Wolfscar tried to lean far enough around Androkles’s face to look him in the eyes, and succeeded only in falling from his perch on Androkles’s shoulder. Fortunately, Androkles was quick enough with his hands to catch him without skewering him with the needle he was holding. The fairy gave him a look of horror from his palm.
“I can’t leave the princess! She’s my best friend!” the fairy protested.
“You have to come with me. You don’t have a choice, and later I’ll explain why. And once you hear it, you’ll agree with me. Got it? Now don’t argue.” said Androkles sternly. Wolfscar nodded, cowed but unconvinced.
A woman in the crowd weakly protested, “You can’t treat him like that!”
He shot the woman a mean glare. “I can do as I like with my property. You think all of you together can stop me?” He put down the near-complete robe and gripped the spear menacingly at his side. She shied away, as did several others. After a moment of silence, he set his spear back down again, put the fairy back on his shoulder, and resumed sewing.
“You have nothing to fear from me, friends, but do not interfere in my affairs. The little girl badly needs a home. It may be she will recover, and she’ll be the joy of the household. Please consider taking her out of my hands.”
Again, no one came forward. Androkles sighed. This had not gone as well as he’d hoped. Why hadn’t ten of them jumped over each other for the chance to care for her, after he asked? He knew they had paid attention to his story, and heard her part in it. Did these barbarians simply have no concept of honor?
The master of the inn approached Androkles and said, “I have a gift for the girl, if you will accept it.” She held out a fine silver netting, displaying it for the crowd. “May I put this in her hair?”
He gestured to the girl and said, “Thank you, Master Gotzone. I am honored by your gift.”
The woman skillfully fixed the netting over the girl’s hair and folded her braid into a bun. Garbi did not react. Androkles thought it looked very fine, and improved her appearance even more. Wolfscar remarked, “She looks more like a princess now! I think she’s really a princess.” Androkles couldn’t disagree. It made him wish she wasn’t broken.
“I would enjoy hearing more of your tales, Veteran. Would you condescend to share them? Perhaps I could bring you more wine, to ease your voice,” said Gotzone, beckoning gently with as graceful arm.
Androkles knew what she was up to. The longer everyone stayed, the more of her goods they would buy. Well, perhaps someone would get drunk enough to give him their oath to keep the girl properly.
“I have many tales, if any would hear them. And the wine would indeed ease my voice and help me speak true, or beer, which I would prefer, if you have it,” he replied. “But first, little fairy, would you like to try on your robe?”
"Yes!” Wolfscar shouted, eagerly trying to leap down to the table. Androkles caught him before he harmed himself, then set him down and showed him the robe. It had a square cut out of the back for the wings, and it was sewed shut all along the edges instead of held together with ties, but it wasn’t bad.
The fairy held his arms straight up and Androkles slipped it over him. It fit just about perfectly, of course, since he’d measured. Androkles showed the fairy how to tie the tiny belt, then watched in amusement as he danced around in pleasure.
Wolfscar concentrated for a moment, causing his wings to suddenly appear. Some of the crowd gasped, and others clapped. Wolfscar, however, ignored them, having another goal in mind. He flew directly to the head of the spear to look at himself in its reflection. He turned around and around, inspecting himself from every angle.
Satisfied, he smiled widely, then flew directly into Androkles’s face and gave him a very awkward hug across the nose. Then he zipped over to Garbi, trying to attract her gaze. She didn’t respond, even when he patted her nose. “Look what I have on! Look, princess! Look at what I have on,” he said. Many of the crowd gave him pitying looks, and Androkles overheard some quiet remarks wondering what the fairy would do when he realized she was never coming back.
Now that he could fly again, Wolfscar couldn’t keep himself still and had to fly all across the room and look at everyone. He responded politely to about fifty hellos, and even shook a few hands. When Androkles saw a few of the seedier looking men considering how quickly they could get out the front door, he called the fairy back to sit nearby.
A servant placed a large pot of beer on the table and Androkles licked his lips and rubbed his hands together. “Now this will get me talking,” he said. He wanted to talk about his boys, or rather, Agurne’s boys, and how he’d rescued them, and the six bandits and six wolves he slew to protect them, but he decided to save that for another night—it would seem almost unbelievable after the story with the cyclops.
Instead, he began, “I first entered the field of battle when I was fifteen. Most soldiers are trained until eighteen before they see any actual war, but when I was fifteen, I was already taller and stronger than any man in the army. My mentor, Diokles, vouched for me, so they let me go.
