“You understand what they’re saying?”
“No, but that’s what I’d do, and it worked last time they tried it. Be quiet a minute and let me think,” he replied. Flower tightened his grip on Androkles’ shirt and began peering carefully up and down the road. The pounding of the horses’ hooves seemed to grow into a cacophony, interrupting his thoughts and frustrating him to no end; he needed to listen for movement! At any moment the horses might run headlong onto spears or a camouflaged barricade, and there’d be no warning.
He could turn the chariot from the road, but that would be foolish; one of the horses would snap a leg on something under the snow. Another option was to leave the road on foot and have the horses pull an empty chariot until someone noticed. They may well keep right on pulling until dawn, for all he knew. That would buy some time, but the gods only knew how much. Could demons track by scent? Furthermore, that might make it impossible for Wolfscar to find them. On second thought, that wouldn’t work—the horses stopped if no one held the reins.
By now, the feeling of the demons’ presence was so faint that he might be imagining it. They must be at some distance, perhaps miles away. How long had he been on the road? The moon had travelled two or three fists down the sky and was just now reaching the treetops, so it’d been a while. How far could a demon driven by an angry King run in that length of time? Or better yet, thirty of them. Thirty men could not run together well; they had to march to stay together at pace. Would demons march? He couldn’t picture it.
If those whistling messages had sent word to prepare an attack, it would happen one of two ways: riders sent to stop him, or an ambush. Riders would likely bring light to hasten their travel and Androkles would see them coming. If they set up an ambush, they would do it where the fighting men already were—near some fortress or village. A proper ambush took time to set up. They wouldn’t ride ten miles up the road and try it in the middle of nowhere.
Problem was, he didn’t have any idea if he was near a village or not. He couldn’t smell any woodsmoke, but that didn’t mean much if they were burning low coals or had no fires in the first place.
“Papa, are you gonna keep me safe this time?” asked Flower with the barest, nearly imperceptible hint of condemnation in his voice.
Androkles glanced down at him in surprise. Flower’s eyes were wide with pleading, his brows knotted with worry. He bit his lip and frowned, putting a dimple on his chin, and had his white ears bent down flat like an upset cat. He broke Androkles’ gaze and went back to staring into the darkness.
A mix of emotions ranging from annoyance to genuine hurt rushed in to fight for dominance. Androkles opened his mouth to give a sharp reply, then bit his tongue; the sheer ingratitude! Maybe he shouldn’t keep him safe! How many times did Androkles have to save his pathetic little life before the idiot child got the idea? To show such disrespect after everything, with Androkles chasing across the wilderness in the dark to keep him safe--
But the anger was false; hurt was the genuine emotion. Flower didn’t see him as capable anymore. Once, his children thought him unconquerable, but they had seen him conquered and might again. The boy had good reason to doubt him.
Androkles had good reason to doubt himself, too, but it wouldn’t do anyone any good to sit here and worry about it. The longer it dwelled in his heart, the more real it became. It would soften him if he let it.
He chose not to reply, so they rode in unpleasant silence, listening to nothing but the rumbling of the horses and rhythmic creaking of the chariot.
All at once, the knotted, twisty brush lining the road gave way to open farmland. The darkness made it impossible to see much farther than the cattle fences, but it was enough to let him know he was coming up on another village. Probably a small one, but he had no way to tell. The wall of perfect darkness ahead of him must be a valley or plain, even though there wasn’t so much as a slave lamp’s light to be seen. That was only to be expected, after all—these people lived in poverty. Who could afford to keep a fire going all night?
Androkles slowed the horses from their slow trot to a walk. Or rather, he tried to; instead, the three of them stopped moving completely. He had pushed them too hard, he realized; they needed their rest and they were going to get it whether he liked it or not.
Without the sound of the chariot and trotting horses to fill his ears, the open darkness of the moonless night swelled up ominously, leaving Androkles feeling as if Raphos Corpse-eater himself had spread his rotting cloak around them. The open countryside seemed an empty abyss, leaving them standing on a bit of dirt atop a precipice. All the world faded to nothingness.
“Papa, I’m scared,” said Flower. “I can’t run with my leg. I’m gonna die.” A waver in his voice indicated he was close to crying. The poor child was at the bare end of his strength and losing his grip on the knot. He had nothing left.
Androkles was too on edge to handle the despair in his son’s voice, and the boy’s words cut him. “You’re not gonna die,” he said, but his voice started catching so he faked a cough until he had himself under control. “What good is a world without Flowers in it?”
