“What do you mean, there’s an army on every road? There can’t be an army on every road. That makes no sense,” grumbled Androkles, more out of complaint than disbelief.
Wolfscar, however, didn’t budge. He stood atop Garbi’s head with his arms folded and stared back up at Androkles. His dragonfly wings quietly hummed out of annoyance as he said, “Well, then, you can go look if you don’t believe me! And you better wear more blankets because it’s cold up there!”
“Where’d they all come from? How many armies can one King have?”
Wolfscar just gave an exaggerated, petulant shrug and glared.
All around them, the shades kept up their whispers. Always at a distance, just beyond the nearest lump in the snow or scraggly tree. Never right among them, but always somewhere nearby. Just far enough away it might have been imagination. It was putting them all on edge; sending Wolfscar to go scout the roads had been mostly intended to keep him and Garbi from bickering and getting mad at each other. When they fought, which was rare, everyone else somehow got involved and it never ended well.
Agurne sneakily grabbed the fairy right off Garbi’s head, making him squeak out a shrill cry of surprise. She kissed him on the top of his head twice, then put him back.
“Please stop doing that!” said Wolfscar, although without much sincerity. He hummed his wings again to straighten them back out.
Agurne tried to grab him again, but this time he was ready for her and flew just out of reach. Garbi laughed a bit too loud and stepped away from her mother, then stuck her tongue out.
“Oh, you think so, do you? You stick that tongue out at me again, and I’m poking a stick through it so you can’t pull it back in!” said Agurne, with far too much humor to be believed.
Still, Garbi hesitated before doing it again, then jumping back far enough the woman couldn’t grab her without a chase.
Under their clowning, Androkles could sense their dread. Agurne wanted to lessen Garbi’s mental load, and Garbi could tell and was trying to play along. But a bit of wildness at the edges of their eyes, the way they talked a bit too loud and moved a bit too much, told him it was insincere. They were trying to be courageous and doing a better job of it that quiet little Flower over there.
He sighed and said, “Wolfscar, come back over here. We’re not done. Tell me more about these armies. How big do you think they were?”
The fairy shrugged, but his facial expression had a hint of genuine frustration. “I can’t count that many.”
“Do you remember the King’s army when you found us on the road? Was it bigger or smaller than that?”
Wolfscar stuck his fingertip in his mouth and thought about it. He drifted forward off Garbi’s head. “Well, which one?” he finally said.
“Which what? Which army? How many are there?”
The fairy flew in a little circle, then sat on Garbi’s head again. He pointed at spots in the air in front of himself while he counted. “On, two, three, four, five, um, six. But this one—” he said, pointing at a spot in the air, “—is maybe two armies. They are apart.”
“Where did they all come from?” Androkles asked again, pointlessly. How was that even possible? How many armed men could there be in these steep, useless hills? These lands were as pathetic and poverty-stricken as he’d ever seen, so where’d they get all the weapons and armor? “No, actually, tell me this instead. Were they all on horseback, or are they marching?”
Pointing at different spots in the air, Wolfscar said, “Oh, well, these ones are marching, and these ones have mostly horses but not all, and these ones aren’t even moving. They’re building some wood. And these ones, um, these ones are… I don’t remember.”
“And they’re on every road? Every single one?”
“All the ones that go anywhere.”
“Were any of them headed toward Pepper?”
“I didn’t look that far. But every road to where we are, they have an army. There’s one, two… two thorns, or maybe three, and that’s the closest one. It’s coming from there, over that ridge, where we’re going.”
“Oh, piss on the gods!” hissed Androkles, shoving down the sudden wave of despair. “Agurne, we—”
But she was already moving, pulling the feed baskets away from the horses to get back on the road.
Androkles reached over and patted Flower on the back. “Help her.”
The children hopped into action nearly as quickly as Agurne had, gathering up the blankets they had begun laying out to make camp for the night and putting the cooking tools away. No fire had been started yet, thank the Path-clearer.
