Androkles heard the demon breathing before it got its teeth into his face. He’d recognize that sound anywhere, the spit-flecked sound of air passing through clenched teeth. The demon’s wet and rotting breath tickled his eyelids, and sensation tore him almost instantaneously from dead sleep to urgent wakefulness.
He slammed his forehead upward before he even got his eyes open. The beast’s nose crushed against his skull.
He opened his eyes to see it rocking back with a snarl of pain. The predawn light was just enough to give its skin the blueish tinge that made the monsters visible, and it wasn’t a dream. The thing was all but sitting on him. How...!
The demon cursed unintelligibly in wretched pain and thrashed its tail against the snow, making loud whack whack sounds. It glared down at him with eyes overflowing with hatred.
Androkles got his arms out of the blanket just in time to grab its face as it lunged down to bite him. He had one thumb near its eye socket, and he dug in hoping to gouge it out. The demon ignored it completely and tried to rip at him with its claws instead.
He straightened his arms to hold the beast away, then gouged even harder with his thumb. The demon’s eye burst. The warm, clear liquid ran all the way down to his elbow.
The demon screamed and raked at his arms with his claws. The lines of heat told him those cuts were deep, but he still found enough leverage to toss his attacker to the side. He rolled from the blanket, leaving Flower hidden underneath and praying the kit had enough sense to keep still and quiet.
A lightning shock of pain from his ribs made him stumble. One knee nearly hit the ground. The demon leaped on him and threw him to his back.
It gave its best effort to ripping him apart piece by piece, screaming in fits and snarls. Androkles ended up flat on his back with the thing sitting on his belly, throwing raking swipe after raking swipe at any every exposed bit of skin. He blocked most of its strikes, but not all, and he couldn’t get a good hold of its wrists to stop the attacks. Droplets of his own blood soared past his vision.
The bastard’s bastard was strong, and it didn’t care about trying to pin him, or lock a joint, or anything else. It was trying to make sausage out of him, and that was it. Its smaller size gave it far too much advantage in twisting out of his grasp, and keeping up with its teeth and claws proved all but impossible.
He tried punching but could get no leverage for a good strike with his back on the ground. However, its strikes lingered too long and came too close; even the rawest pankration contender knew better than that. Androkles soon saw his chance and swiftly locked its arm and forced it to the side. He rolled on top of it, reversing their positions.
With the demon beneath him, it was far easier to manage; Androkles rained down punch after punch, battering the monster’s face with all his might. It struggled and raked his legs and arms with its claws, but it could not escape him.
The broken ribs on his left side prevented him from getting much strength behind that fist, and Androkles quickly found himself out of breath. Even so, he kept swinging and hit the poxy bastard so many times both his fists ached halfway up the forearm.
Androkles broke several of its teeth, blinded its remaining eye, and knocked both of its horns from its skull, leaving deep, bloody pits, before he finally pounded the thing unconscious. Gods but these things are tough!
He gave it two more solid punches to make a point, then grabbed one of the demon’s own horns and stabbed it in the heart, or where its heart ought to be. He left the horn there, then reached for the other one with a wince and drove that one in, too.
He watched as the demon breathed its last. It took but a moment.
He had done it. He, Androkles, had slain a demon with his bare hands. This would be a story told everywhere in the Glories for a hundred years or more, assuming Flower lived long enough to compose the song. He’d fought against demons, what, ten or fifteen times? And always as a soldier with spear and shield. This was the first one he’d ever killed. This was the first one he’d ever seen killed by a single man.
Androkles tried to chuckle to himself as he pictured training Dikaian soldiers to throw down their shields and wrestle if they saw one on the field of war. He couldn’t, though, because inhaling too sharply elicited a searing, sharp pain in his broken ribs, and that ruined the moment.
How had it even found him? Wolfscar said they were close to where Agurne was, perhaps only a few hours’ ride. Wolfscar had flown ahead to sleep with Garbi, and Androkles had only chosen to rest here for the night so he’d be fresh for a fight in case they had a bigger force guarding her than he expected. But the King wasn’t supposed to be close—the first three days of flight had been terrifying, with the feeling that the army would race down on them at any moment. But they couldn’t keep the same pace for long, and the fourth day, he and Flower began to grow the distance. The fifth and sixth days and grown the lead even more. The King’s army should be at least a day behind by now. So where had this demon come from?
He rose shakily to his feet and straightened his back, groaning softly in pain as he forced his chest to stretch. He took a good look around the little campsite and was pleased to see that the horses still had their heads on, his silver hadn’t been touched, and that had been the only threat.
Thank the gods it had attacked after first light—he doubted he could have killed it had he faced it at night. Seff had been nearly invisible, after all, hanging by his leg from that tree. Well, perhaps he could have, but not without his killing intent, and the Gods only knew whether Flower would survive it.
Although the boy had survived it once, back in the autumn before that fight with the goddess Mari. He’d brought it full force against Agurne, just to see if she could handle it. She could. She hardly flinched. Everyone else around didn’t fare so well, including the kits, and that was then. He couldn’t light fires with it back then.
Androkles could not truly say why it had grown, because when it came right down to it, his killing intent was a mystery to him and always had been. It was simply there, and it had grown over his years in the army. He could bring it out more easily than piss, it seemed. He wasn’t the only one, either; back in Dikaia, several of the officers and long-time veterans had a killing intent like his, although most not as strong as his had been even then. The winning contenders in the Games often did as well. None as strong as his had recently become. Nowhere near it.
He’d always thought of it as the sheer force of his will and anger, but Mari had said something like ‘you think it is your strength, but it is a wound’. Was it willpower, or if it was some effect of miasma clinging to his soul like a barnacle, or something even worse? Palthos Child-god hadn’t mentioned it, though, so how bad could it be?
