As the woman’s shape first emerged from the dark of night fifty paces or more up the road from the family campfire, it looked like she wore a large pack of some kind, with black straps down her shoulders. Then she got a bit closer and it looked like an animal, perhaps a black pig carried awkwardly; but soon she was close enough for him to tell, and Androkles knew it was a demon. She carried a demon’s child on her shoulders.
He gasped and rose to his feet, swallowing down a shock of panic.
The young woman herself was strange enough to give anyone pause. Despite the jagged gravel of the frozen dirt road crunching beneath her, she walked barefoot. Only a wide strip of cloth tied behind her back covered her breasts, and on her legs swished a loose pair of pants that didn’t reach her ankles. Her head was shaved, the first woman he’d ever seen without hair, and it made her look wretched and monstrous. Her skin was as pale as Agurne’s, marking her as some kind of northerner.
Swallowing the dread rising inside him, Androkles stepped over toward the road, spear in hand. Once he got there, he scowled to make it clear to the freakish woman that she and her passenger weren’t welcome at his family campfire. He felt his grip tightening around the spear-haft as he tried to calculate whether he’d be fast enough to stab that thing before it got past him.
The woman calmly met his gaze and continued walking up the frozen dirt road, directly toward him. On purpose. Gods, who was she? What was she? Mari’s angry younger sister no one had told him about?
He nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt something sliding into his spare hand, and he looked down to see that sweet little Garbi had wandered over to join him. She stood nonchalantly with her hand in his, huddling close against him to try and preserve some warmth. She’d left her half-bearskin over the ox’s shoulders because “he looked cold”, and now she was shivering because her thin green linen dress couldn’t keep the heat in. Her wheat-golden hair stood wind-blown and mussed from travel, its color giving stark contrast to her face all blushing red from the chill air.
Androkles pointed back to the fire and said, “Go sit back down, girl. Hurry.”
“Why? Is there something wrong with them?” she asked, looking up the road at the woman and the demon child instead of behaving.
“Yes!” he hissed, about ready to throw her. “Get back!”
“In a minute, Papa. I want to talk to them first.”
The woman was only a dozen paces away now, and approaching calmly and intently with a sort of eager serenity in her eyes, despite being young enough she might have still been a youth. Androkles nearly panicked; he could get Garbi to obey eventually—he was more stubborn than she was, usually—but he needed her out of here now. If that thing got its teeth on her…
This being his last resort, Androkles said, “Garbi girl, do you have any idea what your hair looks like right now?”
Garbi reached up to feel her hair with both hands and a look of horror came over her. She raced to the campfire and said, “Oh! Oh! Mama, can you do my hair? It’s a mess! Please?”
Thank the gods the girl liked to be pretty.
Wolfscar stirred in his snug little hiding place on Androkles’ shoulder under the furs, and Androkles patted him and said, “Stay there.”
“Can I look?” asked Wolfscar.
“No,” said Androkles.
Androkles pulled the fur tight with his free hand to keep the little fairy in place, and Wolfscar quickly quit squirming. Just in time, too, because the woman came to a stop only a few paces away and peered at the campfire behind Androkles with what might have been curiosity or bloodlust; who could tell? The evening was so cold Androkles had frost in his beard, and she was bald, practically naked, and carried a demon on her shoulders like it was human.
This was the first demon child he’d ever seen—the first he’d ever even heard about—but it could be nothing else. Its blue-black skin was only visible where the moonlight caught it around the edges, and it wore no clothing at all. It was young, smaller than even Garbi, and Androkles couldn’t tell its sex. Its short, black hair looked like it had never been washed, and instead of horns, it had two lumps on its forehead where they would grow someday. It had its arms folded across the young woman’s head and rested its head on them. It was asleep, and its long, thin, hairless tail swayed with each step the young woman took.
The young woman smiled, or perhaps simply bared her teeth, and in a disarmingly friendly tone of voice said, “My, you’re a big one! Greetings, fellow traveler. How is the road?”