“That season, the Rivermen revolted against the Great King of the Pesarian Empire, who had ruled them for twenty years. We call them the Rivermen because they live in grand cities along a great river, broader and richer than any other in the world. Their civilization is old, far older than ours. They worship many of the same gods as we do, but call them by other names.
“Every year, the river floods its banks and deposits new soil, dark and rich, in which the world’s best wheat is grown, in unbelievable quantities. This is where I learned to appreciate beer,” he said. Then he paused to take a long draught of the beer, to a few shouts of approval from the local drunks. Wolfscar flew up to look into the pot, likely wanting a swig, but Androkles shooed him away.
He continued, “I say the civilization is old, and I mean it. They have temples and monuments so large and so old that they’ve forgotten how they made them. I’ve personally stood next to a stone pillar one hundred feet tall, engraved from top to bottom with the stories of fifty different kings. I once made a sacrifice in front of the statue of a god so tall that I only came up to his ankle. Their old buildings are so large that they’re too tall to paint, so most of the stone is bare.
“I say they live along a great river, and the reason they don’t spread out is that it’s nothing but endless sand on both sides. You can ride a horse for days and never step on rock, out in that desert. And it’s always hot there, even in the winter. The Rivermen have no word for snow.
“Well, the King of the Rivermen got tired of so much of his grain going to the Great King, so he got all his soldiers together and killed all the Great King’s men. They also sank all his boats and fortified all their best ports, and made themselves ready for war.
“At the time, no Laophilean City was held by the Great King; we won them all back in a grand war fifteen years prior. The Great King knew we were no friends of his, and that he couldn’t beat us, so he sent emissaries with gifts of gold and excellent slaves to the Temple of All Glories. Every City sent its chosen representatives to hear them, and we made a deal. We would help them put down the Rivermen, and they would provide us with three hundred talents and a treaty of peace for fifteen years.
“We rode our triremes out across the sea and landed several days’ march from the river, with ample supplies to get across the desert. The Rivermen are excellent sailors and they knew we were coming, but they didn’t have enough ships left to come stop our crossing. But because they feared our armies more than the Great King’s, they threw everything they had into stopping us. They assembled an army of fifty thousand men to meet our twenty thousand, and we first fought them within sight of their great walled port.”
Androkles paused to take another drink of the beer and munch on some bread, deliberately taking his time while the crowd waited in anticipation to hear what happened. He doubted they’d ever seen an army so large, and probably half of them thought he was exaggerating. He wasn’t.
Gotzone, he noted with amusement, was selling ridiculous amounts of everything. She had her servants racing around the room keeping food and wine in front of everybody, and almost no one was turning it down. If they kept drinking at the same rate, the room would likely start to grow very, very merry before long. He was starting to grow merry himself, he realized. Then he scowled, remembering the beer in Basket. This pot didn’t seem as strong, but what if it was?
He continued, “I was on the sixth row from the front, and my mentor Diokles was in the first row, right ahead of me. The battle began just after dawn. They sent their cavalry in a direct charge, which was an amateur, foolish mistake. Cavalry are for circling behind or harassing the flanks, not attacking the center. All we needed to do was bring out the long spears, and half the horses turned away from the charge right there. Any horses that didn’t turn got skewered. We killed eleven hundred horses on that first charge, and four hundred on the next.
“After the third charge of the cavalry, they had still not broken the line, but I’d moved up to the fourth row, and the fighting hadn’t even really started yet. The generals blew the call for ten steps backward, and we withdrew just enough that they would have to step over their own horses to get to us, and many of those horses weren’t dead. When their infantry finally hit us, they were a mess. Their rear was pushing so hard the front kept falling and getting trampled, and the press was so heavy that our first two rows had to drop their spears and just brace their shields.
“But that’s the kind of fighting we train for. Third and fourth row, that’s me, remember, start poking them with our spears over the heads of our fellows, and if they’re not armored enough, they start dropping like last year’s grapes. And that’s exactly what happened. They had helmets, but their shields weren’t big enough for a fight that close and we slaughtered them.
“I killed my first man that day. I’m tall enough I could reach with no difficulty, so it was an easy thing for me. Killed my first by stabbing him right in the neck. Got the second in the eye. Got the third in the chest, right under his collarbone. I forget the others, but I remember that I killed eight. Diokles was helping me keep track.