As always, he had more pressing things to think about than philosophy. The blood dripping down his arms onto the snow, for example, needed attention. Finally, he made himself look, fearing the worst.
The skin of his arms was all still attached, but only barely. It draped off him in ribbons in multiple places and the blood dripping from his fingertips showed no signs of slowing. He had been almost completely flayed from shoulder to forearm on both arms, and lines of dark blood on the muscle showed that some of the gashes had gone deep. Now that he had finally brought his mind to his arms, they decided it was time to start hurting. It was a raw, unpleasant burn that caused as much discomfort as it did actual pain.
Wearing pants to bed had protected his legs, as far as he could tell. He knew he had a cut on his right thigh, but it wasn’t a bad one. His arms, though; he could bleed to death right here if he wasn’t careful. And even if he didn’t bleed to death, they were almost certain to fester, and that might kill him as well. He needed red salve, two skilled men with needles and thread, a pot of wine, a warm fire, and his friends Euphemios and Nikon to tell him bawdy jokes. And while he was at it, a good whore, new clothing, and wings to fly to a less ridiculous climate.
“Papa, come back. It’s cold,” muttered Flower from inside the blanket.
What? No, he couldn’t… “Flower, are you still asleep?”
“Yes. But I’m starting to wake up because you let the cold air in,” complained the kit.
How, by Thuellos above and the Hewer below… Androkles could not contain his laughter, even though the pain in his ribs beat like a drum to the rhythm. His laughter lasted beyond one breath, and when he tried to inhale a second, he ended up trying to laugh and cough at the same time and failing at both.
Flower thrashed beneath the blanket and finally popped his head out. His hair was getting a bit long, and the way it was mussed between his pointy ears was even more comical. Androkles could simply not quit laughing, punctuated by gasps of pain.
The kit didn’t find it funny. He screamed in horror and leaped from the blanket. When he made it to Androkles, he held his hands out helplessly, not daring to touch the wounds, but wanting to cure them somehow.
A chuckle died beneath a wave of agony rushing out of his side, and Androkles quickly calmed down. “I just killed a demon with my bare hands, and you slept through it.”
Father and son looked at each other for a moment, then Androkles started laughing again. “Slept right through it! Agurne will never…” Androkles gasped in pain and lost his breath, but not his smile. “…believe it.”
“Papa, your arms! Are you gonna die?” pleaded Flower, his voice overflowing with despair.
That got through Androkles’ mirth. Mostly. His laughter died, but his spirit remained undarkened.
“Papa!” cried Flower. He trembled, too terrified to do anything else.
Well, that was no fun. “I’ve had worse, boy. You’ve seen it. Mari tore me up worse than this and I’m pretty sure I lived through that. Remember her?”
“Palthos saved you that time! Papa, you can’t die! Am I gonna have to watch? I can’t--!” Flower shuddered from head to toe as his imagination ran wild; Androkles could see it on his face. He always looked a certain way when he started imagining things.
“Flower, calm down, boy. I might need your help. I taught you how to calm down, remember? Breathe from your gut ten times. Count in your mind. Go ahead.”
Flower wiped his tears on his sleeves and extended his stomach comically with each deep breath. After ten breaths, the kit had regained his composure, although his tail still whipped furiously, swatting divots into the snow behind him.
After a dramatic pause, Androkles continued, “Well done, boy. See? You’re almost a man now, able to control his feelings. You know what you remind me of?”
Flower looked up and said, “What?” The pale skin around his eyes, nose, and both cheeks had turned bright red from all the rubbing.
“A little boy who needs to get my spear so he can make bandages.”
“Papa…” said Flower, with a hint of a smile. He glanced over Androkles’ shoulder and his mirth immediately died. The boy’s eyes widened in horror and tears welled up in them.
“There’s another one.”
The footsteps crunching in the snow behind him brought a sudden shock of terror. At the same time, the unfairness of it galled him; rage that had been churning inside him, down deep where he had to keep it for Flower’s sake, boiled to steam and pressed against his mind in a roar.
Androkles did his best to keep calm as his mind fought between blind rage and crippling panic. He whispered, “Once I’m done killing this thing…”
He stopped. The fresh, raw pain in his arms fueled his anger like dry pine needles. Hatred coursed through his veins like unmixed wine, intoxicating and blinding him. He focused, trying to clear his mind, but the mix of pain, fear, and fury made it nearly impossible.
His thoughts narrowed and focused into simple ideas, which passed through his mind in an orderly march. Androkles would die if Flower didn’t bind his wounds. Flower would die if Androkles unleashed his killing intent. Androkles could not fight without his killing intent. Flower had to go so Androkles could kill the demon. Androkles’ wounds would remain unbound. Androkles was going to die. Flower had to go.
“Get out of here. Take the chariot. Go.”
Flower looked at him uncomprehending.
Flower took the tiniest second too long to get the idea, and a short burst of Androkles’ killing intent nearly took him off his feet.
“Now!” His anger roared so loudly he could barely think.
Realization came like a slap, and Flower turned and ran onto the chariot and snapped the reins as hard as he could.
Come find him, Wolfscar. Get him to safety.
Androkles rose to his feet and kicked the blanket from his spear; he’d slept with it at his side, just in case. He closed his fingers around the lacquered haft of that glorious weapon and found that his arms had no strength. The muscles of his upper arms simply had nothing left to give; the cuts must be deeper than he thought.
Standing straight, he clenched with all his remaining strength not to drop the spear. It rested loosely in his limp grasp, but it did not fall. Androkles finally turned to face the demon, which had stopped on the other side of the road and waited, watching.
