Pepper and the old demon sat quietly for a time in the emptiness left by the fairy’s departure. When Pepper finally reached for the water skin, the old demon said, “Don’t drink it too quickly, or you’ll get sick. Would you like some food?”
“I know. I won’t. And I would like some food, please, if you have any,” said Pepper politely, in a humble voice.
An odd thing was happening inside him. The pain that had gripped him for so long was leaking out of him like sweat, and even though it was night outside, it felt like the sun was coming back up in his mind and a long night was ending.
“Will you try to hide again and run away?” asked the demon.
“No. I want to stay now,” replied Pepper. “Or else they won’t know where to find me again.”
“How can I trust you?”
Pepper thought about it for a moment then said, in his most serious voice, “I swear it on my father’s name, Androkles Giant-slayer, son of Paramonos of Dikaia.”
“I accept your oath, and we shall stop worrying about it,” said the old demon warmly. After a pause, he asked, “Why is that little flying boy named Wolfscar?”
Pepper felt a smile spread on his face as he remembered. He said, “He made it up himself. He said it was the scariest thing he could think of.”
“What is he, exactly? Some sort of spirit?”
“No, he’s a fairy.”
“I don’t know what that means,” said the old demon.
“No one does, except Garbi, maybe. She’s my sister. He talks about remembering being a flower, or in a flower or something like that, so we think he used to be a nature spirit. But lots of what he says doesn’t make any sense. He doesn’t see the world like regular people,” said Pepper. It felt strange to talk after so long; he kept noticing how his tongue moved around inside his dry mouth. He added, “But Wolfscar is a fairy, so fairies are things that are like Wolfscar.”
The old demon nodded sagely and said, “I suppose that makes sense. Here, take another sip of water. We must get your stomach ready for food. Open up.”
The old demon held the waterskin out, and Pepper opened his mouth and tilted back his head. The water came slowly, drip by drip, and it tasted like honeyed nectar.
After the man decided Pepper’d had enough for the moment, he said, “I must tell you, little black-tail, I do not know what to think of you anymore. This Androkles. He is your papa? Why did you want to stay with your master?”
Pepper considered briefly how much he should say, but he couldn’t find any harm in answering questions like this. Wolfscar already said, and they’d find out soon enough anyway. “Androkles is my father. From before we got caught by the Allobrogians. I was waiting for him to come save me when you took me.”
“Ah, I see. There are not many Skythanders wandering these lands. Their horses do not like the grass.”
“Oh, no, he’s a stone man. From the Glories. A Laophilean. They’re kind of like Allobrogians, but they look different. They have darker skin and more hair, and their hair is darker. At least Papa’s is. And, he’s the strongest man who ever lived, except maybe some of the heroes,” answered Pepper, some of his pride returning. “He saved me and Flower when we were starving to death, and then he decided to make us his sons because... he liked us.” Pepper wanted to say, Because we’re blessed by the god and noble and strong, like him, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was still used to thinking like a slave, just a little.
“You called him giant slayer. Why is that?”
“He killed a giant all by himself in the dark with just a spear. It was a tartalo, if you know what that is. His people, er, our people call them Cyclopes,” said Pepper. “But that’s not even the scariest thing he killed.”
“How ominous. And the little fairy boy said he’s going to come rescue you?” asked the old demon. Pepper detected a hint of apprehension in his voice.
“He’ll come for certain.”
“And what will he do if we try to stop him? You will be worth a great deal in trade when the Skythanders come in the spring,” asked the old demon.
“You can try,” said Pepper, and immediately felt foolish. Papa said to be cunning, and the demons could kill him anytime they wanted.
“I see,” said the old demon. He took his thin, bare tail and massaged the thick part close to his body like it was sore. “What an odd child the gods have placed in our lap.”
Pepper didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything. He sat back and crossed his legs, awkwardly trying to find a posture that would be comfortable with the iron ring around his ankle. The old man gave him an annoyed look when the chain clinked, and Pepper realized the man must think he was trying to give him a hint. And sure enough, the old demon took a small chisel from a pouch at his side, wedged the point against the bolt holding the metal ring onto Pepper’s ankle, and struck it with a rock. The fetter popped open and fell away, and the old demon lifted Pepper’s leg to see if it was injured.
“It’s hardly bruised. You’ll be fine,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Pepper. He already knew that. The first time slavers caught him, back when he lost his first family, they left the ropes on until he bled. That hurt much worse than this had.
“I didn’t want to chain you down, you know. I am glad to free you. Now come, and let’s get you a bird and some bread.”
