Androkles kept the horses charging up the frozen road as quickly as he dared go. The first-quarter moon tumbled off toward setting and the light was poor. Despite the darkness, the contrast between snow and dirt was enough for the horses to find their way, and they even managed a slow trot, trusting that the road would be clear.
He didn’t trust that the road would be clear, however. The thought that one of them would find a rock or hole and break its leg gnawed at him, keeping his mind in a state of unrest. The sickening, hateful presence of the pursuing demons certainly didn’t help either.
Nor did it help that Flower’s leg seemed to be causing him greater pain than expected. No sooner had they passed out of eyesight of the King’s hilltop fortress than Flower began to feel the cut, and after that, he’d stayed curled up on the floor of the chariot, whimpering and hissing with nothing to think about but his injury. The boy had fidgeted and squirmed restlessly for the last hour or more, unable to find a comfortable position. Any time the chariot jolted, he moaned sharply and grew rigid.
Androkles couldn’t stop the chariot and do anything about it, either. He couldn’t even set the reins aside and bend down to check on him—the horses had been trained to stop moving if he let go of the reins.
And the worst part of it was, he wasn’t really sure what Flower thought about him anymore, not really. In the greater perspective, he’d only found the little beast-man kit and adopted him less than half a year ago. The better part of autumn and early winter together, and then two long months of slavery. The boy had been pleased enough to be reunited, but that was a while ago, and so far the rescue consisted of Flower lying on the hard, wooden floor of a chariot with a nasty cut on his leg while his Papa tried to get away from a bunch of hungry demons. He sure didn’t seem thrilled anymore.
Androkles looked down at him laying there, hoping to see him resting a bit easier. It was too dark to see anything in the bottom of the cart, though. Perhaps that gray smudge was the kit’s white ears sticking out above the blanket, and that other one could be his white, fluffy tail peeking out the other end, but it was impossible to tell. Flower didn’t seem to be squirming around as much anymore, at least. Or moving at all, really. Or making a sound. “Flower?” Androkles kicked him gently. “Are you alright?”
The boy shuffled beneath the blanket and Androkles saw the telltale yellow reflection of his eyes, shining in the dark like a cat’s. “I’m okay, Papa. It just hurts really bad. Can we stop?”
“Not yet. Is that bandage holding the blood in?”
“I think so.”
“Is it dripping?”
After a pause, Flower replied, “I don’t think so. Why can’t we stop?”
“We could, but then the demons would catch up and I don’t want to fight them all at once without an army. Or with one. Or at all.”
“There are demons chasing us?”
“Can’t you feel that in the air? That sick feeling? Makes you want to vomit, then panic and flee, then vomit again. Every demon I’ve met has a feeling like that, other than Seff. It’s sort of like the killing intent an old veteran like me gets after enough fighting,” said Androkles. “It’s been getting weaker. I’m pretty sure we’re pulling ahead.”
A strange, high-pitched sound like a flute or bird-call pierced the night, and when they both fell silent to listen, it tapered off before Androkles could figure out what it was. Some sort of night eagle? A northern owl? Soon another sharp, trill whistle sounded in the darkness. It seemed distant, somewhere off behind them, but impossible to locate accurately. Just as before, it repeated a series of notes and tones with no rhythm or song that he could detect. A short time later, an answering call came from somewhere in the distance ahead of them; perhaps on the road, perhaps off to the side atop a tree or hill—there was no way to know.
“What under the sagging teat of…” he muttered under his breath. He peered around sharply, nervous that some new danger would leap from the shadows along the road, but none did. The horses kept their pace, perfectly oblivious.
Flower said, just loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the road, “It’s not just my leg, Papa. That hurts so bad, but that’s not the only thing. It’s my insides, too,” He trailed off and the glint of his golden eyes vanished as he closed them. “From the prince. I feel weird inside.”
“What do you feel like?”
Flower thought for a moment, leaving them alone with the rumbling of the horses on the dirt and the creaking of the axle. “I don’t know.”
“Where do you feel it?”
“In my… in my heart. And my stomach. And my head, sort of.”
It had been so long since Androkles’ first kill he’d forgotten how hard it could be afterward on a youth, and Flower wasn’t even ten years old. Gods, what was he doing to his poor children? He said, very gently, “Do you think you did the wrong thing?”
Flower didn’t answer.
“Who was the man you killed? What was his name?”
“Arthfael. The Prince.”
“And what did he do to your family?”
“He made us all slaves.”
“He did. And what did he do to your father?”
