Telling Tales 191
Death and Dishonor
The shepherds told the two men everything they knew about Koschey, all the while relishing the fight that was about to begin, honing their blades, and stretching their limbs. “If you’re finished with your questions?” asked one of them. He cracked his knuckles and the sound was like breaking walnut shells. CRACK-ACK-ACK-ACK.
The soldier heaved a sigh. “I believe we have. Perhaps you would allow me to descend first. There is no reason for my horse to suffer. I expect that you will find some good use for him and provide him with a good life after I am gone. Additionally, it seems appropriate that, as my companion is higher born than I am, I should be the one to be executed first.”
“It’s not an execution. We’re just going to kill you,” said a second shepherd, but in general they agreed that the soldier was being very polite and very proper and that yes, he could alight from his horse to face them.
“I didn’t expect it to be that quick,” said Ivan afterwards.
Bulat cleaned his blade and sheathed it once again. “You don’t go out and kill one and two hundred mounted knights without learning a few tricks,” he said. “You know, I was not the best soldier when I began my career. I daresay I am still not the best soldier. On the other hand, my experiences have taught me a thing or two.” Then, because it was right and proper, the two men dug holes and buried the shepherds. “No reason not to treat them with respect. They used to be someone’s sons and brothers and husbands and fathers.”
“Do you think they would have treated us in the same way?”
He considered. “That is difficult to say. Perhaps not, and there is a case to be made that in leaving the bodies out, other animals would have had food as well. Nothing goes to waste. The difference is that we are strangers here, or in my case, if not a stranger then certainly not a native. Who would there be to take offense at the mistreatment of our bodies and our memories? These men have families and friends who will seek vengeance. The least we can do is honor the best that we can imagine them to have been.”
“But they seek vengeance against us,” Ivan pointed out.
“For their deaths, yes, but not for their dishonor. It is curious to me that one can sometimes be so much more important than the other. But there you go, that’s the mystery of people.”
Ivan agreed that people were, indeed, mysterious, but his thoughts were more along the actions of Vasilisa Kirbitievna and what she wanted, along with the thoughts of nobility that had been bothering him for some days now. After all, it wasn’t only him who assumed that he was better than Bulat. Everyone in Russia would think so. He wondered where that had come from, why they all thought that way, and then he began to wonder why it was that he had begun to change his own mind and thinking.
“Before we go too far…”
Bulat’s words dragged Ivan back to their task at hand. “Yes?”
“We need to take some of their clothes. No dishonor in being buried without a shirt.”
“Why do we need their shirts?”
“Their shirts and more. We are about to become shepherds, Prince Ivan,” explained Bulat.