Flower moaned in frustration. “Papa, I’m serious!”
A quiet rumbling gently murmured above the silence from far in the distance. Flower took no notice of it, however. He flattened his ears even further, and weakly whipped his tail, tapping Androkles’ calves with it over and over.
Androkles listened carefully for a moment, but when he couldn’t determine quite what the sound—thunder? A river?—was, he said, “I happen to like Flowers. One of my favorite things, in fact. And as far as I know, you’re the only one. You know any other boys named Flower?”
“That’s dumb,” complained the boy.
The rumbling grew louder still, and soon Androkles recognized the sound for what it was: a great number of horses moving together. It was unmistakable, after the life he’d led. The King hadn’t called for an ambush or a patrol to chase him down. He had managed to summon a small army. Androkles listened with every bit of focus he could command, trying to gauge the number. Somewhere between fifty and two hundred? He couldn’t tell. The horses were probably moving at a walk, not a trot, with so many on the road in the dark. They must think they were going to sneak up on him. If his chariot were moving, it might have worked.
“The Path-clearer’s ass,” muttered Androkles, “must love this country.”
Flower turned a pointed ear and paid attention, then said, “What?”
“He clears no paths. All he does is shit here, Flower! Everywhere I step on these gods-forsaken roads in this blighted country, endless shit. That rumbling sound you hear is an army. The King woke them up to come get us.”
The boy’s eyes widened in dread and his grip on Androkles went rigid, then limp. A moment later, his eyes welled up with tears again and he clenched them shut. Androkles felt the boy’s good leg give out and barely caught him before he collapsed to the floor of the chariot.
“I’m not going to let you die, so get that thought out of your head right now. Got it? Get up, boy.” Androkles helped Flower back to his feet, then wiped the tears away from his cheeks with his thumbs. Grasping him firmly by the shoulders, he said, “You’re not allowed to die until you sing publicly in Dikaia about rescuing your father from evil magic and killing the Prince. You are not allowed. I forbid it! And don’t you dare cross me, son. You know how mad I get.”
“Is that another joke?” Flower asked from under a little scowl of his own.
“No, of course it isn’t a joke! You already forget about Pepper and everyone else? You wanna see them again, you have to be alive. Stand there a moment.”
Androkles hastily grabbed the blankets and wadded them together into a ball and placed it at the front of the chariot. He had Flower kneel on them with his elbows resting on the rail to get some of the weight off his leg. When Androkles handed him the reins, the boy took them with extreme hesitation, hoping perhaps that making a big show of it would cause his Papa to change his mind.
“Kneeling like this hurts my leg,” complained Flower.
“How bad? Enough to make you cry?”
“Then deal with it. Keep the weight on your other knee and rest on your arms. Hold the reins so you don’t drop them. Hold them, I said. Better. Now, if the horses move, give a gentle backward tug to make them stop. Just pull back to make them stop. Got it?”
Flower nodded without looking up.
“Good. The King and his pets are a long, long way behind us, and they won’t catch up any time soon. But if they do, snap the reins up and down to make the horses go. Do it again to make them go faster, or pull back to make them slow down. If you just hold it loose, they should stay the same speed. Got it?”
“Yes, but—” He tried to twist around but Androkles pushed him back into place to make sure he stayed put.
“No time to talk. Keep the chariot right here unless you’re in danger. I can’t fight so close or I’ll spook the horses. They’ll get hurt or break the chariot and we’ll have to walk. I need to fight farther up the road.”
“I’m scared,” said Flower, his small voice shaking with grief.
“I’ll be right back.” Androkles hopped over the railing with spear in hand. By the gods, this was insanity. A single man to face an army. The Hewer himself would no doubt sense the bloodshed and come watch, grinding through the stone of his hidden kingdom to set his eyes on Androkles for the second time. Androkles shuddered.
He turned and sprinted into the lonely darkness of the road, but before he had gone ten paces, Flower screamed, “Papa, don’t leave me alone! It’s too dark! I can’t do this! Papa!”
Androkles nearly spat with frustration. He turned and shouted, “Stay quiet! No one knows you’re there!” By the gods, could the boy not just simply do his part? Androkles was fighting an endless, impossible war, and all Flower had to do was kneel there and keep his cursed mouth shut and that was too much for him. None of this would have been necessary if Androkles wasn’t dragging the ingrate along in the first place. By cur-faced Arkos, it was beyond comprehension!
