She nodded, running over to scoop the fairy up and hold him in her arms like a doll while she cooed comfortingly at him. Upon inspecting the camp, Androkles found that there weren’t any bodies, likely because the cyclops had been eating his prey, and whatever bloodstains had been left were mostly washed away by the weather. He walked around the remains of the fire-pit trying to remember how the fight had gone and figure out where he had been grabbed.
Finally he saw his xiphos laying in a clear spot several yards away from where he’d expected and picked it up with a wicked grin. He gave it a quick but careful inspection and was pleased to see that it hadn’t even begun to rust, since the oil had held up somehow.
He found his travel sack nearby, ripped open by scavengers and ruined. The pot and sparker were still good, however, so he took what he could carry and made his way to the horse, which had found a trough, likely used to wash tools, and drunk its fill of rainwater.
He called to Garbi and she came running, holding the fairy like a doll. Androkles noted that the fairy was still wiping tears from his cheeks.
“What’s his problem? Did he get hurt?”
“He got hurt, but only in the feelings. It’s because his friend scared him with the wind,” explained Garbi.
Voice wavering, Wolfscar exclaimed, “I forgot who all my friends are! And I didn’t have any at all for a really long time, until Garbi found me. And when I finally find one, he blows me around like I don’t even matter!”
“You lost all your friends? Other fairies, or what?” Androkles asked. This was the first he could recall Wolfscar mentioning any.
“Yes! I forgot who they all are, and I can’t find them. And it made me alone for a really long time. And now I’ll never find them ever again, because I think they don’t care about me anymore!” said the fairy, nestling deeper into Garbi’s arms and sounding forlorn.
Ah. Heartache. “I know how you feel, little one. All of my friends are dead. Every single one, dead. So I know how you feel. I guess we’re the same in a way,” said Androkles. Except that I’m strong and you’re as weak as a bird, he didn’t add. He said, “But I think you’re judging your friend or whatever that was too early. He did us a favor. Look what I found.”
Androkles displayed the xiphos, which glinted admirably in the sunlight, for the little ones to see. Wolfscar poked his head out from Garbi’s arms and stared at it for a moment. Then he said, “It’s a sword! A big one.”
“Bigger than that little bone sliver you had, that’s for sure,” said Androkles, grinning. “If your friend hadn’t blown the fog away, I would never have found it. So he wasn’t trying to hurt you, he was helping me find this. Garbi, up we go.”
After mounting the horse and had resuming the journey, Androkles asked, “So who was this Oceanwind fellow?”
Wolfscar was flying alongside the horse, looking at the sword with one fingertip in his mouth. “Oceanwind isn’t his name. Oceanwind is what he is. An Oceanwind is a wind that gets old, so it has to come back to the mountain to get young again. Then it’s a Springwind. Those have to go to the ocean to get old.”
“Oh, so it’s one of the Aurae?”
“What’s an Aurae?” asked the fairy.
“One Aura, two Aurae. Wind sprites. That’s what we call them in the Glories. Although I’ve never heard about them getting old,” said Androkles. “And we certainly don’t see them often. But I’ve heard of them.”
“Probably. That sounds like the same thing.”
“Is that what you are? A sprite?”
Wolfscar thought about that for a moment. “It’s hard to explain. I think it’s too hard to.”
“I’m curious. Try,” said Androkles. If the fairy was going to be good for something other than spying and being a lamp, he wanted to know about it. The horse seemed to be moving a little easier, which made him think the wolves might not be anywhere nearby.
“Oh. Well, um … I don’t really remember. But I think I was a flower, sort of, and then I got too big, and then I got too old, so I had to turn young again, and I forgot everything. I think I did that for a long time,” said the fairy. He had his fingertip in his mouth again, and he was gazing up at the sky with his brow furrowed. “And I know what lots of things are, but I don’t know why. And then there’s other stuff I don’t know, like about doors. I didn’t know about doors. Or I forgot.”
