Androkles woke slowly, swimming upward toward reality in an ocean of dreams that pulled him in every direction. He sensed motion in the room, and knew he was laying down. Della, his wife, stirred next to him. How had she made it all the way to the lands of the Allobrogians?
No, no, that was a dream. That flicker of awareness drove away the false and left him waking on a green summer field, wine-skin in hand. Arkoleos was in the middle of making a joke about Androkles and wine, and he’d missed the first half of it. The younger recruit with Arkoleos shuffled uncomfortably when Androkles sat up.
Androkles’ arms weren’t bandaged, which was strange. And no new scars, either. Garbi must have done an excellent job, for him to heal so quickly. Arkoleos spoke with his characteristic rough and breathy voice and said, “So what do you think the General did? He just poured more water into Androkles’ wine-jug and stormed off.”
Arkoleos laughed uproariously and the youth chuckled nervously, keeping an uncomfortable eye on Androkles. Gods, it was good to have Arkoleos back at his side. He hadn’t seen the man since his funeral, but here he was, long reddish braid standing in stark contrast to his bronze chestplate.
No, no, that wasn’t right. Another flicker of awareness dimmed the dream. In some distant corner of his mind, Androkles became aware of his real body; he was laying on his back. A man’s voice spoke, but Androkles forgot the words as soon as they were spoken. His mind gasped for reality like a drowning man grasping for air, but he couldn’t quite reach the surface.
He forced his eyes open, or at least tried. They opened to perfect vividness, to reality. Over him towered a large tree, one which he’d seen before. It stood just above the size of a house, tall enough to shade a second-story window. Its branches spread liberally and covered much of the ground in shade. Hanging by ropes from the tree were children, boys and girls, all of them in pain. Some by their necks, others by one hand or foot. He watched in horror while they squirmed and gasped and suffered. Had there always been so many? Kind Palthos, it was awful. He’d seen it before, in a dream. Why would he ever come back to this place?
“He’s waking up. Get me that broth, girl. Hurry,” said Agurne, and Androkles finally burst into wakefulness, for real this time.
He felt completely enervated. He couldn’t even feel the cold anymore, or what he was laying on. He tried to open his eyes and found he couldn’t. Something was over his face… over his eyes. A cloth. A warm, damp cloth.
Androkles opened his mouth to speak but his voice escaped him. His throat was too dry. It itched and stung. “Water,” he rasped.
A gentle trickle of hot, savory broth dripped onto his tongue, then slightly more as he drank it greedily. He felt the warmth of it halfway to his stomach. When the trickle ended, he almost sat up, so badly did he miss it.
“I…” he said, testing out his voice. “I guess that is better than water.”
Agurne muttered beside him, “Well, shit. It looks like he isn’t dead after all.”
Oh, to hear her voice again! How he had missed her. His eyes felt hot beneath the cloth, burning both from the dryness and the tears that extremity was squeezing out of him.
His arms stung bitterly, he slowly began to realize as his mind became more aware. Oh. Right. He’d been flayed and would probably die soon. He’d forgotten about that, for the briefest moment. He shifted his arms to reposition them slightly and discovered that he was wrapped in at least one blanket, which explained why he wasn’t cold.
“Where am I?” he asked. “The King…” If the King’s demons had found him, the man himself must be closer than Wolfscar thought. He might ride in at any moment, even if just to figure out where his demons went. Androkles should have thought about that before, as soon as he saw Garbi…
Agurne shouted at him, “Hold still, you stupid asshole! Don’t get up! Do you have any idea how hard it is to move you, you damn bull? Want me to make you an ox?”
He chuckled softly and quickly regretted it as a wave of nausea from blood loss nearly made him cough up the broth he’d just swallowed. “I missed you, my love,” he said, before he realized what he was doing.
The room fell quiet for a moment, and Androkles heard rustling nearby. Finally Agurne said, “You’re only saying that because you’re dying.”
A very stern Garbi shouted, “Mama!”
“Oh, you shut up! More broth,” said Agurne. He could just picture her turning red and fussing about. She added, “You could have said that while you still had any blood left. What good are you now?”
Wolfscar said, “He’s not the wrong color, Mama.” The fairy was sitting on his chest and he hadn’t felt him there.
Agurne huffed and said, “Nothing you say ever makes sense, you bat. Has anyone told you that? Garbi, I said give him more broth. Why aren’t you pouring?”
More broth poured into his mouth, and like before, he relished it.
Footsteps crunched off to his right through gravel or snow. A gust of cold air lighted on Androkles’ cheek and the broth stopped coming. An unfamiliar man’s voice said, “I heard talking. Is he waking up?”
“Who is that?” Androkles said, weaker than he wanted. “Take this thing off my eyes.”
Agurne, ignoring him, said, “He’s awake. Now get out of here.”
