“Put down that spear, slave! Put it down now!” said the skinny, balding farmer with a sickle in each hand. He didn’t dare step forward away from his fellows, but he was doing his best to look frightening.
Androkles was not impressed. Only eight of them? How did they even know who he was? And if they knew, why only eight? The whole valley was full of farms. There ought to be dozens of them around! Only one of them carried a sword, and he wasn’t talking. He was as gaunt as the rest; his woolen clothing hung loosely off his limbs and all its fine dye and embroidery was darkened with a season’s worth of grime.
Glaring down at them with all the disdain he could muster, Androkles took a step forward, and to their credit, none of them stepped back. Instead, they huddled in a bit closer together and waved their farm tools toward him a bit more menacingly.
They were only a few paces away, close enough he could jump at them and stab at least one before they were likely to react, and they probably knew it. Or at least, he could have but for his arms and broken ribs. The problem was that they could clearly see the thick bandages on both arms, and only a fool would be unable to grasp what that meant. Even a poverty-ridden barbarian peasant waving a wood axe at a Laophilean war veteran could guess how bad the wounds under that many layers of bandage must be.
“Put down that spear! I’m not asking again!” said the balding farmer. Was he the patriarch? Did they even have patriarchs here? Androkles realized that despite being the King’s slave for half a season, he had no idea how the peasants were organized.
Androkles sighed and said, “I don’t know how word got out ahead of me so fast, but you’re trying to take me back to the King, aren’t you?” They hadn’t explained themselves, but they didn’t look like highwaymen.
“We don’t tolerate runaways around here. You’ll find no peace or quarter until you’re back in your place. Put down the spear, and we won’t beat you or them,” said the lead man, nodding toward Androkles’ family a bit farther back up the road.
“Oh, well, how can I refuse? Such a generous offer,” Androkles said, tightening his grip on the spear. He watched them steel themselves beneath his gaze. “If I just put down my spear, you promise not to beat me? Incredible.”
He had to admit, watching them, that they were of a hardier stock than he would have guessed. They had none of the natural obsequiousness one expects from the low-born, at least not toward him. And Androkles knew he looked dangerous even at the best of times, to say nothing of right now. Now, with his untamed hair and beard going every which way across his bare chest, he must look decidedly monstrous. And yet they failed to cower, nor did they joke amongst themselves to bolster their courage.
He relaxed his posture. “Listen, boys, I’ve had a rough couple days. I’m not in the mood for any games. You’re not going to capture me and we all know it. I’m guessing you heard I escaped the King?”
They neither relaxed nor replied. One of them said, “Spear.”
“I’m not putting down my spear, and I’m not letting you take me. Didn’t you hear how I got away?”
“Last chance, slave!” hissed the balding one.
Androkles wished Ash the Wolf or Poppy the Stag had followed him where they could at least do some good and help him intimidate these men. Instead, they chose to hang back around the cart and look harmless. Stupid beasts.
“Didn’t your King give you some kind of warning about me? Maybe said a bit about what I did on my way out his door? Because if he didn’t, he must not like you very much. I killed a room full of his nobles. Not even the Prince made it out after picking a fight with me,” said Androkles. He knew he should share Flower’s part in that, but he didn’t want to confuse matters, so he didn’t. “Your King ran out the door like a little boy afraid of getting a spanking, which is why he’s alive after getting me angry. So let me ask you, good men, if your King couldn’t take me down with all his nobles, what makes you think you’re going to?”
He could see the motion of their minds in their eyes as they worked over what he was telling them. Androkles could guess what sort of stress they were under, living in poverty in a place where the ground was frozen half the year. It must make for even worse crops than the famously bad soil of the Glories. Poor women and children worked the fields as hard as the men because it was that or starve to death. The King was only a distant and uncertain threat--starvation was not. He may as well remind them of it.
“I only kill people who have it coming. That doesn’t have to be you. You’re just farmers, not soldiers. Go back and farm. Otherwise, you’ll all die here, and your women and children will die slowly later, after your farms fail. Or do you think your King is gonna feed them?”
Something flickered in the eyes of the balding one who did most of the talking. Androkles chose to wait instead of speaking any further. If that thought poked them, best let it wedge its way in a bit.
A man with a roundish face and slightly darker hair than the others said, “There’s another path.” The man licked his lips and swallowed as though his mouth had suddenly gone dry. He looked Androkles squarely in the eyes, but seemed to be looking past him as much as anything. Not a valley of men who stammer and stare at the ground, it seemed. “Back that way. There’s a ford you can cross. Go back across the bridge and follow the road until the fence ends, then turn left into the snow. It’ll take you along the foothills there, nice and smooth, until you get to the road again on the other side. Just stick to the clearing and don’t get into the trees. The way will be longer, but you never ran into us and the tracks through the snow will prove it.”
Androkles looked them over for a moment after this, and again he could tell they were men who didn’t cower. Still, from their hesitation, he could guess that they risked the King’s wrath if anyone discovered they just let him pass.
“Is the ground under that snow safe for horses? There’s a good reason people stay on the roads.”
“Those fields are as easy and green as you’ll find anywhere. Your horses will be fine.”
Androkles regarded him for a moment, trying to detect any guile. He could find none, and fighting in his current state was a bigger risk than the detour was. He nodded and said, “I’ll do that, then. You’d be surprised how seldom men listen to reason these days,” he said. He gave them a sly half-smile he intended to be friendly, but they didn’t return the expression. They kept their faces stony and wary. “You’re not gonna stab me as soon as I turn around, are you?”
“Just go,” said the balding one. The round-faced man added, “Sooner the better.”