Like the other, it wore a ragged cloth about its waist that might once have been pants, and nothing else. Its blue-black skin concealed its features in the weak early morning light. its tall, gleaming black horns reflected the snow like polished glass. The demon’s hands were taut, with fingers extended to make claws of the hard tips and nails. Its long, thin tail whipped with invisible speed behind it and kicked up snow into a gently drifting powder.
Flower and the chariot raced away, thundering riotously down the road in the early morning stillness. No birds called. No fire crackled. All across the landscape, the work of the gods rested and waited for sunrise.
Androkles could not fight. He could barely move. He breathed deeply from the gut to clear his mind, counting his breaths to himself. One, two, three… It worked, although not completely. His rage roiled wildly within him, but it seemed to have lessened its grip on his mind. Instead, he became aware of it like an observer, not a participant, and his fear withdrew behind a veil of rationality.
Mysteriously, the demon merely waited, watching him. At this distance, Androkles couldn’t discern the beast’s emotions; something about the skin resisted more of the weak, early light than should be possible.
How should he face death? Scream and charge with spear loose in his fingers and hope he didn’t drop it? Wait, noble and dignified, until it came for him?
“Giant man,” said the demon. Even though the thing was male, its voice was high and soft, like a merchant welcoming a customer.
Androkles stared. The monster could talk? Seff could speak just fine, and that demoness had said ‘thank you’, but those two weren’t the ravenous killing kind. These ones never spoke. It was part of their loathsomeness—they had no words, and therefore no minds.
The demon looked down at the corpse of its fellow, lying a scant few steps away. “Little fuzzy gone,” he said. Then he turned to peer in every direction, rotating his entire torso at the hip instead of just turning his head.
Was the wretched thing talking about Flower, just after watching him hop on a chariot and ride away? Why did it act like it didn’t know where the boy had gone?
The demon said nothing more. It paced a couple steps one way, then the other, looking utterly bewildered.
Without warning, it sprang for Androkles like a lightning strike, hands extended in claws, mouth wide with bared teeth.
Androkles, ready and waiting, released the full measure of his killing intent, letting it burst from him all at once; if Flower wasn’t far enough away yet, then so be it. Immediately, the snow below his feet began to sizzle and steam. The blast of it grabbed lighter snow from around him and whipped it airborne in a ring that floated away from him. A sense of relief accompanied the release of his power, which he had never noticed before. The swirling fury around him brought further clarity, as the master of the storm.
He braced himself and gripped the spear in both hands for a stab, but he bent too far forward and his ribs caused a spasm that ruined his balance. His weak hands nearly dropped the spear, but he kept the point forward somehow, knowing it wouldn’t penetrate.
The demon made it within two steps of him before it shrieked and hissed and covered its eyes. It stumbled and fell to one knee.
Androkles steadied his grip and stepped forward for a lunge, but the demon rolled backward and thrashed in the snow as it whimpered in pain.
He moved forward with heavy thudding steps, hoping his blood on the spear haft would dry enough to make his grip firm instead of slippery. His killing intent burned his flayed arms with exquisite pain. Worse than surgery. Tears came to his eyes and his voice almost escaped him. His pain fed his anger, and it grew ever stronger.
The demon howled and flailed, seemingly unaware. It grabbed its head and screamed in anguish. Androkles raised the spear for the killing blow and thrust with whatever might he could muster.
Again it rolled away from him. This time, the demon scampered on all fours some distance up the road, opposite where Flower had gone. It stopped about 20 paces away from him, rose to its feet, turned, and simply watched.
Androkles stepped forward. The demon stepped back. He took another step. The demon moved back.
The dog-faced son of two whores was gonna wait him out! Androkles looked down at the exposed muscle of his arms to discover that in the heat of his anger, the blood had congealed and created scabs. There was no healing, however; bands of skin flopped uselessly like ribbons tied on his arms for a festival.
He focused on the pain, soaking in it to keep his mind clear. His killing intent radiated as strongly as ever, a ceaseless fire that burned without oil or wick. It dried the ground all around him in a five pace circle, raising a faint cloud of fog that further obscured the demon.
How long could he keep it up? He’d never tried to find out. Longer than this, certainly, but all day? An hour? Did it matter? As soon as his killing intent faded, the demon would be upon him and turn him to paste. He had no hope of chasing it down, not with broken ribs and arms leaking blood. He wasn’t even confident he could successfully stab the thing if it stood there and let him.
The demon paced back and forth with its teeth bared, just far enough away to withstand Androkles’ anger. Its bare chin glistened with what must have been saliva.
Should he try throwing the spear? He was fairly accurate with a javelin, but spears seldom flew right. No, that would never work; his hand wouldn’t close tight enough to give it a good toss.
“Come over here so I can kill you,” said Androkles.
“No,” replied the demon without a hint of humor. Its oddly high, soft voice barely made it all the way to his ears over the sound of the blood pounding in his veins. The thing seemed… young. Was it a youth, not even twenty?
“Then go away.”
“Kill giant man.”
“Eat little fuzzy.”
“I didn’t eat a little fuzzy. You have the wrong giant.”
The demon tilted its head like a confused dog. Its tail whipped harder and harder, pounding the snow-covered ground like a drum.
Seff had been able to speak well enough. What was wrong with this one?
“Someone already killed me. See my arms? I’m just waiting to die. You can go home now.”
The demon grew agitated and paced far more frantically than before. It snarled and hissed, reminding Androkles of nothing more than a chained and angry dog.
“Kill giant man.”
Androkles took a deep breath to stoke the fire of hatred even further and perhaps reach it at that distance, but winced when he inhaled too deeply and pain shot from hip to neck.
