“They make quite the little couple, don’t they?” asked Agurne.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, they do. Very cute,” said Dyana. Had that sounded sarcastic? It shouldn’t have.
Agurne didn’t seem to mind. “They’re inseparable. Sometimes I wonder if the fairy will decide to grow to regular size and try to marry her when she comes of age.”
“Can he do that?” Dyana asked. Fairy. That’s what they’d called him. She’d have to remember, or she might seem foolish.
“I have no idea. Hey Wolfscar, can you grow to person size if you want?”
“What, mama?” asked the fairy. He seemed surprised they were still there.
“Can you grow to person size if you want?”
“No, I’m a fairy so I have to be fairy size, but I also haven't tried,” he answered matter-of-factly. Then he turned back around and continued explaining something about rocks to Garbi, which made no sense at all in the snippets she could hear.
“Master Agurne, why would you think he can change his size?” asked Dyana, trying not to sound offensive. It was a silly thought, though. Such things were only possible to spirits, and he clearly had a physical form. He'd snuggled himself in between her breasts, and there was no mistaking it.
“Ha! He’s a tiny flying boy with dragonfly wings who glows like a star. He says he used to be a flower, and before that, he used to be old. Who knows what he can do?” she replied.
Dyana supposed that was a good point. “My tribe was wise, but we never heard of anything like him in all the elements and spirits.” She hoped that didn’t sound like boasting. “Where did you get him?”
“We traded him for a good puppy after the last harvest,” said Agurne with a straight face.
Dyana looked at her oddly; it seemed to be the only time she hadn’t seen the woman scowling or grinning. “A puppy?” she said.
Wolfscar’s little bird-voice came angrily from the scarf, “I am worth more than a puppy! You can’t trade me!”
Garbi stopped and turned around. “Mama, why don’t we stop and tell her the story? This blanket is getting heavy…”
“See that tree? The one just over that hill? That one looks big enough to rest under, and you can tell her there,” said Agurne, pointing.
“Mama, that’s far! I’m too tired,” said Garbi, her face becoming pouty.
“It’s not that far! Just walk, and you’ll be there before you know it!” said Agurne.
Dyana could see the cracks in the edges of the woman’s good spirits, and behind the face she put on for the little girl lay anxiety and exhaustion. Seeing it felt almost like an intrusion into an intimate moment, so Dyana caught up to Garbi and said, “I’ll just carry her.”
Garbi stepped back several times and shouted, “No!”, her face white as the snow.
Confused, Dyana said, “Why not?”
Agurne said, “She doesn’t want any blood on her. Look at yourself. In fact, let’s stop for just a moment to bandage you up. You didn’t seem to mind so I let you be, but you’re dripping.” She set down the bundle she was carrying and rummaged in one of the sacks around her waist for a roll of cloth bandages.
“Mama, can I put this down?”
“Yes. Now come here, Dyana. Hold your arms out,” said Agurne.
Dyana obliged, and Agurne tied about ten of the strips of cloth around the nastier cuts and slashes on Dyana’s arms and legs. None of them were long enough to wind around her torso, so Dyana untied the cloth across her breasts and retied it around the cut on her side.
Garbi watched with curiosity and blushed, either from cold or embarrassment, clearly trying to decide what she thought about the matter. Dyana patiently explained, “Where I come from, the women don’t cover their chests, and children never wear any clothes at all. Too much clothing is indecent, arrogant, and restrictive.”
“Ha!” barked Agurne. “Indecent, she says. Too much clothing is also warm. Do your people never get cold?”
“Not anything like here. I used to think I knew what cold was, but I was wrong. I used to think cold was when it was windy and rainy at the same time. No one ever told me about snow,” answered Dyana. “Why do you live in such a miserable place, anyway? Does it ever get warm?”
In a sage tone of voice, Garbi explained, “It gets warm every spring. It’s only cold in winter. Then there’s spring, and summer, and autumn, and then winter again.”
“I guess I haven’t been here long enough to see spring,” said Dyana. It made sense they would have seasons, even if they had four instead of two. And even if it warmed up sometimes, these people were incredibly silly for living in such an inhospitable place. The injuries she’d taken in the fight were really starting to sting, but she did her best to keep a smooth face.
Once the bandages were tied, Dyana used scoops of snow to wash herself off as much as she could.
Garbi protested, “How come you aren’t freezing!”
Dyana smirked and said, “Look at my feet.” The circulating vitality in her body had melted the snow a couple finger’s breadths around her feet, and Garbi was suitably impressed.
“How do you do that?”
Dyana wondered how much she should tell her. “It’s just something my father taught me. It takes years to learn, though, and it’s either boring or painful the whole time. But it’s kept me alive, so I’m glad I learned it. Am I clean enough now? Can I pick you up?”
“Won’t I be too heavy? Are you tired, Master Dyana?” asked Garbi shyly.
“I’ll be fine.”
Garbi nodded and held her arms out, and Dyana picked her up and set her on her shoulders without any difficulty. The girl was heavier than she looked, but Dyana wasn’t about to admit that now.
