Telling Tales 190
After All, We’re Going to Kill Them in the End
To the prince and the soldier’s great surprise, the men that confronted them were neither armed nor armored. They were tall, to be sure, and broad, and clearly strong. They were men who worked with their hands and bodies everyday, men who strode over hills and dales and braved all manner of wind and weather. Such days had lined their faces so that they looked older than they were, but they did not look too old. The handful of them still showed the flush of health and some youth. Bulat looked beyond them to their charges. “Are you shepherds?” he asked. He was not used to being confronted by shepherds.
Say what you will about sheep, their timidity and their stupidity, those that care for them live a hard life. They are carpenters capable of building a fence in which to pen their sheep. They are warriors prepared to fight off bears and wolves and skilled with weapons appropriate to such encounters. They are doctors of no mean skill, for their flocks as well as for one another. Bulat knew this better than Ivan, who was simply unable to put together that people so low would so boldly confront men on horseback, so clearly their social superiors. It was one thing for him and Bulat to behave as equals – they knew one another. These men had no such advantage, and yet spoke to them with familiarity bordering on contempt.
Ivan and Bulat looked at one another and came to the same conclusion. The shepherds surely worked for Koschey and were under his protection.
“I said…” repeated the first man in a threatening voice. He took a step forward.
The gray mare neighed and stamped her feet. “I heard you,” said Ivan. He was about tell the shepherds exactly who he was and exactly what he thought of them when Bulat intervened.
“I worked for Koschey once, same as you do now.”
“Impossible,” muttered another. “Once in Koschey’s service, always in Koschey’s service.”
The soldier made a twisting gesture with one hand and the shepherds took a step back.
“How can he know that sigil?” they demanded of one another. “Only those who work for Koschey know that. But he says he no longer works for Koschey.” Finally they stopped their discussion. “Explain yourself.”
“There’s a curse,” admitted Bulat.
That was enough to satisfy the men. “That sounds like old Koschey,” they said.
“Then we’re in the wizard’s lands once more,” said Ivan.
“Aye, and these are but one one-thousandth of his flock,” the leader said with pride. Beyond them was a sea of wool.
“All of you manage all of this?” asked Bulat.
“The sheep are Koschey’s. We tell them, ‘Come, sheep,’ and they go where we will. Only one of us would be enough, thanks to Koschey’s magics, but because he is a generous lord, he provides more of us so that we may rest when we wish and have conversation.”
“About what do you converse?” inquired the soldier.
They stared at him with suspicion. “Killing the enemies of Koschey.”
Ivan cleared his throat. “I understand that Koschey may have come this way with a princess.”
“His new bride,” said one.
“Shush!” said another.
“It matters not,” said the third. “Tell them anything you want. After all, we’re going to kill them in the end.”