Telling Tales 118
Another Day, Another Quest
The soldier sat, dumbstruck, unable to imagine that he was not breathing. He felt like he was breathing. “You are breathing,” said Natanh with a sad smile. “You could not live otherwise. Nevertheless, it is on borrowed time.”
“How much time, exactly?” asked the soldier.
Nuviya explained, “We have each contributed what we may through our own efforts and through those of our friends. You have perhaps three weeks to recover your own breath.”
He sat in silence for a moment, then told himself, “There’s nothing for it. I’ve walked more than halfway across this world, I’ll just have to keep on.” To the three queens he said, “What do I have to do? Where do I have to go?”
They shook their heads and Ahtna answered, “We don’t know.”
The soldier blinked. That was not the answer he was expecting. That was not how quests worked in his experience, either what he had done or what he had heard about. Even with Koschey the Deathless, he knew to go to the thrice tenth kingdom (or at least to get far enough away from Tsar Pyotr so that it wouldn’t make a difference). In this strange land, however, there weren’t even proper kingdoms to work with.
Ahtna continued, “We have prevailed upon a friend to aid you, however. He is a marvelous tracker and if anyone can help you, it is he.”
So it was that the three women introduced the soldier, still frail and weak, to a tall man, taller than Ivan and broad of shoulder, dressed head to toe in red-dyed leather. He looked at the soldier with sad eyes and then from him to the three women. “You may call him Cardinal,” said Nuviya.
Cardinal shrugged an acknowledgement, gestured with his chin in a certain direction, and began to walk away.
“Does he talk?” asked the soldier.
“He is in mourning,” explained Natanh. “The love of his life has been stolen away from him.”
The soldier considered. “Maybe I could help him after I’ve got my breath back and am recovered. That seems to be a speciality of mine.”
They smiled. “If you think it will help, you are of course welcome to offer your assistance. But first things first.”
He limped after them to where Cardinal waited at the edge of threshold of the long wooden house. Ahtna stepped outside into the glowing light of the setting sun. Her dress shivered and shook and from the hem crawled out a large cat, shaking its paws one at a time, doing its best to rid the wet from between it pads. It gave a head-splitting yawn and eyed the soldier with a curiosity that bordered on hunger. It wasn’t much larger than the cats the soldier used to see prowling around his family’s small barn, but its tail was more like a lynx’s, short and round, and its ears were more tufted, its face rounder. As if to emphasize the differences the soldier was considering, the cat sat down and began to clean one paw. Its extended claws were much more impressive than the mouse-hunters with which the soldier was familiar. “Um. Lynx?” he asked.
Cardinal shook his head, knelt down, and threw one arm around the cat’s shoulder so that he could whisper into its ear. The soldier turned to ask what was happening, but Natanh merely said, “We hope we will see you in less than three weeks time. Trust Cardinal. Good luck.”
When the soldier turned back, the cat was already walking away, followed by the silent man. “Here we go again.”