He couldn’t wait until he was exhausted to bring an end to this; better to do it while he still had his strength. If he waited for his killing intent to burn out and die, like it surely must eventually, he would stand no chance.
Demons were single-minded killing machines. Whether they possessed any real cunning, no one knew. Certainly, they were strong enough they didn’t need any. What need for strategy when your tail could slice right through a shield? When your teeth could puncture hammered bronze, and your claws thick leather?
Androkles could feel the weakness and injury in his body take its toll; although his killing intent burned brightly as ever, unwavering, his body might collapse at any moment.
Well, all he had left was a stupid plan, so hopefully demons were simple. He positioned his feet to provide a sturdy brace for his spear, then clutched his ribs and moaned in pain. Loudly. Twice. He let his killing intent fade and die. He gave the demon a pained and exhausted look, which he didn’t have to force. This was not going to work.
The goat-raping wretch took a tentative step forward, then smiled more broadly than could ever be natural, baring every one of its shark-like teeth. It took another step. Then another.
Then it ran at impossible speed, horns forward to gut him, shrieking in pleasure. Its feet pumped against the dirt road like the oars of a trireme at war. Its tail cut the air like a leather bullwhip.
“No! Stop!” Androkles yelled. The fear in his voice was genuine. The white blindness of terror creeped over his vision.
Closer… closer… Five paces away, four, three…
Now! In an instant, Androkles’ posture changed from defeat to readiness. He unleashed his killing intent, forcing it out with all his willpower. The demon faltered but was moving too quickly to stop. Androkles turned the spear, planted the butt firmly against his back foot, and lowered the point like a long-poleman facing a cavalry charge.
The twisting demon’s agility nearly got it out of the way in time. Nearly. It jumped and took the spearpoint just above the groin instead of right below the sternum. Its momentum slid it all the way down the spear to Androkles’ hand.
It grabbed his face with both hands and brought its teeth in for a bite. Androkles yanked his head back and felt the beast’s claws tear at his temples.
Androkles stepped back and yanked on the spear hoping to get it free, but the muscles in his arms wouldn’t let him. Frustration fueled his anger even hotter.
The demon screamed and tried to twist away, but it turned in a direction that braced the spear against Androkles’ body. Even so, Androkles almost lost his footing; the thing was strong.
He grinned darkly and shook the spear to cause as much pain as possible, and his killing intent grew stronger yet. He could smell the air burning.
The demon made no more effort to attack and instead focused all its efforts on getting away. The dried, sticky blood on the spear haft cemented it to Androkles’ hand, and the thing was either too stupid or too undisciplined to try simply walking backward.
It clutched its ears and howled in desperate agony. It jumped and stomped, panicking with every inch of its body.
Somehow, Androkles held firm to the spear. His mind raced as he tried to figure out how to finish the job without getting his face torn off. The waves of fury did nothing to strengthen his arms; the muscles themselves were damaged, and one couldn’t get a rope to unfray with willpower.
Why the demon didn’t just take his legs off at the knee with its tail, Androkles had no idea, but it seemed to have given up any thought of attack.
All at once, large sections of the demon’s blue-black skin peeled and revealed raw, pink flesh underneath. Androkles knew what was happening at once--he’d seen it before. The demon was burning alive. Its screams no longer held anything but agony.
“Die, filth! Get of a goat and a cripple! Suffer and die!” Androkles shouted, unable to contain the thrill of triumph that rushed through him.
Only a moment longer and the demon fell limp, overwhelmed by pain. A burning man didn’t last long unless one made a deliberate effort to keep him alive. Once the gods-cursed worm slumped to the ground, Androkles finally tugged the spear free and stabbed it in the heart. Twice.
When the first wisp of smoke escaped the corpse’s mouth, Androkles subdued his killing intent; he didn’t want to smell the thing cooking. Fortunately, the smoke ceased as well, althought the burned-flesh scent lingered strongly.
He stepped back from the corpse and stumbled when his knees turned to water, nearly falling. The fight had taken too much out of him. He gingerly made his way over to the blankets and let the spear fell from his limp fingers. He sat more quickly than he planned and bruised his tailbone on the hard ground.
The rush of battle slowly wore off, replaced by a wave of nausea and exhaustion. His mind remained highly vigilant and took in every motion his eyes could catch, but at the same time he could barely comprehend his surroundings. He closed his eyes and tried counting deep breaths to slow his frantic heartbeat. He found he couldn’t—the pain in his arms made every breath a hiss through clenched teeth.
Should he even bother trying to patch himself up? Never mind he could barely reach one arm with the other over the muscles of his chest. If he didn’t bleed out here and now, what then? Walk a mile and bleed out into shoddy bandages while trying to catch up to Flower? Or better yet, die of a horrible fever in bed after his arms festered. Without the bed.
By all the hateful gods, why now? Why did the demons find him this morning, of all mornings? Six days, they’d evaded capture. Wolfscar could see the roads from high enough up that not even the King’s scouts had been able to keep track of them.
A few more hours, and he would have held his dear treasure in his arms. Knowing he would never see Garbi again pained him as much as his injuries, and Agurne… She’d have to do his job for him now, all on her own.
Mother Laophilea, guard well poor Agurne. She loved deeply, with her whole soul, and all her ornery behavior was to hide it. He’d never met someone with as much pity as her, and very few who could match her sharp tongue. A woman of opposites; two things at once. A beautiful mystery. He’d been planning on killing every last man in the village for the crime of keeping her as a slave, no matter how well they treated her. Agurne deserved that much, at least.