“What’s to stop me from killing him right now, witch? And all the rest of you! Gods, what a fool I’ve been,” said the stranger. His voice was warm, meaty. Androkles couldn’t tell what the emotion was that colored it—fear, anger, something else? Many things at once?
Androkles said, “Are you the man watching my women for the King?”
“The fat one is mine. The girl belongs to Aplach. And you belong to the Prince, which is why you’re still alive after she gave me so much trouble.”
Agurne hissed, “You think those were the worst of my curses? You’ll do as you were told, or you’ll wish for death.”
“Hardly! Not anymore, witch. The King himself is coming with his armies. He is a master of spells, and he’ll undo your sorcery. You know what happens after that, don’t you?”
Androkles said simply, “What is your name?”
The man muttered something under his breath and, ignoring Androkles, said, “Enjoy your final moments, witch.”
“Your name!” said Androkles, more forcefully.
“Rousil,” replied the man with his wet and fleshy voice.
Androkles said, “Then Master Rousil, ask yourself this. What sort of man would want Agurne for his wife? And I do want her. Only she will do. Here’s the answer: the sort of man the King would gather his armies to personally hunt. I am that man. Threaten my women again and I’ll kill you without getting up. I swear it beneath the watchful eyes of Arkos Oath-father.”
The man said nothing in reply, at least not immediately.
Androkles thought himself too weary to get angry, but that turned out to be wrong. Being so tired made him emotional, and his exhausted husk of a body filled with hot, dry anger that thrashed violently against its bounds. He didn’t have the power to quiet it and force it back down, and in a sudden moment of panic he thought it might get away from him and kill Garbi and Wolfscar before Agurne could protect them.
At the last instant before it burst out of him, he turned it inward instead. Not his attention, as the day before, but the power itself, which he had never done. His anger gathered in the center of his chest as though it was building up at a dam, and an instant later he felt something inside him snap.
A sharp pain pierced his heart. The energy of his killing intent broke forth and began to circulate inside him, rolling through him in coursing waves from head to toe beneath his flesh. He gasped at the strange agony and grit his teeth. The sharp sting in the center of his chest grew hotter and hotter and he could do nothing to stop it.
The man Rousil must have seen his distress, because he said, “Well, I’ve never been more terrified. Enjoy watching him die, witch.”
Another shuffling of cloth, and another burst of cold air on Androkles’ bare cheek. This was in a tent? Had they built it over him?
“Mama, what’s wrong?” asked Garbi in a worried tone of voice.
Wolfscar answered for her and said, “He made it go in the wound. Papa, why did you do that?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose. I don’t even know what I just did, but I regret it.” His voice was taut with pain.
Garbi said again, her voice urgent, “Mama, what’s wrong with him? Is he dying?”
The pain in his chest grew hotter and sharper with each breath he took.
Agurne said, “I don’t know, girl. Where does it hurt, Androkles? What’s happening to you?”
Wolfscar, sounding puzzled, asked, “Mama, Garbi, it’s right there! You can’t see that?”
“I don’t see a thing!” hissed Agurne.
“Me neither,” said Garbi.
“But… Oh! Oh, oh! You can’t see the light! Oh, that makes so much sense now! I thought all this time, you were all just… I couldn’t tell why everyone…”
Androkles gasped despite himself as the sharpness in his chest grew more painful than his arms had ever been. He tried his best not to whimper, but it felt like surgery and a few drips of his voice managed to leak out anyway.
“Is he dying? Papa!” shouted Garbi. He felt one of her hands on his forehead, over the cloth, and another on his chest. “Mama, he feels like fire!”
The pain inside him deepened and he cried out. The feeling of it slowly began to change, and it felt as though something was tearing apart inside him. Widening. Ripping open.
He was dying. Truly, this time. His spirit’s tether to his body was slacking. The pain faded and terror replaced it.
No, no, no! Stop! Back, back, back, go back down! He screamed at the power circulating inside him. He couldn’t get a grip on it. He had no fingers. It slipped away from his focus.
He took a deep breath, and the expansion of his chest gave the sharp pain in his chest more room to torture him. He screamed, focusing on the sound of his voice to gain clarity. With all the will he could muster, he heaved against his killing intent. To no avail. The power inside him kept circling, and his heart kept splitting open. He kept dying.
“Papa, you have to let it out! It’s too much for the opening! You’ll hurt yourself like that!” shouted Wolfscar.
Agurne shouted, “Found it! By my will, rest!”
A pungent handful of herbs was thrown in his face, and he could feel a buzzing energy leak into his skin and gather in his mind, where it began to quiet and lull him. Almost, almost… soft…
The gates of his heart slammed shut with a jolt. Relief flooded him as his killing intent quieted back down to simmer and wait where it always had. It left behind a dull ache as his heart pounded a heavy drumbeat against the inside of his ribcage.