He turned again and ran, hoping to escape the keening wail of despair that Flower had no strength to swallow. The longer Androkles listened, the more likely his anger would fade in favor of shame, and he wasn’t having that.
Androkles didn’t go much farther before he had to slow down to see where he was going. The last thing he wanted to do was break his ankle and freeze in a ditch. He slowed to a careful jog and kept his eyes racing wildly along the dim road a step or two ahead.
By the time he had gone perhaps two hundred paces, he found his mind wandering and his eyes growing dim. The strain of such constant, diligent focus was hard to bear, at least after a day like this one had been. No breakfast. Work. A bit of lunch. Work. Sitting to look pretty at a feast. Killing several dozen barbarians. Riding into the night on a chariot.
He stopped for a moment to see if he could still hear Flower; he could not. Thank the gods for that, for several reasons. Gods grant that the boy had simply calmed down, and not something horrible.
The quiet rumble of the army was a bit louder now, and still approaching. They rode at a mere walk, but in the absence of any other sound and in such perfect darkness, it roared in his ears like thunder.
Their slow pace had prolonged his life this long, at least. He had no plans; just unleash his fury and start stabbing and hope he could turn them aside. How long could he keep his killing intent burning at full force, exactly? He’d never bothered to find out, or had any reason to. Could he keep the flames roaring for a half hour? Longer? One did not turn aside an army of hundreds in a few minutes.
If they were moving, they weren’t setting up an ambush. That meant he had a chance to ambush them. Move a bit farther up the road and hide off to the side somewhere, and jump out and start killing them before he was seen. It was a slightly better plan than just march down the middle of the road until they met. Slightly.
In the dark, he had a chance. They must be wondering what sort of man the King needed an army for. They would be nervous, riding slowly through the same oppressive darkness, looking for threats behind every rock and fence-post. In the confusion, they might not realize he was alone, especially when his anger dropped the first dozen men and their horses. Hearing the death-cries of their fellows, they’d think they wandered into a slaughter. Half would fumble for a light and the other half their swords, and he would have plenty of confusion to exploit.
He grinned darkly to himself as he imagined the finer details in his mind; the amount of bloodlust in him, now that he became aware of it, was startling. His fingers clenched eagerly around the spear and his nostrils itched in the icy air for the scent of gore. The well of rage inside him roared hot as ever and burned every other emotion to ash. Seeing one’s son in pain would do that to a man.
He moved closer to the edge of the road to find somewhere to hide—a large rock, a stump, a furrow. In darkness this deep just about anything would do.
Instead, he found a missing section of fence, and upon closer inspection, a smaller road just wide enough for the chariot. Where the main road was bare dirt, this one was still covered in snow and nearly invisible in the dark. He bent down for a moment and discovered hoofprints and wheel tracks a bit narrower than his chariot; this was some farmer’s road, or woodsman’s, and went nowhere.
Although, a woodsman’s road would lead deep into the forest away from trouble, and a farmer’s road might circle around the valley to the other side and meet with other roads further on. The main road led roughly northeast, and this one branched off northwest; as long as he kept moving north, Wolfscar would find him eventually and guide him from there.
In the morning, that army would be filling the landscape like mice chased out of a granary, but they didn’t see in the dark any better than he did. If he slipped out of their fingers now, he’d be safe until daylight, or longer.
Since no one was around to see it, he let himself sigh so deeply in relief that he nearly groaned. Facing an army alone was the sort of hubris that got a man killed, deservedly so. The gods would see to it. They hated that sort of thing.
He turned and jogged back as quickly as he had come. Androkles didn’t see the horses until he got so close they startled him when their shapes popped out of the darkness. “Change of plans!”
Flower had his head buried in his arms atop the railing, but he jumped when he heard Androkles and picked the reins back up with a worried look that was only visible because the boy was so pale. “What’s happening?” he asked nervously.
“I found another little road for us to sneak away on.” Androkles stepped up into the cart and took the reins, then snapped them firmly before the boy had a chance to move. “It’s on the left. I need you to help me find it again. Watch for the fence to open up.”
This time the horses started moving, although they weren’t happy about it. He had to snap the reins several times before they decided he meant it. Once he got them going, the sounds of the approaching army were again drowned out in the creaking of the axle and the rumbling of the wheels and hooves. The night grew even deeper and more treacherous as a result.
Flower stayed kneeling where he was, but he sat up as straight as he could and watched the road carefully as directed.
In a forcedly conversational tone of voice, Flower said, “I like this plan better.”
