Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 169

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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The villagers saw the body language of the two guards and watched as their conversation drew to its inevitable conclusion. The headwoman had prepared them for the possibility that they would be denied entrance. “We don’t have another chance. The church is the next biggest building, but it’s too old. It will never survive this storm if the rains do even a quarter of the damage that the winds have already done.” So it was that they stood and stared and watched their hopes fade as the men argued in the safety and shelter of the framed doorway.

“We could charge them,” one of the braver and dimmer lads and the back suggested.

“And have Koschey come after all of us for having challenged his men?” demanded another.

The two guards stepped out, the winner in the fore. He raised his hands, hoping to get them to understand his own impossible position. “Good people,” he said. He paused. A dreamy, puzzled look passed over his face and he tucked his head to one side. Then he crumpled to the ground. The noise of the storm was such that his armor made barely a discernable noise.

It was not often that the headwoman was surprised. “Surprise,” in fact, was perhaps the mildest expression of her feeling. The first guard, Bulat, was in the process of tucking away a thick, and clearly heavy, leather-wrapped small club. “I didn’t kill him,” exclaimed the man. “Don’t go getting any ideas, though. Very easy to kill a man with one of these, even accidentally.” The blackjack disappeared into his clothing.

“What are you doing?” asked the headwoman.

Bulat grabbed his comrade from under his arms. “Help me out, now, take his feet. There.” Together they hefted him up. “We’re going in for shelter. Problem is, he was absolutely correct. We’re guarding the storehouse entrance, not what’s inside. Koschey will be coming for me, sure. Wasn’t fair to ask him to be a part of a bad decision. Thing is, you’re absolutely right, too. Not going to be much left of the village after this storm hits. Didn’t want that on my conscience.”

At Bulat’s instruction, the headwoman called the villagers in after them. The storehouse was wide and empty without even a loose grain to indicate that it had held wheat, or rust to show that there had been metal, or dust from coal. It was spotless.

It was also sturdy. The wind shrieked like a living thing but the building itself gave out not so much as a creak. The rain on the roof was beyond a steady patter. Troops of soldiers might as well have been marching overhead, it was so loud. The storm continued on through the night and into the next day and the next night and when the second soldier woke up, hands and feet tied, he asked for some water and thanked Bulat for his consideration. Indeed, for being a nominal prisoner, he was downright cheery. “Took it all on himself, Bulat did,” he said, and then told children scary stories that he’d heard as a boy.

On the second morning, the wind died first and the rain second.

“I’ll go take a look,” said Bulat. “Wait for my signal.” He stepped outside.

There was no signal. At length and after great discussion, the headwoman left her fellows to untie the guard and she walked out on her own. The village was rubble. Not a house remained standing. The fields had been flattened. From horizon to horizon, empty space.

There was no sign at all of Bulat the soldier.

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