“What under the gods do you think you’re doing, you stupid ogre? Open your eyes. Stop dying!” shouted Agurne, kicking him in the ribs. Something in her curses had an air of deep sympathy.
He grinned and tried to open his eyes, but he couldn’t; the swelling on his face had finally made that impossible.
“You really are a bitch, you know that, Agurne? You’re welcome, by the way, for killing your cursed barbarian goddess.”
“You’re alive!” both boys shouted in unison. “You really lived!” He could feel their little hands on him, trying to wipe off the blood.
“We need a lot of bandages,” said Pepper. He sounded desperate.
“Boys, that won’t do any good. I’m going to pass out any second now, and that’ll be it for me. Just remember my name. Tell them about Androkles God-slayer, Giant-Slayer, and Rescuer, and tell it good so they remember,” he said.
“Oh, stop being so dramatic. Here, I’ve got some vinegar and wine. Drink up,” said Agurne. She held a skin against his lips, and he drank dutifully. She poured it just slow enough for him to swallow it all.
Once it was gone, he said, “Agurne, seriously, I’m going to die. But …” A wave of powerful emotion came over him, and for a moment he couldn’t speak. Although he couldn’t open his eyes, he imagined the boys sitting right over him, still trying to wipe the blood away; Flower’s white fur was probably going to be stained dark red for a week. They were both safe, and so were Garbi and the fairy. It meant everything to him in that moment. His face was too swollen for tears, but he could not control his voice, which wavered close to weeping as he said, “But thank you for helping me save them. I love them all. Keep them safe.”
“No! No, you have to get better! Just stay awake, Master Androkles!” the boys said, desperately wiping away blood. He didn’t answer, choosing instead to think about what might have been. He could see them, the kits following behind him on the path, wearing their own little packs and complaining about sore feet. He’d be carrying Garbi, of course, and she’d be bored. Agurne would be with them, and Wolfscar would be riding on her shoulder, munching on a bug. And there were others, other children and companions to find and meet along the road, each as precious to him as the first, until finally, he was back in the Glories with his money, buying back his household.
He held that image in his mind, hoping it would carry with him into either Raphos’s claws or the home of the gods, and he knew his consciousness was slipping. The boys had stopped wiping blood off, and he could hear them all stepping back.
“Now do you understand?” said a voice he didn’t recognize, the playful voice of a young boy, full of delight and joy. The words seemed to touch him deep in his soul. “You were always my most stubborn. You’re like an ox, but the stupid kind.” Then the voice laughed.
“What …” said Androkles, grasping at awareness, trying to figure out what was going on.
He felt a hand on his forehead, and the pain in his body started to fade. His shoulder went back into place with a pop, making him shake.
“I can’t put all the blood back, but I can fix some things,” said the voice.
The swelling in his face receded until he found he could open his eyes. He looked up into the face of a young boy, perhaps seven or eight. His smooth, black hair reached past his shoulders. He wore a loose, white loincloth emblazoned in gold. His face was gentle and kind, even for a child, but it was the eyes that Androkles noticed most of all: they were dark and filled with stars. This close, it was like looking into a window to the night sky above, only brighter. They looked familiar. Where had he seen eyes like that before?
“There you go. Now you can look around. Can you understand, now? Can you understand what I did for you? Do you see it there, in your heart?” asked the boy intently.
“Who are you?” Androkles asked in wonder.
The boy flicked him on the side of the head and said, “Don’t be stupid.” Then he giggled.
After a moment, Androkles knew who it was. “Why do you hate me?” he asked. He was speaking to Palthos, the Orphan. The Trickster.
The little god stood and shouted, “What?! Hate you? Why do you hate me! After everything I did for you! I give you gift after gift and do everything I can to help you, and you tried over and over to throw it away! I gave you Pepper and Flower, who, by the way, are mine, and Garbi, and I even convinced the Fae-mother to give you Wolfscar! Do you even have any idea what he is? And I gave you your old spear! And a big fat gold coin, and when that wasn’t enough, I gave you a whole cart full of human stuff! And you tried to get rid of everything but the spear!”