“Fine.” He turned, spine straight and unintimidated and walked back over to his family, lowering his spear. He could scarcely believe this was happening. He’d given his enemies a chance not to die before nearly every fight he’d gotten in since leaving Dikaia, and not once had it worked. Not once, until now. He wasn’t even quite sure how to feel about it. Should he be proud, or nervous? “You can drop the shield, gorgon. Flower, roll up those blankets and put them away. Garbi, you get the furs.”
There wasn’t much to pack up, but that was more than none and Androkles didn’t want to put the spear down in case it was a trick. The farmers didn’t seem like the tricking kind, but who could tell? And since when could he talk his way out of trouble? More than anything, it made him feel a bit civilized again.
“Garbi, we’re leaving. Stop playing with those sticks and get moving.” he said, trying to sound the right amount of stern. Too much and she’d feel bad, too little and she’d just sit there. He stared at her until she put down whatever she was trying to build out of twigs and rose to get the furs.
The giant red stag gave Androkles another look, which he was sure he must be imagining. For a moment they eyed each other. “Then you get her moving.” The stag eyed him for a moment longer, then huffed quietly and went back to eating old leaves off a clump of vines it had discovered in the snow. Ash, Garbi’s wolf, ignored him and kept its eyes on the surroundings like always.
Androkles turned again to tell the men to leave, but they had already turned and were walking back toward the houses a mile or two up the road.
Wolfscar’s little head poked up from Agurne’s collar, which almost made her look like she had a glowing blue necklace on. “I get to say about the roads!” he complained. “I am the one who gets to say about that!”
Agurne patted him against her bosom and said, “Of course you are, you precious thing. Why don’t you go see if you can find the path they talked about and see where it goes? It’ll take us a moment to get ready.”
The little fairy shimmied his way out one limb at a time until he rolled over and sat on her breasts to straighten his wings out. “No one go until I come back!” he commanded, wagging his finger at both Agurne and Androkles.
“Hurry then,” said Androkles.
Wolfscar froze and gave him a nervous look.
“I’m kidding. We’ll wait.”
Gods, what a morning. The night had been poor for Androkles. The boys had always been fidgety sleepers, but usually it didn’t bother him. Last night, however, each time Flower moved his arm or bumped Androkles with his knee, Androkles had been shaken out of some unpleasant and agitated dream that immediately fled his mind. All he could remember of the dreams was the feeling of balancing on edge, of things in resting precariously about to tip this way or that. The constant burning in his arms hadn’t been particularly relaxing, either. Fidgety children and injuries and unsettling dreams were his fate, it seemed.
Garbi’s wolf had barked an alarm just after breakfast, causing her eagle to take the sky and disappear. The men had heard it and stopped dead in the middle of the road, giving Androkles time to clamber to his feet and take his spear to go meet them. Now all of that was settled, hopefully, but it felt like the day had started on a downward slope and things were only going to get worse from here.
“Agurne, since we have a moment before we’re allowed to leave, I want you to unwrap my arms and see how they’re healing,” said Androkles, gingerly sitting on the edge of the cart. He held his arms forward expectantly.
Agurne gave him a hesitant look, then a quick glance at Garbi and Flower. “You think I just jump to obey because you want something?”
“You do if you know what’s good for you, woman.”
She ran a hand over her flat, brown hair, and Androkles suddenly realized she’d been dreading this. She didn’t have a quick, nasty reply, for one thing, and that was a bad sign.
He spoke almost before he realized he was doing it, feeling a sudden need to comfort her. “It shouldn’t be that bad. They don’t hurt as much and I feel a bit better. The injury sick is fading.”
“The injury sick?” asked Garbi, leaning into the conversation on her tiptoes.
“Yes, getting a bad injury makes you feel sick, like you have a fever or ill stomach. You usually only notice it after it starts to fade.”
“What did it do to you?”
“It made me cranky and short-tempered.”
Garbi gave him a side-eyed considering look and shifted her weight.
Agurne snorted with forced amusement and said, “Alright, ogre, let’s see how long you’ve got. Garbi, hands off. I don’t want you accidentally pulling out the stitches so let me do it.”
Flower dumped his armful of blankets haphazardly in the cart and walked quietly over to watch from a moderate distance. Androkles could tell he was nervous, and he had every right to be. If it was a mess under the wrappings, the boy would never forget the sight, especially if Androkles died in the next day or two because his blood turned sour. But Androkles couldn’t just tell him not to watch, or he’d sit just out of sight and imagine something a thousand times worse than reality and be miserable the rest of the day, and probably have nightmares.
Garbi, however, leaned in close and looked on with great concern as Agurne started unwrapping the bandages. It was no easy matter—the blood-soaked cloth stuck to both skin and suture and it had to be peeled away slowly. It tore off scabs and tugged rudely on any knots or threads Garbi had left behind, not to mention the skin itself, making him keenly aware of every line the demon’s claws had left in him. Watching only made it worse, so Androkles kept his gaze away until she was done with his right arm.
The cold air licking at the newly-exposed skin sent a chill racing through his bones and made him shiver suddenly. Flower shook in startlement, then gritted his teeth and shifted a bit closer to get a better look. The boy’s bright red cheeks took on a slightly greenish tinge that Androkles might have been imagining.
The cuts complained about the chill and stung like vinegar. It reminded him something like a spider web, with uncountable lines of icy stinging drawing intricate designs up and down his exposed right arm.
“Well, that’s not as bad as I was expecting,” said Agurne emotionlessly. Nor as bad as he was expecting—the stitches were holding together without ripping the skin and the redness wasn’t dark and sickly. The wound stank as one would expect, but not like rot; not in the slightest, as far as he could tell. Just like old blood and bandage skin.
