Telling Tales 231
The Company, by Firelight
“You may recall,” the old traveler began, “that the beggar had turned out to be the giant’s brother. The young man’s name was Alexander, and he had told the company about how he and his brother had met Koschey the Deathless in the wood, and that cruel wizard had killed the woodsman with whom they traveled, cursed the brother Nikolai, and threatened the young Alexander. Their companion, the great gray wolf, explained to them that each of the crew members had an item that belonged to the giant. The hunter, sharp-eyed Ipiktokiyakovik, held his feelings, a small, easily bruised pillow. The childlike Scrobarnach Armtha, commander of the Brushwood Army, had his will, a rusty-looking piece of metal. The former servant Entendtout held a puzzle box, the giant’s reason. Juleidah, covered in skins and mistress of desert winds, produced matching sapphires, the giant’s sight. Haraka the runner showed them the giant’s temper, a spiked red flower. But it was Kou Ke, the fae serpent, who held the giant’s sense of proportion, and that was somewhere inside him, tied to his very life.
“Vasilisa, you will remember, had left to pursue adventures of her own and on her own terms, while the two princes, Arkady and Aleksey, had gone to find their princesses. It was only Prince Ivan left, and the soldier was somewhere on the other side of the water, according to Entendtout, alive but breathing shallowly. Those, however, are all different stories. You wished to hear how they vanquished the giant. This is how it went.”
* * *
Extending out of his colorful, silken robe, Kou Ke’s hands appeared to be sheathed in the most marvelous, snakeskin gloves. They were smoothly scaled and glinted blues and silvers in sun or firelight. His face gave away his fae serpent nature, however. The scales emerged out of his collar, over his neck, and up his ears and face, all the way over his hairless head. He stared at his palms and repeated his last words, “My life?”
Prince Ivan caught a look from the great gray wolf and suggested to the company that they build a fire and prepare for the night. In the distance, they heard the grumbling snores of the giant. Only Ipiktokiyakovik with his marvelous vision could clearly see the figure of the monstrous man slumbering against the side of a mountain. To the rest of the company, in the angled dusk light, it seemed like just another rocky protrusion. They all fell to their various tasks, leaving the wolf to nudge her head underneath Kou Ke’s arm and guide him to one side.
Scrobarnach Armtha, the woman who looked like a wild girl, drew kindling from her brushwood bouquet, and Juleidah, dressed in her pile of tanned skins, lit them with a hot wind that she called up from far, dry deserts. The flames smelled of homesickness, which is an aroma you will always recognize although you can never imagine it on your own. Haraka recovered the game that Ipiktokiyakovik shot from their air, miles distant, and brought in spices from places that Entendtout told him would remind Kou Ke of his home.
Ivan busied himself with tents and bedrolls, which, while not appropriate work for a prince, is perfectly suitable for friends and companions. Alexander assisted him.
At length, the wolf and the serpent returned to their company.
“I do not know what to do,” confessed Kou Ke. “I can do this. I am capable of sacrificing my life, or I would be if it were mine alone, but it is not. I do not own my own life.”