“To arms! To arms!” a man shouted, shocking Pepper out of an unpleasant dream. He saw Master trying to rise to his feet, but the man was still unsteady from the wine and fell over. Pepper, despite being stiff from sleeping so rigidly, hurried over to help him to his feet. He grabbed Master’s arm and lifted, and to his surprise, it helped. He was used to trying to pick up Papa, and that never did any good.
“My mail, boy. My mail,” muttered Master, standing now, but still half asleep.
Pepper nodded and opened the wooden box Master kept next to his bed. He gritted his teeth, then bent down to pick it up. Four days ago, Master had ordered him to oil it, and Pepper had dropped it pulling it from the box because it had been far heavier than it looked. For that, Pepper had been whipped with his pants down. Next time, Master said, it would be until he bled.
This time, however, he was careful to lift it properly, keeping it rolled up and not letting any parts slip. He carried it to Master, each step feeling like it thudded loudly. Master grabbed it with one arm and threw it over his head, letting it fall over him as easily as if it had been a plain linen shirt. “Helm!” he ordered.
Leaping to obey, Pepper reached up to the shelf and pulled it down, then placed it gingerly on Master’s bowed head, careful not to snag and pull Master’s hair. Master stood and moved around Pepper to grab the enormous sword he always kept near wherever he was sitting, then stepped halfway out the flap. He peered around a minute, then looked back in at Pepper and said, “Get a big pot of water and use it to wake these useless louts up. Make sure my wife stays here. Bite her if you have to. This is a raid. Demons.”
Pepper felt himself go pale, and his breath caught when he tried to answer, so he could only nod. Master stepped back outside without a second glance, naked from mid-thigh down and barefoot, into the snow. For a moment Pepper wondered if Papa would have liked him, if they had met over a meal.
But then he remembered what Master had told him to do. He went to the pot where Master kept water for daily needs and whimpered softly when he found it empty. The closest water was in the well, which was out there in the middle of the village. Where the demons were attacking.
Pepper stared for a moment at the closed flap, knowing he had to go out there by himself and face the demons. A shiver passed through him from head to toe that had nothing to do with the cold. He slept in his clothes because it was cold sleeping alone, but his shoes lay by the coals to dry off. He slipped them on and looked over at the bed where Master’s wife was. She was trying to hunch up under a blanket in the corner and hide. It was obvious that there was a person there, though. He wondered for a moment if he should help her hide, since that was what he was good at, but he had to hurry. Master’s guests were too drunk to wake up, and they needed to.
He took a step toward the flap, then another, and then stopped. He stood there, unmoving, for the space of several breaths, wishing he had Flower’s courage, but he didn’t. But what else could he do? No, he was about to find out if he could hide from demons, the only things in the world Papa was afraid of. Pepper swallowed hard, then stepped outside, sucking his presence into his skin like the god had taught him and imagining himself part of the shadow.
The twilight of early dawn turned all the snow purple. The sun still hid behind the horizon, probably an hour away or more; a few stars still hung in the sky, but most had vanished. It would be a bit harder to sneak, since there were no real shadows he could rest in yet, so he’d just have to move quietly and hurry.
Men shouted somewhere not too far, perhaps just outside of the village. Periodic clanging sounds punctuated the shouting, which he recognized as weapons bashing against shields. A flight of crows had gathered nearby as well, cawing their excitement. Other than that, the morning was empty, the village seemingly deserted.
With the god’s hiding trick, no one would see him unless they stopped and looked really hard right at him, but he still had to be quiet. If he crunched the snow, they would look and realize he was there. If someone came running around a round house and stepped on him, he’d be found. He had to be careful.
Pepper danced awkwardly through imprints made by adult feet as he raced to the well, doing his best to sneak and not drop the pot. He noticed that he was running with his mouth open, and his breath was making little puff clouds that he couldn’t hide. He snapped his mouth shut with an unintentional little click and breathed through his nose instead. But that made it harder to get enough breath without making any noise, so he had to slow down.
He made his way past Allos’ house, and then he could see the well. He ducked against a wall and huddled down as he heard someone running up behind him. The man raced right past without even looking his way. A stone man, not a demon. Pepper glanced around, and satisfied that he was safe, went up to the well and lowered the pot with the hooked rope.
The pot was too heavy when he pulled it back up and he couldn’t hide. He couldn’t concentrate, and anyone looking at him now would see him just like normal. He pulled it up as fast as he could, hand over hand, panicking each time it bumped against the wall and splashed.
He braced himself and hefted the pot up onto his shoulder, then began creeping back to Master’s home. He took great care to let his feet fall evenly and not stumble as two fears tore at him—fear of Master if he dropped the pot and broke it, and fear of the demons if they found him. He couldn’t hide, not now, not while carrying something so heavy, so he simply tried to move steadily and quietly as he went.
This was a stupid thing for Master to ask of him, too. What had he been thinking? Why did Master’s friends need fresh water to wake up? Didn’t they want to defend their homes? Wasn’t that enough? Papa never needed water to wake up if there was trouble. Although, usually the first thing Papa does after waking up is make water, though Pepper with a small grin that he quickly stifled.
And then he realized that he hadn’t made water yet this morning either. He had been so distracted that he hadn’t even noticed how bad he needed to, but now that he thought about it, the heavy pressure behind his rod completely overtook his thoughts. It must have been the drink they gave him right before bed. He wasn’t used to so much, and not wine.
He took another step, and then another, but with each step, the pressure of the water made him ache, and he knew he was about to wet his pants.
Panic set in as Pepper tried to think about what to do, but he had no time to make any decisions. He hurriedly set down the pot, almost dropping it, and ran past the nearest house towards a likely bush, untying his pants as he went. He had the good sense to move out of view before he let it go, but that second had almost been too long. He barely got everything into place before the water burst out of him, beyond his power to contain it.
Relief flooded into him as the water flooded out, and he almost sighed out loud. The warmth coming off his water made his hands feel a warmer, too. It steamed in the frosty air. Making water in cold weather was always pleasant. He looked back down the path he’d taken and saw a demon standing near the water pot, right where he’d left it.
The shock of fear locked up his muscles and stopped his water midstream, which ached. He almost hissed in pain before he caught himself. And when the shock wore off, he held his water in; he didn’t dare release any more, not where a demon might look and see him. He drew his presence back into his body and made himself hide again, trying to calm his heavy breathing so the demon wouldn’t hear it.
But the demon wasn’t looking for him, not at all. Pepper watched quietly as a second and third demon joined the first, all carrying spears. Now that he could see them, the demons were nothing like Papa had told him. They had the sharp horns, the long tail, and skin the color of shadows, but Papa had said they used no weapons and came naked into battle. These demons had thick clothing of animal furs and held long spears in both hands and they were just standing there talking like regular people. Was it possible there were different kinds of demon, like there were different kinds of stone man or Skythander?
A group of five stone-men came running up from behind and attacked the demons. Papa’s stone-men fought side by side with big shields, but these ones fought like each of them was trying to be the hero, ignoring what his friends were doing. They jumped about wildly, shouting and dodging left and right as they tried to get their huge swords past the demons’ spears.
One of the stone men struck a spear point away, then leaped into the air toward the closest demon. The demon turned, and the man’s leg suddenly jerked and spurted blood from the thigh. The man fell to the ground short of his target and was immediately stabbed by the demon’s friend. Pepper stared, trying to figure out what had happened, but it came to him quickly. The demon’s tail. The demon had spun and used his tail. Seff’s tail was skinny and mostly limp, but Papa had said the adults could cut right through bronze, and now Pepper believed it.
Two more stone men arrived, and the fighting grew more desperate. None of them was Master, though. Master was still fighting elsewhere. Pepper wondered for the first time whether it would be better for him if Master lived or died. Papa had said once that some barbarians were buried with all their possessions, including slaves.
The pressure in his bladder kept getting worse, and he could feel his muscles going slippery like lard from how afraid he was. He did his best to push it down, push it away, but that made it too hard to focus on keeping hidden.
Out of nowhere, a demon came running from behind the houses and passed not more than five paces from Pepper. His hair was longer and pulled back into a pony tail like Papa’s, and his horns had metal points on them. His leather clothing looked warm, and actually somewhat like Pepper’s old Tribe, Wolves, used to wear. It had a hole in the right place for a tail and everything. He also looked much older than the demons who were fighting, since he was skinnier and shorter and had gray hair. He carried a bundle under each arm, and Pepper almost moaned in horror when he realized what they were: the demon had a knee-high stone-man child under each arm. The little ones whimpered, tears reddening their cheeks, but they had no fight left in them.