“Do you see any pus? Any rot?” he asked.
“Some,” said Agurne. She poked somewhere that stung like inflammation and said, “Flower, go grab me a cloth.”
Despite having expected that, her words still felt a bit like a death sentence, and he couldn’t deny the leaden ball of dread forming in his gut. He knew what a wasting death from injury looked like, and although his cuts seldom festered and never badly, one’s luck could only last for so long. It was a risk every soldier knew well--more of them died in bed with fever than impaled on a spear in battle. Sometimes raving, sometimes silently. Often with whimpering gasps, strangely audible at night from halfway across the camp, like with Nikon. It was generally a relief when the noises stopped, but that time, it was not.
Flower handed the cloth to Agurne and she poked here and there with it, soaking up whatever fluids came oozing out. Anywhere thicker or redder than the rest, she squeezed to see if it was full of pus. Most of the time it wasn’t, but not always. The rot was trying to take hold, but it was still too early to tell if he’d make it.
“If it’s only this bad after a few days, I might just survive,” he said, mostly for the children’s benefit. However, it was Agurne whose face carried the most emotion. A hard frown and furrowed brow, coupled with her wind-blown red cheeks, would not tell him whether she believed it.
“Both of you grab a pot and go fill it up from the stream. Don’t fall in!” said Agurne.
“I got the cloth,” complained Flower.
“Don’t argue. Just go,” said Agurne, with less enthusiasm than expected. The children each grabbed a big water pot and made their way down to the stream. They walked close together and probably would have held hands if their arms weren’t full. Flower’s tail swished widely behind him like he was trying to grab a tail with it that Garbi didn’t have. Poppy the Stag and Ash the Wolf rose and trailed behind them.
After they had gone far enough, Androkles said, “So what did you want to say? How bad is it?”
“Didn’t you want to say something they shouldn’t hear?”
“Oh? No, nothing like that. I really do need water to wash this and I didn’t feel like getting it myself,” she said. She seemed so deep in her thoughts that she almost sounded distant.
Perhaps it was the leaden ball of dread resting in his gut, but he found himself troubled about her. He wanted to say something comforting and his mind scrambled for ideas. “Our children are beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Oh, that they are, Androkles. Each one of them is a whole world all by themselves. Such precious little things…”
“They always look so little from far away,” he said.
Agurne smiled slightly and said, “Everything looks little from far away.”
“No, I meant—”
“I know what you meant, you silly brute.”
“I meant that when they’re in front of you, they take up your whole field of vision. You can hardly look at anything else when Garbi wants to speak. But then you see them at a distance and realize just how tiny they truly are. And how fragile,” he said. “Look at them. They can barely carry those pots.”
He wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to say, and neither was Agurne. But she was listening, and the words were coming from a place of truth, working their way toward some kind of wisdom. “You know, I was always upset to see an exposed child, even a girl when the family was poor. Oh, I could understand logically about having a mouth you can’t afford to feed, or a dowry you can never pay. I’d get mad at what a waste it was. But it was always out of envy. Della wouldn’t give me one, and here these people were just throwing them out like a pile of rotten vegetables. Every now and then I’d come across a dead infant and it’d make me furious without understanding why. Happened four or five times. You know I’ve still never seen one alive, up close? I hardly even know what to expect.”
Androkles took a moment to gather his thoughts. The children reached the stream and filled the pots, although it took more time and effort than it deserved. It looked like they were trying not to get their shoes wet.
He grinned jovially and said, “Children do look strange, too, Agurne. Garbi’s spine curves in a way that makes her look like a sausage with legs, and Flower has the lumpiest, boniest knees I’ve ever seen. Both of them look ridiculous when they run. A foal standing up for the first time is more graceful than they are. How can you not love such charming little creatures? I just wish they weren’t so skinny.”
Agurne’s face began to lighten. She said, “A sausage?”
“Yes, she’s shaped like a sausage from the side. She curves down like this,” he said drawing in the air with his finger. “You don’t see it?”
She grinned and looked on as the children began making their way back. “I’m telling her you said that.”
“I dare you. What do you think she’d do? I suppose it depends on how you make it sound. Say it like you’re congratulating her and she’ll think it’s a compliment.”
“I doubt it. She’s too clever for that. She’d be insulted but not quite sure why.”
The children had to carry their pots with both arms wrapped around, which made walking harder. They couldn’t rest them against their legs or stomachs because it’d splash with each step. They splashed some out anyway, just not on themselves. How could they make something so simple look so difficult?
“You know, gorgon, I really don’t want to die,” he said. He’d meant it as an offhand comment, but it carried more weight of emotion than he intended and it almost choked him up. He forced a grin and an amused voice and added, “I’m having far too much fun out here to go now.”
“Oh, it’s been one feast and festival after another, ogre. A delight of a time,” said Agurne, her biting sarcasm back now. She sighed and added, “I’m just mad I never got to see your stupid house. And I always thought I had one more child in me. It could never replace the one I lost, but… just one more.”
“I might not die.”
Agurne gave him an unamused look and moved around to his other side to start unwrapping his left arm, just as slowly and painfully as the right. This time, instead of looking away, he watched her face and glanced quickly at his arm whenever he thought she might catch him. Her cheeks were round and full like a statue of a goddess, the perfect shape for a proper woman. They were windblown and red and in need of creams and lotions, but on her he found that charming. Her lips were thin, expressive, and constantly in motion. Her large, brown eyes could blaze with wrath or mercy equally well, but for now they were furtive and considering.
