“Can we help them now?” asked Garbi. Androkles hesitated, his mouth suddenly dry, but he’d given his word. He nodded and hoped he was quick enough to kill the little demon the moment it leapt from her shoulders. He had no idea what to do about the young woman. She had his word and his wife-to-be and daughter within her arm’s reach.
“Can I come out now?” asked Wolfscar. Androkles berated at himself for forgetting about him again and lifted the furs so the little fairy could crawl out. Wolfscar jumped from his perch and Androkles caught him, then readjusted the fairy’s tiny red robe so he could bring his wings out. Once everything was in place, his dragonfly wings appeared out of nowhere and he took flight with a quiet buzzing.
This time it was the young woman’s turn to gasp. “A tiny person!” She stared with open amazement, and Wolfscar grinned and waved at her. From a safe distance, of course, in case she tried to grab him.
Agurne gently pushed Garbi off her lap and stood, lifting a stray lock of her brown hair up behind her ear. “Get some dinner on, ogre. With extra for our guests.”
“You do the violence, I do the kindness! You got yours, now I get mine. Go start dinner!” she insisted, never looking back as she made her way to the cart. She retrieved two of the better blankets, which she threw folded to the young woman, and one poor one, which she lay on the ground near the fire for her to sit on.
Androkles gave up and started on dinner. His mind raced through plan after plan, thinking of how he must react for every possible action from that demon. His plans were leavened with memory after wretched memory of blood and horror as he rummaged through the cart for the barley flour to make bread.
He felt like he had back in the army, the desperation. You could measure a man, size him up. Fight him with honor. Demons moved too quick to even watch, and you tracked them by the trail of bodies they made through your formation. So what if this one was little? Better to just draw his xiphos and… remember he’d given his word.
Those useless sons of his better show back up soon with the firewood, because the fire was getting low. The way they were leaving him to deal with all these women by himself, it’d serve them right to have been eaten by a bear. With his luck, they were going to show up with a wolf pup they’d found and demand to keep it. Or a bunch of arrows in their asses.
Once Agurne had the blanket all smoothed out and pretty, the young woman sat down gracefully and said, “Thank you for the hospitality,” without a trace of ire.
Agurne smiled warmly and replied, “Ha! You’re welcome. At least you are now, anyway. He’s an asshole and an ogre, but he’s honorable enough for five men put together. He promised to treat you like ‘regular, good people,’ and now he’s stuck. Now why don’t you hand over that shivering little thing on your shoulders? Being plump like this means I’m warmer than average.”
However, the little demon shook his head and quietly repeated, “No, no!” as the young woman tried to pry him off. Try as she might, the young woman couldn’t get him to come down, and before long she gave up.
Agurne thought for a moment then said, “Garbi, why don’t you introduce everybody and see if he feels friendlier after that?”
The little girl nodded and rose eagerly. In her most regal pose, which she practiced every time the cart stopped moving, she declared, “I am honored to meet you. I am Garbi, a girl of eight. This kind woman is Agurne, a priestess of the Child. My noble father is Androkles Giant-slayer, a man of the Glories. My brothers Flower and Pepper are gathering wood, but they shall be back soon. The fairy is Wolfscar, my brave hero. May we have your names?”
Agurne giggled under her breath and whispered, “I love it when she does that!”
The young woman was clearly impressed at Garbi’s poise, and Androkles felt a flash of pride which he kept from showing on his face since he was still uncomfortable. The young woman answered, “I’m Dyana, from far, far east of here. I grew up among the people of the sea, or the beach nomads as they were known by the… well, never mind about that. My father said he adopted me out of the west, so I’m trying to find the land of my birth. This cute little rodent is Seff, and he’s charming when he’s not so nervous.”
“I’m not a wodent!” said the little demon. His voice was high and rough, and he said the words strangely, even for a knee-high.
“Yes you are! You’re my cute little rodent, and that’s that. Come on down and sit on Agurne’s lap. Doesn’t she look warm?”
He didn’t move.
“Seffy? Come on.” He stayed put.
Agurne said, “Garbi, look closely. Can you see anything in him like I told you about?”
Androkles watched them as he measured out the flour. He’d never been able to see what Agurne was talking about, even though Garbi was learning all about it. It was some trick of the god that he couldn’t begin to fathom.
“Little hard places deep inside, Mama?”
“Yep. See any?”
“I see… I think I see some,” said Garbi, brow furrowed in concentration as she looked the little demon over.
