The old demon appeared in the mouth of the cave, his blue-black skin swallowing the daylight, and said, “I have bad news for you, little one. We met to trade their children for ours, but they will not accept slaves. You aren’t worth enough to them, even the six of you we have for only one of ours.”
The old demon’s words got through the haze of Pepper’s despair, somehow, and he perked his ears up and looked toward the mouth of the cave. “You’re sending me back?”
“No, I regret to say, we are not sending you back. We stole you to trade for our own children, but they will not trade.”
“Then why tell me?” said Pepper.
The old demon sat back on his haunches in a relaxed way, his form outlined by the bright blue sky behind him. The demons weren’t anything like Papa said, except how they looked. Pepper hated them anyway. They wouldn’t stop tormenting him, even after chaining his ankle inside this rocky little cave. Pepper wished he’d just leave him to alone to get back to starving to death.
“You aren’t our kin, but I do not like to see you suffer. Why do you love your old master so?” asked the old demon.
“Why don’t you just give me back for free?” Pepper asked. It scratched his dry throat badly and he wondered if he was going to start bleeding in there.
“That would be foolish. If we simply gave back any slaves we caught, they would never trade again. They would say all their true children are slaves to get them back for free.”
The old demon was quiet for a time, and Pepper lay his head back down, closed his eye, and waited for the demon to get bored and go away. His broken heart dripped another drop of misery.
“You know, if you weren’t such a wild little thing, you could live here with us. We are too poor to keep slaves, so you would be free. Teshwan thinks we should simply stop trying to give you food, if you won’t eat it. He’s still mad about his arm,” said the old demon. A hint of humor danced in his voice. “You should see him sulk every time he changes his bandage.”
Again, the old demon stopped talking as if to give Pepper a chance to respond. He didn’t. Instead, he tried to will the man to leave purely with his mind. It didn’t work.
The old demon said, “Would you like to know how I knew where you were, that day we caught you?”
Curiosity got him to open his eyes and perk up before he realized what he was doing. He almost asked how, but his heart dripped another drop of misery to remind him and he said, “No, I just want to die.”
“It pains me to see you like this, little one. Are you trying to die out of spite, or have you lost all hope? There are always good times to come, if you are patient.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Is this what Papa, Mama, and Flower would have wanted for you? Who is Flower? Was she your sister?”
Pepper’s face immediately turned to hate and he almost hissed. He might have yelled, if his mouth wasn’t so dry.
The demon raised his eyebrows, surprised at the response. “Your master’s wife? Another slave, perhaps? Her name is still strong in your heart, I see. Tell me, does she live?”
The old demon watched him blankly, or perhaps with just a hint of kindness in his eyes. Pepper could barely stand to look at him. He felt a headache come on every time he did. If the old demon were watching, Pepper would make blood instead of water in the morning just to spite him. Everything was his fault. Everything.
“This is your fourth day with no food, and your second day with no water. What would Flower think if she saw you like this? Would she see the person she thinks you are?” asked the old demon. “Or would she be ashamed?”
Pepper didn’t care what Flower thought, if it meant he could see him again. But he never would, or anyone else.
The old demon tossed a skin full of water onto the ground beside him. He said, “Drink. If you do not, I’ll come in there and pour it down your throat. You’re too weak to fight back anymore, so drink it on your own and have some dignity.”
After that, the old demon finally left, snow crunching beneath his feet.
Pepper’s broken heart dripped another drop of pain, which raced around inside his body like plucked strings. It hurt so bad he thought it would kill him, just that. But it didn’t, and it was more than he could bear.
Flower… How dare that old man mention Flower! How did he even know who that was? But he didn’t, because he thought Flower was a girl. Pepper wasn’t sure when he’d said the name, but he must have. And he didn’t mention Garbi, who was his sister. Remembering Garbi again squeezed out another drop from the hole in his heart and made him wince as it burned.
Papa wasn’t coming anymore, and Pepper would never see her again. Even if Papa found out he was taken by demons, he wouldn’t come save him. He’d just think Pepper got eaten. He’d never come see just to check and make sure, not when it meant fighting a whole tribe of demons. That would be stupid.
