Telling Tales – Chapter 7
“I’m a hunter. Fish, yes, of course. Seal, terns, caribou. I’ve caught bear a couple of times, but not often. You really have to cook the meat of a predator, that’s the only thing.
“No, they no longer have much to do with me anymore, and me with them. We all have our reasons.
“If you insist.
“My parents died when I was young, and it fell to my two grandmothers to care for me. One was kind and one was not. The first beat me, but the other dried my boots and she dried my clothes. She cared for me when no one else would. The oldest man in our village allowed me to sleep in the corner of his hut, but if I dared creep closer to the fire, he would take me by the nose and throw me out of the door. Other children would not play with me. I do not say this for you to take pity on me. Take pity on my cruel grandmother, who grew up under much the same circumstances as I did, but without a kindly grandmother of her own. She grew twisted and angry and stayed twisted and angry. My kind grandmother taught me wonder, and so it was that when others were cruel to me, I wondered at their motives, as much as I wondered about the sun and the moon and the stars. When I threw my bola and knocked a bird out of the sky and drew my knife to kill it, it spoke to me and I did not think it was a spirit. I wondered how a bird could speak. It said to me that it had seen me alone and seen me shunned and it knew how difficult my life would be. If I did not kill it, it said, it could take me to one who would teach me how to be a great hunter. I untangled my bola and set it free and wondered if it was telling the truth. The bird did not fly away. It hopped forward and waited for me to follow and brought me to a giant in a part of the land I had never seen nor imagined. I grew strong under the giant and he taught me to weave a net and fashion a bow and sharpen a knife and I have become the best hunter the world has ever seen. If you can name a thing in the sky, under the water, or on the land, I can strike it with one of my tools. When I returned to my village, I wondered if they would be happy to see me. I was now a young man, and perhaps, I thought, I could find a wife. They remembered me as I had been, though, and in their eyes I had not grown at all. I was still an orphan. My cruel grandmother still rejected me. The village big man still tried to throw me out on my nose. But I was stronger than him and it was he who fell outside of the hut. I tore his hut apart with my hands and put out his fire. I hunted for my kind grandmother and left her food for years and gave none to the cruel one, and I set out on my own to see the world. That was years ago and I have had many adventures, but I have met no one who would be my wife.”
Ivan and Vasilisa looked at one another over the remains of the fish that their host had generously provided to them. His leather boots were soft and worn and was lean with long hours of work, yet obviously well-fed. The squirrel’s advice rang in both of their ears.
“Would you like to travel with us?” asked Ivan.
“Only,” Vasilisa added, “we may never come this way again.”
“You mean that if I leave with you I may never see my home again. I wondered. No matter. I am sure that if I want, I can find my way back. Equally, if not, there is always life before me. Yes,” he decided, “I will come along. It will be a marvel. My name is Ipiktokiyakovik.”
“Oh,” said Ipiktokiyakovik, “those are terribly difficult to pronounce. You won’t mind if I call you ‘I’ and ‘V,’ will you?”
“Um,” said Vasilisa.
“Well,” said Ivan.
Ipiktokiyakovik laughed. “I am joking. You northerners can never pronounce our names, but it is easy. Ipiktok means ‘sharp’ and Iyakovik means ‘eyes.’ Ipiktok-iyakovik. It is the name I took for myself once I became the best hunter, Sharp Eyes.”
“Sharp Eyes! I will call you that! An excellent name!” said Ivan.
“No,” said Ipiktokiyakovik, “it is Ipiktokiyakovik.”
“Oh,” said Ivan. “I am sure my friend the soldier knew someone like you in his regiment, or if not like you, someone with a long name and he would have told us a story about that person that lasted into the night and led from one story to another.”
Before Ipiktokiyakovik could ask about this mysterious soldier, however, Vasilisa asked, “Do you have anything that you would like to bring with you?”
