Night had come by the time they finally reached the valley surrounding the village of Basket. In the moonlight and reflected firelight, they saw that thorny vines, thick and sharp, had overgrown everything. Vines and branches twirled around each other in a gnarled tangle several feet high, covering every inch of ground all the way to the tree line in every direction. The thorns even reached up over the walls of the village, making it appear like a huge stump covered with moss. The thorns were so thick Androkles couldn’t even see the road or gate.
From the center of the town, thick, gray smoke continued to rise, billowing up toward the stars in a wide pillar. The Sky-god would be choking on it in the morning, Androkles thought, if it went any higher.
Androkles pulled his xiphos and walked up close to the thorns, expecting to cut his way through. The thorns didn’t make an even wall, however. Although in most places they reached up past his head, there were shorter areas where the thorns were only a few inches high that he could walk through. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it wouldn’t be fatal. Probably.
“Wolfscar, I need you to fly right in front of me, close to the ground so I can see where to step. Garbi, come here, girl. You’re getting on my shoulders,” said Androkles. The girl looked droopy and tired, but he couldn’t just wrap her in a blanket and toss her in a bush for safekeeping. He set the pack aside, tied the horse with a long rope, and put the knives for the boys in his belt. Then he put Garbi on his shoulders, readied his hoplon and spear, and said, “Let’s get moving.”
Wolfscar, looking somewhat exhausted himself, dutifully flew about a foot above the ground and illuminated the path. Bears roamed somewhere out there, in the thorns and vines; Androkles could hear them snorting and growling as they moved around. Although he avoided stepping on thorns wherever he could, it was impossible to move unscathed. Before long, he bled from a dozen cuts and stabs on his feet and ankles. At one point, a particularly long thorn stabbed right through his sandal and punctured the joint of a big toe. He cursed aloud at that and almost dropped Garbi, but she kept hold of his hair to stay on his shoulders. That wasn’t pleasant either.
“That gorgon’s tenderizing me like a slab of meat,” he muttered. Bears didn’t have sandals, he realized. They would be furious. And, if he was lucky, hobbled.
Onward they went, Androkles’s feet growing more ragged with each step. He wondered if the Path-clearer would hear a prayer this far away from the Glories. Suddenly, the fairy stopped moving. “Look! No thorns!” he said, pointing.
Androkles looked and saw a bare patch of ground ahead, only a few feet wide but free of thorns and vines. The growth unraveled in his direction as the bare patch moved toward him. Once it got closer, he could actually see the vines twist apart and sink into the ground. He furrowed his brow, wondering if the Path-clearer truly was involved, until the bear charged him.
Wolfscar saw it first, and darted behind Androkles with a shriek, hiding the light and leaving him blind. Fortunately, he heard the thumping of the beast’s paws and got the hoplon properly braced just in time. He knocked the bear’s maw away with a wall of solid bronze, then stabbed twice at it, unsure if he had done any damage. It stepped back and shouted at him.
“Wolfscar, I can’t see!” Androkles yelled.
“Sorry!” replied the fairy, flying just behind Garbi, probably peeking around her shoulders or something. It didn’t help much. The bear took a swipe, which he deflected with the hoplon.
“Fly above the bear!”
“But it’ll bite me!”
“It can’t fly! You can! Get above it, now! Or give up your eggs and rod, because you’re no man!”
“But … ! Okay!” yelled the fairy resolutely. He flew about twenty feet overhead, directly above the bear, then made himself brighter. When he saw that it was safe, he flew a little lower. Not much, but a little.
The bear snarled and shouted, circling. Androkles thrust the spear into its head, but the spear’s tip bounced off of the bear’s hard skull, leaving only a shallow gash. It lunged at him, and he slammed its face with the hoplon, knocking it soundly. Again and again it swiped with its claws, trying to leap on him and knock him down. Seeing an opportunity, Androkles slammed the edge of the hoplon against its ear, which seemed to stun it. He nearly lost his balance with the strike, however.
He was going to get taken down unless he got rid of Garbi, he realized. Holding the spear in the crook of his shield arm, he reached up, grabbed Garbi, and yelled, “Let go, girl! Land on your feet, and stay back!” Then he tossed her as far as he could, aiming for the furthest patch of thorn-free ground. She screamed and landed with a thud, then was silent. The fairy’s light wavered, but he stayed put.
The bear lunged, and again he repelled it with the hoplon, stabbing at its neck and shoulders. Just when he was wondering if he’d managed to break her neck, Garbi howled in pain, screaming in short, rapid bursts. He’d knocked the air out of her, from the sound of it, and she would have trouble getting her breath for a moment. Hopefully nothing was broken.
“Stay above the bear, fairy!” he shouted when Wolfscar started to head over and check on her. The fairy returned to his spot with a resolute nod. Then he clenched his eyes shut, balled his fists, and made himself even brighter.