Well, that was useless, Androkles decided with a sigh. “I see. If you happen to remember that you can move wind or water or make lightning or something, let me know.”
“Flowers can make lightning?” Wolfscar asked.
“The gods only know. Why are you asking me?”
“You asked me first! Why could a flower make lightning?”
Garbi interjected, “You were a flower-sprite? Oh, that’s so perfect! You’re so handsome. That makes so much sense.”
Androkles pointed at Wolfscar and asked Garbi, “You think he’s an Anthousa?” Then he laughed out loud, to the confusion of the other two.
“What’s so funny?” asked Wolfscar crossly. “Are you making fun of me?”
“Sometimes the gods are bastards, that’s all. One of my boys is named Flower, and I think he hates it. And you actually are a flower, and you’re named Wolfscar. Maybe you two should trade names,” he said with a wide smile. Then he encouraged the horse to pick up the pace a bit. Although the sky was clear and the road free of animals, the barbarian goddess probably had more than one trick.
“Well, I think I was only a flower for a while, and I’m not anymore! I’m a fairy now. And a boy one, so I can be a hero,” argued Wolfscar. “And I picked Wolfscar because it was the scariest name I could think of, and I want to keep it!”
“I know an even scarier name than that,” said Androkles.
The fairy turned to look at him. “What is it?”
Garbi giggled at that.
Then a voice behind them, sounding like crunching gravel, said, “Mari is more fearful still.”
Before Androkles even turned to look, he instinctively kicked the horse to spur it forward. Garbi screamed so loudly she could hardly inhale afterward; the sound split his ears. Wolfscar darted back into Androkles’s robe, burrowing down somewhere near his armpit.
After the horse had gone a few yards, he turned to look behind the horse and saw the goddess gliding passively behind them, feet sliding along the dirt of the road like a boat gliding across still water. She wore her gown of leaves, but this time it was all yellow and red, interspersed with all manner of bones. Her eyes still glowed with fire, and she was beautiful again.
“Do I frighten you?” she said, laughing. The sound was terrible, like trees breaking in heavy wind. “Or are your names more terrible than mine, little things?”
Androkles chose not to answer, focusing instead on keeping the horse racing along in the right direction. He doubted if he could outrun the goddess, but it was worth a try. Garbi held him with newfound strength, repeating over and over, “What is that! What is she!”
And then Mari was aside them, keeping pace with the horse. “I am your mother’s goddess, precious Garbi. And your father’s,” she said. She exuded a feeling of love and peace, but Androkles knew it was a lie. It felt off. “They prayed to me, and I blessed them. Will you not come to me?”
“Don’t let go, girl! She’s lying! She wants to eat you!” shouted Androkles when he felt Garbi’s grip loosening.
“They are part of me. Come. Be part of me, and I will take you to them. Your parents need you,” cooed the goddess, gracefully extending her hand. Her voice was like the kindest of mothers, gentle and sweet. “I am the goddess Mari. They are crying for you. You must help them. Come to me.”
Androkles looked at the goddess with a scowl. She hovered in the air, wearing a gown like the blue sky. Her golden and metallic hair floated in the air, untouched by the wind and shining in the sunlight. She was beautiful. She was terrifying.
“Garbi, she’s ugly on the inside. Don’t listen to her. Don’t let go of me,” he said lamely.
“I will make you beautiful, and your mother and father will adore you and hold you in their arms, and you will be precious to them. Come to me. I am Mari.”
Garbi’s grip on Androkles loosened again, and he yelled, “Garbi, if you let go, I swear by the gods I’ll toss you into a pile of sheep shit and leave you there for a week! Your parents are dead!”
The goddess reached forward to beckon Garbi and said, “Precious child, did your mother teach you to obey the gods? Did you not pray to me? Do you hate your mother? You should not disobey me. I am Mari.”
In extreme desperation, Androkles gripped his spear and swung it out at the goddess, hoping to knock her hand away. She simply withdrew it, unperturbed. He swung the spear again in broad arcs, trying to catch the goddess with the edge, but she floated just out of reach each time. “Come grab the girl. Try it!” he yelled.
