Volgograd, the second

The peo­ple who move in the mar­gins, the pre­tenders and tyros who think them­selves sor­cer­ers because they’ve read a few books or called up a for­est spirit, believe that the body and the mind are ene­mies; that if you choose to walk the path of magic, you must neglect the strength of your body. This is true of some of us, but it’s very risky. How can you fast for nine days and nights if your body is already close to star­va­tion? Could you wres­tle a spirit if you couldn’t even wres­tle a man? Age and some­times cor­rup­tion take its toll, but there is no law for­bid­ding a magi­cian from being phys­i­cally pow­er­ful. Valentin is proof of that.

With us it’s often hard to sift out the whis­pers that are true and those that are just true enough to lead you into a field of lies. I had heard that Valentin was any­thing from a Cos­sack descended from gen­er­a­tions of Cos­sacks to the son of Rasputin him­self. What­ever the truth, he was as far from the image of the scrawny, book­ish sor­cerer as it is pos­si­ble to be. If you had put him in uni­form and slung a rifle over his shoul­der, thugs would have backed away before mak­ing a run at any build­ing he guarded. He looked like the man who fin­ished a bar fight and then took the wal­lets of the men he had beaten sense­less to buy him­self drinks. He had the sort of looks that always make women run as fast as they can – either sen­si­bly away, or right into his arms, thrilled by his aura of dan­ger and what an Amer­i­can had once told me they called “ugly sexy”.

My legs were stiff from sit­ting on the pave­ment. We strolled along the side­walk, hands stuffed in our pock­ets against the cold edge of the wind, sharper now as the sun began to set. Peo­ple hur­ried past us, at times step­ping into the street to give us room.

So,” he said. “Tell me what you’ve heard.”

Some of it was test­ing me, to see if the con­tacts we’d used to arrange this meet­ing were as reli­able as each of us thought. Some of it was an old game, the sort of exchange needed among peo­ple who care­fully pro­tected their names, among whom even ask­ing for a name was at best rude and most likely a threat.

I can dis­count the story about your being the bas­tard child of Baba Yaga and Koschei the Death­less,” I said. “More cred­i­ble reports say that you tracked a leshii mes­sen­ger through the for­est and caught it. Some say it was a devil. Records list you as a hero of the bat­tle of Stal­in­grad, though under another name, which I assume is false.”

He stared at me for a moment; I tensed, ready for an attack, and then he threw back his head and laughed. He wiped tears from his eyes. “Baba Yaga,” he said. “What idiot rumors some peo­ple will spread. I will tell you for noth­ing that some of what you heard is true.”

A leshii? For­give me for being for­ward, but you seem more pow­er­ful than if you had caught a forest-dweller.”

Not a leshii. An angel.”

The word he used was not Russ­ian, but Ara­maic. Angel and mes­sen­ger were the same; I didn’t know how he meant the word. “Meaning?”

I am a good tracker,” he said. “I was taught by my father. I found its foot­print in the for­est. I sharp­ened a new knife, and cut the messenger’s foot­print out of the fresh earth. I brought the foot­print back to my home, and drove the knife through the foot­print, after per­form­ing a few minor rit­u­als I won’t bore you by reciting.”

Mean­ing, of course, that he wasn’t about to spell out for me the spe­cific rit­u­als he had per­formed to bind the mes­sen­ger. Magi­cians rarely dis­close their tricks, even to fel­low trav­el­ers. I was a bit sur­prised by his account, though; I knew that you could catch humans, and some­times spir­its, by col­lect­ing their foot­prints, but I’d never heard of a mes­sen­ger being sub­stan­tial or per­haps fool­ish enough to leave one behind.

And then?” I asked. “You bar­gained with it?”

I did not bar­gain. It was my pris­oner. I kept it for three days and three nights.”

And at the end of three days, it told you its secrets?”

