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Too Little To Bite

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"We will find enough ducks to feed the Queen and all her women," Alexander said, in a tone not of childish hope, but of near-adult certainty as if his mere words would order the world to his liking. "I do not think the nets are fair to them, however," he added, biting his lip in thought as he looked over the shallow lagoon and back to where he had helped Menestas lay the nets.

Menestas, a sober guardsman in his thirties and the father of young sons, smiled to himself, thinking it was good to see the lad act as the little boy he was, now and then. "There are so many ducks in the lagoon, Alexander, that we can't catch enough to make a difference," he said. "And the nets are fair to us, aren't they? Until men grow wings and can fly after them!"

Alexander looked at him, grey eyes bright in thought. "Like Icarus and his father! We'd have to be careful not to fly too near the sun – still, Menestas, wouldn't it be fairer to hunt them with spears or arrows?"

"A spear wouldn't leave much of the duck fit for use," Menestas said. "And bows and arrows, they're for when you're a bit bigger." It was the wrong thing to say, of course, and Alexander's face darkened. The lad would probably injure himself trying to use a man's bow before the day was out, he thought. The king would have his hide; he was supposed to be a sensible guardian for Alexander on these outings. "Besides," Menestas said craftily, "They make it too easy, I always say. A man who's to eager to learn the bow never learns to use a throwing stick properly."

"I'm not trying to cheat," Alexander said in astonishment. "Look, drive the ducks this way, I'll show you I can hit them with a throwing stick."

"I'll do that," Menestas said, "You stay here." He walked off before he had to grin. The young prince was a clever lad, with an old head on those young shoulders, but when all was said and done he was barely six, and Menestas had grown up able to handle younger brothers and then his own young sons, long before Alexander was born. He waded into the shallow water, working his way around the flock of ducks nearest to the nest so that when he started them they would fly into the trap. "Hah!" he yelled, splashing loudly, and watched them beat their wings, lifting themselves out of the water, the early sun glistening from the droplets falling from their feet and the iridescent green-black of their heads. Most of them were quickly aloft, but the clumsier or the more inexperienced, those whose path took them further along the surface of the lake before they lifted fully into the embrace of the air found themselves tangled in the nets laid before them. Menestas watched Alexander ignore the birds beating their wings wildly against the netting in favour of fixing his gaze upon a fine, fat duck already aloft. The boy's stick caught it neatly in the side of the head, downing it, and by the time Menestas had come back to him he had brought another down with a stone.

"You're right," he said, after he had dealt with the birds trapped in the nets, and had laid them out, necks limp and their bright eyes dulled in death, "It wouldn't be cheating if you learnt to shoot. It mightn't be as fair to the ducks as you're thinking, though."

Alexander grinned, counting the ducks and coming up with an odd number. "You must take eight of them, Menestas," he said. "I'll take the seven, that's enough to feed all of Mother's maids as well as her and my sister." He smiled wider yet, adding, "And then we shall have to come hunting again to get more for their next meal!"

"Clever lad!" Menestas said. "That's how a man should think, how to keep women happy and how to get out of their reach!" The boy laughed, not old enough to understand such a joke, but glad to see his friend pleased with him. "We should bring our quarry home," Menestas went on, packing the ducks away in two sacks he had brought and throwing them over his horse's withers. He leapt up neatly onto the saddlecloth and held a hand down to Alexander, drawing the boy up to sit before him. Touching his heels lightly to the horse's flanks, he started them trotting back to Pella, his mind taken up with the task of delivering the boy safely back to his nursemaids and then the welcome thought of food in the barracks before the day's tasks truly began. It was a fine thing to be granted the time to take the king's son hunting, but a man could not shirk his more usual duties in favour of such entertainment.

"Look!" Alexander said, pointing ahead of them. "What's that man doing?"

"I don't know," Menestas said, squinting at the man by the lakeshore. He was holding a squirming lump in his hands, and as they watched, he flung it as far out into the water as he could.

