He realized she was going to burn down the inn with everyone inside. He desperately stabbed at her arm, but she moved it away. The fire went out, however; indicating she needed to concentrate. He stabbed again and again, and each time she moved away with effortless grace. She glared at him, and the heat of it roasted his skin.
But his attacks began forcing her back. She tried again and again to make fire, but each time he forced her to dodge by thrusting forward with the spear. She leaped back and screamed at him, mouth impossibly wide, revealing rows of vicious teeth, long as a wolf’s. Then she turned around and vanished completely, leaving no trace.
Androkles’s killing intent, finally exhausted, winked out like a candle. He fell to his knees, panting and dripping sweat onto the shattered bits of the table. For a moment, perfect stillness dominated the room. After it passed, those near the door began making their way out, quietly leaving without a word. Androkles stood after a moment and made his way back to the couch, falling to his seat wearily.
He picked up the wine and drank deeply while the rest of the crowd left, then reached into his robe and pulled out Wolfscar. The little fairy’s cheeks were wet with tears, and he couldn’t bring himself to speak. He shook like a wind-blown leaf, eyes clenched tightly shut. Androkles lay him gently against his chest and held him in place with one hand.
He ate some of the food from the plate, which tasted delicious. The sensation penetrated an odd stupor in his thoughts and helped bring him to himself. Some of the crowd looked back at him as they made their way out, expressions unreadable. He wondered if they’d all be showing back up with rocks and spears to drive him out of town. After what he’d seen, he doubted they had the courage.
A short time later, Wolfscar calmed down a bit; but instead of hopping down, he nestled himself further in and fell silent.
“Are you all right, little one?” Androkles asked.
The fairy moved a bit, then with a raspy voice, said, “Ya.”
“Good,” he said.
After a moment, of quiet, the fairy sat up and said, “Can we go look at Garbi?”
“You want to go check on her?”
“Ya, that’s what I meant. Check her,” said Wolfscar. Then he climbed up Androkles’s chest and slipped into the neck-hole of his robe. The fairy settled in with his little head poking out just under Androkles’s chin so he could see. The fairy acted a bit like a kicked puppy, Androkles decided with dark amusement.
Gotzone sat on the stairway, hands still and skin pale. Seeing Androkles, she stood and straightened her dress, but she couldn’t quite gather her usual composure. When she saw the fairy’s little head poking out from Androkles’s robe, she sighed pityingly and said, “Oh, you look so scared!”
“She eats fairies. I remembered that,” said Wolfscar. “I don’t want to see her anymore.”
Gotzone nodded empathetically. Pitying the tiny creature seemed to give her strength. She said, “Let me see you to your room, Master Androkles. Garbi was in bed when last I checked.”
The servant shrieked and jumped when Androkles opened the door, but when she saw it was him, she exhaled loudly in relief. “What was … What …” she said. Then she took a deep breath, and with surprising decorum, said, “Master Androkles, the girl slept throughout the entire occurrence downstairs. She was unharmed. May we undress you and your fairy for your nightly rest?”
He saw Gotzone beaming with pride at her servant, eyes quickly misting over, and rightfully so.
“In a moment,” he said. He quietly stepped over to where Garbi lay asleep, peaceful and innocent, like his boys had done. Her loose hair spread in every direction, over the pillow and onto the bed. He brushed it from her forehead with his thumb, then held his palm against her cheek for a moment. She stirred, but didn’t wake.
“I’m going to have to take her with me, aren’t I?” he said, mostly to himself. “I can’t leave her in Kelthuar hands now.”
Gotzone, her voice quiet and sagacious, said, “The goddess will come for her, and no one else would stand against the Wildmother. No man alive, anywhere. I believe that.”
“It’ll be a shame about the boys, too,” he said sincerely. They were no longer under his care, though, no matter how much it hurt him to think they’d be eaten. And it did indeed hurt him. A struggle began slowly to arise in his mind as he remembered he still had options. He asked, “Did you know she takes human sacrifices?”
