Telling Tales 167
The Devil’s in the Details
It looked to the two guards as though the entire village were standing in front of them. Between the howling wind, the ridiculous argument, and the relative lack of importance of their job, they had managed not to see the large collection of people in front of them. Bulat and his fellow exchanged a glance. There was no mystery as to who they were and for whom they worked. Most of the town, in fact, worked for Koschey in some capacity or another.
“Um. Yes?” asked Bulat finally.
The other guard considered Bulat’s words but found nothing in them with which he could argue.
The headwoman stepped forward. She was broader than either of the guards and many of the villagers suspected she was stronger than they were as well. She was in charge not because she wanted to be in charge but because she was better at it than anyone else. She had delivered or had a hand in delivering nearly every member of the village under a certain age. She could thresh a field as fast as the experienced hands. She was scrupulously fair and nearly everyone had felt the backside of her hand on their backsides at one time or another. To say that she was more respected than she was liked was true but misleading, for everyone held her in high regard. If the village had a mother, she was it.
“We need shelter,” she said without preamble. She gazed beyond them toward the mighty, swirling cloud and her eyes were as effective as any pointed finger could have been. “The village is already nearly destroyed. Most of us have lost our best cover and two houses have collapsed entirely.”
The guards stared at her.
“There’s not enough room for us all in one house.” At their continuing silence, she said, “Please. Let us stay in the storehouse.”
“There’s nothing in there,” said the second guard. It sounded like an automatic response, as though he didn’t think about the words at all.
The headwoman nodded. “All the better. We don’t want anything that’s not ours.”
The guard considered the phrasing. “Now, see, I take issue with that. You want shelter, you’d take shelter, you said so, and this shelter isn’t yours, so you’re contradicting yourself.” He nearly said “lying” but the darkening look on the headwoman’s face made him think better of it. Maybe she was the wrong person to argue with.
Bulat cleared his throat, seeing the signs on the woman’s face. “Not that I’m partial to my partner’s manner of description, but I’m afraid he more or less has the right of it. Our orders are fairly clear. Nothing goes in and out of the storehouse without Koschey’s say-so. You know how he is better than we do, I bet. You’ve worked for him for longer.” More than anything, Bulat wanted this quandary taken away from him. He hoped that the headwoman would recognize the dilemma.
She didn’t. “I have and he knows us. He knows me. I’ll take responsibility for anything, but I need to get our people to safety.”
“That’s not the way Koschey works,” grumbled the other guard.
“It’ll have to be,” said the headwoman. “For all I know, this storm is his doing in the first place. Look at the size of it. It’s going to destroy everything it crosses. We all know what’s going to survive. This storehouse. Now. Are you going to let us in?”