“Very good. Now what do we do about that?” asked Agurne.
“We do that thing with the love,” answered Garbi.
“That’s right. Do you think you can do it this time?”
“Oh, Mama, I can’t. It’s too hard,” said Garbi, nervously scraping her shoe in the dirt. Androkles wished she would be more careful with her shoes—he’d already mended them twice.
Agurne said, “Garbi girl, look at him. Look at that poor little boy. He’s so cold and scared. Don’t you have any love for a poor little thing like him? Any at all?”
She considered him with a serious look on her face, biting her bottom lip. A look of sincere concern swept over Garbi’s face, and she said “Oh, Mama. I do. I’ll try.”
“What are you doing?” asked Dyana, looking wary.
Agurne said, “Ssh, girl. Don’t interrupt. Now Garbi, show that little boy that you have some love for him, just like the god would. Try and break those little hard places into powder.”
“Yes, Mama,” said Garbi. She placed her hands over her heart, closed her eyes, and furrowed her brow even deeper in concentration.
After a moment, when nothing had happened, Agurne gently said, “It’s easier if you look at him, my love. Try opening your eyes.”
Garbi nodded, then opened her eyes and looked at the little demon, who looked back at her with nervous curiosity. After another short moment of quiet, Androkles sensed something from Garbi, radiating gently out from her. It was like a sweet scent on the wind but felt in the heart. It was faint, but it was there. The fire crackled while everyone simply drank in the goodness radiating out of her. The girl was learning, and something about it felt incredibly precious to him.
Wolfscar broke the little girl’s concentration—he couldn’t contain himself and happily shouted, “You did it! Princess! You did it!” then flew over and started celebrating in the air very close to her face.
She looked almost amazed at her success. Her eyes were wide as she said, “Oh! I could feel it! I could feel myself do it! Papa, Mama, could you feel it? Could you feel it, Seffy?”
Garbi reached out and gently stroked the little demon’s long, pointy ear, and he didn’t flinch. All fear was gone from his face, replaced by something that might have been wonder.
“Papa, did you feel it?” asked Garbi, turning to him.
“Yes, girl, I could feel it,” he replied, perhaps a bit gruffer than necessary. He added, “Well done.”
Agurne reached her arms out to the little demon and said, “Come on down here, you. We need to share this blanket, don’t we?”
The demon looked hesitant, but after a moment of deliberation he climbed down and obediently sat on Agurne’s lap. Androkles braced himself to save her if it went for her throat, but the demon acted as harmless as a dove. Maybe he could keep his promise not to hurt him after all.
Agurne gathered Garbi to come sit on her other leg, then wrapped the blanket skillfully around them with a swoop.
Androkles carefully set the pot of dough in the fire to cook while he kept a careful, stern eye on Dyana and her ‘Seffy’.
“Is this how you treat ‘regular, good people,’ Master Androkles?” asked Dyana with a challenging glint in her eye.
He scowled at her, long enough for her to turn away and Agurne to start clucking at him. He was really going to have to start being more careful with his oaths. They had a tendency to get him into trouble.
Although, he supposed, they hadn’t been a complete disaster either. His oath to restore his household had led him northward, and another oath had made him rescue the boys from starvation. Another oath made him rescue Garbi from the cyclops, and then hang on to her long enough for her to recover. Still, the god Palthos Orphan-minder had been involved with those; he’d said as much. Androkles couldn’t count on good fortune like that forever.
Dyana turned to Agurne and asked, “So what did the little girl do, exactly? That felt like a thing of the spirits.”
“Oh, the little girl just wants to be like her mama, doesn’t she?” said Agurne with a proud half-smile.
Garbi nodded in exaggerated fashion and said, “Yes!” then hugged Agurne around the neck.
The sound of footsteps crunching in the snow drew everyone’s attention, and they turned to see Flower and Pepper carrying respectable armfuls of bark and branches, which the kits deposited near the fire. They both had their hoods up, which had been modified with little tents for their pointed ears, and they both had snow in their tails. In almost perfect synchronicity, they hunched down sideways next to the fire and started waving their tails in the heat to dry them off.
“They’re… half cat?” said Dyana, looking at Agurne in confusion. Then at Androkles. Then back to Agurne. “Which…”
The kits tensed up a bit, probably wondering if she would next ask to pet them.
Agurne asked, “Haven’t you ever seen a Skythander before?”
