Telling Tales 176
“You failed in the task that I set to you and yet you still return.”
Bulat wasn’t sure how not having killed the Master of the Taiga yet qualified as failure when he still had opportunity before him. Not that there was any real chance of success, but Koschey did seem to be shutting the door rather early on any future possibility. Besides which, Bulat thought that calling his encounter with the giant wolverine “reconnaissance” was a perfectly reasonable description, even if was after-the-fact. Before the meeting he didn’t even know who the Master was, much less what he was. He’d tried to argue that he now had the Master’s confidence. He tried to argue that Koschey had never said he only had one chance to succeed. He tried to argue that he should have three chances because everything came in threes. Koschey told him to shut up. The sorcerer glared at the soldier with one beady eye from under a raggedy straw hat. He looked nothing like a magician or a wizard or anything and Bulat wondered how far he could get if he simply drew his sword and attacked the man.
“You want another chance, do you?”
It was a trick question. Of course it was. Underneath his bandaged belly, Bulat’s slowly healing ribs remained a sore reminder of that first encounter some two weeks previous. The injuries were one thing holding him back from leaping at Koschey’s dangled temptation, “another chance.” Nor did he want to seem too eager. He wanted to know what Koschey’s game was. On the other hand, trap or not, a chance was a chance, and as his old sergeant used to say, “While there’s life, there’s hope.” Bulat couldn’t remember where the sergeant had gotten that line, but it was the sort of thing he’d say in hopeless situations.
“Yes?” offered Bulat.
And that was how the soldier found himself in a large arena, surrounded on all sides by a raucous, cheering, taunting crowd, along with several other soldier or hunter types.
“To the man who kills the Master of the Taiga, I will grant his freedom!” bellowed Koschey from his throne at the top of one of the banks of seats. He didn’t seem to be shouting, but everyone there heard his voice as clearly as if he were a neighbor. The men and women of the crowd cheered their enthusiasm.
The strategy itself was clear enough, if tricky. The nine of them would have to fight together for as long as possible until one of them could deliver the deathstroke. No one wanted to be the blow that almost killed the Master. “Almost” didn’t buy freedom. Cooperation didn’t buy freedom, but cooperation was their only chance against the Master at all.
“Do you know how Koschey caught him?” asked Bulat of one of his fellow prisoners.
“Shut up!” snarled the man.
Uncharitably, Bulat hoped that the man would be the first to go.
The roar of the crowd stilled as a section of the stands rose up, revealing a dark passage. Silence. Before the audience could grow impatient, a wolverine waddled out into the light and blinked. A normal wolverine, not three feet long. The spectators howled their displeasure.
“That’s not the Master of the Taiga!” exclaimed Bulat.
The angry man wasn’t waiting, however. No sooner had the wolverine appeared than he was running forward, a spear clenched tightly in both hands.
The crowed ooh-ed their revulsion.
“I guess that is the Master,” said Bulat. The angry man had been the first to go after all.