“You can what?” he said. She stood with her hands behind her back and watched him as though he was the only interesting thing in the world. Which, it occurred to him, he was. She stood leaning forward a bit, too, looking like she wanted very badly to make a friend. Her emotions were as easy to read as Flower’s were, it seemed.
“I can dance. I’m a good dancer. Wolfscar even said so. Do you want to see?” she asked, almost begging.
“So you can dance, hmm? I suppose I would like to see that. Why don’t you show me,” he said, taking a seat. A little indulgence wouldn’t hurt.
She smiled, then stepped to the center of the pit where there were fewer dead animals to trip over. Then she gave him an embarrassed, shy smile. When she didn’t begin, he said, “Go on, you can do it. Show me your dances.”
“I haven’t had anyone watch me except for Wolfscar so now it’s making me scared to,” she explained. “But I can do it.” She took a deep breath and exhaled it just as determinedly. Then she held her arms out and began her dance.
It was a simple, childish affair, of course, with lots of bowing and tipping and several claps. There were indeed parts where she had to stand on one leg and move around a bit and keep her balance, and she pulled it off like a festival performer. When she finished, he applauded, and she grinned radiantly.
She came over and sat down right next to him with deliberate nonchalance. He was equal parts charmed and amused, so he put his arm around her and gave her a little hug. It made him remember how hesitant he had been to show any affection for the boys, and wondered if he was making a mistake. Although now that he thought about it, the boys had needed food to survive, and this little girl needed affection. Perhaps that wasn’t much different. Diokles and Thais would both have approved, if they’d been here.
After a moment of quiet, she said, “When I first saw you, you looked really scary. But then I thought that if you were on my side, I’d want you to be the scariest ever. So then I was happy that it was you and not someone else. So I was really happy when you woke up. I just wanted to tell you that.”
He smirked and said, “I guess I’ll have to be on your side, then, won’t I?”
She nodded sagely. Then with insecurity edging her voice she asked, “When we get out of here, can I ask you another favor? Are you going to take me with you after we get out? Or … are you going to, well, once we get out, do I need to go the rest of the way by myself? I just think I might get lost. And I’m only a little girl and I don’t know where we are.”
No wonder she was trying so hard to charm him. “Girl, you thought I might just plop you down in front of the cave and run off?”
“Well, I didn’t know,” she said.
“I won’t do that.”
She meekly replied, “Do you promise?”
“What do you take me for? How’s this: I give you my oath that I’ll see you into the arms of someone who will take care of you. By Arkos Oath-father and the memory of Diokles, you have my word. I’ve never once broken it,” he said, somewhat proud that he spoke the truth.
“Oh, thank you!” she said, relieved. Then she hugged him gently, reaching her arms most of the way around his torso, as far as she could reach. He half-heartedly hugged her back, and she relaxed with a sigh, still holding him. For a moment, they simply sat there with her not wanting to let go. Androkles truly began to wonder if the gods were trying to keep him from finding Della. Where was he going to leave Garbi, after all? He could take her back to Basket, but did he want to face Agurne and his boys, or rather, her boys, so soon? His plan had been ‘never,’ and he’d made that clear. And what would the gods place in his path once he had little Garbi here all sorted out?
Although Flower and Pepper would love this little girl, he was convinced. He could already tell she had even more energy than they did, and more cunning. No doubt she’d have them running errands for her in no time at all, and they’d love every minute of it. He could almost hear Flower giggling as he chased her across a meadow, and Pepper growling playfully while he held her down to tickle her. Gods, had it even been a full day yet since he’d left Basket?
Suddenly, the cyclops howled very, very loudly, enough to make Androkles’s ears hurt. Garbi shrieked and covered her ears, ducking down to the ground, as low as she could get. Androkles looked at the top of the pit, expecting to see it reaching for him, and was startled to see the spear come bouncing down and land nearby. It was still intact.
