The trail led him over a tall hill and down into a bare valley, and at the far end, perhaps a quarter-mile away, he could finally see his prey. They appeared as shadows against the white snow, almost invisible in the ash-colored clothing they wore. He would have missed them were it not for the horses, whose black shapes stood out plainly against the scenery.
“Boy! Wake up,” he said quietly, nudging the child.
The demon boy shifted and stirred on his shoulders, then groggily said, “What?”
“I found the slave-takers. I’m going to start running. Can you hold on if I run?” Androkles asked.
The little boy thought for a moment, then said, “Yeah.”
“Good. Now hold on. Hold on, I said!”
The boy squatted down and firmly held his arms around Androkles’ forehead and tucked his ankles under Androkles’ arms. “I’m weady.”
Androkles took a deep breath, then raced as fast as he could toward the slavers, which he felt was pretty fast for someone with a child on his shoulders. It was enough—he was catching up. He hoped they wouldn’t flee as soon as they noticed.
They didn’t. When he was only fifty paces from them, they stopped and turned to face him. When he saw that they weren’t running, he stopped as well to put Seff down, wrapping him up nicely in the bearskin and sticking him in the hollow under a tree. “Stay here until I come back. No matter what. Got it?”
“Are you stwong like Dana?” asked the demon with apprehension, gazing at the dark shapes of the men ahead.
“I’m the strongest man alive. I’ll be right back, so don’t move.”
The demon nodded uneasily. Androkles found himself tussling the boy’s hair, then he headed down the trail.
The slave-takers’ silhouettes melted in and out of the shadows as they passed between him and the two horses, but at least he could see the horses clearly. One carried a man, and it appeared Flower and Pepper lay tied across the other like bags of grain. That couldn’t be comfortable. As he got closer, he saw that two of the men on foot readied lassos in preparation for his arrival, and the other two had bizarrely long swords at the ready. Those swords must have been well over three feet—long enough to be javelins. When he finally reached them, they spread out several paces from each other, giving themselves plenty of room for fighting.
They knew how to at least look like fighting men, then. Androkles considered trying to act friendly and perhaps reach some agreement, but he simply wasn’t in the mood after being dragged behind a horse and trudging through the snow half the night. He approached, planted his spear, readied his hoplon, and declared firmly, “You have taken what’s mine. Give them back to me, or I will cut you down and leave your blood on the snow for the Hewer.”
A rope-man replied, “Drop your weapons and become a slave, or we’ll cut your feet off and let you freeze.”
Both of his sons squirmed and tried to adjust themselves on the horse to see what was going on, but they were tied too tightly to move much. They made moaning sounds though their gags as they tried to shout, and the sound of it shook him.
With a bit more volume and sincerity than he intended, he shouted, “I am Androkles Giant-slayer, son of Paramonos of Dikaia! My name is known in the court of the gods! Kings cower at the sound of my footsteps, and you dare threaten me! Me!”
Two of the men snorted and the rest gave somewhat forced chuckles.
The horseman said, “You better keep your voice down before Camulus hears you, idiot. He loves rewarding stupid boasts with actual giants.” The others laughed, but it was nervous and forced.
“I have no fear of your gods. If the gods loved you, they would have taught you not to be barbarians. Maybe they’re too simple to know better.”
“Stranger, our gods would roast yours on a spit.”
Androkles replied, “My gods would laugh at your pathetic lands and stunted peoples and go back to proper civilization without a second thought. Our slaves are better bred than your kings. Now give me back my boys!”
“Why should we?” said the other rope-man.
“Because they’re my! boys! Mine!”
“Hear that? Those are his boys, men. His!” said the horseman. Androkles found he hated him more than the rest.
No one held the reins of the horse with Flower and Pepper on it, and he gave a slow, malicious grin as he realized this fight would be simpler than he was expecting—he didn’t have to worry about harming the little ones with his killing intent after all.
His fingers ached from the cold as he clenched his spear, but to him it felt like thirst for blood. He began walking purposefully toward them.
“Men, I think he means to kill us!” said the rider in mock horror. The others laughed, and this time it sounded sincere. Their pale teeth stood out strangely against the gray ash on their faces, making them look like some sort of spirits. “Men, shall we bother to catch him to sell? He looks big enough for heavy work.”
“Nah, he’s getting old. Look, his hair is starting to gray. He’ll be dead by spring.”
When he got close enough they raised their weapons to come at him, Androkles unchained his killing intent. It burst from him in a sudden crash like a thunderclap, but not as strong as he could make it.
Just enough to make the horses run. His genuine anger made it stronger than he intended, but it had the desired effect. The horses screamed, reared up, and fled as quickly as they could in different directions. The rider wasn’t thrown, but neither were the boys, thank the Path-clearer; it wouldn’t do for one of them to have a broken leg. Or neck. Gods, why hadn’t he thought of that?
