The hulking cyclops slid to a stop a pace or two into the clearing, where it growled menacingly, deep and slow. Spying Androkles, it screamed loudly and struck the earth with its fists. Androkles mustered all his courage and charged, aiming a leaping stab at its stomach.
His aim was true, and the point caught but did not penetrate. The cyclops reached with both arms in to trap him, but he ducked between its legs, stabbing again at the back of the monster’s thigh. Its skin felt tough as solid wood, even though it seemed to slide and push around whenever he stabbed it.
The brute spun around, swinging both fists wide to bowl him over, but he jumped backward and rolled out of the way. It moved toward him, slapping down at the ground three times with open palms trying to crush him, but each time he stepped back or to the side, stabbing at every opportunity.
The cyclops clenched its hands together in a double fist and swung downward with incredible power. Androkles stepped just to the side and stabbed upward under its chin. Its skin slid, and the spear couldn’t puncture it.
The cyclops stood at full height and stomped forward heavily with one foot after the other, trying to smash him. Androkles danced backward and kept away. When the monster saw that didn’t work, it tried swooping its arms in wide arcs to catch him. He ran forward and ducked between its legs, striking at its thighs again, but this time it jumped and fell backward in his direction. Although it barely left the ground, the enormous thing fell with arms out to make itself wider. It almost worked, but Androkles had just enough time to get out from under it.
Seeing that it missed, it rolled after him, much like the enormous boulder it had seemed at first. With a headstart, though, Androkles was faster, and when it stopped rolling he leapt forward and stabbed at its eye. The monster closed its eyelid and prevented any damage, then hammered at him with a backfist, which he sidestepped.
The task of killing it now started to seem truly impossible. Anger and frustration tinged with fear that he couldn’t quite quash threatened to dull his focus, and the odd pressure of exhaustion in his legs told him time was running out. But if he couldn’t even stab its eye, where could he stab it to do some damage? And how on earth had that thrice-cursed woodcutter youth managed to get the spear stuck in its back?
The momentary distraction in his thoughts cost him; the monster caught him with a sudden backhand swing, knocking him off his feet and sending him flying backward. He hit the ground hard, but managed to keep hold of the spear. He rolled and stood, but found himself dazed and having trouble keeping his balance.
The cyclops was upon him immediately, reaching its hand forward again and again to catch him. Androkles could only evade by hopping backward as fast as he could. At this rate, he was going trip and fall backward into a bush and die with a bunch of thorns up his asshole. He had to …
And then with a wicked grin, he realized where he could find a weak spot in the skin. The thing ate, didn’t it? With renewed vigor, he stepped in closer to the cyclops, ducking out of the way of a punch, then another. When it tried to stomp on him, he saw his chance. He ducked under its leg and stabbed with all his might directly into the cyclops’s asshole, burying the shaft of the spear halfway into its guts.
Androkles gave a shout of triumph as the monster howled in pain, spinning around and stepping back. He left the spear where it was as he dodged another series of hammer strikes, then ducked between its legs again, pulled the spear partway out, then stabbed upward in a different direction, burying the spear even further this time. The brute stumbled and fell forward onto its stomach, then thrashed its legs, almost catching him.
It rose to its hand and knees, then tried and failed to rise to its feet. It fell forward onto its knees and knuckles, panting heavily. The cyclops’s howls sounded weaker with each breath, and Androkles knew victory was close. Androkles raced around to give the spear another twist, but when he got behind it, the cyclops kicked back like a mule, catching him in the torso and knocking him off his feet. He landed flat on his back, dazed but unharmed. He smiled; its movements were definitely weakening.
The cyclops rolled onto its side, then carefully extracted the spear. It was followed by a long spurt of blood, and the monster howled again, but weakly. It tried to stand again, but the bleeding didn’t slacken, pouring like wine from a spigot out of the wound. It stumbled and fell again, laying on its side, breathing heavily and snorting.
Androkles retrieved the spear, which was covered every inch in blood and offal. The monster didn’t make another effort to get up or swing at him. With a sense of exultation tempered by relief, he realized it was truly over. He moved to stand in front his fallen pursuer, and for a brief moment, they watched each other in near silence. Finally, he shouted, “Who dares stand against Androkles?!” and kicked its eye. It blinked, and he stepped out of the way of its weak attempt to swat him. He shouted, “Androkles Giant-slayer!” Then he tilted back his head and shouted in elation.
Wolfscar, seeing it was safe, flew over to inspect the dying cyclops. Androkles left him to gawk and headed toward Garbi, hoping she was still there. He was surprised at how far away the fight had taken him, but he found her sitting quietly, staring at nothing.
Wolfscar flew back to meet them and asked, “Is it going to die? Why don’t you kill it all the way?”
“Oh, it’ll die. Painfully, after several hours of suffering while its guts come apart and fill with blood. And that’s just fine with me,” said Androkles. “Although …”
He took the spear, then kicked the cyclops in the eye again. It closed its eyelid, as expected, but when it opened it again, Androkles was ready with the spear. He buried the point an arm-span in the soft flesh of the cyclops’s single eye, and when he pulled it out, the eye deflated with a spurt of clear liquid, much like a punctured bladder. The monster whimpered and twitched instead of howling. Taking the eye wasn’t fatal, of course, but now its long, slow death would be more terrible, locked in blindness while its life ebbed into nothing.
Androkles spat on it again, remembering the men it had eaten alive. Let it suffer. “Androkles Giant-slayer, son of Paramonos of Dikaia,” he said with strength in his voice.