“She didn’t sew it properly here and it’s pulling apart,” said Agurne, although Androkles could feel it splitting before she said anything. Unwrapped halfway to his elbow, it didn’t look like she’d found any pus or rot, and if the fickle gods chose mercy today, there wouldn’t be any on this arm at all. “I’ll have to pull the stitches and redo them. Pissing little get of a bastard and a dead…”
“I think she did pretty well for an eight-year-old,” said Androkles after Agurne trailed off.
“I meant you! What were you thinking?” She glanced up at him and real frustration flashed in her eyes. “Why didn’t you run away?” she said loudly, pulling harder than necessary on the bandage.
“Oh, burn it all! This is the most—” She gave a growl of frustration and flicked a drop of blood off her finger.
An idea struck him. “Burn it? I wonder if I could. Can you make a shield around me, with you outside it? Could you hold my anger in, instead of out?”
She seemed suspicious, but he had her attention. Her eyes twitched and darted and her mouth crumpled into a slight frown.
“I remember what happened last time, but I think it might just help with—” He held up his arms and looked at them. “—this. I can kill birds with it. I can light fires. I wonder if it’ll burn out the dying parts in my wounds?”
“Did it ever do that before, you poxy ogre? You just never thought to mention this before right now?” The insult made him feel relieved. His old Agurne was still in there somewhere, thank the Gods.
“I haven’t gotten a wound that made pus since long before I killed Mari. It wasn’t strong enough to burn things then.” Part of him knew this was a bad idea, because if he lost control of it and it burned him again, he might be creating his own pyre. And fire was only a measure of desperation for injuries, since it led to infection more often than not. But on the other hand, his killing intent never hurt him—only the things around him. He needed to know if he could still use it in a fight, and if the infection spread, he’d be in Raphos’ rotting garden before he knew it.
Even so, the thought still made him nervous. Losing control was not a thing he wanted to become familiar with.
“Papa, what did you do? Why is Mama like that? Are you about to do something stupid?” scolded Garbi, plopping down the pot an inch from his vulnerable toes.
Androkles failed to suppress a smile and said, “I never do anything stupid.”
Flower set his pot down next to the other one and peered at Agurne and Androkles, clearly trying to figure out what Garbi was talking about.
Agurne sighed and let the bandage hang. “My shield’s not as strong if I’m not inside, but I bet I can do it. You wanna try right now, with the children standing here watching? It wasn’t pretty last time, I’ll tell you that. You looked like a dead man trying to learn to dance without bothering to get up first.”
“Just tell them to watch something else, then. Good luck,” said Androkles. The big red stag caught his attention, standing a half-dozen paces behind Garbi, snacking on a bush while keeping one haughty eye on him from a polite distance. Stupid beast.
Agurne said, “Right now?”
“Good a time as any. Hold on, let me sit down.” He carefully lifted himself from where he was sitting on the edge of the cart and sat nearby on a bare patch of dirt. He did his best not to acknowledge how nervous he felt. It seemed he was standing on a cliff just barely taller than he was comfortable with, and now he was committed to dive, and no one was sure how deep the water was. “Just until Wolfscar comes back.”
“If you kill yourself, I’m not gonna bury you,” she said. She took a small metal charm from a pouch at her belt and held it in her hand. He still had no idea what sort of charm it was because she refused to let him see it. “Be safe,” she whispered. The doubt hiding subtly behind those big eyes didn’t help his nervousness.
“I’ll be fine,” he muttered for both of their benefits.
The air rippled as the sphere of barely-visible power appeared around him, closing him in completely. He’d never been on this side of her shield before, and the first thing he noticed was the stillness. Even the air felt still. Sounds were dampened and more than anything, he felt a sense of being severed from everything else, like what he was seeing through the weakly shimmering light wasn’t real, but a Theater.
He sat cross-legged and rested his hands near his knees, since there was nothing better to do with them. He turned his attention inward and drifted his mind across the burning sea of anger that rested inside him. He grit his teeth and swallowed his dread. What sort of man was afraid of himself? Ridiculous.
His killing intent came when he called, just a trickle. Just a tiny bit. All his attention was on keeping it low so he could watch what happened as it moved. It gathered in his stomach and burst outward from there, and this time, just like before, he sensed a hint of pressure on his heart.
The glowing, throbbing red blob of disease and death on that giant’s chest came to his mind and wouldn’t leave. He felt his collected decades of wrath and bloodshed press against the restraints he laid on it, especially on his heart. It held. His heart held.
He released a bit more, then a bit more. The air warmed around him and began to circle, faintly caressing his hair and skin. His heart held. In fact, it seemed as solid as it had ever been. Was he imagining all of it? His fury, no matter how potent, never harmed so much as one of his toe hairs, even if it killed all the grass five paces around him. Maybe he’d just made a mistake somehow and included himself in the effects?
His killing intent increased, clearing his mind. He felt something tickling across his arms, and glancing at them he noticed that his eyesight even seemed clearer. Was that always the case, and he’d just never noticed it before? His killing intent cowed his enemies, cleared his thoughts, brightened his eyes—
An odd sensation near his elbow drew his attention just in time to see a burst of pale smoke puff out between the stitches. A foul odor like burning hair and rotting leaves stung his nostrils. The pus! Ha, it works! In a flash of hopeful enthusiasm, he increased his killing intent yet further.
It felt good to let it out, he realized. It made him feel more vital, more alive. More confident. He increased it yet again.
By now his anger was enough to make a man vomit and collapse. Enough to start singeing the edges of fabric. The air inside Agurne’s shield swirled now, lifting bits of his beard from his chest and holding them alight. His hair swam like a gorgon’s snakes. He increased it again.