“Once, but they were on horses, and it wasn’t--”
“The fur grows in the rest of the way when they get older, girl. And they’re adopted. The ogre over there can’t help himself when it comes to strays.”
Androkles gave an annoyed little sigh and said, “You boys were gone a long time. Did you get chased by a bear?” asked Androkles.
“No, we were just looking for good wood. All of it was too little,” said Pepper as he massaged some heat back into his pointy black ears.
Flower, with a great deal of enthusiasm, said, “Papa, guess what? I can hide in the snow ‘cause my fur matches. I tried it and Pepper walked right by me.”
“Really?” asked Androkles, raising an eyebrow.
Pepper said, “Ya, he did.” But when Flower wasn’t looking, he shook his head ‘no’ with a subtle, mischievous smile.
Androkles smirked and nodded, then went back to glaring at Dyana while he periodically poked the bread.
“So, Papa, who’s this?” asked Flower, giving a little wave to the newcomer.
“Oh, have some manners! Stand up and introduce yourselves,” said Agurne before Androkles could say something unfriendly.
“Yes, Mama. Sorry,” said Flower, rising to his feet. “I’m Flower and this is Pepper, sons of Androkles of Dikaia.”
Pepper stood just behind his brother with his black tail swishing, and he waved shyly and said, “Hi.”
“You both are very charming. How old are you?” asked Dyana.
“We’re both nine. Until spring,” said Flower. His golden eyes caught the firelight and glowed like embers, brighter than even his white hair and ears.
“Huh. Well I’m Dyana, and this here is Seff,” she said, pointing. “I don’t know how old he is, but I think he’s about five.”
Seff sunk further into the blanket, just barely peeking over the edge. He kept a curious eye on the boys.
“Oh, there’s a little boy!” exclaimed Flower, noticing the demon for the first time.
Androkles subtly rested his hand on the hilt of his xiphos, just in case, as Pepper and Flower walked around the fire and hunched down in front of Agurne’s blanket to inspect the stranger. They both said, “Hi,” and waved. After a moment, the demon child lowered the blanket a little and said, “Hi,” with a shy, faint smile.
“Papa, he has teeth like us!” said Pepper.
Androkles nodded and looked down. He could have told them that. He’d seen a man get his forearm bitten in half, right through a good bronze bracer.
Flower and Pepper leaned over the little boy with wide grins, pointing at their sharp teeth. The demon had a bit of a sparkle in his eye, but he ducked his head back under the blanket, just barely peeking out.
Dyana watched with maternal grace. Why wasn’t she cold, he wondered? But she showed no sign of it despite her lack of clothing. He knew she was dangerous; she’d withstood his punch like it was nothing. For all he knew, she was some god’s brood and had killed the demon’s parents out of boredom. Why wasn’t she cold?
Speaking of cold, he’d promised some clothing, also, hadn’t he? May the gods curse his hasty of foolish tongue. To use good cloth for a demon? Might as well put scented oil on an angry snake. Hopefully Dyana and Agurne would forget? After a moment of deliberation, he told Agurne, “Make him stand over here by the fire. I need to get a good look at him.”
“Oh, he’s just getting warm. Lay--” she began to reply.
“Don’t argue,” he interrupted, this time with iron in his voice. Everything went silent as the atmosphere grew tense. Agurne gave him a look of displeasure, but she knew he was set and wouldn’t budge. She whispered to the demon on her lap and had him stand by the fire. It took a bit of coaxing; he was clearly afraid of Androkles, who probably looked like a hulking, brooding giant to someone his size.
The little demon stood with his long, thin tail held in both hands over his heart, almost like he was trying to hide behind it. He only had nubs at the sides of his forehead where his horns would grow later, but Androkles remembered seeing the heads of his brothers-in-arms impaled on such horns. Those childish hands were soft and gentle now, but someday, spikes would grow out of the knuckles, and he would ruin a man’s face with nothing more than a closed fist. The tail was thin and weak now, but it would be a slashing razor soon. A scar on Androkles’ right shoulder had come from one of their tails, right through his shield and bronze armor. He was lucky he still had an arm to bear a scar.
He looked at the demon boy’s mouth, which was shut tightly and pensive, trying to imagine Euphemios’ arm hanging from it, but he simply couldn’t picture it. That demon had been much larger. The little one started to shiver, and not from the cold. It was too close to the fire for that. Tears came to its eyes as it shied away from Androkles’ gaze. Not from shame, either; rather, something like hopelessness.