“Only myself and my tools and this this thing that I caught with some fish. It is as mysterious to me as your boat that flies through the air.” From the bag at his side, with infinite care, he took out a pillow-like thing, the size of one outstretched palm. “Be very gentle. It bruises easily.” Indeed, where his fingers touched the cloudy-white surface, there arose soft black marks that fogged into blue and purple, spreading across the surface. “It is best to hold it with your palm. Have you ever seen anything like it before?”
Vasilisa took the object from him. It settled in her hands and made her think of sorrow, longing, and grief. Although it left not a drop of moisture on her, if she were not looking at it, she would have sworn that it wept great tears across her hands. She passed it to Ivan, gently. “It is the saddest thing I have ever seen,” she said.
“Do you think so?” asked Ipiktokiyakovik. “Because when I hold it, I can only think of the stars and of all of the world that I have not yet seen.”
Ivan added, “Indeed, and I see no bruises on it at all. It is firm in my hands, and resolute, and forward-thinking. I would say, if I had to give this feeling a name, that it makes me feel that it is determined.”
“Curious,” said Ipiktokiyakovik as Ivan returned the strange pillow to him. “I hope I live long enough to learn what it is. Well, where is it exactly that we are going?”
“That is a long story,” said Ivan.
“It begins with my father,” continued Vasilisa, and began the story of her betrothed, the dragon.
* * *
I am Scrobarnach Armtha.
Of course you’ve never heard a name like that, I made it up. You can call me Tor, if you like.
My family stayed in this land after my mother and her husband returned to the West. Fergus promised them safe passage, and safe passage Fergus gave, but a bonded man is only as good as his own word, not his king’s. Fergus was sent away and my grandparents did not survive. My mother kept us here and taught us the ways of the lance and sword and horse and hoof. We, my siblings and I, have all gone our separate ways, and if you’ll take me along I’ll seek my good fortune where your mighty ship lands.
I have been to the West and it holds no more love for me. I have done my violence and had my vengeance and besides, all of the heroes are dead. If I am to find new foes and new companions worthy of my skills, they will be elsewhere.
My godmother Aife taught me the spear and the lance and what you see before you is tipped with a crane’s beak, sharp enough to pierce three dancers mid-step and quick enough to take the gleam out of a fish’s eye. She gave me these eighteen branches, one for each letter of the alphabet, and because of them I can speak in any language at any time to any people.
You don’t have to say it, I know, my accent’s not perfect but it’s a good trick all the same, now, isn’t it?
It was when I was in the West that my godmother Macha showed me what else I can do with my branches. Would you like to see?
I keep the one that flowers, that stays with me always, and no, you can’t touch it. I scatter the other seventeen like so…
And you see the wood bubble and boil like sheep’s blood over a fire. Watch them, now. The first thing you’ll see are the sword tips bursting from the edge of the bark. Over there, you might think that looks like an eye and you’d be right, but it’s neither the eye nor the kind of eye that you’re thinking of. Now you see them grow. These are my favorite, where the fingers clutch their way out of the wood and drag the body out behind. But these over here, where the legs and feet come first and the sticks are walking around to their own sweet air, I hold them dear, too. And these, the ones that start with the heads, well, cover your ears if you’re tender about words because these mouths know no end of curses to keep themselves busy.
Sure and look at them now, nearly full grown soldiers, each to a one, more branches sticking out where their hair and beards ought to be. And I give them the command, each of these soldiers make seventeen soldiers more, and each of those, another seventeen. They’ve the speed of wolves and the strength of bulls and their swords are crows’ beaks and that’s why I took the name Scrobarnach Armtha, because I command the Brushwood Army and none shall ever defeat me. Also, I think it sounds scary.
No, it’s just me and my lance and my branches and this funny thing I found, looks like a piece of rusted metal. Or bloody metal. If I could, I’d pierce a hole through it and wear it as a necklace, but it’s too strong.
When do we leave?
* * *
I will tell you, though I be no more than a servant, that I would be honored to join your ranks. My master has recently died, and his master before that. It should shame me to put it that way, but it does not.