“I have known for years. I mentioned before that I refuse to worship her, and this is why. My father made sure I understood the Anathema,” she said. “I and my household will never honor any god that drinks human blood.”
“What gods do you honor, then?”
“There are none to honor. She has driven the others out, and no other god hears any prayers or accepts sacrifice. Travelling priestesses from the Glories and many other lands have stayed beneath my roof, and none of them could speak to their gods here.”
“That’s ridiculous. The sun is still in the sky, isn’t it? And the moon? Pray to them!” said Androkles. Still, something in her voice frightened him in a manner both mild and deep. Could he truly be outside the reach of the Oathfather’s Court? Could no gods see him but Mari? And which would be worse: knowing he was beyond the reach of his fathers’ gods and their aid, or knowing he was beyond the reach of their cupidity and displeasure, and his misfortune was merely the empty chaos of the world?
If Gotzone noticed his philosophizing, she gave no indication. She sat herself in a chair, elegantly folding her legs and placing her arms on the armrests, making it look like a throne.
“Master Androkles, the circumstances of your arrival made me wonder if you were sent by the gods to weaken her. Tartalo is the hammer by which she shapes the people, and he has been broken. You passed through Basket, to the south. Surely you saw their bounteous harvest. They honored her with a child in the spring, and she has blessed them. But the child chosen for this town was chosen because he was sick, and he died before the ceremony. Another could not be found in time. That horrid tartalo has been eating farmers and woodsmen ever since. Her priests say she will not accept another sacrifice until the first snow.”
“I got lucky when I killed the thing, truth be told, but I’m sure that two hundred men with fire and arrows could have brought him down. Are the men here all cowards?”
“The truth is worse than cowardice. Many here worship her sincerely. She is generous when she is pleased. I am told she has watched over this people for a hundred generations. Those who do not worship her are usually scorned,” she said.
Well, that was different, he supposed; what would he do, if his father’s patron deity was Mari instead of the Oathfather? Even if she was Anathema, would it be right for anyone to break faith with such a long tradition?
He said, “Well, then maybe I shouldn’t meddle. I’m only here because I have oaths to keep.” As soon as the words passed his lips, he saw how they shamed him. He bowed his head.
“Perhaps you were indeed lucky in your battle with the tartalo. But to my eyes, who better could the gods have sent than a man taller and stronger than any other, with an unshakeable will and radiant dignity? A man who lays his enemies low with spear in one hand and a rescued child in the other? You are a man who risks himself to save a child, Master Androkles. You are as gentle as you are strong. You can save many more.”
Androkles gave her a somewhat bitter scowl. “That’s not who I am, and it’s rude of you to say such things. I’m a man who kills parents, not saves children. I’m only here on my way to reclaim what’s mine. Nothing more.”
“No, Master Androkles, that is who you think you are. Who you truly are is what you do, when none is around to command you.”
“Look, master, I only saved the boys because I gave an oath to help some orphans right before I found them. They held me up for a week before I could drop them off somewhere. I only saved the girl because I got caught and she happened to be in the pit with me. I’m only here now because she got an oath out of me. I’m a man who kills for his City, and that’s all there is to me. That is who I am, Master Gotzone, and I’ve lost even that until I find my silver. And to tell you the truth, I think all this is only happening because Della made sacrifice to the Trickster or the Path-clearer, and he agreed to hedge my way while she ran off,” said Androkles. His frustration and turmoil about the situation were coming through, he noticed. He was speaking a bit louder than he needed to, and he could feel how deeply his brow was furrowed as he scowled at Gotzone. Perhaps she didn’t deserve that, but she was the one who brought it up.
“If I may ask, to what boys are you referring? The goddess mentioned them as well,” she said politely. It irked him slightly that she was handling his anger with grace and aplomb.
