In the morning, Androkles found ten youths of various ages waiting for him in loincloths in the courtyard. Their bodies were weak and soft, lacking real muscular definition, even the skinny ones; one boy insisted he was thirteen but looked eleven. Androkles chose to begin rather than argue.
He could not have chosen better weather for the occasion, nice and unpleasant. The last few weeks, each morning seemed colder than the previous one, and this morning was no exception. Judging from the blue tinge their skin was taking on, the youths had been waiting in the cold for a while. Once the exercises began, their shivering was replaced by sweating.
He taught them everything, taking at least two hours; all the kicks and punches, the stretches, proper pushups and squats, and so on. He explained how to change the order every time, and never do one exercise long enough for it to start feeling easy. Then he made them all demonstrate everything again, even though they were so exhausted they could barely move, but it seemed they would remember.
“Well done, for weakling runts. Do the entire thing every morning, and after six months, you’ll be stronger than adults. Do it for a year, and your mothers won’t recognize you anymore. I’ll be here doing it again tomorrow, most likely, if you think you can keep up. You’re dismissed,” he said. To their credit, they had all kept up, more or less, even the little one. Clearly, impressing women was the most powerful of man’s motivations.
After he ate the morning meal, he left instructions with the servants to let the old man through when he appeared. Garbi spoke from time to time, and her lucid periods seemed to be growing longer; she would remark on something in the room, then look around and even respond to questions, then fall passive again.
The old man did not appear, which Androkles resented somewhat. He wanted to know how the man had known about the kits. Something about that didn’t sit right.
In the afternoon, another prince appeared, and Androkles had to meet with him. This one was older, perhaps sixteen, and very finely dressed, with the same hair and features as his brother. The prince promised him gold and titles, and hinted that the King might give him a daughter to marry if he behaved himself. Androkles heard his message and asked if he was the heir, then dismissed him when he wasn’t. Androkles wondered if he would be able to resume his journey before the king showed up in person. It was also possible that the king would instead send twenty armed men, and Androkles would have to make a mess in Gotzone’s common room, and she’d be cross with him. Only time would tell.
That evening, another crowd packed the common room near to bursting, as many as the night before. He kept Garbi away again, hoping another quiet evening would aid her recovery. He could try again to get her a home tomorrow.
Wolfscar had spent the day hunting, and ended up catching about thirty cockroaches. They had all been cooked up for him, and he ate them while Androkles told stories. The crowd found it hard to keep their eyes off him, even though Androkles could tell they were a bit disgusted. The old man was not in the crowd that night.
* * *
The next morning, twelve youths waited for him in the courtyard, braving the morning’s chill. Although he kept the explanation to a minimum this time, the newcomers caught on quickly. Wolfscar even removed his robe and tried to follow along for a little while before he gave up and looked for something else to do. Androkles had nearly laughed out loud when the fairy started using his wings to help him with the pushups. His tiny grunts of effort made him sound like some kind of angry bird.
The old man didn’t appear today either, and at dinner the crowd was back in full force. This time, a giant horde of children filled every available space near the couch, fidgeting and chatting and such. Androkles wore the new robe Gotzone had ordered for him, dark green in color and embroidered in yellow and white along every edge and seam. It felt expensive, and probably was.
Androkles chose to tell them the story of his ancestor and founder of his clan, the hero Agapetos, son of a water-sprite and a general of the old kingdom. In fourteen generations since that time, he had never been forgotten. Androkles told how Agapetos had strangled a gorgon with her own hair, which had been vines of thorns. He told them of the footrace with the centaur in which he won his bride. He told them of his daring escape from the Hewer’s underground mansions, in the days before the Oathfather had subjugated that titan.
He drew heavily on the language of the Poet, who wrote about Agapetos in one of his epics; although Androkles lost the meter a few times and forgot just how it went, no one in the crowd had heard the original, and he doubted they noticed.
As he reached the end, where Agapetos died defending his newly-founded City against the barbarians, Androkles noticed a chill incongruous with the heat of the crowd. The faintest of mists wafted through the still air of the inn, and he smelled moss and something acrid, like animal sweat.