The bear was proving to be a difficult foe. Androkles couldn’t pierce its skull with his spear, and its neck was a hard target. He couldn’t get around it to stab its belly and try to find the heart. He considered trying to strangle it, but it had claws. And he needed to keep it at a distance--the beast weighed more than he did. If it bowled him over, he’d be trapped beneath the hoplon and lose the fight. Could he risk a killing intent here? That might harm Garbi even further.
He waited for another opportunity to strike the bear with the edge of the shield—it was risky, because it left him exposed each time he turned the shield for a strike. The bear circled and snarled at him, swiping and trying to rush him, and finally he saw his chance. He swung the edge of the hoplon at the bear’s ear again, but missed and caught its neck. The bear never slowed and lunged its teeth for Androkles’s neck. He stepped back to avoid it, but stumbled and fell on an uneven bit of ground.
The bear stepped onto the shield, holding it down, and swiped at him with its claws. With a quick motion, he dropped the spear, loosened the latch on the shield, and pulled his arm from the straps and rolled away, just in time to avoid being bitten. Androkles stood and drew the knives--the xiphos was too long; he could lose the handle if he stabbed the bear and it rolled.
Then he stepped in and punched the bear in the face with all his might. Although the bear’s head snapped back, it seemed unharmed and lunged at him again, teeth snapping. Androkles leaped back again, just far enough to keep from being bitten, then stabbed at its neck just behind the ears. He punctured the fur, but not deeply enough.
It lunged at him again with both claws, and he stepped in to grapple it like a wrestler. It couldn’t bite him because he kept his head too close, and it couldn’t quite get an angle to open him up with its claws. Androkles stabbed several times into its ribs, just behind its arms. The knives grew slippery with blood, but the bear never slowed. It rolled over onto him, biting for his face. He pushed its maw away with his elbow, then convulsed hard to get his legs in front of his chest. He kicked upward with all his strength and pushed the bear away.
He stood and jumped at it, stabbing with both knives into its neck. This time, when he pulled them away for stab after stab, spurts of blood followed them. The bear grew unsteady on its feet and soon collapsed. He kicked it hard under the chin for good measure, and it snarled weakly. He could see its heartbeat from the blood that gushed from its neck. Soon, it fell.
He rubbed his hands in the dirt to get some of the blood off, then went to check on Garbi. She was sitting up, holding her arm and grimacing in pain. Still panting, he asked, “Are you alright, girl? What’s wrong with your arm?”
“I think it’s broken,” she said through clenched teeth. “I’m sure it is.”
“Wolfscar, get closer so I can see. What are you doing over there?”
“I was checking for another bear, but there isn’t one. Princess, are you okay?” said the fairy, sounding concerned when he saw her holding her arm.
Her arm wasn’t visibly broken, but it was bruised pretty badly. She had landed on it, on a rock. After inspecting her to ensure that she wasn’t hiding any other injuries, he picked up the offending rock. “This rock,” he said, tossing it into the darkness, “can get taken by crows! Come on, let’s get moving.”
Garbi didn’t need much encouragement; as soon as the bear stopped breathing, the thorns began to grow back into place. Androkles scowled and put her back on his shoulders, then quickly picked his shield and pack up before they could get grown over.
“I did what you said! So I can keep these!” said Wolfscar, lifting his robe and pointing at his boyhood.
“It’s too early to say, little fairy. The night isn’t over,” said Androkles with a half-grin. “Go on, lead the way.”
The fairy resumed leading the way while Androkles followed.“I wouldn’t let you cut them off anyway! That’d hurt!”
“Ya, you can’t do that to him! That’s too mean!” agreed Garbi, sounding very concerned.
“No, that’s not it. They shrivel up and fall off on their own if you show cowardice,” Androkles said drolly. If only Nikon were here, he’d have laughed his head off at that. Too bad he was dead. Come to think of it, he’d heard Diokles say something similar once. Too bad he was dead, too.
His smile soon faded as the thorns started biting his ankles again. It might be worth fighting another bear just to be free of them for another moment. Well, maybe not.
Garbi and Wolfscar stayed quiet, either from weariness or deep thought. Either was fine with him, frankly, since he wanted to listen for bears.
Even though it should only be a half-mile from the edge of the trees to the gate, it seemed to take forever. Some of it was the winding, circuitous path they had to take; some of it was the vines that kept him careful where he placed each step; some of it was the cold autumn night; some of it was exhaustion after a hard day of travel that had all of them wishing for a soft, warm bed.
A dark feeling of foreboding made him restless and kept him moving, however. When he heard what sounded like dozens of bears moving toward the gate, twenty paces to either side of him, a shot of adrenaline helped him move faster. As he got closer to the gate, he could hear them, many of them, snorting and snarling and walking around waiting for him.
