Androkles made his way quickly but carefully, trying to step in the tracks of the men he followed and keep the snow off his feet. It wasn’t working particularly well. They followed no road or path that he could see, and there weren’t enough of them to trample a proper trail. He kicked up a little clump of snow with each step he took.
A thin sliver of a moon hung low over the western horizon, resting placidly in the clear and freezing air. Trees appeared as indistinct smudges of blackness against the white, but at least the trail they left behind them was impossible to miss. Androkles wondered if snow actually produced a small amount of light, or if it simply seemed that way.
The cold of the night no longer reached him, probably because he had a belly full of slow anger and burned bread. The effort of trudging through the snow generated heat, which drew sweat on his brow and under his clothes, giving them a strange heaviness. He briefly considered jogging, but he didn’t dare find himself out of breath in an ambush. Not to mention that his creaking, aching joints would never have stood for such mistreatment, right after being dragged on a horse.
Only his toes were cold, but they were so cold they ached. Even though he had good leather shoes that went halfway up his calves, the oil was wearing out and his feet were wet and clammy. At least he could still feel them. As long as he could feel his toes and move them, they weren’t about to freeze and snap off. It gave him something other than his sons to worry about.
Gods preserve them if they try to escape. Wolfscar had said that one of them had smacked Pepper, so he probably had tried and not have gotten far enough away to hide. When Pepper wanted to hide, no one could find him, not even Agurne with her priestess tricks. No, the boys needed to stay captured for now, because Androkles was coming and if they got away they’d probably freeze to death and no one would ever find the bodies.
Androkles tried to keep focusing on his cold toes, trying to will warmth into them instead of lingering on all the horrible things that could go wrong, without much success. He wasn’t too worried about Agurne and Garbi, exactly; he trusted Agurne to handle things. He still feared for her; she was a woman, after all. But if any woman could handle being caught by slave-takers, it was Agurne. The gorgon would no doubt have them making her dinner and cleaning up camp while she sat around and gave orders, and they’d give her a horse to make her way back. That, or she’d leave behind a pile of corpses and never explain to him how she’d done it. For all he knew, she was capable of such things; whenever he really made her mad, she’d ominously declare that not all her tricks were harmless and if he kept it up, he’d learn all about it.
He wondered if the boys were even awake. If they were, perhaps Flower would sing. The slavers might then see his value and keep him generally unharmed, and Androkles would be able to hear it when he got close enough. Or would they muffle the boy instead? So tightly he suffocated, probably.
And now that he thought about it, the snow seemed to muffle everything pretty well on its own. Against the silence of the night, his footsteps and rattling weapons sounded alarmingly loud, but that was only the absolute absence of any other sound. The snow swallowed everything. Nothing to see but snow, a dim trail, black shapes of plant life, and no sound at all.
What if they gagged Flower with a chain, and it broke some of his teeth? Or cropped his tail and ears to make him look like a fighting dog as a joke? Or gave him a brand, or a weird tattoo? The boy would never be able to hide it, not in civilized society. Civilized men and boys were too often nude. Perhaps they could play it off as scars from fighting with barbarians. Androkles scowled and tried not to think about it. Better to just focus on hurrying along the trail. The last thing he wanted to do was lose his nerve.
From the prints in the snow, he knew he followed four men and two horses. The boys probably lay across one of the horses like luggage, since he couldn’t see any little footprints. But that was expected; if the slavers wanted to move quickly, they couldn’t let stubby little child legs set the pace, especially tired ones who’d had no dinner.
If the gods were watching, the least they could have done was keep the bread from burning.
The trail seemed to be going straight to the west, only deviating to move around trees or thick patches of brush. The slave-takers probably had a specific destination in mind, or they’d be circling around to meet with the others. A camp or something, or one of those silly wooden hilltop forts they were so proud of.
Just as the trees opened into a small clearing, he nearly stepped on a dark spot on the snow, right in the middle of the tracks. He almost didn’t pay it any attention, deep as he was in his thoughts, but something about the shape drew his attention. He wondered cynically if it was blood, and when he knelt to examine it, he realized it was exactly that: a patch of blood almost the size of a squash, laying fresh on the snow.
A sudden panic came over him, and he had to swallow hard to keep his nerve. His hands trembled, and it wasn’t from the cold. He berated himself over and over, telling himself that this wasn’t the behavior of a seasoned veteran, but it didn’t help much.