Androkles stared down at her and tightened his grip on his spear. He knew he had to be polite in case she was some sort of god, but it was hard not to scream. “Why have you come here? What do you want?” he asked.
“I’m on my way from one place to another, just like you. I was hoping you might have a blanket to spare? Little Seffy here is always cold, and I don’t have anything to make a fire.”
She pointed at the demon. It had a name?
“I have nothing to spare for that,” he said. He slid his left foot back just enough to loosen his stance and leave him ready to react if she or her monster suddenly pounced. His grip on his spear tightened yet again.
The young woman noticed it and frowned slightly, as if she knew what his motion meant. She made no similar motion, however. “Do you mind if I just warm him up a bit by the fire, then? It looks like there’s room,” she asked, peering over where his family waited.
“I mind. You may not,” he said.
“Why not?” she said.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked, gesturing at the demon’s brood. A cold sweat began to break from his skin, underneath all the furs he wore.
“It’s a little boy,” she answered plainly, almost like it was a joke.
“That thing is dangerous like you wouldn’t believe. Its tail alone---"
“Are you kidding me?” she complained loudly, taking an aggressive step toward him. “You think cold, hungry little boys are dangerous? You land people are all idiots!”
“It’s tail alone could take your head off, I was saying! That’s not just a little boy. That’s a demon’s brood. Do you think you’re going to tame it?” said Androkles, hoping the sarcasm disguised his dread. Gods, what if she was a female demon? He’d never seen a female before—what if this is what they looked like, and she was about to lose her mind and try and take him apart with her teeth?
The young woman gave him a glare frostier than the evening chill and said, “My little Seffy here wouldn’t step on a bug. You look a lot more dangerous than him. A lot more.”
“I am, and—"
“Papa?” Garbi interrupted. “What if they’re cold?”
“Quiet, girl,” Androkles said.
“Papa, look at them! They’re cold!” she persisted. Her hair was now back in order, and she stood and began walking over toward Androkles and the strange woman.
“Shut it!” he yelled. Garbi stopped and returned to Agurne’s warm lap, where she gave him a sullen glare.
“Don’t give me that look, girl. Listen up. And you, stranger, because I don’t think you realize what you picked up. Those things are not people. They do not have reason. They’re almost impossible to kill. I’ve seen one tear apart a solid helmet with his bare hands. They’re wilder than hungry lions, and I should know because I’ve fought those too. If—"
The demon stirred awake, and Androkles froze. It started sniffling and shivering as it clutched more tightly to the young woman’s head. It saw Androkles, peering at him with its silvery eyes reflecting the firelight like his sons’ did. He supposed it really did look cold and helpless. He swallowed the pity just like he had the terror.
“Papa! It’s just a little boy!” Garbi insisted.
“No, Garbi, it’s not! Were you not listening? I’d have a lot of trouble with one in a fight. A lot of trouble. Now shut up, because this person was just leaving,” he said, hoping the creeping fear and frustration in his voice sounded like stern anger.
The young woman gave him a mocking smile and pointed at the demon on her shoulders. “This little thing could kill you, westerner? This?”
He met her gaze with a half-sneer and said, “When its parents find you, they’ll leave you in tiny, bloody bits spread over a half mile, woman. Don’t come near us with that.”
“Papa, I want you to help them!” Garbi said. “You need to look into his spirit like mama does! He’s just a little boy and he’s scared! Papa!”
“Garbi! What happens to little girls who argue with their father? Agurne?” he said, expecting the girl to be muffled and spanked later.
Agurne met his gaze and gave him a long, appraising look, like she was trying to figure out how serious he was. Finally she said, “I haven’t seen what you’ve seen, but I can see clear enough what’s right in front of me. Maybe someday it’ll change, but for now, the little one’s harmless.”
“He’s harmless like a baby viper!” said Androkles. By the Oathfather, that woman had no idea! She ought to dig up what was left of Euphemios and ask him how dangerous they were. Not all of him had been buried because there were pieces they couldn’t find.
