Telling Tales – Chapter 1
In Which an Old Traveler Finds a Novel Way to Pay for Lodging
There was and there was not an innkeeper and his wife. They worked hard to keep their simple inn and perhaps some nights the innkeeper drank too much, but who does not like a drink on a dark winter night? It is a well-known fact that the cold of the season cannot bear the cold of the vodka. This is why you feel warmer after you drink, and it is why the winter fights back even stronger. It is not good to get between two colds. The innkeeper’s wife knew this fact all too well, but her husband occasionally forgot.
One dark night when winter was only beginning to settle itself over the inn, a rare night when the inn was full in a season that had seen the couple struggle to keep the roof repaired and enough food for guests, an old man appeared at the door.
The woman recognized the type. He would have no money.
The man recognized the type. He would ask for food.
Behind the old traveler, the wind howled and the snow blew. His jacket had been thick once, but there were holes and patches at the elbows and on his shoulders.
“I am afraid we are full tonight,” said the innkeeper. “On almost any other night there are beds free, but a group of merchants is on their way to the tsar’s court and they took everything I had left. As you can see, they are nearly done for the evening and about to head to their rooms.”
“I do not need much,” begged the man. “Let me sleep in the stable under the hay. Shelter from the wind and the snow is all I ask.”
The innkeeper’s wife and her husband exchanged a look. They had no desire to have this man under their roof, but they could not bring themselves to throw him out.
“Please,” said the traveler. “I do not have money, but I do have this,” and he took out from the bag on his back a clear bottle. “I can give you this as payment for my night in the stable.”
“Yes,” said the woman to her husband’s surprise.
“Yes?” he asked.
“We are out of vodka and our guests will demand more.”
The innkeeper’s heart sank.
“This isn’t just any vodka,” said the traveler. “I’m not offering you the bottle. I’m offering you a drink.”
The man became angry. “For a pull from your bottle, you would take a night’s lodging from us while we grow poor?”
“I will make you a deal,” said the traveler. “Please. I will tell you how I came across this bottle and what it contains. If at any time you do not think my tale does not warrant the care I give to this bottle, kick me out.”
The man and the woman did not like being in this position, delivering a kindness that might be hard for them, or delivering a cruelty. It is easier to help someone when it costs you little. Had either been alone, the old traveler might have been out of luck, but they looked into each other’s eyes and felt shame at what their spouse would think of them.
“Yes,” said the man.
“Fine,” said the woman.
“Sit here next to the door and tell us about your amazing drink, or you’re out on your own.”
The traveler set himself on a stool with a grateful smile and he held the clear bottle up. “I was a soldier in the tsar’s army,” he began.
There was a soldier in the tsar’s army. In those days, no one signed up to be in the military. The navy would press gang poor men on the docks and life was so hard some sailors left to become pirates. Parents would settle debts by sending their children to the army, and life was no easier there, let me tell you. So it was with our soldier, the child of poor parents who had once been rich. He now worked for the tsar in exchange for his parents’ livelihood. His parents were not good at business, but they had two other children to exchange if they needed.
The soldier learned how to shoot with a gun and slash with a knife. He was no better or worse than any of his comrades. He would not say “friends,” because he did not have many, but he was loyal and hardworking and in this way he was exceptional, for most people who are given in exchange for service are not so generous. It must be said that he was more considerate of his fellow soldiers than he was to the tsar’s interests, but in this we cannot fault him.
Not all of his fellow soldiers were as good as he, and some of them were better, but in this instance, the soldier was dealing with one of the worse sort. “Listen,” said the other, “the captain wants a guard to stand here along this wall, but we’re not at war. And even if we were, no one would come from this direction.”
“What you say is true,” said our soldier.
“Do you remember when I loaned you food in the fields? When I gave you money for cards? When I shared my shoes so that you would not get blisters?”
“No,” said the soldier, who went to the fields prepared, did not gamble, and took care of his boots.
“You owe me,” went on the first, “but I will forgive you everything if you will stand here for me and finish my watch.”
Of course, our soldier did not owe his comrade, but to stand and finish someone’s watch is not the worst job in the world and he knew that his comrade wanted to skive off and throw the dice. He also knew the time that the captain would be making his rounds and that he would likely catch the other soldier. So when he said, “Very well,” it was not from the purest and most generous of intentions. He took his place along the wall and marched back and forth to keep warm, for it was a chilly night.