“I’ll just fly so you don’t have to carry me,” said Wolfscar helpfully. He jumped into the air and flew in front of them, lighting the way and looking every bit the dutiful vanguard. Dyana found it quite droll.
“Well, if you get cold again, I can handle the extra weight,” said Dyana. She hadn’t noticed any difference.
They trudged along, and Agurne lagged further and further behind. Finally, she stopped to pant with her hands on her knees. “It all has to be uphill, doesn’t it?” she said angrily.
“Come on, Mama, it’s not that bad. We’re almost there!” said Garbi.
“You’re not even walking! Don’t say a word, you rat. Or I’ll make you drag me,” said Agurne.
“Are you okay?” asked Dyana. The poor woman must be exhausted, after fear and worry and fighting. And she was fat, too, so moving must take more effort for her. It was a wonder she was moving at all.
“I’m fine! It’s just all the snow. It makes it more tiring than it deserves. Where’s that poxy ogre when you need him?” complained Agurne, sounding unusually sincere.
“Hmm?” asked Dyana.
“I want to be carried too!” said Agurne.
Dyana snickered at that. Garbi said with some amusement, “Mama, you’re too fat!”
“That’s why I need Androkles! Who else could do it?”
“Master Agurne, perhaps I should walk behind you and poke you with a stick to make sure you keep moving,” said Dyana, trying not to grin too widely.
“Oh, listen to you, you cheeky pisser! Keep it up and I’ll sprinkle poison ivy on your teats while you’re asleep!”
Garbi bellowed, “Mama!” in shock, then began giggling uncontrollably.
The banter died out before long as they resolved themselves to keep marching through the snow. Dyana was getting tired despite breathing in a steady supply of vitality to keep it circling inside her, but she refused to let on and kept her stride even and strong. Agurne kept up just fine, although Dyana could hear her panting loudly the whole way up the long, easy slope of the hill. Once they reached the top, the wide tree they were aiming for was just as Agurne had said—its broad, thick boughs kept the snow off a bed of dry needles a dozen feet across. They had to crawl in to get there, but once they were settled, it was both spacious and warm.
Garbi curled up next to Agurne and rested her head on the woman’s lap, and Wolfscar nestled so far into the scarf that none of his glow got out. Agurne gently stroked Garbi’s cheeks, brushing away her hair, and patted her on the head.
Garbi sat up suddenly. “I forgot to tell about the tartalo. Mama, can I tell her now?”
“The what?” asked Dyana.
“Once upon a time… it was actually half a year ago, or something like that. It was before the winter. In the fall. But there was a monster called a tartalo, and it was a god that fell and turned into a monster. For a long time, it caught people and ate them. It caught us too and put me in a cave. It ate my other parents. But it kept me there for a long, long time. Every single second, I was scared that it was going to eat me, too. I was so scared that it felt in my heart like it was going to break and I was going to die. And it was a really long time, and I got so lonely…”
Garbi fell quiet, and Agurne tenderly ran her fingers along the girl’s hair and face. A strange feeling entered the area, a quiet warmth that made everything seem peaceful. Dyana was confused at first, but quickly realized that it was coming from Agurne. The woman was radiating it, somewhat like Garbi had done herself for Seff just that afternoon. Dyana leaned forward and looked at Garbi, only to see her a tear from her face. She looked calm, though.
“It’s okay, my princess. It’s okay, my precious thing,” cooed Agurne softly.
“I know, Mama. But I still miss my old mama, too,” Garbi said.
“That’s not all that happened, is it? What happened that saved you?” asked Agurne.
“I know, Mama. I was getting to that. You don’t have to tell me. But Dyana, it was Wolfscar. The tartalo had some plants that he threw in the pit with me, and one of them was a big flower, and inside it was Wolfscar. And I woke him up and then we became friends. He turned into a boy fairy so he could be my hero, and then he brought me lots of food, like apples and berries. And water, sometimes. He would carry it in a leaf, only a little bit at a time. Having Wolfscar made it so I could live. That’s why we’re best friends. And he even helped Papa save me. So that’s where we got him.”
When Garbi said nothing further, Dyana realized that was the end of the story. “So wait, who saved you? The bear-man? Androkles?” she asked.
“Yes, Papa dad. The tartalo caught him too, but then he saved me and got me out, and he killed the tartalo with his spear. But I don’t remember that part because I was asleep.”
“What… does a tartalo look like?” asked Dyana.
“Oh, it’s… kind of person-shaped but it’s a big monster. It was twice as tall as Papa, or even more than that. And it was all gray and had one big eye. And it had a fat belly.”
“A giant? You’re telling me that Androkles killed a giant, by himself?”
“No, a giant is different, I think. It was the tartalo. But maybe a tartalo is a kind of giant that used to be a god.”
“Huh. So is that why he calls himself Giant-slayer? And you called him God-slayer once. A fallen god that became a giant. That must have been quite a fight.”