I served the estimable Marquis de Carabas and there are few if any men who would be better to follow, that much is true, n’est pas? But his sons, they are not so well, and I did not care to tarry in their employ. And besides, if I stayed overly long with the Marquis, it was only because I owe everything I am to his greatest servant, milord le Seigneur des Chats. None were more loyal than des Chats and none cleverer. None that I knew, at any rate.
An excellent hunter – no, monsieur, I would not dare compare him to you, if only out of loyalty to his memory, ignorance of your skill, and the fact that you use tools and my master des Chats never did so. Tooth and claw, monsieur, tooth and claw.
It was his gift, le Seigneur des Chats, to see that which was inherent in a situation and to take advantage of that. In his age, he also became gifted at seeing that which was inherent in people. In my case, he noted that I pay close attention. I knew what my master desired even as he named his desire, for we give ourselves away, do we not? A sigh. A lean. The eyes fall beyond the conversation and rest upon the bottle of wine. Is my master bored? Does he desire distraction from the conversation or does he merely wish refreshment? In either instance, the solution is the same, and I bring him the carafe and the glasses, and I pour.
So it was that my master worked with me and taught me to emphasize my skills. Name it. Name what you would like to know, and I will tell you to the best of my ability.
A soldier. Euh, can you be more specific?
A soldier who fought a giant in a land across the ocean? Ah, a Russian soldier, and in the wrong direction? That is better.
Let me see.
Wait, I hear an accent, definitely a Russian accent, though much coarser than your own.
Yes, I could tell you came from a good family, of course.
Likewise you, madame.
Mademoiselle, my apologies.
The man – if he is indeed your soldier – he sighed just now and said, “Oh.”
I am delighted to have served and delighted to have informed you of good news.
You see, I can hear anything and everything. My lord le Seigneur des Chats dubbed me Entendtout…
Mais oui. It is “Ohn-tohn-too.”
Yes, that is it, more or less. Well, my lord le Seigneur eventually passed, as must we all, and later the Marquis and as I said, his sons… I will show you. Upon my announcement that I would take my leave of their service, instead of a severance acknowledging my work with them, or a horse to ease the pressure upon my feet, or a bag of food from the kitchen to see me on my way, they laughed and gave me this.
I agree, mademoiselle, it does look like a puzzle box. They claim to have found it in the stables.
Certainly, monsieur, if you will take me on, I will be glad to be of service. You do seem a noble sort and your company as well. Entendtout, a votre service.
* * *
It is sad, my tale, but there are sadder, and as difficult as my time has become, there are those who have suffered more. We must remember from whence we come and God’s grace that gives us strength and buoys us beyond the horizon.
My father is a good man, but he is, God forgive me, not as smart as he is handsome. He married my mother, but before they consummated the marriage, he went off to fight one, two, three campaigns. She pursued him each time, dressed as a man, and defeated him in chess at every turn. She won tokens from him – his dagger, his ring, his headscarf – and offered to him a girl with whom to lie. The first time, a virgin. The second time, a girl who had been with a man but once. The third, a girl who had been with a man but twice. Herself, of course, in disguise again. The result is my older brothers and me. When he returned from the third campaign, he thought to marry another woman instead, but my mother reminded him of his duty, and for all that he may be shallow, he is honorable. He saw that he and my mother were husband and wife, married and consummated, and called off his wedding.
When my mother died, we all mourned. My brothers set out to seek their fortune, as they could no longer bear the absence of her voice in those halls of my father. The mourning period over, my father set out to find a new wife. He had an anklet from my mother and a promise he had made to her, that he would marry no one unless the anklet fit her as well. You will not be surprised to hear that it fit no one at all.
There is a cruel wazir who works for my father, as smart as he is cunning. He had a handmaiden put the anklet on me when I was sleeping and saw that it fit as perfect as perfect can be. He convinced my father that his promise meant that he had to marry me, when in fact my mother’s plan was that he remain faithful to her even after her death. The same handmaiden, guilty for her part in the wazir’s treachery, told me of his plan to have me marry my own father. I fled through the window and paid a tanner in the city a handsome sum to fashion for me this suit of leathers.