Androkles looked at the god, unsure what to say. Had that been how it was? Why did this feel so familiar?
The god squatted down with mercy in his eyes and gently stroked Androkles’s eyebrows and cheeks.
“I’m sorry that I couldn’t find you sooner. I’m sorry that you were shaped by bloodshed and loss. I’m sorry about your parents, and about all your friends in the army, and about your wife. You weren’t born where we thought, and I didn’t know where to look. It wasn’t even the right world. It took me too long to find you. Then I finally do, and it’s like you had all the goodness beaten out of you, and you were ready to leave me forever. But I’ve been trying to save you. You’re mine, after all.”
Androkles closed his eyes. He was a mix of emotions, all of them confused; he had been certain the gods hated him, but now this one, the last one he’d ever consider praying to, felt as familiar to him as his left arm. The Orphan, god of the weak, the forgotten, and the helpless. He was no soldier’s god. But Androkles was an orphan, after all, even if his pride never let him be called by that name.
“I’m happy you got a strong body this time. Last time you were ugly, skinny, and had one eye. Just … please. Don’t give up on the best parts of yourself. I still need you,” said Palthos. The god pressed his lips on Androkles’s forehead. “And I need them, and they need you, too.”
Androkles could feel the muscles in his arms knitting back together, and the scratches on his bones fading. He could feel the skin on his chest stretch together and close over the wound. It was both pleasant and uncomfortable at the same time.
“I didn’t give you things just to watch you lose them, you big dumb idiot, so stop thinking that. You thought that probably fifty times in the last ten days. I gave you things so you could hold on to them and get better. So stop being a big jerk about everything,” said the god, rising to his feet and kicking Androkles in the shoulder.
Androkles opened his eyes to look at the god, but he had already turned and walked over to the giant wolf corpse. He held his hand out, and the body suddenly erupted into flame, burning with shocking heat, and soon it was consumed utterly, leaving nothing but ashes. The god kicked through the remains, spreading ashes everywhere and getting terribly dirty. Then he bent down and picked up a little glowing ball, about a thumb’s length across. He held it up to look at it, and to Androkles, it looked like a glass bauble with a chubby, glowing worm inside.
Palthos smiled and closed his hand over it.
“There we go. Troublemaker!” Then he turned to the others and said, “Alright, line up!”
Flower and Pepper jumped into place. Agurne stood next to them, holding Garbi over her shoulder. Androkles tried to stand up, but his vision went black and he found himself laying on the ground again. Palthos hugged Pepper and said, “I didn’t teach you to sneak so you could steal things! Stay out of trouble.” Then he kissed the kit on the forehead.
He hugged Flower and said, “You’ll have to learn the other songs on your own, so pay attention.” He kissed him on the head as well.
Then the god held out his hand and said, “Come here, Wolfscar.”
The fairy obediently landed on the god’s palm, looking shy.
“Do you like the princess?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied Wolfscar.
“I told you you would! And you like Androkles, too, don’t you!”
“I like him, too.”
“I told you you would. And you’re gonna love the boys. Just wait and see.”
“You told me that? When?”
“Back when you were older,” said Palthos. Then he kissed Wolfscar on the top of the head and put him between Pepper’s ears. Then he turned to Agurne.
“You gonna heal the girl, or what?” she asked.
“The princess? No, you can do it. And I’ll visit her later so she won’t be jealous. But do you think you can handle him?” the god asked, pointing at Androkles.
Agurne laughed and said, “Gods, no! Nobody can handle a man like that.”
Palthos put his hand over his mouth and giggled.
“I know! He smells and he has a temper!” he said. Then he held his arms out for her to pick him up. She did, and he hugged her neck. “I told you I’d bring someone, didn’t I? And I did,” he said.
