposed she seemed healthy.
“Who is Wolfscar?” he asked.
“He’s … well,” and then her eyes widened as though she had just thought of something, “He, um … it’s not important.”
Androkles gave her a stern look and said, “Really?”
“He … oh, he … well. Well …”
“Listen, I’m going to get you out of here whether you are honest with me or not. But if you’re honest with me, then I’ll like you a whole lot more,” said Androkles.
She furrowed her brow deeply as she considered. She said, “Well, he’s … He made me promise not to tell about him. And he’s my friend, too. But … I guess I have to tell you, because you can rescue …”
Androkles cut her off. “Hold on. Did you give your word of honor? Did you truly promise not to tell about him?”
“Then don’t say anything else. I like people who keep their word best of all. Just do this for me: next time you see him, make sure he introduces himself. Got it? And not, you know, with his teeth.”
She exhaled in relief, then sat up on her heels, rocking a bit. She gave him a kind smile, too, which he found charming. He wondered what she’d look like after a bath. Wolfscar was probably some kind of animal, most likely a large dog, guessing from the name. Hopefully, it would be friendly, and not rip his throat out as a greeting. But he’d have to deal with that later.
“So is the cyclops up above right now? Is he here?” he asked.
“The tartalo, you mean? I think so. I didn’t hear him leave after he dropped you, but I don’t hear him doing anything and I don’t hear him sleeping. He snores when he sleeps. Sometimes I don’t hear him for a long time, though,” she said.
Androkles stood up quietly and looked around the pit. His scabbard was empty, xiphos lost. His shield was gone as well, and his sack of goods. His coin purse, however, he still had with him, since he’d put it into the side of his loincloth for safekeeping. Most of the ties along the top of his robe had torn apart, leaving it only barely hanging on his shoulders. The belt was still around his waist, though; that might come in handy. His sandals hadn’t been damaged, either.
He folded the top of his robe down into a triangle in the farmer style, over one shoulder and slanted across his chest. That would do for now. “Did that thing toss anything down here with me? Xiphos, shield? Cloth bag?”
“Is a xiphos a sword?”
“Yes, it’s a sword shaped like a long, narrow leaf. Is it down here?”
“No, I just thought I knew that a xiphos was a kind of sword. I don’t think he threw anything down here. But I didn’t look, so maybe. But I would have seen it if he did.”
Androkles sighed. What was he supposed to do without a sword? He gingerly stepped around the carcasses on the ground to feel along the walls, looking for the best place to climb. He found hardly anything, however. The smooth, stone walls weakened under his grip every time he tried to grab tightly. With a running start, he might be able to run up the wall and jump just high enough to grab the edge, but he didn’t want to try it until he knew the thing wasn’t sitting up there waiting to eat him.
“Has anyone ever been in here with you?” he asked her.
Garbi replied, “Not since Mama. And when he pulled her out and ate her, it was only me and Wolfscar. But he’s not here all the time.”
“That must have been truly horrible,” he said, looking at her intently. “Did she … make a lot of noise?” He could picture it, little girl cowering in terror, listening to her mother scream in agony as she was ripped apart and eaten slowly. It would be haunting, for the rest of her life.
“No, because when it put us down here, she said that it doesn’t hurt, it’s just another way to get to the gods. And that the gods welcome us home and everything is better there. So when it grabbed her, she just said, ‘Remember what I said. It doesn’t hurt. I love you,’ and then I could hear it chewing but she didn’t scream like Papa did.”
Well, this girl would fit right in with the boys. How under Thuellos Sky-god did Androkles keep finding these orphans? He said, “That sounds … hard to deal with.”
He wasn’t expecting her to reply, but she said, “Well, at first I was so scared that I couldn’t even think or move or anything and I thought I was going to die before it even ate me. But then Wolfscar found me, and he … did something. And then I could. And I felt better, even though I was still sad. And I still get sad sometimes because I miss Mama and Papa. And I feel very alonely.”
Well, the girl had courage and grit. She hadn’t come weeping on his shoulder like some others he could think of.
“I guess I’ll have to get you out of here so you’re not so alonely,” he said. “But for now, I think we’ll wait so we can leave when he’s not here.”
Garbi thought about that for a moment, then said, “Ya, I think that’s a good idea. ’Cause if we went up there when he was here he might catch us. So let’s wait.”
Androkles looked around for a bare spot of ground large enough to sit on. He swept some bones and old hide from a good spot, then crossed his legs and relaxed.
“I bet it gets boring down here,” he said after a moment of quiet, wondering why he felt obligated to entertain her. Habit, no doubt.
“Ya, but sometimes I can play games with Wolfscar. And sometimes I practice how long I can stand on one leg,” and she stood to demonstrate, arms and other leg outstretched, “I do it like this, like a dancer. And sometimes I practice dancing. And I sing.”
She actually had pretty good balance, he noticed. She barely moved, holding impressively steady. That gave him an idea, and he rose to his feet.
“Come here, I want to try something,” he said, waving her towards him.
“What is it?” she asked. She leaped a foot closer to him and stood ready for whatever he had in mind.
“I bet you could stand on my hands if I held you up, and you could see into the rest of the cave. Come here, let’s try it.”
“You can lift me up?”
“Of course I can, you silly little thing. Look at me. Now come on,” he said, beckoning her again.
She hopped over to him and held her arms out, not entirely sure what to do. He knelt and held his hands out and said, “Grab my head for balance, then stand on my hands. I’ll lift you up slowly, so you just let go and stay standing. Got it? Once I lift you all the way up, you should be able to look around.”
She complied, and stepped up onto his hands. When he started lifting, she almost lost her balance, so she hunched down into a squat and held still. Once he had fully straightened his arms above his head, lifting her as high as he could, she slowly stood up, hardly wobbling.
“First time and everything. Well done, girl. Now, tell me what you see. Tell me everything.”
It took her a moment, likely deciding where to start; Androkles was sure he was going to get literally everything. “I see the tartalo. He’s not looking at me. He’s sitting at his table on a chair, and he’s kind of facing the wall, and I think he has a pole sticking out of his back, but I don’t know what that is. He didn’t have that before. And he has some bones on his table, and some rocks, I think, and he has some gold cups. And he has a bed, and he has some … some wood, and there’s a lamp, actually there’s a lot of lamps. There are six lamps. And he has a big shield, big enough for him. Or that might be a table, but I think it’s a shield. And I think there’s more but I can’t see it all because there are rocks in the way.”
“Very good. Are you ready to come down now?” he asked.
She didn’t reply for a moment. He supposed she was enjoying the fresh scenery. Finally she said, “Ya,” and looked down, seeming nervous about how descent was to be accomplished. He dropped her and caught her under the armpits, then set her down.
“Can we do that again?” she asked. After a bit of thought, she added, “In a little while? Maybe … the tartalo will move around.” She looked back up at the ledge with longing and regret clear in her face. She had been down here too long, unable to see anything but the insides of the pit, and he had given her a brief taste of freedom.
“Sure, I’ll lift you back up there in a bit,” he said. When the time came, how was he going to get her out of here? The walls were too poor for her to just hang around his neck while he climbed out. Could he still jump out with her hanging on his back? He’d have to try once or twice without her to be sure, but he doubted it. Perhaps he could throw her, or lift here up somewhere she could climb out the rest of the way.
Or, it was possible that the cyclops had a rope up there he could use, or a long plank or piece of furniture he could make a ramp with. He hadn’t expected it to have a table, so who knew what else was up there? Maybe it had a ladder for some reason. Although if he found a hammer and some nails, he could …
“Did you know I can dance?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts.