“I am going to kill that man, Wolfscar. I am going to kill him,” Androkles whispered into the pre-dawn darkness as he lay on his side on his thin pile of straw. The tears burned a hot trail across his nose and down his cheek.
“Right now?” said a tiny voice, directly into his ear. The fairy sat crosslegged on Androkles’ temple and gently ran his hand along one small lock of Androkles’ hair in an attempt to comfort him. Strangely, it was working.
The fairy had managed to figure out how to hide his light entirely, which was the only reason the slaves in the room weren’t all awake and gawking, and Androkles appreciated the darkness. He’d hardly slept last night, his mind full of visions of his poor little Flower pelted by food and worse, crying out for help that Androkles couldn’t offer. Not yet.
“Maybe.” Androkles glared at the back of the old man less than an arm’s length in front of him. Lack of sleep was proving to be the second worst thing about being a slave. The worst, of course, was being unable kill an enormous pile of barbarians without losing any of his children.
“Don’t you still have to wait?” asked the fairy.
“I don’t know how much more of that I can watch, Wolfscar. I almost lost it. Twice. One little slip--that’s all it would have taken. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Ever.”
“It’ll be okay, Papa. Everyone will be okay,” said Wolfscar, sounding a bit like Garbi. He reached down and patted Androkles’ temple. Although it was a childish little gesture from a tiny little creature, it made Androkles’ eyes burn again from heartache.
The fairy slid down into Androkles’ beard and snuggled in warm up. Compounding Androkles’ shame was the fact that Wolfscar had been naked for nearly three weeks and had to fly through the bitterness of winter with nothing to keep him warm. There was simply no way to find time or materials or tools to make him a proper little coat and pants, or even a tunic. Every scrap of cloth a slave put his hands on had to be accounted for.
“Uh oh,” sighed Wolfscar. “Shh…”
The old slave in front of Androkles twitched restlessly, probably drifting out of sleep for a moment. Wolfscar always knew, somehow. They waited together in the near-perfect darkness, silent and unmoving, until it was safe to speak again.
A short time after the man quit moving, the fairy said, “Well, I’m looking for Pepper still so you can run away, but I can’t find him anywhere. I went to every single town that there is. But there are too many places to look because he can be inside, and I don’t look in that one house. I might have missed him. I’ll keep looking.” Wolfscar sounded wistful, like an old man complaining about the stairs.
“Focus on the borders of their lands, as far away as the King can still control,” said Androkles.
“You said that already. I looked there before,” said Wolfscar.
Unspoken between them was one of many fears that kept Androkles awake at night: that Pepper had been taken in a raid. Not a full week ago, Androkles had been washing and oiling some of the Prince’s leather pants when he overheard a sentry reporting on a demon raid. He couldn’t make out the details because the man was speaking low, right into the Prince’s ear, but he distinctly heard ‘at least a dozen children taken by the demons.’
That might have all been for his benefit, however, because the sentry glanced right at him afterward, possibly to judge his reaction. Not only that, but Androkles wasn’t sure he believed demons could work together long enough to steal children in a raid or that anyone could stop them if they tried. But one thing was certain: if it were true and Pepper had been taken, then Androkles had two children and not three. The thought made him sick.
“How are Agurne and Garbi?”
“Garbi is fine, and so is Mama. No one does any bad things to them except chores. Garbi has to do too many chores, like washing clothes and dishes even though it’s winter. They make her do sewing, but she can be by a fire when she sews so I can let her do that. And no one will do bad things to them because Mama has everyone scared of a curse that she did. Mama wouldn’t say what it is, though, and neither would Garbi. Garbi giggled and said that it has to do with the men’s rods. But I don’t really even know what a curse is,” said Wolfscar.
“A curse is… a kind of magic. ‘In the name of Raphos, your first child will stillborn!’ That sort of thing. Most of the time, they aren’t real. Every now and then, though, you get one that is, so it’s best to avoid them entirely. But that sounds like her. Probably making a lot of wives nervous, too, with that threat,” said Androkles, sparing himself a slight grin. He had never really been too worried about Agurne and Garbi, but it made him feel better every time Wolfscar came by and said they were fine.
“What do you think her curse does?” asked the fairy somewhat shyly. He was not expecting an answer. Androkles could tell.
Androkles have him one anyway. “Knowing her, I’m guessing she threatened to leave them limp for the rest of their lives, or something like that.”
“Their rods limp?”
“That’s my guess.”
“Can she do that?”
“How should I know?” said Androkles.
Wolfscar considered this for a moment, then said, “I think she can, or they wouldn’t be scared of her curse. They would know.”
