Androkles didn’t even try to hide his amazement. Then, because the only thing he knew of that could disappear was a spirit, he reached forward and poked the tiny flying boy in the stomach. Wolfscar was a material creature, it seemed, with skin soft as mouse fur.
The tiny fairy darted behind Garbi’s head in surprise, then peered out at Androkles from behind her hair. “Garbi, what is he doing?” he asked nervously.
“I just wanted to make sure you were real,” said Androkles. He wanted to poke the fairy again, just to see what would happen.
“Well, I am real! Even ask Garbi,” replied Wolfscar indignantly.
Garbi said, “He is real. I know that. And, oh! Wolfscar! Did you bring me any food?”
The fairy said, “Oh!” and shot into the air, darting around in circles and biting at his fingertips. Then he landed on Garbi’s shoulder and tried to hug the side of her head. “I’m so sorry! I couldn’t find any. I’m really sorry, Garbi. I’m sorry you hurt from being hungry. I’ll go find some, I promise.” He sounded heartbroken.
She gently grabbed him and pulled him against her chest, patting him over his wings. She had disappointment in her eyes, but she said, “It’s okay, Wolfscar. Don’t feel bad. I’m … well, I’m just not that hungry now. And we’ll get out soon.”
The fairy pushed away and flew in front of her. He said, “I had to come back because of an owl. It almost caught me. Do you know where my sword is?”
Now this, Androkles had to see. A tiny little flying person, and he had a sword? Garbi tapped her chin for a moment, then started digging around in some dry bones. She pulled out a slender bit of bone, long and thin like a toothpick. “Here it is.” The fairy zipped over and grabbed it from her hand, holding it out like a sword, waving it around like he was fighting a battle.
“Stupid owl! First I’ll go like this!” and he swung it several times, “and then this!” He made several stabbing motions. “And then in the eye,” another stab, “and the other eye!” followed by another, more resolute stab.
It was more than Androkles could take, and he burst out laughing, despite his surroundings. It was better than the monkey the Riverman taught to joust on a dog, or the parrot that could sing. It was hilarious.
The fairy flew over and hovered in front of him, hands on his hips, scowling. But then as he looked over Androkles, taking his muscles and scars into consideration, the fairy lost his enthusiasm and began to look dejected. He dropped his sword, and floated to the ground where he curled up into the same position that Garbi had taken when she cried earlier. Garbi picked him up and held him somewhat like a baby, but he turned his head away from her and covered his eyes with his hands.
“Wolfscar, what’s the matter?” she asked.
“He’s right to laugh. I’ll never be a hero. I’m way too small. I should give up the name Wolfscar and call myself … Wormdirt,” he said despondently, curling himself back into a ball.
Garbi looked deeply moved by his plight, with a furrowed brow and a deep frown. Between the two of them, they looked pitiable enough to close a Tragedy. One thing was for sure, though. There was no way Androkles was going to keep up with them.
Feeling somewhat guilty now for laughing, and because he had an idea, Androkles said, “You’re giving up far too easily.” The fairy looked at him, unsure how to respond. Androkles continued, “You’ve been doing a good job keeping her alive so far. But she isn’t out of here yet, is she?”
“You can do it on your own,” he said. “I can’t even lift up a cat.”
“No, but you can spy on the cyclops, and I can’t. Why don’t you go find out where it is and what it’s doing?”
“You mean you want me to just go look at it, and come back here?” said the fairy, unimpressed.
“No, I want you to go spy on it, as sneaky as you can, like the hero Kaliphygitus, and come back here and tell me what it’s doing, so we can make plans. And you have to do it without letting it see you.”
Wolfscar thought about that for a moment, then patted Garbi on the chest and asked her, “Is that true? Was there a hero who was sneaky?”
“I think so, I mean, I think there probably was. It sounds like there was,” she said, thinking.
Wolfscar jumped out of her hands and flew around her a couple times in circles. Then he flew down to retrieve his sword, brandished it with a look of determination, and zipped out of the cave without another word.
