The next morning as he awoke, he gradually became aware of two things: the awful stench of rot and death, and an oddly flickering light. The light, it turned out, was Wolfscar, who had woken up and started moving around. The stench was from an aging soldier and little girl, both caked from head to toe in dead animal parts.
“Androkles! You’re awake!” said the fairy, patting him on the cheek.
He yawned, then said, “That’s Master Androkles, little one.”
“You can’t just call me Androkles. It’s disrespectful from a child.”
“Oh. Okay. Master Androkles, Master Garbi is awake, too,” said Wolfscar.
Androkles scowled. That would have been funny later in the day, but it was too early for this, and every part of him he tried to move was turning out to be sore. “You can’t call Garbi ‘master’; she’s just a child. Master is what you call an adult who deserves respect.”
“But she’s the princess.”
“The princess of what?”
The fairy looked at him, confused. He bit his fingertip again as he thought. “I don’t know. That’s just what she is.”
“Then call her ‘the princess,’ or call her Garbi. Can you go fly out somewhere and … oh, look for food or something?” said Androkles, hoping to fall back asleep.
“Do you think she’s hungry? Oh! I never got food yesterday!” He flew out of the hovel at top speed, and Androkles wondered how much time he had before the fairy returned.
None. Wolfscar returned after only a few seconds and asked in a tone of grave concern, “How long can people go without eating before they die? How many days?”
“It’s at least a couple weeks. She’ll be fine, but I’m sure she’s hungry,” he said. Androkles could use something to eat as well, but he doubted the fairy could carry much, even if he found something. What chance was there of finding his bag of supplies, he wondered? His friend Euphemios had been good at finding food in the wilderness, and Androkles found himself wishing he’d paid attention and learned how to do it before the man was killed.
Not long after the fairy flew off again, Garbi got on her hands and knees and made her way out of the hut. Androkles crawled out after her, every joint stiff and painful. She simply stood passively at the side of the road. He wondered if she had any inkling at all where she was.
She probably needed to make water, he decided. That might be why she climbed out of the hovel. He scowled when he realized that he would need to be involved in the process unless he wanted her dripping wet, and he didn’t.
He tried and failed to steel himself against immense embarrassment, then helped her adjust her clothing and get into position, after which she made water as impassively as she did anything else. He tried to tell himself that helping boys and helping girls was basically the same thing, but it didn’t work and the embarrassment took forever to wear off.
He grabbed his spear, noting that the dried blood made it unpleasantly sticky. Then he picked Garbi up and put her back on his shoulders and started walking north on the road. The fairy should be smart enough to find them, after all, and Androkles didn’t feel like waiting.
What he did feel like was washing as much of the stench off himself and the girl as he could, as soon as possible. There had been no water that he had seen anywhere between the woodcutter’s camp and Basket, and he didn’t want to go back to Basket for numerous reasons.
Perhaps the big city would only be a half-day’s journey, and they’d have a proper inn, with a washbasin out back, and scented oil with a scraper. Or, perhaps he’d be eaten by a titan like the Hewer, since the cyclops hadn’t been able to do it.
By late morning, having the girl riding his shoulders was making his back sore, so he put her down to rest for a bit. She stood impassively while he stretched out his back and legs. Then he took her hand and pulled her along. She gave no hint of resistance and walked along beside him, her hand almost limp in his. He kept to the middle of the road to make sure Wolfscar didn’t fly by and miss them under a tree.
Just before noon, the fairy found them, carrying an apple by the stem. He flew unevenly and hummed through teeth clenched in effort. “Garbi! Here! Princess! Take it!” he yelled, holding it a foot in front of her face. She didn’t respond, however, or take the apple. Androkles reached down and took it before Wolfscar dropped it. The fairy protested, “It’s not for you! It’s not for you! It’s … oh.” Androkles took Garbi’s hand, held it up, and placed the apple into it.