He felt stinging little finger-taps all up and down his arms and saw a dozen puffs of pale smoke, then two dozen, then more, squeeze themselves from his cuts. The air stank like Raphos’ own egg-purse on a hot day. It made his eyes water. His confidence wavered; was all of that from the rot, or was he about to light himself on fire?
No, that wasn’t it. He felt no pain, at least no new pain. The cuts stung a bit when the smoke forced its way out, but that was it. Could he be---
A flash of fire raced up both arms, swallowing them in flames for the briefest instant, then vanishing. It had roared like someone throwing a handful of flour on a fire and vanished just as quickly, but the foul stench in the air now included burned cloth. He raised his right arm to get a closer look and discovered that he was covered with tiny, black, smoking holes where all the stitches had been.
He turned his arm, which loosened pockets of smoke that burst out in countless tiny puffs that vanished immediately, smaller than a fingernail.
By Thuellos Above, he’d burned out all his stiches! Shit, of all the stupid things he could have done! Why that? Why that! They’d have to stitch him up again, taking up time he didn’t want to spare, and besides that, it hurt.
His killing intent grew even more, feeding as it did on his genuine frustration and anger. Just outside the faint sphere of light, Agurne watched him calmly, if perhaps somewhat worried. Flower stared wide-eyed and nervous, biting his lip, and Garbi must have shouted in shock and covered her mouth with both hands. He knew what she was thinking—all that careful work, destroyed in an instant.
The air inside the shield swirled ever more violently. His hair wrapped itself around his head and face almost like a bandage, so he closed his eyes. Why was it doing that? He’d never noticed any wind before. Ripples in the air like heat, but wind?
No reason to care. This was good. He could fight like this. This was enough to guard his women and children. Who could stand against the wrath of Androkles Giant-slayer, son of Paramonos of Dikaia? Other than the King’s demons, of course; those were creatures out of the Hewer’s own nightmares.
He smiled. For the last couple days, he’d tried to ignore a gnawing fear that for the first time since he was a child, he was totally helpless and in danger. But now, after discovering that it was a false fear and he was still just about as dangerous as before, all his other fears were swept away along with the first. Pepper would be fine. Everyone would survive. He’d survive. He’d pour libations on his hearth in Dikaia before the summer solstice. Maybe Garbi would let him sacrifice her stag?
He brought his killing intent to its full force. Outside, Agurne’s brow gathered sweat, her face taut with focus and exertion. He shouldn’t keep this up much longer. The dirt beneath him burned, adding its own scent to mix. Why was his clothing fine, for the most part? Some of the fur was starting to singe, and the hem on his pants legs as well. So why just the stitches? Maybe it only harmed things he wanted to kill? Not, that couldn’t be it. He didn’t want to kill his family, and it would harm them. He’d seen it. He didn’t want to kill his stitches, either.
So why had it burned him last time? Did it follow his thoughts somehow? He’d never tried moving it or directing it; it always just came out, and there it was, and that was that. Could he move it? How would he even try?
He could feel it, feel the pressure of it, if he focused. It met the shield and was turned back, and he could sense the barrier where it happened. It went underneath him into ground, closing him all up like an egg.
The half-unwrapped bandage still hung off his left arm. Why not try burning that? He’d have to wash it before re-using it anyway, after how much of his blood it absorbed. He held his arm up to let the end dangle near the ground and took a deep breath, which made him almost taste the burned-hair-and-rot stench in the air, and focused on the end of the bandage.
Burn, you dog-face. Burn! he thought, trying to force his killing intent to focus on that one spot. He could feel it all around him, pressing against the shield, but he couldn’t get a grip on it. He tried again, scowling with concentration and gathering all the hate he could muster for that gods-cursed bandage.
Something inside him moved and the pressure on his heart increased. Mari’s words sounded in his mind again for the hundredth time. “It is a wound…” He turned his inner eye to gaze more clearly on what he felt in his chest.
A flash of pain, a sense of bursting, a shock to his brain like a lightning strike that splintered a tree’s heartwood a hundred paces in every direction.
“Androkles!” shouted Thais, his long-dead mentor. “Come back! My…”
The man’s voice faded amidst the thundering roar of erupting earth and thousands of screaming men. Androkles tried to force his eyes open, but found he could not. They weighed as much as a house.
“Androkles!” shouted Thais again, much more frantically, but only faint as a whisper against all the chaos. Desperate. In pain.
As he fought to run away, his legs burned from the exertion of pressing his shield into the enemy lines, his left arm heavy and numb from carrying the shield. He tried again to open his eyes but could not. He could smell the battlefield, the dry, sandy grit of deep earth, the piss, the blood, the gore. His nostrils stung as he inhaled with all his might to fill his needy lungs. He couldn’t open his mouth to scream with his jaw clenched tight in abject terror.
Above him roared the Hewer, the titan’s voice great and terrible, like a thousand festival horns and a thousand stamping bulls. Utterly inhuman. He ran.
Androkles couldn’t open his eyes. His fingers grasped the air and caught a trailing strap of leather and held it. He ran blindly, his legs pounding as fast as he could make them move. The man leading him lost his footing and fell, and Androkles stumbled across him, stepping on the man’s outstretched arm. Bone cracked beneath the ball of his foot, sliding as the skin and muscle loosened and separated.
Death was all around him. It sank into his senses, paralyzing them. It licked his neck, plunged knives into his stomach. The raw feeling of it, the emotion, the power of it; death seeped into him and—
“Androkles!” shouted Agurne, desperately.