“Nothing about that woman would surprise me, little one, except people around her getting bored. I truly miss her. I truly do. And Flower’s going to need her after all this, poor thing. Need her womanly priestess-magic to heal his heart back up.”
Wolfscar fell silent again, thinking. The time stretched a bit longer than a typical pause in conversation, and Androkles swallowed hard and took a deep breath to prepare himself for what he suddenly had a mind to say.
“Wolfscar… I don’t know how to say this, but without you…” Androkles paused as his throat tightened. He waited until he was certain his voice would be steady before he continued. The darkness hid the tear that dripped from his burning eyes. “You’re the only hope I’ve got right now. I know I haven’t had them all for very long, but I don’t want to lose them. Not any of them. Keep looking until you find Pepper. Please.”
Wolfscar said, “Okay,” and nothing more, and Androkles supposed the conversation was over.
Androkles knew he was losing his nerve. It seemed every waking hour was spent on worry or shame. He was getting nervous. Jumpy. He kept his head up and tried to stay angry, but the shame of his failure, and how complete that failure was, turned his anger to bitterness and regret.
Soon Wolfscar fell asleep. The little creature slept with his wings out in case he needed to leave in a hurry, and they twitched every time he exhaled and made little tapping sounds against the skin of Androkles’ neck. Tap tap tap… tap tap tap tap… tap tap tap…
Androkles tried to steal what sleep he could, but all he could snatch from Abraxia Dreamweaver was crumbs. He lay there anyway, resting his body if not his mind. He even stayed put when the other slaves rose one by one to go about their duties. Only when the sun was undeniably rising in the sky, brightening even the interior of the closed tent, did Androkles decide it was time to get up.
He gently poked Wolfscar to wake him, and the fairy climbed out of Androkles’ beard, stretched, and kissed his cheek like his boys used to. Wolfscar’s wings beat their familiar thrum as he darted off into the morning sky to resume his search.
The morning seemed a bit warmer than yesterday; crisp and bright. That may have simply been the sunlight, however. The skies had been overcast for at least ten days. His breath wafted away from his head like smoke as he stretched in front of the tent. Once he felt limber enough to get to work, he tightened his meager clothing against the cold and began his duties.
Wondering what unpleasant tasks the Prince was cooking up for the afternoon, Androkles began his work as usual: in the King’s stables gathering dung with his bare hands. The stables stayed shut to keep warm in the winter, but that just meant that everything Androkles had to pick up was still soft. Once that was completed, he distributed fresh straw and hauled water to the troughs.
Task after task usually went by with a tiring humiliation that stretched out the days into eternities. He was left largely in solitude, unsupervised half the day. He took it as a sign that the Prince understood just how little flexibility Androkles had to cause trouble.
This morning, however, instead of cursing the work, he cursed Arthfael for the suffering inflicted on Flower the night before. That entire display had been to cow Androkles, of course; Prince Arthfael had stated it outright beforehand. You will see your inability to protect him. It will degrade you, he’d said. You will break eventually. Nobler men than you already have.
They even dressed Flower like a dancing girl. Like a hetaira’s favorite pupil. Dancing was a noble pursuit; every boy learned the dances for the processions. Youths often made their first life-long friends in the dancing troupes for the feasts. But dressing like a girl and doing women’s dances? It would be far less degrading to simply have him dance naked, as for Spring Festival to the goddess Laophilea, or the Twilight Feast to Abraxia. Voluntary nudity was a mark of sophistication and masculinity, both of which Flower lacked somewhat. But to dress like a whore… At least Flower didn’t seem to quite understand.
Androkles gritted his teeth as a swirl of unpleasant emotions rose in him—anger, frustration, sadness, shame... He thought once that he knew what hopelessness felt like: his father’s suicide. No, no, he’d learned. That wasn’t quite it. He once thought it was watching your most dearly-loved friends bleed out in your arms. But no, he’d still had more to learn about hopelessness. Hopelessness, he once thought, was having your very honor stolen by an unfaithful wife. He had been wrong each time.
Hopelessness is when your children suffer, and you cannot intervene.
With Flower being watched day and night, Androkles couldn’t get close or they’d kill him. Wolfscar said there was always someone awake in the tent where they were keeping him so he didn’t dare visit. And Androkles certainly couldn’t drop by and check on thim--the merest suggestion of contact between them would be enough for the boy to be cut down immediately. No, if Androkles wanted to keep his son above the dirt, he had to act like the boy didn’t exist. Arthfael had made that clear many times.