The young woman said, “I pulled him out of a slave pit not too long ago, westerner, not snatched him from his parents. He didn’t bite or anything. He just gave me a lot of hugs, so stop being such a coward. The cold doesn’t bother me, but I think it’s going to get him before much longer.”
The demon child refused to directly look at Androkles; it hid its face in its arms and only peered at him sideways, silvery eyes glinting. Only its outline could be seen where light from the fire or moon caught the blue of its skin; all the rest looked like shadow given form. The young woman reached up and started rubbing its back, probably to warm it up. Then she said, “Tell you what, traveler, if you promise not to hurt my little Seffy and let us warm up at the fire, I’ll tell you all about the road ahead.”
“Not worth it. Leave us alone,” he replied, adjusting his skirt so she’d hear the rattle of his xiphos in its sheath, just in case the spear wasn’t enough.
“Then I’ll tell you… uh… a good joke? Come on! He’s shivering!” said the young woman. She was starting to sound just a bit desperate.
“You know what the god thinks about letting orphans go hungry, Androkles,” said Agurne. She still looked unsure, which was good for him; if he went against her on something she was set on, he might find out how many of her idle threats about curses were accurate.
“If he wants to feed demons, he can do it himself.” At least his boys were still out gathering wood. They’d probably team up against him with the others.
The strange young woman said, “How about this, traveler. I’ll let you hit me once in the stomach as hard as you can, and if you can knock me down, I’ll strangle him right now. If you can’t, you let us rest by your fire, give us food and clothing, and treat us like regular, good people. How’s that?”
Agurne and Garbi both gasped sharply, and Agurne said, “Oh, girl, that’s a bad idea. Seriously. Just… here, take this blanket and keep walking.”
“What sort of trick is this?” Androkles asked. “Are you a god or something? Or are you blind?”
“Nope, just my father’s daughter. Sort of,” she replied. “And I’m certain I can take a punch from someone like you.”
“Do you not see my arms? Where do you think all these scars came from? Weaving? Or no, you were hoping I’d see how serious you were and change my mind out of pity, weren’t you?”
Agurne said, “Androkles…” She sounded worried, and no doubt she knew how this would end. The ornery woman would probably be grouchy about it for a week, but killing that demon was for the best, especially when the other option was to let it sit next to people whose lives he cared about.
“No, I think I’ll take that deal, and then after she strangles it, I’ll tell you what it was like to face them in battle. They’re not like men, no matter their shape. They’re monsters,” said Androkles, looking darkly at the young woman.
She met his gaze, unwavering. She squared her shoulders, turned her heels out slightly, and exhaled slowly, pushing her open palms down toward the ground. The demon clung even more tightly to her head and grasped at the cloth over her chest with its toes.
“You’re not even gonna put it down first?” he asked.
“Nope. I’m ready. I hope you’re a man of your word.”
“My honor is stronger than iron, woman. And if I kill you with this punch, I’ll strangle it for you.”
Her eyes watched him, but he could tell her mind was focused on concentration. If she’d been smarter, she wouldn’t have planted herself so firmly on the ground—her best shot was to try to take a partial blow and dance away. Still, she looked ready, so Androkles set his spear down, focused his weight, and slammed his fist as hard as he could into her bare stomach. Garbi shrieked in terror as he swung.
The punch landed with a heavy, echoing thud, but the young woman didn’t budge. She didn’t even sway from the blow. She simply kept his gaze, only now with a smirk.
He stepped back, jaw slack and eyes wide. He may as well have hit a thick old tree. The muscles in her stomach like bands of iron on his knuckles and it left his entire fist aching. “A goddess!” he said. He instinctively reached for his xiphos but stopped when he remembered his end of their agreement. He schooled his panic with sheer force of will, and it only barely worked.
“I’m no goddess,” she said, nonchalantly walking past him toward the fire. “I just had better training than most. My father was pretty stubborn.” The demon on her shoulders squirmed like he was trying to shy away from everyone’s gaze but had nowhere to hide.