The sun slipped past noon before Androkles finally managed to get the boys back to the campfire. No one had slept well in the short, cold hours before dawn, and the kits were both cranky this morning. They dragged their feet and complained about being hungry the entire way, as if Androkles could do anything about it except grit his teeth and make them keep marching. Seff, on the other hand, had kept quiet for the most part, except to say how glad he was he didn’t have to walk because his legs would turn to ice.
The ruined camp was quickly made more welcoming. The slave-takers had never come back to clean up the camp and much had been left behind that was useful. A couple blankets had caught on bushes, and a bowl had fallen from the cart and rolled to rest near the fire. Even the hatchet remained stuck in the end of a firewood log, which was all still dry. The sparker was right where he’d left it, and in no time at all a healthy fire burned in the ring of stones.
To the boys’ relief, although the crust of the bread had burned, the inside was still edible, and once the fire had thawed it out a bit, they got to break out a chunk and have their breakfast.
Seff’s eyes grew wide when he saw his meal and he ate with surprising focus, as though he’d never had bread before, which Androkles supposed was entirely possible. Once the boys had been fed and were curled up in a blanket by the fire, their spirits quickly improved. Flower and Pepper started teasing Seff by trying to tickle him. He seemed genuinely uncomfortable and unsure how to react, so Androkles decided to rescue him by leaping in and tickling Flower and Pepper mercilessly, laughing in a deep and malicious voice.
They struggled and laughed until they coughed, and when Seff had figured out what was going on and reached for Pepper’s armpit to join in, Androkles shouted, “Attack my son, will you?” Then he picked the little demon up and made as if he was eating the boy’s stomach, which resulted in a fit of giggles as Seff squirmed with all his might to get away. Then Androkles held him out at arm’s length and tickled him under the armpits while he wiggled and shook, only putting him down once he started getting short of breath.
Flower and Pepper looked at Seff with a predatory gleam in their eye, and all bets were off from that point. Androkles stepped back to let them at it and started gathering the things strewn about the camp with a mingled sense of relief and growing unease. The boys were safe, but the cart was gone, along with all their food, clothing, tools, and the dozens of silvers that he had hoped would last them all the way to the Meadowlands.
He paused to consider whether he should be going after Agurne now. How long should he wait before he went to find them, he wondered? He knew he should be worried, but he wasn’t. Not really. It was inconceivable to him that Agurne could be in any real danger--she got the better of everyone she came across, himself included. Nonetheless, she was a woman with only a woman’s strength in her fists. Everyone had limits.
Androkles decided he would let the boys play for just a bit longer before going looking for her, since it would do them some good to get their minds further from terror of the previous night.
Looking at them now, though, one would never guess they’d just been kidnapped and retrieved. Flower and Pepper mimicked monsters of some sort, lumbering and snarling with their ears flat and wagging their tails in a predatory manner as they chased Seff around the campfire. The little demon didn’t want to get too far away from it, which made him easy prey. Every so often he would yell, “Wait, stop! I’m cold,” and then hold various parts of his body as close to the fire as he dared to warm up, then race off again without warning.
After a short while, Androkles heard something behind him, and turned to see Dyana emerging from the brush. He nearly gasped out loud in shock—she was bloodied and bandaged from head to foot, and had on a tunic now instead of just a cloth. Where had that come from? Her eyes were red and her cheeks wet with tears. And worst of all, she was alone. Agurne, Garbi, and Wolfscar were nowhere to be seen.
“Where are my women!” he shouted at her, hoping he sounded more angry than terrified. The boys stopped in their tracks, mouths hanging open.
“Dana!” howled Seff, horrified. He ran up to her but stopped short of jumping on her, probably for fear of hurting her.
“Oh spirits, it’s not…! They’re fine! They’re at the cart!” said Dyana with her hands outstretched to pacify him. She appeared completely nonplussed, which he did not find reassuring. “They’re safe.”
“Where are they?” he said again, firmly.
“Dana…” said Seff. He sounded like he was about to start crying.