Garbi, his little treasure, had something planned for him, according to Wolfscar, and it was a secret. Did he even want Garbi to see him like this? She’d never forget it. Her last image of him would be his insides. And she’d curse him, too, as she got older and her life remained wretched. Slave to barbarians. You’re welcome, Garbi girl. I should have let the tartalo eat you.
His fathers would be forgotten, their graves untended or reused. The Oathfather might claim the best among their number, but with no one to call their names the rest would wander the earth, lost in amnesia until Raphos Corpse-eater got his claws on them. Just like Androkles, actually; with no one to bury him, the miasma of his corpse would bring the god for certain.
“Looks like you’re not getting that bull, Palthos,” said Androkles.
A child’s voice whispered in his ear, “Yes I am.”
Androkles jumped in startlement and turned toward the sound, but there was nothing there. Beside him, empty air, and beyond that, a farm field of berry bushes, all covered in snow.
“Are you… Are you following me around?”
No answer came to that question, and no matter where he looked, he saw nothing but perfect solitude. What was Palthos the Orphan up to, exactly? Was that even the god’s voice, or was he growing delirious from blood loss and exertion? It had happened before, too. Recently. When had that been, exactly? Something about demons.
A bird flew overhead, squawking as it passed him. From the sky’s brightness, the sun would rise above the horizon any moment now. Hopefully it would bring more warmth with it when it did. Each day seemed slightly warmer than the last, and the roads were mud by noon. Spring could not come soon enough.
Androkles had seen three gods in his lifetime, more than the most boastful of priests. Four, if you counted the fallen god who became a cyclops. The first had been the chained titan, the Hewer. God of earth and farming, and drinker of the blood of war. He tried not to think about that.
The second was Mari, beautiful enough to make a man weep, malicious and insane. Her growing vileness had weakened her to the point that Androkles was her match, and he killed her because she threatened his boys. He should have died, and would have if Palthos hadn’t healed his wounds.
That brought him to Palthos the Orphan. Child-god. Trickster. A god with few temples, only worshipped by the weak, the forgotten, and the helpless. One who loved nothing more than to torment those who abused orphans, and gave no blessings. A god of revenge, or so Androkles had thought. The god appeared like a boy younger than Flower and Pepper, with long black hair and a white loincloth embroidered in gold. His eyes had been black with points of light like the night sky.
Palthos had said Androkles belonged to him, and he was jealous of his belongings. Garbi, Flower, Pepper, and Agurne belonged to the god as well, and Wolfscar had been part of some sort of agreement that the little fairy couldn’t remember. The Orphan had given all of them to Androkles and even said why, although he couldn’t remember most of it. What he remembered he didn’t understand. Something about being sorry that Androkles was born in the wrong place. He had been busy bleeding to death at the time, rather like now, except not alone, and warmer.
Well, if the god was going to argue, there was no point in giving up yet. Androkles sighed and reached again for his spear. The large, flat spearhead shone as brightly as ever, although some grime had gotten into the strange letters and made them stand out. Looking at himself in its mirrored surface, he discovered his face was bloody, even though he had no idea when that happened.
His hair had grown grayer than he remembered. Back in early winter, he’d only had gray at his temples, and a few strands in his beard. Now, bits of it had begun to show all throughout his hair; his beard had too much blood in it to make any judgment, but doubtless it was turning gray as well.
He was getting old. There was no denying it any longer. The past few months had aged him a decade. His face looked haggard and worn, his eyes sunken black pits. Did he have so many creases and wrinkles before, or did they just stand out more because he was dirty?
This is silly. I only look awful because I’m dying. I can get old after I get back to Dikaia, where my gray hair means everyone has to pretend to care about my opinion.
No sense being lazy now. It’d never been in his nature. Nikon, however--that man could be lazy in the middle of a battle. What had he said when that arrow found his thigh? ‘Thank Erastria! I was ready for a nap’. The infection from that one had killed him several days later, and it served him right, the asshole.
He began sawing through the thinnest blanket to make strips for bandages and found it harder than it looked. The spearhead was sharp as ever, but he couldn’t get enough grip in his fingers, and the angle was awkward, and it wasn’t going to do any good anyway. Nonetheless, he managed to make a long, wide strip for the first bandage.
Tying it on proved to be even harder. Holding his flaps of skin in place made his stomach turn, and the unrelenting, raw pain made his fingers tremble. The bleeding had stopped for now, hopefully not because all his blood was on the ground, and the wounds looked clean; but that only got him so far. After several minutes spent trying to get everything in just the right position, he remembered how hard it was to tie a knot with one hand. It turned out that tying with a hand that only did what you wanted half the time was even harder than that. Compounding that was the fact that to reach, he had to strain against the size of his muscles. That put pressure on his ribs, which did not appreciate the treatment.
After several grueling minutes using his fingers and his teeth, he managed to get the thing tied with the skin in the right place underneath. It covered a fifth of the area from his shoulder to his elbow, which meant he had plenty more of this to look forward to.
The bandage slowly became dark and sticky with his blood, but it didn’t seep and drip much as he worked on the next bandage.
By the time he was done with the second bandage, the sun shone with startling brilliance through the sparkling, frosty treetops. How long since the fight? An hour, maybe? Less? A wonder he was still conscious, with all the blood everywhere except inside him. He felt a bit lightheaded, but not as bad as after the fight with Mari. Mostly, he felt cold. Painfully cold.
There was nothing for it than to keep going, however, especially if it was going to take him this long to die. Androkles’ soul might be condemned to wander aimlessly after he rotted unburied, but what was he supposed to do until then? Compose a song?
The third bandage simply refused to cooperate. The cold pressed into him, unrelenting and patient; his stiff, aching fingers could hardly move. His raw arms had almost stopped hurting, and gods help him if the muscle itself decided to freeze.