His mind awoke from the nightmare and he shot his eyes open with a deep gasp, as though he’d been pulled from a shipwreck at the last possible moment. Despite the brightness of the mid-morning sun, he could only faintly make out anything around him. Something darkened his vision, and he blinked, then blinked again.
A mist of blackness filled the space inside Agurne’s shield; it flowed slowly, like oil bobbing in a vat. He could only make out faint shapes on the other side, but he recognized Agurne’s outline. He couldn’t smell the burned pus anymore. The awful stench had been cleared away and replaced by something faint and earthy, a heavy smell. Old.
Then he noticed the pain. Centered over his heart, a pounding ache sent shockwaves through every nerve in his body. He felt as though his soul itself was torn and bleeding the stuff of shades from the wound. Looking down, a snake of black smoke almost two fingers thick funneled off the center of his chest and melted into the dark haze that surrounded him.
Androkles screamed in terror and swatted at the smoke. His hand passed right through it and filled with a bone-deep, shuddering ache where the funnel met his skin.
A face appeared before him, sliding out of the black haze like it was floating up to the surface of an ocean. Just the contours, the outline, the shape; no color. Barely anything distinct at all. But its mouth was open and its eyes turned upward. Then another, its face clenched in pain. And another. Another.
Faces of death. None he recognized; not even real spirits at all, he knew instinctively, just images and mirages. They surrounded him, unheeding, emerging and sinking back again.
The pain over his chest kept pounding its miserable ache into his body, a helpless pain like surgery, unrelenting.
His killing intent pressed urgently, desperately, against Agurne’s shield, which began to sag and give way. It began to buckle.
With a sudden, instinctive act of sheer will, he slammed the wellspring of his anger shut. His killing intent vanished, making the air immediately feel slightly cooler. The pain at his chest deepened, but no longer spread throughout him in waves. It felt like starvation as it gripped him, squeezing with heavy fingers.
Still the narrow snake of blackness poured out of him. It leaked out of some inscrutable, invisible opening somewhere related to his chest. His mind couldn’t get its fingers around it; he couldn’t make sense of what it was or what was happening. It reminded him of the nonsense Wolfscar always insisted he saw, but no one else did. Was all of that real?
And then, moment by moment, the pain began to lessen. Slowly, steadily, it faded as the funnel of black smoke swirled and shrank.
No sooner did the smoke snaking off his chest finally fizzle out than he felt the impossible opening slide closed inside him.
Exhaustion nearly sank him into the ground in a puddle. Even the skin of his face seemed to sag beneath the weight of his beard. The black haze remained, however; an enemy he had no wits left to face. It oozed like oil in gentle waves, the faces still appearing and vanishing before him.
“Androkles? Say something, you week-old heap of wormy shit!” yelled Agurne. Her voice sounded scared and exhausted.
He almost smiled at that, that charming woman; he opened his mouth to reply, but his voice failed him the first time he tried to speak. He swallowed, forced a cough, and tried again. “I’m alive!” he rasped.
“Good. Now turn it off!”
His killing intent rested inside him in its usual place, a quiet and turbulent ocean of rage patiently waiting to break its bounds. Whatever she still fought to contain was not him.
“That’s not me! It’s… I don’t know what it is. Everyone get back. Can you hold it?”
“No, it burns like acid! I’ve got nothing left!”
"Then drop it and run. Run, Garbi, Flower! All of you get back!”
Although he couldn’t feel Agurne’s shield around him without his killing intent, he saw the moment she dropped it. The black smoke rose, seeping up out of the ground and his clothes and rising into the ignorant morning air. It gathered in a loose ball over his head and drifted upward. When enough of it was above him to see clearly, he spotted Garbi and Flower huddled behind a tree thirty paces away. Agurne had almost reached them. She ran like a wheelbarrow, that woman.
Ash the Wolf and Poppy the Stag stood protectively between Androkles and the others, as if warding him away from them. Poppy seemed to glare at him with eyes of smoldering fury, and Ash growled with her hackles up like he’d cornered her and her pups.
Above him he heard the cry of a raptor, bold and triumphant as it split the morning air. He glanced up just in time to see Garbi’s beautiful golden eagle darting from behind him in its master’s direction, flying fearlessly into the loose sphere of black mist to reach her.
Impetus alone carried it out the other side, where it fell gracelessly to the earth in a jumbled heap of feathers, dead. Garbi went wide-eyed in shock and started frantically yelling, trying to break from Agurne’s grip and go run to fetch her pet. She would be heartbroken later, poor girl, once the urgency of the moment wore off. For now, thought, she was a child who’d lost her mind. Agurne pulled her in close and covered her eyes before she could get away. Even with everything else happening, Androkles felt a tinge of guilt about that.
He watched the black sphere of smoke rise a bit higher in the air. Why wasn’t it dissipating? What was it? How had it come out of him? Why didn’t it cast a shadow?
Androkles glanced helplessly at Agurne. She looked as scared as he’d ever seen her. More scared even than when they fought her goddess—then, she’d just looked bold; perhaps a bit resigned. This was different and it did nothing for his own sense of terror, which he was trying to ignore. They stared wordlessly at each other from across the distance.
The sphere hovered there, waiting, perhaps an arm-span across, five paces above his head. The faces still appeared, but much more faintly; the bright sunlight seemed to rob them of their ability to manifest.
For a time, no one moved. The only sound was the animals growling their threats and stomping in the dirt.
Wolfscar appeared about a foot from his face, flying in suddenly from a direction Androkles wasn’t looking. He almost screamed in surprise, which might have made a man feel silly if he was not in such a moment of extremity.
The fairy innocently asked, “Why is that here?” He seemed more perplexed than afraid. Indeed, he had no fear at all.