His throat ached and burned, his head throbbed, and his body felt strange. It was from not drinking any water. That was the feeling of dying. Part of him yearned to reach out for the water skin, not even an arm’s length away, and drink. It was right there. But that would only numb some of the pain, and not the worst of it. The worst pain would last as long as he did.
He poked at the water skin, however, as something to do. He watched it slosh around as little waves moved through it like on a lake. Before long, it stopped looking like water, and became just a toy.
The day rolled by, slowly. Nothing else happened. Pepper didn’t drink any water. Instead, when he started getting tired, he hoped he was about to fall asleep for the last time.
Pepper decided to whisper a prayer to Palthos, even though he didn’t have a sacrifice and Papa said you always had to have one to get their attention. “Palthos, Palthos, I hope you can hear me. If I belong to you like you said, then come get my spirit when I die because I’m about to. Please let it be soon.”
And that was it. A sense of finality closed in on him and he knew he was fully committed. A little gust of wind blew into the cave somehow and chilled the clammy skin of his face.
He relaxed into the furs and closed his eyes, his weary and wounded mind finally calming after all this time. It would be soon.
“Did you drink?”
Pepper blinked his eyes open and saw that night had fallen. It had only been an instant… Was he dead? No, not yet. He’d been so close. It was dark—so dark a stone-man wouldn’t be able to see at all. The old man hovered over him and sloshed the waterskin.
“You didn’t. I am sorry for this, but I warned you.”
“No, please,” begged Pepper in a whisper, his throat too dry to speak.
The old demon sat on Pepper's stomach and held his arms down with his knees. Pepper struggled, but there was nothing he could do. He was too weak and the old man too heavy. He clenched his teeth shut, but the old demon squeezed the sides of his cheeks until his jaw opened, then dripped water into his mouth.
Pepper refused to swallow, but the man simply held him firm, not allowing the water to drip out. He had to either choke on it or swallow, so he swallowed. The old man poured in more water and waited again for him to swallow, then more and more.
Satisfied, the demon sat back and released Pepper. He said, “My people think I am silly for concerning myself with you.”
Pepper felt so much better after drinking the water, but he didn’t want to.
The old demon continued, “It is unusual for you to be so skilled at hiding. That makes me curious, and so I concern myself for you. You will be worth good trade to your people, when we meet them in the spring. Not the pig-faces who had you as a slave, I mean the horse-lords of the plains—your true people. That is another reason,” said the old demon. He crossed his legs and made himself comfortable, then sighed with a contented look on his face as he gazed out through the cave entrance. “When I was your age, we lived in--”
The demon bit off his words in surprise as something outside the cave caught his eye, and Pepper turned to see what he was looking at. A faint blue star flitted about against the blackness, circling somewhere over the encampment. After an instant, it moved out of his view. Pepper’s heart leaped and pounded ferociously against his sternum. “Wolfscar? It has to… That’s Wolfscar!”
Pepper dredged up his last bit of strength to lurch forward as far as the chain would let him. “Wolfscar! Wolfscar!” he shouted with all the strength he had left. If his throat had still been dry, he couldn’t have done it. The water made his throat feel slippery instead of locked shut. “WOLFSCAR!”
He expected the old demon to pull him back and cover his mouth, but the man didn’t move at all.
For a moment, the little star didn’t return and Pepper feared he was wrong or the fairy couldn’t hear him. But sure enough, soon the star appeared again where it had been before. “Wolfscar!”
The little blue fairy flew in so fast that he couldn’t quite stop in time and gently crashed against Pepper’s face.
Pepper was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t even think. He held Wolfscar tightly to his chest and wept, loud and unashamed. A mountain of rocks that had been crushing him rolled away at an instant and crashed into nothingness. Wolfscar started crying too, his little toes and fingers trying to find something on Pepper’s jerkin to grip and hold onto.
Every time Pepper tried to talk he started crying again, and his throat was so tight it ached, but he couldn’t help it.
He glanced back at the old demon to see him waiting patiently, albeit with a look of supreme curiosity, as he sat back to lean against the cave wall. Pepper’s throat hurt so bad from crying and being dry that only whispers could come out. He pointed in his mouth for more water, and the old demon leaned forward and poured him some, then sat back again. Pepper choked and sputtered and swallowed as much as he could.