“By noon, they retreated with half their number dead or wounded. Half their number, in only half a day. We lost under a thousand men with another two thousand who survived injuries. Our light troops pursued and kept them from reforming, and our own cavalry cut them off at their own gates. When they saw their retreat was blocked, it was every man for himself, and they dropped everything and ran. We took that City with no further difficulty, and from there, each battle went worse and worse for them until we got to the city of their King and forced a surrender.
“After the generals heard how well I’d done, they put me in the third row, and that’s where I fought for sixteen years. They had the men in front focus on blocking, and me on stabbing. And half the time, the men in front of me died, and I’d finish the fight on the front. That’s where I got these scars,” he said, dropping his voice a little lower to sound menacing.
He watched as people gave him new consideration, this time factoring in how many scars were visible, and raised their eyebrows or showed other signs of surprise and realization. He took another long draught of beer, nearly finishing the pot. He held his hand up to indicate that he wasn’t done yet, and after eating another few bites of bread and the wonderful spiced vegetables, he finished his story.
“For conquering a people as large as them, we didn’t get as much loot as we should have. The Great King said that all the gold in their temples belonged to him, not the Rivermen, so we had to leave it alone. He also only allowed us one day of looting and slave-capturing in each city, so that the Rivermen wouldn’t be hurt so badly they couldn’t keep up the grain production. We came off with sixteen talents of gold and forty of silver, and took seven thousand slaves. We would have taken more, but we didn’t have the ships to carry them back across the sea and the Great King wouldn’t let us use his.
“The return across the sea was bad. The priest warned of evil omens in the weather, and the generals sacrificed ten bulls but it wasn’t enough. On the way back, a storm hit us, a bad one. We lost two triremes and a whole lot of smaller vessels, most of which had our slaves on them. I survived, and so did Diokles. We returned with sixteen thousand soldiers of our original twenty thousand, and four of the seven thousand slaves. All of the treasure made it.
“Ten years later, the Great King died and the new one broke his promise, but that’s another story,” he concluded. After a moment’s pause to make sure he was done, the Kelthuars applauded. It seemed subdued, however; he suspected it was because they either didn’t believe his numbers, or were horrified by them. Judging from the size of the ‘big city,’ it probably only had thirty to fifty thousand people in it if you counted all the surrounding farmland. There were probably no more than a hundred thousand Kelthuars anywhere. He could just see the wheels turning in their minds as they imagined what it would be like to face twenty thousand Laophileans.
He stood and said, “Friends, it has grown late. Come again tomorrow and bring your sons, and I will teach them a thing or two about honor. I have many more stories to tell. And consider again if you will take this girl into your home, even just to honor me for killing the cyclops.”
Androkles took Wolfscar from where he had been sitting on Garbi’s lap and placed him back on his shoulder. Then he took Garbi’s hand and followed a servant out of the common room and up a wide flight of stairs. Several locals tried to get his attention, but he paid them no mind. Let them stew overnight, then return having seen reason.
The room Gotzone had chosen for Androkles was at the end of the hallway, behind a door engraven with orderly geometric shapes. Opening the door, Androkles was taken slightly aback by the room’s size; twenty people or more could have slept on the floor without bumping into each other. A solid, waist-height bed as large as he’d ever seen waited against the far wall, near the window. Its finely carved and painted legs and headboard completely dominated the room with their extravagant elegance. Androkles stood nearly in awe at the cost of it all. Even ignoring the expense of the bed itself, the price of transportation from the Glories must have been immense. Although, he realized, it was possible that Kelthuars were better with wood than he’d been led to believe.
A bowl of fruit and a pot of wine sat on a table next to the bed, and a large pitcher of water and a basin had been placed beneath the window against the wall. A series of amateurish, but not awful, murals adorned the walls, and no fewer than six polished upright lamps were arrayed throughout the room. A small but ornate wooden chest rested at the foot of the bed, complete with key and lock, which Androkles used to store his coin purse.
True to her word, the master of the inn had found a doll-sized bed somewhere and placed it on a table next to the regular one. The general impression of the room was tidy, orderly, and luxurious. Androkles had to smile; Gotzone had good taste and good servants.
As he looked out the small window to get a feel for his surroundings, the master of the inn knocked on the doorframe. Entering the room, she said, “Master Androkles,” she said, “we must speak.”