“Where can we go, Papa?” said a near-hysterical little Flower, the first words he’d spoken in hours. He held an armful of blankets, one of which he dropped. He dropped another trying to pick up the first.
“Up there,” said Androkles, pointing off the road at a long, narrow pathway of bare, rocky dirt where no shade fell, allowing the sun to melt the snow earlier than the rest. It looked dry. “The cart shouldn’t leave big enough tracks to notice, but we have to hurry.”
“Will they see us?”
“Not if we get far enough before they get here.”
“What if they see us?”
“Then I’ll take care of it! Now put those blankets up!”
The truth was, however, that Androkles didn’t know what he’d do about a fight. If he had to, he could ignore the pain in his ribs and arms and fight, but a reflexive twinge or convulsion at the wrong time might be the end of him. And his killing intent still burned deep in his gut like always, a roiling ocean of anger simmering and waiting, but it no longer felt the same after Wolfscar released all that miasma from his chest. It pressed harder than before at its bounds, causing a slight pressure on his heart that he didn’t remember before.
But despite that, it seemed… clearer? Tamer? How does one measure such a thing? But it felt different, and he was no longer confident about the effect it would have on a fighting man, not until he got another chance to test it out. Preferably on one man, not hundreds at once.
He pulled himself to his feet using his spear as a poor crutch and started getting into the cart. Getting out had been a chore. Getting back in proved just as difficult, since broken ribs had a way of making a man immobile. It would be just his luck for the army to come upon them and impale him while he was feebly trying to get back out of the cart, like an old man trying to get down the steps into the bath.
Soon the cart was moving again, their short-lived attempt at raising some cheer now forgotten in quiet, deathly urgency. Garbi rode in the back this time, sitting next to Flower. Her wolf lay over their legs, nearly swallowing the children in a massive heap of fur. The little girl clung to the wolf’s thick pelt with one hand and held Flower’s hand tightly with the other, her straw-golden hair creeping all over and sticking to her cheeks. She didn’t dare let go to fix it.
At first the horses refused to head up the bare, rocky pathway, instead rolling their eyes in fear as they looked around at nothing. The whispers had increased subtly in volume, as they always did when the cart started moving. They always grew just loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the road, then quieted down again then it was time to rest the horses.
Agurne whipped the reins harder, and harder again, but it wasn’t until she grabbed her switch and acted like she was going to get down and beat them that they got the point and started stomping their way forward into the rocky dirt.
Flower and Garbi were hidden so far under that wolf that all he could see was their enormous eyes, his yellow and hers blue, wide with fear, glancing every direction but always back to him, over and over. Probably because there wasn’t much else for them to see from there.
Thankfully, the rocky path was obscured by a blanket of pines between them and the pass farther up the road. Even so, peeking through the trees, he saw the first riders come into view far sooner than he’d hoped. They stopped, four of them, and looked down the road as they waited for the bulk of the army to get closer. Strange—if they were scouts they should have kept going until they saw something.
He wasn’t worried about being spotted yet--they were only a half-mile away and Androkles knew where to look for them. They wouldn’t be able to spot him through all the trees, even if it occurred to them he might turn off the road into the mountainous wilderness. If the gods were good, they’d pass right by. He knew better than to expect it, though. Things never quite worked out.
Androkles kept his eyes on the scouts, waiting for the moment when one pointed in their direction. It never came. They kept their horses awfully close together. Too close. Too close to react if something jumped out at them. What were they doing?
He was listening so acutely for any shouts or whistles that it took him a moment to realize the whispers had quieted. There were still some of the wretched things around, but they were farther out now, and not as many.
The cart approached an area where the trees thinned and might not conceal them, so quietly said, “Agurne, stop the cart!”
The horses stopped immediately and dug their hooves in to keep from being pulled back downhill. Androkles pointed up toward the pass at the four scouts and said, “Garbi, look over there. Through the trees, at the top of the road. See those men?”
She nodded and gripped Flower’s hand and Ashe’s fur more tightly.