Wolfscar was the first who finally managed to get a word out. “I was scared I’d never find you! Papa was so sad! And Mama.”
“I missed you!” Pepper managed to spurt out before he was overtaken by sobs again. When he could, he said, “I thought I’d never--”
Then he had to clench his jaw again, and his eyes burned dry, unable to produce tears. After a moment, he whispered, “How did you find me? Is everyone okay?”
Wolfscar said, “In a minute,” and went back to crying and snuggling.
The old demon kept giving Pepper more sips of water, and he drank it all. Pepper could feel the water healing him inside like magic. He wasn’t lost. He wasn’t lost anymore. Papa could find him now.
Eventually Wolfscar curled up in a ball in Pepper’s hands and quieted down. Once he began speaking, his words raced out of him in a tumble like always. “Papa told me to start looking for you since the very first day, but I never found you. I looked everywhere Allobrogians are and you weren’t there, so then we thought you might have been kidnapped and eaten by demons. Papa said keep trying, so then I looked for some demons, but I couldn’t find any. So I started looking in places there weren’t any people at all, but I still didn’t find any, and that’s why I came all the way out here. I almost gave up, but then I thought I heard something over here even though it was too far and so I came anyway and I found some demons, so I looked around and I heard you. But are you okay? You look dim...”
Wolfscar leaped out of Pepper’s hands and flew back a bit to give him a more careful examination, which he did with a furrowed brow and his fingertip in his mouth. Suddenly, he growled like a day-old puppy and darted toward the old demon. In a voice as threatening as someone his size could manage, he demanded, “Why are you being mean to him? You chained him up! Don’t you know who this is?”
The old demon clearly had no idea what to think about Wolfscar, but after a moment in which he opened his lips to speak several times then changed his mind, he said, “Perhaps I made the wrong decision. I will treat him better from now on.”
Wolfscar made a fist and flexed what muscles he had, which weren’t many. He was smaller than a kitten. “You’d better! Give him more water or he’ll die! And take that chain off him! He’s not an ox! That is the son of Androkles! And I’m really dangerous, too!”
The old demon raised his eyebrows at the little fairy’s intensity, and with a seriousness that might have been amusement, he said, “I understand.”
Wolfscar showed his fist again, then nodded. He spun back around to face Pepper and said, “Papa said to tell you something. Ready?”
The little blue fairy cleared his throat and declared, “Remember whose son you are. Be patient, be cunning, and stay alive. I will come for you, and nothing alive or dead can stop me.”
Pepper’s eyes burned and he bowed his head. “I know. And I won’t forget again.”
Wolfscar drifted forward and patted Pepper on his forehead. He hung there for a moment, pushing away a stray bit of hair and gently stroking a small patch of skin. “Garbi cried last time I saw her when I said I hadn’t found you yet. Flower is being watched, so I can’t talk to him. But I saw him once pretending to hold your hand. I bet that’s what he was doing. Everyone misses you.”
Pepper’s eyes wanted to cry, but he was still too dry inside to make tears. “I miss them too,” he said quietly, his voice catching. “Really bad.”
Wolfscar turned again to the old demon and shouted, “I’m telling Androkles you have his son chained up in a little cave and you’re not feeding him! You’d better hope it looks different when he gets here!”
The old demon nodded gravely and said, “I will push the food down his throat with a stick if I must.” Then, after Wolfscar’s wings whirred angrily, he gently added, “That was a joke, Wolfscar. I’ll take very good care of him.”
“And don’t you dare eat him!”
“I would not dare.”
“Or anyone else!”
“He will not be eaten by anyone. I give my word.”
After one last glare, Wolfscar nodded and flew back to kiss Pepper’s forehead. “Papa said to come back as soon as I found you so he can start getting away and go get everyone, so I need to go. But I’ll come back as soon as I can. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Pepper.
Wolfscar lingered for just a moment longer, patting Pepper’s nose. Then he gave him one of his awkward face hugs and turned and sped out the exit. The fairy flew first in the direction of the camp and darted down out of sight, and then came into view again carrying what looked like a big piece of bread. Someone shouted their surprise and dismay as Wolfscar vanished into the sky.