On the stroke of midnight, shortly after the cries of the soldiers who had been lashed for gambling faded into the night, the soldier heard a voice. “Psst. Hey, soldier!”
He looked around but could see no person and continued his watch.
“Hey, soldier!” the hoarse voice whispered again. It came from a chink in the mortar in the tower at the end of the wall.
“Yes?” he asked. “Who are you?”
“I have neither slept, nor eaten, nor drank for these thirty years since I was trapped by a mason. Free me, and I shall be your friend.”
“How do I free you?”
“Take out this brick, nothing more,” said the voice.
The soldier pitied the voice. He took his knife and prised away the mortar and pulled and pulled and pulled at the brick. It popped out like a cork, and what followed was the foulest, meanest, ugliest spirit the soldier had ever imagined.
“Now, you will die,” said the spirit.
The soldier quaked in fear. Even were he the best shot in the regiment with the fiercest knife and the strongest punch, he was no match for the spirit. Furthermore, it must be noted, our soldier was none of those things.
“Ha ha,” said the spirit. “Just kidding. You should have seen your face.”
“You’re not going to kill me?” asked the soldier.
“Kill the man that freed me from my thirty-year captivity?” cried the spirit “Kill the man that gives me the chance to eat and drink once more? No, my friend, I am in your debt, and in your debt I shall remain.”
“Oh,” said the soldier, who wasn’t sure what having a spirit in one’s debt might mean and was mostly very pleased to not be dying. After all, the spirit was large and foul-smelling and had horns and tusks where horns and tusks ought not to be.
“I must be off,” said the spirit, “for I am hungry and thirsty.”
“Very well,” said the soldier.
“Ha ha,” laughed the spirit. “I have not forgotten. When you are in dire circumstances, simply call upon me and I shall come to aid you.” The spirit vanished in a cloud of sulfurous and debilitating gas.
When the soldier’s comrade was able to stand guard again, having recovered from the lashing he received for gambling while on duty, he began scheming for a way to punish the soldier. He believed it was our soldier’s fault that he had been beaten, and while our soldier certainly knew that the beating was a possibility, had the first soldier not tried to get out of work, none of this ever would have happened in the first place. Let this be a lesson to you and do the work to which you are assigned in the future and save everyone a great deal of trouble. The first soldier’s patience was at last rewarded when the tsar issued a proclamation. His daughter, the tsarevna, was being tormented by a dragon, and he promised great reward to any man that could save her.
This man got our soldier drunk on vodka while abstaining himself, which was no small feat, let me tell you. In his drunken state, he had our soldier say any number of things, boastful things, brave things, dashing things. All our soldier remembered was that there were people clapping him on the shoulder, his captain congratulating him on his bravery promising to deliver him straightaway. When he awoke, our soldier’s head suffered him mightily and his mouth was like paste and his stomach was empty. This last fact was just as well, for reasons which we need not elaborate.
The soldier was in the back of a sumptuous carriage that traveled at speed down a well-made road. The soldier was wearing his dress uniform. He found himself quite at a loss. “Good sir,” he called out of the window to the driver. “Whence do we travel? Where is my regiment?”
“By your own oath, you are to face down the dragon that terrorizes the tsarevna,” answered the coachman.
“Oh,” said the soldier, and retreated inside.
The next day, with great pomp and fanfare after a meal the likes of which the soldier had never before seen, and the likes of which he would probably never see again, the soldier was set out by himself at the foot of the tsarevna’s tower. “Don’t you want weapons?” they asked, shocked. The soldier knew he could not best a dragon with any weapon. Instead, he asked for some walnuts and a hammer with which to open them, and it was thus that he sadly waited for his doom.
Ping went the hammer. Crack went the walnut. “Crunch,” crunched the soldier. “Oh, I will not survive this night and it is all that soldier’s fault. If he hadn’t been beaten, he never would have sought revenge! If he hadn’t skipped work to gamble, he never would have been beaten! Yet now he is safe with the regiment guarding a wall that no one will ever attack and here am I, to be devoured this night by a dragon!” The thought of guarding the wall reminded him of the spirit that he had freed. There was no sign of him, nor smell for that matter.
Ping went the hammer. Crack went the walnut. The soldier ate another walnut. “Crunch.”
“Ho ho!” cried the spirit.
“Aaahhh!” screamed the soldier.
“Ha ha,” said the spirit. “That was a good one. You should have seen your face.”
“What are you doing here?” asked the soldier.