“I found some skinny, starving Skythander kits on the road, a few hours’ travel before the crossroads south of Basket. They begged me to save them, so I did. I left them in Basket with a woman named Agurne who is your opposite in every way, just because she promised to take care of them.”
“And the bandits? Were you attacked?”
“Not exactly. They wanted the boys and wouldn’t take no for an answer so I had to kill the six of them,” he said. This was getting annoying.
“Why didn’t you hand them over?”
“To bandits?” he said sarcastically.
“Yes, to bandits. Why didn’t you hand them over? Would the bandits not have taken care of the kits, between the six of them?”
“Oh, I’m sure they would have tried. But I don’t deal with bandits.”
“You mentioned that you were held up for a week or more. Yet the journey from Basket to the crossroads is scarce more than two days. What happened?”
“I had to sit around and nurse them back to health. They were starving and they each had a toe on the Corpse-eater’s moldy threshold. By Palthos, Pepper had his whole foot across and was leaning that direction.”
Gotzone gave him a level look and waited for a long, pregnant pause before she spoke. “You mean to tell me,” she said with bare, sarcastic incredulity, “that you rescued two kits from starvation, killed six bandits to protect them, spent a week nursing them back to health like a maidservant, found them a home, and then you did the same thing again with little Garbi there, only this time instead of bandits it’s a tartalo with human legs dangling out of its teeth, and you’re not a man who protects children?”
Androkles huffed in frustration. “Look, even if that’s what happened, that’s not really how it was.”
“Master Androkles,” she said with perfect dignity, “Did you care for those boys? Tell me true.”
He looked at her, then turned his eyes downward, unable to keep her gaze. If he lied now, this entire unpleasant conversation would be over and he would be free to move on tomorrow. He knew he couldn’t, though. A just man never lied to his friends. “I did care for them. I did.”
“Did you love them?”
After a pause, he looked at the ground and quietly said, “I did.”
“You do not know yourself, Androkles. You took such care of them because despite what you think, you have a gentle heart. Do not deny it. So how will you feel about yourself and your honor if you let Mari eat them? Boys you rescued and loved? Haven’t you lost enough that you care about already?”
She hit a tender spot with that. A lump formed in his throat, a big one. He didn’t respond, afraid his voice might catch.
She simply waited. She said nothing, and didn’t stir from her regal pose. The silence grew longer and longer, and more powerful. He knew he had lost. Finally he gave in and said, “I’ve lost more than I can bear. It … torments me. All I have left …” he started to say, but then his voice caught, and he couldn’t finish.
Gotzone didn’t speak.
“All I have left,” he finally said, “is my honor, my oath, and a tiny, fading, sliver of hope that someday, I’ll get something I can keep.”
“Master Androkles,” Gotzone said quietly, with force, “do you want to keep those boys, and Garbi, and Wolfscar? Truly, in your soul?”
He opened his mouth to explain that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t. Then he changed his mind and was about to say that they would be safer where he left them. Then he changed his mind several more times, trying to think of what to say to make her understand, so she’d leave him alone. But there was nothing he could say. He had no answer.
“Yes. I do,” he finally admitted.
Gotzone nodded thoughtfully, then stood as gracefully as she did everything else. She turned to the young woman, who had been making herself invisible in the corner, and said, “Please assist Wolfscar in preparing for bed. I will send another servant immediately for Master Androkles.” Then she departed, with a polite nod.
One of the young men entered and helped Androkles out of his robe and into a sleeping-gown, and the maid-servant undressed Wolfscar and tucked him in. No one said a word. Once the room was dark, he realized how much his encounter with Mari had taken out of him. Much of what he thought was inner torment turned out to be utter exhaustion in disguise; he was so weary that once he lay down, he couldn’t even bring himself to roll over. He had scarcely taken five breaths before he began to drift away, but before he fell asleep, he heard Garbi say, “If you have boys, does that mean I’ll have brothers other than Wolfscar?”
“Yes, Garbi, girl. Now go back to sleep.”