The clouds had finally gone, leaving the morning strangely bright as they rode the horses southward. The crisp air stayed cold as storms, though, and leaves fell from the trees, leaving dappled patterns of light over everything as the sun shone through the new gaps. Not a single bird flew in the clear and open sky, nor could he hear their calls.
Despite the peaceful surroundings, he knew he had every reason to be nervous; he kept a watchful eye, and repeatedly had to tell Garbi and Wolfscar to be quiet so he could listen for trouble. They humbly nodded each time he snapped at them, stayed silent for about half a minute, then started whispering. After another minute, they’d forget to whisper. After several miles of this, he lost his patience and yelled, “Wolfscar, if you don’t shut up and stay that way, I’m going to put you in a sack. And Garbi, keep your mouth shut or I’ll shove a cockroach in it, a big juicy one. Got it?” They looked properly abashed, and rode in silence from that point on.
As the morning progressed into noon, Androkles began to feel genuinely uneasy. The lack of birds had been odd, but now there weren’t even any bugs. The air felt heavy and still in the complete absence of wind, and even breathing started to seem like it took effort as the air grew thick with humidity. He noticed that Garbi was sweating when she started wiping her forehead and drying her hands on the horse’s mane. Wolfscar shook condensation off of his wings with clear annoyance every so often.
When Androkles noticed small trails of mist pooling in the deep parts of the ground, he realized what was happening—the goddess was calling up a fog.
He pulled Garbi’s horse closer and whispered to her, “We need to go faster, so you’re riding with me for a bit. Keep your mouth shut.” Then he reached over and picked her up by the tunic and set her down behind him. She would have been more stable sitting in front where he could hold her, but he might need to fight and she’d be in the way. He said, “Put your arms around me and hold on. That’s it, like that. Don’t let go.”
After making sure he could grab his shield or spear if he needed them, he increased the pace. The horses didn’t complain, seeming to know something was wrong. He muttered a curse under his breath, wishing he had been allowed to spend more time in the cavalry. How long could a horse like this run before it collapsed under his weight? He’d forgotten.
The mist on the ground spread into a fog that grew thicker the farther they progressed. Only an hour or so past noon, he lost track of the sun, and although the fog was bright with sunlight, it concealed anything beyond the trees closest to the road. It became harder and harder to coax the horses to move quickly, and finally, with a scowl and a curse, he slowed again to a walking pace.
Garbi kept a good hold on him the entire time, even after slowing down. Her little arms were probably aching by now, and he wondered how she managed it. Perhaps she could feel the goddess as well. He found it unnerving to sense Mari’s intent somewhere out there on the road ahead, sometimes growing stronger or weaker for reasons he couldn’t guess.
More unnerving, perhaps, were the shapes moving just out of sight in the fog. He could hear them moving around and making the only sound other than the horses. From time to time he caught glimpses of their profiles as they passed through a thinner bit of fog, but never clearly enough to make out a shape. In the sunlight, the fog was too bright for that, almost blinding, but judging from their size it wasn’t birds or dogs.
Before long, many of the shapes had gathered and he could hear them breathing heavily and occasionally growling. He could not yet tell what sort of beasts they were, but he knew that if they attacked, he would be hard pressed to survive. He decided to release the reins of the other horse, hoping it would follow, and hold his spear at the ready.
Shortly after that, the shapes emerged from the fog. Wolves. Dozens, and more that he couldn’t see. They gathered in a crowd several paces behind and to the sides of the horses, keeping pace and growling as they watched their prey.
The horses both began moving faster, but he still couldn’t get them to run with such limited visibility. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted them to, not knowing what was ahead. Garbi and Wolfscar no longer needed encouragement to keep quiet, thankfully. Androkles suspected that neither of them were interested in becoming wolf food.
Suddenly wondering, he quietly asked, “Garbi, girl, are you still with us?”
He could feel her nod, and she whispered, “Yes.”
It occurred to him that if he were alone, all he would need to do to be safe would be to tie the horses to something to keep them in place, and call up a good killing intent. Wolves scattered every time—they knew a bigger predator when they saw one. But Garbi might not be able to handle it. The boys certainly hadn’t, and she might still be fragile from breaking before.
Of course, it would also have been handy to have his armor so the wolves couldn’t rip him apart, and his xiphos for when they got close. And a wing of archers, and some wine, and Flower to sing a song or something. And maybe he could get Wolfscar to pull someone else’s hair instead of his. The obnoxious fairy clung to his head like a burr, and he kept moving around to look in a different direction, pulling Androkles’s hair every time.
“Wolfscar, go scout the road ahead and tell me how far the fog goes. If it breaks up anywhere nearby, then I’m going to force the horses to run,” he said.
The fairy flew a few feet in front of Androkles, looking around fearfully.
“But I’ll get lost!”
Androkles scowled. “Garbi can’t fly, you know. You can. That means if we get caught, you get to watch her being eaten by wolves.”
“Don’t say that! She won’t get eaten!”
“If you don’t want to scout ahead, then think of something else.”
“I don’t think it would matter anyway, even if you went faster. I think the goddess is commanding the wolves because they aren’t … they aren’t … doing wolf things.”
“What under Thuellos’s swinging eggs does that mean?”
“Wolves go like this,” he said, turning to the side, “and like this,” shaking his head up and down, “and stuff when they want to talk to each other. And they’re not doing that.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Wolves don’t talk,” said Androkles, a bit more crossly than he intended. The tension was probably making him cranky.