And after a few seconds, he flew back in and reported, “He has a bunch of rocks! And he’s carrying them in, like this,” mimicking a lumbering giant with a fair degree of accuracy. Androkles scowled. That did not sound like a good thing.
Soon they heard its footsteps approaching, sounding deeper and louder than normal. It peeked into the pit and snarled, then dropped what sounded like a considerable pile of very heavy rocks. Androkles grabbed his spear and stood between Garbi and the cyclops, unsure what to expect.
The monstrous thing lifted a small boulder in both hands, then threw it with full force into the pit. Androkles shouted, “Oh, curse the gods!” and grabbed Garbi, who screamed. He leapt out of the way just in time and rolled across a rotting carcass, which he felt coming apart beneath him. He jumped to his feet, holding the girl to his chest. The cyclops roared at him again, then picked up another boulder, tossing it with incredible force.
Again Androkles dove out of the way, but the boulder would not have hit them, since it was off the mark. That actually made it harder, he realized. If the thing had bad aim he would never know which way to dodge.
The next boulder, Androkles gave his utmost concentration to estimating where it would hit, but even so, he barely managed to avoid it with the girl slowing him down. Perhaps setting her down and giving the cyclops two targets would improve their chances, but if she got hit, that was the end of his oath to her.
Wolfscar flitted back and forth, covering his mouth with his hands in horror and making a nervous squealing sound. Androkles shouted, “How many more rocks!” and braced himself for the next one. Wolfscar gaped at him, uncomprehending. “How many rocks! Go count them!” The fairy nodded, then flew up to see. The cyclops swatted at him, missing and accidentally dropping a boulder which rolled into the center of the pit. It howled in anger, and Wolfscar retreated.
“Just one, now!” the fairy shouted.
Androkles braced himself as the monster watched him carefully. It held the rock over its head, waiting for the perfect opportunity. Androkles hopped a few times to stay light on his feet. It wasn’t very effective, holding a little girl to his chest, but it helped him focus.
The monster snorted and shook the rock as though it was about to throw it. The ruse almost worked; thankfully, Androkles only flinched, not dove, or he would have been an easy target laying on the ground. The monster tried several more times, but Androkles was ready.
Then, with a percussive howl, it threw the boulder with all its might, at incredible speed. He had scarcely reacted when the boulder slammed into the dead horse, bursting it liked a fresh pie and splattering rotten offal everywhere. It screamed in rage, long and loud, then turned to leave the cave again.
Androkles had survived because the cyclops had bad aim, but it still counted as surviving. “Get taken by crows!” he shouted after it. They really needed to get out of there; if the creature came back with more rocks, that might be it. He set Garbi down, then rested his hands on his knees to catch his breath. Once his heart stopped pounding so much, he wiped the innards off his face and arms in disgust.
Garbi stood rigidly with a sort of faraway, blank look as she stared past Androkles at nothing. Then, slowly, she began to cry. She weakly lifted her arms to her hair, pulling some of it in front of her face, then began sobbing hysterically when she saw the rotting offal dripping off of it.
Unsure what to do, Androkles watched as Wolfscar flew over to her and hovered in front of her face, looking distraught himself. The little fairy pleaded, “Garbi, you’re ok! You’re ok! You didn’t get hit. That guts and stuff isn’t from you!” She stared past him unseeing, however, as she cried. The fairy desperately tried patting her on the nose to get her attention and calling her name, but she just turned her head and looked away.
When the fairy tried pulling on her eyebrows to get her attention, she shouted “Stop it!” Then she collapsed into a ball, screaming wordlessly over and over. Shortly after that, she fell completely silent.
Androkles gingerly rolled her over to make sure she was still alive. He felt her throat and found that her heart was still beating, but she simply stared unseeing and wouldn’t meet his gaze or react to his voice. Wolfscar tried to get her attention as well by desperately calling her name, but she remained unresponsive. After a moment, the tiny fairy floated to the ground, looking bewildered and hurt. A few seconds later, he was crying as well, head tilted upwards, eyes shut.