The old demon took the water skin and nudged Pepper out toward the exit of the cave, but he didn’t need any coaxing. Pepper stood and walked out as quickly as he dared. His legs wobbled a bit, but he didn’t fall. A rush of joy overtook him as he stepped outside for the first time in days, and he grinned broadly; he couldn’t help it.
“We will go to my tent,” said the old demon, patting his back and pointing. Pepper nodded and started trudging along the trail, which was more snow than trail. When Pepper slipped and almost fell, the old demon caught him and insisted on holding his hand to keep him steady. Pepper felt shy about that, but he needed the help. At least for now, until he got strong again. The demon’s hand felt… regular. Just a normal hand.
Demons lived in thick tents made of furs, which were shaped almost like squares, and kept horses. They didn’t have chariots, though, and their settlement looked more like a camp than a little village. The old demon led Pepper through the tents to roughly the middle, where he lifted away a flap from a tent that looked just like all the others and bid him enter.
A wall of warmth washed over him as he stepped inside. Coals burned in a round brazier shaped like a pot, elevated slightly off the ground by little round legs, heated the space and cast a subtle red glow over everything. A small round opening in the ceiling let the smoke out. A jumble of rough cloth and furs had been spread on the ground as flooring, so many that Pepper couldn’t tell if the ground was ice or dirt.
Pepper sat close to the brazier and began warming his hands. He’d been warm enough in the cave with his clothing and the furs that he hadn’t been bothered by the temperature, but now with actual warmth available, he felt like soaking up as much heat as he could and storing it for later.
The man fetched a whole cooked bird out of a basket with a lid and set it on a spit over the brazier to warm back up. The smell of the meat quickly filled the room and Pepper’s mouth began to water despite how thirsty he still was. The old demon sat down by the brazier opposite Pepper and crossed his legs, lifting his feet into position with his hands and a slight wince. He sighed and said, “Now, little black-tail, why don’t we start with your name. You’ve never said, and you would not talk to me before.”
“Pepper? I could have guessed. It suits you. My name is Natuak. We know each other’s names, and you sit at my fire and eat my dinner. We are now friends, so tell me about your father, the giant slayer.”
Pepper looked at the old demon, Natuak, and wondered if the man meant it. Natuak simply looked back at him, his wrinkly, stubbled face calm and plain as he waited for Pepper to start talking. Pepper thought for a moment about how much he should say, and what the consequences might be. But he looked at the bird, deeply inhaling its aroma with each breath, and decided it was probably fine.
“Well… he’s really tall. He’s the tallest man I’ve ever seen. I could sit on your shoulders and he’d still be taller. And he’s also really strong. His arm muscles are as big as my head, or maybe bigger. He has a lot of scars from all the fights he’s been in. He fought for his whole life in the army. He has a short temper and he always keeps his word.”
“Is he a good fighter?”
“He’s the best fighter there is.”
“Does he know much about our people?”
“He um… I don’t think so. Not much. You’re not at all like he told me about.”
“What did he tell you?”
“He saw some of them in the army, and he said they fought naked and didn’t need any weapons. He said they were all insane, and you couldn’t stop them no matter what you did. They would just use their teeth and claws and tail. Their tails cut right through armor. One of them killed Papa’s best friend, and he’s never forgotten that. He was even scared of little Seff at first, I think. He wanted Dyana to kill him, but she wouldn’t. But he must have meant other demons, because you aren’t like that at all. Is there only one kind of demon? Or are there lots?” asked Pepper. It struck him as odd to be talking so much now after so much defiance, but he wasn’t scared anymore, and that was that.
“Just one kind. One old, dwindling tribe. I know the ones he means, though. We are not happy about them. Who is Seff?”
“That’s Dyana’s little demon boy that she stole from the Allobrogians. And I think I know where she got him. There was a field with lots of flat rocks and fires, and one of your women got Papa to lift a rock for her and a child was under it. I think Seff was under one of those.”
For the first time, old Natuak’s face showed strong emotion. The man lurched in his seat and gripped the furs he sat on with his claws as he looked squarely at Pepper. His silvery eyes, fading with age to a duller gray, burned with intensity. Pepper didn’t know what people were thinking like Flower could, but the demon looked enraged and excited at the same time. “Where? Do you know where that is?”
“No, but… well, I bet Papa can find it again. Or Wolfscar. Papa always knows where things are. Or at least he says he does,” said Pepper. “Sorry. Is that what you meant about trading me? For the children under the rocks?”
Natuak leaned back and looked up at the hole in the roof. He huffed loudly and said, “Those are the very ones. Someone finally found where they keep our children, and he’s coming here expecting to kill us.”
