Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales – Chapter 3

Intervals of Stories

“And that’s how you died, I suppose you mean,” sneered the not-yet-angry man.

His neighbor laughed. “The old liar never said he was the soldier, Dmitri! You’re taking this all too literally. It’s a story, pure and simple.”

“It is a story, that is true,” agreed the traveler, seated on the stool by the door, where the wind could still be heard blowing and gusting, “but stories are rarely pure and they are never simple. They are living creatures in their own right. They travel from person to person, and we repeat them or they inspire new stories. Stories are promiscuous and joyous. They are hedonists and they have no shame. It is only we, the ones who carry them around like a disease, who are sometimes full of fear and dread and guilt at their contents. And because they are so contagious and suspect,” he nodded at the first man, “you are right to be suspicious.”

“Ha! You see!” proclaimed Dmitri to his friend. “He takes my side!”

“Except that your side is against his side,” the other merchant pointed out. To the traveler, he said, “You are against yourself?”

The old man smiled a tired smile and said, “I am not on this man’s side, nor am I on my side. I am on the side of the truth.”

“Is the truth so rushed?” asked the woman behind the bar. “Think of all that you didn’t tell us! The other queens’ stories – I can’t remember their names, they were so foreign to my ears.”

“Nuviya and Natanh,” offered the old man.

The woman nodded her thanks. “Yes, them. Then there were the flying squirrels -”

“Flying frogs. They were poisonous.”

“Yes, and the zombies and witches and the dragons.”

The old man shrugged. “I am tired and weary and it could be that I am forgetting the details, but it could also be that the truth has its rules and that stories have other ones. Those things happened, but they were adventures that happened in spite of our search for tsarevna Vasilisa, not because of it.”

“So you could tell those stories just as well,” queried a third merchant, broad of shoulder, broad of belly, red of cheek and nose, leaning against the bar.

“Of course I could,” said the man. “As surely as you could say what happened to you yesterday in your travels.”

The second merchant raised an eyebrow. “You’re saying that you are the soldier in your stories?”

“That’s it, exactly,” said Dmitri, “that’s what I was complaining about! It couldn’t be him, because that man is dead, and that makes you a liar!”

“I may be a liar,” admitted the man, “but it is true that these things happened and it is true that I died, but it was quick and relatively painless. I scarcely knew what had hit me.”

“Pah!” spat the third merchant. “It’s all lies, no matter what you say.”

The traveler inclined his head. “I will bet you the bottle in my coat against a case of the vodka you have in the stables that I can tell any of the stories we have discussed thus far.”

How did he know this man had vodka? wondered the innkeeper, from where he wiped a table clean. More of the merchants were gathering around the bar.

The others roared with approving laughter and the portly red man scowled his agreement.

“The Silver Queen!” shouted the woman behind the bar. “Tell her story, if you know it.”

“As you wish,” said the traveler.

* * *

“It is not,” the Silver Queen had said, “that my husband and I had a traumatic courtship.Unlike my younger brother, the King Fisher, whose pursuit of his wife was tenacious and passionate and, for her in particular, quite dangerous, Imiq and I had an arranged marriage. The Sky People, where I am from, did not have relations one way or the other with the Ocean People, who are my husband’s. That changed when Turtle grew the Land.

“You see, it was once that there was no land whatsoever, not here, not in the place from where you travel, with your witches and wizards, Baba Yaga and Koschey the Deathless. Raven, who is a troublemaker, asked Turtle to find the bottom of the Ocean. He said that he had been watching Turtle’s eggs for her, but that he had dropped one, when in fact he had eaten it. He hoped that Turtle would die at the bottom of the ocean and that he would not get in trouble. But he is Raven, and he is always in trouble, although sometimes, because he is Raven, it all turns out for the best.

“Turtle did not know that Raven was lying, so she swam and swam and swam until she reached the bottom. It took her many days, but even when she was there, she found no egg, and how could she, since Raven had never lost it? She returned to the surface, where Raven had eaten a second. ‘What is the bottom like?’ asked Raven. ‘It is soft,’ Turtle answered him. ‘That explains it,’ said Raven. ‘The egg is in the soft bottom. You will probably have to dig.’

