Telling Tales 78
The Threat of Violence
There might have been a riot. There might have been violence. The people weren’t so hungry that they would fight without reason, but they were so hungry that they were angry, and people who are angry are easily provoked. It might have been horrible, but it wasn’t, because two hundred eighty-nine enchanted soldiers, each wearing armor made of tree bark and helmets that looked like shrubs, they all stepped forward. Even though each of them had only one arm apiece (and one or two of the warier townspeople at the back that their spoons looked like the same kind of wood as the armor), in their one hand they held a spear whose tip glinted in the sunlight, and although the people had kept a careful eye upon the foreigners and knew that no violence had occurred, it surely looked as though the spear tips were already dipped in blood.
When the townspeople surged forward, the soldiers stood up. The mayor’s brother tried to push past them. He was a big man, the tallest in the village, the strongest, and all he saw was the food, but he might as well have pushed a tree rooted to the ground. He brought his eyes back to earth. A single soldier stood before him, implacable. Not even five, or three, or two. A single one, smaller than the mayor’s brother. He couldn’t be as strong. The mayor’s brother reached his arm back to strike the soldier in his face with the spoon when he thought he saw the man’s eyes inside the depths of the helmet. They were bright orange around a black pupil, at least that’s what he said later, and while one eye trained on him, the other looked away, looked behind the mayor’s brother, he could see it, and then came back to focus with the first.
The mayor’s brother stopped. He took one step back. The surging crowd pressed against him and he pressed back and then they stopped as well.
“Thank you,” said the young man Ivan to someone, but it could have been any one of his horrible company. The insane little girl, of course, giggled. The two princes Arkady and Aleksey, at the princess Vasilisa’s direction, heaved up on one full cauldron and brought it farther out so that more people could reach it. While the two of them staggered and struggled with the weight, the young man Ivan alone and with seeming ease lifted the other two and moved them likewise.
“There were two conditions,” he announced. “You’ve got our spoons and we’ll be making more soup, so don’t fear that we’re going to run out. The second condition is that the whole town must eat together. Is there anyone missing?”
There were dark mutterings, of course there were. “They’re going to kill us all once they’ve got us. One person should stay back.” But no one could answer what that one person should do and no one was willing to be the person who didn’t get any food. Finally, an old grandmother demanded, “If they’re going to kill us, they’re going to kill us. They’ve got the soldiers and they’ve got the magic and if I’m going to die, I’m going to die on a full stomach.” At that she proceeded to count her family, and soon enough so did everyone else. “We’re all here,” she shouted over the mayor, who was demanding that people pay attention to him.
“Bon appetit,” invited the old servant, and the citizens of Chalm dashed forward and plunged their spoons into the soup.
Which was when they discovered the trick.