Flower opened his eyes again and looked back up, and in a voice scarcely above a whisper he said, “He mocked you in front of everybody.”
Androkles sighed deliberately. Then with great difficulty, he allowed some of the shame he felt to creep into his voice. He allowed himself to sound vulnerable so his son could understand the truth. He said, “He did, my son. He shamed me greatly. I would rather die than be so completely humiliated. The only reason I put up with it is for you. But it wasn’t just me he shamed. I’m the patriarch and I bear the family name. That means he shamed all my fathers, and all of you. The Prince shamed us all. Now tell me, what did he do to your mother, your sister, and brother?”
“I don’t know,” said Flower. “No one would tell me anything.”
Another series of whistles or birdcalls or whatever they were interrupted the conversation, but Androkles spoke over them. “I’ll tell you now. He sent them to opposite ends of the kingdom. If I rescued you, riders would send word to have them killed. I could chase one rider, but not the other. No matter what, someone would die before I got there, and chances are I wouldn’t catch either rider anyway. That’s how he trapped us. Agurne and Garbi are together and Wolfscar tells me they’re safe, but Pepper was sent off by himself. Some wild demons raided the village he was kept in and took him. He’s probably dead. We have Arthfael and the King to thank for that.”
Before Androkles could continue, Flower wailed loudly and began sobbing as the torrent of grief broke its dam and washed him away.
Androkles scowled; that was poorly handled. He’d had time to come to terms with it already, and he’d seen enough death to face that bitterness when necessary. Flower had done neither. This conversation was about to slip into a hole and break its neck. The boy deserved better.
With a voice loud enough to be heard over the boy’s crying, he hastily added, “Wait, hold on. I said probably dead, not certainly dead. Wolfscar hasn’t given up looking for Pepper yet. He thinks he might still be alive. He’s looking for demon villages or camps, and he won’t give up until he finds out for sure. And neither will I. If nothing else, Agurne can ask the god. He’ll tell us that much, won’t he? Palthos Orphan-minder will tell us what happened to him if we can’t find him.”
It took time, but Flower was able to choke down the sobs with effort.
Once Androkles was satisfied the boy had calmed down, he said, “It’s too early to cry for him. He might still be out there, and if we learn he isn’t, it won’t be just you crying. I promise you that. Now, back to the Prince. You said what he did to your father, and you just found out what he did to your family. What did the Prince do to you? Just to you.”
“He…” Flower paused, and Androkles could just barely make out his son wiping his eyes and cheeks dry several times with his palms. “He made me a slave.”
“And what else?”
“I had to sleep in the women’s house instead of the men’s. And I couldn’t go near any other children or talk with anyone. I had to just be alone most of the time, and they hardly fed me at all so I was always really hungry. I had to stay inside in the dark unless I needed to make water. And they would hit me for messing up, but they wouldn’t say what I was supposed to do until it was too late. I learned the dances like they said, but they didn’t really want me to do them right. The Prince wanted me to mess up and be a joke in front of everyone. He let them throw food at me. Someone even threw a head at me, from off the wall! A cut off head of a man! It almost broke my skull open!” Flower sounded particularly pained at the last part. Then, through gritted teeth with anger in his voice, he said, “It wasn’t my fault, was it? I was doing everything right from the very start. He made sure I messed up!”
“You were doing everything perfectly until he interfered. I saw it. You dance almost as well as you sing. So, after all that he did to you and your family, what did you do to him?” Androkles looked down at him sternly.
When Flower didn’t immediately answer, Androkles said, “Say it.”
“I killed him,” the boy said, almost too quietly to be heard over the horses.
“I stabbed him in the neck,” he said, louder this time. “Right above the collarbone.”
“What did he do then?”
“He tried to get up, but he was bleeding too much and he died.”
“Did he deserve it?”
“Then did you do the right thing?”
A moment of hesitation, then, “Yes.”
“He shamed your father, sold your family into slavery, abused and mocked you. He might be responsible for killing your brother. I ask again. Did he deserve it?”
“Yes. I said yes.”
“If he deserved it, was it justice that you kill him?”
“So did you do the right thing?”
“Yes,” said Flower, more forcefully. He sounded like he was becoming convinced.
“Then don’t be troubled, little one. Be proud instead. Be proud of it, and never forget what you did. Never. For yourself, your family, and your father’s name.”
“Yes, Papa.” Flower sounded more relaxed, or perhaps more confident. He would probably be alright, as long as the memory didn’t torment him too much. What the boy needed now was Agurne, with her warmth and love and ability to heal. Soon, if the gods were good, he would find his wife-to-be and she could do the rest to make sure the boy’s little heart recovered fully.