“So Turtle dove again, but this time she asked Gull to keep an eye on Raven, because she no longer trusted him. When she got to the bottom, she dug and dug, but there was no sign of her eggs. She gathered up the substance she found there to prove to Raven that there was nothing there, covering her shell and saving more in the cracks between her feet. When she got to the surface, Gull was screaming at Raven and Raven was screaming at Gull and Turtle could barely tell one from another, for in those days, Raven was as white as Gull, his feathers gleaming under the sun. Gull had stopped Raven from eating a third egg and Raven was saying that it was nothing but a misunderstanding, but Turtle would not listen to him. ‘You found something, didn’t you?’ said Raven. ‘You know I am innocent.’ ‘I know you are guilty,’ said Turtle, and she threw the mud from the bottom of the ocean all over Raven, which is why he is so dark today. She took her eggs back from Gull and thanked her for her friendship, and determined to settle her affairs herself.

‘She stayed in one place on the water until the mud on her back flowed connected back to the bottom of the ocean, and that was the first dry land. The ocean people and the sky people, we were all curious. The fish that were caught on Turtle’s back above the surface became animals of the land, and of course none of us had seen bear or caribou or deer or boar. But soon they became sick. Even as the land spread and grew and produced trees and life of all kinds, it became more and more ill. As quickly as it had all grown, it was all dying.

“The problem was not the water, but the kind of water.

“The ocean was so salty that none of the animals would drink from it, and it was causing them all to become sick.Imiq was chosen from the people of the ocean and I was chosen from the people of the sky to join our nations and find a solution. Neither of our peoples bore responsibility, but both had no desire to see this creation falter at its very dawn. So it was that I descended to the land and Imiq arose to it and were married , committed to saving the lives of the animals of the land.

“We spoke to each of the animals in turn, but they could tell us nothing that we didn’t know. We were young and inexperienced and our ideas were unlikely and few. Eventually, we decided to seek the company of our elders. We traveled to Imiq’s people. It was a difficult place for me, as there was no sky anywhere to be found. There is no sun and the farther into their lands we traveled the darker it became. By the time we reached their elders, I was a shadow of myself. They told Imiq that I could not stay with them, that we must return immediately and he must take me back to my home to recover my strength. ‘You can not think of your task at the moment,’ they told Imiq, ‘you are married now and your first duty must be to your wife. Nurse her to health, and then return to the work we have settled for you.’ ‘But wait,’ said another elder, ‘if our lands are as harmful to her as this, think what her lands will do to you.’ The elders consulted, and sent Imiq back with me with a leather bag of the ocean in it that he could use to replenish himself.

“Thus we returned to the land, and from there we traveled on and on toward my people. ‘Where are you going?’ asked Raven. At the time, we did not know that it was Raven who was at the heart of all of this, and we only knew him as a neighbor. ‘We are going to the lands of the sky, to my people,’ I told him. ‘Let me come with you,’ he said. ‘You may sit on my back and I will carry you there.’ ‘What has happened to your feathers?’ asked Imiq. ‘My wings are so mighty, I accidentally flew too close to the sun and I was scorched and charred black all over. Is it not handsome? I know exactly how hard to fly in order to bring you to the sky people. Say, what’s in that bag?’

“Raven is not the best neighbor, but he is not the worst. He will do you favors, like fly you home, but then he will get distracted. I knew better, so I indicated that Imiq should not tell Raven. ‘It is medicine from my people. I am sick.’ Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore! You are as healthy as one of those caribou down there!’ At that moment, the caribou fell over, exhausted from thirst. ‘Ah, I see,’ said Raven, and lifted us into the air.

“My people welcomed us, but as with my visit to Imiq’s people, he suffered in my ancestral home. There is no water in the sky, and he faded in our company. Worse, his bag with the ocean in it was missing. Raven was flying away with it in his mouth.

“Imiq was too close to the sun and it burned at him. Raven flew as fast as he could with Imiq’s bag in his beak. I took my brother’s bola,two lengths of bone connected by a long piece of sinew, and whirled it over my head the way that I had seen my brothers do it. The stricture that the elders of the ocean spoke to Imiq applied equally to me. He was my husband and although we were new to one another, my help was his due. The bola created a mighty wind. It pushed Raven farther ahead and the lands of the sky howled as the air coursed around the bones. I threw them at Raven, but Raven is canny and not easily trapped.

