Telling Tales 170
It’s a Bad World. It Makes You Wonder.
“That’s it?” asked a merchant. “He stepped outside and he was gone?”
Yevgeny nodded. “Not just him, the whole town. Everything. The storm took the first and Koschey took the soldier. He couldn’t have run off. First of all, why would he? Second, the headwoman could see in every direction. There wasn’t any place for him to hide that she wouldn’t have seen. What could have happened besides Koschey?”
“So what happened to him?”
“The stocks, I suppose.”
“Straightaway? He saves a village and gets punished right off?”
“It happens. That’s a thing that happens when you disobey orders,” Yevgeny insisted. “Got nothing to do with the good you did and everything to do with the rules you broke.”
“That’s stupid. It’s dumb.”
“No disagreement there,” said Yevgeny.
The story had dissatisfied the other men. It was rank injustice, but the fact that Yevgeny agreed with them on that score – well, it made accepting the story easier and it made the fact of the story worse, somehow. They fell into silence for a moment, as they variously considered the good deeds for which they’d been punished in the past. “I don’t need to be praised for every good thing I’ve done,” said Sergei, “but it chafes my behind when get it for something I haven’t. Worst is this, when you’re punished for good. Makes you wonder what all the fuss is for and why you even bother. Why not cheat and see what you can get away with, if that’s the way the world’s going to be?” The others muttered in reluctant agreement. The world was not a fair place. All in all, the stories in which cleverness succeeded were their favorites. After that was when righteousness succeeded. Then strength. Then weakness. Even weakness succeeding was better than goodness being punished. Why go to the effort of being good, which so often seemed to come at one’s own expense, when you’re going to pay for it later?
The other merchant raised his voice beyond the rest. “You know, I think there might be something that happened in the middle there, between the storehouse and the stocks. I heard a story once about a soldier, don’t know if his name was Bulat or not, and he didn’t quite get the better of Koschey, but I’ll tell you this, he had a job to finish that should’ve been the end of him. And it wasn’t. The way I heard it, there was a lion that Koschey wanted gone and he set this soldier to the task.”
* * *
“You’ve had your chance,” old Koschey said to the soldier, “you’ve done your damage, and I’ll give you but one chance more. Don’t think it will be easy. I expect to find your corpse at the end of this task.”
The soldier decided not to ask why Koschey didn’t kill him outright. “Probably something to do with hope and opportunity,” he figured.
“And don’t try getting out of it, either. I’ll make it worse for you if you do,” Koschey warned.
The soldier believed him. Unfortunately for him, he was not the bravest, the strongest, nor smartest of his company. “But that’s how it is,” he told himself. “Late to march once too often, unpolished armor once too often. It was bound to catch up with me, I suppose.” Not that he looked forward to dying, but he was tired. He was always tired, and being yelled at helped neither matters nor his mood.
Koschey looked down on the poor man. “You are going to find and kill the Master of the Taiga.”