When they finally reached the cart, Agurne ignored Androkles and looked at the boys with her hands on her hips and a furrowed brow. They stopped in their tracks, unsure what was going on. She said, "Well? What are you just standing there for?"
Flower and Pepper gave each other a nervous look and started walking toward the cart. Agurne had a sort of wicked sparkle in her eye that boys had completely missed. Androkles grinned slyly--that woman was terribly amusing. She looked exhausted, with big bags under her eyes and a certain droopiness about her body language, but there wasn’t a scratch on her, bless the gods.
"What are you doing over there?" said Agurne angrily.
Pepper gave her a completely nonplussed stare, and Flower looked at the ground and sort of shuffled his hands around, unsure what he was supposed to be doing.
"Get over here and give me a hug, you silly things! How rude of you, to make me wait!" she said. At this, the boys smiled widely, baring all their sharp teeth at once, and turned and ran into her waiting arms. It soon turned into a rather chaotic scene of each child racing around making sure they hugged and kissed everyone. Garbi had tears in her eyes, enough to make Androkles wonder what Agurne had told her to make her worry. Seff even jumped down and ignored the snow on his bare feet to participate. When he got to Agurne, she picked him up and started clucking at him, wiping the snow off.
Now that the children were sorted out, Androkles said, “Hello, gorgon. I see that Dyana pissed you off somehow." He gave her a one-armed hug around Seff and kissed her hair, and she let him.
But only for the briefest moment, as usual. She never let him get too affectionate, even though he had made it plain he planned on bringing her to Dikaia to be his wife. The gods only knew why. He was afraid to ask.
“Get your hands off me and go put them on the ox!” said Agurne.
“Who do you think you’re talking to?” he replied angrily, but Agurne had already turned and was cooing to the little demon and kissing his head with Dyana following gracefully behind.
The ox had walked too closely to the edge of the road and slipped into a sudden and precipitous dip and been pinned against a boulder. It could have climbed out on its own, but the cart was at an awkward angle and pushed down on its neck, keeping it from doing so. When it saw him, it started lowing and struggling against the harness, and he had to calm it down for a moment, speaking soothingly and gently rubbing its head. Pushing the cart just a bit forward gave him the space he needed to unharness the ox, and with that off it came up easily when he pulled.
Now that it was free, it nuzzled him rudely with its nose and tried to lean against him. Androkles patted its head and spread a couple blankets over its back and neck to warm it up, then gave it its feed basket with several big handfuls of barley.
Agurne saw him start to rummage in the cart and said, “I think those sons of adultery just grabbed whatever they could carry when the ox got stuck.” Seff squirmed, and Agurne deftly tickled him under the arm, causing him to giggle.
“Then they might come back with help,” replied Androkles. “What’d they take?”
“The good rope, a half-empty bag of dried chickpeas, a bolt of the thin linen, and two pots of wine,” she said.
"Is the…” he said, trailing off deliberately.
“Yes, it’s there,” she said, catching his meaning.
Thank the gods the silver was safe, then. And the ox was still healthy, and the cart undamaged. His family reassembled. It had all worked out. He should make a sacrifice, but all they had was the ox, which they needed. And besides, Diorthodon Path-clearer protected travelers, and he liked birds or racing dogs.
The day was nearly at an end, and everyone needed a rest. That need was not exactly negotiable, but Androkles refused to let them relax until he’d led everyone back to the camp, where the firepit still contained hot embers. He got the fire going again and put another pot of bread on to cook, silently regretting how long it was going to take.
Evening came on quickly, and the cloudless night was colder but bright. Once the waxing crescent moon rose above the treeline, everything sparkled and shone brilliantly. The snowy branches and ground contrasted sharply with the dark color of the tree bark, which almost began to look invisible.
After eating their bread, the Sharp Teeth Tribe huddled under a single blanket, with Seff in the middle and Wolfscar sitting on his shoulder. They all looked rather adorable with just their heads poking out. The Skythander kits’ ears stuck straight up from the tops of their heads, but Seff’s stuck out diagonally from the side and were longer. He kept rubbing his ears against theirs, and they didn’t seem to mind. Garbi sat on Androkles’ lap and cuddled against his chest, unusually quiet, and he gently stroked her back and thought about how skinny she still was and whether he should be concerned.
