Telling Tales – Chapter 13
The End of the Evening is Dawn
“That doesn’t make any sense,” asserted Dmitri. His eyes were red, less from drink and more from lack of sleep. Between his reluctance to part with the crate of vodka that was his lost bet, the careful pours of the bartender, and the result of talking deep into the night, he was hardly the only person in the inn’s room to show signs of deep weariness. Even the innkeeper and bartender were tired, though they were much more accustomed to working through their fatigue than were the merchants, who already pushed themselves to get through the snowstorm.
The traveler gave an immense yawn. “Which part makes no sense? The things that happened or how I related them?”
Dmitri pounded one hand against the bar, but his effort was weakened by his fatigue. “The tsar! The tsar’s punishment!”
“I probably wasn’t clear enough. Vasilisa’s enchantment bound him to the castle in such a way that he cannot leave and he can neither see nor interact with anyone else. And before you ask, I do not know what the nature of the loophole was. If Ivan knew, he never told me, and while Vasilisa surely was aware, for I assume she laid its conditions herself, she did not say either. In other words, the tsar was doomed for all time to search the castle for his means of escape. To my knowledge, he is bound there still.”
The jovial Yevgeny leaned forward. “And what about the Sunset King? What was his punishment? To listen to the tsarevna’s story for all time?” The old man nodded his agreement. Yevgeny’s laughter no longer held its booming quality. His body contained his mirth, and his body was in dear need of sleep and rest. “It was painful enough to hear that story once! There is a sorcerer who will more fully consider his actions in the future.”
“What about the rest of the princes and princesses, the sons and daughters of the Sunset King and Tsar Pyotr?” asked Sergei.
The bartender likewise leaned forward. “And you’ve barely told us all that happened in the Sunset Kingdom. How did Vasilisa, Ivan, and the wolf get away?”
The man shifted where he sat at the table and shook his coat out from around him. His plates, empty not only of the food he’d eaten, but of crumbs and butter and gravy as well, sat in the middle of the table. “Nor did I tell you about the swamps before Yumni’s castle. That is the nature of stories and storytelling. Some parts jump out and some parts hide. However, they are all waiting to be told and to be heard.
“Arkady and Aleksey,” he went on, “they had their own adventures and lives and simply because they were minor characters in the story of Tsarevitch Ivan does not mean that they are not the heroes of their own tales. Likewise Ivan’s company went on to have further adventures, the first of which was to face the monstrous giant that was causing the countryside such grief.”
“Finish their story, old man,” commanded Dmitri. “Go on. Let’s see if your tongue can keep pace with your imagination.”
“You still doubt my truths?” asked the storyteller with a smile. “I am fortunate that all I have to do is remember and not to invent. Very well. This is what happened next.”
* * *
Entendtout frowned. It was not often and never comforting when he discovered that there were things on the earth that he could not hear. Inevitably, it meant some kind of magic, a fact that inevitably disconcerted him. Not that any of his compatriots were aware of his discomfiture. Nevertheless, he preferred a greater measure of anticipation. “Ah,” he exclaimed at long last. “There he is.”
Even by the standards of the hunters, attuned to the nature of sounds and quarry as they were, Entendtout’s exclamation sounded no more than a statement of fact. None of them, not Haraka, not Scrobarnach Armtha, not Ipiktokiyakovik, discerned anything out of the ordinary in his statement. Two people did hear the notes in his voice, Juleidah and Kou Ke, more aware of emotional nuances than the others, but they shared neither with anyone else nor with each other.
Scrobarnach Armtha’s shrub sat between her and the other hunters’ backs where they rested against it like a pillow. She stretched her arms and let the branches and leaves behind her pick at her courtly hair, shredding its formal beauty and returning it step by step to her more comfortable wildness. She knew that everyone thought she was younger than she really was and it pleased her to let them think so. “Should be here soon, then, do you think?”
The man who was trained to be a servant and yet served no one any longer nodded his gray head. “Indeed, mademoiselle. From the sound of the wolf’s pace, I would gauge their return within the hour.”
“Are they running or fleeing?” asked Haraka. He scratched his back against the bush behind him.
“I see your point, monsieur,” said Entendtout and considered. “Running. She moves with speed but not haste. It would seem that tsarevna Vasilisa’s plan has been a success.”
The pile of dead skins, her fine silks abandoned but saved for some distant future, gave out a soft sigh. “I shall miss her company,” said Juleidah. “She was wise, and stronger than she knew.”
“I rather think she has discovered exactly how strong she may be,” murmured Kou Ke.
It was few hours later that the wolf arrived, barely winded, with Ivan on her back. The group exchanged delighted hugs and congratulations in their joy at being reunited. The beggar Alexander and the two princes stood distant from the greetings, although Aleksey and Arkady greeted Ivan separately later on. “No, I didn’t see her at the end, not since we left the Sunset Kingdom together.”
“The princess asked that we not follow, so we did not follow,” the wolf added to Ivan’s words, her voice a pleasant grumble of sound.
“Is it safe for us to return to Yekaterina?” asked one prince.
“To Lilya?” asked the other.
Ivan asserted it was. “The tsarina was as much under Pyotr’s enchantment as was the rest of the castle and the kingdom.” Before he could elaborate, the two princes were already on their steeds, shouting thanks and congratulations and best wishes to the whole company before they disappeared in a flurry of dust and horse hooves. “I would like to have told them that the princesses might not be the way they remember,” he finished.
Juleidah laughed. “That was the first time they have spoken directly to the rest of us. They must be happy.”
“Not you, monsieur?” Entendtout asked of the beggar, who sat morosely by. “You are not happy with the passing of the sorcerer tsar Pyotr?”
“I will not be happy until the passing of the heartless Koschey the Deathless.”