“We won’t be as hidden the next twenty paces or so and I don’t want them to spot us. Can you tell Poppy to go distract them for a moment?”
“By looking tasty. If they spot him on the road, they probably won’t go after him. They’re supposed to be scouting. Just have him stay far enough away.”
“No, I mean, how do I tell him to do that?”
Androkles stared at her. “I thought you… didn’t I see you… can you not tell him?”
Agurne interrupted, “Ogre, stop with that and come look at this. Is that a footprint?”
“A footprint. You heard me. I can even see the toes. Come on, get up!”
“Getting up hurts, you foul woman! Why do I care if there’s a footprint? We have an army—” He stopped. She wasn’t going to budge, he knew. He sighed and gave up.
Curse that woman and her silly ideas. A footprint of all things, along a rocky patch of dirt that very well might be part of an especially lousy road. He huffed and crawled over to the wall of the cart, lay along it, and slipped over. His gasp of pain might have been a little exaggerated, but only a little. By the gods, he was getting tired of having broken ribs. Why did it have to be three or four, and not just one? It wouldn’t have been so bad back in Dikaia, where he could lounge and eat figs and listen to lyres and flutes all day if he wanted.
All thoughts of complaint ceased when he saw the footprint. Only a few feet to the side, where recently-melted snow made the ground soft and dark, a clear impression of an enormous right foot stared back up at him. Androkles’ own feet were sometimes considered monstrous, and that footprint was half again as long and twice as wide. It was bare, and the thing that made it only had four toes.
Looking around for more, he soon found them—the giant’s gait was half again as long as his. They followed from the road along this same bare, rocky patch of ground and up past it, near where Androkles had in mind to go. The trail disappeared around a stark outcropping of large boulders.
“What is it?” asked Flower and Agurne at the same time when he turned to face them.
“A footprint. Stay here,” he said.
Androkles stepped back over to the cart and retrieved his spear.
Agurne started to say something but he shooshed her. She glowered at him and set down the reins. Sliding off the seat, she adjusted the bags around her waist, prepared to grab a handful of herbs if necessary. When she saw him open his mouth to tell her to stay put, she made a rude gesture at him—one he’d never seen before, but whose meaning he could guess. He grinned and kissed her on the forehead, which surprised her enough to make her blush and repeat the gesture.
Together they followed the thing’s trail. Androkles couldn’t lean over to creep, so instead they just hurried and hoped the soldiers up on the pass wouldn’t notice the movement.
If only the army had been farther back, they might have turned around and kept going until they found somewhere less inhabited to hide, but they no longer had that option. If they got anywhere near the road, they’s be spotted and that would be it for them. So if the gods were good, and everyone knew they weren’t, whatever made those footprints had just kept on going on its way and was long gone. More likely, it was sleeping up there in a little crevice packed with furs to stay warm. Or more likely still, it was waiting with a giant, tooth-spiked club behind those rocks, ready to mash him into paste for its dinner.
If it was another tartalo, everyone was going to die. Gods send it was something else. How many of those things could there be in the world? Maybe it was just a very large man, and he’d be happy to share his home and hearth and food in exchange for dice games and songs.
Upon peeking around the boulders, there was no monstrous ambush waiting on the other side. Instead, they found a cave with a large opening and perfect darkness inside. Androkles couldn’t decide if it was natural or if it had been dug out of the mountainside, but whatever left those footprints was in there. He could smell its mostly-human-but-acidic scent on the warmish air that blew in a steady gust from the cave opening.
The two of them stopped and listened. The shades that had been following them seemed to have all congregated inside, where their whispering echoed and mixed together into a sound like a long hiss. Underneath it all was a low rumble, a murmur low enough it shook their chests more than their ears. It sounded annoyed.
Androkles and Agurne gave each other the same look, one which said, “Let’s not go in there.” They nodded at the same time.
Looking around, the rocky pathway went a bit farther uphill, past the cave opening and up a small steeper, muddier area, where it ended at some dense pines. If they could make it there, they’d be as hidden as they were ever going to get. They’d just have to keep quiet and hope that sound was the thing snoring and not its belly rumbling.