Finally, he reached the gate. The thorns had receded, leaving a small clearing in front of it. There were indeed dozens of bears waiting for him, all standing in rows, unnaturally still and focused. Wolfscar whimpered when he saw it and immediately retreated behind Androkles. With his illumination gone, all Androkles could see was a dim red glow in their eyes, which floated in the air against the dark like a childish nightmare. Garbi gasped and whimpered, and he suddenly felt something wet on his back like she’d lost her water. Lovely.
“Wolfscar, I need light,” said Androkles.
The fairy nervously said, “I forgot because of the bears,” and flew a few feet in front of Androkles, then several yards higher to stay out of reach. “It’s too scary!” he complained.
“Courage, little one! Don’t let anything important fall off,” said Androkles. How, beneath the moon’s one teat, was he going to get out of this one?
When they started moving toward him, he knew he was out of options. He grabbed Garbi’s legs tightly so she wouldn’t fall, then released his killing intent. Despite his weariness, it came on hot and strong, washing over the bears. He could see them shy away in waves as it hit them.
Wolfscar fell from the air, suddenly dimmer than Androkles had ever seen him. He lunged out and caught the fairy before he hit the ground. He was completely limp, his eyes closed. Garbi fell backward and Androkles was left trying to hold her by one ankle. He realized the bears had not fled, and his killing intent had disappeared when he was distracted.
“You will kill her before I do, little thing,” said Mari, who stepped out of shadows to stand near the gate. Without Wolfscar’s light, he could make out nothing but her general shape and her eyes glowing like burning blood. “You think yourself strong, but that is a wound. You are bleeding on us,” she said, laughing. Her voice was as the growling of many bears at once, and he wondered if the bears were doing the actual talking.
And what did she mean, exactly? Strength was strength, and a wound was a wound. Something couldn’t be both at the same time.
“Come. See what I have done. You will learn that I am Mari.” The gate swung open on its own, and the bears retreated to make a path. The goddess disappeared.
Through the gate, he could see the long path to the village center where an enormous fire raged. He grabbed Garbi in a more careful manner, tucked the fairy in his belt, and ran through the gate, not wanting to test the bears’ obedience to their master. They followed him in, only a few feet behind, snapping and snarling at him.
He ran to the village center, then stopped dead in his tracks once he realized what he saw. The fire burned the skeletons of what looked like hundreds of people on an enormous bed of coals. The flames shot up far in the air, hot and wild. New vines grew into the fire, over and over, keeping it burning.
Mari walked out of the fire, this time made of flame inside empty bones. Then her flesh appeared, wrapping itself around her like cloth. A dress of patches of skin appeared, draping her form.
“I ate all of them I could catch. They were many. One by one, I licked the flesh from their bones. It has made me strong. Their souls twist and roil in my stomach. It will all be part of me soon.”
Androkles tried to keep one eye on her and the other on Garbi, who was breathing raggedly and completely limp. Wolfscar twitched and seemed to be coming around.
Mari spotted the fairy in his belt and laughed with delight, “An elder fae! They are hard to catch. They are also delicious. I know this. Those ones make me very strong.”
Although his mouth was dry and he had to force himself, he asked, “Where are my boys? You said you’d eat them in front of me. Where are they?”
“I ate them first. The woman gave them to me. She smiled while I ate them, and screamed while I ate her. Does this make you suffer?”
His strength began to falter, and his knees became watery and loose. For only a day, he had dared imagine that he was strong enough to keep them. Only a day. Gotzone was a fool; there was no happiness for one cursed by the gods. He tried to strengthen his resolve, but instead of rage, he only filled with desperation. Hopelessness.
He tried to call up his killing intent, but none came. He felt almost completely enervated. He looked at the goddess, and she must have seen it in his face because she laughed mockingly, pointing at him. Then she was upon him, slapping him across the jaw; he hadn’t even seen her approach. Her blow threw him to the ground, face burning, ears ringing. He could taste blood, and his vision dimmed.
“Where is the human who challenged me? Is that him lying in the dust?” she said, voice dripping with venom. “Lift him,” she commanded. Without warning, two bears bit deeply into his arms, then stood and held him upright. He kicked his legs, trying to free himself until two wolves each grabbed an ankle and held him still. He gasped and groaned in pain, and he could feel their saliva mixing with his blood and soaking his robe.
Mari’s dress of skin became a swirl of pink petals, whirling wildly around her as if carried by storm winds. Her hair became dark and glossy like obsidian, and on her face she wore triumph and satisfaction. He could feel Wolfscar struggling in his belt, and soon the fairy was free and flying into the air, wobbly and dim. Mari scowled and thin ropes of vines chased upward to ensnare him, but the fairy saw them in time and flew high into the air, disappearing among the stars.