Aside from the large spot of blood, there were other, smaller drops spread around, almost like they had been flung. He paced carefully around the area but found no footprints small enough to belong to his boys. What or whom had the blood come from? Maybe it was dinner, a bird perhaps? There were no feathers. Maybe one of the horses? It seemed confined to this area and the footprints made it clear that the party had stopped here for a moment.
Then he saw a bit of flesh and knelt to get a closer look. It was a man’s severed finger. Androkles picked it up and sure enough, it appeared to have been bitten off. He was almost, but not quite, reassured by that. He was proud of the boy’s daring, whichever of his sons had done it, but the punishment would have been severe.
He walked carefully around the area in a circle, looking for anything he might have missed, and soon he found tracks leading away from the rest—a single adult had left the area and returned. He’d walked alone, so he probably had just gone to piss on a tree; he probably hadn’t gone to dispose of a body. Probably.
Androkles gritted his teeth and followed the tracks away from the main trail. After he had gone a few dozen yards, he thought he heard soft sniffling and whimpering.
He broke into a wild sprint and raced along the footprints to find the sound. The trail wended around bushes and through a copse of short, scraggly trees and opened into a broad, open area with a wide, high pine at the far end. Soon he found the source: a dark shape hung beneath an uncommonly large tree, and it had none of Flower’s whiteness.
“Pepper!” he shouted, racing toward the tree, his heart full of panic. Then he stopped: it wasn’t Pepper, it was the demon child, and he hung by a rope tied around one ankle. He panic dropped immediately to somewhere between disappointment and revulsion.
The child wasn’t even swinging; he hung limply with his leg at an odd angle to his hip. It looked dislocated. The thing still had on the red tunic he’d made, but it hung inside-out from his armpits and covered his face. They’d strung him up to suffer and die.
“Hello? Is dat somebody?” the demon asked with a trembling, fearful voice. It tried to hold it arms forward to feel around, but its arms lacked the strength to lift the tunic high enough to reveal its face. “Who’s dere?”
Androkles’ conflicted heart wished he hadn’t yelled Pepper’s name and let the thing know he was around. Could he just turn around and leave? This would be the perfect opportunity to run it through, he realized. He could kill it and put it out of its suffering and claim the slavers had done it. No one would know better, and his family would be safer without it around. It was tempting.
He set down his hoplon and spear and drew his xiphos, then started walking toward the demon child. It heard his footsteps and asked again, nearly screaming with fearful urgency, “Who is dat!”
When Androkles didn’t answer, it started waving its arms wildly, as though it was blind and trying to figure out what was approaching. It tried to pull the tunic up high enough to see, but each motion jerked the rope around its ankle and brought a whimpered of pain.
By the time Androkles made it to the tree, the demon child had fallen into utter terror and was alternating between trying to guard himself and reach out to feel what was approaching, and its whimpering had turned into desperate crying, almost screaming.
For a moment, Androkles looked at the little demon, watching as it panicked and suffered. Then he sighed; he couldn’t handle something like this these days. Having a family was ruining him. Androkles reached under the dangling tunic, took the demon’s little hand, and said, “Shhh, it’s okay. It’s me. Androkles. I’m going to take you back to Dyana.” The boy returned Androkles’ grip with both hands, trembling. His hands were freezing.
“Andokwes?” Seff asked. His breathing came sharp and rapid from the strain of hanging there.
“Yes, Androkles. The big scary man who made you that tunic. Are you hurt?” he asked.
“My leg is bwoken,” moaned the boy. Androkles could almost feel the pain emanating from the child’s taut and rigid frame.
“Did it…” Androkles started, trying to think of how to put it. “Did it go pop?”
“Yeah. It huwts weally bad,” came the reply, followed by clenched teeth and sniffling.
No use delaying—time to get the child down. He hated to cut good rope, but his fingers were cold and he was in a hurry. Now that he thought about it, the slaver must have been in a really, really bad mood to waste so much of it on revenge. That must have been the man’s favorite finger.
Androkles said, “It’s happened to me before. I know how bad it hurts. Now try to hold still, because I need to cut you down. Your leg’s going to hurt even more for a moment, but I have to do it.”
“No! No, stop!” shouted the child with sudden, wild terror. His fingers dug into Androkles’ forearm with surprising strength.
Androkles paused. That wasn’t the response he had been expecting. “What, do you want me to leave you hanging here until you die? How am I supposed to get you down without cutting the rope?” he asked, trying not to sound annoyed.
“…Oh, da wope?”
“Yes, I’m going to cut the rope. Ready?”
“Not my leg?”