They slipped quietly back down the trail, Androkles using his spear like a cane and trying not to wince every time he stepped downhill. Agurne took his free hand to help him keep his balance and held it tightly, interlocking their fingers. She never once looked him in the eye.
“I really don’t want to get the children anywhere near that cave,” whispered Androkles.
“Where else can we go?” replied Agurne. “We’re out of time, ogre.”
He smiled and whispered, “Since when are you the bold one?”
“I’ve always been the bold one.”
They both held their breath and rushed past the open area in front the cart and breathed a sigh of relief after the soldiers didn’t seem to have noticed them.
“We watched them, Papa,” said Garbi. “They looked down here but they didn’t see us.”
“Papa, how come they can’t see us?” asked Flower, nervously fidgeting with his cuffs. The poor child was still at the end of his wits.
Androkles decided to take the time to reply, in part because he was still considering his options. “See how you have to look at the right angle through the trees to see them? You can see their whole bodies if you do. See them on their horses there just fine. But they can only see your head, and only if they look at just the right spot. Don’t move too much and you won’t catch their eye.”
Garbi said, “So are we hidden now?”
“We’re hidden now, but we won’t be when they get down there,” said Androkles, pointing down the rocky dirt pathway toward the road.
He whistled for Wolfscar, who had flown down near the road for some reason, and the fairy came dutifully back to the cart, although his flight pattern made him seem pouty.
Wolfscar chose to land on Agurne’s head, where he sat cross-legged. “I just saw them but nothing happened,” he said.
Androkles nodded. Then he scowled, stepped up onto the wheel, and rolled gently into the cart. It was turning out to be the easiest way in and out, and he wished he’d thought of it earlier.
Taking the reins and plopping down on the bench, Agurne said, “Are we just gonna ride past that open area, then, and hope they don’t see us?”
“Yes, but not yet. Wait until I say, then go as fast as those gods-cursed horses will pull us.”
“What are you waiting for?” she asked, sounding more nervous than angry.
“See how they’re waiting? They’ll… well, you’ll see. Just be ready.”
The wait was excruciating, although the children didn’t seem too scared. Wolfscar started straightening Garbi’s hair one strand at a time with his thorn, which she allowed, and the rest just kept their mouths shut and watched through the trees.
Sure enough, only a few minutes later, several more riders crested the pass and greeted the first ones.
“Now!” he hissed. “While they’re still talking! Go!”
Agurne slapped the reins, and the horses took a moment to decide she meant it for the space of several heartbeats. They turned and tried to look back at her, but she started yelling curses and slapping the reins even harder. If horses could sigh and complain, they would have, but they yanked the cart forward. The jerk when the ropes tightened nearly tossed Androkles from his unsteady perch, but the cart got moving and accelerated quickly.
As the cart passed the open area, all five of them turned to look up the long, open area that reached most of the way to the pass. They were wide out in the open here, moving up a steep incline at a terrifyingly slow pace, and the gods only know how they’d escape if they were noticed.
Twice, one of the first group pointed down the road and waved widely at everything, but the thing Androkles feared—that they’d all turn their heads at once and point at the cart—never happened. They seemed to be discussing something about the whole countryside, if their broad gestures were any indication.
Until the very last. No sooner had the cart vanished behind the next patch of thick brush than one of the new arrivals pointed animatedly toward them. He smacked his fellows on the shoulder and kept pointing. If the gods were feeling charitable, they had seen Garbi’s red stag following close behind the cart, and not the cart itself.
Agurne saw it, too. “Do we stop?”
“No, keep moving. Let’s not be here when they come check.”
Agurne slapped the horses into even faster movement, but they could only pull so quickly up such a steep incline. Especially on ground as rocky and loose as this; their hooves kept sliding back as they tried to find purchase. The cart nearly stopped a couple times, but never went backward.