Dyana picked the boy up, wincing a bit in pain, and quietly told him, “I’m fine, Seffy. I’m okay. See? I can pick you up and everything.” He tried to position himself where he wouldn’t push on her bandages, but Dyana just pulled him into a tight hug and held him until he gave up and clung to her with both arms, legs, and thin, whip-like tail.
She said, “Your women are at the cart. We got in a little fight but I’m the only one who got hurt. On the way back, we found the cart coming the other direction. Then the ox got stuck, so you need to come pull him out.”
Androkles gave her a long, uncomfortable, appraising stare. It appeared she had been beaten and whipped, and some of the wounds had split open. What could have hurt her, after a punch from him had not?
The young woman’s expression made him think of someone who is trying to appear honest, not because they’re lying, but because they know how deceptive it looks. After a moment’s consideration, he found himself believing her. That cloth looked familiar, and that tunic was only barely sewn. Agurne must’ve thrown it together and made her put it on.
He finally asked, “Who attacked you? You said you could handle the slave-takers just fine.”
She quickly looked away and said, “Can we talk about that later? Master Agurne will be cross if we take too long.” She placed her hand awkwardly on Seff’s back, as though she was shielding him. She furtively met Androkles’ gaze, then looked away again. Something about the way she was holding him looked uncomfortable. Tense.
Seff flicked his tail, a mindless habitual motion, and in that moment, Androkles realized what had happened. “You fought one, didn’t you? Why are you alive?” he asked.
“I don’t… I don’t want to talk about it with…” she said, glancing toward Seff with a troubled expression.
She had fought a demon, then. He was certain. By the gods, were these lands simply infested with them? How under the swinging purse of Thuellos Sky-god could anyone stand to live here, if so? But she fought one and lived somehow, and now she knew what the little one would someday become. From the look on her face, he might be able to talk her into letting him strangle Seff now, if he pressed her about it.
And if he still wanted to, which he didn’t. Agurne would know what to do with the little creature, or the god would, and she could ask him as his Priestess.
“Dana? How did you get huwted?” asked the little demon.
Androkles stepped closer and said, “Seff, why don’t I carry you for a bit until she’s not so sore. Come here.” Then he pried the little demon from her arms. She didn’t resist, but Seff did, a bit.
“Master Andokwes, is she huwt weally bad? Is she okay?” asked Seff, in a voice so full of concern it stuck in his heart as much as his ears.
“You see how she’s up walking around? She’ll be fine, or she wouldn’t be walking. But why don’t you give her a kiss, just to make sure?” said Androkles. With a flash of self-consciousness, he wondered where on earth this womanly behavior was coming from, but he decided he could do as he pleased, and a curse on whoever had a problem with that. He held the little demon out toward her to kiss her on the cheek, which he did. Once the boy was back atop Androkles’ shoulders with a blanket over him, Androkles picked up his hoplon again with a deliberate, peevish sigh, grabbed his spear, and said, “Alright, let’s go rescue that accursed gorgon from her predicament.”
For a moment Dyana just gave him an inscrutable look.
“What? Get moving, girl! And you better not be lying to me, got it? If you lied and they’re in trouble, I won’t forgive you,” said Androkles, scowling and trying to sound blustery as usual. Watching those boys giggle must have taken it all out of him, though, because it was as insincere as it sounded.
She turned slowly to face down the road, sparing one last glance back to Seff, sitting comfortably on Androkles’ shoulders.
“What? I decided I like him. Now get moving!” he said, gesturing forward with the spear.
“Sorry, I’m going. I just… have a lot on my mind. And I was so happy to see him playing like that that I forgot myself,” said Dyana.
“Yes, well, girls are silly, and that’s to be expected. Flower and Pepper, she’s just standing there. How do you get an ox moving?” he asked with a mostly-stern face.