Finally satisfied, he sat down next to the girl and lifted her chin to look at her. Her eyes seemed completely blank and far away, and she didn’t meet his gaze. His victory had not restored her, not that he expected it to.
“Look at me, girl. Garbi. Look at me,” he said, sounding as calm as he could. She turned to look at him, but her eyes were blank and unfocused. He sighed and sat back, trying to think if he’d seen anything like this before. He’d seen blank, empty stares aplenty in the wake of numerous wars, but never a complete inability to react. He’d heard about it in the epics, but he’d never suspected they were being literal—it had always seemed like poetic license.
Wolfscar flew back and forth in front of her face a few times; she reacted, but only to the brightness of the light. He tried calling her name, even landing on her shoulder and shouting in her ear before Androkles stopped him.
“It’s no use, little one. Her spirit is broken. Someday she may wake up, or not. And even if she does, she might still never be the same. Best we can do is get her somewhere safe like I promised.”
The fairy looked at Androkles in desperation, hovering a few feet in front of his face. “She’s broken? Can anyone fix her? Can she get better on her own?”
“Little children like her are weak. Some things hurt the body, and some things hurt the spirit. It was all just too much for her, and some part of her snapped apart like a twig,” he said.
The fairy looked puzzled for a moment, then asked, “What do you mean?”
“If I take your arm and bend it too far, it’ll break. The bones will break. Humans are like that in other ways, too. If I make a man too afraid, his courage will break and he’ll be a coward. She got pushed too far and some part of her snapped,” Androkles answered. He looked at Garbi, who looked even smaller sitting in the field in the dark of night than she had in the pit. He sighed and said, “It is a shame, though. She was such a sweet little thing.”
The fairy flew over and looked into her ear, then her eye, then listened to her chest. He tried listening to other parts of her as well: head, shoulder, legs … Eventually he gave up and sat in her lap with a lost expression on his face.
Androkles considered whether he dared risk sleeping in the field, covered as he was in rot from the pit. Nikon would have done it, but Nikon was dead, and Androkles certainly didn’t want to get eaten by wolves after killing a cyclops. No one would ever learn of his triumph and remember him if that happened. But he didn’t want to wander around in the dark all night, either, carrying a child. He’d done that before. Recently, in fact.
“Wolfscar, can you fly up and see if you can find the road?”
The fairy looked at Androkles like he’d been started from deep contemplation. “Why?”
“Because on the road, there were huts and hovels for us to sleep in. You don’t want her to be eaten by wolves, do you?”
The fairy darted into the air, looking around. “There are wolves?” he asked nervously.
“There might be.”
“Would wolves eat us? Would they eat her, even though she’s broken?”
“They would if I let them. All the wolves care about is if we’re made of meat, and we are.”
“But she’s my only friend!”
“Then go look for the road,” said Androkles, motioning toward the sky.
“I turned into a boy so I could become her hero, you know. Since she’s the princess,” said the fairy. He looked down at his crotch and said, “I’m not sure how it’s supposed to help, though.”
Androkles found himself amused. “What were you before?”
“I was just a fairy. But now I’m a boy fairy,” he replied, as though it were obvious.
“I see. And the road?”
The fairy looked at him for a moment, thinking. Then he resolutely declared, “I’m going to go find the road. I’m not even afraid of that owl.”
“That is very brave of you. I’ll protect her for you until you get back.”
The fairy gave him a grim and determined nod, then flew into the sky. He looked somewhat like a bright and wandering star, unsure where in the sky it should land.
While he waited, Androkles watched the girl, wondering if the life she’d been so full of would return all at once, as though nothing happened. All she did was start to droop her head; her body was probably getting tired. He wasn’t sure how he felt about her, exactly; he wanted to help her recover like he had with the boys, but it was impossible. It made him feel a bit helpless, which was unusual for him.
Wolfscar returned more quickly than expected. “I found the road! It’s …” then he flew back up into the sky, and back down again, “that way!” he said, pointing west.
“Is it far?” Androkles asked, rising to his feet and picking up the girl.
“It’s … well, oh …” The fairy scratched his chin for a moment, thinking it over. “It’s about that far,” he said, holding his hands a few inches apart.
Well, that was useless. His friend Athanasios would have lost his temper and started cursing, no doubt, if he’d been here. Androkles supposed it would be easier to just start moving than try to explain how far a mile was. He sat the girl on his shoulders, placing a hand behind her lower back to keep her from falling off. Strangely, she wasn’t limp; she would sit or stand as directed. She just never reacted.
He picked up the spear and began walking west. The fairy sat on Garbi’s head, giving off just enough light to keep him from tripping and falling over. They were indeed fairly close to the road, it turned out, not even half a mile.
And sure enough, it didn’t take long to find a cozy-looking hovel. There was nothing inside, not even blankets, but the bottom was lined with reasonably fresh hay. With the roof only a few feet high, he would have to crawl in, but that would keep the air circulation down and help them stay warm. He lay the girl down beside him and put his arm around her, partially to keep them both warm, and partially to awaken him if she tried to run off. The fairy landed on her chest, crawled on his hands and knees to kiss her on the chin, and then curled up to sleep over her heart.
After a moment, the light from the fairy dimmed significantly, and Androkles supposed that meant he was asleep. Androkles had too much on his mind to sleep easily, however. Despite being exhausted, he was still too wound up from the fight and all that came before it to relax his mind enough to sleep.
“Della,” he whispered angrily, “I hope the gods have cursed your path worse than mine. This is your fault.”
One final question remained on his mind as he slipped into an uneasy sleep. If the gods were truly involved, which had they sent: the cyclops, the girl, or the spear?