Which got everyone’s attention.
“When we were children,” the beggar began, “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.’ ”
No one had the slightest idea what to make of the story. It was the most that Alexander had ever spoken in their presence, and while he always gave the impression of being a rather sad young man, his voice and body were transformed with hatred and rage. No one had any idea save, perhaps, the wolf. “I, too, have been wronged by that Koschey,” she said.
“Who is Koschey the Deathless?” asked Kou Ke, for the man was unknown in the lands from which he came. Juleidah and Scrobarnach Armtha were also ignorant of his details, so Ivan explained all he knew of the evil sorcerer. He concluded with their mistake in thinking that he had kidnapped Vasilisa but that he had in fact been a teacher of the Sunset King.
The wolf pushed her great body forward and reminded everyone that Alexander’s story, while completed, had not exactly resolved. “How does this relate to where we are now?” she asked.
Alexander pointed up and beyond the trees that sheltered them now. “The giant. He is my brother.”
Ivan gaped. “He returned to transform your brother into that monster?”
“It is the result of the curse. My brother first lots his wits, but we eventually found them again. He has lost his fear, his nerve, and other things, but always we recovered them. This time he lost more than he ever has before. His feeling, his will, his reason, sight, temper, and sense of proportion. Each loss has changed him, until he has become what you see now. I stay nearby, begging for scraps of food, hoping that I may somehow learn to save him.”
“You are fortunate indeed,” said the wolf, “for it is precisely this group of people around you who can come to your assistance.”
The beggar shook his head. “No one can help me without the things that my brother has lost. No matter that you are skilled fighters and canny wizards…”
“That was just Vasilisa, actually,” coughed Ivan.
“Indeed?” asked the wolf. “What of the hunter’s pillow?”
At first it seemed that no one knew of what she spoke, but in short order Ipiktokiyakovik said, “Ivan told you about it.”
Except that Ivan was just as confused at first. “Oh, I see! The thing that you showed to me and Vasilisa when you joined us back on the beach! And no, I never said a word to her about it.”
Ipiktokiyakovik produced the small, cloudy white pillow the size of his palm and Alexander gasped. “That is my brother’s feeling!” Scrobarnach Armtha produced her piece of bloody metal, which was the giant’s lost will. Entendtout’s puzzle box was his reason. Juleidah’s matching sapphires were his sight. The spiked red flower that Haraka kept was his temper. “We are still missing his sense of proportion. Missing one, we might as well be missing all.”
The wolf shook her massive head. “We are not missing it. It is in the possession of Kou Ke.”
The fae serpent gasped his disbelief. “I have no objects like the ones our friends have produced.”
The wolf agreed. “You have not objects, but that does not mean you do not contain it within you. It is part of your curse. The problem for you will be that in removing it, we will likely cause your death.”
“My brother…” said Alexander.
“My life…” said Kou Ke.
* * *
“I know this story!” interrupted Sergei. “It’s those same boys! Nikolai and Sasha? I never heard their names, but it makes sense, doesn’t it, losing things the way he did? And cursed by Koschey? Well, that explains it all! It explains just about everything! How about I take over from here?” Sergei’s eyes were small and bright, showing a more generous mix of spirit and sleep than did Yevgeny’s, for example. Dmitri, for his part, snored gently into his arms where they cradled his head on the bar.
Yevgeny roused himself from his dropping head. “Why should you take over here? What’s gotten into you? Why can’t you simply let the story go on? The man,” and Yevgeny waved in the general direction of where he last remembered the old traveler to be, “obviously knows his business. Let him talk.”
The bartender looked at her husband and he gave her a small gesture, with which she evidently agreed.
“Let him talk?” said Sergei with great enthusiasm. “He’s dragging! The man needs a break!”
“We all need a break. Perhaps it’s time for us all to go to bed,” countered his friend.
“And leave these bottles open and unfinished?” scoffed Sergei. Just then, the bartender slid a low, wide glass into his hand. He nodded his thanks and swallowed the contents in one quick gulp. “Are you not a Russian?”
Yevgeny took no insult at the slurred slight. “My nationality does not depend on my stamina. I am Russian by my mother and my father, which is the same reason I am more clever and patient than you, my friend.”
“I’ve made more money than you in a go, you know.”
“And you’ve lost more as well, and that more often than not. If you took more care and more time – ”
“Time!” yelled Sergei, and Dmitri stirred but slept on. “We’re running out of time! It’s nearly dawn!”
“And what happens at dawn?”
“We go our separate ways! What happens to the stories then, eh? Can’t answer that, can you? This is a fellowship! This is an opportunity? You would that we defer our dreams? That we leave stories untold? What is our duty? Bah! Coward. Bartender!” He waved his empty glass at her.
“I’ll make you a bet,” the bartender said. The two merchants tried to raise their eyebrows in the manner of the described tsarevna Vasilisa. They were not very successful. “Lay your heads down on the bar for one full minute, no talking, eyes shut, and the next round for you two is on the house.”
The merchants laughed joyously at the unexpected largesse and lay their heads down. Within twenty-five seconds, they were both snoring and much less quietly than Dmitri. The innkeeper caught his wife’s attention and pointed at the table where the old traveler also slept, his head rolling back against his high-backed chair.
Together, the couple went to the back door in the kitchen and looked out on to the dawn’s light. “Today will be a hard day with no sleep,” he said.
“Better a hard day than a poor one,” she said.
“So long as there is time to ourselves,” he added, and they leaned into one another, shoulder to shoulder, hands on each other’s backs, looking into the gray-white of the morning snow storm.
“Not that there will be today,” she laughed. “We should rest while we can.”
“You first,” he insisted. She did not fight as he lay her down. His hands ran across her back, across the old scars that made her flesh feel like bark. “Sleep well,” he said.