Androkles chuckled and replied, “Me too, boy. I didn’t leave you because I wanted to. Let me know when you see the opening.”
“I think I just barely see it. Is it just one log missing?”
“Maybe. The road is snowed over, so it’ll just look like an opening in the fence. I didn’t see it until I was standing on it.”
“I think I see it. It’s right up there,” said Flower. Quietly, he added, “I hope we can sleep soon. I’m so tired I feel sick. I’ve had a big day.”
Androkles snorted in amusement.
“I don’t think I can keep going.”
“I know,” said Androkles gently.
When the horses refused to turn onto the snow-covered side road, Androkles nearly screamed at them in frustration. No matter how he whipped the reins, they wouldn’t move.
“Papa, they’re going to catch us! I can hear them…” moaned Flower.
“Calm down. They’re not here yet,” said Androkles. He hopped out of the chariot and started slapping their rumps from the side so they couldn’t kick him. That worked. The horses begrudgingly stomped their way onto the snowy road and snorted their displeasure when he hopped back into the chariot. The snowy road muffled the sound of their travel somewhat, which caused a wisp of hope to rise from the fear and desperation he’d been trying to ignore. They might just get away. It was close.
Before they had travelled fifty paces along the snowy road, Flower whispered, “I see them!” He tugged at Androkles’ pant leg to get his attention and sank down to just barely peek over the railing.
Androkles stopped the chariot and turned to look. The main road was too far for him to see, but he could hear them well enough. They rode too close together for him to get a good sense of how many there were, but that also meant there were enough they had to ride close together. “Your eyesight isn’t fair, boy. Not fair at all.”
He set down the reins and grabbed his spear again, then hopped down and stood a pace or two behind the chariot. “Tell me if it looks like anyone is about to head our way,” he whispered.
When the first soldiers rode past the intersection without slowing, he grinned with satisfaction as hope grew stronger. He and Flower kept still and quiet, scarcely even breathing, as they waited for the army to pass. Androkles did his best to make a tally, but without seeing them, all he could say was probably more than three hundred, and fewer than six.
“Papa, two men! Coming up the road!” whispered Flower so loudly it was almost a squeal.
Androkles snorted in frustration; he’d dared hope this wouldn’t happen. Those two were unlikely to be a problem, but the noise of combat could draw more of them. And then more. And then the rest, like ants to dropped honey. He whispered back, “Is anyone back there waiting for them?
“Papa, I can’t go anywhere! I can’t hide!” Flower said in a strained and desperate whisper.
“You won’t have to. I’ll take care of it. Is anyone waiting for them on the road?”
“I don’t know… I don’t think so.”
“Good. Hold the reins and make sure the chariot stays put.”
“I don’t know where to go!”
“Don’t go anywhere! Now shut it!” With that, Androkles was out of time.
Each step he took made the snow crunch with distressing loudness, so all he could do was hurry and hope they didn’t hear it. He crept low to the ground on the left side of the road so his first attack would be through their sword-arm. He hunkered down to look like a rock and held perfectly still. He would have only an instant to silence them; a stab to the neck or upper gut would do, but he’d only get one attempt. In the dark.
One chance. A scream from either rider would end everything. One scream. Androkles waited breathlessly as an eternity passed between each hoofbeat.
Flower whimpered softly in terror through a tightly closed mouth. He must be scared out of his mind, just sitting there watching the soldiers come all the way up the road. Where was Agurne when they needed her?
The riders came into his view as though out of a veil, with the darkness opening to let them pass. They rode side-by-side with their swords drawn and resting on their shoulders. They gave no indication that they took any notice of him, and even stopped a mere couple paces from him when they saw the chariot. The closer of the two pointed ahead and said, “Watch out there, that’s…”
Androkles rose quick as the wind, and the soldier’s words were silenced by a vicious upward stab into gut, just above the right hip and angled to reach all the way into his chest.
Blessing the darkness that hid him, he carefully yanked the spear straight out to keep the man in his saddle just a moment longer. He quickly circled around behind the two horses to stab the other one before he noticed the danger.
The man’s horse kicked him. Androkles didn’t seen it coming.
The blow caught his left bicep and slid to crush the ribs under his pectoral. He lost his balance and stumbled but kept his feet. Only the sudden inability of his lungs to draw air kept him from crying out in pain and shock. His eyes watered as his guts writhed inside him.
The first man lurched in his saddle from the horse’s sudden motion and gasped a few shallow, choppy breaths. He waved his arm to his friend, valiantly trying to keep in the saddle.