“Thank you for everything, great one. For true,” said Agurne.
“I couldn’t save everyone. She was too strong here. But I did save you. My daughters and sons are precious. I thought I told you that!” Then he kissed her forehead and hopped down. “And you’re mine.”
“Always,” she replied.
“Do my work,” he said.
“Always,” she replied.
The god nodded. He waved at everyone and said, “Oh, and try to catch up to the brute’s money before they buy an army with it. Bye!” Then he turned, held up the glowing bauble and said, “Now to figure out what to do with you!” He took a step and was gone, leaving the area suddenly feeling colder and empty.
For a moment, everyone enjoyed the reverent stillness. Soon, however, Flower and Pepper came over to Androkles, standing over him, looking down with wide eyes.
“Are you okay now?” asked Pepper.
Androkles sighed. “I’m fine. Or at least, I will be in a few days after I get some blood back. You probably noticed I spilled it everywhere.”
Agurne said, “Pepper, go check on the horse you saw. And Flower, go get some more wine. Get the whole pot. You know which one I mean?”
Flower nodded. Neither of the boys moved. Agurne said, a bit more sternly, “Then go. Go on! Go! You can ask him when you get back. And you, fairy, you go with Flower. That’s the white one. Make light for him.”
The boys both left at a run, vanishing into the darkness beyond the dim light of the fading coals. Agurne was looking crossly at him, round face scrunched up with concern. When she furrowed her brow, it pinched her whole face, it seemed. “What are you gonna do, soldier man? You gonna drop the boys like broken pottery again?”
Androkles tried to sit up and glare at her, but the attempt made him dizzy, and he laid back down and tried to glare at her from the ground.
“That’s not how it was, and you know it.”
“I know. But I’m still cross at you, you dumb ogre. They cried themselves to sleep for four nights straight, you know that? They talked about you all pissing day, too. I don’t know what you did. I guess if you clean enough shit off their asses, they lose their wits and start to like you, you poxy seducer,” she said.
Androkles chuckled weakly. “Actually, that’s probably the only thing I didn’t do. And you have a dirtier tongue than Athanasios.”
“I could probably beat him in a fistfight, too, whoever he is.”
“He was a soldier. Old friend. Died a long time ago,” he said. After a minute, he added, “All my friends died, actually. Father, too.”
Agurne sighed and thought about that for a moment. Then she said, “You’re not the only one who suffers, Androkles.”
“What would you know about it?”
“What would I know about it? That hateful, disgusting, whore of a god you killed ate my daughter, that’s what I’d know about it. I had to watch. She ate her slowly, chewing and enjoying herself, while my little girl screamed herself hoarse. Started on the arms and legs, eating her in six inch bites. She was awake until that thing made it halfway up her stomach. Then my husband hung himself. That’s what I’d know about it,” she said hotly.
“I thought you said your husband was travelling.”
“Kemen said that. He was lying, and I didn’t correct him.”
“Didn’t you say you’d teach the boys to worship her, too?”
“I said I’d teach them to worship the divine, and everyone heard what they wanted. But let’s get back to how you’re an asshole. Did the boys tell you their stories?”
“And?” she asked.
“And did you care at all, or were you too focused on your own stupid problems?”
Androkles sighed again. She wasn’t going to let him off the hook. “Yes, I cared. And it’s complicated.”
“And?” she said, tapping her foot and readjusting Garbi, who was still motionless over her shoulder.
“And do you still care for them?”
“Good. And how about this one?” she asked, nodding at Garbi.
“Good. So you’re not completely heartless.”
“Not quite, but close.”
“So are you going to break their hearts again?”
“Not any time soon.”
Agurne sat down next to him and held Garbi in her lap. “Those rotten boys probably stopped to catch frogs.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. When I had them they were still recovering, but I could tell they’d be trouble before long,” he said with a faint grin.