Androkles let out a long sigh of relief, then said, “Erastria bless you, Agurne. What was that?”
“It was supposed to make you sleep, you stubborn mule. Calm you down so I could figure out what was wrong with you.”
“Looks like your tricks are only half-effective on me.”
She snorted and said, “You wish!”
“Well, I feel better now. Thank you for that, whatever it was. Now take this thing off my face and let me get a look at you all.”
The wet, warm cloth slid off his face leaving it damp and chilly, and he blinked until he could see. He was indoors, and the thick straw roof told him it was no tent. Had they built a house over him? How long had he been asleep?
Wolfscar hovered an arm’s length above his face, and the fairy’s gentle, familiar blue glow made Androkles’ eyes ache. The fairy chewed on a fingertip from his remaining hand and watched Androkles with a look of concern. The stump that remained of his left arm simply hung in the air. He wore a strip of dark red cloth pulled tightly around his body and held in place by a cord, and it all looked somewhat like a dress, other than being worn low to accommodate the wings on his back.
To his left, Garbi leaned over him with her eyebrows knotted in worry. One strand of her wheat-golden hair had escaped and dangled down, almost close enough to tickle his cheek. She held a pitcher shaped like a lamp, ready to resume pouring broth when directed.
Agurne sat to his right. The first thing he noticed was that her clothing hung looser on her than before. She had been just the right kind of fat last time he saw her, plump and round in all the right places but not shaped like a fig. She was still thicker than most other women, just not as much as before, and her face had grown thinner and now showed lines of age and worry around her eyes. Her drab, brown hair was pulled back into the same bun she always wore, but had been set with a bit of oil to smooth it out. She wore a pale-brown tunic embroidered with flowers around the neck and beneath it, a shirt of warm gray wool. It looked like she’d washed her face.
As for himself, Androkles discovered that he lay on a bed of blankets over straw. A brazier burned to one side, whose warmth he could feel through the blanket. The room smelled of charcoal smoke, and more faintly, bird broth.
“More broth, girl,” he said. No one spoke as he drank the rest of it in one long go. The pleasant taste and warmth of it almost outweighed the harrowing agony he had just gone through, or the searing pain in his arms. Almost.
He shifted around to settle into the bed more comfortably and said, “Where’s Flower?”
“He’s making rope,” said Agurne. “They put him right to work. What was that about just now, all the screaming and writhing?”
“I’m not sure. Something happened with my anger and it… I’m not even sure how to describe it. But it’s over now. It’s… closed.”
No sooner did the pitcher leave his lips than Wolfscar flew down and patted Androkles’ nose to get his attention. Once he had it, he said, helpfully, “Papa, you can’t put that much through or you’ll hurt it more. That part of you doesn’t work right. You need to fix it first before you can.”
Agurne regarded him with something that could have been either pity or apprehension; he couldn’t tell which. She said, “Some rescue this is turning out to be.”
He looked up at her for a moment and gave a slow grin. “I will admit this is not how I pictured it.”
Wolfscar hovered an arm’s length above him, chewing on a finger as usual. The glowing fairy floated gently left and right with his full attention on the blankets, or Androkles’ shape beneath them; there was no telling which. The fairy’s brows were knitted in concentration and his light pulsed slightly, which meant that he was either hungry or worried about something. Before long he had everyone’s attention, although he paid them no mind.
He drifted down and landed on Androkles’ chest and held his one remaining hand out in front of him. Immediately, a sensation of warmth gathered in Androkles’ sternum, accompanied by a sense of slight pressure. Wolfscar moved his hand around in the air and Androkles could feel the heat responding and moving with it.
Whatever the fairy was doing, he found a sore spot. Androkles winced in surprise when he felt a sharp pinch amid the heat and pressure. It was odd, though, because the fairy hadn’t actually touched him yet.
“What are you doing?” asked Androkles.
The little fairy looked up at him and replied, “Oh, I’m just looking at this thing.”
“Hmm? You never told me the name for this part. But it’s this, right here,” replied the fairy, oblivious, as he continued waving his hand around. The pinch got a bit sharper, and the look of concentration on Wolfscar’s face got more intense.
“Wolfscar, whatever you’re doing hurts, and if it wasn’t for my arms being worse I’d probably complain.”
The fairy looked up at him again and said, “It hurts? Did you hurt it a long time ago?”
“There isn’t an inch of me that hasn’t gotten hurt at some point. I’ve got a scar on my foreskin. What are you talking about?”
“Look at this, Garbi. Put your hand here,” said Wolfscar. He closed his hand to point, and the pinch vanished, along with the sensations of heat and pressure.
Before, she could, however, footsteps crunched in the snow outside. Several pairs of them. Everyone froze to listen to what the approaching men were saying, but they fell silent when they got close.