The goddess laughed, mouth open impossibly wide, showing teeth like knives, glinting and sharp. “Go forward. See what I have done. Your heart will fail you, and I will eat you last. My bears are gathered, and my thorns. My wolves are coming. I am Mari.” Then she was gone.
The horse rode on, racing wildly, and Androkles let it. He took some time to gather his breath; the goddess had not tried to overpower him with her intent this time, but even so, she was intimidating. Once he felt he had regained his wits, he asked, “Garbi, are you okay?”
“A little bit,” she yelled, trying to be heard over the sound of hooves and wind.
“What is a little bit okay?” he asked.
“I’m just …” She remained quiet.
“Wolfscar, get out of there and go check on her,” Androkles commanded crossly. He had no time to stop and check on her himself. His boys were in danger and Garbi wasn’t, at least not immediately. Unless … gods, what if that gorgon had ripped her open?
He pulled the horse to a stop. It took a while; the stupid thing was terrified and wouldn’t obey him. It wasn’t as strong as he was, though; not really. Finally it halted.
“I don’t know what’s going on!” Garbi yelled, desperately clinging to Androkles’s robe. She was shaking. Was she about to break again?
He turned around and picked her up, then set her sitting crossways in front of him, both legs to one side. He hugged her with one arm, then got the horse moving again with the reins in the other.
“I’ll tell you as soon as you calm down, girl. Take deep breaths and try to relax your body. Got it? Relax, or you might break again like before. There you go. Keep doing that.”
Wolfscar crawled out of Androkles’s robe and sat on her shoulder, patting her head consolingly. It took her a moment, but finally she didn’t feel so rigid, and her breathing was easier. Androkles said, “You remember that Tartalo? The goddess everyone around here worships was married to him. Go figure. When I was getting you out of the pit, he chased us down, so I killed him. Now the goddess is spitting mad at me.”
“That was her husband?” Garbi asked, mortified. Her shock wasn’t quite gone yet, but it was vanishing. The emotions of children. “He was so gross!”
“You aren’t kidding. We’re heading to pick up my boys because she promised to eat them. I don’t want her to,” he said.
“She eats children? Is that why you wouldn’t let me go with her to find Mama?” Garbi asked.
“Yep, that’s why. She eats children. I think that’s awfully bad manners,” said Androkles, grinning darkly. “Now you know what’s going on. I’m going to get my boys back, and then we’re heading north to find Della. I’ve spent too many days I don’t have on this nonsense, and it’s starting to get on my nerves. Now do me a favor and keep quiet so I can listen for trouble. You and Wolfscar can whisper to each other, but only whisper. Got it? Only whisper.”
After another mile or so, Androkles saw a large, heavy plume of gray smoke rising from somewhere a few miles further. It had been obscured by the hills and trees, and now that he saw it, it made him nervous. If he’d been counting the distance right, Basket should be somewhere around there. If he found his boys roasting over that fire, not only would he kill the goddess, but he’d wear her skin for a cloak.
With growing trepidation, he kept a close eye on the trees and rode in the direction of the fire. The horse grew too weary to continue and refused to carry him further, so Androkles hopped down, leaving Garbi in the saddle, and walked alongside it. It didn’t seem happy to be moving, but it complied. Time passed, and dusk arrived; they could see the smoke lit up by flames, which grew more prominent as the sky grew darker. It reminded him of a beacon civilized peoples put along their coastlines to keep boats away from rocks in the dark.
If he wasn’t such a fool, he’d never be doing this. What kind of idiot, when a goddess says, ‘Come here so I can kill you,’ actually shows up? But his boys were in there somewhere, either alive or dead. There would be no balking until he knew.
Thinking things over, he tried to feel angry, indignant, and prideful. He tried to feel offended and vengeful. He couldn’t, though. All he felt was worried about his boys. Agurne was more capable than most men, but Mari was a goddess.