When he started shivering uncontrollably, he knew he had no choice but to try and make a fire. They’d ridden all this way without one for fear of the attention it would attract, but that hadn’t worked, had it?
Although... did he even need a fire? He’d burned that demon without one.
Androkles looked around, feeling somewhat like he was about to try and steal a grape from a market stall, and released his killing intent. He didn’t force it to full strength, but instead let it flow naturally. It was always there, pressing, pushing to get out, and all he had to do was open the gate and it’d come pouring.
Warmth immediately flooded back into his fingers and toes, and even his calves and forearms, which he hadn’t realized were that cold. He felt the blanket beneath him warm up. His shivering soon stopped and the blood in the bandages dried liked it had during the fight. On his right arm, where he hadn’t managed to get a single bandage yet, the blood dried into a large scab, holding all the loose skin in the wrong place. All around him, the hard ground steamed and grew paler as it dried.
With nothing around trying to kill him, or any children he wanted to keep alive, he found he could relax and pay attention to the feeling of it, how it flowed from inside him. It sloshed in waves like liquid fire, filling and suffusing every inch of him. It seemed to rise from deep, deep within his gut, where it smoldered as it waited. It left his body from the upper torso, it seemed, although that might just be because he was sitting down.
Some part of his mind stepped back and watched. Listened. Felt. There were two parts of it, almost; two centers. His mind, and his heart. The power itself...
He felt his brow furrow and knot as he focused even more carefully on exploring the feeling of his rage, trying to truly understand it for the first time. The power was...
Something pressed against the edges of his awareness. Something moved against the far reaches of his killing intent, this field of fury he created. He felt it like the brush of a feather, faintly, whispering against senses he had never before discovered. He opened his eyes to look in the direction of the encroachment.
A tall, majestic red stag stood twenty paces away, up the road in the direction Flower had gone. Its enormous horns rose at least four feet above its head, and its thick neck and challenging posture revealed a noble spirit that made Androkles’ breath catch. It had something caught between its horns, something pale, and...
It was Garbi. The rising sun herself, his treasure.
The girl stood atop the enormous stag as though it were made of wood, with one foot between its horns and the other between its shoulders, arms crossed, not even holding on for balance. She wore a simple brown tunic with pants and sandals on her otherwise bare feet. Her wheat-field-colored hair must be tied back, or perhaps it had been cut. Her brow was knotted with concern as she gazed at him.
Androkles dropped his killing intent immediately, mostly out of surprise. The sight was so unexpected that his mind had almost refused to notice her standing there. Even now, his brain struggled to accept what his eyes beheld. Not even sitting on its back, but standing? That couldn’t... unless she was dead?
He glanced down at himself, half expecting to see his own corpse slumped on the ground beneath him. It wasn’t. He could feel the cold begin again to touch him, and the pain of his arms and side remained as bright as ever. No, he was alive.
“Garbi?” he called out, voice weaker than he wanted.
“Papa! I’m here!” she called out in reply. By the gods, it really was her!
The stag trotted forward, and Garbi rode it standing upright with perfect balance as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Her gentle little face was beset with worry, and as she got closer she started digging into her pockets to pull out strips of cloth and other supplies he couldn’t make out.
It stopped no more than two paces away from Androkles and lowered its head to allow Garbi to step off. She did, as effortlessly as descending a single stair. Garbi patted its head between the eyes and whispered something he couldn’t quite make out, then turned to face him.
“Papa,” she said, calmly. Their eyes met, and the girl froze. She stood with her arms half outstretched, holding what looked like sewing supplies in one hand and bandages in the other. Tears filled her eyes and her little mouth pulled down into a frown. An instant later, all her composure was gone and she was a mess of weeping.
His heart burned, a lump formed in his throat, and his eyes watered up as well. He had to grit his teeth and swallow hard to keep from sobbing as badly as she was. It was more than he could handle right now, to see her like this. Being exhausted made a man emotional, and Garbi’s emotions were contagious at even the best of times.
“Papa, I missed you so much!” she managed to spit out. She could barely keep her eyes open, and the tears dripped down her face in a constant stream. Her hands hovered in the air as she tried to decide whether to risk a hug despite him being coated in blood. She hardly knew what to do with herself, the poor thing. He could almost watch her thoughts play themselves out as she looked him over.
“Garbi girl, I missed you too. Did…” His voice caught, and he had to steady himself. He wanted to hug her and weep, but if he did that, she’d get all dirty and she couldn’t handle that sort of thing very well. At least, she couldn’t before. The gods knew how she’d changed in the meantime.
He asked, “Did you come to sew me back up? No, don’t hug me! I’m a mess.” Crows take it all! She’d probably be the one to watch him die, halfway through trying to treat his injuries. Gods, why her? The most fragile and precious of them all? “How did you find me? Why did you come?”
The words rushed out of her, accompanied by sobs and sniffles in an unrelenting tide. “I was just sitting by the fireplace, and Mama called me and Flower was with her. She said she’ll keep the men busy so they don’t notice, and I should take the string and two needles, and I need the bandages. She gave me these ones to take, and I think she stole them. Flower was so scared! Oh, Papa, he… He was so scared! He said you fought a demon and another one came, and he thought you might be dead by now. He was crying like he thought you were. His little heart was broken. I could see inside him…”
She trailed off, and from the look of her, she had more to say but couldn’t find a way to get it all out. After two big swallows, sudden discipline came over her and she straightened her back, head high, and looked him the eyes. She said, “I knew you were still alive.”
For some reason, that proved to be too much for him. He felt hot tears running down his cheeks and into his beard. He blinked a few times and swallowed the lump in his throat. Should he send her away? Or was the god serious about him surviving? “Well, you were right, my love. Do you know how to sew?”
