Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 232

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A Different Kind of Debt

“You are married,” said Juleidah, who understood his predicament at once.

“So?” asked Scrobarnach Armtha.

“If you swore an oath to a comrade, and sacrificing yourself in battle meant breaking that oath, would you do it?”

The wild girl hedged. “I suppose it would depend on the oath, wouldn’t it?”

“Exactly,” said Juleidah. “That is a proper marriage, that kind of oath.”

Scrobarnach Armtha looked displeased at this, but she was not one to let a problem go unaddressed. “So it’s your wife then that’s keeping you from throwing yourself in the path of danger. Simple enough. Let’s find your wife!”

“We were cursed to be separated – ” began Kou Ke.

The commander of the Brushwood Army waved aside his objections. “If old Entendtout here can find a Russian in the lands west of the West based on what Ivan here describes, I’m sure he can find your wife as well. Then it’s just up to Haraka to go and get her.”

The company stared. “Is it that easy?” asked Ipiktokiyakovik.

“Perhaps not,” said Entendtout. “Between us and Prince Ivan’s friend the soldier there is a vast ocean. Monsieur Haraka could not cross it.”

“We could take the flying ship back,” mused Ivan, “but that is a thought for another day. Scrobarnach Armtha has the right of it. We should find Kou Ke’s wife and bring her here. Even if does not help our situation with the giant, we owe it to our friend to reunite him with his wife.”

“You owe me nothing,” protested Kou Ke.

” ‘Owe’ is a strong word,” said Haraka. “If we owe anything, it is not to Kou Ke himself as to the bonds of friendship. We help because we are friends. There is no payment and there is no debt, save to the spirit of friendship itself, which has brought us all together.”

Although Kou Ke raised concern after concern, the company addressed each and every one. What if his curse came from Koschey, he wondered. It almost certainly did, countered Ivan, but that wizard is already in our sights. And if it is another, he suggested. What is another wizard compared to Koschey, answered Juleidah. And so it went through the night and all the way until dawn, with the fire burning and the giant snoring in the distance, until Kou Ke at long last described his wife to Entendtout, and that man sat at attention – even more so than he normally did – and the rest of the company fell quiet as he stretched his ears to the wind. And listened.

“I have found several people walking for long distances, but we can discount most of them. Traders and the like. Only three women. One is far too heavy to be the woman you describe.”

“People gain weight,” pointed out Scrobarnach Armtha.

“One is a pilgrim, I believe. She is singing.” He repeated the words that she sang sound for sound, although he did not understand the language. Kou Ke, whose spirits had lifted at the thought that this person might be bride, fell silent when he, too, could not understand her. “The last is… Oh.” Entendtout blinked his surprise. “I believe the last has just now been consumed by a dragon or other fell beast.”

Which was certainly something to lay a pall upon the gathered company. “What if that was my wife?” whispered Kou Ke.

Scrobarnach Armtha was about to make a suggestion, but Ipiktokiyakovik and Haraka each poked her with something sharp.

“Wait!” said Entendtout. “The first woman… she is not what I thought. She wears iron boots!”

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