No matter. The slave-takers had all been stunned by Androkles’ suddenly intimidating presence. He knew what it felt like for them; terror in the gut, enemy looking stronger and taller and more ferocious with every breath that passed.
Their mouths dropped open and they shied back as he increased his fury. For a moment they looked like they were about to follow the horses, and he could feel their fear conflicting with their courage.
“What...” started one of them, unable to finish. Another one, who looked younger than the rest, fell to his knees and vomited.
“Did I not tell you I was Androkles Giant-slayer?” he said.
Now this—this—was how these men should have reacted to him in the first place. Androkles bared his teeth in a dark grin. After killing Mari, he had wanted to call himself God-slayer, but that would have been pressing his luck with the gods that actually mattered. Either way, he was a man to be feared and respected. Noble blood. Accomplishment in war. Strong.
He slowly increased his killing intent bit by bit as he took deliberate, menacing steps toward them. The slave-takers trembled and cowered, and one by one they collapsed to the ground. Two moaned in terror, rolling into a ball and clutching their heads in their hands. One held his throat with eyes bulging as he tried to catch his breath. The one who had vomited twitched like he’d taken a roof tile to the skull.
These men dared steal from him? These men? Pathetic. Androkles’ rage burned fierce and wild, and the snow sizzled and become steam in a circle around him. He forced it higher and higher, savoring how it spread out into the air. His rage would be felt for miles around, perhaps even far enough for Agurne to sense it. His boys surely would, and they would know he was still coming to save them.
These men in front of him, however, were going to die. Androkles set his spear aside and drew his xiphos. The leaf-blade smoked in the air as the oil burned off; he’d have to tend to it later.
The first was the man who lay convulsing; Androkles opened his stomach widely enough for his guts to fall on the snow in a lump. He would freeze in a matter of minutes. The next two, he opened veins under their arms and legs; they would survive just long enough to realize they were bleeding to death. The choking one stared up at him, quivering on the ground. Androkles stabbed the xiphos right through the man’s eye, far enough to puncture the back of his head. Then he placed his heel on the man’s jaw and yanked the sword out.
Satisfied, his killing intent faded and vanished to let them regain their senses. He wiped the blood from his sword as they slowly began trying in vain to save themselves, shouting in terror. He turned and left them to their fate, very pointedly not looking back. He walked back toward where he’d left Seff, and as he trudged back through the snow, he realized that his feet were dry. His anger had made all the water evaporate. That made him smile. Sometimes things just worked out. He should leave a sacrifice for the gods at some point; a real one, like a bull, not another bird caught by a very sneaky Pepper.
The demon lay curled in a ball, wrapped as tightly in the bear skin as he could manage. Androkles had to pat him gently and speak softly to get him to uncurl, but it turned out that the boy had been sleeping, not terrified. Curious. Maybe to a demon, Androkles’ intent had been nothing unusual? More likely he had just been far enough away not to be harmed, although he must certainly have felt it.
“Did you fin’ dem?” asked the demon when he was fully awake again.
Androkles lifted him back up onto his shoulders and said, “I did, and I killed the men who stole you.”
“Whewe awe dey?”
“The boys? They’re still on the horse. I just have to go get them now, but they’re safe.”
“Dey’we still on da ho’se?”
“Yes, and it ran off. But I can find it.”
“Whewe did it go?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“How will you find it den?”
“By following the tracks, of course.”
“You can follow da twacks?”
“Yes. That’s how I found you. I followed the tracks in the snow.”
“I didn’ know dat.” Then the demon fell silent, considering the snow in front of them.
Androkles marched onward with a new lightness in his step that wasn’t entirely due to his now-dry clothing. It wouldn’t be long before he found the boys and the horse, and he’d could just keep them on it and lead the horse back. Then he’d get Garbi and Agurne back, if they and Dyana hadn’t managed it yet, and find the cart. And then they could continue on, except he wouldn’t have to walk anymore because he had a new horse. Perhaps he could leave an offering for Diorthodon Path-clearer, if the god was going to do his job for once.
Seff was soon asleep again, content to see after a few minutes that trails in snow can indeed be followed. And if the boy wanted to sleep, Androkles was going to let him—the last thing he wanted to deal with tomorrow was a cranky, tired demon. This one bit fingers off.
And after not more than a half mile of wilderness, which may as well have been a long, dark tunnel for all the scenery he could pick out in the dark, he saw the light of campfires glowing against the frost just beyond a small hill. Judging from the trail, the horse had crested that hill.
If the area ahead was lit up at this hour, long after most people would have gone to bed, it was most likely an outpost or way station of some kind, and that likely meant more armed men. Just his luck, there’d be a handful more of the gray-painted slave-takers to receive the horse, take his boys off it, and hold them hostage.
