On the far side of the field, Androkles found the horse with his sons on it, which had made its way to one of the huts and begun eating from a pile of hay near a fenced-in enclosure that might count as a barn to a barbarian. It looked like his boys were still tied up on its back, which meant neither of them had fallen in the snow and been missed, thank the Orphan. Now all he had to do was sneak up and take the horse’s reins, and his sons would be his again.
“I see them. Keep quiet,” whispered Androkles, and the little demon nodded and held his hand more tightly. They quickly made their way over to the horse, which ignored them and focused instead on its dinner. His boys were facing away from him, but their tails were twitching and moving about, so they were probably awake. Fortunately, they both still had their shoes.
After considering his options, he decided not to steal the horse, since it seemed less likely he’d be pursued without it. He crept around where the boys could see him and untied their gags, putting his finger over their lips to keep them quiet. Pepper was so relieved tears welled up and dripped from his eyes, and Flower had to swallow a squeal of joy, but they kept quit. He gently slid them off the horse and carried them, one under each arm, away from the hut, with Seff following close behind. He ducked down behind a fire, hopefully out of sight of any approaching men, and set them down.
“How are you boys doing?” he asked quietly and he cut their bonds with his iron knife.
“Papa, you saved Seff! Thank you,” said Flower, seeing he was now allowed to talk.
“I did. Now answer me. Are you hurt?” said Androkles impatiently.
“The ropes hurt a lot, Papa. I thought my hands were gonna fall off,” said Flower, rubbing his wrists. “But I think I’ll be fine.”
“Mine too, and my shoulders ‘cause my arms were at an angle,” said Pepper. “But I’ll be fine too. And my knees hurt, though. But I’ll be fine.”
Androkles helped the boys rub some sense back into their arms and legs. Seff helped, or more accurately, tried and failed to help. His hands weren’t strong enough to do any good, but the boys didn’t mind so he let it be. The warmth from the fire helped put some life in their faces, and although they both looked tired, they would be able to walk.
“Are you ready to move?”
The three boys nodded.
“Follow me, and don’t make a sound. If you see someone, tap me to get my attention and point them out.”
“Papa, I don’t see anyone. Can’t we just sleep here?” asked Flower.
“I just said don’t make a sound. Now shut it!” Androkles whispered with a stern glare. Flower looked down and nodded, somewhat abashed. The red glow of the fires caught in the kit’s white fur and made Androkles nervous that he was bleeding somewhere and hadn’t noticed.
They kept low and crept toward the edge of the clearing and were almost into the dark of the trees when Seff squeaked and patted Androkles several times on the upper thigh. He pointed at a conspicuously large bush about forty paces from them, along the edge of the clearing.
Androkles stopped to watch and see what was going on, and soon he noticed darkest shadows moving beneath the bush. A moment later, a black figure darted out and stopped by one of the flat rocks. It had a tail, and when Androkles saw the horns, terror gripped him firmly and he knew it was a demon. Not a big one, but not a child. A youth or a female, perhaps. He pushed the boys flat on the ground, then hunched down himself, spear at the ready.
If it came towards them, he would kill it immediately or die trying. Little Seff had proven harmless, with the exception of a finger, but Androkles was not about to let his guard down. He had far too much experience with them.
Androkles muttered sincere prayers and curses both as he tried to school the terror roaring inside him. Having to face a demon alone, and in the dark? Insanity. Gods grant it didn’t see them.
They watched as the demon strained and pulled as hard as it could, trying to lift or upend the altar. The demon lacked the strength it needed for the task, however, no matter what it tried. It turned every which way and tried every corner and angle, but the altar didn’t budge.
“She wants ta let a little child out. Dewe’s a child and she wants ta save him!” said Seff passionately. Androkles looked down and saw that the little demon was so full of pity he was rocking back and forth.
“What?” Androkles asked.
“Papa!” said Flower, with pity in his eyes.
“Shh, you. Seff, what are you talking about?” asked Androkles.
“There’s a little child like me unner da rock, and she wants ta let him out! It’s pwobably his mama. Oh!” he moaned, heartbroken, hands covering his mouth.
Convinced, Flower begged, “Papa, you have to help her! Please Papa, please!”
“Papa, the men said they were gonna put Seff back under a rock. I think all these rocks have little children under them. Papa, you have to!” added Pepper, touching Androkles’ arm for effect.
Androkles looked at the three boys, thinking. They stared back at him with enormous, adorably pleading eyes. With their ears, all three of them looked like puppies desperate for table scraps, even if Seff’s were at the wrong angle.
He asked the little demon, “Dyana said she found you under a rock. She wasn’t joking, was she. Was it one of these?”
“Papa!” said Flower, both hands clenched tightly into fists in the dirt.
“Why would I go let another demon free?” he muttered to himself.
