Telling Tales – Chapter 9
The Test of Chalm
They were, without a doubt, the most unpleasant group of people to arrive in Chalm in living memory. Grandmothers and grandfathers compared notes from where they sat in small bunches on benches and agreed that, on the whole, this was a nasty, nasty looking group, and agreement was not something that came easily to them. The two princes who looked nice and acted charming, if a bit dim, they didn’t help. “They’re part of the problem!” screeched one old man. “Look at’em, fine clothes and fine features and just when you think they’re going to turn out normal another one comes along and…” He trailed off as the next person crossed into his line of vision and the rest of the bench-sitters growled in disgusted consensus.
The third man – well, in all honesty (and the citizens of Chalm leapt to honesty, especially if it was an unpleasant truth that needed being honest about), in all honesty it could not even be said that it was a man or a woman or even a human. Another day and he’d been alone and they’d have strung him up and used his skin for fancy handbags for some lucky woman, who would not have shared her treasure with her neighbors, to be sure. This creature, whom everyone else in the ragtag bunch (except the two princes, who shied away from him) treated him with courtesy and grace. “Pshaw,” spat an old woman, “they act like he’s a comrade or a brother. It’s more than polite, what they’re doing. It’s more than the minimum. It’s disgusting. It’s beyond the laws of civility.”
The citizens of Chalm were very familiar with the laws of civility, given that they broke them on most days.
The figure stood the height of a man and wore heavy, flowing, silken robes that suggested wealth, but his skin was scaled in metal, a serpent sheathed in silver and steel. The scales were fine and small. His face was capable of delicate expression and his hands – he had hands! – were as nimble as theirs. His two feet, visible in the dirt under his robes, were equally scaled. He seemed to have all of the parts of a man, but little of the appearance.
Then there was the dark man, and everyone disagreed about his color. “Black as night!” one said, but another pointed out that he wasn’t black, merely a very dark brown and the first should get his eyes checked and what do you suppose happened to make the man that color. He was tall, the tallest of the group, and lean, and he carried in one hand a tall stick. He wore a kind of tunic – “It’s a toga! I’ve seen pictures!” – “No, it’s not, you’re daft!” – around his chest and waist. Unfamiliar, but not terrifying.
Not like the pile of skins that shambled about with barely a resemblance to humanity at all. Everyone steered clear of that. They might have tried to lynch the group on account of that monster alone, but it was protected by a circle of charmed soldiers whom it had enchanted to look like a forest, at least, so the people of Chalm said.
Their leader looked a decent enough sort, strapping and weather-worn, but obviously a fool to surround himself with such creatures.
The citizens of Chalm were not happy with their arrival, but then, the citizens of Chalm were never happy. It was their lot. And they were hungry to a one, living on rationed food for weeks already. “What fresh hell is this?” they asked.
It was the smells that drew the citizens of Chalm out of their sullen positions on the outskirts of the town square. The mayor of the town had forbidden anyone to talk to the foreigners. Then again, the people of Chalm barely managed to deal with one another, much less anyone from the outside world. Their second inclination would have been to drive them off and into the countryside, but the foreigners were obviously martially skilled.
The honor guard of seventeen enchanted warriors that accompanied the pile of dead skins. The weapons that lay in the hands of the dark man, the brown northerner, and strangest of the three, the small blond girl with a javelin. She carried herself as surely as any soldier in the service of the tsar the townspeople had ever seen, and her jokes… Her jokes… The least offensive one was overheard by the local priest, who repeated it in shock to every other person he encountered. “Can you believe it? Such a small child, and she asks, she says to the two warriors,” since none of the people could bring themselves to call her a warrior, “what do you call a crow with four eyes? And they don’t know the answer and she says, Happy! He’s having a feast! Do you understand? The crow has two eyes and it is eating the other eyes! Horrible!” Being the kind of people that they were, however, everyone laughed because it made the priest more uncomfortable. If they’d heard the girl tell the joke herself, they would have been properly shocked.
The serpent-man was obviously a fairy of some sort, because who didn’t know the story about the girl who’d married a snake and had a boy and a girl, only to turn herself and her children into birds after her mother murdered her husband. Everyone knew that story. Dealing with the fae was never advisable if at all possible, and where there was one there must be others, which explained the walking dead skins and the enchanted guards. They even had an old servant, who bowed and nodded a great deal and often said, “Indeed, monsieur,” to the rough looking young man who seemed to lead the band.