Androkles’ compliance was purchased with heavy threats indeed. If he raised his fist against so much as the meanest slave, Flower would be killed, painfully. If that didn’t earn his obedience, next would be Agurne, then Pepper, then Garbi. Their mutilated bodies would be returned to him “in several bags each” as proof. Arthfael would not hesitate to give the order. Of that Androkles had no doubt.
The thing that gave him the most consternation was the fact that he’d be unable to use his killing intent after snatching Flower back, because there was every chance it’d simply kill the boy. That meant no fighting at all beforehand lest the Prince’s killers hear about it, and no serious fighting afterward. Androkles had no hope against a dozen armed men on horses without his killing intent, let alone a hundred.
And at some point, Androkles knew he’d have to give up on his family and go back to chasing Della. His oath came before everything. Gods grant that the time to make that choice never came.
Around noon, the head slave found him carrying water to the barracks. “Smudge. Come with me. You are needed to lift some wood.” Then the man turned around and started walking, expecting him to follow. When Androkles didn’t immediately jump to it, he spun around on his heels with a deliberate sneer. “I said come, Smudge!”
Androkles glared down at him haughtily; a dog might fight over his bed and win, but he remained a dog, and it remained a dog’s bed. ‘Head Slave’ indeed.
The man spat and said, “Keep it up. I won’t beat you. I’ll make your wife’s bastard go hungry instead. He doesn’t need to eat every day, does he?”
“I’m no threat to your position, you silly fool. It’s about time you realize it,” said Androkles, trying and failing to sound cooperative.
“He was looking a bit skinny last night, wasn’t he? Maybe he should have eaten more of the food they threw at him,” said the head slave. “He didn’t seem hungry today, though. Perhaps another day of fasting is in order. What do you think?”
Androkles curled his fingers into fists as his heart filled with despair, which he pretended was rage. He could do nothing, and the other man knew it. The man started walking again, and Androkles followed.
Throughout the rest of the day, Androkles lifted tree trunks and carried them to the palisade to improve the walls. The head slave stayed nearby, ordering him around with snide commands. He couldn’t make up his mind whether the man acted that way on Arthfael’s orders, from his own character, or both. Both seemed likely.
The other slaves seemed to have orders to avoid talking with Androkles, or were perhaps too intimidated to engage with him. However, from what he’d overheard, the head slave had been barbarian royalty once. The Allobrogians, much like the Skythanders, kept severed heads as trophies, which made Androkles wonder why they hadn’t taken this man’s, if he was so important. Androkles certainly wanted to do it.
Finally, evening arrived, and with it the chance for not-enough dinner and a fresh mockery session with Arthfael and his lackeys. When the last glint of the sun vanished behind the low western hills, Androkles dropped the baskets of clothing he was carrying right in the middle of the street, then turned and headed toward Arthfael’s round-house. “Drop everything at sundown and come find me” is the order he was given, and far be it from Androkles to disobey orders.
Welcome heat enveloped Androkles as he entered the wooden round-house. The scent of roasting fowl and frying vegetables mingled with the stench of blankets that had gone too long since their last laundering. The prince reclined nude on a pile of furs in front of his hearth, flanked on either side by his two naked wives. Androkles felt his cheeks turn red from the shame of such a sight. What monster brazenly displayed his own wives? The prince knew he’d be coming. Androkles did his best to school his features while he waited for the evening’s degradation.
“Ah, Smudge, right on time. Fetch us water. We’ve dehydrated ourselves,” ordered the Prince, his voice carefully controlled as always. His wives giggled as Androkles grabbed a pot and left for the well.
Each night, some new humiliation. Last night, the debacle with Flower. The evening before, he’d made Androkles sing. The evening before, he’d made Androkles pick all the food out of the vomit of one of his drunken guests. The gods knew what the Prince had intended for Androkles to do with it after, but when two of his guests complained they were going to lose their own dinner at the sight, he backed off.
The night before that, the prince made him play dice for Flower’s fingers, then laughed it all off when Androkles lost them all. Androkles had only barely restrained himself from killing the man that night, and Raphos Corpse-eater take the consequences.
Although he tried to drown it in anger, he couldn’t deny that each night, his fear of Arthfael grew. Something in him was slowly slipping away. He could look inside himself and see it happening but was powerless to turn it around. The best he could do was try to stave it off by imagining myriad ways of killing the prince, over and over. It helped, but only a little.
Upon his return, Arthfael’s wives had covered themselves, although the prince hadn’t. He lay where he had been, displaying himself like a youth with his friends at the baths. Although the man’s face was an unreadable rock, as always, Androkles supposed he simply wanted to see how he’d react.
“Here is the water, Master,” said Androkles politely, handing him the pot. Arthfael took it with slight haste that might have indicated annoyance and drank deeply. Then he handed it off to his wives.