“Don’t touch it!” whispered Androkles sharply. “It just killed Garbi’s bird.”
“That’s a lot of that stuff,” said Wolfscar. “Where did it come from?”
“What is it?” said Androkles. He dared not move, lest it come floating back down and… what would it do, exactly?
“Oh, that’s just, um, that’s stuff from when your parts go apart, er, from when something dies. Wait, you can see it? How come you can see it?”
“I don’t know, Wolfscar, but I don’t like it either! How do we get rid of it?”
The fairy peered curiously around the area, then stopped and pointed toward a copse of young trees. “Can you see it over there? There’s more of it, but only a little.”
“I don’t see anything, but—”
“How about over there, then?”
“Wolfscar, focus. Is that going to hurt the… the horses? The food? What does it do?” Androkles said quietly, rising carefully to his feet. The black orb of fog hovered, unmoved by any air currents, its gently-rolling surface broken only periodically by human faces.
“Why do you keep asking me stuff if you’re not gonna listen, huh?” yelled Wolfscar. “You can listen more now! You never let me say things that I want to say!”
“Wolfscar, no one can shut you up. But go ahead.”
“So listen, then! That stuff is all over, but only a little bit! The gods don’t like it because it makes them sick, and I don’t like it either even though it won’t do that, but it’s just from…”
The little glowing fairy stopped in midsentence and stared at Androkles’ chest. He floated closer and put his finger in his mouth to think.
Androkles said, “Miasma? That’s miasma, like from corpses?” His wonder at this revelation was tempered by his dread of it, but not entirely.
Wolfscar muttered to himself, “Oh, so that’s what that was. I thought it was just from…! Oh, oh… This part was never supposed to be like that?”
The fairy raised his head and met Androkles’ eyes. He had a look like he was about to do something that’d get him in trouble, a sort of blank and impassive expression that begged to be overlooked and never was.
“Wolfscar, what are—”
Androkles didn’t have time to finish his sentence before Wolfscar darted in and swiped at his chest, right over his heart.
“May as well get all of it out,” said the fairy with feigned nonchalance.
Before Androkles could react, the fairy closed his tiny hand to grab something invisible. Fingers close around some part of Androkles’ spirit, as plainly as if Agurne had grabbed his arm.
Then Wolfscar twisted and pulled. Androkles felt it rip open in a flash of soul-annihilating pain.
The world vanished.
“Euphemios, ah, Euphemios,” he wept. He held what was left of his dearest friend against his breastplate, unable to see through the tears flowing freely down his face. Someone tried to lift his arms, to raise him from the battlefield so they could get on with the business of burying the dead, but Androkles would not be moved.
He couldn’t move even if he wanted to. Blackness filled his limbs. Sound and feeling were dampened and numb. There was nothing in him but hopeless mourning.
“Why, oh why…” he wept. The tears poured down his cheeks in rivers from his clenched eyes. Death was all he was. A man who took in death and lived in misery. Father, Thais, Arkoleos, Nikon, and now Euphemios. The gambler, the drunk, the gentle, good man, lost.
Death was everywhere, the feeling of it lingering and suffusing him. He could smell the soldiers’ corpses all around him, their masculine sweat, the clotting blood, the innards now beginning to rot in the sun. The stench was pervasive, burning his nostrils and throat as he wept with head facing upwards, mouth open, wailing his grief—
“Papa?” said Wolfscar.
The dream vanished, leaving Androkles muddled and only semi-aware. His chest ached with a punishing throb that pulsed and sent sharp, crackling pain dancing across his nerves.
“Ow!” he hissed. He clutched his chest and felt something cold and liquid flowing between his fingers.
Looking down, he found the smoke pouring out of him again, but thicker, like black oil. It spouted off the front of his shirt in a stream as wide as a hand, only to pool on the ground before him without splashing or making a sound. It didn’t so much puddle as pile up, congealing into a lump. It flowed over his hand without leaving any behind.
“Ow!” he said again, with more force. He could feel his heartbeat in each lightning crash of sharp pain that raced through him. The pain was worse than anything he could remember; not because of its sharpness, which was considerable, but because it touched parts of him that his mind couldn’t grasp, parts that shouldn’t exist and definitely shouldn’t be in pain. It hurt in a way that was entirely new and which he had no experience dealing with.
“That’s a lot of, um… miasma,” said Wolfscar appreciatively.
“Make it stop!” hissed Androkles. The pain brought tears to his eyes. He felt himself ready to whimper. He was used to pain; used to fighting through it, to putting it out of his mind, to ignoring it by willpower and grit. This was something else. The agony was overwhelming. Irresistable.
“It’s okay. It’ll all come out now and then you’ll feel better. I think,” said the fairy. “But don’t step in it, because that’s… there’s a lot of it.”
“It is not… okay!” Androkles crept backward to avoid the puddle of lumpy black ooze that expanded toward him. He tried to look up at Agurne and the children, but his eyes were too full of stinging tears to see them. He gasped as the dull, throbbing sensation hammered so far into his chest his spine itched. His lungs convulsed and he grew lightheaded.
“Make it stop!” he whispered, trying and failing to yell. He didn’t want to scream in pain, not in front of Agurne. By the gods, he was going to unravel right here and now. Soul, body and shade were about to shake apart and end him.
“Already? That’s only about… half of it, I think,” said Wolfscar. He hovered in for a closer look, but not close enough to risk touching the spout flooding out of Androkles’ chest.
“Please!” Androkles could hardly keep his balance. All the strength was leaving his legs, and his knees shook, loose and watery.