What had he been hoping to learn, Androkles wondered to himself? Was he hoping to see some sign of what the child truly was so he could point it out to Agurne and change her mind? That wasn’t likely to work—the woman was as stubborn as he was, which was part of her charm. No, this was nothing but a little boy not too different from his adopted Skythander kits. Someday, he would be a murderous, uncontrollable monster from Raphos Corpse-eater’s own nightmares, but not yet.
Everyone at the fire started to get noticeably uncomfortable. Dyana moved to get up, probably to collect the child and leave, but Agurne motioned for her to stay seated.
“His little rod’s going to freeze off and it’ll be your fault,” said Agurne finally. The boy cupped his hands over himself with a fresh look of fear.
Androkles sighed and said, “How else am I supposed to measure him for a tunic and socks, gorgon? I was just planning. Flower, you know where the long needle is. Go get it, and some thread. Pepper, go get those sheepskin scraps. Bring them all. And one of you grab the thick red cloth and the cloth knife.”
He used a length of twine to get the boy’s measurements, making careful note of where the tail was, then said, “Alright, I’m done with him. Warm him back up.” Then to Agurne’s look of surprise, he added, “I promised food and clothing, didn’t I?”
Agurne gave him an inscrutable look and gathered the boy back under the blanket. “Oh, he’s already shivering again! Snuggle in closer, you sweet little thing. There you go.”
“So Androkles, have you decided to trust us, I guess?” asked Dyana.
“That’s Master Androkles, young woman. And no, I don’t trust you. But I’m a man of my word. And I do trust her, and she trusts you,” he said, nodding at Agurne. “Don’t make her the fool.”
“I won’t,” said Dyana simply, watching her demon snuggle contentedly with Agurne.
When the boys returned, they handed Androkles the sewing supplies he’d asked for, then sat down with the blue woolen blanket, which they’d pulled from the cart. “Seff! Wolfscar!” said Pepper. “Come sit with us! We’ll be the sharp teeth tribe!”
The fairy gave that serious consideration, but said, “You’re not as warm, though!”
“We will be in a second. Just come,” said Flower.
Seff looked at Agurne, then at Dyana, and when he got a nod from them both, gingerly stepped over to sit between the boys with a clear look of excitement. Flower threw the blanket over them and then he and Pepper smoothed it out and tucked it in as well as they could, and before long they looked warm and snug. Wolfscar finally decided to join them and flew over to sit under Pepper’s chin.
While Androkles sewed, the boys made jokes about biting things, and the demon listened and smiled broadly, probably getting a list of ideas. He kept looking up at their faces with something like growing adoration. He didn’t say much, but he giggled when the others did. It sounded a bit like a rasp. And even so, he looked a bit more awkward than one would expect from a small boy, like he didn’t know how to act but sincerely wanted to learn. Androkles felt himself almost warming up to the little thing, and that scared him.
Dyana had nothing to say, however, as she alternated between watching Androkles sew and her monster snuggling with Androkles’ children. He couldn’t tell if she was checking his work or learning how it was done in the first place, but at least she wasn’t hanging over his shoulder like certain people always did. When the tunic was finished, he held it up for examination. It looked nice and warm; hopefully not so snug the boy would grow out of it after a good meal or so loose it’d slip off his shoulders and land around his ankles.
“Come here, Seff,” he ordered.
The other boys had to coax him out, and it took a fair amount of unravelling to get him free, but finally Androkles helped the boy into the hasty red tunic he’d made, showing him how to put his tail through a loop in the back and tie the cloth belt.
The boy seemed pleased. Androkles said, “This should keep your ass from freezing off, at least.”
At first the demon looked confused, but when he noticed the boys both grinning like drunken celebrants he realized the joke. He grabbed his buttocks firmly and declared, “My ass won’t fall off!” Then he gave Androkles a look like he was hoping he could trust him, briefly, before he turned away. “Dana, look! My ass won’t fall off now!” Then he giggled. The other children laughed as well, even Garbi, who liked to pretend she was above rude humor.
“Say thank you!” Dyana commanded.
“Fanks,” said Seff as he climbed back into the Sharp Teeth Tribe Blanket.
“Master Androkles, thank you for your hospitality. Do you mind if I ask a question?” asked Dyana politely.
“Go ahead,” he said, measuring out cloth to cut for socks.
A rope lasso fell over her head and tightened around her neck, which yanked her backward into the snow before anyone realized what was happening.