“I assume you’re in trouble, else you would not have thought of me,” said the spirit. “Can I have a walnut?”
“Help yourself,” the soldier sighed.
“What’s the problem?” crunched the spirit.
“I am to face down a dragon that will surely kill me. It has been terrorizing the tsarevna nightly for a year and the tsar has decreed a great reward to the man who can deliver her.”
“Very enterprising of you,” commended the spirit, helping himself to another walnut.
“My comrade set me up while I was drunk! I cannot fight a dragon!”
“You are rather small,” agreed the spirit, “and you lack horns.” He showed several of his to the soldier.
“Please put those away.”
“I have an idea,” said the spirit, and he ate another walnut, “but you should really save some of your walnuts if it is going to work.”
The soldier scraped the pile away from the spirit, then pushed one back his way. The spirit was relieved. “Go on,” said the soldier.
The spirit ate happily and said, “Take this claw of mine that is curved nearly into a circle. Put it around your finger and it will make you strong. Take this skin from my foot and wear it like a glove. It will make objects in your hand large and heavy. Take this skin from my back and wear it on your other hand. That which you touch will turn to metal.”
The soldier looked doubtful. The spirit’s scaly and gnarled skin was rigid and tough and smelled like socks after three days of marching.
“You’re lucky I’m not having you eat one of my horns. I could, you know,” said the spirit. The soldier slipped on the gloves and the ring.
In the distance, there was a sound like thunder.
“You don’t have much time. Pick up that hammer with your heavy hand.” The soldier did so and the hammer grew to the size of a sledge. “Put it down.” It shrunk back to its normal size.
“Here comes the dragon,” said the soldier.
“I almost forgot!” said the spirit. “Eat this horn.”
“Oh,” sighed the soldier.
“You’ll thank me later,” said the spirit.
“Gaaaahhhh,” choked the soldier.
“Ha ha,” said the spirit, “you should see your face. But seriously, here what you need to do – pay attention, there’s not much time.”
The dragon landed before the soldier and the earth shook beneath its feet. “Who are you?” it demanded. Smoke dripped from mouth and sizzled in the air. “Why do you not run?”
“I am a simple soldier,” our man replied, “and it is my bad luck that it was my lot called to face you.”
The dragon snickered. “I should say so. I shall devour you and proceed upon my way.”
“No, you shan’t.”
The dragon was not accustomed to people disagreeing with it. Generally, they hastened to get onto its good side. “Excuse me? You are but a mouthful.”
“Oh,” said the soldier, “I see. You think it’s my bad luck because you think you’re going to eat me. I apologize. No, it is my bad luck because I was going to win a game of cards and now I have to deal with you.”
“Deal with me?” the dragon repeated. This was all very new. “You think I am not going to eat you?”
“Heavens no,” cried the soldier, “but that is no reason why we cannot be friends in the brief time we have together. Walnut?” He felt the claw ring on his finger and bit straight down on a walnut. With his extra strength he pulverized the shell and swallowed the meat.
“Very generous of you,” said the dragon.
“Would you like me to crack yours open for you?” asked the soldier, waving his little hammer. “I understand that dragons traditionally have weak teeth.”
“Weak teeth?” roared the dragon.
The soldier shrugged. “As you wish.” He picked up a walnut in his left hand and watched it turn to metal. He tossed the walnut gently in the air and the dragon’s jaws snapped shut with the sound of bone on bone.
CRACK! went its teeth and CRACK! went a tooth, which fell at the soldier’s feet.
“Oh,” said the soldier. “That is too bad.” He gave the dragon a sympathetic look.
“Ow!” said the dragon.
The soldier plunked another walnut in his mouth and bit down with great happiness.
The dragon pushed its forked tongue against the broken tooth and felt it wiggle around in its mouth. It eyed the soldier, still chewing his walnut. GULP! he swallowed.
“I want another,” said the dragon.
“Be my guest,” said the soldier.
“I get to pick. That one. No, to the left. Yes. That one. No. I changed my mind. That one.”
“As you say,” said the soldier, and picked up the walnut in his left hand. The dragon’s claws were far too large and clawlike to pick up anything as small as a walnut. In the soldier’s hand it turned at once to metal and he tossed it up for the dragon.
CRACK! and CRACK! and another tooth fell out.
Our soldier had the grace to look away while the dragon swept the broken teeth out of sight.
“I am the youngest and weakest in my family,” the soldier said when the dragon had recovered its poise. “My older brothers are much stronger than I am. My mother serves us dragon every Sunday, in fact.”