“I fought you wewe gonna cut my leg off,” explained Seff, his voice thick with emotion. His grip on Androkles’ forearm slackened slightly.
Androkles wasn’t sure if he should laugh at that or hug the demon in pity. He did neither and said, “Gods, boy, why would I do that? Just try not to move when I cut the rope, or you’ll make it worse. Just hold still.”
“Is it gonna huwt?” asked the boy, even though he already had the answer. Androkles held his arm around the boy’s waist to catch him then started sawing on the rope, just above the knot. He was careful not to shake it too much because that would be painful. Soon the rope was severed and the boy came free.
As Androkles caught him, he heard the quiet pop of the bones sliding back into place on their own. He’d been hoping for that. The demon screamed in pain and Androkles hugged him to his chest, put the xiphos back in its sheath, and readjusted the bear skin to cover the child.
Seff cried through his teeth and clung to Androkles tightly. His body shook with little tremors, and Androkles cradled him in one arm and prodded his hip with his free hand. Satisfied that everything really was in place, he massaged the joint gently to help the ache diminish.
After a time, Seff quieted down and regained his composure and gazed up at Androkles with trepidation. And seen up close, the boy’s eyes were just like his sons’, except silver instead of gold. “I fought you didn’ like me,” the demon said with a forced, nervous half-smile, trying to dry his face with the bearskin.
“Why would you think that?” asked Androkles, even though the answer was obvious.
“Because I fought you wann’ed me ta die,” answered the child.
“If that were true, why would I save you?” answered Androkles. Then he helped wipe the tears from the boy’s cheeks and forehead to help warm him up. He walked over to his hoplon and hung it on his back, then picked up his spear and headed back toward the trail at a brisk pace.
This demon boy was the smallest child Androkles had ever held, even counting Garbi when he found her in that pit. He was so light it was almost like he wasn’t there. Androkles’ bear skin probably weighed more than the boy did. He held Seff against his chest and resumed following the trail, and the demon simply snuggled in and held on. It didn’t take long for the little thing to warm back up, either, and start contributing some heat.
After Androkles had marched perhaps half a mile, the demon volunteered, “Dey wann’ed ta kill me because I bit off dat man’s fingew. He punched Flowew fow coughin’, and den he was gonna do it again so I bit him. Dat’s why he hanged me up.”
The slavers had punched Flower? An old, deep anger seethed under his skin, and he had to focus on keeping his killing intent under control. That child belonged to Androkles. No one else would survive abusing him. Once he knew he had himself under control, he told Seff, “That was very brave of you. Well done.” It felt like complimenting a scorpion for biting an enemy instead of a friend.
"Did Dana tell you ta come get me?” asked the demon.
“Dyana didn’t tell me to do anything. I’m on the way to rescue my boys and I found you on the way.”
“Oh,” said the demon quietly. Then after thinking about this for a moment, the boy quietly asked, “So you didn’ save me ‘cause you liked me?”
“What? What are you talking about?” asked Androkles crossly. When he got no answer, he said, “Why do you care if I like you, boy? What does that matter?”
The little demon kept his silence, and after another twenty paces, Androkles started to feel guilty, which was annoying. What was becoming of mighty Androkles? Was he now beholden to the opinions of tiny children? A demon’s brood, no less? What his friends would think, to see it! Nikon would laugh uproariously and give him a rude nickname. Euphemios would make horrible jokes about catamites. Thais… Thais would have given him an obnoxious, knowing, fatherly smile.
But Seff had bitten off a slave-taker’s finger, which should earn him some merit. Androkles could not help but feeling dirty as he said, “You’re brave, so I suppose I like you just fine.”
It didn’t feel like a lie as it left his lips. It had the taste of honesty. Slave-taker hits Flower, Seff bites slave-taker’s finger off. What was not to like?
Perhaps there were tribes of demons like there were tribes of people? Androkles’ Laophileans had about as much in common with the local barbarian slavers as this little boy did with the war demons he was used to. After all, this demon wasn’t the one that had ripped Euphemios apart with its bare teeth and laughed while Androkles shouted and wept, unable to break ranks to save a friend he loved more than his own skin. This demon had left it at a finger.
“I’m glad,” said Seff. “No one liked me unnew da wock.” The boy seemed content having said this and fell quiet.
Androkles’ back started getting sore from the weight imbalance, so he put the little boy on his shoulders like Dyana had done and set the bear skin over him. Seff folded his arms around the top of Androkles’ head and was soon asleep.