Telling Tales 178
In Which the Master and Bulat Clear Up Any Misunderstandings
“What are you doing here?” demanded the Master of the Taiga, his fetid breath pushing hard into the soldier’s face.
Bulat told himself to breathe through his mouth and not through his nose, but it was hard to do that and talk at the same time. “Koschey, you know…”
“You sound like you have a cold,” the wolverine accused him.
“A little stuffy is all,” he answered. “Everyone here has done something to offend Koschey, that’s all I know. Our punishment is to face you in combat.”
“And die,” said the wolverine.
“Well, yes, that’s what everyone is banking on.”
Around and above them, the crowd’s displeasure grew in volume. They had been momentarily excited when the man with the spear had rushed the Master and they had been downright enthusiastic when the Master grew to his current, massive size. They had chanted steadily as the lance in Bulat’s back drove him toward the Master and groaned in anticipation as the creature flattened him. They were not so happy with the conversation.
Something bounced off of the Master’s head. “What was that?” he growled, looking around. Bulat remembered that one of his old comrades-in-arms had told him that wolverines had poor eyesight, but that their hearing and sense of smell was quite good. Another object plunked against the Master with a hollow THUNK.
“I think it’s an axe,” he said, although his position on the ground did not allow him a very good vantage point to the weapon on the ground.
The crowd was pleased with whatever it was someone had thrown. Their impatience shifted slightly to lukewarm appreciation.
Bulat went on, “I suspect they’re hoping that your eyes are the weakest point on your body and that they can get at you that way.”
The Master raised his head to offer a fierce growl at the prisoners and the flying weapons ceased to fall. The audience’s noise rose and fell, disappointment following excitement in short order. More things began to fall. Another growl.
“No, this is garbage,” Bulat explained as a tomato fell next to his ear. “The people watching are disappointed.”
“They desire bloodshed?”
The soldier gulped, hoping that the Master of the Taiga would not feel it necessary to oblige them. “Um. Yes?”
“And your fellows attack me only because Koschey threatens them.” Bulat nodded his agreement at the wolverine’s deductions.”Then they are little better than Koschey himself. They wait and they watch and they incite. They hope for blood and death. Koschey abuses his power because he can, because there are no consequences. Similarly, there are no consequences for the creatures who howl for your death.”
“Your death, too,” the man pointed out. “And, um, they’re people, not creatures.”
The wolverine ignored him, as his death was too unlikely a circumstance to bother him on the one hand, and ‘people’ and ‘creatures’ seemed equivalent terms to him on the other. “There should be consequences. They should understand the meaning of what they demand.” He gave out that huffing noise that the soldier had first heard in the distance in the larch forest.
“Does that mean you’re not going to kill me?”
“I am not Koschey or these rabid beasts. You did me a good turn once, man. I would hope that action speaks to your character and not to mere opportunity.”
“Oh, character, definitely character,” Bulat assured him.
“Then we shall be friends,” declared the Master of the Taiga, his malodorous breath sinking ever further into Bulat’s face. “We will see each other again in time. For now, I will teach the sickened masses a lesson.”