“Oh…! Yes, Papa. I sew almost every day. Master had me fix every clothing in the whole village since he didn’t want me going outside. Papa, I have to sew you up. I need to hurry!”
Androkles tried to grin, but there was no mirth behind it. It pained him to think what his little treasure was about to do, and the likely result. He looked up at the sky and said, “You’re an ass for making her do this!”
Then to a confused and concerned Garbi, he said, “Very well, Garbi girl, I’ll let you sew me. Sewing up flesh is harder than cloth. It’s slippery and it makes a mess. You’re going to be as dirty as I am by the time you’re done. Do you think you’re up for it?”
“Papa, I’m the daughter of Androkles! I can do it. I just… I just have to start, and then I’ll get used to it. Mama already told me what it’s like, but not very much because I had to hurry. And I had to kill lots of chickens.”
That ‘daughter of Androkles’ line sounded practiced. He wondered how often she used it to win arguments. He hoped it was all the time.
Garbi squared her shoulders and took a deep breath, obviously steeling herself for a daunting task. “Here,” she said, holding the bandages up toward the enormous red stag without so much as looking in its direction. The beast lowered his head and took the bandages over one of the countless spikes on its antlers.
Androkles had nearly pushed the stag out of his mind. He was doing his best to ignore it because he had no idea what to think about it. None at all. He’d never heard of such a thing, either by poem or rumor. Well, he could worry about it later. There wasn’t enough left in him to deal with… whatever that was. He could barely keep his current internal turmoil contained as it was.
Garbi was too occupied with the task ahead of her to give her pet any mind. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a thin, undyed thread wound around a wooden spool. She pulled a curved needle from where she’d stuck it in the thread and bit her lip as she stared anxiously at his arms.
Androkles said, “Flower probably didn’t have time to tell you, but he saved my life. Can you believe that? Your brother, that darling little kitten. I’ll let him tell you about it, though. It’s very impressive. Now it’s your turn, isn’t it, Garbi girl?” This mild attempt at humor failed to lift his spirits, and instead left him more heartsick than before. What sort of man was he, to put her through this? Even though the demons weren’t his fault and it was probably the god who sent her, he still felt culpable.
She nodded, still biting her lip. After threading the needle, she froze.
“Trying to decide where to start?” he asked. That wasn’t the reason for her hesitation, he was sure; she was simply intimidated. And he couldn’t blame her, either. Sewing skin was not a pleasant process for anyone.
“Start right here,” he said, pointing at a deep cut close to the inside of his right arm, since he wasn’t ready to rip the bandages off the left one. “You won’t have to hold anything in place. It’ll just be practice for the harder parts.”
“Mama said I have to do it fast if it’s really bad.”
“It’s really bad.”
“I know. Is it going to hurt?”
“Worse than it already does? No. I won’t feel a thing. Come on, girl. Get started. Right here. Go on.”
Once she got over the initial poke, Garbi worked with incredible deftness, enough to make Androkles half-jokingly wonder whether she was, in fact, fully mortal. The giant red stag sniffing at the ground and looking bored added significantly to the mystery. It occurred to him that he’d never thought to ask Wolfscar what he meant, precisely, when he called Garbi the Princess. Perhaps there was some grand secret, and Garbi’s true parents would appear from the clouds and claim her back someday.
Considering she had watched her true parents get eaten, however, it was more likely she had simply been spending the last couple months doing little but sewing, and this was the result of her practice.
Still, even with her uncanny speed and accuracy, a person could only do so much at once, especially someone her size. The minutes stretched into an hour, then longer, as the sun slowly glided upward. Her brow remained furrowed in absolute concentration as she hummed songs to herself that he didn’t recognize, and for a long while Androkles was content to let her focus. After all, if he got her talking, she’d stop sewing and he’d die sooner.
He didn’t even look down at her handiwork in case it made her nervous and self-conscious, two emotions Garbi had never handled well. However, the longer he sat, the more time he had to think about how badly he had missed her and what a lousy reunion this was. Here they were, silent after being apart for months. She was just finishing up his right arm, and he was still conscious. Why waste it?
How much longer did he have, anyway? If that really had been the god’s voice saying he’d make it, then the god should be doing a better job. That bitter, vicious cold was doing its work on his fingers and toes, and he felt increasingly weak. He might not make it long enough to die of the massive infection that would surely come.
“Garbi, did Flower tell you I found my silver?” he finally said. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he nearly bit his tongue. That was the wrong thing to be talking about. They'd never see Dikaia.
“Papa?” she replied. She stopped and looked up at him, her large eyes sparkling blue like the ocean. Her beauty took him aback for a moment. How lucky he’d been to find her...
He said, “I found my silver. We can go home.”
“We can? To Dikaia? You can buy your old house back? Flower didn’t say. I only had time to give him a kiss before I left. Two kisses.”
“Yes, my love. My last wife stole four talents, and I got ten back. This whole disaster of a journey is almost over. The money’s on the chariot with Flower. I hope he doesn’t lose it.”
Androkles allowed himself to look down at Garbi’s handiwork and was impressed to see that his arm looked almost human again. Not all the skin could be sewn back together or reattached, but most of it could, and she had pieced it together perfectly. He was a mess of sutures from wrist to shoulder, but it was coming together. Maybe he’d survive after all? Gods willing, Palthos in particular.
“Papa…” said Garbi with conspicuous, deliberate innocence as she pulled a strip of bandage from the stag’s horn and wound it around his arm now that the stitch-work was done. “Are you…”
She looked up at him, then tried to feign nonchalance. She was far too serious to pull it off. There wasn’t a hint of guile in her. “Are you planning on getting Pepper, too? And bringing Mama? I mean, Master Agurne? Bringing them with us when we go to the Glories.”