Pepper almost lost his focus and stopped hiding, but the horror held him still until he regained his wits. The pressure in his bladder redoubled, and he clenched his teeth hoping they’d leave before he couldn’t hold it anymore.
The demon didn’t even look at him. Another demon came running up from the other direction and almost ran over Pepper before he stopped. The second demon, who looked younger than the ones fighting, also had a child in his arm, a girl probably around Pepper’s age. She wept loudly, trying to push her way out of the demon’s arm, but his grip was solid.
The two demons saw each other and came to stand not two full paces from Pepper. He gave all his energy to keeping hidden, hoping they didn’t brush against him, or do any of the hundred things that could give him away. He held his breath until his chest burned, hoping they would leave quickly. What if they decided to make water on the same bush where he was hiding?
“How many do we have this time? Any idea?” said the younger, beardless demon. His voice sounded normal. Not raspy like Seff, or scary at all. Just normal. The girl he carried struggled and twisted, but he held her too firmly to escape.
“At least ten, with my two and your one,” said the older demon. His scraggly beard had patches of gray, sort of like Papa’s.
“Kema counted thirty. Hopefully we get a few more.”
“Think you could carry another one?” asked the older one.
“Hmm? Yes, if it’s not too big.”
“Good. Check the bushes. I smell piss and wet kitten.”
“It smells like a wet Skythander.”
“You can’t smell a Skythander,” said the younger one, giving his elder an incredulous look.
“They smell a bit like wet dog, but more faint and a bit sweeter.”
“Then how do you know it’s a child?”
The older one smirked and arched an eyebrow. “Have you ever heard of an adult Skythander skipping baths?”
The younger one thought about it for a moment. “I haven’t heard anything about their bathing habits. I don’t know any Skythanders, and neither do you.”
“Oh, alright, fine, you caught me. Take a step to your left. Do it quickly.”
Pepper’s chest burned worse than ever in his whole life from the lack of air. His throat spasmed, trying to make him breathe. But he couldn’t, not with them this close. They’d hear it, and they already knew he was nearby. When the younger demon followed orders and took a wide step closer to Pepper, standing almost directly over him, the boy almost bolted. He could feel his grip on his presence starting to slip as the burning in his chest grew worse.
The older demon said, “You ready for a fight?”
The younger one nodded.
“Get the tail and he’ll bite you. Go for his collar. Reach down and grab him. Now!”
“But there’s nothing…!”
At this moment, Pepper couldn’t hold his breathe anymore. He gasped harshly, trying to suck in enough air to fill a house as he leapt forward to get away. But his footing in the snow was poor, and he couldn’t immediately get his feet under him. He scrambled and clawed to get away, but not before an iron hand clamped down around his neck, pushing his face into the snow. He tried to breathe in again, but with his face in the snow he couldn’t get any air. He flailed, but couldn’t get free. Spots appeared in his vision. He lost his hold on his water and felt its warmth melting the snow beneath him.
“Let him up, but hold him tight. You caught him with his pants open,” said the older one.
Pepper twisted and flailed with all his might, but couldn’t get away from the demon, who had a firm grip on the collar of his leather overshirt. He tried reaching up to scratch the demon’s hand, but his nails hadn’t hardened yet and it didn’t do any good. The young demon knelt down on Pepper’s arm, pinning it painfully against the ground, all the way through the snow. Pepper cried out in pain. The demon scooped him up and lifted him with one arm around the midsection, then stood. Pepper writhed again with all his might, but the demon squeezed until Pepper squealed and stopped fighting.
“You struggle, I hurt you,” said the young demon, menace dancing in his voice.
Pepper didn’t reply, his mind racing; he could wait until the demon was distracted, then try to slip away. Pepper was sure he could outrun him, since he was carrying that girl. Or perhaps he could try to hit the demon in the eggs. One or two solid hits, and the demon would probably collapse and start crying. But if that failed, then Pepper was done for—he’d be impaled on the demon’s horns and eaten later, or something like that. Something painful.
No, his best hope was to let himself be carried off and try to escape when he had a chance, and the old demon wasn’t around to spot him. Soon after Pepper quit struggling, the young demon loosened his grip and Pepper could breath easier.