In the desert I faced down ghuls and fell into the power of a marid, whom I escaped through trickery, granted by God from my mother, after I learned the marid’s secret of the desert winds, which I can command as surely as you do your flying craft. I took from him upon my departure not just his life, but also these two sapphires, which cannot be separated from one another, no matter how I try.
My travels are only just beginning. I have more to learn before I can face the wazir. I will gladly come with you.
* * *
Yes, I will join you. You are gracious to make such invitation without knowing me or my history.
Where I am from, innocence and generosity are not always rewarded. There was a man in our village, Nukamboka, he found an orphan and brought it home. He raised it and cared for it and when it came time for the youngling to become a man, he emerged from Nukamboka’s hut singing, “Nukamboka, I am coming for you. I am a monster. You took me from the lowlands. Nukamboka, I am coming for you.” He killed that man. Then he came for the rest of the village.
I escaped because generosity may be rewarded when wedded with caution.
Years before, I had been hunting in the forest when I heard a sound, a voice singing, “Help me, help me,” over and over. I found the source, and it was a cricket caught in a spider’s web. “Help me, brother,” it said. One must help family, so I removed it from the web without tearing a single thread and the cricket said to me, “Some day I may help you,” and went along his way.
My hunt was going poorly. The animals knew where I was before I knew myself. Jackal came to me one night by the fire. I was cooking the last of my food but one day and I did not how I would get home. He said, “I am so hungry, brother. Will you share your food with me?” It was the last of my food, but one must help family, so I gave him what I had. He said, “I am a mighty hunter, too. Game is bad in these parts. Come with me and I will show you where it is plentiful.”
I followed Jackal to a well. “There are fish in that well, so many fish that they will jump into your hands. All you need to do is bathe in its waters, you will see.” I had taken no more than five steps when I was stuck fast, caught by the claws of Crab, who would neither explain to me what I had done nor why he had trapped me. The other animals arrived and they said I had polluted their water, bathed in it, eaten their fish, and they had finally caught the thief. They tied me to a tree and left me there for the night. They promised to eat me in the morning.
Cheetah came upon the tree. I knew I was finished, because the animals had taken my weapons. I was as simple prey for Cheetah as anything you could see. “You are tied to a tree,” said she. She has very long teeth and in the moonlight they looked very white. “Your friend Cricket tells me that you saved him from Spider.”
“That is true,” I said.
“Do you know why Hyena is lame in her hind legs?”
I did not.
“It is because of Jackal, who likes playing to play tricks. Hyena did me a good turn once,” and Cheetah looked at her paws at that. “I will free you because Cricket did me a good turn. You will hunt Jackal to pay back my debt to Hyena.”
“I have no weapons,” said I.
“I will loan you my legs and my paws and you will have my speed,” said Cheetah, and she was as good as her word.
She gave me this, too, this spiked red flower. Hyena stole it from Jackal, who stole it from who knows where.
I am Haraka.
* * *
I am the sorriest of men, for I was placed under a battery of enchantments that would prevent me from keeping my love.
In spite of my burden, my cunning allowed me to find a wife, but as you may well know, finding a wife is not the same as finding one’s love. To find love, one must be as true as possible. And as fortunate as possible.
I say that it was my cunning that found me a wife but that is only partially true. I wore a full snakeskin in those days and appeared nothing more or less than a fairy serpent. I saved a merchant from dying and he placed himself in my debt, not realizing what he was doing. I told him that he could discharge this honor if one of his daughters would agree to wed me. Each of the three turned me down, but I did not relinquish hope. I came back to the merchant three times with different songs in the voices of wasps. Time and again, his daughters said no and slaughtered my messengers. Finally, however, their father’s remorse – the death of his honor hung on their disposition – moved the youngest, and she agreed to be my bride.
She is passionate and forthright and impulsive and determined. Together, that is our blessing and our curse.
I treated her as the princess she became in becoming my wife, not only in spirit but in fact, for I am of noble birth originally. My generosity to her and my kindness to my people and my lands finally won her over.