The men paused in front of the hut before entering, giving Androkles just enough time to whisper, “Agurne! Shield!”
“I’ve got this one, ogre,” she replied flatly, her demeanor changing to something more serious. “Come over here, Garbi.”
Before Androkles could argue, a rough-looking peasant with a reddish-brown beard entered, sword drawn. He was followed by three more men, one of them quite young, each with swords or knives in hand. One with dark brown hair and a shaved face kicked at Garbi, but she was already moving and got out of the way in time.
There was barely room for the four of them to stand beneath the low roof, and they stood crammed together so tightly Androkles smirked when he imagined them trying to swing a sword.
Agurne spoke first. “Are you here for him, Rousil? Or do you think you brought enough men to take me?”
Rousil gave her a defiant and scornful look and raised his sword point-first over Androkles and before he could strike a killing blow, Agurne raised her hand, rubbed some dry leaves in between her fingers, and threw the dust forward.
“Die,” she said.
Rousil died so quickly and completely that he fell with the same look on his face and crumpled straight downward in a heap. The sword fell where it was pointed as well, and after an instant of panic in which Androkles tried to slide out of the way and couldn’t because there was nowhere to go, the tip failed to penetrate the blankets.
Agurne looked at the man with brown hair, and said, “Die.”
He died just as the first.
By now, the other two had realized what had just happened and they screamed in terror and began fighting each other to get out first.
“You two stop right there! Carry these corpses out!” she roared, holding her pinched fingers forward menacingly. The two living men grabbed the dead under the arms and dragged them out with such haste that they dropped their weapons on the ground and forgot them.
In the potent stillness left behind by their hasty exit, Agurne waited only a moment before asking, “Androkles, they have slave markets in your homeland, don’t they? Don’t you all own lots of slaves?”
He couldn’t believe what he had just seen. His mind was so overloaded on shock and bewilderment that he couldn’t process what she was asking him. What had she just done?
“Androkles, are you listening?” she asked impatiently. “Androkles!”
“What—What did you ask? What just happened? What did you do?”
“I asked if Laophileans keep lots of slaves, or only a few? Just answer the question.”
He stuttered, stopped, swallowed, and started again. “There’s… plenty. Even the poorest farmer owns at least one.”
“Are they worth much?”
“The farmer? He—” No, that wasn’t right. Think, man! Pull yourself together. “The slaves. It depends. Children and elderly are worth the least, women a bit more. Craftsmen are worth the most.”
“How much, though? How much money for them?”
Androkles thought for a moment how to explain, which he found difficult because he was so out-of-balance mentally after what he had just seen. He hadn’t had time to process it, or accept it as real, and here she was peppering him with questions.
He answered, “One silver is…” He took another deep breath and tried to clear away the shock. It helped, but only a little. “One silver’s a day’s wages for skilled labor or a soldier. Half a silver feeds a poor family for a day. To buy a child, the prices start at a hundred silvers and go up from there if he’s good looking. Around two hundred if he’s old enough for labor or charming. Around three hundred for a healthy young man, full-grown. Depends on where you are, though.”
“How much is a talent? Flower said you have ten talents. How much is that?”
“One talent gets you fifty children or twenty men. Six thousand silvers.”
“I see,” she said. She nodded and stuffed her pinch of herbs back into a pouch.
He let out a breath of relief and realized how nervous that little pinch of herbs made him.
Agurne flicked him sharply on the nose with her finger and said, “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re causing me?”
“No, but I did kill your goddess and I don’t think my bad behavior has cancelled that out yet.”
“You only did that once, you ogre, and I’m starting to forget,” she replied. Looking at her, he couldn’t tell how mad she actually was at him. They had been relaxed around each other from the start, bantering and unguarded like the oldest of friends. But they had only been together for a few short months before falling into captivity, and now she felt both strange and familiar at the same time. May Laophilea the Mother grant that that changed for the better.
“I had plans, Androkles,” said Agurne, sitting back as she spoke to get comfortable and indicate that he had better listen if he knew what was good for him. “Here’s how I pictured it: You’d ride in on a horse, shining like the dawn with the King’s head tied to your saddle like they do around here. You’d be ready to kill every last man, woman, and child in the village for having the gall to obey their King, but I’d be ready for you. I’d kill the worst of them before you got here, the ones who hit me and kicked Garbi and let her go hungry so often. They’d be dead in a pile in the middle of town.
“And all the rest? They’d be ready to march to Dikaia, where we’d sell them all and that’d be my dowry. But look at you now, showing up halfway into the grave. And here I am, missing my chance to prove that I’m a wife worthy of the Giant-slayer.”
She spoke that last bit with a tone of sincerity and vulnerability that shocked him. Agurne was not one to talk about her feelings in any serious way—she’d show them with a gesture, or a joke, or a warm smile, but never with her words. She’d bring a blanket and a hug and deliver them with an insult and a wink. She never, ever admitted weakness.