Flower gripped the side of the cart like an old man on a young goat each time the cart slipped, but to his credit he never screamed. Garbi was mostly hidden under her wolf, which may not have been her choice. Wolfscar took no notice of it, focused as he was as combing her hair without stabbing her at each bump.
As they neared the cave, Agurne looked back at Androkles with eyes that seemed to ask, Do we tell them?
He shook his head slightly, then nodded toward the trees where he figured they’d be best hidden.
However, when everyone heard the whispers coming out of the cave, as well as the deep, quiet rumbling, there was no hiding the fact that something horrible was happening in there. Flower shrank down and mostly hid behind the side of the cart. Garbi whispered, “What is that? Are they back?”
Wolfscar jumped about a foot into the air, then gripped his thorn like a sword in his one hand. Before anyone could tell him to stop, he zipped into the cave and vanished. Agurne looked back at Androkles, her eyes wide with fresh fear. He felt it himself—dread wormed its way throughout his chest and put a gentle squeeze on his heart. That shit-licking fairy, what under the saggy teat of—
The fairy flew right back out again and yelled, “We need to go!”
“What’s happening!” shouted Garbi from under her wolf.
Agurne slapped the reins frantically, standing up on the footrest instead of sitting on the bench.
The whispers in the cave grew louder, and an instant later the low rumble became a sudden roar, which echoed out the cave like a sea-horn. A crashing sound followed it, then heavy stomps.
An immense, inhuman, man-shaped thing appeared in the cave entrance. Its face was like a man’s that had been beaten to death, bulbous and misshapen. Its shoulders were awkwardly narrow for its size, only a bit wider than its lumpy head, and its arms and legs were sickeningly long and bony, like a spider’s. Its chest and stomach were long and thin, unnaturally so, and spotted with uneven patches of thin hair. It crawled out of the cave and stood, naked and male. It was at least as tall as the cyclops had been, but where that beast had been bulky, this one was spindly. It crept like a bug instead of stomping like a bull. In one hand it held a rock bigger than Androkles’ head, which it waved in the air as if swatting flies.
Agurne whispered, “Ogre!” Her arms had fallen to her lap, her jaw wide open.
“Ogre!” she yelled, pointing. Androkles realized this time what she meant—that thing was an actual ogre.
He stood and took up his spear, hoping the ogre wouldn’t come any closer and unsure what he could do if it did.
But when its swollen, bloodshot eyes found them only a few paces away, it raised the rock for a throw.
Overcome by terror, Flower stood, gripped the side of the cart, and opened his mouth.
Pain erased the world. It racked Androkles from head to toe, burning his nerves and crushing his bones. It was sudden, wild, and unrelenting. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t think. All he could do was writhe in agony, eternal and bottomless.
An instant later, the world returned as if snapped back into place like a whipcrack. Flower still stood where he was, his chest heaving and panting. Agurne lost her balance and fell back into the bench. For a moment frozen in time, as if Thuellos Sky-God held the sun from moving, there was silence.
The ogre stepped back and dropped the rock in surprise. He clutched his ears, then looked at his fingers and found blood on them. He opened a mouth full of rot and jagged teeth and made as if to scream, but no sound came out.
There was no sound at all. None. Androkles spoke a word but heard nothing. He realized he had been deafened.
The ogre’s face twisted into a furious dismay and he picked the rock back up.
Flower opened his mouth again and seemed to scream, his whole body tense, tail stuck straight out behind him. This time, Androkles felt nothing, and he realized what had happened: Flower knew a song of agony, and Androkles couldn’t hear it anymore.
The ogre could, however. It turned and fled down the rocky pathway toward the road. The horses jumped into motion, hasty and violent. The cart lurched and jerked and Agurne shook her head several times as if to clear it, then did her best to direct them where she wanted to go.
Androkles watched with relief and pervasive unease as the hideous thing glided smoothly down the hill, grabbing at trees as it went with its elongated fingers. He could not help but notice how its grip splintered the wood, or how all its motions were unnaturally accurate and measured.
