Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 173



The Master of the Taiga

Snow Crane led the way, hopping and gliding between the trees. Given his wingspan, they must have chosen their location with some care, decided Bulat, otherwise there was no way that the bird could have fled with any speed. And he was clearly a bird that liked to flee with speed. The Stonechats, on the other hand, remained as chatty as they had ever been. If they were more nervous, it was difficult to tell, because they spoke with equal speed. Maybe it’s their size, he thought.

The rumble that was apparently the Master of the Taiga might have been thunder. It was deep and it penetrated the earth, down to the roots of the larch trunks so that their branches shook and their looser needles rained down over Bulat and the two birds, feather-soft, thin and green snowflakes. What separated the noise from the elements, however, was the outraged and furious panting that accompanied it. It huffed and it puffed so that it seemed there must be two voices raised in violent chorus, not one. Sharp lightning cracks accompanied his thunder.

“All that,” asked the soldier, and with somewhat less confidence, “all that is the Master of the Taiga.”

“To be sure,” said Mr. Stonechat.

Mrs. Stonechat appealed for calm. “He’s not as big as he sounds.”

“But he’s twice as fierce and ten times as strong,” noted her husband.

“He won’t kill me right off, will he?” asked Bulat. He wasn’t sure exactly how he was going to get out of this particular situation, but he hoped that he would at least have the opportunity to try something. He didn’t care for the thought of dying.

Mr. Stonechat opened his beak to say, “Oh, absolutely not.” Then he thought better of it and didn’t say anything at all.

“It’s lovely weather for the time of year, don’t you think?” asked Mrs. Stonechat.

Mr. Crane’s babbling faded under the Master’s fury.

In a clearing of trees that was only growing larger spun an enormous wolverine. He reached frantically toward one back paw, unable to reach it to his satisfaction. As he turned and struggled on his back, he would slam into a tree, snapping it with concussive force. The Master of the Taiga was the size of a full grown black bear, dark from his legs down, with a white band that separated the dark fur there from the brown fur on his back. His face was black as pitch, even his eyes and nose, save for his very, very white teeth that bit at his paw.

“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. Stonechat.

“Oh, dear, oh, dear,” echoed her husband.

For a creature who was normally capable of taking on a bear that was, in this instance, the size of a bear… well, to say that Bulat was at a loss for words would only be partially true. He had considered all manner of possibilities for what the Master of the Taiga might be, but when it came down to it, he had always assumed that the Master was a man. Men could be reasoned with, or tricked, or… something. Beasts, on the other hand, were a whole different kettle of fish. Yes, they could be tricked, too, but it was often more difficult to know where their inclinations lie.

His hide is impenetrable to weapons and it must be his claws that cut through armor, the soldier thought, not to mention ten times as fierce as he is big.

The Master paused in his rage as he saw the Stonechats and the soldier. “You,” he growled.

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