Agurne and Dyana shared a blanket and looked rather grumpy about having been abandoned, but they didn’t complain. No one said anything; after the chaos of the last day or so, everyone was content to just sit quietly. Any moment now, the children would start nodding off and Androkles would have to get up and get the bedding ready.
“Papa, do you think those men will come after us again?” Garbi asked quietly, almost a whisper.
He kissed the top of her head and said, “Let them come a thousand times. Who can defeat Androkles, my daughter?”
“But what if they take me somewhere you can’t find me?” she said.
“Then Wolfscar can tell me where you are.”
“But what if he gets caught, too?”
“Garbi, the one who gave you to me was the god Palthos. Do you think he’d let you just be taken away again, after going through all that trouble?”
“No,” said Garbi meekly. And that was that, she said no more.
After a time, the fire was starting to get low and Agurne huffed and got up to put more wood on, but scowled when she looked down the road. “Get up, ogre. Company’s coming. Give me Garbi and get your things,” she said, worry plain on her face. Androkles turned to see several men on horseback heading their direction, riding up the road. They looked heavily armed.
“Don’t give me orders!” he complained, then tossed Garbi, blanket and all, into her arms. He barely had time to get his shield and spear ready before they arrived, stopping at a respectful distance.
There were four of them, all armed in the local style of long sword and large, wooden, oval shields. They wore mail armor and conical helmets of bronze, and each had a few severed heads tied to their saddles, probably as trophies.
One of them, who had bird wings coming out of either side of his helmet and was the only one wearing red, stepped his horse forward a few paces. “Hail, traveler, in the name of King Lugubelenus of the Allobrogians, in whose lands you tread.” His voice sounded strangely flat and guarded.
“Greetings. You men look like trouble. What can I do for you?” said Androkles, trying to sound disarming. Killing local officials could make travel more difficult than necessary, after all.
“We are out on the King’s patrol and simply wish to hear your names and your business. These roads can be unsafe,” said the man. With the helmet and thick brown beard it was hard to tell, exactly, but he sounded like he was middle-aged, and his speech was carefully measured and even.
“You’re a bit late to do us any good, then. We were already raided once, children and cart stolen. I took care of it, though,” Androkles said, trying to sound just menacing enough without overdoing it. He tightened his grip on his spear for emphasis but kept his face calm and friendly. “If you come as friends, you are welcome to share our fire. I’ve even warmed up some wine I’d be willing to part with.”
The riders looked around the camp, and one whispered something to the leader and pointed at Dyana, then at Seff.
“Where are you from, traveler?” asked the leader in red.
“From the Glories, far to the south. I’m chasing after a runaway wife. Name’s Della, bright red hair. Heading to her home in a place called the Meadowlands,” said Androkles, growing apprehensive. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen her?”
“Traveler, from your cart, I believe your story, but you must not know the law in these lands. You have a demon child, and they all belong to the king. That young woman is also known to us as a thief,” said the leader, pointing at Dyana and Seff. “We mean to take them both back. Will you stand in our way?”
Androkles visibly tightened his grip on his spear and asked, “What if I do?”
“Then we must fight, unfortunately. If you survive, you’ll be our slave. The women and children will be sold,” answered the man, gesturing at Agurne. Then he dropped his arm and said, with the barest hint of emotion in his voice, “By Camulus, is that a fairy?”
“Yes,” said Androkles without elaboration. Wolfscar had apparently left his perch, found the leatherworking needle he used for a spear and landed at that moment on Androkles’ shoulder.
“Would… would you consider selling him?” asked the leader, leaning forward as though to get a better look.
“No,” replied Androkles with a bit of a smirk. He shifted his weight slightly to keep the butt of his spear from digging too deeply into the snow. If the riders came forward, he would have to wait for Wolfscar to get back with the others before he unleashed his anger. The question was, would they circle first, or ride straight in?