“No! No! It’s not stupid! Humans do it, too! You go like this,” he said, beckoning with his finger, “and that means ‘come here’! You do lots of things like that.”
Androkles thought about that for a moment. The fairy had a point. Did wolves talk? He was about to ask what they talked about when the horses stopped in their tracks.
Perhaps twenty wolves blocked the road ahead of them, lined up two deep like rows of hoplites. Giving no time to consider the consequences, Androkles kicked the horse hard in the sides to get him going again. He yanked on the reins of the other horse to pull it along, and it obeyed, reluctantly. He kicked and kicked to keep his horse moving and picking up speed, and it screamed at him and tried to turn from the road, but he maintained a firm grip on the reins and kept it moving in the right direction.
When they were close enough, Androkles let go of the other horse, grabbed his spear, and stabbed it twice in the neck. It screamed and stumbled, and the wolves in the road ahead leaped on it, immediately tearing it to pieces. By the mercy of the Path-clearer, they left him and his remaining horse alone, allowing them to pass while they went for easier prey.
After getting away, the horse could not be kept still. It raced, terrified, as fast as it could run, following the road. Androkles didn’t try to get it to slow down, despite the fog preventing them from seeing more than a few paces ahead. If the goddess was clever, he thought with a dark grin, she’d be putting up a spiked blockade ahead. The horse would never stop in time.
Fortunately, the wolves never caught back up. Whether the horse was too fast for them, or whether they were hindered by the fog and the narrow road, or whether they’d given up and decided to eat the horse instead, he couldn’t guess.
After a few more miles, Androkles got the horse quieted down and let it slow its pace to rest. Had there been water anywhere when he had travelled this road before? He knew the horse would need it. His horse in the cavalry always wore out faster than any of the others, which is why they kicked him out after only three months. It wasn’t his fault they never had enough water.
He couldn’t think of anywhere, except perhaps the logging camp, if he could find it again in the fog. He’d have to give the horse his water skins, and hope they made it to Basket before they ran out.
Before he stopped for a moment to let the horse rest, he rode what he estimated to be another couple miles, listening carefully for wolves just to be sure. Content, he let Garbi down to stretch her legs while he used a knife to open one of the water pouches, then held it like a bowl for the horse to drink. The horse emptied it quickly, so he sighed and gave the horse the water from another. Then another. The last one he saved, even though the horse kept looking at him expectantly. Soon it realized no more water would be forthcoming, however, and started eating what greenery it could find from the side of the road.
Androkles nervously kept watch while it fed, munching on some dried meat himself. Garbi had apparently never had any before, so he had to explain that it was easier on your stomach if you ate it slowly and let it soak in your mouth a bit. Wolfscar had a much easier time, since his teeth were sharp like the boys’.
As he climbed back onto the horse with Garbi in one arm and settled in for another ride, he remembered why he’d hated his time in the cavalry: his thighs and ass were getting sore. Fortunately, the fog looked to be lifting; apparently the goddess’s power was limited. The heavy feeling in the air did not diminish, however, and it kept Garbi somber.
The horse didn’t complain much when he kicked it back into motion. He kept it at a quick but steady pace, hoping to get as many miles out of it as he could before it collapsed under him like the last one he’d ridden, years ago.
After perhaps half a mile, he sensed a presence watching him from the left-hand side of the road. He slowed the horse and grabbed his spear, warily peering in that direction to see what it was. Several yards away in a large break in the trees, a face coalesced in the fog, appearing like an old man with a mustache and long beard that dangled far below his chin. Then a wind picked up, and Androkles looked around nervously, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Oh! Oceanwind! Hello, oceanwind!” Wolfscar darted over toward where the face had been, flitting around looking for him. “Where are you, oceanwind? Come out! Look, I’m a boy this time!” The fairy lifted his robe to allow himself to be observed by whatever had been in the fog. “I’m going to be a hero!”
Androkles heard deep, quiet, slow laughter, coming from nowhere.
“Were you one of my friends, before? Come out!” said the fairy, shouting in every direction.
A quiet voice that sounded like the rumblings of distant thunder said, “I was, and will be again. I must go, old one. I only came to pay a favor.” It reminded him of the way Mari, the goddess, had spoken, but without the malice. Instead, it sounded … amused. Mature, and amused. Androkles realized he was leaning over, almost far enough to fall off the horse, trying to get a view of whatever was out there.
Then the wind picked up, increasing quickly until it blew like a fierce gale, howling through the trees and hurling leaves and broken branches. Wolfscar darted for the ground, where he clutched to a clump of grass to keep from being blown away. After only a brief moment the wind died down again, and the fog was completely gone as far as Androkles could see in any direction. To his amazement, the area where he had seen the face was the logging camp where he’d first fought the tartalo.
Wolfscar shouted, “That was really rude, you! That was rude! You don’t just blow people around! I could have hit a tree or gotten lost!” Androkles notice he had tears in his eyes. The fairy had been terrified, which made sense. Androkles had been nervous himself, despite being too big to blow away.
“Garbi, go give that noisy little thing a hug. I’m going to look for my xiphos. Don’t come too close to where I am. There might be dead men,” he said, hopping down from the horse again. “I’m going to hurry, but scream if you see anything that looks dangerous. Got it?”