Androkles had no time to worry about his injuries. He held his breath to keep the pain from affecting his aim and crept around behind the other horse, out of reach of its hoof this time. The second man turned his head to his friend and asked, “Doiros?”
Now in position, Androkles gritted his teeth against the roaring ache in his side and thrust the spear forward. The injury made his muscles convulse and ruined his aim, and instead of burying the spear in the man’s kidneys it glanced against the leather armor and slipped to one side.
The soldier twisted in his saddle and finally saw him. He yanked the reins to turn the horse as he yelled, “Here! He’s here!” Praise the gods, the man was too startled to shout properly and the words came out weakly.
He swiped his sword haphazardly, but Androkles was circling with the horse to stay on the man’s left side and the swing came nowhere near him.
Now or never. Focus and will forced his muscles to comply, and he thrust several times in quick succession. This time the strikes fell true, piercing deep up and down the man’s side.
The soldier let out a bubbling hiss from his ruptured lung and reflexively hunched over as every muscle in his torso tensed up.
Androkles stabbed him again, hoisted him from his saddle with the spear, and threw him to the ground. The man hit the shallow snow with a crack and thud, and Androkles gave him a final, vicious jab in the throat just to make sure.
The other rider had turned his horse and directed it back toward the main road, but the horse only made it a few steps before he slumped roughly to the snowy ground.
Androkles finished him with two sharp stabs, then set down his spear. Trying not to whimper at the screaming pain in his ribs, he lifted and heaved the man’s barely-living body into the snow several paces off the road. When he did the same with the other man, he groaned in pain despite his discipline. He found himself growing lightheaded from breathing too shallowly.
He forced himself to take several deep, agonizing breaths, and his eyes watered at the pain. He stifled a moan and snatched the horses’ reins and led them to the chariot. No reason not to keep them, after all. He could not help but walk hunched over, gritting his teeth against the roaring pain that ran from his waist to his elbow. He rested his hand on the chariot’s rear railing and locked his elbow, hoping it would take some of the pressure off. It didn’t help.
Flower whispered, “Papa, are you okay?”
Androkles gasped, “Is anyone… else coming?” His guts convulsing within him made it hard to get a sentence out.
The boy gave a quick, worried look down the road and said, “There are some men down there talking, and one of them pointed, but they’re just staying there.”
“How did… those bastards not… hear him yell?”
“That’s when the first one stopped. When he yelled. He’s the one talking to the others,” said Flower.
Androkles hunched over with his hands on his knees and elbows locked to take some of the weight off his ribs. Hopefully, they weren’t broken so badly they were pushed out of place. He needed to check, but not until he could give it time and attention. If he made it that long. He should. He didn’t think he was bleeding inside.
Seeing it, Flower held his hands out like he wanted to help but didn’t know where to start. He said, “Papa! What’s the matter? Are you okay?”
“I got kicked by… a horse, boy. It hurts. Just give… me a moment. Then we... get moving and hope they don’t… come after us.”
“There’s a foot trail up ahead,” said Flower.
“I’d rather not walk.”
“No, for the horses!”
Androkles looked up at him, trying not to scowl. “Make some sense.”
“We can tie the horses there, and then they’ll think the men went down that trail! I see footprints on it and everything.”
“Son, that’s…” Androkles nearly whimpered as he stood back up again. From the sound of it, most of the army had already passed by. All he had to worry about until dawn were the men waiting on the main road. And his ribs, and Flower’s leg, and whether the King had already sent the order to have Agurne and Garbi beheaded. “You’re too young to be this clever.”
He forced a grin, and Flower returned it weakly, although it didn’t soften the worry in his eyes.
With the footpath only twenty paces or so away, he had Flower drive the chariot just to get used to it. Miraculously, the boy kept the chariot on the road despite assuring Androkles that he’d crash, and it was a bad idea, and he was scared.
As Androkles tied the soldiers’ horses to a fencepost near the footpath, a light in the sky briefly made a dappling of shadow on the snow beneath them. He shot his eyes upward to the source, and his heart leapt to see Wolfscar passing overhead.
His excitement immediately turned to dread as he realized that the last thing he needed was a light to show the army right where he was. If a handful of soldiers followed Wolfscar’s light and found them, broken ribs meant a short fight. Androkles muttered a curse under his breath and tried to will the fairy away with his mind.
Wolfscar flew out toward the main road and stopped. It looked like he was surveying the situation and may not have seen them.