"He's drowning puppies," Alexander said, his voice showing nothing of the young lord of the hunt, only the desolation of a child seeing something he thought terrible and sad. "Menestas, quick!" He clapped his own sharp heels against the horse's ribs, crying out to it in encouragement. Menestas added his own voice, and the horse cantered down to where the man stood.

"Stop!" Alexander cried. "Why are you killing them?"

The man looked up, his face surprised as he took in the horse with its respectable stolid rider and the boy, clearly a gentleman's son. "They're useless to me," he said. "The dam got out and mated with the gods know what cur. Why should I have the expense of rearing what no one will buy? The bitch will be in heat soon enough once her milk dries, and she can have full-blood Molossians next time."

"Are you blind?" Alexander said, all tact forgotten in the face of the last wriggling red-brown lump in the man's hands. He looked at the waters of the lake, and his eyes glistened with tears at the sight of the sad little bodies weighed down with stones. "He's a Molossian! Don't drown him!"

"It's rubbish," the man said with a snort. "Don't worry, lad, it'll be quick enough –" He showed that he had a stone tied to this final pup as well, so that not all the desperate struggles in the world should bring it safe back to the shore. As he swung his arms to throw his burden into the water, Alexander slipped down from the horse and hung all his weight off the man's arm.

"Stop!"

"Let go, you little fool!" the man cried as he dropped the pup. "It's just a mongrel, of no use to anyone!"

"Alexander! He may do as he wants with his own property!" Menestas said.

"No! It's not fair!"

The man aimed a kick at the pup as it tried to wriggle out of the cold mud of the lakeshore, and yelled as Alexander sank his own blunt baby teeth into his arm. "Damned brat!" the man cried and cuffed the boy about the head, making him bite harder.

Enough, Menestas thought, was enough. He dismounted and pulled first the pup and then the boy away. "Do not," he said as the man started after Alexander, hand raised and blood pouring down his arm, "Touch him again."

"Keep that little bast-"

"Do not finish that," Menestas said, seizing the man's wrist and grinding the bones together in his strong grip. He looked back at Alexander, who had untied the stone and was now cradling the pup to his chest, his shoulders heaving in fury and grief for the fate of the others. He looked like he wanted nothing so much as to continue savaging the man. "If the dog's a mongrel and no use to you like you say, you won't mind the lad taking him," he said. He scowled at the protest the man tried to start. "We'll pay you for the injury," Menestas said in heavy irony. "You bear it as bravely as a war wound." He tossed the bag containing his eight ducks to the man, counting it a little price to be rid of him.

"Even a mongrel is worth something," the man said, looking in the bag and seeming not displeased with the bargain. "If this is for the bite, what payment is for the pup?"

Alexander strode to the horse and took the other bag, handing it in perfect, icy courtesy to him. "Here," he said. "Now we have paid you. Menestas, I want to go now."

"Quite right," Menestas said, mounting again. He pulled Alexander up. "Hold on tight, lad, don't have all your attention on your dog." He turned the horse's head for Pella once more.

"I'm glad you didn't tell him who I am," Alexander said. "He would have been even more horrible and tried to give the ducks back. Now he can't say we didn't pay him fairly." He sighed. "I'm sorry we lost all the ducks, though. It's too late now to set up the nets again, and they'll be more wary in the full light."

"We'll go out again," Menestas said. "And we'll bring that dog of yours, when he's big enough. You'll have to find a bitch in milk to put him to, and be patient to make her accept him."

"Yes," Alexander said, leaning back against him, tired from the early start and the excitement. The pup, for its part, slept snugly in his arms. "I was right to save him, Menestas," he said sleepily. "The king says a ruler must protect the weak as well as ruling the strong."

"Yes, lad," Menestas said, feeling the boy relax further against him. "That's the sort of king you should aim to be." There was no answer. He smiled down at the golden head now bowed in sleep over the sleeping pup, and gathered them both more securely against his chest. Yes, he thought, that was the kind of king he hoped he would live to see the boy become. Slowly and carefully, he took boy and dog home.