The leader in red met his gaze evenly for a moment, peering at him as though trying to decide what he was dealing with. Androkles had to admit that the winged helmet and the bold embroidery gave the man a certain air of authority that he might not have otherwise. It was an imposing manner of dress, even if the man wearing it looked younger and less experienced by the minute. “Who are you?” the rider finally asked.
Androkles nodded and said, “Listen well. I am Androkles Giant-slayer, son of Paramonos the Agapetheid. My city is Dikaia, the pride of the Glories. I am he who killed the Tartalo, he who killed Mari Goddess of Kelthuars. I leave behind me a trail of the blood and broken bodies that stretches from here to the warm oceans. I have killed wolves with my bare hands and bears with a knife. My woman is a priestess, my daughter a princess, my sons cunning and blessed by the gods. Let it be known among you that I, Androkles, pass through your lands. I intend to depart in peace,” said Androkles firmly. It wasn’t a bad boast, even if it fell far short of the standard length. A good boast at a table in the Glories had to last long enough to empty a pot of wine.
The rider peered at the rest of the group for a moment, then gave Androkles a long, appraising look. The riders weren’t making any threatening moves, but they were barbarians; who could tell what they were thinking?
Androkles decided add, “The young woman over there helped save my family from slave-takers, so I owe her. She has my protection. The demon has my protection as her possession, and that’s simply how things are. Now come on, aren’t you cold? Come sit at my fire and share a pot of wine. I’ll get Flower to sing for you and everything. I promise you’ve never heard the like. Leave your weapons on your horses and join us.”
“If we put our weapons down, you’ll attack,” said the leader.
“I don’t need weapons to kill you. If I wanted your enmity or your horses, you’d already be dead. But here, as a token of my intentions. Flower! Come, take my spear. Pepper, my shield. Then go sit by your mother,” Androkles commanded, turning. The boys warily untangled themselves and emerged from the blankets and came to take the weapons. The riders watched with great interest, and two of them even raised their eyebrows in surprise to see they were Skythanders. The boys leaned the spear and shield against the cart, then gathered Seff and the others to sit near Agurne. Agurne drew a small pale stone from a pouch and began whispering, her eyes dark and focused as she looked back at Androkles. Good; she and the boys knew what he intended. They would be safe if the situation turned violent.
Androkles folded his arms and said, “Now then. Are you my friends or my enemies? Will you drink my wine?” He didn’t add, or will you die? but it was hinted at by his tone.
The group looked at each other, unsure how to react. The man in red didn’t say anything, and a moment later, a younger looking man with a pale, narrow beard muttered, “This is absurd.”
The young man raised his sword and kicked his horse into motion.
Wolfscar shrieked in terror and flew up about ten feet in surprise. Androkles cursed as he realized that Wolfscar hadn’t gone back with the boys, and he couldn’t rely on his killing intent to scare the attackers off. He scarcely had time to draw his xiphos to deflect the heavy swing from the rider’s long sword.
Androkles finally saw the value in such a long sword—the tip carried a tremendous amount of force, especially when swung from horseback. Such a swing would shatter against a proper shield, but Androkles didn’t have one and it would cut him in two if it caught his skin.
The man turned the horse and came back for another swing. When the strike flew, Androkles stepped into it and caught the man’s wrist before the swing got going and yanked him from his horse. A shorter man could never have done it, and it wouldn’t have worked against a spear.
The man, to his credit, didn’t scream as he was thrown to the ground. When his face hit the dirt at an odd angle, his conical helmet popped off and bounced several feet away. Seeing an opportunity, Androkles grabbed a solid fistful of the man’s light brown hair and stomped on his lower back, then yanked upward. The man gasped in pain and tried to free his hair, but the angle sapped any strength from his arms.
In a quick, decisive motion with his own sword, Androkles beheaded his attacker, secretly relieved that he kept his sword sharp enough to do it in a single stroke. He tossed the head ten paces into the lap of the leader, where the dripping blood matched his red tunic.
Androkles shouted, “Come at me with a hundred or don’t come at all, little man!”