Flower called out, trying to sound halfway between loud and quiet. “Wolfscar! Over here!”
Androkles hastily shooshed him and whispered, “If he comes over here, they’ll see us!”
Flower couldn’t keep still. He set the reins down and limped his way out of the cart.
Androkles tried to grab him, but the boy was more mobile than his ribs let him keep up with. Under his breath, he hissed, “Stay here!”
“I know! I’m just looking!” said Flower, taking a couple tentative steps up the road.
Wolfscar flew right up to the main road and stopped again, perhaps fifteen paces in the air. At this distance, it was impossible to tell quite what he was up to, but he seemed to be turning in the air and surveying the scenery.
How was Androkles supposed to get the fairy’s attention without alerting the soldiers? From the faint glint on their helmets, it looked like a bunch of them had stopped to gawk. They weren’t going to simply shrug and go back to riding.
When he remembered he did have a way, he whispered to Flower, “When he looks over here, make a big deal of covering your eyes. Got it? Or act like you’re hiding. We want him to come, but not while he’s glowing. He can turn it off.”
When Flower nodded that he was ready, Androkles released the barest hint of his killing intent. Only as much as might seep out without him realizing, and no more. It took a great deal of concentration, more than he was expecting; cracking open those gates brought out the day’s turmoil, which tried to force its way out in a flood. The pain of his broken ribs didn’t help.
Satisfied, he withdrew his killing intent and they watched Wolfscar with apprehension. At first the fairy gave no sign he’d noticed, but after a moment he started drifting in their direction. Androkles hurriedly made a big show of covering his eyes.
Flower pointed at the army and covered his eyes, then pointed at himself and ducked down to hide under his own hands. He repeated the actions several times, and Androkles would have followed his lead if he’d felt like bending up and down. Hopefully it would be enough. By Diorthodon Path-clearer, let it be enough. Let Wolfscar come to them hidden or not at all.
The fairy stopped drifting. It was impossible to tell which direction he was even facing, let alone whether he could see them. After a moment of inactivity, Wolfscar drifted again toward the road, sparkling like the brightest wandering star. Androkles released just a hint more of his killing intent, praying he wouldn’t spook the horses.
Wolfscar shot straight up into the sky and flew southward at great speed, disappearing against the real stars. Either the plan worked, or Wolfscar didn’t see them in the first place; the gods knew which.
Androkles discovered it was possible to feel relieved and disappointed at the same time.
“Why…” whimpered Flower, heartbroken. “Oh, Papa, he…”
“He’ll turn around. He has to have seen us,” said Androkles, although he didn’t believe it.
A bit too loudly, Flower said, “But he’s already gone! He went so fast…”
For a moment, father and son scanned the horizon to catch sight of him again, but it quickly became undeniable the fairy had left.
Lost, tired, injured, and quickly losing the last of his enthusiasm, Androkles realized just how badly he wanted a guide. He finally said, “Well, he knows about the army now, and he’ll see we’re not with the King anymore. He’ll come back, and next time we’ll be far enough away that we can shout. Let’s get moving.” Even so, he found it emotionally difficult to turn away from the sky and finish tying the decoy horses.
“He goes so fast! It looked like he just went ‘blink’ and then he was gone. Like a lightning.”
“He’d have to, to keep track of us all this time. I bet he’s cold, though. Let’s be quiet for a bit longer, just in case.”
With the horses tied at the turnoff for the footpath, Androkles gathered Flower back into the chariot and took up the reins. With one snap they resumed their journey, the gods only knew where.
Whether the decoy horses did any good, they might never learn; the turnoff passed out of Flower’s view before anyone from the army came to investigate. If the gods were smiling on the last of the Agapatheids, the soldiers would forget about the side road entirely, but one couldn’t rely on such good fortune.
A short time up the snowy road, no pursuit had come for them and Androkles told Flower to lie down and try to rest. The boy slumped down sullenly on the tumbled bed of blankets and did his best to settle in. He held his knee with both hands in an apparent attempt to keep his injured leg from jostling around and muttered, “How come nothing goes right anymore?”
Androkles chuckled and said, “How come, indeed.”
Unsatisfied, Flower shifted around on the floor, trying to find a more comfortable position and not having much luck. Androkles knew from experience how hard it was to rest with a stab wound; Flower had a rough week or two ahead of him, poor thing.
The boy shuffled around a few more times before finally coming to rest with his shoulders and head against the wall of the chariot. It looked even worse than just curling up and laying there, but there he was. Flower sighed with resignation and let his arms rest at his sides.