Androkles surmised the cyclops had figured out how to flick the spear out of its back and carelessly let it fly, and he was not about to let this chance pass him by. He hastily grabbed it, rose, and was standing at the ready when the monster peered over the edge of the pit. Androkles jumped and extended the spear as far as he could, aiming directly at the thing’s eye, but it reflexively blinked, and he only nicked the eyelid.
It growled at him, then leaned over and reached down to try to pull him out. Garbi hissed in terror and scampered to the far end where the cyclops couldn’t reach her. Androkles stepped away and stabbed at its hand. Despite a solid strike, he was unable to draw so much as a drop of blood. It tried several times more, but Androkles danced away across the uneven, carcass-laden floor. At every opportunity, he stabbed at the cyclops’s hand and forearm repeatedly. The granite-colored hide was simply too tough to damage, however.
After about a minute, it gave up and huffed loudly as it stomped angrily out of the cave. Androkles was panting, but unharmed. He looked at Garbi, who huddled in a ball at the far end of the pit. “Are you alright?” he asked.
She nodded and said, “I got away. And I’m glad you’re good at dodging.”
“Me too,” he said.
Taking a casual look at the spear, he blinked hard twice and almost gasped at its incredible beauty. Its exquisite, polished hardwood shaft, full of knots and curls in the grain, had been inlaid with fine gold filigree from haft to point. The perfect gold strands depicted artistic forms of dozens of birds and animals, interlaced with vines and floral patterns. The shaft had also been lacquered with something clear and strong, and even though it was perfectly smooth, it wasn’t slippery in the slightest. The head of the spear was a pale, shining metal, as reflective as the brightest mirror, etched along the bottom end with letters he didn’t recognize. The spearhead was also a bit broader than he was used to, about four times as wide as the base of the haft, and flat. Furthermore, it was exactly the same length as his infantry spears, which they had to make custom for his size. He’d gone into battle with three or four of them each time, knowing that if one broke any replacement would be the wrong size.
“Now that,” he said, “really is something!” How in the Hewer’s hairy armpit had that woodcutter boy gotten his hands on something like this? It was finer than the ceremonial spears the nobles carried when they were honoring the gods.
“Can I look at it?” asked Garbi, standing up and making her way toward him.
“Hold on,” he said, then lifted it over his head. “Oh great god Palthos, this is probably your doing, so thank you!” Then, to himself, he added, “I’ll need more than this to kill that thing, though.” He thought he heard the words, ‘better hope not’ in the faintest whisper, but that was probably his imagination.
He handed the spear to Garbi and told her to be careful with it. She looked with amazement at every inch of the shaft, repeating, “Oh, it’s so pretty!” and naming the animals she recognized. When she got to the spear’s head, she saw how reflective it was and carried it over to where she could get better light. Then she held it up at an angle to see her own reflection. Androkles watched as she looked at first confused, and then frowned, and then as tears started streaming down her face. She set the spear down hurriedly and sat with her head in her knees, just in time to start crying.
Androkles wondered if he should go pick her up or something. “What’s the matter, girl? What did you see?”
“I’m so ugly now!” she moaned between sobs. “I’m so dirty!”
He sighed. “Oh, don’t worry about that. You look just fine to my eyes,” he said, trying to sound appropriately consoling for a seven-year-old.
“I look like one of those!” she shouted, pointing to a carcass. “I look like I belong down here!”
Androkles wasn’t sure what to say to that, exactly. She did look rather like a little girl stuck in a cyclops’s rotting food pit. “Well, I think you’re very pretty, even with the dirt. It’s just dirt, Garbi. It washes off.”
She just kept crying, however, unconsoled. After a moment, she said, “Everything has been so, so, so hard. And now I look so awful! No one will ever take me in.”
Androkles went over and picked her up by the shoulders and held her out in front of him. She did her best to remain curled in a ball, saying, “Don’t look!”
“Look at me. Look at me in the eyes, Garbi. Right. Now,” he said sternly. Hesitantly, she met his gaze. “Now. Tell me, what did I just promise you a few minutes ago?”