The old demon looked defeated as he slouched his shoulders with a long, regretful sigh. Pepper felt a bit sympathetic, but he couldn’t think of what to say, so he tried changing the subject. “How did they get under there?”
“The pig-faces hunt us for our children. They are turning them into berserkers to use as mercenaries.”
“Oh,” said Pepper. Wheels began turning in his mind.
“You don’t know what that means, do you?”
“Oh!” shouted Pepper as the ideas came together.
“I do know! They leave them in there until they…” Pepper’s words trailed off as the full impact of the idea hit him. He knew exactly what it would be like. Every bit of rage and hate, with nothing to do but smolder like an ember, alone under a rock until you broke inside… It had started happening to him, so recently he could still taste the bitterness of it in the back of his throat. A pit of absolute horror opened inside him as he realized that had almost been him. That had almost been him. He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his tail around them, curling himself into a ball.
“It is too terrible to say, is it not?” said old Natuak. There was a tremor of sadness in his voice, and it struck a deep chord.
For a brief moment, Pepper gazed inward at the yawning pit of horror opening wider and wider inside him, and he recoiled away from it. He began shivering, as if he were cold.
“Our children have always been valuable for trade for this reason. No other people under the Eternal Sky can be made into berserkers—it is the blood of Calishek that keeps us alive during the process.
“In older days, when our people were many nations and made war against each other, we would capture the children of the losers and make them berserkers. Sometimes if we were desperately poor, we would sell our young, for we could always make more. Do you know we lived in stone cities once? We lost them all, our proud nations and kings all destroyed. That was in my great-great-great grandfather’s time. Then we became tribes on horses like you Skythanders. My grandfather knew those days. Still we fought amongst ourselves and our neighbors and destroyed our own children. My father lived when there was more than one tribe. Now only we are left, scarcely five hundred, and only a handful of children still among us. The Allobrogian King is very wily in searching us out. The old blood of Calishek will soon vanish forever, I fear.”
Whatever questions Pepper thought of asking slipped away into the pit of horror inside him, and it took all his strength not to slide in himself. He could scarcely breathe. He pictured himself stuck under a rock in the dark while the summer sun and winter storms passed overhead, even though he tried hard not to. He imagined Flower and Seff under rocks next to him, each of them alone and suffering. A field full of children just like him. Himself under every rock in that field.
“The woman your papa helped was probably little Etiya. She never made it back to us,” said the old demon.
“Wait, how do they get stronger just sitting under a rock?”
“Ah, child, that is only the first part of the process. There is much more too it, and each step is worse than the last. But more than this, I will never say. This knowledge must die if we are to live.”
The pit of horror remained, staring up at him from inside his imagination. It grew the more he thought about it. The Allobrogian stole children and turned them into monsters, and then those monsters went and fought Papa’s people in wars and killed them. Papa’s friend didn’t have to die at all. If Papa knew the truth, his rage would flatten every tree from horizon to horizon. Mama would feel the same way, and she’d make him go save the rest. And he’d probably do it. He was strong enough to lift the rocks, after all. After that, it would be time for revenge. Everyone would have to stay away for that. Then they’d have to find somewhere to put fifty demon children…
“Little Pepper, I will tell you, you seem like a very sincere child. I hope that you will remember us after we are gone,” said the old demon, his voice stretched with age and sadness.
At this, a tinge of guilt crept into Pepper’s heart, and the emotion arrived before the understanding did.
The old demon bowed his head a bit, which made the tips of his ears droop. He looked up at Pepper from under eyebrows knotted in concern and said, “Now that you know the truth, will you stop your father when he comes?”
Pepper shifted uncomfortably and looked down at the brazier. “I… well, I won’t be able to. Nobody can get close to him when he’s angry, especially not a boy. I’m strong, but I’m not that strong. He has a thing he does, and everyone close to him falls over and sometimes they light on fire. Only Mama can handle it.”
Natuak gazed meaningfully up at the hole in the ceiling where a slim tendril of smoke gently wafted into the open air above the tent. “Perhaps in the few days before your papa arrives, you can learn some of our ways. Then you will have something to tell your children.”
“Well, he’ll probably stop before he kills everyone, once he sees you’re normal,” said Pepper. He immediately realized that this was the wrong thing to say, so he quickly added, “And, um, I think he’ll take a long time to get here. Wolfscar didn’t say where he is. He might be far away. There might be… um...”
The old demon simply gave him a look that might have been somewhere between despair and amusement, and handed him a piece of bread to munch on.