“The bones sped faster than Raven’s wings and shortly caught up with him, but at the last moment, just when it looked as though they would catch his wings and bring him down, he folded them together and dove underneath the bola. It flew over him, and its sound faded to a low rumble as it soared across the lands of the sky. He cawed in triumph at his feat of flying, which was his mistake. The bag of ocean fell from his open mouth, out of the lands of the sky and back to earth and ocean.

” ‘I just wanted to see inside!’ Raven called. ‘Why is everyone so cruel to me?’ My people sent him away from the sky. He still visits from time to time, but he is not allowed to make his home among us.

“But we had to return Imiq, and the elders of my people had no more ideas than they had had before. Imiq and I returned to Turtle’s back, prepared to admit defeat, but the brown earth had turned to green grass and the animals were healthy and rivers and lakes ran across the cracks in Turtle’s shell. ‘Thank you,’ said all of the animals.

” ‘What have we done?’ we asked. They told us, ‘It has rained and filled the fields and streams, and the water is perfect for us!’ ‘That was me!’ said Raven from the top of a tree. ‘I did that! You should thank me! I dropped the ocean over your heads and cleared the salt from it.’ So you see, sometimes things work out with Raven, but often it is not because Raven plans it. He taught us how to make the rain all because he was curious and impatient and disobedient. You cannot trust Raven, but sometimes you can hope for the best.

“That is why my husband and I travel, each of us. He goes to his people and gathers the ocean without me, for it is unhealthy for me to travel to that place. He brings the ocean back to me and after a time I deliver it to my people’s lands. The sky and the fall cleanse it of its salt and deliver it here to earth so that all of the world can profit by it. Some days you can still hear the rumble of my brother’s bola as it flies across the skies. We have become a part of one another, my husband and I, and although we began our marriage in duty and obligation, we have grown together through love and respect. In both of our travels, neither of us has encountered your Koschey the Deathless, though we know his name. It is possible that his older sister, Natanh, in the Kingdom of Gold, might know something.”

* * *

The old man looked at the barkeeper and she looked back at him. “That is all?” she asked.

“Should there be more? That is the story that Queen Nuviya told me, and as she told it to me I told it to you. She did not call herself a queen, any more than Ahtna did, but they were the rulers of their realms and kings and queens were how Prince Ivan and I understood them.”

“I have a question,” said the innkeeper, looking at his wife behind the bar. “When you say you died, I don’t understand why you didn’t think of the Great Horned Spirit. Wouldn’t he have saved you from Yumni the Whirlwind, since No Legs and No Eyes couldn’t?”

Several of the merchants nodded their heads at this. “That’s right,” said first merchant, “that doesn’t make sense at all!”

“Ah, Dmitri, you just want to get out paying up your bet,” said the man at his side. “You owe this man a crate of your vodka.”

Dmitri’s red face turned red but before he could speak, the traveler went on. “He does not owe me anything yet. I have only said one of my possible stories, and the bet was that I could tell any of them.”

“That’s right!” said Dmitri again, to the boos of his fellow merchants.

The barkeeper eyed her husband. Dmitri was the sort who could get angry quickly.

“To your question,” said the traveler, “I did not think of the spirit precisely because I thought of No Legs and No Eyes. It seems the spirit only comes as a last resort, and I had no time to think of anything else before Yumni killed me. Also, you should simply call him ‘Yumni’ or ‘the Whirlwind.’ Otherwise it is like saying ‘Whirlwind the Yumni’ or ‘Whirlwind the Whirlwind.’ The words are the same.”

“That’s how you said it,” said the second man.

“I want to know how you came back to life,” said the innkeeper.

“I want Dmitri to give us his vodka!” shouted the red-nosed merchant.

Dmitri was about to get angry when the traveler said, “Until the bet is won or lost, the vodka cannot be given or taken, is that not right?”

“Exactly,” said Dmitri. “It’s in hock, so keep your hands off of it.” The merchants grumbled mightily, so Dmitri added, “I’ll tell you what. If any two of you can match this man’s story of the Silver Queen, I’ll throw in a half a case, but the stories have to be just as good.”

“Who judges that? You?” asked his friend.

Dmitri laughed. “Fair enough. No, we’ll let our old liar be the judge. He’s done right by me so far. But I get to pick the tellers.”

The traveler shook his head. “I am tired. I have neither slept nor eaten. I am barely fit to recount a meager tale here and there.”