They rode a while like that. Perhaps a half a mile, perhaps more—it was impossible to tell in the dark. The scent of cattle floated strongly on the still and icy air, and Androkles wondered how many head they had. The rugged landscape of the Glories left so little room to grow grain that open pastureland was almost unheard of, except for among the wealthiest landowners. Even with the overseas trade routes made possible by the Republic Navies, he’d seldom been able to get his hands on meat of any kind outside of Festivals. Other than what the Army captured during raids, of course; that was one of the chief appeals of enlisting. Why the gods had given the best people the worst land, no one understood.
Out of nowhere, Flower screamed wildly and flailed like the goddess Abraxia’s blessed. He twisted and kicked in every direction, then leaped and nearly jumped out of the chariot before falling again and kicking his back against the wall. Androkles himself nearly fell out of the chariot in startlement, and the horses bucked against the harness and tried to run.
Androkles did his best not to panic as he pulled harshly for the horses to stop. “Flower! What’s the matter? Talk to me!” he shouted, over and over, unheeded. The horses whinnied and refused to comply. Their eyes flashed in terror as they twisted their necks to look in every direction, and they pulled defiantly against him on their bridle.
His son tore oddly at his shirt and flopped around inside the chariot as though he were trying to escape his own skin. “There’s!” was all he could get out before he screamed again. That scream expressed a lifetime of horror and suffering and all thought fled before it.
Androkles fought against the flash of white panic that burst into his mind. Was Flower dying? Was his spirit breaking under the strain? Piss on a grave, the army! They’d hear this for certain. He pulled the reins so hard the horses had either to stop or tumble. They stopped.
He knelt and threw his hand over the boy’s mouth to quiet his screams, and tried to hold him still long enough to see what was going on.
The boy wasn’t having it. He twisted ferociously to get away, clawing at his chest as if he wanted to rip out his own heart. His eyes opened ever wider with terror and desperation as he screamed into Androkles’ hand. When he tried to suck in air through his nose, he didn’t seem to get enough and Androkles had to let off so he could breathe. Flower inhaled so hard he choked and spluttered, and Androkles clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth again before he could scream.
Wolfscar yelled, “I’m just cold! Stop pulling me!”
Father and son froze, wide-eyed, as the fairy’s tiny bird-voice met their ears. Flower shakily lifted his hand from his shirt away to reveal a squirming lump beneath it. Barely-visible pale blue light glowed through the cloth.
“Wolfscar?” they asked at the same time.
The lump squirmed a bit more and finally settled into a fold of cloth near Flower’s waist. “I was too cold to say hello. I need some warmth first. No one saw me. I knew that’s what you meant with your hands. I decided that.”
Flower looked so relieved he was going to cry. He even forced a laugh, which seemed too short to be sincere. His voice caught pitiably as he explained, “I just felt this cold thing grabbing on my shirt and going in. I thought it was an icy hand grabbing my heart, like from a shade!”
Wolfscar, seemingly oblivious to the panic he’d caused, said, “Can you put your hand on me so I get warmer?”
“You feel like a snowball!”
“I do feel like a snowball! Warm me up!” the fairy complained.
Flower put both hands on the lump in his shirt and gently held the fairy close. He shivered from the cold and smiled so broadly it looked like a grimace. A tear dripped down his cheek and Androkles wiped it away, trying not to wince as he extended his arm. Another one dripped down, and another. Androkles wiped those away, too.
Androkles said, “Flower, you have my permission to tickle him one time when he’s not expecting it. He’s got it coming after scaring you like that, doesn’t he?”
Flower’s smile brightened as he considered the prospect. “Yes! I was even more scared than with the Prince. I thought I was dying.”
“That’s not fair at all!” squeaked Wolfscar. “You get to wear lots of clothes, and Papa is even covered in hair like a bear! I have to fly around! And you only get to tickle me once. Papa said!”
Androkles rose slowly to his feet to avoid aggravating his ribs and got the horses moving again. He shook his head and sighed; it was just one thing after another. No doubt someone had heard Flower. A child screaming for his life would get attention under any circumstance, and this child was awfully loud. Perhaps the army was far enough by now not to notice Flower’s hollering over the sound of their own horses. Perhaps a giant bird would come and carry them to safety, and a troupe of beautiful girls would come play the lyre.