“You have no idea! Keeping them hidden was next to impossible. They wanted to keep going out to see if you’d come back to save them yet.”
“How did they know that? And how did you hide from Mari?”
“The Orphan told me about it. Told us about you and the girl and the fairy. And I’ve known how to hide from a god for a long time. I used to play hide and seek with him when I was a little girl, before I knew who he was,” Agurne said. She chuckled. “Everyone used to think he was an imaginary friend. I’ve been his priestess since I was a knee-high. Since before I was born, unless he’s lying about that.”
“I see … So is that how you …”
“How I kept your evil off the children? Yes. My god’s the Trickster, and I’ve got a full bag of tricks.”
“And that time before I left?”
“No tricks then. You’re less terrible than watching my girl get eaten, no matter how scary you think you are. Nothing matches that.”
Androkles thought about that quietly, for just a moment. Then he said, “You’re strong.”
“Of course I am, you stupid ogre. You don’t know the half of it.”
“You know I have to go chase after Della again?”
“Are you going to come with us?”
“Why, are you planning on taking my boys and going somewhere?” she asked with a smirk.
“You know what I mean!”
“Yes, I know what you mean. I really love those little boys, too. Not sure why, and I don’t even care. I’m just still trying to decide if I love them enough to come help you chase your wife.”
“I see,” he said, looking away.
“What am I gonna say when I meet her? ‘Hi, I promise I never let him touch my teats’?”
Androkles smiled widely again, then said, “I don’t love her anymore, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m not taking her back. Just my money.”
“I see,” she said, looking at him.
“I’ve got the wine, Master Agurne,” said Flower. Wolfscar sat on his head. Agurne jumped in surprise.
“Oh, don’t you start sneaking around just because your brother’s good at it! When did you get here?”
Flower grinned and looked proud of himself.
“I’ve been here for an hour!” he said.
“You cheeky little pisser! Alright, put the wine here and help him sit up, please.”
Flower put the wine down and then tried to lift Androkles up by the head. It wasn’t very helpful, but it was enough to get him upright. Androkles felt a little unsteady, and Agurne must have noticed, because she scooted over to sit back to back with him, giving him something to lean on.
“Don’t let him spill it all over himself, please,” she said. Flower helped Androkles lift the pot to his lips and drink deeply. The wine was a bit watery, which was exactly what he needed; water, wine, and more vinegar, and some good meat in the morning. He turned to look back toward the fire and saw Pepper’s face about a foot away.
“Gods!” cursed Androkles in startlement.
Agurne laughed, which shook him as he leaned against her.
“Pepper, are you back?”
“That little pisser’s done that thirty times a day since the Child showed him how. I can’t get him to stop jumping out at me. Feel free to smack him,” said Agurne. “How about the horse, Pepper?”
“It was fine. It was just standing there. It didn’t see me.”
“Of course it didn’t, you imp. Now, didn’t you boys have something to ask Master Androkles?”
The kits suddenly got quiet and serious, and they took each other’s hands.
“You ask him,” Pepper whispered. Androkles put down the pot to show he was paying attention.
“We … well, we just, um … And if you don’t it’s fine, but … If, um …” stammered Flower.
“Need a little help?” asked Agurne.
Flower took a deep breath and said, “No. I can ask. Are you going to stay now?”
“Gods, no! Why would I do that?” said Androkles.
The boys immediately looked down, crestfallen, even though he could tell they had been trying to steel themselves for his answer.
Then with a wry smile he added, “I’m taking you with me, of course. This whole town’s ruined! Look around! I’m keeping you with me from now on.”
“You are?” they asked in unison, suddenly overjoyed. “And Master Agurne? Can she come?”
“Ha! If she wants to. I like her. Even if she could make an oar-man blush. Actually, maybe that’s why.”
“I like you, too, you ogre,” she said. Androkles felt a bit of a spark. That was interesting.
The boys leaned over to give him an awkward hug at a bad angle, and he patted them on the back.