Others in the room noticed it as well; some of them blanched and looked nervous. As the chill grew more potent, he could feel a vicious sort of energy gather in the air, almost like a killing intent but not directly malicious. He began to falter in his recitation, more distracted with every sentence. Wolfscar whimpered and crawled into Androkles’s robe through the neck-hole, trying to find a place to hide.
When some of the crowd began to kneel and genuflect, Androkles stopped his story and asked, “What’s going on?”
No one answered. He stood and looked around, brow furrowed. The feeling and scents in the air grew stronger, and even the children starting huddling together, hugging each other and looking at the ground.
Then the crowd parted around a woman, who walked unhindered towards him. Her beauty stunned him; her full breasts and hips swayed deliciously, her bright red lips beckoned him, her glossy brown hair almost seemed to float behind her as she walked. She wore a gown of green but yellowing leaves, which seemed to hover over her instead of being stitched together. Its length left much of her legs exposed, smooth and flawless and perfect. She walked barefoot, but so gracefully that she hardly seemed to touch the ground. Her eyes, once he noticed them, stood out more than anything else: They shone pure red, like a pool of blood in sunlight.
The power of her gaze struck him with great force, driving breath from his lungs and weakening his legs until he called up his killing intent to give him strength. Her presence was stronger, but he could resist. An instinctive need to resist her moved him, although his mind had no idea why; perhaps only because she seemed to be here to challenge him. He picked up his spear and stood squarely to meet her with it at the ready.
“That will do you no good, lost one,” she said. She had no human voice; instead, she spoke with the cacophony of nature. Her voice was furious wind through trees, cries of beasts, and rushing streams all at once. It seemed to come from everywhere, not her mouth.
“Who are you?” he asked, wary but unflinching.
“My children have not told you of me?” she said, laughing as the sound of cracking branches. “I have grown angry at them. I am Mari, and all things are mine.”
Every person in the room, except him only, was doing their best to kneel with their heads on the ground; most found it hard to manage in the press of the crowd, and they huddled over each other like corpses for a fire. Androkles realized who she was: the Wildmother, goddess of the Kelthuars. He stood face to face with a goddess. The thought almost unnerved him and drove him to his knees like the barbarians; only his stubbornness kept him standing.
“What do you want here?” he asked.
Her hair became strands of fire, and her teeth grew pointed like a Skythander’s. She said, “You have ignited my anger.” Her voice was ferocious wolves tearing open prey.
Androkles looked at her with calmness, pushing down the trembling fear he felt deep in his bones with raw discipline. Wolfscar moaned in terror inside his robe, pulling painfully at his chest hair. A thought gave him courage: he had once seen the Hewer, and she was nothing like him. Androkles could stand.
When he did not cower, she gazed at him intently, and he could feel the pressure of her will pressing like a crushing weight on his own. It hammered relentlessly against him, and although he knew he could not hold out forever, his resolve would not fail now. Not yet.
She reached for him, her fingertips aiming at his forehead. He slapped her hand away with his spear. It struck her wrist with a crack, certain to leave a bruise. Surprisingly, she smiled coldly at him instead of reacting with anger. “One of the old ones said a champion would appear to kill me,” she said. “He seeks to protect things that are not his. They are mine.”
She looked at her wrist, which smoked instead of bruising. Androkles could smell it, almost like a campfire. She licked it and it hissed; the smoke disappeared.
“Has he toyed with you to bring you here?” she asked, her voice like a woman’s but with the sound of laughter and bells behind it. Her hair turned from fire to water, which didn’t fall or get anything wet. Tiny fish swam among the curls.
For a moment, Androkles wavered. Then he scowled, and he knew she’d caught him.
Mari laughed, voice as crackling fires, and said, “Ah, he has! He always does. He is a manipulator and schemer of plots. Do you even know who he is, or has he hidden himself from his champion?”
“What do you want?” he asked.
“You dare question me, lost one? You cannot even see enough of what I am to know how afraid you should be.” He could see amusement in her blood-red eyes, which made him a bit indignant. He held on to the feeling to keep strong.