They rode without saying anything for a time, listening to the rumbling of the road and rhythmic creaking of the enormous chariot. The strange whistling continued to echo through the darkness every so often, and Androkles still couldn’t decide what it was. The call seemed to be coming up and down a great length of the road, as though he had disturbed the nest of some beast which in turn alerted its fellows that he’d be reaching them soon. Doubtless they’d be at it all night.
One of the horses stumbled a bit and the chariot lurched against a large bump in the road, but nothing broke. Flower, however, squealed in pain as he got tossed against the wall. Androkles stopped the horses and bent down to help the poor boy get settled again. In the pitch blackness of the bottom of the chariot, he wasn’t much help, but he couldn’t help but notice that Flower flinched at his touch. He may have just been surprised, but who knew?
Once the boy was settled and the horses were moving again, Androkles said, “You know, I still remember the face of the first man I killed. Can you believe that? But I do—I still remember. I only remember a few of the interesting ones after him, though. They all sort of run together, after you do so many. But that one, my first, I’ll never forget. I was still just a youth. I must have been fifteen. I’ve told you about this before; it was my first battle. I caught him in the eye with my spear, then in the chest when he dropped his shield. My friends all cheered for me, right there in the middle of a battle. But what do you think I did that night to celebrate?”
Flower looked up, his cat-eyes glimmering. “Did you drink with your friends? With girls dancing?”
“Not a bad guess, but you’re wrong. I went to bed early and spent the night cowering in my tent, terrified the dead man’s shade would appear and curse me. I got so scared I cried, and Thais held my head against his bosom until I fell asleep. I didn’t fall asleep quickly, either. He never spoke of it afterward to save my dignity, and no one else ever found out. Not that anyone would have given me much trouble, since I was already the biggest man in the army, even at that age.”
In the silence that followed, Androkles was sure he heard Flower’s jaw drop open.
“What, did you think I was never young enough to be silly? His shade never appeared, in case you were wondering.”
Flower might have smiled back. It was impossible to tell; the boy’s teeth didn’t catch the light the way his eyes did. He didn’t seem quite as fidgety as before, though, so perhaps he had found some peace.
After a while however, Androkles began to wonder if admitting such a thing had been a good idea. Flower had seen enough weakness out of him lately. His once-respected father had been shamed and humiliated, degraded, enslaved, and defeated in combat by a barbarian.
How did the boy see him now? It had been something near two months since Androkles had given up his family to slavery. To him, it had seemed an anxious, frustrating, but not overlong period of time; it could have been worse. Not even a single season, where he had feared it would be years. But how long had it seemed to Flower and the others? A lifetime? Time did not pass the same for children. Did the boy even still love him as he once had?
The further they rode in silence, the more Androkles ached to know what Flower was thinking, but he didn’t ask. How could he, without sounding silly? It grew unbearable. Even the strange whistling birds started getting on his nerves every time he heard them, calling to each other from horizon to horizon in their bizarre song without tune or rhythm.
Flower seemed to notice his disquiet, or at least react to it instinctively. The kit grew restless again and rolled this way and that as he tried to get more comfortable. Eventually he gave up and gingerly rose to his feet, favoring his injured leg and clutching tightly to Androkles’ woolen shirt to keep his balance. He huffed in frustration as he tried to find a comfortable standing position, and never quite managed. Androkles moved the reins to one hand and held Flower up with the other, and that seemed to work.
The boy kept glancing up as though he had something on his mind. Androkles could guess what was coming. Flower was going to blame him for getting them into all this trouble, and he’d be right. He would likely ask for some sort of boon. Gods, he might even want to just be returned to his own people and be done with all this suffering, new family be taken by crows. Androkles braced himself for whatever was coming as a knot of dread started pounding against his chest.
“Papa,” Flower finally said, in a mild voice that indicated contemplation, “I don’t think Pepper would be dead from just that. If demons came to kill all the stone-men, he would just hide, wouldn’t he? Not even Wolfscar can find Pepper if he hides, so a demon can’t, either. And Wolfscar can see in the dark even better than me and Pepper. So Pepper could just sneak and get away. Wolfscar just has to find him.”
Androkles almost laughed aloud with relief. He was able to stop himself before he did, fortunately, and thanked Palthos for the boy’s kind heart. He replied in an appropriately thoughtful tone of voice, “That’s true. Pepper could shave a mouse if he wanted. But Wolfscar found him gone, and all the people talking about the demons stealing their children, so we can’t imagine where else he might be.”