“Garbi, girl, you need to eat this,” he said softly. She didn’t respond, but she did turn her blank gaze to the apple. “Eat it. Go on.”
When she didn’t immediately take a bite, Androkles wondered if he’d have to find a way to cut it up and feed it to her. Wolfscar flew underneath her hand holding the apple and pushed upward, trying to move it toward her mouth.
“Garbi, please!” he yelled pitifully, his insect wings humming with effort.
To their relief, she lifted the apple and took a bite. The blank expression in her eyes hadn’t gone anywhere, but at least she was eating. Wolfscar watched her for a moment, relieved, then flew up and tenderly patted her cheek. He sighed with his entire, tiny body, then flew over to speak with Androkles, about three feet in front of his face. The fairy scowled fiercely and yelled, “You aren’t supposed to just leave people!”
When Androkles didn’t respond fast enough, the fairy continued, “It was hard to find that apple, and then when I finally brought it back, you were gone! And you took the princess, even though she’s my friend!”
The fairy started looking like he was about to cry, and his voice wavered dramatically as he continued, “So I had to look everywhere and carry the apple or she’d just be hungry! And it was really, really hard! I thought I was gonna drop it, but then she’d be hungry! And she’s still my friend, even if she’s broken.”
At this, tears began to well in his eyes as he defiantly glared at Androkles, arms held rigid at his sides, fists clenched.
Androkles grinned at the tiny boy and said, “You know what? I just decided I like you.”
The fairy’s crying quickly disappeared and he looked perplexed. “Huh?”
“Do you know why?”
“Because anyone who goes through hardship to serve his friends has honor. That’s why. You’re an honorable little thing, even if you are silly.”
Wolfscar flew closer to Androkles, about a foot in front of his face. The fairy wiped tears from his eyes and cheeks and said, “Really? You think I’m honorable? Like a hero?”
Androkles grinned and replied, “Just like a hero. I underestimated you. You found that apple and brought it all that way, despite the owls. Now, come sit on my shoulder and rest. We need to keep moving.” The fairy nodded, smiling sheepishly as childish pride replaced his anger. He took a seat and grabbed a stray strand of Androkles’s hair to keep his balance.
Androkles took the girl’s free hand while she ate the apple and they continued down the road to the north. He did his best to ignore the aches he felt in every inch of his body, which never really seemed to abate. Several times throughout the rest of the day, he carried her until his back got sore, then made her walk for a while. This kept them from making good time, but it was the best they could do.
Androkles had been hoping that in escaping the Cyclops, they had done some backtracking and the camp with his pack of supplies was ahead somewhere. Around noon, he had to accept that it wasn’t, and he was just going to walk all day on an empty stomach, which was always unpleasant. Somehow Wolfscar managed to find some berries and nuts and another apple for Garbi, none of which Androkles asked to share. When Androkles asked what the fairy ate, Wolfscar explained that he ate mostly bugs, “but not the gross ones.” He offered to find a good one for Androkles to try, but he declined. Euphemios might have eaten it, though, Androkles thought with a smirk.
As the day wore on, Androkles found himself wishing for some adult company. How long had it been since he’d shared a drink with an equal? A month? Tending little boys and girls of every variety did have its appeal, it turned out, but a man needed a mental, if not a social, equal. Agurne would do, if she were around. He was sure she could tell a good story and a long series of rude jokes, if he got some wine into her.
Gods, even Kemen would do, or anyone. The little girl wasn’t talking, and the fairy was gone half the time, and when he was around, he alternated between poking Garbi to see if she’d respond and peppering Androkles with strange questions, such as “Do humans all go to the same place when they’re asleep?” and “Do you think bread tastes better than a beetle, or worse?”
It wasn’t that he minded the little thing’s company, exactly; Wolfscar could be quite amusing, usually unintentionally. It was that Androkles wanted to share his adventures with a peer, someone who could understand what he had accomplished and how incredible it had been. He wanted to boast in good company over a pot of wine, complain about women, discuss military strategy and religion, and gamble. None of that was possible with the fairy, not truly. Or with the boys, back before he gave them up. Perhaps complaining about women, but that was all.