“Innkeeper, give him a meal while we listen. I’ll pay.” The innkeeper nodded his head and would have started for the kitchen to gather something for the man by the door had the merchant Dmitri not swung around to face his wife, the bartender. “And while we wait, how about you tell us the next.”

“I want to hear about the zombies!” said someone else.

“I’m paying for the stories. It’s my bet!” said Dmitri.

“And if I am not as skilled?” asked the bartender.

“Free food and lodging for me and my guest for as long as the storm blows.”

She looked at her husband. They could not afford a loss. “It happened when I was a girl,” she began.

* * *

No one went into the woods behind our town. They were filled with all manner of dangers. Trees with tangled roots to trip you. Sinkholes to trap you. Boars and bears to savage, wolves to eat you. Deep in the forest, at its darkest point, there was even a witch. We had never seen her, but her house moved of its own accord, and the entire town could see its chimney stack tottering across the tops of the trees, dark brown smoke belching into the sky.

There were also treasures. Once every two or three years someone would arrive at the town through the forest in spite of all of the dangers, laden down with gold once, the most amazing fruits anyone had ever tasted another time, and just before the moment when this takes place, a blue and green jewel shaped like an egg, glimmering lights in its core.

The woodsman clutched it to his chest, a precious stone nearly as big as his head. We didn’t recognize him, not even after we had cleaned off the blood and dirt from his face. By then he had died, his face frozen in fear. He had never spoken so much as a word. It was too much. Our town was not in so much need, but that temptation, that wealth, it is simply too much for many people to bear. It means freedom. Independence. Strength.

One young man after another tried his luck, sixteen in all, and only one ever returned, the ninth. He had no jewel, but he had the same scrapes and cuts. “It sees in time,” was all he said, but he spoke the words over and over. As far as I know, he lives still, uttering the same sentence even now.

I was no better than the young men, nor were my friends, young though we were, and with the spirit and enthusiasm of youth, I thought that I would succeed where they had failed. I packed food for three nights, for in my innocence I was sure that it would be the trouble of few days. When my parents began their work, I made my way into the forest.

It sees in time, I repeated to myself. I would understand what that meant sooner than I expected.

The trees in the forest are dark and close together and they create a kind of a thumping hum. I counted my steps to comfort myself as I threaded my way between the trunks and thorns. One. Two. Three. Four. I walked with my counting. One. Two. Three. Four. The deeper I trod, the faster the hum thumped. I don’t know how long I walked, for the sun did not fully penetrate the branches, but I had gone through much of my food when I saw the first body, one of the young men two three four. Then a second three four.

By then I was counting not hums, like a heartbeat, but bodies. One two three four. Two two three four. Eight so far.

Then I understood.

It sees in time. The beats of the forest’s heart. It saw me walking, had seen all of these young men, now stretched out against tree trunks.

I could not stop. I walked further on and further in. Three two three four. Twelve bodies, twelve young men. The heart beat in time, a four count. Sixteen total, and one had escaped, only three bodies left.

Four. Mouth agape.

Two. Weeping.

Three. Screaming.

There was an empty tree, waiting for me. I walked on, unable to turn away, until I saw…

“I SAW YOU!”

Dmitri bellowed as he discovered the bartender’s hands clasped around his throat. Everyone else jumped as well, hanging as they were upon her every word, but it was only Dmitri who was looking into her eyes, so fixed upon her story that he didn’t even notice that she had leaned over the bar, closer and closer.

They all laughed after that. Only a few of the merchants laughed at Dmitri, because the truth of the matter was that any of them would have been as scared as he had been. In fact, hardly any of them had even noticed her hands moving. The handful that did laugh at Dmitri did so to cover their own embarrassment, and those few soon realized that everyone else was laughing in relief at the fiction, at the delight in a story well told, and in being so caught in the tale that they did not even see the end coming.

“I thought it was a different kind of story!” shouted Dmitri. “I didn’t think she was going to try and scare us!”

“She did more than try,” joked his friend.

“Who’s next?” asked the man with the red nose. “The second story! A half case of vodka is riding on this!”

“So it is,” answered Dmitri. “Then let it be you. You’ve traveled far, let’s hear something from one of your journeys!”

The red-nosed merchant sputtered. “Me? Me? I’m no storyteller!”