His boys both grinned like they were getting away with something and went to slap her rump. Flower simply ran up and swung, but Dyana evaded his clumsy attempt with grace; then Pepper came out of nowhere and slapped her directly on target with a loud smack. Dyana shrieked and exclaimed, “I’m going! Oh, you wicked little rat! Come here!” Pepper dodged away when she came after him for revenge, and Seff found this hilarious and laughed hard, almost like a bark. He squirmed around like he wanted to jump down and join in, but Androkles held him in place.
“You! Whose side are you on!” Dyana told Seff, pointing with an accusing finger. Her lips turned up into a slightly bitter smile. Then she had to duck away from Flower, who tried to give her another wide and graceless slap. “Alright! I’m going. Stop! Don’t make me move too fast. It hurts.”
Flower stepped back and looked chagrinned. Pepper appeared beside him and sheepishly said, “Sorry if I made you get hurt more.”
Dyana relaxed, and the worry now seemed gone from her face. Roughhousing was how you cheered up a young man; Androkles had plenty of experience with that. Apparently, it also worked on young women. Not Garbi, though. Garbi wasn’t even ticklish when she was upset.
“You didn’t hurt me. The cart is just past that bend up ahead.”
They did not have to go far, perhaps half a mile. The slave-takers had kept the cart on the road, which was good—Androkles had had about enough of trudging through snow. The boys’ spurt of energy proved to be short-lived, however, and he had to prod them with the spearpoint more than once. They did not appreciate that.
Dyana, at least, soon regained her characteristic composure. She walked tall and proudly, every step graceful and deliberate. Androkles couldn’t shake the tinge of guilt he had about sending her to face a demon, even though he couldn’t have known. He would have to get the full story from Agurne before he could decide what to do about it, but it would almost certainly involve giving her some kind of gifts or honor.
In the army, anyone who killed a demon was all but guaranteed free meals for the rest of his life, like any other great hero of battle. Androkles had never killed one, but he could probably claim that honor for a dozen other reasons. He had never petitioned because it would have been hollow without owning his ancestral lands. How could he sit there and enjoy the respect of admiring peers when he didn’t even have a hearth to make sacrifices on?
But that was a worry for another time. He would have to think of something to do with Dyana, appropriate to the situation. Perhaps he could spare her something from the cart. A handful of silver? Enough to show his gratitude, but not so much his family might run out of food later down the road. And more warm clothing for the little one, of course. That went without saying. And what else, he had no idea. How does one honor a woman for exceptional prowess in battle? It had probably never come up, not once in the thousand years since the founding of Dikaia.
Maybe Agurne would have some ideas. She was a barbarian, after all, and would know what other barbarians liked.
The road took them around the last obscuring trees, and finally he could see them. Garbi sat on the cart, which had been driven off the road. Agurne paced around impatiently. They were safe and healthy. When Androkles noticed the sincere relief he felt to see them, he realized he must have been more worried than he wanted to admit to himself, as if hoping strongly enough that Agurne was equal to any task made it true.
Wolfscar saw him first and flew over to greet him, wings humming. He had been given another little square of white cloth to wear, which was held shut by a pin, and it seemed he had found his tiny boots. That fairy wasted more cloth than all the rest of them put together, but he was charming, and saved Androkles from having to buy more than one lantern.
The fairy zipped from person to person hugging all their faces in his usual manner. “Pepper! Flower! Papa saved you! And Seff! Are you okay? Did you have to fight?”
“Papa found us before we even started getting scared,” said Pepper, swishing his black tail in Flower’s direction. Their tails met and intertwined. “Huh, Flower?”
Flower nodded with seriousness. “I wasn’t even scared either.”
Seff added, “Master Andokwes cutted me down fwom a twee, and den he saved me too.”
“Keep walking, boys. Stop when we get there,” said Androkles, not slowing down. “And hello, Wolfscar. Good to see you didn’t get eaten.”
“I never get eaten! But! But the demon tried. It tried to catch me, but I was too fast. Papa, guess what? Dyana and Mama fought a demon.”
Dyana went stiff and glanced sideways at Seff. With the little demon atop his shoulders, Androkles couldn’t see his face, but the boy didn’t move or seem to react.