The younger demon turned to the elder and asked, “How did you know he was there?”
“How did you miss him?” came the reply, humor in his voice. Pepper found that strange. Demons had humor?
“He was hiding with some strange magic. I looked right at him and saw nothing until I felt his shirt under my fingers. Come on, tell me how you saw him!”
The old demon huffed indignantly and said, “Some hunter you are. Do you not know how to look with your eyes?”
“I’ve been practicing, but I never thought…” said the younger one, falling quiet.
The old one turned and said, “Time to go. Farat’s boys are starting to get outnumbered and they’re going to break soon. We need to be gone.”
The two demons started off into the woods together, heading in the same direction. They didn’t run, thankfully, since each step dug the demon’s arm into the soft area between ribs and hips. It hurt, and Pepper had to grit his teeth and time his breaths, since there was no chance of getting away.
After they had gone some distance in the woods, they met up with the other demons, at least twenty of them. The young one carrying him set him on his feet but kept a firm grip on his collar and said, “Fix your pants.” Pepper readjusted and tied his pants shut. No sooner had he done so than one of them grabbed his wrists and tied them together in front of him with a rope.
Once Pepper was securely tied, the young demon pulled the rope and began leading him further into the wilderness. They kept a quick pace, as quick as they could manage leading almost twenty children of various ages; the littlest ones were carried, but the rest had to walk.
Pepper’s heart pounded relentlessly against his ribs. His thoughts spun and his legs could hardly hold him up. He wanted to ask where they were headed, but he was sure that he would be hit instead of answered.
As soon as they let go of the rope, he’d run, get just out of their sight, and hide. Then he could go back after they gave up. He needed to be ready. No, wait—that wouldn’t work. The old one could spot him somehow. He’d have to get far enough away from the old one before hiding from the others.
They weren’t even slowing down and he didn’t know where they were going. It had to be soon, before they got too far. His mind raced, so much that he couldn’t slow it down. Could he follow the trail back, or would that be too obvious? If he didn’t follow the trail, could he even find Master again before he froze solid?
The demons talked freely and happily with each other, sometimes telling jokes or complaining about the snow, and before long the bizarreness of the sight was enough to distract Pepper from his thoughts. They seemed nothing like Papa had described, nothing at all. Or like the one that Mama and Dyana had fought. Mama said he was insane and terrifying, but if Pepper closed his eyes, these demons could have been Skythanders or stone men. They talked normal and they walked normal.
After a while, Pepper had calmed a bit and dared to lift his head to look at them. The first thing Pepper noticed was that the demons had all whipped their tails up over one shoulder to let them rest and keep them from dragging in the snow. It looked odd how long they were; Seff’s had been normal length, but he was little so perhaps they grew.
Maybe they weren’t going to eat him after all. They didn’t seem that awful, or awful at all, really. Maybe they were just stealing slaves, since it seemed that everyone did that. This would make the third time in his life Pepper was a slave, so all he’d have to do was wait until Papa got away from the barbarians and then he’d…
He realized he was thinking about his family, and the familiar fear struck Pepper again, reawakening in his stomach and causing him to stumble for a moment. The young demon looked back and tugged on the rope, but when he saw that Pepper wasn’t going to fall, he looked forward again.
Pepper stared after him apprehensively, wondering if the demons thought of the children they’d captured as food or as money. He felt a clammy sweat under his clothes as he gathered his courage and stared defiantly at the demon’s back. His captor took no notice of it and just kept on crunching his way through the snow with his leather boots. No one took any notice of him, not even when he looked around at all the others.
They broke from the trees and made their way up a bare and rocky hill. Now that they were out of the shade, the rising sun began warming up his ears, and he felt himself getting a little more energy. That was one nice thing about having black fur: he got warm faster in the sun. Finally, despite being surrounded and in broad daylight, he dared turn his mind back to his family.
Sometimes, it seemed he could feel some part of his heart pulling toward wherever Flower was. Even though he loved everyone, he loved Flower best. He thought of Mama’s warmth and her soft, enveloping hugs; of Garbi’s sweet little kisses, of Papa’s laughter. One time, Papa had tickled Garbi until she wet herself without meaning to, and Wolfscar had been so mad about it he’d screamed and thrown tiny handfuls of dirt. Garbi had to hold the little fairy against her chest and pet him like a kitten to calm him down, and he made Papa promise not to do it again before he could forgive him.