Dmitri grinned, a broad, toothy smile. “Then I win.”

In the chorus of howls, catcalls and huzzahs, only the traveler by the door noticed the dark looks on the faces of the innkeepers, the man cleaning tables and the woman behind the bar. Night upon night of free lodging and food for Dmitri and the traveler would gut them.

The red-nosed man continued to protest, “How can I?”

The innkeeper had re-emerged from the back with a small tray of food for the old man at the door. It was nothing more than a chunk of bread, butter, a beer, and some broth, but there was no food that was not precious.

“Come on, Sergei, weren’t you telling me about that strange thing you found, that tangle of string? That sounded like a good story.”

The red-nosed man hemmed and hawed. “I wasn’t even there for all of it.”

“You don’t have to know how the history goes from the beginning to the end.” Everyone turned to look at the old traveler. “You only have to know the parts that make the tale worth the telling.”

The second man, standing between the belligerent Dmitri and the red-nosed Sergei, walked over the man by the door. “You’re full of words, aren’t you?”

“It’s not so much that I’ve lived so long, although that’s true. It’s also not that I’ve had remarkable experiences, although that’s true, too. Look at our host,” and he nodded at the bartender, “she just told us something marvelous. I was just a soldier. She’s a bartender. We’re not special.”

“Sergei tells us about his tangle of string, then you continue with your story,” said the man. “You’ve still got your own deal with our hosts to complete.”

“Of course,” said the old man.

“Fine,” grumbled red-nosed Sergei.

“Thank you,” said the traveler to the innkeeper.

The place’s owner favored him with a sour smile and set the food down. He, for one, hated his wife’s story. It made him think of the scars on her back and arms, hidden beneath her clothes, gouged deep as tree bark could go.

* * *

“I suppose I should describe the thing that I found, beyond it being a tangle of string, anyway. It was that – a tangle of string – except that it only looked really looked like a tangle. It was about the size of my two fists together, side by side. It wasn’t a full knot, either, not like a tangled ball, more like a wad. You could see through it in places and sometimes it gave off these whitish, bluish sparks inside. Made your hands tingle if you were holding it when that happened. Funniest thing. Hard to say what color it was. Brown, maybe. And the string that made it up, it was tough and rigid. You couldn’t really bend it. Didn’t seem to have a beginning or an ending, just all middle.

“Didn’t look valuable, either, and don’t think I didn’t have it checked. I did. I have a man down by the mountains – no, not those mountains, the ones east of here, yes, Anatoly is his name. You know him? Then you know how good he is. If it’s a jewel or a piece of furniture or some antique sword, Anatoly is your man. He can put a price on anything, or so I thought, but it turns out that even old Anatoly has his limits. ‘Sergei,’ he said to me, he said, ‘Sergei, I can put a price on anything that has been sold. I’ve never seen anything like this before in all my years. Could be valuable. Could be the most valuable thing you’ll ever hold in your hands in your lifetime, but that’s exactly the thing. Who’s to say, Sergei, eh? Who’s to say?’ Sure, he offered to buy it from me, but he wouldn’t give me much because he didn’t know what he could sell it for, as I said . Who wants the only thing of its kind in the world? I mean, sure, if you had the only one of a special diamond, by all means. But that’s a class of object, if you get my meaning. This? This didn’t fit in anywhere.

“What do you mean, where did I find it? Oh, I didn’t? Oh. Well, then.

“I’m never one for an empty cart, not I. I’d sold most of things – what? Hay. Why do you care? Well, I wasn’t selling hay in Anatoly’s city! Did I say I was? No! I had unloaded my hay in that little village by the sea, just south of the mountains, right, Tsar Pyotr’s realm, that’s the one, and I knew that there was a good market for… well, don’t think I’m going to tell you all of my secrets. I’ll just say this, I bought what I needed to and headed out for Anatoly’s place, or at least, that was my plan.

“There was this alley – well, not quite an alley, not much more space between these two buildings than a man could walk down comfortably. And a man like me could walk down it uncomfortably. You all know the kind of space I’m talking about. Light just doesn’t get down there. It’s always muddy, it’s always dark, it’s usually cool, and it’s an excellent place for mosquitos. No, I wasn’t walking down it at first, will you let me tell my own story? I didn’t see you interrupting everyone else! I saw a glint of light, that’s all, and then it was gone, a couple of tiny sparks. Caught my eye. Couldn’t have been the sun back there, of course, so I went back and picked it up, the funny little tangle of string.