Once, right before a surgery to remove a splinter of wood from deep in Androkles’s thigh, his friend Arkoleos had told him that the philosophers called man ‘the City animal,’ which meant that no one could live alone happily. Anyone who could do that was either an animal or a god, and Androkles was neither of those. At the time, Androkles had been protesting that he didn’t need anyone to hold him down because he was a man and could handle the pain. Arkoleos had been exceedingly wise, it turned out, because the surgeon’s knife cut deep and Androkles lost his nerve.
Late that afternoon, Androkles arrived at another town, much larger than the first. The forest had been cut away in perhaps a mile in every direction, the open area sort of appearing out of nowhere after a short ascent in the road. The fields were empty of people, even though he could see good grain ready to be harvested. This town had a fortification wall as well, although it was constructed in two layers. The first was a chest-high wall of rough rock held in place by mortar, and the second was a stately and solid-looking wooden wall built atop the first, several arm-spans taller than in Basket. The population had outgrown the walled area, which Androkles felt indicated poor planning, and clusters of the circular stone-and-wood huts he’d seen in Basket spread around the perimeter.
As he walked closer to the town, the absence of people became more and more pronounced. If Androkles had wanted to, he could have taken any of the carts abandoned alongside the road, filled it with a full harvest, and left unnoticed. Was everybody dead?
He decided to approach the closed gates and see if anyone responded, and if they didn’t, to do exactly that: take a cart, fill it with supplies, put the girl on it, and carry on northward. After he found a well to wash off, that is. Hopefully one with a good metal basin nearby, big enough to soak in for a bit.
Approaching the gate, however, he saw that the town was indeed populated. On either side, archers hunched on parapets, watching him approach. There was no guard outside the gate, but he could tell a group of men hid just inside; he could hear them talking as he approached. Strangely, when he got close, the archers leaped down from the parapets, vanishing behind the walls.
“Who are they?” asked Wolfscar, pointing at the closed gate with a tiny, pale-blue finger.
“They’re the people who live here, obviously. Haven’t you been here before, with Garbi?”
“No, I met the princess in the cave. It’s ̕cause I was sleeping in a plant, and it got stuck in the tartalo’s toes, and then when he pulled the plant out it was in the cave.”
Androkles wondered if sometimes the fairy made things up just to be confusing. “Go fly in there and tell me what they’re doing,” he said, gesturing at the gate with his spear.
The fairy nodded resolutely and went to spy. When he returned, he said, “They’re all standing like this,” imitating a circle of men talking, one at a time. “But I think one saw me!”
“Don’t worry about that. They already saw you when we were walking up here. You’re kind of hard to miss. So am I,” said Androkles.
He approached the gate and stood just outside it, wondering what was going on. He rapped on the thick, wooden gate with the butt of his spear, then planted it in the ground and shouted, “I am Androkles Giant-slayer, son of Paramonos of Dikaia. Let me in!”
No response came, although he could hear the men talking quietly just on the other side. He couldn’t see through the gate, so they probably couldn’t either. He decided to stick his ear against it and see if he could overhear their conversation. The only thing he heard, however, was, “Shhh! He’s listening!”
Androkles scowled and stepped back and waited. Wolfscar flew up and down several times, looking over the top of the gate. He asked, pointing at the gate, “Is this to keep things out that can’t fly?”
“That’s exactly what it’s for,” Androkles said crossly.
“Why don’t they want us to go in there?”
“Go ask them.” He hadn’t meant it literally, but the fairy wasn’t very subtle.
Wolfscar flew over the top of the gate, probably right into the circle of men, and Androkles heard him ask, “Why don’t you want us to come in here?”
After a bit of stammering from several people at once, someone replied loud enough for Androkles to hear, “Let me talk to him for a moment.”