“Can we call you Papa?” asked Pepper shyly.
“Only if you agree to be my sons. Are you ready for that, so soon after losing your old families?”
“I think I am. I mean, yes, I am,” said Pepper, sounding introspective.
“Me too, I think. I still miss my old family but they never liked me, so it’s okay,” said Flower.
“Are you sure?” he asked again.
They both nodded and said, “Yes.”
Androkles thought for a moment, considering the consequences of the oath he was about to make. He said, “You know, boys, something occurs to me. And listen up, because I don’t talk like this often. In the army, we hold our shield and spear, right? Well, look at that shield. It’s big enough it protects the guy next to you more than yourself. We all stand inside each other’s shields, and with the whole army doing that, we’re really hard to kill. But if anyone runs off on his own and breaks the formation,he dies. And the man he was covering dies. And on and on, until the line breaks and the battle is lost.”
He sighed, thinking how to put into words what he was thinking. “I guess what I’m trying to say, is that I need all of you. We have to stand together like soldiers. I’m tired of being alone. I’m half a man when I’m by myself. I just about died today, and you saved me. Pepper, saving Garbi like that. Flower, your song, Agurne, her … whatever it was to keep the goddess off. Wolfscar’s light. So if you promise to stand with me, always, through everything, I’ll promise the same for you. Sound fair?”
The boys nodded, grave and serious.
“Very well. I, Androkles, give you this oath before Arkos Oath-father, god of my ancestors: I make you my seed and my sons, and I declare myself your father forever. Now you have to say, ‘Before Arkos Oath-father, I make myself your son forever, and declare you my father.’ There’s usually more to it, but that’ll do.”
They repeated the words with only a little help remembering. And then it was done. They were his.
“Thanks, Papa,” said Pepper, trying out the new term.
“Ya, thanks, Papa,” said Flower.
“You’re welcome, sons,” said Androkles.
Agurne said, “Just so you know, they’ve been calling me Mama, but don’t get any ideas.” Then, more demurely, she quietly added, “Yet.”
She stood up and said, “Now, how would you like to meet little Garbi, here?”
“Is she okay?” asked Flower, unconvinced.
Wolfscar answered, “No, she’s broken again, I think. But she got better before, so we just have to wait. I hope. I hope she gets better again.” He flew over and sat on the girl’s stomach, looking at her face.
“Oh, she’ll be fine. Androkles there has his evil, but I’ve got my tricks as well, don’t I, boys?”
“Are you going to do that thing again?” asked Flower.
“Yep. You ready?” she asked.
“Yes, Mama!” the boys said in unison.
“Ready for what?” asked Androkles, slightly worried.
Agurne fell quiet, and suddenly, a kind of warmth, a peace, a love like he’d forgotten about entirely, radiated out from her. It enveloped him completely, penetrating deep into his soul, and he could feel hard things in his heart crumbling to sand. It was her will to make things right, to take broken things and make them whole. It was sewing cloth back together after it tore, mending broken metal with new forging. It was like red paste for the spirit. It was overpowering. It left him short of breath, and with misty eyes.
After a short time it faded, and his mind was his own again. Agurne opened her eyes and looked at Garbi, who looked back up at her.
“Mama … no … that was like Mama,” she said, snuggling against Agurne’s ample chest. Then she realized where she was and said, “Oh! Who are you!”
He could hear Garbi scrambling to get off Agurne’s lap. She sounded scared, and no wonder.
“It’s alright, Garbi, girl,” said Androkles. “You’re fine.”
When she heard him, she darted around to where he was, saying, “Master Androkles! What happened? You’re all covered in blood again! Am I …” Garbi looked down at herself, inspecting her dress to make sure she didn’t look the same.
“I’m not dirty. Oh! They have ears!”
“Everyone has ears, girl,” said Androkles, remembering why he liked her.
“No, they have ears that are …” she said, motioning upward from her head.