“Sometimes the breaks all fall your way. I had this thing and an empty cart, and there was Anatoly’s town just past the horizon.Well, I made some arrangements, is what I did, and the pieces kept falling into place. You know, you don’t always think about it when that happens, things falling into place, and it happens more often than you realize. I say this as person who says, ‘Just my luck,’ but the truth is, things go better for me more often than they don’t. Look at me! I’m healthy. I make an honest living. Alright, Dmitri, I may have dealt from the bottom of the deck with you once or twice, but we all know you were asking for it and you were doing the same anyway, so let’s not bring that up any more, hey?

“So to say it’s bad luck that I had this piece of string simply because I didn’t know what to do with it, well, that’s just plain unreasonable is what that is. I’m normally optimistic, sure, but that’s never stopped me from complaining. At this point, I didn’t know what to think, except that I should get to Anatoly because who else was going to tell me what this funny little tangle of sparking string was worth? As it happened, a colleague had a friend who had a brother who had another colleague who needed a couple of things delivered to Anatoly’s town, so I picked up some goods for sale, the goods for transport, and what do you know, I even picked up a couple of passengers.

“That’s where things started to come together, even though I didn’t know it at the time. It was two brothers who sat in the back of the cart, and no, their names weren’t Ivan and Pyotr! They weren’t princes, for crying out loud. Nikolai and Sasha. Farm boys. This Nikolai, he looks like he can pick up a tree, knock down the tsar’s castle, put the tree back in the ground where he found it, and young Sasha’s not much smaller. Doesn’t matter, because Nikolai is practically crying like a baby, throwing a tantrum the whole way to the town. Three days. Three days! Three days I have to listen to little brother explaining to big brother that there’s nothing to be frightened of, ‘He’s always misplacing things,’ is all he says to me, as though that’s supposed to explain it.

“We get to the town, and I’m happy to see these boys gone, never to see them again. I make my delivery, I make my sales, I make my way to Anatoly’s, and he tells me what I’ve already told you. ‘Who knows what it is?’ he asks. ‘Who knows?’ It’s about now that I’m starting to question my luck – unreasonably, but there you go, sometimes I’m unreasonable. You’ve got an empty cart, Anatoly’s got no leads for me, and I’m wondering where my next deal is coming from, when I hear the sound. ‘Sound,’ I say. It’s a noise. A noise like a mountain cracking in half, if you can call that a sound. Anatoly and I go running out of his shop, I’ve got the sparking string in my hand, and over the buildings – over the buildings – we can see the giant. I’ve never seen anything that big, not anything that walked on two legs.

“My mouth’s hanging open, Anatoly’s mouth is hanging open, and suddenly there’s young Sasha grabbing my shoulder, pointing at the string, and yelling, ‘That’s Nikolai’s! That’s the only thing that can save us now!’

“Of all people, it’s Anatoly who takes the string away from me. Naturally, I pulled my hand away from Sasha, but there’s Anatoly grabbing and yelling, ‘Take it if it’ll work!’ I know, I know, in the end Anatoly’s going to make sure that Anatoly survives, but do you think he would have been in such a hurry to hand it over if it had started out in his hands? That’s all I’m saying. It’s a lot easier to be sure about causes and effects when things aren’t in your hands, literally and figuratively, if you know what I mean.

“It’s too late for me to say much to Anatoly, because the giant’s head is getting bigger and higher and Sasha is running away with the string. Anatoly and I, we don’t know what to do, so we stand there for a moment, then we start yelling at each other. Me, because he took my string, him, because that was our best chance and didn’t I see that, and if I found it how were we to know who it really belonged to? That’s how I’m going to die, I’m afraid, arguing about some worthless point of business. I miss the big picture sometimes. I don’t have much to say to Anatoly, so I go around and around saying it eight different ways instead, and Anatoly, he’s doing the exact same thing. We’re so busy yelling that we don’t even notice the sounds of a fight, we don’t notice the giant’s head disappearing, we don’t notice screams of fear turning into shrieks of triumph. Nothing. We’re still arguing when the townspeople come back, carrying Nikolai and Sasha on their shoulders like they’re heroes – which, it turns out, they are.