No, this was not like her. This was not how he remembered her. Her time in captivity had worn her down, harmed her in a way that wasn’t visible on her skin. This was his fault, and the shame bit him deep. Deeper than the demon’s claws. He had little chance of surviving his wounds for long, and the gods had seen fit to show him the full scope of his failure before he died. He felt absolutely wretched.
He could not look directly at her.
She took it the wrong way and a flash of grief played across her countenance. She looked down.
The shame in his heart bit him even deeper.
“No! Agurne, no, no, no. Hold on. Look at me,” he said, trying and failing to get up, to grab her arm. He could hardly move.
She met his eyes, and he saw that she was not completely broken. There was still fire there; but it was lower. He could see the fear and doubt that had led her to such extremity. She knew he would die, just like he did. They both knew, and it scared them both.
“Agurne, I never thought for a moment you were in any real danger, because who could stand up to you? I never meant for you to go through all this. I wanted you to live in high society like the noble woman you are. I failed. I’m sorry,” he said, the last words a whisper. He could hardly believe it as he heard himself apologize, but what else could he do? He was on the edge of extremity just like she was.
She regarded him for a moment, her facial expression impossible to read. “You really are a mess, aren’t you? Did you just apologize?”
“I’m little more than a sack of stew meat at this point, a sack with rips,” he replied, trying to grin. “So that apology isn’t worth much.”
“Of course not, you ogre. You think I want a man who apologizes?” she said crossly, but like she was trying to be playful.
“I hope so,” he said, “because I doubt I’ll be in any shape to drag you off to Dikaia any time soon. You’re going to have to do the dragging. Just don’t tell anybody.”
“Stop being so humble, you brute. You’ll scare the children,” she said, and he knew that the moment of vulnerability had passed. She would be back at his side, just like before. He could feel it. Maybe not immediately, but his hope was strong.
Still when she got up to leave, he grabbed her arm, straining to lift his own out of the blanket and wincing at the pain of hundreds of sutures. He said, “We may yet get you that dowry. There’s a good chance I’ll be coming back with an army.”
“If you live.”
“If I live.”
“Mama!” shouted Garbi, indignant. “Don’t say that! Don’t say a single thing like that at all. Or you, Papa!”
Androkles and Agurne looked at each other as they both wondered whether they should tell her the truth.
“I sewed him up! He’ll be fine,” said Garbi, with a challenging tone of finality in her voice.
“I’m sure he will, you precious thing,” said Agurne. She carefully stepped over Androkles and made her way out the tent.
“Where are you going?” asked Androkles.
“I’ve got one more trick to play on this village, and then all of us are leaving.”
“What trick is that?”
“I’m going to bind their tongues so they can’t say a word about us to anyone. Even if their King is a curse-breaker like Rousil said, it’ll take him a while to get them to tell him which way we went. Garbi, go get Flower. I’m sure he wants to see that his Papa is still alive.” And with that curious pronouncement, she vanished out the flap.
Garbi stood and smoothed out her tunic. Wolfscar flew over, sat on her shoulder, and clutched a lock of her hair so he wouldn’t fall off. “We’ll be right back, Papa. You just have to wait because Flower can’t walk very fast, so just stay there. I’ll tell Ash to come guard you. Okay?”
“I’ll stay put,” he said. He wasn’t in a hurry to try and get up anyway, since it was bound to hurt and he didn’t have to piss.
After she left, Androkles found himself unable to rest despite the comfortable bedding and the quiet solitude. He had far too much on his mind to feel any relaxation. How long had he been unconscious? It was still light outside, but was that the same day? It had been late morning when he’d passed out.
And come to think of it, how by all the capricious gods had Garbi managed to move him? They couldn’t have built this hut over him while he slept. Perhaps they could’ve built a tent over him without waking him up, but a hut? With dried mud plaster between the wooden posts? No, she must have gone for help, and someone brought a litter or a wheelbarrow or something and hauled him back. How long must that have taken?
And that stag. That enormous, red stag. What had—
A large gray dog poked its snout into the hut and sniffed, interrupting his thoughts. It had small, sharp eyes and pointed ears, and when it pushed its way inside and peered around the small room, Androkles saw very clearly that it was a wolf.
He panicked and went rigid, not that it made much difference with him just laying there, but the wolf didn’t seem impressed. Or interested. The wolf hardly paid him any attention at all, acting more like a tired dog than a predator. It curled up next to him, but not quite touching, and lay facing the door. It made not a sound.
So this was Ash, then. Garbi had a pet wolf to go with the stag and its name was Ash. Delightful.