Pepper giggled and turned to the side to show his tail.
Garbi gasped and walked around them to get a good look. “Master Androkles, who are they?”
“You should introduce yourself and the fairy, girl. Do it like Master Gotzone would. Do you remember her?” said Androkles with a droll smile.
“Oh! I remember her. We’re friends. Okay,” said Garbi. Then she consciously straightened her posture, demurely folded her hands, and with regal airs and grace said, “It is so nice to meet you. My name is Garbi, and this is my best friend Wolfscar, a noble fairy. May I know your names?” Wolfscar bowed, trying unsuccessfully to match Garbi’s dignity.
Agurne shook with silent laughter; fortunately, Garbi wasn’t looking at her.
Flower said, “I’m Flower. Nice to meet you,” smiling shyly.
“And I’m Pepper.”
“Master Flower and Master Pepper. I am honored,” said Garbi, with a short, elegant bow.
“Oh, it’s too much!” shouted Agurne, who then busted out laughing.
Garbi pursed her lips, trying to keep a smile, pointing her head at the ground. She looked terribly embarrassed, or perhaps hurt.
“She’s the princess!” yelled Wolfscar crossly. “So be nice!”
“Oh, you precious thing! I’m sorry I laughed. No one warned me you were such a perfect little princess! Oh, that was perfect!”
Garbi recovered somewhat, but she still looked unsure. Agurne said, “You precious thing! Come here, come let me look at you. I have never seen such a pretty little creature! Where on earth did a brute like Androkles find you?”
“He saved me from the Tartalo’s pit. I owe him my life,” said Garbi, sounding very adult.
“Such fine manners! Oh, I like you!” said Agurne, smitten.
Garbi relaxed and looked up at her with some kind of need in her eyes. She smiled.
“Oh! And you smile like sunlight itself! You’re too perfect!” said Agurne, laughing again. “Come here, give me a hug!”
Garbi obliged her, then said, “Thank you, Master Agurne. I am honored.” Then she turned back to Flower and sounding hopeful, asked, “Flower, are you a girl, too?”
Pepper chuckled, and Flower looked hurt, but tried to hide it.
“He’s a boy, Garbi. And he’s very manly; you just can’t tell because it’s dark. They’re my boys I told you about,” said Androkles, trying not to sound too amused. This was going to be fun.
“It was his name, and I don’t know!” said Garbi, brow wrinkled in worry.
“Don’t worry Garbi! You just can’t see his parts. Hold on,” said Wolfscar who then flew down to lift the bottom of Flower’s robe.
Flower shouted, “Hey!” and jumped, squeezing his legs together and trying to keep his robe shut. Everyone started laughing, and Wolfscar flew around in a circle, fingertip in his mouth, confused.
“What?” he asked.
Androkles said, “It’s bad manners, little one. I’ll explain later. But for now, I’m going to be honest: I’m about to pass out. I’m going to fall asleep soon whether I want to or not.” He rolled over onto his hands and knees and crawled to a patch of ground with no blood on it, where he collapsed. “Someone toss a blanket over me.”
“Can we sleep with him?” Flower asked Agurne, pointing at Androkles.
“He’s your father now. You don’t have to ask. Just get a blanket first,” she said. “You should know where they are.”
“I’ll get it. I’ll be right back,” said Pepper, who then vanished into the shadows. Androkles wondered if he was literally vanishing like Wolfscar did, or if he was just sneaky. He’d have to ask in the morning.
“Come with me, Garbi. Let’s go see if we can find accommodations more suitable to elevated women like us,” said Agurne, taking her hand.
As his new boys cuddled next to him on either side, Androkles felt a warmth spread through him that he knew wasn’t just their body heat. It felt right, having them there. Then, briefly, he began to wonder what the god meant when he said to ‘catch up with his money before they bought an army.’ Something about that tried unsuccessfully to worry him before weariness overcame him and he slept.