“Apparently young Nikolai picked up a tree, knocked the giant over, bashed him a couple more times, and put the tree right back where he found it. By then Sasha was leading a team of the townspeople and they’d trussed that giant pretty firmly to the ground. They ran rope across his legs, chest, and arms, lashed to trees upon trees, and there was no way he was getting out easily after that.

“You know me, I’m one to let bygones be bygones, so I tell old Anatoly that if he’ll buy, all is forgotten. We follow everyone else to the inn – looked a lot like this place, less snow – and after most of the people can’t stand any longer, most of them are sleeping at their tables, I make my way over to young Sasha. ‘What was that all about, lad?’ I ask him. ‘We knew he was coming here, the giant, and my brother is the only person strong enough to trip him, but he was scared.’ ‘Scared,’ says I. ‘Of course he was scared!’ ‘You don’t understand,’ explains the boy to me, ‘he was only scared because he’d lost his nerve. If you hadn’t found it and given it back, I don’t know what would have happened.’

” ‘A nerve,’ says Anatoly to me later. ‘Don’t know that there’s a market for nerves,’ but true to his word, he bought all evening. So I’m lucky, I am, and my luck saved that whole town, because if I hadn’t found that nerve and found young Nikolai and if Sasha hadn’t seen me and Anatoly, that giant would have used us all for appetizers and toothpicks. I try to keep that in mind when I make my deals, for better or for worse. Just like you should, Dmitri, because I think it’s time for you to pay up.”

* * *

“His name is Nikolai and he lost his nerve?” asked the old traveler after he’d cleared his throat with a swig from his beer.

Sergei spread his hands. “That’s what I said, didn’t I?” He looked around the room for confirmation.

“I think I might have met him. Pleasant young man, except for his habit of misplacing things.”

The second merchant, still hovering over the traveler, interjected now. “So who won, old man?”

Dmitri settled himself on his stool and crossed his arms, giving the old man a sullen glare.

“The bet was that any two people of this fine man’s choosing would not be able to match the Silver Queen’s story. No further criteria were discussed. Our hostess’s story was shorter than mine and than that of our third teller,” and here he nodded at plump Sergei, “but length of story was not a feature. Each of our tales featured the background necessary to understand them. They were complete.” He shrugged as he looked into Dmitri’s eyes.

“That’s cheap!” the merchant bellowed. “You’re trying to get out of it!”

“On the contrary, I am warning you. You gave me no guidelines. All you said was, ‘If any two of you can match this man’s story of the Silver Queen, I’ll throw in a half a case, but the stories have to be just as good.’ ‘Match’ and ‘just as good.’ By my judgment and no other’s.”

“How are we supposed to like Sergei’s story?” asked the man standing by the traveler. “He left out how the giant got knocked down.”

Sergei huffed himself up. “I told you before I started, I wasn’t even there for all of it.”

“Not my problem,” said Dmitri.

The traveler nodded. “Indeed, you chose your contestants specifically. Nevertheless, as exciting as it might have been to hear about Nikolai and the townsfolk tackling a giant, that was not his story. We cannot judge his story for what we want it to be, nor criticize it for that which it does not attempt to be. We must accept it as it is. His story was about the tangled string, which happened to be Nikolai’s lost nerve. It was not about the giant or even about Nikolai. It was a story about discovery, yet not exactly a mystery. Our hostess’s tale had a similarly misleading quality, in that it began as a quest but it ended the way that a ghost story might. My story – well, my telling of the queen’s story – spoke to the creation of the world. I can’t say whether I believe her every word, but I believe the truth inside. And that, ultimately, is how I must judge the other two stories, by their inner truths. Our hostess described a terrifying situation, and I felt terrified on her behalf. The merchant Sergei was confused and I felt his confusion, as much by the appearance of the giant as by the appearance and nature of the tangled string.”

“Good! Because I still don’t get it!” chimed in Sergei. “I mean, how can you lose your nerve? Don’t answer that!” he turned on another man, who was on the verge of saying something smart.

” I have to judge all three stories as being peers of one another. In that regard, they are all, as you say, a match.”

“But I didn’t like Sergei’s story,” said Dmitri.

“Hey!” Sergei was shouted down.

“You never asked about liking,” pointed out the traveler. “A half case of vodka is now due to our hosts. As for me, what should I tell next?”

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