Telling Tales 111
“When we were children, my brother and I used to work on our parents’ farm. We were neither poor nor rich, and we always had to work hard simply to stay abreast of our needs and of what we owed. On the days when our parents could spare us, we did not play with the neighbors or in the town. We sought out further work. We might sweep shops for merchants or haul grain or hang meat. Anything and everything. The people of the town knew us and knew our work and were happy to support our family by hiring us.
“On the day in question, we were both assisting a woodcutter who wanted extra hands so that he could return with an especially large load for his customers. He took us deeper into the forest than we had ever traveled and into those parts which our parents had forbidden us to venture. We weren’t rebellious and were not inclined to go in, but we were with an adult and we trusted his judgment and he was paying us and older. Who were we to stand in his way? What if, in saying no, we would lose future work from the people in the village?
“And so we went on. We did not need to discuss it between us. My older brother told me with a look that we would continue and tell our parents afterwards, and I responded in the same way that I would do as he said.
“The woodcutter was a marvelous storyteller and a bit of liar. As we walked deeper into the woods, he told us how he had saved a girl who had strayed from the path by cutting open the wolf that had devoured her with his axe. He bragged that he sewed rocks into the beast’s belly and left it to wake and die on its own. He even claimed that the girl’s grandmother was in the creature’s belly with her. We understood that for all his exaggeration, he simply wanted us to remain close to him and not to march off into the forest on our own. Not that he knew, but we were hardly likely to leave him or each other.
“He found and felled the dead and dying trees. We would shear their branches and together we brought our bundles back to the path, and onward in to the dark of the woods. After hours we came upon a cursing man, his right hand caught deep within the crevice of a tree. The woodcutter asked how he had become stuck, but the man only swore some more. With cunning and care, our employer used a wedge and his axe to sever the branch and freed the trapped man in short order.
“Imagine our surprise when the man said that the woodcutter’s repayment would be to choose his own manner of death. The brave man thought he was but joking, and joked back that he looked forward to a peaceful death in his sleep, whereupon he fell down asleep and died. The man then turned to us and assured my brother that he would never be able to keep his wits about him, and that he would lose everything else just as easily, too. He was about to threaten me when the howl of a wolf broke his thoughts.
“ ‘Remember me, boy,’ he said to me. ‘Remember Koschey the Deathless. I’ll be coming with your gift one day, too.’ ”