Telling Tales 138
“What’s your name?” she asked after minutes of silence in which the traveler warmed himself by the fire. She had cleaned off the top of the table in that time and was moving on to the benches and chairs. She considered that to finish them properly she should oil their tops as well, especially given the use they would receive for a second night in a row. She eyed a groove running along the grain of one of the slats that made up the table, obvious now that its surface was at eye-level, her head bent to a chair. She knew every deformation and quirk of the table, and this one was new. One of the merchants had been peeling away at the fibers. Which one had been sitting here, she wondered. “I’m sorry?” she said, having heard the man’s voice but not his words, caught as she was in the spell of the table.
“I went by Bulat in my soldiering days,” he repeated. She looked her question at him and he shook his head. “No, not so much any more. Bulat was a particular person that I don’t feel I am any more. The man in the stories, he had more oomph than I do now. More curiosity. More stamina,” he laughed. “I could never walk that far now.”
She glanced up at him as she moved on to the next surface to be cleaned. There was a hitch in his voice that she didn’t recognize from the night before and the expression that he shed almost at once bore a great resemblance to the fright she thought she’d seen when she had woken him from the table. Apparently there were things besides walking and curiosity that separated the man from his younger self.
“May I know yours?”
He was polite, she had to give him that. It was easy to assume, the way the merchants clearly did, that he was beneath them. She didn’t believe, any more than the aggressive Dmitri, that the traveler – Bulat – had lived all the things that he said. That he was a soldier, yes. That there were a great many Tsars Pyotr and Tsarevitches Ivan, without a doubt. Dragons? Who had ever seen a dragon? And Koschey the Deathless was only a name from stories. She knew people that believed in him, but she found it hard to credit every bad thing to the man. When would he sleep? At the same time, she knew that no one ever believed her own story about the hungry forest. Even if she liked it that way, even if it was her defense against the nightmares, the story was true. Undoubtedly there were shreds of truth in his words. He wasn’t a beggar. He carried himself too well. “Irina.”
“That’s spruce?” he waved at the table.
That confirmed in her mind that he had some kind of trade. “Larch,” she allowed. “We might have been able to sell the tree, but we needed a table sooner than we could wait for money maybe to arrive.”
He nodded his agreement. “Do you know the story of the larch in Kareliya?”
She felt the tension in her shoulders ease. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to ask for him to talk after all.