“Papa!” said Pepper. Both of his sons had suddenly gone from pleading to indignant, and they looked offended. He suspected they would hold this one against him for years if he didn’t give in. And looking inward, he discovered that much of his fear had gone. This seemed… manageable. Gods, they were going to watch him get ripped apart.
“Oh, stop it. I’m going. If you see the slave-takers coming, sneak into the woods. I’ll come find you once I’ve dealt with them.”
“Thank you, Papa,” his boys said in unison. Then they sweetly leaned over and kissed him on each cheek. Seff imitated them, which Androkles allowed.
He sighed, defeated yet again by manipulative children. Between them and Agurne, he may as well be an ox with a handy spear. He made his way over to the demon and was almost upon her before she noticed him. She hissed ferociously and jolted into a bare-handed fighting pose, teeth and claws bared.
She wore dark clothing of thick wool and leather with a graceless and primitive cut, and it appeared to be painted black. Her black hair was pulled back and tied to expose the dark, glossy horns jutting from her head. Her strangely reflective eyes almost seemed to glow in the flickering light of the fire. In such light, her skin showed none of its typical blue-black tint; instead, she almost looked like a shadow with teeth. Long, sharp, angry teeth. He showed her his palms, trying to indicate he meant no harm. “Can you talk?” he asked.
“I am not alone! Leave me!” she snarled at him.
He’d never been so close to an adult that wasn’t surrounded by a floating mist of the blood of his fellow soldiers. And although his heart pounded fiercely with fear that wound its way around in his chest and made it hard to breathe, he did not back away. He felt like a raw recruit again, terrified of battle. Gathering his courage, he took a deep breath and said, “I’m not with them. Need help with the rock?”
She looked confused, and her stance lost much of its enthusiasm. Mentally bracing himself to any sign of violence from her, he made a show of putting down his spear and slowly walked over to one corner of the rock.
The rock was about four feet by three and eight inches thick. In the dim light, it looked uncut, which made him wonder where they found so many flat boulders. It also looked incredibly heavy. But since Dyana had lifted one to steal Seff, he had to try. He dug out a place to put his fingers, then squatted and braced himself, and lifted with all the strength he possessed.
He heaved upward and stood, face flushed with blood and muscles bulging, rock lifted. The demon woman darted under the rock, then back out again, clutching a child even smaller than Seff to her bosom. Once she was free, he dropped the rock, which split in four pieces with a loud crack.
The demon woman knelt before him and took his hand, placing his knuckles against her forehead. “Thank you,” she said, then sprinted off as fast as she could manage. Androkles groaned aloud as he straightened his back. It would be sore tomorrow, more than normal. He hoped he could move at all. If not, he thought with a slight smile, that’d be a fitting end to him—freezing to death because he helped a demoness. In fact, helping a demon and not dying would be an act of injustice to all of Dikaia, so he had it coming now.
Androkles took a moment to look over the field again to determine if anyone had seen them. He could still see no one, just dozens of fires and large rocks. How many rocks were there? Twenty? More? He couldn’t tell—they were spread out haphazardly in between the fires, not lined up like soldiers. Did each of them have a demon child underneath it?
He couldn’t help but feel some sense of horror or injustice as the realization sank in. Hatred of demons was one thing—an admirable thing—but starving their children under rocks? It made no sense. It seemed too cruel. A good farmer killed wolves, but he didn’t do it slowly for pleasure. That seemed ignoble.
No, there was no way there were children under each of the rocks. Where would they have gotten so many? It must just be a place to keep one or two. But if so, why go through the effort? Those rocks were heavy.
He puzzled it over as he crept back to where his sons were. The boys lay just like he’d left them, watching everything with wide eyes that caught the light and glowed golden.
“Papa, did you hurt your back?” asked Flower with a note of sympathy.
“Maybe. I’ll be fine,” he replied. “Stay low to the ground. Let’s go find somewhere to sleep. Hopefully we can all fit under this bear skin.”
Pepper had to hold Flower’s stark white tail down because he kept waving it around, but they were not chased as they left the field. Once they were away from the campfire, Androkles took a long last look over the scene. At the far end, approaching from the east, he saw a group of what must be twenty men or more, most of them in gray, hauling in wood on litters. Thank the gods he’d managed to miss them.
And looking over the field, all he could think about were the rocks. He couldn’t stop wondering if each of them had a child underneath. He could hardly imagine what it would be like to be stuck in a cramped, dark, dirty hole for the gods knew how long. He got a lump in his throat as he pondered it before he realized that being exhausted was making him emotional and quashed it
Come to think of it, did demons birth their children like people and animals, or were they grown in the dirt like a crop? That demoness had known to snatch a child from under a rock, so perhaps she could smell it was ripe. He’d have to ask Agurne about it later; perhaps she might know, or perhaps the god Palthos would tell her.