By the time they reached the thicker trees farther up the hillside and stopped the cart, Androkles’ deafness had been replaced by a sharp ringing sound. He still couldn’t make out any other sounds, but he hoped it was a good sign.
Flower had fallen to his knees and rested his chin on the railing. His cheeks glistened from fresh tears and he looked miserable. Garbi hadn’t moved, and neither had the wolf, although Androkles could tell it was breathing. Agurne leaned forward and her shoulders started shaking. Androkles realized she was sobbing, which made him even more miserable. A dull ache saturated his skin, even the healthy parts, with a feeling like nausea or old bruises.
On a whim, he grabbed a thick handful of the wolf’s fur and lifted it up to find Garbi unresponsive. He quickly pulled her out and made sure she was breathing, which she was. He held her in his arms, stitches forgotten, and shook her gently to see if she’d wake. Small drops of blood came out both her ears, and pulling her eyelid open with his thumb, he found her eyes so bloodshot they looked crimson. Right then she stirred, however, and looked around in bewilderment.
Androkles felt her start to panic, so he kissed her head and stroked her hair, holding her close to his chest. He still couldn’t hear her over the ringing in his ears, but he saw tears sliding down her cheeks and he was sure she was crying.
By this time Agurne had turned to check on everyone and immediately held her arms out for Garbi. Androkles handed off the girl to her mother, then reached over to comfort Flower, who sat as rigid as if he were carved from wood.
Flower had probably saved them all. At a cost, certainly, but saved them nonetheless. He mustered up a weak grin of pride, then lifted Flower’s chin so the boy would see it. Then he kissed him and lifted him into a hug, which Flower slowly relaxed into.
The stag was gone, hopefully forever. The wolf was fine, most likely. Where was Wolfscar? Androkles set Flower back down and looked around the cart. Not inside, unless he’d fallen behind a sack. Not up by Agurne. Where had he been when Flower started that evil song? Still in the air?
Androkles shuffled over to the edge and rolled out of the cart, but failed to land on his feet. He couldn’t quite stand all the way up and fell back down into the loam. The pain of his injuries chose this moment to reassert itself, causing him to roll up and moan through clenched teeth.
He quickly made himself unravel and tried to stand. This time he made it to his feet before the earth lurched beneath him, sending him sprawling backward and hitting the ground far harder than was necessary.
Flower sprung out of the cart and tried to lift Androkles’ head with his tiny little arms, without much effect. He spoke, his mouth working urgently as if to get through the gentle haze still clouding Androkles’ mind, but Androkles couldn’t hear a word of it.
“I’m okay,” he said. Speaking without hearing his own voice was not as unsettling as he expected. “I just can’t hear you. I’m deaf.”
He had no way to gauge whether he was speaking too loud or soft, but Flower heard and understood. Remorse and guilt filled the boy’s expression and he bent his ears down like a scolded dog.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine, boy. You saved us all. Cheer up. Where’s Wolfscar?”
Flower mouthed something, but Androkles didn’t hear it.
“I can’t hear you. Nod if you know where he is.”
Flower shook his head.
“Go find him. Quickly, before the ogre comes back. I can’t seem to walk right now.”
Flower spoke, unheard.
“I said I’ll be fine. Go find Wolfscar. Don’t argue, just go.”
The ashen-faced boy nodded and turned to run back down toward the cave mouth.
Androkles lay for a moment, his head swimming. It felt like his insides were in a boat, swaying back and forth in the waves, with his skin staying put.
After a few moments, the ringing in his ears stopped as abruptly as it began, and the world came back to him. “Crows take the gods, that was unpleasant,” he complained, mostly to see if he could hear himself. He could. “Agurne, are you still alive?”
“Why’d you hand me Garbi if you thought I was dead, fool?”
“Habit, I suppose. Can you move?”
There was a pause.
“Not really, no. My head feels like I’ve had too much wine and my guts feel like washwater. I don’t dare try and get off this bench.”
“I was hoping you’d come pull me up,” he said with a grin.
“I couldn’t do that with three of me on a good day, you ridiculous giant,” she replied.