“I bet he’s hiding with a family. He would go to a different family that would keep him warm, right? He wouldn’t just… try and wait in the snow.”
Androkles sighed. Pepper would indeed wait in the snow, or try and wander his own way to where he thought Androkles was and freeze to death. The little rat was always overestimating himself, and it didn’t help that he often pulled off whatever stupidity he had in mind. It wouldn’t do to tell Flower that, though, so he said, “Pepper is clever enough to hide somewhere warm, and Wolfscar will find him if the demons don’t have him.”
Flower looked up again, and grabbing with both hands a little higher on Androkles’ shirt, said, “Papa, if the demons have him, you’ll get him back, won’t you? You won’t leave him?”
The boy’s brow knotted with concern as he stared up unwavering. He gripped ever tighter as Androkles hesitated to answer.
A whole tribe of demons… Bold was one thing, but that would be insane. Still, Androkles had already committed himself. He said, “I told Wolfscar that if he finds Pepper, he should tell him that I’m coming for him. That’s an oath, so I don’t have much choice, do I?”
By the gods, he had no desire to make any such attempt. Almost better for the handsome little rascal to be dead, than to throw away the oath to his fathers and get everyone killed on something so hopeless as attacking an entire tribe of demons. King Lugubelenus kept a couple dozen, and Androkles had nearly died fighting him and his Prince without any in the room. Should and would have died, but for Flower’s enchanting singing.
The King and Prince knew magics Androkles had never thought possible, but even they didn’t own a whole tribe. Just a couple dozen. So who or what ruled the wild demons that took Pepper? What sort of terrifying being could keep several hundred in check at once?
“How long until we get to Agurne and Garbi?” asked Flower.
Androkles snorted with amusement and cracked a smile. “No idea, boy. No idea at all. I’m not even sure this is the right direction. I think it is, but I’m not sure. I’m hoping Wolfscar finds us before the King does. Agurne and Garbi are somewhere north, and that’s about all I know. Remember how bad Wolfscar is at directions? Imagine him trying to tell me how to find something several days’ travel away.”
Flower nuzzled his cheek in a bit closer, hopefully not because he was getting too cold from bleeding out under his bandage. He said, with a hint of mirth in his own voice, “I remember he said once that Garbi left her gloves ‘by a red thing, past a green thing after a weird rock.’ Do you remember that? And we had ridden for a while and he didn’t want to get them himself because he was tired?”
“I do remember that. He was right, too. They were right where he said, once you knew what he meant. Completely useless before…”
Androkles cut the words short as another sharp, trill whistle sounded in the darkness.
“Papa, do you know what they’re whistling to each other?” said Flower.
“Hmm? What do you… who is… why, what?” said Androkles. “Let me try that again. What do you think that sound is?”
“It’s people putting their fingers in their mouth like this—” said Flower, putting his pointer fingers in the sides of this mouth to demonstrate, “—and blowing to whistle. But they aren’t making the same songs. They’re different, but some parts are the same. They do these parts the same, but not at the same places—” and here Flower pursed his lips to whistle more quietly to mimic the sound, “—but the rest is all different.”
Androkles peered down at his son with a sort of frustrated half-smile. Looking up, Flower saw it and sheepishly asked, “What?”
“I can’t decide if I’m proud or annoyed at how clever you are. By the gods, boy, you’re the bastard of a Muse. It’s hardly fair to us mortals.”
Flower beamed somewhat shyly for a moment while he tried to figure out how to respond. Then his eyes shot wide open and he said, “Oh! Papa, they’re talking! They’re sending messages about us!”
Once one realized it was men whistling that made the sound, it was a rather obvious connection to make, but who would think they’d have a whole fleet of spies out in the cold standing around waiting to send messages? Still, the speed of communication must be breathtaking. Word would outrun the fastest horse. Perhaps even bird, for that matter. The fact that the calls came up and down the road, back and forth, indicated two-way communication, which was unheard of. No doubt the message was something like ‘The King’s trophy rabbit just passed me. He’s still on the road.’ Every armed man loyal to the King for miles in every direction would know about the chase by now.
Androkles had his freedom, his lost silver, and one of his sons sitting right here in this big fancy chariot. Things were supposed to start getting easier from here on out. This was not funny.
Flower plaintively asked, “What do you think they’re saying?”
“They’re setting up an ambush,” huffed Androkles. A dark mood of fear and anger settled over him as he began to realize just how bad things were about to get.