Telling Tales 11
A Meal Unfit for Kings
The two creatures had the shapes of men but their bodies were hard and their hands and feet were overly long. They were dressed in rags that did not look as though they could hold off a chill, much less the bitter cold that had long since descended upon the land. Their nails were gummed with rotted flesh and they stank like corpses. The one who had spoken had two long, simple crutches and no legs.
“I smell Russian flesh,” said the one next to him, who had no eyes.
“Hello, uncles!” called the soldier.
“What did he say?” asked the one with no legs.
“He called us ‘uncle,'” said the one with no eyes.
“May we offer you some of our supplies?” asked the soldier. “We do not have much, but what is ours is yours to share.”
“But -” said Prince Ivan.
“Shush,” said the soldier. From his bag he produced the last of the horse meat and laid it before the two creatures that were not quite men.
“You’ll want yours cooked, I suppose,” grumbled the one with no eyes, and he nudged his companion.
“Not I, but them,” the one with no legs replied. With his crutch he poked the coals and in a trice the fire roared before them, fierce enough to beat back the worst that winter could bring. “I’m like you. I prefer my meat red and squirming.”
“Oh,” said the soldier, and to the prince he whispered, “you should probably dismount.”
“But -” said Prince Ivan, and “Oof!” as the soldier dragged him to the ground.
“Which of you will cook?” asked the one with no legs.
“Ouch! I will,” said Prince Ivan, glaring at the soldier who had kicked him in the backside. “What are you doing?”
“It is eat or be eaten, Prince Ivan,” the soldier whispered back. To the two creatures he said, “First allow me to remove our equipment from your meal. The tanned leather would get caught in your teeth and sit poorly in your stomachs.”
“I don’t understand,” whispered the prince.
“Cook the meat,” answered the soldier. To the two creatures, he went on, “I understand that you prefer your meals alive, but our horse has been good to us. Surely it will be little different if the beast is freshly dead as opposed to living when you feast upon it. Its pain would not increase its flavor, would it?”
“No, that’s true,” said the one with no eyes.
“You have the right of it,” said the one with no legs.
“Are you talking about killing my horse?” asked the prince, and in one mighty blow the soldier cleaved the horse’s head from its body, so quickly and swiftly that it took a moment before the horse realized it was dead.
“You are a generous man,” said the one with no eyes to the soldier as he devoured a leg.
“And polite,” said the one with no legs, nibbling on a hoof. “Indeed, had you not called us your uncles, we would have torn you limb from limb and eaten you living and raw, the way we like our food.”
“If you had not offered us meat after, we would have killed you quickly and eaten you as we do this horse now,” said the other. “Now, though, we would return your favor.”
“We seek Koschey the Deathless,” ventured the prince.
“Ah,” said the one with no eyes.
“Oh,” said the one with no legs.
“That is a different matter,” they said. “That is a different matter altogether.”