The girl had finally broken, then, Androkles realized. It was heartbreaking, and he’d only known her for what, a few hours? She had been such a precious little thing. There was nothing he could do now but save her body and hope her soul recovered on its own. And he had to do it right now, before the cyclops returned with more rocks.
Androkles gently picked up the fairy, who remained more or less limp as he cried forlornly, and tucked him into his belt. Then he picked up Garbi, who did not resist or react. Tossing the spear back up over the edge of the pit, he stepped back as far as he could, readying himself. He shouted, “Father of Oaths, give me the strength to keep mine! Give me the strength to keep mine!” Adrenaline surging in his veins, he charged the far wall, running up it as far as he could and reaching for the lip at the top with his free arm.
He caught it, barely, and quickly tossed Garbi up over the edge before he slipped and slid back down the wall. Then, with the confidence of experience, he ran and jumped back up, catching the lip with both hands and pulling himself up to freedom.
Wolfscar managed to wriggle himself out of Androkles’s belt and returned to Garbi, who was sitting on the ground, looking into the pit with a pained look on her face. His voice sounded like agony as he repeated, “Garbi! Look! We’re out! Princess, you’re out! Please don’t die. Please …”
Androkles picked up the girl, put the fairy on his shoulder, grabbed the spear, and sprinted out of the cave into the near-impenetrable darkness of night. Numerous wide trails of broken trees split off in every direction, but he could see no landmarks of any kind.
“Wolfscar, can you make yourself any brighter?”
“I can’t see very well. Can you make yourself brighter? I need to know which way to go.”
“A little bit, I think.”
“Do it. Now!”
The fairy carefully stood up on Androkles’s shoulder, grasping his hair to keep from falling off. After a few seconds, the glow increased, but not as much as Androkles had been hoping. “Is that enough?” asked the fairy after a moment. “It’s harder than it looks.”
“It’ll have to do, I guess. Do you know which way the road is from here? Did you ever see it when you were flying around?” Androkles was getting nervous.
“Oh!” exclaimed the fairy. Then he pointed, changed his mind, and finally stuck his fingertip in his mouth to chew on while he thought about it.
“Go fly up and see if you can see it.”
“But … what about owls?”
Androkles was about to tell him to grab his eggs and act like a man when he heard the cyclops approaching. “Never mind. We’re going that way,” he said, pointing in the opposite direction. He left at a run. Better to risk the noise of going quickly, just in case it really could smell them.
He chose to run through areas where no trees had been broken, hoping to slow it down if it did pursue. Garbi kept utterly impassive the entire time, and Wolfscar regularly flew back and forth between her and Androkles’s shoulder to check on her. Androkles couldn’t help but wonder if she would have made it, if not for the horse guts. Then it occurred to him that everything would be able to smell them. The last thing he wanted to find upon evading the cyclops was another pack of hungry wolves.
The monster howled loudly from somewhere behind him. It had probably just discovered that he was missing. He stood still a moment to listen and see what it would do, and when he heard it start to move in his direction, he quickened his pace, not sure where he found the energy. He quickened his pace yet again when he realized it was getting closer, its horn-like howls echoing across the night. Gods, was it running at full speed and just bowling the trees over?
And then, to Androkles’ dismay, he ran out into a broad, open clearing. There would be no hiding here, and he couldn’t run back into the trees without getting closer to the cyclops. He looked around desperately, weighing his options; he could try to sprint all the way across the meadow, but it was hard to judge the distance without sunlight, or at least better moonlight. That wasn’t going to work. He could try to hide, perhaps dig himself in behind a lump in the dirt, or in tall grass … But he didn’t have enough time. It was almost here.
He set the girl down, where she sat like an unseeing doll, arms hanging at her sides. He told her, “Let me show you whether Androkles is a man who keeps his oaths,” but she didn’t look at him. He instructed Wolfscar to stay close to him to give light, then readied his spear for the monster’s charge. It was time to kill or die; there’d be no more tricks.
He experienced a brief strange moment of calm during which he noticed the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of the meadow. Refusing to be distracted, he watched the treeline, spear at the ready.
A healthy evergreen shattered and splintered in every direction as the monster found them.