Agurne answered and said, “No, I called him God-slayer because he killed the goddess Mari.”
“I’m sorry, he what?”
“Oh, she had it coming. Palthos masterminded the whole thing. Androkles belongs to him, and he’s very jealous of his toys,” said Agurne.
“Who is Palthos, again?”
“Palthos Orphanminder. The Trickster, the Child, the Orphan. He’s my patron deity. I’ve been his servant since I was a girl, even though it was a secret for most of my life.”
“I’ve never heard of him, but we don’t honor any gods in my tribe. Only the spirits, great and small. The spirits answer us. The gods do not.”
“Well, perhaps the gods aren’t the same everywhere. Androkles had never heard of Mari.”
“That man does seem violent enough to do something so foolish as killing a goddess,” said Dyana. She immediately wished she had been more guarded, though, because Agurne took offense. The woman scowled and turned her head away, and the peaceful feeling immediately vanished. They sat in very uncomfortable silence for a long while. Dyana found herself feeling incredibly guilty in a way her mind couldn’t justify. She could feel the guilt almost crawling along in her nerves, almost enough to make her shiver. If she offended Agurne, the woman might perhaps part ways with her the next chance she got. That thought was nearly unbearable. Something in her longed for Agurne’s approval and companionship.
Finally Dyana spoke, “I’m sorry, Master Agurne. I didn’t mean it.” She hoped she sounded appropriately contrite.
“Oh, you did too mean it. Listen, girl, you have the wrong idea about him. Androkles is the most honorable, loving man I’ve ever met. Do you know where he got those boys? He found them starving at the side of the road. They were hours away from dying, and he wrapped them up in his own cloak and ran with them all night long in his own pissing arms to save their lives, because that’s just the kind of man he is. He killed six bandits and a mess of wolves to keep them alive while he fed them, day after day, all by himself. Then he pulled them in a cart, all by himself, mind you, for three or four days in the rain to get them to my village where they’d be safe,” said Agurne, rushing angrily from one sentence to the next.
“I never imagined. I’m sorry,” said Dyana. Had she truly misjudged him?
“Oh, I’m not done yet! Then, after he leaves them with me, he kills the tartalo, all by himself, and saves Garbi. Then he drags her all the way to the King’s big city to find her a home, because that’s just the kind of man he is. He cares for children and he keeps his word. And let me tell you, that monster was exactly as Garbi described. I never saw it, but I know men who did, and she was telling the truth.
“And Mari! The thing with Mari. Let me tell you about her. She was as evil as you can imagine. Every year she ate one of our children alive and made the parents watch. She called it her sacrifice. Well, one year it was my child. My little girl, younger than Garbi and every bit as precious. I watched that wretched murdering scorpion of a blighted, miasmic goddess eat my little girl, bite by bite. My husband hung himself not long after. Every day of my life I prayed to Palthos for revenge. Every day I lived in despair, and the only thing that kept me going was the hope that Palthos would deliver. And he did. Androkles came back, and he fought her to the last drop of his blood and won. The only reason he didn’t die in the fight is because Palthos saved him. And let me tell you, seeing that man fighting Mari and killing her and getting me my revenge, I fell in love with him forever. I fell in love with him before I even really understood just how noble he was. He’s a better man than he even realizes. You should thank the gods you got to breathe the same air as him. Just don’t tell him I said so,” said Agurne. And with that, she fell silent.
Dyana sat and processed all of this. After a moment, the peaceful feeling returned, and Garbi settled back down to sleep.
“Master Agurne, you said your husband hung himself. Isn’t Androkles your husband?”
“No, I meant my first one. I’ll marry the ogre someday, though.”
“I was wondering how the two of you made boys with tails. Flower and Pepper look nothing like either of you.”
“And now you know where we got them.”
“I do. So when are you going to marry him?”
Agurne turned and looked Dyana in the eyes again, and this time the anger was gone. “I’ll marry him when he fights for me. He’s fought for Garbi, and the boys, and his honor, but not me yet. When he does, I’ll marry him. Not before. And don’t tell him that either! I’ve got him thinking there’s a tradition he knows nothing about, and each time he asks it gets better and better. Now you go to sleep, too. You’ve lost a lot of blood and you won’t get any back by staying up all night.”
“What about you?”
“Dear girl, has no one told you? Mothers never sleep. My love is keeping Garbi warm, and I don’t want her to freeze to death. Now rest. We’ve got to go find that stinking ogre of a man tomorrow, and I bet he won’t be in a good mood,” said Agurne. She turned to look placidly into the darkness of the night.
Before she could rest, however, one thing still bothered Dyana, and she had to ask, “Do you think he’ll save Seff, too?”
“Girl, next time you see him, he’ll be kissing that boy on his head like his own son. Mark my words. He can’t help himself.”
“But what if he’s right about Seffy, and he’s going to grow up to be a monster?”
“He isn’t, and he won’t. Now go to sleep, girl.”
Dyana closed her eyes, and a strange pressure on her mind pushed her into sleep before she was ready.