“I didn’t think it would be this much. There’s so much of it! Are you sure you want to stop? You’ll have to do the rest later.”
“Okay. Hold still. I’ll just—” The little fairy darted in and gripped Androkles’ soul again with his tiny hand, twisting and pulling it in a way that filled him with vertigo. With a slap, the opening slid shut. The pain vanished, leaving behind only a dull memory of agony. Androkles fell to hands and knees, gasping for air. He vomited fiercely.
Once his guts were empty, Wolfscar flew under Androkles’ face and reached up to give the tip of his nose a comforting pat. “Are you okay, Papa?”
Androkles shut his mouth to keep his answer behind his teeth where it wouldn’t make an enemy. It was not easy.
The globe of miasma in the air, which was much thinner and incorporeal by comparison, felt and sank into the lumpy mass of black, oily smoke on the ground. The mass began to spread out and sink, going from about waist-high and a full arm-span across, to only ankle height and much, much wider. It sent out tentacles of smoke, thin spinning black threads that went in every direction. They moved slowly, waving gently as if in the wind. Had it been just one it would have looked natural, but so many together, each reacting to a different motion of the air, was deeply unsettling.
Finally, he answered Wolfscar and said, “I’ll be fine.” He spat out the last of his stomach acid, took a breath, and reading himself to try and stand.
The fairy patted his nose gently again, a gesture that was always more annoying than comforting. “I saw it hurt, Papa. I saw all the lines. But sometimes the thing you have to do hurts really bad, and you just have to do it anyway.” He held up the stump of his severed arm as if to make the point.
That missing arm had now grown back to halfway between the elbow and wrist. Crows take the poxy fairy and his weird secrets. He refused to say how he lost it, and now he was waving it around like it made any sense, and it was growing back. There was not a creature between the Oathfather’s highest acroterion and the Corpse-eater’s midden pit that could grow a new arm, except Wolfscar, apparently.
"Papa!” shouted a heartbroken and terrified Flower, breaking from Agurne’s grip to come running.
“Don’t touch it! Stay back!” said Androkles. He exhaled to lighten the pressure on his ribs and rose to his feet.
“Papa, what happened to Queeny?” yelled Garbi mournfully. Agurne gave up trying to hold her back and followed.
“Don’t touch it! That’s miasma. We’ll have to leave her where she fell. Don’t come any closer!”
The children stopped just short of the wispy tentacles of smoke coming off the black puddle, and Agurne gripped their collars to keep them from getting any ideas. Garbi covered her mouth with both hands, and Flower gave her a hug, even though he looked every bit as distraught as she did.
Agurne took a deep breath and yelled, “By the gods, you shit-stained, half-wit goat whoring cripple, you better have an explanation!” Her eyes held fire, which to him looked like the anger of helplessness.
He smiled; he couldn’t help it. She was a terribly amusing woman. What would he do without her? He considered what to tell her, which was no easy task since he had only the slightest idea himself. He did not have long to think, however, before he heard it.
The oozing puddle on the ground sank into the dirt with unnatural abruptness, leaving nothing behind, not even a grayish tinge on the snow at the edge of the road. The sudden absence of the miasma was filled with a quiet but eager susurrus that sounded for all the world like a hundred encroaching spirits whispering to each other.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Androkles quietly.
For once, no one argued. Only a few moments later, everyone was on the cart. Agurne drove with Garbi seated beside her. Flower climbed into the back to sit with Androkles. With trembling hands, he picked up the roll of fresh bandage-cloth Agurne had prepared and visibly steeled himself for the task of wrapping up his father’s arms.
No sooner was Androkles seated than Agurne snapped the horses into motion. They seemed just as eager to leave as everyone else and went right to a fast trot without any further urging. Ash the Wolf leapt up front with Garbi, putting its hind legs on the last handspan of open bench and laying across the girl’s lap. Poppy the Stag kept pace with the horses, following behind the cart. Was it staying back there to keep a better eye on him? No, that wasn’t… stupid beast.
Only now, with everything settled, did Androkles take inventory of the wounds on his arms. Even though he had felt it happen, he was still surprised to see that all the pus and rotting skin had burned away in the heat of his killing intent. Although the stitches were gone, leaving behind countless tiny black dots that would probably remain as tiny tattoos, his skin was holding together remarkably well. Most of the open cuts had dried and he was only bleeding from a few small places where he couldn’t avoid stretching them too far as he moved around.
“Ha!” he said loudly, trying to muster up good spirits to share. “Agurne, you old heap of dead rats, you’re not getting rid of me so quick. The rot’s all gone. It’s all burned out! The cuts are cleaner than when I got them. All I have to do is get good and mad every couple days and I’ll survive. Sorry to let you down!” The smile in his voice was pale after all the horror, but sincere.
“Really?” asked Flower, his eyes widening. His whole body seemed to take on new life. An instant later, it really sank in and he was wiping tears from his eyes.
Androkles pulled the boy over and kissed him right between his pokey ears. He wanted to hug him, but the bandages needed to go on first. For the second time in half an hour, Androkles’ heart ached, but this time it was sympathy with his son and relief at his own rescue and it felt precious enough to let it run its course.
“I’m so glad,” whimpered Flower, on the verge of sobbing.
For a moment, everyone was quiet. Garbi turned around to look, tears in her eyes as well. She reached out and grasped Androkles’ hand because that was all she could reach. She sniffed and covered her eyes with her other hand.
The only sounds were the sharp breaths of the children, the stamping of horse hooves, and the stag behind them.
Flower froze, his eyes wide, scared again. Then Garbi. Then Androkles heard it as well—the whispers followed close behind.