She looked away and said, “That you’d get me out of here.”
“No, that wasn’t it. Look at me. And tell me what I promised you.”
She thought about it for a moment, then said, “That you’d put me with someone who can take care of me.”
“Close. What I said was that I will see you into the arms of someone who will take care of you. With my own eyes, I will see you in her arms, or his. And I will keep my word, girl. I am a man of honor. I will keep my word, even if I have to pull the gods off their thrones to do it. Do you understand?”
“Yes. And I’m sorry. I’m just a little girl.”
He wasn’t sure what she meant by that, exactly. She was a confusing little thing. But no matter. He supposed she could use another hug, so he gave her one, which she returned with feeling.
While he held her, waiting for her to calm down a bit more, he wondered again how he was going to get them both out of there. It occurred to him how comfortable it was, holding her. It fit, somehow. It was like children were of just the right shape and size to be held and loved by their parents.
He was about to set her back down and try jumping up to the ledge when a small, blueish-white glowing bird flew into the pit from above, illuminating the area with dim light. Androkles stepped backward in startlement, almost losing his balance and falling on the dead horse.
The little bird flew toward him, stopping about three feet in front of his face. Then Androkles saw that it wasn’t a bird at all, but a little glowing boy with what looked like insect wings on his back. The strange creature was hovering in the air, giving him a stern but confused look.
“Who are you?” it asked, in a voice high enough to belong to a squirrel.
Androkles was simply too amazed to respond right away, but Garbi heard it and turned around, shouting “Wolfscar!” She slid from his arms and stood. “Wolfscar, I’m so glad you came back! Did you bring me any food? This is Androkles and he said he’s going to rescue me. And get me into someone’s arms who will take care of me. He promised.”
Wolfscar flew up closer to Androkles’s face to get a better look. The glow wasn’t quite enough to hurt Androkles’s eyes, but it was enough make out details on the walls. He looked at Garbi, pointed at Wolfscar, and asked, “What is it?”
“It? I’m a he! I’m a boy! Can’t you tell?” said the tiny creature, pointing at his boyhood.
“Fine. What is he?” Androkles asked Garbi.
Garbi, grinning in amusement, said, “He’s a fairy, and he’s my best friend. And he’s very proud of his little parts because he wasn’t a boy before.”
“Why isn’t he talking to me?” Wolfscar asked Garbi, crossing his arms and looking annoyed. He was a truly tiny thing, just shorter than Androkles’s hand from wrist to fingertip. His features weren’t quite human, but they were close. His pale violet eyes looked large in proportion to the rest of him, and his long, pointy ears sticking out at a slant from his head. His skin was mostly white with the faintest tinge of blue, and he had violet hair to match his eyes. Every bit of him radiated dim light, from toenails to scruffy hair. In all his travels, Androkles had never once heard of something like this.
Androkles looked at Garbi and asked, “What’s a fairy?”
“A fairy,” she said, pointing at Wolfscar, “is one of those!”
The answer was droll, but not very helpful. “Yes, but, what is it? He.”
“It’s a kind of little person,” she answered.
Wolfscar flew to about a foot in front of Androkles’s face, angrily peering at him. “Why don’t you ask me? I’m right here,” he said.
Androkles found himself amused. “Alright, Wolfscar. What is a fairy?”
Wolfscar opened his mouth to answer, then his eyes darted to the side while he thought about it. “A fairy is … one of me. I’m a fairy.”
Garbi giggled. Wolfscar flew over and sat on her head, glaring at Androkles. He said, “Well, don’t make fun of me. It’s a hard question! Why don’t you tell me what a human is, if you’re so clever!”
Garbi thought about it for a second, then said, “Humans are like regular people. And some are boys and some are girls. And they have grownups and children.”
Androkles gave it a shot. “Humans are the animal that is most like the gods.”
“No! You wish! Fairies are more like the gods than humans are. You can’t even do this,” he said. Then he vanished completely, his glow disappearing with him. After a moment, he reappeared, looking smug.