It was that old man who procured the three massive cauldrons from reluctant merchants, and the young man himself who placed them in the center of the square, lifting each as if it were nothing. A hot, dry wind blew in from nowhere. “Magic!” everyone swore to one another. Then the leather-clad northerner raised his bow high in the air and shot at nothing. Once, twice, ten times. He would pause after each shot and the dark man would disappear in a flurry of legs. No one had ever seen anyone that fast, and he didn’t even wear seven-league boots. In a trice he was back with a deer, a boar, a bear. Ten times, twenty times the hunter shot his arrow, and twenty times the runner vanished, only to return moments later with fresh game on his back.
The enchanted soldiers – where had the rest come from, there were so many now, nearly three hundred of them – sat carving and carving, positioned around the town as the young leader and a young woman his equal – as fierce as he – made three cauldrons worth of stew.
Fresh meat. Vegetables – carrots and onions and potatoes and leeks, all bubbling away under a wind-fueled fire.
It was a fae trap. Of course it was. But hunger is strong and patient, and with time it will win out over caution, as every hunter knows.
“Pungent” was the word that best described the smell that laid on top of all of the others. “Sharp.” It was a small none in Chalm knew, suggesting… not a tang, said one man, no, said another, a bite. “But not badly so. Welcoming? Rich. Definitely rich.” “Sweet,” someone else said, and a child said that it made her think of a fire in a hearth. The dark man had run away at the suggestion of the fae snake and the direction of the old man, the servant, who’d pointed in a specific direction, and as fast as the dark man ran, he was still gone for a very long time.
“I believe it’s ready,” said the fae group’s leader.
“Indeed, monsieur,” said the old servant, and raised a spoonful for the young man to taste.
“It’s different,” said the young man. “But good. What’s it called again?”
“Cinnamon,” said the fae snake. Everyone in Chalm thought he ought to hiss his s-sounds, but he never did. He couldn’t even be a proper monster, they complained.
The group huddled around the giant cauldrons, even the indisputably Russian princes, who were, by grace of the fact that they were identifiably Russian and identifiably princes, the most trustworthy of the entire hideous lot. What followed were sounds of surprise and delight as they stirred the cauldrons with long spoons and dined on the food.
“You there!” demanded the mayor finally at the prodding of his brother, who was larger and correspondingly hungrier than most.
“Did someone say something?” asked the young man of his crew.
“Indeed, monsieur,” said the old servant.
SLURP went the company. “Well done, Kou Ke,” someone said. “That spice really hits the spot.”
“You there!” The mayor edged closer. The aroma of the food wiggled around his nose and nestled firmly into his mustache. He almost fainted with delight and despair. “What do you think you’re doing in our town?”
“Making soup,” answered the young man. “You’re welcome to have some.”
The mayor said something else, but what it was no one ever heard because the entire town, as though waiting for those words, pressed out of their houses and into the square, just over two hundred of them. Wives and husbands, children, grandparents, those single by choice or by accident, everyone stepped farther in. Finally the mayor was able to make his voice heard.
“You’re not natural, you aren’t,” he began and pointed a wavering finger at the fae snake. “You’re here to trap us, lure us into your realm.”
“My realm is my father’s realm,” said Ivan, “Tsar Pyotr beyond the mountains.”
“My father is Tsar Pyotr beyond the giant,” said Vasilisa. Arkady and Aleksey made note of their fathers, Tsars Pyotr both, and their respective lands.
The stomachs of the town of Chalm grumbled in unison. “Those are some pedigrees,” muttered one voice. “Good enough for me,” said another. The mayor wanted to know about the rest of the company, but the townspeople were having none of it. Four members of royalty and six whatever-they-weres?
“There’s enough for everyone,” said the one called Ivan, the young leader of the group. “But we have two conditions.”
“I knew it!” swore the mayor.
“Everyone must be here. You all share, or none of you share. Second, you must use the spoons we provide.”
“Fine,” said the mayor’s brother as he pushed past. He grabbed a spoon from one of the enchanted guards, a stout wooden thing nearly three feet long, and lunged forward, and at his motion the rest of the people surged forward as well in a single-minded mob.