Then, after that, Flower had snuck up on Wolfscar and tickled him for the first time. No one had thought of doing it because the fairy was so small, but it turned out that Wolfscar was so ticklish he was completely at the mercy of anyone who could grab him; for a week after, he’d gone around making bargains like, “If you don’t tickle me today, I’ll let you sit next to Garbi instead of me,” or “If you don’t tickle me today, I’ll try to smell honey and give you some.” Wolfscar went from being annoyed, to being constantly nervous, to being constantly distraught, jumping at every sound and over-emotional about everything. It was a shame, too, because Wolfscar’s laughter was honeyed joy poured straight from the jar. Papa finally had to insist that everyone leave him alone or get whipped, and Wolfscar was so grateful that he sat on Papa’s shoulder for a week and slept in his beard instead of with Garbi.
Pepper smiled and almost chuckled as he thought about it. Even though he knew he was probably still a slave, the fear that had knotted up his stomach for so long was unwinding and fading. Part of him knew how foolish it was to feel anything good right now; anything could happen. Maybe they really did want to just eat him. But the demons didn’t seem so awful, and they didn’t care what he thought about.
He swished his tail behind himself, deliberately flitting little bits of snow left and right. The rope made his wrists ache, and his fingertips throbbed with each step he took, but a tiny thrill of hope started to fill him, hope that things would be better, and that he could survive until Papa came and…
And all at once, a realization hit him, and he almost stopped dead in his tracks before he caught himself. Papa wouldn’t know where to find him now. Papa could never come get him. Not anymore. He’d never know where to look.
Pepper looked all over at his surroundings with wide eyes and saw everything from a new perspective—this was the wilderness, with no trails or anything for Master or Papa to come find him. Once it snowed again, that was it. He’d be lost forever.
Fear grabbed hold of him from head to toes and it suddenly felt like he was walking through water instead of air. His throat tightened up and made it hard to breath. Papa would never come rescue him after getting away from the King because he wouldn’t know where to go. Pepper was lost. He would never see anyone again, Flower, Mama, Garbi...
He had to get away, right now, as fast as he could; even going back to Master would be fine, because then Papa would know where to find him. And he needed to go now, before the trail grew too long to follow back to Master’s village. Now. Right now.
But instead of giving in to a fit of panic, he focused on what Papa had taught him about cunning. Better to be cunning than strong. Compared to grown-up demons… He took deep, slow breaths, doing his best to get his emotions under control. It started working and the pounding of his blood in his ears receded. The wildness in his mind made it hard to think and hard to focus on anything he wanted to look at, so he breathed until it all calmed. Deep breaths, over and over.
First things first. He needed to get his hands free. Pepper looked around to see if anyone was watching him, but except for the barbarian girl, who glanced at him side-eye every so often, no one seemed to care about him unless he stopped walking. He moved faster just a bit to give the rope a bit of slack to work with, then tried twisting his hands to see if the knot would come loose. It didn’t, although the twisting and pulling made the rope dig into his skin even more.
Glancing around again, and satisfied that no one was watching him, he tried lifting his wrists to chew through the rope. For a moment, it worked; he could feel the strands splitting apart between his sharp teeth. But the young demon must have felt the rope moving unusually in his hand, because he turned back to see what Pepper was doing. Although Pepper lowered his hands as fast as he could, it wasn’t fast enough.
“Trying to chew your way out?” said the demon darkly.
“No,” said Pepper quickly.
“Good. Because I don’t want to have to knock all your teeth out,” said the demon. Then, with an amused sneer, he huffed and turned back around. The demon yanked on the rope once more, just to make a point. Pepper stumbled and almost fell.
Panic started to pull at the edges of his mind again and fear made him sick to his stomach. With each step, he was running out of time. Pepper tried to stay calm, but it grew harder and harder; there was only one thing left to try, and it was the most dangerous. He needed to make the demon drop the rope. Then grab it, winding it all up so he wouldn’t trip. Then run. Then get far enough away. Then hide. Then wait, then go back.
He gathered his courage. This was it. Either he’d get away, or he’d never see anyone again.