So you see, my cunning brought me a marriage, but it was the woman herself who determined whether or not she could and would love me. I do not think she knew herself, or was not willing to admit so, until she found me dying. The spirits who had cursed me with this form drained the water from my well when I was at my weakest. My wife, respecting me but not loving, in her wisdom, found me expiring of thirst. She took my torpid body and threw me into a river that it took her three days to find. It was during that walk that she decided – decided, yes – to let herself love me. She did not know that this river would free me of the first of my enchantment and it was to her surprise and amazement that I emerged from the water as you see me now.
In this way, you see, her nature is a blessing.
I warned her, I swore to her that she must never look upon me at night, but in this way her nature was cursed. She asked her mother’s advice, you see, and her mother told her to light a candle over my body in the night. She saw me as I truly am, pale and smooth of skin, but she dripped wax upon my person and I woke, and the second enchantment flew to life.
If she had waited, if she had been patient for a year and a day, the magic would have evaporated, but I cannot curse the same nature that freed me from my first prison. She comes after me now, seeking, but she has already traveled far and I am afraid that it is not distance but time that governs her steps. So yes, I will travel with you. My love is a thirst that can never be slaked. I could drink the ocean in its entirety.
Yes, I will board your ship.
You may call me Kou Ke.
* * *
They brought the ship to land on the top of a mountain. Ivan pulled at one anchor at the prow and Ipiktokiyakovik hauled at another. At the stern, Tor commanded the Brushwood Army to pull the ship down from below, while Haraka sped the anchor around trees to keep it from moving. Vasilisa and Juleidah manipulated the holes in the boat that let it sink from the sky. No longer did the boat howl with unreal and terrifying sounds. Thanks to Juleidah’s command of the winds, they were never without direction or speed, and thanks to Entendtout’s understanding of sound, they now flew across the sky sounding like, according to Keh-ah, the emperor’s musicians all playing in concert. They were even followed by flocks of birds who sang in chorus and sat on Tor’s army, exploding in a flurry of wings and feathers when the soldiers collapsed back to branches.
“Now what do we do?” asked the short girl with the lilting speech, her wild blond hair matching her wild blue eyes. “There’s no one here to pick up.”
Ivan and Vasilisa looked at one another. “We did not pick you up so that you would fight our battles with us,” Ivan began.
“Nonsense,” said the old gentleman. “We are not fools. We have talked on our travels and we know each other’s stories. We are with you as far as the sorcerous king.”
Ivan cleared his throat. “Tsar, technically. Here, I mean.”
Vasilisa added, “But certainly sorcerous.”
“Well,” considered the hunter, “I wonder if that doesn’t mean you should tell us your plan.”
“My plan?” asked Ivan, who had been rather pleased simply to have returned home, and with Vasilisa with him, no less. “Yes. There should be a plan.”
The pile of skins that looked a great deal like a dead thing (but to everyone’s relief smelled in no way as such) said, “Perhaps you should tell us in more detail what we can expect to face.”
“Yes,” agreed the man with skin the color of fertile earth, “will we have any allies in the castle?”
“And,” added the scaled one, “is there anything to drink?”
There was a silence for a moment before Ivan said, “I believe it falls to Vasilisa to describe the castle. I know it only as a suitor, and I believe we can assume that those things I saw I was designed to see.”
Vasilisa smiled. She had not been sure if Ivan would have recognized this fact. Before – before he had traveled, before he had met the soldier, before he had been a dragon – she was sure he would not have understood. Ivan was a prince and he was still certain that action required direct movement, but he now understood that others besides him had the answers upon occasion. To hear him talk, his friend the soldier had been one source of this newfound wisdom – as had the squirrel and their variety of companions that now accompanied them. He was not the boy she had fallen in love with, to be sure, nor was she the girl whom he had first loved. They were both older and wiser.
“He does not expect us, I do not believe,” she said. “Therefore he will not have a foolproof plan. He will attempt to stall us while he comes up with whatever he decides foolproof is.”
The company nodded their understanding. “Speed is of the essence,” grinned the runner, his white teeth flashing. “Then we cannot fail.”