Actually, that didn’t make sense. If that were the case, it would be demons stoking the fires, which he now assumed were to keep the ground warm, and not slave-takers. They must be stealing children, then, and not winning them in battle or collecting them as payment for debt. After all, no one would try to steal them back if they were won in battle.
But it was no concern of his, until they stole his children. Who cared if demon children were being stolen? And what would he do with a bunch of demon children anyway? How would he feed them? Where would he put them?
No, he was losing his mind. This was not something for him to get himself and his family further involved in. He put Seff back on his shoulders and thanked Diorthodon Path-clearer that his back only hurt when he bent over. His sons followed him quietly into the dark, following in the trail he forged through the snow. He had one goal, and only one goal: find Della and get his money back, with his family intact. There was nothing else for him in this dreary, frozen wilderness.
And as for Della, from time to time he saw people with hair that had been wavy and red like hers, so her people were out there somewhere. And two people since winter had dealt with Skythanders posing as merchants, following along the same road, so he knew he was still going in the right direction. None of them had known where ‘the Meadowlands’ were, but it was only a matter of time. Agurne said that the god wouldn’t let Androkles wander aimlessly until death, and he just had to trust that and keep moving. When Palthos Child-god was done with them, they’d find Della and his money and all return to live out their lives in modest luxury in Dikaia.
It certainly never got this cold on those golden fields of home, with the white houses and brightly painted temples and sanctuaries. The gates of brass, the paved roads. The market and forum. Good baths. Weather that ranged from cool to warm, but seldom hot or cold. Music. Food…
Satisfied that they were far enough away, he found a hollow under a wide evergreen without a hint of snow on the bed of needles beneath it. As he crawled in, his back stiffened involuntarily every time he moved it incorrectly, and it was with no small amount of groaning and concerned looks from the boys that he eased himself into a seated position. Flower sat on one leg, Pepper on the other, and Seff curled up across both of their laps. The bear skin was wide enough to more or less cover them, and even though Androkles’ ass would probably freeze solid by morning, at least no one would succumb to the chill.
“Papa, do you think there’s a child under every single rock?” asked Flower once he was snuggled in against one arm.
“I don’t think so. Where would they get so many? And why keep them under rocks?” he replied.
No one had an answer, and for a moment, no one spoke. Then Pepper said, “I think I know why. I think they put them under the rocks to make them mean.”
“What do you mean?” asked Androkles.
“Well… it’s because… after my first mama got killed, before I met Flower, I was starting to go crazy from being too alone. It was too hard to even just be alive and it was making my brain come apart. I can’t really explain it. But I think if I was stuck in a little hole like that all the time, I’d go crazy and be evil,” said Pepper.
“Ya… that was happening to me, too. Even after I met Pepper,” added Flower quietly. “I was so sad it made my chest hurt all the time. And we had no food or clothes or anything.”
Androkles thought about that for a moment. Late last summer, the kits had attempted to waylay him in a final, desperate bid to survive. Starving after being abandoned, Flower had hoped to steal his money and buy some bread, but they’d been too weak pull it off. Pepper had been so close to starvation that he couldn’t even stand, and Flower had been close. Even if the boy’s idea of biting a chunk out of Androkles’ leg had resulted in winning some money, they never would have made it back to town. He said, only half joking, “I suppose you’d have to be crazy to think biting me was a good idea.”
“Well, it worked, huh Papa? It worked,” said Flower. “Just not how we thought.”
Androkles snorted in amusement.
“You bit him?” asked Seff. He sounded intimidated by the idea.
Pepper answered, “Flower was gonna rob him, so he bit him to try and take his money. That’s how Papa met us. Papa saw we were starving and then he saved us. That’s how come we’re his sons now.”
Flower said, “Papa only looks scary. He’s really nice to children. Mama says--”
“Stop spreading rumors!” interrupted Androkles.
“--Mama says he’s like a baked nut. He’s only hard on the outside, and inside he’s soft and warm,” continued Flower.
“Flower, everyone is soft and warm on the inside,” said Androkles.
Pepper giggled, but Flower said, “That’s not what she meant. She meant that--”
“I know what she meant. You need to go to sleep. And so do I,” said Androkles. The conversation ended with that, and the sudden quiet seemed strange. He could tell his sons still wanted to speak with him, just to reassure themselves, perhaps; but he was truly, deeply exhausted, and that was that.
Seff seemed to be the first to sleep, followed by Flower, then after shuffling around a bit to get his black tail into a more comfortable position, Pepper. As Androkles slowly drifted toward the world of dreams, one thought kept nipping his toes, pulling him back—the thought of little demon children trapped under stones. It was only when he resolved that he would tell Agurne, who would know what to do about it, that his mind let him sleep.