“Then it’s a good thing you don’t have to bury me.”
“Who says I’d bother burying you?”
Androkles laughed, his relief at surviving making him a bit giddy.
He saw a shadow off to his right and turned his head to see Poppy the Stag hovering nearly overhead. It glared down at him with obvious distaste. As soon as their eyes met, it huffed and dug at the ground with one hoof. When Androkles didn’t react, it bent down to push his shoulder with its snout as if to say, “Get up, weakling.”
Their eyes met again, and Androkles was sure he could see the stupid beast sneering at him. He sneered back at it, good mood now completely gone. Then he rolled over and rose unsteadily to his feet, pulling himself up on his spear like a crutch. His broken ribs filled his torso with fiery, stabbing pain, but he found he was annoyed enough to ignore it.
No sooner was he up than the cursed animal prodded him forward with its horns, digging one of the points into his lower back. Androkles turned around and tried to swing a fist at it, but he was still too off-kilter to hit anything. The stag merely stepped back and gave him the most condescending look he’d ever received.
The two of them locked eyes, angry and challenging, but the stag didn’t even respect the contest and soon looked away dismissively.
Deciding that was as good as he was going to get, Androkles turned and hobbled with deliberate slowness over to Agurne. Getting properly angry had the fortunate effect of burning away the watery waviness in his guts and steadying his feet, but he wasn’t happy about it.
Garbi rested in Agurne’s arms, held like a babe. With her eyes wide open and empty, her face so smooth and blank, he recognized immediately that she was back in one of her stupors. Flower’s magic had been too much for her and shut her down completely. He’d seen it twice before, and it could take days or weeks for her to come back.
“Has she reacted at all?” he asked, even though he knew the answer.
“No, not so much as a wiggle,” said Agurne, with a look of sad exhaustion in her eyes.
“Do you think you can help her?”
“I can try,” she replied. “I can see so many jagged places in her little spirit, it breaks my heart. I thought she was coming together so much better than this, but she’s still so fragile. Just a fragile little thing…”
Androkles bent in to kiss Agurne on the forehead, and with her sitting up on the cart bench, he could reach her without leaning down much.
No sooner had his lips met her hair than the stag pushed its nose in between them and gently prodded Garbi. It gave Androkles a side-eyed look, swinging its horns awfully close to his face.
“What, are you worried about her?” he said crossly.
The stag stepped in and shouldered Androkles back, then prodded the little girl with its nose.
“I guess that’s a yes,” said Agurne with a slight smile.
“I really hate this stupid deer,” said Androkles.
“Why, Papa?” said Wolfscar, about four inches from his ear. Androkles jumped in startlement, then hissed as his ribs burned with fresh anger at being jostled around. Flower stood a few paces behind him. He must not have had to look far.
“Are you alright?” Androkles asked. “How are you alright?”
“Oh, I already knew that song so it didn’t bother me as much. But guess what, Papa. Do you know what all those shades were doing with that stuff? That miasma? Oh, oh, is the Princess okay? Is she asleep again? Mama, is she asleep again?” Wolfscar buzzed down to stop in front of Garbi’s face and wave his hand in front of her eyes. She didn’t react.
A look of despair came over him and he floated down and curled up on her stomach, cradling himself there hugging his knees with both arms. “Why does she do that?” he moaned. “I don’t like it!”
“I’ll tell you later! I don’t want to say things right now! I miss the Princess already. I want her to be fine!”
With that stupid deer in the way, there wasn’t much more for Androkles to do, so he stepped back and looked around, then gave an exasperated sigh. “I guess I’ll go kick something over the wheel tracks, just in case.”
“Don’t take long,” said Agurne. Their eyes met and held for a moment, and he nodded.
With his spear as a walking stick, he made his way down the incline toward the cave where the ground had been softer.
However, before he’d gone more than a few steps, Wolfscar cried out, “They’re waking everything up! That’s what they’re doing. They have a thing on them, like a, um, a thing that makes them do it. It’s making them do it. Lots of them have it but I didn’t know what it was until I saw.”