This was too much for the dragon. “Is that so? What do we taste like, if you are so well-versed?”
“Chicken,” said the soldier, which is the truth, but the dragon had no way of knowing that the spirit had told the soldier so.
“Perhaps we don’t have to get into violence right away,” suggested the cunning dragon, who decided on a new course of action.
“Indeed, no,” answered the soldier. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“How about a game?”
“What kind of game were you thinking of?” asked the soldier.
“You seem to think you’re pretty good at cards,” suggested the dragon. “How about a hand?”
You might, upon hearing this, feel that the fact that our soldier produced a deck of cards from his pocket to be too much of a coincidence. I am here to tell you, a good soldier always has a way to keep himself occupied. For some it is dice, for others it is cards, still others whittle. Our man preferred cards to dice, but he never gambled. At least, never for high stakes. And he was always honorable with his fellow soldiers.
“What shall we play for?” asked the soldier.
“A beating,” said the dragon. “Whichever of us wins this hand gets to beat the other and choose the next game.”
“For how long?”
“Let us say… one minute?” inquired the dragon, and the smoke falling from his nostrils sizzled in anticipation.
“One minute,” agreed the soldier. “Are implements allowed? You are hard and scaly and your skin is hard like a rock, unlike your teeth which are brittle as dead wood.”
The dragon growled deep in its throat at the reminder of its two broken teeth. “Because you are small and pink and weak, I grant you the use of…” The dragon looked around but it saw nothing.
“How about my hammer?” The soldier held up his tiny hammer.
The dragon sniffed it, but there was nothing about it that indicated it was anything other than a tiny hammer for cracking open petrified walnuts. “Very well.”
They played the first hand, and because it was funny to let the soldier think that he stood a chance, the dragon let him win. “Okay,” it said with a grin, “Take up your hammer and do your worst.”
“As you say,” said the soldier, but first he pulled the spirit’s skin over his right hand. When he lifted up the tiny hammer, it immediately swelled up to a maul.
“But -” said the dragon. SLAM! went the maul and “OUCH!” cried the dragon, and that was just the first second! Indeed, after sixty seconds of this the dragon had sixty lumps, and lumps on top of lumps.
The soldier set down the hammer, which again became tiny, removed the skin from his hand, and shuffled the cards. “How about for this next game, the winner gets to peel the skin from the loser.”
“Phhtp,” spit the dragon. CLACK and CLICK went his teeth in a pile on the ground. “Jutht a minute,” lisped the dragon. “Thkin the lother?”
“Yes,” said the soldier.
“That’th a terrible idea.”
“Well, if you’re scared,” began the soldier.
“Thcared? A dragon? Never!”
“You do taste like chicken,” the soldier reminded him. “Chicken is as chicken does.”
“Are you calling me a chicken?”
The soldier shuffled the cards.
“Deal!” roared the dragon.
This game took longer and was much less predictable and the dragon was much more careful. The soldier was full of tricks, the dragon knew now, and it was not about to be fooled again. They went back and forth, shuffling and playing and dealing and re-dealing, until the soldier said, “Oh.”
The dragon only smiled.
“Oh, dear,” said the soldier.
“It lookth like I win thith time,” said the dragon, and ran its claws against one another to make them extra sharp.
They sounded like grating steel against stone.
“Fair’s fair,” said the soldier, and presented himself to the dragon.
The dragon slid the tiny hammer out of the man’s reach. “You’re thcared,” it accused the man, for it saw sweat beading on the soldier’s forehead and dampness swelled under his arms.
“Nervous is more like it.”
“Nervouth?” The dragon had some difficulty believing that the soldier would survive being flayed, but had shown his true colors and was as deceitful an opponent as the dragon had ever met. “You are afraid that your clothe will be damaged?”
“It’s just that I’m terribly ticklish.”
The air around the dragon’s grimacing, slightly less tooth-filled mouth sizzled. “Hold thtill, unleth you want it to hurt more.” The soldier held his arms straight up and the dragon, quick as thought, pulled its claws from the soldier’s ankles all the way up to his head and farther to his hands. In one fell swoop, the dragon had skinned the soldier alive, but thanks to the horn that the spirit had made him eat, he now had as many skins as a snake. The dragon held between his two claws the empty skin of the soldier. It blinked its surprise.