If he had been restless before, that was nothing compared to now. How tame was this thing? How safe was it? How under the swinging purse of Thuellos Sky-God was Garbi so familiar with these beasts? Wolfscar had said nothing of any of this when he told him how they were doing. He’d told her that Agurne and Garbi were using curses to protect themselves, and that they hadn’t gotten into any real danger. Nothing about pet deer and wolves.
Androkles felt the remaining blood drain from his face as it occurred to him that this might not be a wolf at all. What if Agurne’s spells could transform a person into an animal? She’d hinted all the time that she had tricks she wouldn’t tell him about, often threatening him with some vague and menacing threat if he got out of line. He’d just watch her kill two men with a single word, so why would he disbelieve this now? The epics spoke of witches and gods doing that to people, so it must be possible. What other explanation could there be?
Maybe it was just an animal, but that was just as hard to believe as the other explanation. Androkles had heard of a farmer raising a wolf pup from birth—it adored him, but it bit everyone else and he had to kill it because it wouldn’t let the slaves into the fields. He’d never heard of anyone taming any kind of deer.
This wolf sitting so nonchalantly next to him, hardly twitching so much as an ear, must have once been a man.
That, or it was just a breed of dog that looked like a wolf. Yes, that was much more reasonable. Just a dog. How tired was he, to give room to such fanciful ideas? Perhaps he was losing his mind in his old age.
After an eternity of Androkles trying to ignore the mysterious gray beast and rest, the flap parted again to reveal Flower leaning on a crutch about to make his way inside. No sooner had he stuck his nose in the hut than the animal leapt to its feet and growled fiercely at him.
Flower screamed and fell over sideways when he couldn’t stabilize himself with the crutch fast enough, then started kicking in the black dirt to push himself backward in a panic.
Garbi stepped over him and entered the hut with a little fist raised, furious and ready to strike the beast. Androkles could feel anger radiating out of her in a way that surprised him, and apparently so could her pet because it immediately collapsed and whimpered, looking up at her imploringly.
For a moment, no one moved or said a word. Then Garbi blinked, her anger immediately vanished, and she knelt to give her beast a hug. She comforted it while muttering, “Oh, Ash, I never introduced you to Flower, did I? I told you about him but that’s not enough for you, is it? You need to see him, or smell him, or something like that. Come on now, let’s help him get up.”
Garbi and her wolf—and there was no longer any denying that it was a wolf, after hearing its wild growl—stepped out to help Flower get back up. “Flower, this is my friend Ash. Don’t worry. She won’t bite you anymore because now she knows you’re my brother. Ash, you treat him like one of your own pups now. Got it?”
Flower and the wolf looked at each other with uncertainty, but the wolf stepped forward and started licking Flower on the mouth, which he didn’t appreciate. The boy scratched the wolf’s head with a nervous and shaking hand and relaxed a bit when he still had all his fingers afterward.
Now that introductions had been made, Garbi and Ash tried to help Flower get back up but made a mess of it because Garbi was smaller than him and Ash was a wolf. Once they managed, Flower hobbled his way into the hut and gingerly crawled in under the blanket with Androkles, favoring his leg all the while. His motions were punctuated by winces and short gasps of pain.
“So what happened to your leg, boy? You could get around better last time I saw you.”
Flower squirmed a bit next to him, seeming to try and get his leg into a more comfortable position. “Mama looked at the cut and said it was healing wrong and I was gonna get sick, so she split it open again and cleaned it out, then put some medicine and sewed it. She said it would never heal right unless she did.”
“I bet that hurt,” said Androkles, regretting that Agurne had taken care of yet another thing he had resolved to do himself, and that Flower had had to suffer it at all.
“It hurt a lot,” said Flower convincingly.
The boy’s body lying next to his felt slight and fragile, almost surprisingly so. Androkles forgot sometimes how young the children were, and how small. Their vibrant personalities might fill whatever room they were in, but that was an illusion that hid the truth of what they were—tiny, undeveloped, and wholly dependent.
“Well, it needed to be done. I didn’t have a needle, or I would have done it sooner. Won’t be long until you can show off your scar at the Gymnasium and make all the other little boys jealous. Just wait until you can tell them all the story of how you got it.”
Flower asked, “Will they really be impressed?”
“Of course, boy. Do you doubt me?”
The boy didn’t answer, leaving Androkles to consider the broader implications of that question. Before Flower could say something that would get him smacked, Androkles asked, “Where’s my silver?”
Garbi said, “I gave it to Ash to hide. She’ll get it when it’s time to go.”
A spike of panic rushed through Androkles. “Will Ash be able to find it again?”
“Of course, Papa. She’s smart,” she said with a pleased expression on her face. Looking over at the girl, it was clear she was proud of herself. Her little self-congratulatory smile beamed like a sunray through a window. The beast in question, however, gave no reaction at all.
“That… didn’t used to be a man, did it?”
“What do you mean?”