“I know who Mama is. Why do you ask? Does she not want to come anymore?” What under Thuellos’ swinging purse had Agurne been telling his daughter? Was that thrice-cursed gorgon going to make him drag her? He could hardly close a fist, and now he had stitches to worry about. It’d be weeks before he could…
Garbi interrupted his thoughts by saying, “Oh. Well… She was mad that you made us wait so long. She said it should have taken you a week to come get us, not almost until spring. And then she kept saying you weren’t coming, but she didn’t mean it. And then… I think she started to mean it.”
Androkles looked at her, but she refused to look him in the eyes, preferring instead to work on the bandages. The stag standing almost over her shoulder huffed and looked off into the distance at something, compounding Androkles’ disquiet. He really should ask about that.
Only two months! Just a bit over two months, and they were already thinking he’d forgotten about them. Weren’t the constant messages from Wolfscar enough? It left him feeling wretched and miserable, and he wasn’t sure if he should replace it with anger or accept it as his due.
He had waited too long to reply to her, he could tell. She was slowing down, and her movements lost their grace and confidence. The air between them grew painfully awkward. She still wouldn’t look him in the eyes, but he might as well see right into her psyche itself, with her body language shouting at him like that.
“Garbi, listen. There are little girls all across the world, aren’t there? Pretty ones. Clever ones. Loyal ones. Girls all over the place. Women, too. Beautiful women. Rich women. So many we don’t know what to do with them all. And sons! So many boys, you can hardly walk through a City without stepping on one. Bold boys. Strong boys. Clever boys. There are daughters and sons and women all over, aren’t there, girl?”
She stopped moving entirely, gripped by irresistible dread about what he was about to say.
He softened his voice and said, “The difference between them and you, my little treasure, is that you are mine. You’re my daughter. Got it? That makes you different.”
She didn’t quite seem fully reassured. “What if you have another daughter someday?”
“Then I’ll die poor, if her dowry costs me anything like what yours will.”
“What do you mean? What will my dowry cost?”
“You think I can just marry you off to some potter or oarsman? A girl like you? By Arkos, I’m going to have to find you a king! Or at least a very rich nobleman. I can’t send you to a marriage like that with a fistful of copper and a pet dog!”
“Will I have to move far away?”
“Probably not. Dikaia is one of the biggest Cities in the world. We have two kings and plenty of rich noblemen. You might only end up moving a couple houses over.”
Garbi seemed perplexed by this, but she resumed tying the bandages. Gods, what a mess. How could a little girl like her understand a man’s heart? A man didn’t understand his own.
By the time she had his right arm fully bandaged he could not keep from shivering. The bones of his hands and feet ached with unrelenting pressure. He needed to warm back up. Badly.
“Garbi, can you…” he began, but stopped when his teeth chattered loudly. He forced them quiet again, but not before the girl stepped in close and placed both her hands on his cheeks.
“Papa, you’re cold! You’re so cold! I didn’t even notice. Why didn’t you say anything? Poppy, will you come sit over Papa and I’ll put a blanket on you?”
Androkles turned a surprised and suspicious gaze to the stag, who looked back at him with a certain air of disdain and condescension. It sniffed in his direction then circled around behind him and sat down in the way that lazy horses or mules do, leaning its weight against his lower back, one of the few places on his body with no open gashes. Garbi pulled a blanket from the heap and laid it over the both of them, pulling it over his shoulder like a cloak to leave his still-flayed arm exposed.
Again he had to wonder what on earth a man was supposed to think about a girl with a pet stag, but Garbi was watching him with such intensity he dare not say anything other than that it was working and he was warming back up. And he was, to his relief. Not as quickly as he might like, and the heat wasn’t spreading quickly enough to his fingers and toes to diminish the ache, but he could tell his body had begun slowly absorbing the beast’s warmth.
She spoke before he did. “Is it warm now? Are you getting warm, Papa?”
“Garbi, why do you have a stag?” he asked, before he realized the words were leaving his mouth.
“It’s hard to explain,” she replied simply. Her blushing little face still held all that concern from before. She had her little eyebrows knotted in what could have been an impressive glare if she were malicious instead of emotionally invested. Of all the ways to take after him…
“Well, I’m not going anywhere. Why don’t you try?”
“No, I have to sew you first. Mama said that.”
“Can’t you talk and sew at the same time?”
“No. Mama can, and Aldegund and Judda, but I mess up.”
For a moment they looked at each other. Garbi was doing her best to look serious, and usually she did an excellent job, but this time she was fidgeting with her hands and changing her weight from foot to foot.
“Garbi…” he said in a slightly more cross tone of voice.
The stag lifted his head and jabbed one of his horn-points into Androkles’ cheek. Not hard enough to draw blood, but enough that Androkles got the message.
“Poppy! Stop that! Don’t you dare hurt him!” Garbi scolded, pointing the needle at her pet.
The animal removed his horn, but turned his head to glare at Androkles with one simmering eye. Once the stag was sure they had an understanding, he rested his head again.
A man goes from fighting a king and slaying all in his court, to getting cowed by an overgrown deer. Androkles gave an exasperated glance up at the cold, blue sky, then said, “Alright, girl, get me sewn up and we can talk after.”
“Yes, Papa. I’ll tell you one thing, though. It was from when Wolfscar saved me in the cave,” she said, then got to work without further comment.
He watched her work for a time, but the cold and hunger and exhaustion mingled with the weakness and illness of blood loss, and before he knew it, he was fighting with all his concentration to keep his eyes open. He nodded his head, then shot awake. He needed to tell her…!
He nodded again.