“We were just talking about you, Smudge,” said the prince as he sat up and crossed his legs.
Androkles said nothing. Sarcasm earned him no love from his masters.
“My wives haven’t been able to bear my children. Why do you think that is?” asked Arthfael, voice disciplined as a stone.
Androkles waited for a moment before saying anything to make sure the Prince actually wanted an answer, then said, “Much would have been different if I knew the answer to that.”
One of the wives asked, “Is that why your wife opened her bed to Skythander caravans? You couldn’t get her with child?” Although she was a beauty with brown hair that reached her waist and long, appealing eyelashes, her voice was too deep and made her unappealing.
The other wife, a woman with pale, flat hair, excellent teeth, and freckles over every inch of her body, cackled in amusement. Even Arthfael allowed himself a wooden smile.
The prince said, “It might be me, you know. I might be sterile. I might be a mule.”
The freckled wife smacked Arthfael half-heartedly, dismayed. He simply waved her away and said, “What do you think, Smudge? Perhaps you’d like to try giving one of my wives a big, strong boy?”
Androkles shut his mouth to prevent his draw dropping. Adultery, of all cursed things? And not even with a poor man’s wife, with no stature, which could be overlooked. These were noblewomen, and he stood a good chance of being executed in the Glories if anyone found out, even with barbarian women. At least three gods—Arkos, Erastria, and Laophilea--forbade it, and with a King’s son and heir? They’d notice. It would not end well.
“Ha!” exclaimed Arthfael lifelessly, seeing his hesitation. “Do you think he knows how it works? If not, that explains his cuckoldry.”
“Master, this is…” Androkles began, but stopped. He couldn’t find the words. He gritted his teeth; to say any more would be to sharpen the new weapon the prince had against him.
“This is what, Smudge? You understand you’re nothing more than a prize bull to me now, don’t you? You have no value beyond what I myself give.”
Androkles kept his mouth shut.
The prince taunted him further. “You must ache from desire for a woman, after all this time. Do you not feel the natural passions?”
After a pause, Androkles tactfully replied, “Not for any women belonging to my masters.”
He did, however, feel the natural passion. More than he dared express. He hadn’t had a woman since Della early last spring. Most of the barbarian towns he came across were too poor to have any prostitutes, and Agurne refused to risk making a bastard and angering the Orphanminder. Any doctor in the Glories would tell him waiting so long was likely to harm him permanently. It was unnatural.
“You’ll do as your masters tell you, Smudge. Why do you resist?” said the prince. The barest hint of annoyance crept into his voice, which was unusual. Was the man’s mask of iron discipline finally slipping?
“Adultery in the nobility ends with misery for everyone, starting with the seducer. It brings the wrath of Arkos Oathfather,” said Androkles, doing his best not to sound combative. He had to tread carefully. “Kingdoms have fallen because of it.”
“Who? Is that one of your gods?” asked the brown-haired wife.
“I think you call him Camulus,” replied Androkles.
“Camulus doesn’t concern himself over such things,” said Arthfael, as he ran his fingers up the freckled one’s thigh.
Androkles felt himself growing aroused, and fear threaded its way around his heart. All might be undone here, one badly-needed moment of obedient release inviting the wrath of the King of Gods down on him. His oath to his fathers would turn to a curse and he’d die in misery, like Kosmas at the hands of his bastards.
Sweat formed on his brow. Would he have to flee, leaving his family to their fates? Or dare he stay and risk it? No, if he ran, he doubted he would make it far. Not without preparation. They had horses and he had no idea where to go.
“Gods above and below, I do believe that Smudge is here genuinely unwilling to have sex with either of you. Do you think he’s effeminate? I’ve heard Laophilean soldiers are quite fond of each other,” intoned Arthfael as he watched Androkles like an eagle about to dive on its prey.
Androkles looked away, unsure how to respond to that.
“No, I can’t believe it,” said the dark-haired wife. “A man like him, laying beneath another? Never.”
The three watched Androkles carefully, as if considering him in all kinds of unflattering light. Finally, Arthfael said, “I think, Smudge, that I will command you to do it. You’ll give me two sons, one for each wife. But not tonight. You still refuse to submit to me in your heart. Tomorrow at this same hour, you will have sex with both of my wives, and little Flower will come watch. He doesn’t hate you yet.”
It took a moment for the full meaning of that command to sink in, but when it did, Androkles could no longer restrain himself, and he stormed from the prince’s house to escape the dread that made his entire body feel hollow. Arthfael and his wives laughed after him, cruel and spiteful.