She said, “Tell me, did he destroy your home to get you out here? Cover your path in rocks and brambles when you deviated from his desire? Break you with scorn and heartache? Rob you of all hope and happiness? Mold you until you were ready for his will?”
He trembled and tried to keep his expressions from his face. It was all true, but he dare not show it. He asked, “Who do you mean?”
She laughed, her voice a hundred songbirds. Her laughter mocked and humiliated him, inflaming his anger. The emotion strengthened his will, helping him hold out just a bit longer. She said, “Worship me and forget your other gods. I do not toy with my children. If you honor me, I will bless you. If you do not honor me, I will curse you. I am Mari.”
Androkles summoned all the pride and courage he had in him and said, “I want nothing to do with any god. I just want to move on until I can keep my oath.”
“You have a weapon. He gave it to you. Do you know what is written on it? Or are you to be kept in ignorance like a child?” she asked.
“I don’t know what it says, but I know what to do with it.”
“It is dangerous. I do not want you to have it. I want to eat you for killing my husband,” she said, her hair turning to fire, eyes glowing fiercely. She opened her hand, palm downward over the table, and it was crushed to splinters by an unseen force with a loud crash, sending the remaining food and wine everywhere.
“But I will let you keep it, and your life, if you honor me. Give me the little girl to eat in your place, and I will tell you where your woman has gone. I know you seek her. Pray to me and no other god for the rest of your days, and I will forgive, and take you into my bosom when you finally die.”
She wanted to eat Garbi? Did she mean that literally? Feigning a gruffness that concealed his growing terror, he said, “I’ve killed more men than I can count. Which one was your husband?” He could do nothing but stall for time, even though the pressure of her presence had almost broken him.
“You called him Tartalo. His name was Sugaar Man-Serpent, once, and he was beautiful and strong,” she said. The fire of her hair died out, leaving ashes which fell in a constant stream to the floor. “His were the storms of the air, and the winds, and the delicious sunlight. His domain was taken, and he became a dead thing like the others.”
Androkles wondered if he should try and attack her, or run for the door. Her pressure was growing stronger, or he was growing weaker; either way, his nerve was going to slip soon.
“The little girl was his present for me. I want her. Let me eat her,” she said, eyes blank pools of blood.
“What do you mean ‘eat her’? Actually eat her?” he asked.
She laughed again, her voice like roaring wind and crying animals. “I eat and grow stronger. Strong enough to challenge them. It is quicker than they like. I have eaten many, and I will eat many more. That is why he sends you. He does not like it when I eat them.”
Androkles, with all the courage he had left, lowered his spear and pointed it at her throat. He dug deeply into his anger, and gathered the entirety of his killing intent. It almost surprised him as it came fiercely and strong, full of indignation and resentment. His intent felt like justice distilled, somehow. Powerful. His own intent seemed to push hers away, changing the balance between them. He declared, “She is mine, not yours. I will not give her to you.”
She laughed again. “He will hide Della from you forever. You are a toy to him.”
“I will find her. Now be gone from here, or I will be called Godslayer!”
All amusement vanished from her countenance, and her skin turned black and cracked open, glowing in between like coals. She growled from deep in her chest, a fearsome sound like a tiger watching its prey. “You will watch me eat the girl. But first, I will eat the boys, both of them. I will cover your way with hedges and vines, and guard it with wolves and bears. I will find the boys she hides from me, even though she gave me her firstborn. And I will eat them, slowly, starting with their ears and fingers, and rejoice in their agony. It will make me strong. You will hear their screams, and know your helplessness. Then I will rip the girl from your arms and eat her slowly and rejoice in her agony, which will make me strong. Only then will I eat you. Slowly. And rejoice in your agony, which will make me strong.” She looked around the room and said, “Then I will punish my children with fire and ferocious beasts for giving you honor. And they will give me many children, and I will eat them, and rejoice in their agony, and it will make me strong. Then will I forgive them. I am always forgiving. I am their mother, Mari.”
She held up her right hand, which ignited and burned with incredible heat. “Now see the beginning of my punishment!” A ball of flame appeared, hovering just over her palm, growing ever larger.