Androkles felt foolish. “Never mind. Why do you have a wolf?
“Not just a wolf, Papa. I have a stag named Poppy, and you met him. And I have an eagle named Queeny,” she said. She looked at him expectantly, as though she expected something of him.
“Garbi…” said Androkles, pausing. “Animals like that aren’t things you just have. Where did you get them? Why do they…” He pictured the stag, muscular and handsome in its rust-red coat, perfectly compliant to her wishes. He stared up at Garbi, golden-haired and divine in her muddy pants and mis-matched tunic and coat. A hint of dismay appeared on her face, then vanished.
“Because, Papa. It’s the love I can do. The thing Mama taught me, the first trick. I can do it on animals because I can see their hearts. I made friends with Ash, Poppy, and Queeny, but then Mama said not to do it to any more animals. You might not want them all in the house. And Master Aplach and his friends kept trying to hunt them, so they don’t come into the village, except only sometimes,” she said. She kept tugging at the hem of her coat while she talked and spoke with that same hopeful half-smile.
“Garbi, that’s…” He stopped, changing his mind about his words. He had been about to say That’s impossible, but then he thought better of it because after watching Agurne a few moments ago, nothing was impossible anymore. And where does one put a stag, and a wolf, and an eagle, in the middle of Dikaia? Were they to live in the garden?
He sighed. He’d lost control over everything else in his life. Why not this, too? He tried to smile proudly and said, “That’s my girl. You are a true wonder, beautiful and clever and strong. What are we going to do with you? Oathfather preserve me when it’s time for suitors to start coming after you. Can Agurne bewitch beasts like that, or just you?”
“Just me, Papa. Only me in all the world, I think.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me. Can you do it to people?” he asked.
Garbi’s positive demeanor flickered for a moment as a dark shadow passed over her mind. It only lasted an instant before she answered, “No.” She looked away.
A hint of dread entered his mind as he considered her reaction. Was she lying, or did the thought scare her?
In fact, if Garbi could control men and bend them to her will… He’d love to see King Lugubelenus groveling in the dirt to please his new mistress. The ancient lineage of the Agapatheids would never want for anything again. Androkles could be crowned Great King of the Glories, a Tyrant who made the republic bow. They could have anything at all. Garbi might not just be Wolfscar’s little princess, but the world’s.
Unless she dominated him instead and made him her thrall. Crows, what if she already had? How would he know? Cast her evil spell on him the first night they met, when she placed that garland of grass across his brow. What was a man to do, surrounded by all these sorcerous women?
That thought was more amusing than serious, though. Garbi was completely devoid of guile, and if she said she couldn’t, she probably couldn’t. Androkles said, “Fine. Tell me if you ever learn the trick of it. I want my silver back. Will you tell your beast to get it?”
“Ash, Papa. Her name is Ash,” she replied sternly. After a short pause in which she briefly looked a bit nervous, she said, “But we’ll go get it. Don’t go anywhere, Papa.”
“Give me a kiss first,” he said. Garbi smiled and knelt down to oblige, then hurried out with her wolf following close behind.
Since Flower didn’t have much to say and seemed content to just lay there, Androkles closed his eyes to snatch a short nap while he had a moment.
No sooner had his mind begun to drift than he was startled out of his weary reverie by the strange whistling of barbarian communication.
“Oh, piss on a grave. Already?” he muttered.
He tried to sit up without using his arms and failed miserably because his broken ribs wouldn’t let him. The whistling continued for a moment, then was quiet, then sounded again. They must be talking back and forth, and he could only hear one end.
Flower heard it as well and went rigid with fear for a moment, then sat up and looked at Androkles wide-eyed. “Papa, was that the army? Are they close?”
“I don’t know. Help me get up.”
Flower pulled Androkles’ hands and did his best to help his father sit up, but the runty little kit simply didn’t weigh enough to do any good, especially not when he could hardly stand without his crutch. After several failed attempts, Androkles decided that he could either wait for bigger help, or rip all his stitches out. He settled back in and chose to wait.
Flower’s brows furrowed with worry, and he carefully planted his crutch under his arm and adjusted his weight back and forth a few times. “What are we gonna do?”
“We’re going to leave. Go tell Agurne she needs to hurry and come help me get up.”
“Papa, I can’t run! I can’t move fast at all! Can you not get up at all?” His high and frantic voice matched his agitated movements.
“If I get up now, I’ll rip out all my stitches and start bleeding, and that might do me in before infection does. Got it? I need you to find her.”
“If they catch us, we’re all going to die. They’ll kill us slow. They’ll cut all our skin off piece by piece,” said Flower. He could barely talk. “I heard them talk about stuff like that. They cut your ribs—"
“If.” said Androkles sternly.
“IF they catch us. If. Now go find Agurne.”
“But I don’t know where she went! I can’t move fast to go find her!”