Androkles’ mind spun so wildly that he failed to pay attention to the icy road and slipped and fell. The back of his head slammed down with a sharp thud. He nearly lost consciousness. His vision failed and came back in pieces, accompanied by severe nausea. He clenched his eyes shut and hissed in pain, hoping he was not about to lose what little remained in his stomach.
By the gods, he had fled before being fed. That was foolishly done. He breathed deeply and deliberately to sooth his stomach, then lay for a while longer until he thought he’d be able to keep his feet. Degradation seeped into him along with the cold, soaking into his bones. It was more than a man could bear. He was faltering. He was losing his nerve.
He stood and brushed himself off and looked up into the sky. The moon hadn’t yet risen and half the stars hid behind clouds, but even so, something about them seemed farther away than normal. A slave brushed past him, but he paid the man no mind. My, my, what is becoming of you, little bear? he thought to himself. Something about that thought caught his attention. Little bear? Where had he…
His mother had called him that. He had forgotten. He wasn’t sure he could remember her face, but he had heard her voice in his mind as clearly as if she stood next to him. Cracking his skull must have shaken the memory loose.
Indecision kept his feet planted where he stood. He placed his fists on his hips and furrowed his brow, hoping that the attitude of deliberation would grant him special insight. It didn’t work, and after a time, he gave up and started walking again. Carefully, this time.
He reached his tent and saw that two of his fellows had already bedded down for the night, but he chose not to join them. Instead, he continued walking, off the path and into the rough brush that grew inside the walls. His cloth shoes would freeze solid if he let the snow build up, but he could deal with that later. It was a spot he could get some privacy to think, and that was all that mattered.
Gods, what was becoming of him? Little bear. Androkles was a man who planned, a man of caution and bravery both. And here he was with nothing. He’d tried to plot an escape at first, but every idea had some irredeemable flaw. Steal a horse and flee without Flower? Steal two and flee with him? Kill the King, his son, and as many of his men as possible, then ride off on a chariot and hope no one minded? Save Agurne first, or let her fend for herself and help Wolfscar find Pepper? Every plan he came up with sounded foolish.
As he stood in the cold, the biting night air stole his enthusiasm, then his dread, then everything else, leaving him with the first clear mind he’d had in ages. He would never find a perfect plan. There were simply too many unknowns. He couldn’t wait around for perfection. All he could do, he slowly came to accept, was all he could do.
Tonight, he would flee. With Flower. They would go on foot, perhaps an hour’s journey, and take up residence in some farmer’s hovel. One with a wife and children. He would hold them hostage against the man’s silence, perhaps for a week. Long enough for the King’s men to give up riding around on their horses and come back to make other plans. Then he’d steal a horse, go to Agurne and Garbi, and make their way northward. If Wolfscar found Pepper before that time, they would turn around and get him. If not, then Androkles would consider him dead, taken by the demons on the King’s borders.
It was insane, incomplete, and unlikely to work, but it would have to do.
First, to find Flower and get him out silently. He stepped back out of the secluded, snowy corner of the fort and took to the icy pathways. He walked quietly but confidently, hoping to avoid attention, toward where he suspected they were keeping the boy—the only occupied building he never delivered anything to. The house where the King kept his women.
Something on the snow caught his eye and he glanced to the side of the road to see a rat, a large one, shivering and stumbling its way through the cold to make its way back to some warm hole. Almost before he knew what he was doing, Androkles leaped forward and caught it firmly in one hand. It was too cold to react in time.
With it in hand, he made his way to the woodcutter’s yard. He found an appropriate log, large and flat, knelt, and held the rat down onto it. He took the axe in the other hand, then spoke aloud, “Palthos Orphanminder! Palthos, Palthos! Look here. Look here, Orphanminder! I make this sacrifice in your name.” After a moment of silence, except for the complaints of the rat, he beheaded the animal and squeezed its blood onto the improvised altar. He said, “Sorry it’s just a rat, but I need to get out of here. Please grant your blessing. You’ve helped me before. I’m going to flee tonight. You said I belong to you, and so does my little family. All of us are going to die if I fail, so help me. Guide me to Flower, then my women, and Pepper. Then give me Della with my money, and let me go home. If you do, I’ll honor you above the other gods and give you a bull at every festival. I swear it.”
He wrote Palthos’ name in the animal’s blood, then held up his hands in supplication. Just as he was about to rise to his feet, he felt a small hand on his arm, and a brush of smooth hair against his shoulder. A child whispered in his ear, “Wait.”
Androkles turned in startlement to see no one, not even footprints in the snow. He was alone. His heart pounded and his eyes strained against the darkness hoping to catch even a flickering shadow, but nothing further happened.
He made his way to his tent and went to bed.