The soldier waved. “A point of order? We agreed that the winner could skin the loser, but you have taken my uniform as well. I hope you haven’t torn it?”
It had pulled the soldier’s skin off from the bottoms of his feet to the top of his head and now it was inside out with the soldier’s uniform inside the suit of skin. The dragon peered over the mess of flesh and cloth at the naked man before it who showed none of the modesty any of us might expect. In all fairness, it is worth pointing out that it is one thing to be naked and modest in the company of other people and another thing to be naked and modest in the company of a dragon. “Yeth. Erm. Be my guetht.” It dropped the skin down on top of the soldier who took his time retrieving his uniform and the skin from his left hand that turned everything he touched to metal. The only thing he left were his boots, since the dragon had severed the tops from the soles.
The soldier cinched his belt around his waist, slightly smaller than he used to have to do. “That’s one each. Best two out of three?”
The dragon didn’t feel it was in the best position to bargain. “Very well.” Its confidence was not what it had been. It is only fair that I admit here and now, lest there be any doubt, that it was the dragon who was the superior card player. With the first game, it thought to have a bit of a game with the soldier. With the second, it was sure it would kill the soldier, but with this third game it simply did not play well. In short order, the soldier had collected all of the cards and the dragon resigned itself to its fate.
“Skins again?” asked the soldier.
“At least the lumps on my lumps won’t ache me for much longer,” it said.
“Ready?” said the soldier brightly. He ran his fingertips against the skin he wore until they were as hardy a metal as his trusty hammer. Then he ran his fingers along the dragon’s feet and with his ring-endowed strength, gave a mighty pull and tore the skin right off of that dragon. “Oh my,” he said.
Before him stood a naked and very confused man, and there stood the soldier with a full, lumpy dragon skin.
The naked and confused man looked around him. In front of him stood the soldier in full uniform – minus his boots – and behind the soldier stood the walls to the tsar’s city. The soldier was surround by a pile of dragon skin. The naked man lifted one hand carefully to his mouth and checked for his teeth. They were all there. “Oh, thank heavens,” he said. To our soldier, he bowed low and said, “Sir, I am in your debt.” Not every man can pull off a courtly bow when he is bereft of all clothing, but the naked man was no longer confused, had gathered his wits in what I assume is record time, and bowed the courtliest of bows in spite his current disadvantages.
The soldier, mindful of his station and guessing at that of the naked man (after all, how many people could conceivably bow that well?), ripped off a long piece of the dragon hide in his hands. The man winced, then stopped himself. He shuddered. “Force of habit. Pray continue.” The soldier continued tearing at the skin with the strength with which the spirit had imbued him until he had fashioned a long and wide cape. He handed it to the man, who wrapped himself twice around and bowed again.
“Much better,” said the soldier.
“You do not seem surprised to see me,” said the man.
“To tell you the truth, sir, I began to suspect that you were not a dragon during our first game of cards. Several of your tactics are in the style of the kingdom of Tsar Pyotr. The more we played, the more convinced I became that that was your homeland, and it is common knowledge that no dragons have inhabited Pyotr’s land in three generations. Therefore, I deduced that you must be something else; a man from that land, no doubt under an enchantment.”
“Well and well!” exclaimed the man. “That is all true, and more, I am Pyotr’s grandson, Tsarevitch Ivan. The tsarevna here and I have been in love since before my captivity, and my love was so great that even as a dragon I could not keep myself from her side.”
“I was told you tormented her.”
“She wept for my state, not for my actions.”
“Soldiers often have the opposite effect on tsarevnas,” the soldier observed, “at least in private company, or so I have heard.”
“Yes, well, we will make sure to keep you in the public eye if that is the case,” said tsarevitch Ivan, and clapped the soldier on his shoulder. “Let us go in and see my beloved. I will make sure that you are ably rewarded for your service.”
“Oh,” said the soldier, and thought to himself, “I suppose that my luck is finally about to change.”
The guards and the denizens of the city crowded around Ivan, whom they recognized, cheering him in his triumphant return. “Thank you! Thank you!” he called back, “But I hasten to my beloved’s side!” The crush parted like water before them and they ran to the palace, where no one expected to see the brave soldier alive, much less to be side by side with a dragon-skin-cloaked Ivan. The appearance of the two men did not stop the general weeping and sobbing. “But what has happened?” cried Ivan. “I am back!”
“It’s the tsarevna,” sobbed the handmaidens, “she has been stolen away!”
“So much for that,” sighed the soldier to himself.