Wolfscar crawled his way up to peek his head out of Flower’s collar. The fairy’s pale light immediately lit up the inside of the chariot, and Androkles saw a large splotch of blood on Flower’s bandage. That needed taken care of immediately, but where would he find a needle? Burning a wound shut would get the job done, but Androkles had seen that fester badly too many times. He might not have a choice, though.
Flower’s white ears perked straight as he asked in a careful voice, “Wolfscar, did you find Pepper? Is he alive?”
“Guess what, Flower! Guess where he was? The demons caught him. Did Papa tell you that yet? But I found him, and he was alive and had all his parts, and he was in a little cave with a chain on him. And they weren’t feeding him or giving him any water, and he was too sad, I think. He was getting very dim. But I told the old one to take better care of him, because Pepper is the son of Androkles, and I’m scary too, so he’d better. And I said that you were coming and they’d be sorry if he looked like that still. And I told Pepper the message you said, Papa. So I found him, but it’s a really long way from here. He said he misses everyone, too. He was really sad. Oh, and the demon promised he wouldn’t eat him. I made him promise that.”
Despite being relieved to hear the boy was alive, Androkles’ mood grew darker than the night all around them as the fairy’s words sank in. He could just see poor little Pepper bound with chains, cold and alone, crying out for food and water while demons taunted and abused him. That skinny, bony wisp of a child, hanging limply from starvation and torture. The mental image was intolerable, and once it settled in, he couldn’t shake it loose. It stuck in him like a barbed arrow that clawed its way in further with every motion.
In a low voice, Androkles said, “Those bastard sons of goat whores better not do him any real harm, or I’m going to kill every last one of them. I’ll wipe them out, even if I have to go back to Dikaia and get an army to do it. I’d be doing civilization and the gods a service. I might just do it anyway for kidnapping him in the first place. They’ve taken enough from me already.”
Wolfscar shot out of Flower’s shirt and hovered about two feet from Androkles’ face. He wore a worried look and had his arms crossed. “Papa, what about Seff?”
“I’ll kill him last. He’ll be hard to find, and Dyana won’t make it easy.”
“You’d better not! I don’t want you to!” shouted Wolfscar defiantly. “Keeping him alive really hurt!”
For a moment the two of them locked eyes, but the little blue fairy didn’t flinch or look away. Instead, his face got more and more stern as he did his best to make himself as intimidating as possible.
“Wolfscar, you know what they’re like. You saw the one Agurne and Dyana fought. Do you want to see Seff grow up and turn into that?”
“I don’t want you to hurt him!” shouted Wolfscar, so loudly that he closed his eyes while he did it.
Androkles had done his best to imagine and prepare for every scenario while they rode, but arguing with a glowing, flying little naked boy hadn’t occurred to him. And no matter what else was coming their way, he owed the fairy a debt. The more he thought about it, the greater that debt grew.
He sighed and said, “If that’s what you want, then I won’t hurt him. I owe you that much and more. Whether or not I have to kill all the rest, Seff will live. Unless he someday becomes a berserker, that is. You have my word.”
Wolfscar’s demeanor softened immediately and he got a sort of womanly, gentle look on his face. He said, “Thanks, Papa.”
“I don’t want you to kill all the rest, either, you know,” said the voice of Palthos the Orphan, plain as if the god had been standing there in the chariot with them. Androkles recognized it at once.
The three of them looked at each other in surprise, then all around to see where the voice had come from. Androkles pulled the reins to stop the horses again as Flower rose unsteadily to his feet to peer outside the chariot.
Wolfscar flew around the area in a circle, and with his dim blue light illuminating the area it was clear they were alone. No gods at all. Just the snowy path with several wagon tracks, a fence on one side, and an open field on the other.
He scowled at nothing and said, “What if they’ve hurt my son, the one you placed in my care? Or what if they won’t give him back without a fight? How many of them am I allowed to kill?”
No answer came; instead, they were met with the stillness of night. Remembering the army and Flower’s screaming, Androkles soon snapped the horses back into motion. Wolfscar flew ahead of the chariot for a moment and lit the path, which the horses appreciated.
Even though it would make their travel much, much easier, Androkles didn’t want to risk being seen, not with the army so close and after making so much noise. He said, “Wolfscar, come crawl back in his shirt. We don’t want you to be seen.”
“Hmm?” said the fairy, turning around to face him. He was chewing on a fingertip again, but his left hand instead of his right. His right arm was…
Realization shot through Androkles’ brain like a bullet from a sling. The fairy’s other arm was gone—it ended in a stump above the elbow. “Where’s your arm?!”