There might have been a riot. There might have been violence. The people weren’t so hungry that they would fight without reason, but they were so hungry that they were angry, and people who are angry are easily provoked. It might have been horrible, but it wasn’t, because two hundred eighty-nine enchanted soldiers, each wearing armor made of tree bark and helmets that looked like shrubs, they all stepped forward. Even though each of them had only one arm apiece (and one or two of the warier townspeople at the back noted that their spoons looked like the same kind of wood as the armor), in their one hand they held a spear whose tip glinted in the sunlight, and although the people had kept a careful eye upon the foreigners and knew that no violence had occurred, it surely looked as though the spear tips were already dipped in blood.
When the townspeople surged forward, the soldiers stood up. The mayor’s brother tried to push past them. He was a big man, the tallest in the village, the strongest, and all he saw was the food, but he might as well have pushed a tree rooted to the ground. He brought his eyes back to earth. A single soldier stood before him, implacable. Not even five, or three, or two. A single one, smaller than the mayor’s brother. He couldn’t be as strong. The mayor’s brother reached his arm back to strike the soldier in his face with the spoon. Before he could swing, in the depth of the soldier’s helmet, he saw the man’s eyes. They were bright orange around a black pupil, at least that’s what the mayor’s brother said later, and while one eye trained on him, the other looked away, looked behind him, he could see it moving, and then came back to focus with the first.
The mayor’s brother stopped. He took one step back. The surging crowd pressed against him and he pressed back and then they stopped as well.
“Thank you,” said the young man called Ivan to someone, but it could have been any one of his horrible company. The insane little girl, naturally, giggled. The two princes Arkady and Aleksey, at the princess Vasilisa’s direction, heaved up on one full cauldron and brought it farther out so that more people could reach it. While the two of them staggered and struggled with the weight, the young man Ivan alone and with seeming ease lifted the other two and moved them likewise.
“There were two conditions,” he announced. “You’ve got our spoons and we’ll be making more soup, so don’t fear that we’re going to run out. The second condition is that the whole town must eat together. Is there anyone missing?”
There were dark mutterings, of course there were. “They’re going to kill us all once they’ve got us. One person should stay back.” But no one could answer what that one person should do and no one was willing to be the person who didn’t get any food. Finally, an old grandmother demanded, “If they’re going to kill us, they’re going to kill us. They’ve got the soldiers and they’ve got the magic and if I’m going to die, I’m going to die on a full stomach.” At that she proceeded to count her family, and soon enough so did everyone else. “We’re all here,” she shouted over the mayor, who was demanding that people pay attention to him.
“Bon appetit,” invited the old servant, and the citizens of Chalm dashed forward and plunged their spoons into the soup, ignoring everything the mayor tried to say.
Which was when they discovered the trick.
“They’re too long!” bellowed the mayor’s brother.
“See?” shouted the mayor.
“What are?” asked the princess Vasilisa in all innocence.
“The spoons!” shouted someone else. “The spoons are too long!” It was precisely true. At three feet long they were more suited to being walking sticks or canes. “How are we supposed to eat with these?”
“But you agreed,” said the young man Ivan in a reasonable voice.
The crowd roared its objections and the mayor’s brother made to throw down his spoon and that’s when the citizens of Chalm discovered the second trick. They couldn’t let go.
In all fairness, someone would point out much, much later to general disputation and disagreement, the young man Ivan had seemed as surprised as any of them. Their spoons seemed to have grown around the hand that grasped them. “You did agree,” said the princess Vasilisa, one eyebrow arched in a way that made the mayor’s brother feel excited and nervous, but mostly nervous, “absolutely.”
Amongst the further dark rumblings of magic and traps, it was the old grandmother who said the obvious. “Of course it’s magic! Who didn’t think it was magic? Why is everybody acting so surprised now?” And with that she pushed her way forward and dipped her spoon in. The bowl of the spoon was deep and wide but it narrowed at the end. Perfect for eating stew. Bits of tender meat and potatoes and carrots floated in the brown broth on top of the bowl. A collective sigh hesitated its way out of the crowd’s mouths. The old woman stared at the spoon, sticking out so far from her hand that she had no way of turning it to herself. At her feet, her two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, stared at her, then at the cauldron, both waiting their turn and anxious to know what to do. With a growl of frustration, she said, “Hold still!” and leveled the spoon in front of the younger child. “Share it with your sister, now.” The boy resisted at first. He was old enough to feed himself and it was only babies who had people feed them, but the spoon in his own hand was taller than he was. So he ate. As did his sister. Their sounds of satisfaction were enough for everyone else.
