Telling Tales 41
Two People Know How to Kill Him
The old man took a swig of his beer. His food was long finished, and he looked at the bread crumbs with something like sadness. “Anyway,” he said at last, “I think everyone knows what happened after that. You don’t just overthrow a monarchy and start something brand new. No, Koschey was the new Monarch. It mattered little to him in short order. He amassed his wealth, yes, and his power, and now he had an army of his own at his beck and call. But it turns out he preferred decimating opposing armies on his own. Less to rely upon others. I think it’s a regency now, technically. My understanding is that Koschey hasn’t shown his face in decades.”
“Centuries!” said the merchant next to him, who had finally introduced himself as Yevgeny. “Assuming he’s even real. My grandfather used to tell stories about old Koschey the Deathless, and they were the same stories he heard from his grandfather.”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” asked the old man back. “Is the story relating facts, or is it speaking to deeper truths? The evil of men?”
The belligerent Dmitri snorted. “That’s even more outlandish. Either Koschey existed or he’s some kind of warning to us all? Beware, or we could become Koschey?”
“I think the real danger is in becoming his parents,” said the bartender. All of the men in the inn – for everyone else was a man – turned to her. “They gave their hearts to their child and lost themselves. Koschey is… He’s whatever is bad. He’s the consequence of every wrong decision.”
Sergei chuckled. “That’s naive,” he said. “What of these Monarchs? Their four armies? Each of those armies is a bad decision?”
“Yes! They should have asked Baba Yaga how to defeat him.” Dmitri’s face went blank as everyone else laughed at how her solution painted him into a corner. She looked at the traveler with new eyes, appreciating how his stories had turned what could have been a horrible night into one that was palatable and becoming profitable, even if it had meant telling her own story. She wasn’t sure how she felt about him incorporating the heartbeat from her forest into his own story of Koschey eating the soldier. It was clever and quick thinking, to be sure, but she still had nightmares, especially if she happened to sleep against her husband’s back and felt his heart, one two three four. Tonight would undoubtedly be one of those nights. She didn’t want to let the traveler off quite so easily for that. “There is another way, too, of course.”
The conversations around her abruptly stopped and the old man looked at her with something like curiosity and delight. “Indeed? Another way to defeat Koschey, besides going through Baba Yaga? Where were you when I was traveling with Prince Ivan?” he joked.
It was a story her grandmother had told her, that she had heard from her grandmother, that she had had from her grandmother before her. “Yes. There is a person who knows where Koschey’s heart lies, and if she ever got to it, it would mean his end.”
The traveler was positively giddy. Not only did he have shelter from the storm, he had been fed. He was drinking beer. He was in good company. He had the promise of a place to sleep. And here he was about to get a new story. “And who might that be?” he challenged. He desperately wanted to hear something new. He hoped that his dare to the bartender would keep her talking.