Valentin smirked. “At the end? From the begin­ning, it begged me to lis­ten to its secrets. I bound it to my home. For three days and three nights, I raped it. I vio­lated it in every way you can imag­ine. I was sore when it was done, but I was much bet­ter off than the mes­sen­ger. The spell of the knife kept it help­less. It took three days before I was tired of it, and yes, when I was fin­ished it gave me what I wanted to let it go. I was a koldun before, a cunning-man with a few threads of knowl­edge, but I had true power after­ward. And I kept the knife.”

We had stopped walk­ing. Valentin stared down at me, watch­ing to see how I would react. I didn’t know how much of his story was true; that’s part of the game we play. Enough to keep me guess­ing, and per­haps it was the whole truth, though if it was, he had made him­self some very pow­er­ful ene­mies. Per­haps that was the mes­sage he meant to send me: that if he had lived this long in spite of such dan­ger, I had bet­ter put aside any thoughts that I could be any threat to him.

I hope you’ve got­ten it out of your sys­tem, then,” I said.

His eyes mea­sured me; then he laughed, loud enough that some of the peo­ple rush­ing by us turned their heads war­ily to look. “Three days was more than enough,” he said. “There are plenty of girls will­ing if I wanted that. You have noth­ing to worry about. Now, as to you, my friend, there are many inter­est­ing sto­ries that I have gathered.”

You can for­get the one about my being the Wan­der­ing Jew,” I said. “And by the way, I find that one very unimaginative.”

Bah, that I knew. I met the Wan­der­ing Jew once. Dur­ing the war.”

You did?” I asked, gen­uinely inter­ested. “I never have. I thought he was, what’s the phrase, an old wives’ tale?”

I’ve no idea. He told me he was the Wan­der­ing Jew. He had power, and he didn’t seem insane.” Valentin shrugged. “His Russ­ian was very bad. He was pretty good with a rifle, though.”

What hap­pened to him?”

He was shot in the Tatin­skaya Raid. He died, so he must not have been the Wan­der­ing Jew after all. I always won­dered who he really was.”

If you really want to know, and you remem­ber where he’s buried, I can ask,” I said.

Valen­tine waved his hand in the uni­ver­sal ges­ture of not impor­tant. “So, not the Wan­der­ing Jew,” he said. “You have no name. You hid it away where no one can find it, or turned it inside out, yet you found a way to retain your power even with­out draw­ing on it. You made a bar­gain with Koschei the Death­less and bought the knowl­edge of how to pro­tect your name from pry­ing ears. Your name can­not be pro­nounced by human tongues, and those who attempt it die hor­ri­bly. There are all kinds of stu­pid sto­ries, and the truth I am able to sift from this non­sense is that you are nameless.”

I’ll tell you this for noth­ing,” I said. “It’s not a trick. My name is not hid­den in a nee­dle in an egg in a duck and I don’t remem­ber the rest of it. I am name­less. If you were me, and the Devil offered to make you Tsar in exchange for your name, you’d be shit out of luck. But I think that you already know this, because what­ever spells you cast at me when I was draw­ing on the side­walk were about as use­ful as try­ing to clutch a hand­ful of fog.”

He stepped back, still star­ing at me, but now there was an ele­ment of – respect? wari­ness? that I hadn’t seen before. “You could feel it?”

I didn’t live this long by offer­ing my back to those with knives, Valentin. If you didn’t try some­thing when I was dis­tracted you’re an idiot, and that’s one of the few sto­ries I didn’t hear about you.”

He ran his eyes over me again, thought­ful. I won­dered if the mes­sen­ger had seen that same look on his face right after he drove the knife into its footprint.

All right,” he said, finally. “We don’t need to talk busi­ness out here. Some­where warmer?”

Not your house,” I said.

He laughed and slapped me on the shoul­der hard enough that I missed a step. “You know, I don’t trust you,” he said. “But I like you. No, we’ll go some­where with good food, where the wait­ers mind their own busi­ness. And we’ll talk.”

 

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.