Seff awoke for a moment, roused by Androkles’ stopping and looking around. Androkles shushed him when the boy tried to speak and after that, he kept quiet but remained awake and gripped Androkles’ head tightly with those little fingers of his that almost, but not quite, felt like claws.
Androkles crept as quietly as he could around the side of the hill, careful to stay behind cover where he’d be harder to spot. He hoped that the light from the fires would blind anyone who was awake, but that was unlikely—no guard worth the name would be looking toward the flames.
And there was an awful lot of firelight. He decided there must be dozens of fires, or perhaps a couple very big ones. Any other lands but these, and he might think we had found a village. However, in the last four weeks he hadn’t seen a single one. These people lived in nothing but shaggy, primitive farms and the occasional fortified hilltop. Androkles had been amazed that they were even civilized enough to wear clothes and speak words, living like they did. Agurne had become indignant when he told her that, even though they weren’t her people.
But why would there be so much light so late at night? Maybe Androkles had the good fortune of finding an enormous convocation of slave-takers, all meeting for some winter festival to exchange their wares and abuse Skythander children.
When he got close enough to see, however, he found nothing like he’d expected. Instead, before him lay a large, empty field with a few circular huts on the north end. Evenly spaced, low-burning fires melted away the snow to expose the bare ground. The fires weren’t as bright as he expected—they were mostly hot coals, but in the darkness so many of them infused the area with a warm, red glow.
And most curiously of all, large, flat stones lay at even intervals between all the fires. Some sort of barbarian religious grounds, then, with shoddy little altars everywhere with no statues or offerings. What sort of god would want such a thing? Twenty or so bare altars?
Obscure barbarian religion was not worth pondering, however, until he had more important matters under control. The horse’s tracks led directly toward the middle of the clearing, although the trail disappeared on the bare dirt. He still had further to go, then. Deep, genuine weariness grew more and more pronounced with each step he took. It was the cold; it sapped all his strength and carrying a demon child on his shoulders didn’t help.
Other than dancing shadows and low flames, nothing in the field moved. There had to be people around to tend the fires, so where were they? This many fires would require a team of men hauling wood day and night to keep the fires stoked. Perhaps they all went together to gather more?
Androkles found what he considered to be a good vantage point and leaned against a tree to watch for a moment to see if he saw anyone, or the horse the boys were on. Soon, however, his eyelids were drooping, and he knew he couldn’t afford to wait any longer. He muttered a curse under his breath and gripped his spear tightly, then walked into the clearing and the light of the fires.
Once he stepped onto the bare ground of the clearing, he discovered that the fires burned hot and close enough together to provide an almost comfortable warmth. They even kept the dirt thawed and soft. The mild air did nothing to help his weariness, and he soon found the sleeping child on his shoulders to be much heavier than before. The ground seemed warm enough for the barefoot boy to walk on, at least for a while, and make it easier for them to keep a low profile.
He woke Seff by gently setting the boy feet-first on the ground. However, as soon as Seff woke and saw where he was, he hugged tightly to Androkles’ leg and began sobbing through clenched teeth. It happened quickly, too, before Androkles had much time to react.
“Shh! Seff, what’s the matter? You need to shut up!” hissed Androkles, looking around more carefully to see if anyone was going to pop out from behind an altar and shoot them with an arrow.
Seff tried to inhale deep enough to speak, then said, with a movingly pathetic voice, “Please don’ put me back, Master Andokwes. I’m sowwy!” He kept grabbing more and more tightly, clutching Androkles’ wool pant legs as though his life depended on it.
Nearly sobbing, he cried, “Please don’ put me back. Please! I’m sowwy!” Then, keening all the while, the boy tried to climb his way back up to sit on Androkles’ shoulders. When he couldn’t, he protested, “I fought you liked me!”
“What are you talking about? I’m not going to leave you here, or anywhere. But I am going to hit you if you don’t stop making noise, so shut it!”
The boy suddenly started holding his breath to be quiet, but he shuddered as tears streamed down his cheeks and dripped onto his chest. Each breath the little demon took was sharp and accompanied by a little whimper. Androkles scowled and knelt down, then hugged the boy and patted his back to try to get him to shush.
“I’m sowwy, Master Andokwes. I’ll be quiet,” whispered the boy after a moment. “Please don’t put me back unner da wock.”
“There’s a good boy,” replied Androkles quietly. All that time, and all that noise, and nothing had moved but the shadows and flames. Could there truly be no one around? Where had they all gone? He took the little demon’s hand and crouched low as they made their way between the fires. The dirt, while not exactly soft, received the impression of the horse’s hooves, and the light from the fires was just bright enough to let Androkles see the trail if he looked closely. He noticed the ice in the tips of his beard melting, and it occurred to him for the thousandth time how much he missed the weather in the Glories.