“Then yell! Just—”
Agurne stormed into the hut and nearly knocked Flower over, but her reactions were fast enough to catch him and set him right. “I don’t have time to finish the spell. We need to go. The scouts are almost here.”
“Then let’s go,” said Androkles. “Help me up.”
Agurne managed to pull him into a sitting position, and it agitated his broken ribs enough for the fiery pain to spread from his knee to his elbow, but he just grit his teeth and kept it to himself. He thought it might feel refreshing to be back on his feet, but it did not. It felt dizzy and watery and made him slightly nauseous.
“Flower, go get in the cart. It’s the one I showed you last night.”
“Last night?” interrupted Androkles. “How long was I out?”
“Almost a full day, you useless sack of dung. From noon to noon,” said Agurne.
“By Raphos…” he muttered. That long? “What about the chariot?”
“It’s not big enough. Get moving.”
Once outside, the blinding sunlight reflected off the snow and made his eyes water, which made his steps unsure. Agurne walked alongside him to make sure he didn’t pass out and fall over, although he had no idea what she’d do if he did.
Flower, limping cheerlessy with his crutch, led them along the muddy paths that ran through the small village of perhaps twenty farmer’s huts. Thin cows stood listlessly in fenced enclosures they shared with wicker chickencoops, and the thawing ground stank of a winter’s worth of their dung. All the trees had been cleared away for some distance in every direction, likely used for firewood by Allobrogians too cold to bother with proper forestry.
Once they were past the huts, they walked to an empty field covered in snow with a crust of ice on top and footprints crisscrossing it in every direction. Not just human feet, either—animal tracks as well.
Androkles felt himself go pale at the realization of just how much farther they had to go—it was a big field and the cart would be somewhere beyond even that.
However, near the middle of the field, Agurne held out her arm to stop him and said, “We’re there.”
Androkles looked around and saw nothing. The brush on the far side of the field was thick enough to hide a cart, although not very well. But the blinding sunlight reflecting off the snow made his eyes water and kept him from getting a good look. Still, he’d been expecting a cart hidden in a barn or something, not wet toes in the middle of a snowy field.
“What are we doing?” he asked. “Hold on. Where did Flower go?”
Androkles looked in every direction, turning in a circle to avoid swiveling his shoulders and bothering his ribs, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. Was there a hole nearby he’d gone in?
“Hold your hand out and take a few slow steps forward,” said Agurne, as though that made any sense.
“Don’t argue, you dumb ogre, just do it! Stop wasting time!”
Androkles scowled at her, and she scowled right back and shooed him forward. He thrust his hand forward and took a step. Then another. Nothing happened. He stopped and glared at her, confused. “Why am I doing this?”
“Oh, by the Child, you simple man!” She reached forward and took his wrist then, moved his hand down a single inch. His palm brushed against wood, and then he saw it.
An entire cart laden with supplies rested less than a step away from him. He almost whimpered in startlement and might have stepped back and fallen over if he had been more mobile on his feet.
He looked at Agurne, mind reeling as he tried to make sense of things.
She laughed, a warm, sincere laugh that lightened her whole face. “Oh, if you could only see yourself! Mouth hanging open and everything! Ha!”
Flower, sitting there on the driver’s bench of the cart, turned and grinned as well with a sort of hopeful look in his eyes like he wasn’t sure if he was in trouble.
Androkles let go of the cart and stepped back. The cart remained visible, but it was uncomfortable to look at and required some amount of focus; his eyes kept wanting to slide off it and look at other things. Other than that, it was a perfectly normal horse-drawn cart, long enough for him to lie down in and painted in a worn green. It contained a few sacks, some firewood, and a large heap of blankets and furs.
“That is quite a trick,” he finally said.
Flower said, “Mama said it’s like the thing that Pepper does when he hides, but he’s better at it. She learned it playing with Palthos before she knew he was a god, when she was a little girl. And he does it different, too.”
“Alright, ogre, you’re going to have to ride on the back. Do you want to sit on the blankets or lie down under them?” said Agurne, indicating with her voice that it was still work time. “You’re not walking, so don’t even start with that nonsense.”
“No, I am not walking. Not if we want to get anywhere. I’ll need to sit up and watch the road, though, even if every bump is going to jostle my ribs. If I lay down I won’t notice any danger until I’ve got an axe in my face.”
“Do you need a hand getting up there?”
“I hope not, because no one here can lift me.” Androkles climbed up the wheel and into the cart, doing his best not to move his arms or bend his torso. Despite several hisses of pain, he managed to get up and sit cross-legged on the blankets. With his arms so useless, he couldn’t use them to brace himself and take the weight off his ribs, but there was nothing for it. It was going to be a long ride.
Once he was as settled as he was going to get, he said, “We can’t leave without my money. Or Garbi, of course.”