“They’re waking things up? Who’s they? The shades of the dead?”
“Well, it’s because of the bad stuff, the stuff that comes out of dead things. The miasma. You let out so much that they can use it to, um, well, they can use it to make things be different. Be awake. Awake different.”
Wolfscar sat up and said, “Like the ogre. They woke him up. He likes to sleep inside the rock most of the time. But they woke him up and made him angry, and they could do it because they had so much miasma. It’s everywhere. It’s not going away like normal. It’s like if water got everywhere instead of just in the river.”
“And you said something is making the spirits of the dead go around waking up all the monsters? What’s making them do that?” Androkles asked with growing dread.
“Was it a spell? A trick?” asked Agurne.
“It’s a thing that looks like this. Hold on…” Wolfscar flew up a few feet and pulled something invisible out of the air with his one hand. He zipped a few paces away to a bare spot of ground and motioned as if he was manipulating something, which was probably the case.
In an instant, a vision appeared before them of King Lugubelenus from the waist up. From the waist down his apparition was all fire, with flames that reached and grasped to capture. The King’s face was twisted into furious rage, and he pointed with his ludicrously long sword and silently shouted commands. His eyes burned and raved as they passed all along the scenery. The feeling of command and mastery was undeniable, and it left Androkles’ throat dry.
“A thing like that is making them do it. There are lots of these all over, telling everything what to do,” explained Wolfscar calmly. “Well, sort of. It’s one big one in lots of places. It has lots more miasma to make it powerful, so that’s why it can. Who is that? Do you know?”
“That’s the King,” said Androkles.
“Oh,” said Wolfscar. “You never let me look at him before.”
“He looks mad,” said Flower.
“Well, shit on bread and eat it for breakfast,” said Agurne crossly. “We gave him the biggest gift possible. No, not we. You did, you ogre. He’s waking the land on a massive scale.”
“What are you talking about?” said Androkles.
“Waking the land. It’s as wicked a trick as I ever heard of. There was a woman once who sacrificed all eight of her children on a dolmen for the power to call one Mairu down from the mountains. He killed the man she hated, then her and half her village. Magic like that takes death, and lots of it, but it’s unstoppable once it gets going.”
“What’s a Mairu?” asked Flower.
“A mountain giant. They’re fond of stacking rocks into houses and altars. But think about it. How many men do you think Androkles here has killed, in his twenty-five exaggerated years in his stupid army? Hundreds? Thousands? And he kept part of it inside him all this time. How many battlefields did you soak up? The power of their deaths, all stored inside you like an evil pregnancy. Until now. What incredible timing, Androkles. You really know how to plan!”
“The only thing you have stored inside you is---” Androkles started, but a sea-horn roar echoed across down the mountains and cut off his reply. Everyone turned at the same moment to look toward the pass. From here, they couldn’t see the gathering spot itself, since it was occluded by trees of its own.
But they did see a man thrown fifty feet into the air, tossed so high he screamed several times before he hit the ground. Then another, at an angle, soaring over the woods in a long arc. A tremendous roar of clashing metal, screaming men and horses, and cracking wood filled the air, punctuated constantly by the sea-horn roars of the ogre.
Androkles and his family huddled closer together in horror as they watched what could be seen of the fight above or through the trees at the pass. The next few things that flew into view were only parts of men, spewing blood as they spun in midair. Entire trees shook and fell.
It seemed from moment to moment that the fighting must be over soon. There were too many screams, too many howls. Too much death. But it kept going. It dragged on and on. Long enough for Androkles to shift his standing position twice to move the weight from his ribs.
Until the ogre gave a whimpering sort of howl, which was cut off sharply and replaced by the cheering of men. It was impossible to guess how many, but enough to make a crowd. Enough to lose half their number to a beast of myth and still win.
Agurne looked toward Androkles and, with false humor in her voice, said, “Well, I guess that means the roads aren’t safe. What’s your next idea?”