He counted down, three, two, one… then nothing. He didn’t dare. He could barely breathe. He was going to throw up... Three, two, one… Three, two, one…
He couldn’t do it. He was helpless, small, and a coward. Flower would have done it. Pepper closed his eyes for a moment, trying to keep the fear from making him throw up. He trudged onward, making sure with deliberate effort that he kept walking, following the rope. His eyes burned under his eyelids, and he wondered if he was about to cry.
But then an image came to his mind, one that often did. It was from when they met Papa: Pepper lay under a bush, late at night, starving and almost dead. A giant of a man, a brute, muscle and grit and hair from head to toe, walking down the road. A fighter. A man who killed people. And Flower leaping out to attack him, fearlessly. The image of Flower leaping out and landing on the impossible monster of a stone-man, hoping to steal his money.
Flower had bitten the man on the leg but gotten caught. He’d never stood a chance. But the man turned out to be kind and good, and rescued them, and become their Papa. But that image of Flower, his new and only brother, facing the impossible to save Pepper’s life, that never faded. Flower, who had real courage.
He couldn’t let Flower down. Not Flower, not Papa, not anyone. In his mind, he screamed to himself, I am the son of Androkles of Dikaia! I can do this! He could almost feel Papa’s unending strength flowing into his arms. The nausea of fear even faded slightly.
Pepper yanked on the rope as hard as he could, then turn and tried to run the opposite direction to pull even harder. He stumbled forward as the rope came free, and he scrambled to get his feet under him to run. He made it nearly four steps before the rope went taut again, yanking his wrists and pulling him back around. The young demon had caught the rope between clawed toes, dug deep into the snow.
He yanked again, sliding the rope another few inches, but the demon reached down and grabbed it before it came free. He yanked it viciously, hard enough to make Pepper stumble forward. Pepper shrieked in pain as the bones in his wrists slid around, but he hadn’t lost yet. He ran forward and tried to kick the young demon’s hand to get him to let go of the rope, but the demon just turned to the side and knocked Pepper over again with his shoulder.
Pepper leaped to his feet, snarling, and tried to kick the demon between the legs, or grab the rope with his teeth, or anything at all, but the demon danced away at every step, yanking painfully on the rope.
He forced his growing desperation to turn to fury, and he shouted, “Let me go! Let me go!” as he gave every effort to pull the rope away. The young demon yanked Pepper forward and raised a hand to slap him, but Pepper saw it coming in time.
He lurched forward and bit down hard on the demon’s arm near his elbow. The warm, metallic taste of blood quickly filled his mouth, and he gagged. The fury only grew, however, and he thrashed all the more. It was his last chance. Escape now, or never see them ever again, not ever. He screamed into the demon’s arm, blood bubbling at the sides of his mouth, as he fought to get the rope free.
A horrible, sharp pain in his ears broke through his rage. Another of the demons held both his ears by the point, pinching and twisting and yanking so hard they almost ripped right off his head. His strength vanished, almost like breath leaving his lungs; he went limp and let go of the demon’s arm. The young demon growled and slapped him, hard enough that his ears pulled away from the grip. He slammed into the ground, and it was harder than it should have been with the snow.
Then the young demon yanked his ear again to lift him. Pepper whimpered and rose to his feet, only to be slapped again, even harder this time, hard enough to make him see a flash of white and fall over again. The demon then put his foot on Pepper’s head and pushed it against the hard dirt beneath the snow, applying enough pressure that Pepper was sure his head was going to crack open.
It was all finally more than he could bear, and he started sobbing heavily and went limp.
“Do you want to die?” shouted the young demon.
Another demon said, “You’re going too far, Teshwan. He’s just a cub.” But before letting him up, the young demon twitched his foot, just to make a point, and Pepper shrieked again in pain.
This failure unlocked a sadness that he had been trying to keep away, but it now clawed its way out. Spasms of weeping shook him so hard that he couldn’t even breathe, which just made him hurt worse.
So he simply lay on the ground, limp and wailing, inconsolable. He had lost. It was over. He had lost two families in less than a year and he would be alone forever. Merciless desolation overcame him, burning his entire body from ears to toes. “Papa, Papa, Papa,” he cried, over and over. His sadness scorched away his insides, growing stronger with time instead of weaker. He could hear other children starting to cry as well as their own sadness overwhelmed their fear of the demons. Finally, one of the demons picked him up to carry him, and the raiding party continued onward.