The bowls of the spoons were deep enough that they could nearly hold a meal apiece. Soon the people of Chalm were standing around in twos and threes, feeding one another. It wasn’t easy, and, predisposed to anger as they were, it made many people angry. The soup was heavy, so often the person eating had hold on to the stem of the spoon. Although that took the weight, it had the effect of yanking around the person holding the spoon. Food spilled on to aprons and shirts. Vegetables and gravy smeared across cheeks, noses, and necks.
It was the children who turned it into a game. They painted the smears in decorative lines and stuck bits of carrots in their gums, chasing one another and squealing in mock fear from the carrot-toothed vampires. Nor did the food run out. Everyone ate and ate and by the time the second cauldron was empty, a fourth was nearly ready. Then a fifth. It is hard to stay angry on a full stomach after a good meal.
“Well?” asked either Arkady or Aleksey to no one in particular. “Did we do it?”
All around them, the people of Chalm fed one another with the magical spoons and laughed in ways so long forgotten it was like a new thing.
“No, monsieur” said the old servant. “I do not believe we have.” The old man went on, “It is one thing to enjoy oneself. It is another to partake of kindness.”
“What do you mean?” asked the brother and sister. They were grubby, faces covered with gravy, and the boy might have had an onion behind his ear. They were the first of the town to have eaten, the grandchildren of the old woman, and now they were chasing each other through the crowd in a wild game of tag. They stopped at the words.
The wild blond girl with the javelin asked, “How do you tag each other?”
“Like this!” they yelled together, and bashed one another as hard as they could with their spoons.
“Are you enemies?”
“He’s my brother,” said the sister, as if that meant ‘yes.’
“That’s how I treat my enemies,” went on the wild girl. “Family is family and friend is friend. You shouldn’t mistake them for the enemy,” and with that she stabbed the earth with her javelin. The sister jumped as though she’d been hit in the arm and her brother took a half step forward. “That’s it,” she said, “you stand up for each other.” She clipped the ground again and smiled as the brother winced in the same way. Then she leaned down and whispered to the two, “That’s how sharp my spear is, it can pin your shadows to the ground.” She giggled as the two children ran off.
“Is that wise, mademoiselle? We should not like them to think that we are their enemies, after all.” To all present, it was clear that the old man desperately wanted to comb the young woman’s hair and put it in some kind of proper braid.
“You teach kindness your way, I’ll teach it in mind. Did I ever tell you how my godmother Aife trained me to gut a soldier on the field of battle?”
“Indeed, I am afraid you did, and more than once,” said the man with the air of one who was going to hear the story once more, regardless of how he had just answered.
“See here, now, you, you say you’re tsarevitch Ivan, see here,” said the mayor. “Enough joking about, take these spoons off of our wrists.”
The young man Ivan looked at the princess Vasilia before turning to the mayor. “Are you done eating?”
“If you’re done – truly done – we’ll take back our utensils. But no spoon, no stew.”
The mayor conferred with his brother. “Fine. Remove it.” The tsarevna Vasilisa removed the spoon as easy as you please and handed it to one of the guards, who attached it to his armless shoulder. Slowly, watching the company, the brother dipped his own spoon in the stew and held it out to the mayor, who ate. No one stopped him.
“How you choose to use your spoons is up to you,” said Ivan.
“Here, what are you doing?” someone else bellowed. The mayor’s smug look vanished as he saw the brother and the sister feeding a beggar from the edge of town.
“He doesn’t live here!” said the mayor. “He’s not part of the deal. He shouldn’t get to eat! He doesn’t have a spoon.”
“Neither do you, and he’s not an enemy,” said the sister as she balanced her spoon with her brother’s help.
“How you choose to use your spoon is up to you,” laughed Ivan.
The mayor sputtered but most everyone was in too good a mood to stand in the way. “Our good fortune doesn’t have to be his bad,” pointed out someone else. For the people around the man who said it, it seemed like the most surprising thought in the world, something they had never even considered before.
The old servant looked around. “Now I believe we have succeeded.”