An archer climbed back up into the parapet and loudly asked, “Mighty one, what do you seek here?”
Mighty one? Well, at least he was getting the respect he deserved.
“The first thing I’m seeking is a place to bathe. Then I’m looking for a good inn to rest, and a good household for the girl. I’ll also want to buy some supplies.”
The archer looked at him for a moment, perplexed. The he asked, “What are you? A god, or the brood of a god? Or a messenger, perhaps?”
Androkles, annoyed at the stupidity of the uncivilized, said, “Is that what your gods look like, barbarian? Torn clothing, caked in rotting blood? If so, I wouldn’t want to let them in either!”
“Did the Wildmother send you?”
“No. Are you talking about Therateira Huntress? Or a local barbarian goddess? Either way, no god sent me. I’m here on my own business.”
“How did you get past the tartalo?” asked the archer.
Androkles smiled proudly, and the opportunity to finally brag made him feel like a child on his birthday. He slammed the butt of the spear into the ground and straightened his shoulders to show them the strength of his chest. “I, Androkles, killed it alone! I stand before you dressed in its gore! Remember my name forever!”
The man’s jaw dropped open and he said, “Gods, I almost believe you! So you’re a human, for real? What about the fairy?”
“The fairy is obviously not a human, fool,” Androkles said. He suspected he knew what the man meant, but he’d been expecting a better reaction and was growing annoyed. He wondered if he should offer a bribe.
“No, I mean, where did you get it if you’re just a regular human?”
“Ha! I am not a regular human! I am honored as a peer among the mightiest in the Glories. I am a man of honor and reputation, and my name sets my enemies to flight! I am the fastest, strongest, and most cunning of the mighty! Killing a cyclops is not the beginning of my deeds, nor will it be the end! I bring honor to your city simply by setting foot here! Now open the gate before I open it with my foot!”
“You’re really here just for the inn, and not to, you know, kill everyone?”
Androkles laughed. “I’m not here to kill anyone at all. I truly am just passing through on my way north.” It was gratifying to be so intimidating, he had to admit, although it had its drawbacks from time to time.
“What should we do?” the archer asked someone inside. A short conversation followed, too quiet to hear. Then the archer said, “We’ll let you in if you take an oath to do no harm.”
“Then I give my oath that I will harm none who live here, except to defend myself, my property, or my honor.”
The archer peered at him carefully, then said, “There’s a lot of room in that oath for violence, Master Androkles.”
Androkles scowled crossly. “This is getting ridiculous. What’s it going to cost me to get in here? Two silvers?”
The archer thought about that for a second, then yelled, “Open the gate! He’s definitely just a man. He just tried to bribe me. Offered me two silvers to let him in.”
Androkles could hear them removing what sounded like several crossbraces, and then the gate swung outward. Inside, several swordsmen in leather armor greeted him with a smile. He nodded and dug inside his robe for his coin purse. When he pulled out the silver, the archer who had been talking to him before grinned and said from the parapet, “Keep your money, traveler. What was your name again?”
“Androkles Giant-slayer, son of Paramonos of Dikaia. And you are?”
“I’m Ekur, and this is Itzal, Joseba, Ortzi, Peio, and Zeru. Up there, that’s Zuzen, Zorion, and Bakar,” he said, pointing at the archers who were climbing back up to resume keeping watch. “You’ll find a good inn just up the road here. It’s quite a bit larger than the other buildings around it, so it’s easy to find. Look for the green door, if you’re not sure. Or, if you’d rather save your coin, there’s a bad inn just inside the east gate.”
A couple of the men laughed at that. There was no way Androkles was going to try and remember all their names. Perhaps if they shared a pot of wine with him later, he’d care who they were
“Thank you for the advice,” he said. They had almost certainly been guarding against the cyclops, which Androkles found a bit inadequate; if it had decided to come in, that gate and all their arrows probably wouldn’t have slowed it down.