Monday, April 11, 2011

Afanasy Nikitin and Baba Ghannoush

Afanasy and Olga were crouching in the tall grass, waiting for their chance to steal more food from the soldiers. They already had a sack of meal, a box of plums, and a hogshead of hog's heads. The soldiers were smashing open another crock of vodka and many were beginning to drop like cordwood into the clay. Something moved in the hedges a few yards east, and a branch broke loudly.

"Foma must have gotten out of the bag - probably smelled the meat cooking on the campfire. You keep an eye on the aide-de-camp with the blunderbuss, and I'll go quiet him down." Afanasy began commando-crawling across to where Foma was hiding.

The aide-de-camp set his blunderbuss down and began singing atrociously with a half-dressed Cossack. "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" I believe. Olga quickly dashed, ferretlike, from the grass across a clearing and into the dusky camp.

Afanasy froze. Did Olga see the sentry in the tree with the damascene cuirasses? Perhaps not. She came to a stop directly beneath the sentry and hid herself behind the very pin-oak tree he sat in.

"Lord, our deliverer and holiest of holies, please deliver that beautiful woman. Amen."

A long leathery arm reached down from the branches, bundled a handful of Olga's cassock, and yanked her abruptly up into the tree.

Afanasy lunged at the spot where Foma hid, hoping to use the besotten serf as a projectile. When he cleared away the grass, however, he discovered not Foma but a group of six or seven hungry brigands also waiting for an opportunity to steal food from the soldiers.

"Pardon!" he hissed, as he turned tail and ran pell-mell toward the tree where Olga and the sentry were tucked away. "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" immediately ceased. The blunderbuss exploded and Afanasy heard a carcass of one of the highwaymen drop heavily behind his sprinting feet. The explosion brought the attention of the entire reeling camp of soldiers on to Afanasy and the team of thugs behind him. The thugs drew bows and a soldier fell as a whistling passed Afanasy's cocked ears.

Only feet from the Olga tree, Afanasy tripped over a drunken private and spun, shouting, into the clay. A soldier with an oak barrel over his head made a phlegmy roar and another boozer came at him with a rusty javelin. Afanasy rolled deftly to his left, kicked at the shins of the barrel-holder and rolled backwards over his own head. The javelin came down and sank into the barrel, and Afanasy sprang up, catching the javelin-tosser across the jaw with a solid right hook. Two of the stinking brigands leapt onto his back and began to pummel him about the head with something like brass candlesticks. Afanasy began quietly singing his own setting of Psalm 37, tugging both assailants off him by the ankles, neatly bouncing their skulls off one another and then collected the candlesticks.

"Hmmm. Venetian, I'd guess."

He sent one spinning end-over-end at an archer as another arrow clipped his chest, tearing a hole in his jersey. The blunderbuss fired again, and a toothless thief with half a beard and half a baked pig spun and fell over Afanasy's left shoulder.

Afanasy yanked the rusty javelin from the cask, causing a foamy geyser of Bavarian aspic ale to gush up. With this the brigands ceased to take any interest in our hero, and descended upon the cask. He picked up an abandoned leather shield and lunged back toward the tree. A shower of arrows began to descend upon him as more soldiers were rousted from their drunken nest, and he crouched for a moment under his rattling shield. He prayed once again for Olga, who had now been captive for a full three minutes. There was a momentary pause in the archery, and instantly the strains of the Volga Boatmen's song began again. Using the javelin, he pole-vaulted elegantly up into the branches of Olga's tree.

"Olga! Olga?" he shouted, as the arrows began to shudder into the trunk and boughs. He looked furiously at the branches above him, below, and then scrambled, snapping the haft of an arrow from his shoulder, looking to holes in the trunk where the cur could have hidden. Another arrow buried itself in his leg, and a third penetrated through the chain mail over his ribs enough to take his breath away. The branch beneath him slipped away and he felt himself tumbling through space as the night overtook his eyes. 

He knew before he opened his eyes that he was back in Dmitri Shemyaka's crappy stone fort. It always smelled like ozone and burnt cabbage, and he kept all the windows bricked up so the air felt suffocatingly close. He could also tell that the arrow shafts had been taken out, with great skill, doubtless by the blind surgeon himself, and the wounds dressed with something like gunpowder. He felt shot through with melted candlewax. 

"Hey great! You're alive! Now I can blind you. Welcome back."

"Where are my bees?"

"In bee jail. What'd you think - I'd let them go back to the Kreml and get your toadies for you?"

"I don't suppose you know where Olga is."

"You'd best thank your glauenfraupt I don't. I'd have killed you, and saved her for blinding! Is she lost?"

"One of your guys took her. He was in a pin-oak, with some expensive-looking cuirasses."

"Sounds like she's with Fergamont. He's some sort of half-Saxon half-Swede whelp. He's not very careful with women though. Baba! You should hear this!"

"Baba Yaga!? She's here in your crappy little hideout? Come on..."

"No, no. Baba Yaga's getting old and tired, and getting far too friendly with Ivan and his milquetoasts. Yaga's days are numbered, babe. This forest belongs to Baba Ghannoush."

There was silence, then a rustling of heavy crushed velvet and heavy tread of a jungle cat. 

More than six feet tall, and redolent of musk and orchids and loam. She walked slowly, barefoot, the better to hear her panther's pads and claws on the pumice floor. Her legs, bare to mid-thigh, were unmistakably shaped like an athletic woman's, but covered with radiant patterned fur like a panther's. Her strange velvet robe was slung over one ivory shoulder like a toga, and her arms were unnaturally long and lithe, like gently undulating asps. Most peculiar of all, her iridescent gray hair and her ivory face were simply out of focus. Stare as Afanasy might, he could get only the faintest idea of her appearance. He couldn't take his eyes off of her.

"Fergamont has one of the Shuisky girls - she's probably with him at the Vydischchii camp tonight, if she's even still breathing."

"Whatever is left of her will be here by nightfall," she breathed. She sounded like gas escaping from a vent.

A great pestle, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and a pair of sapphire eyes, sauntered into the cramped hall on what looked like peacock legs. 

"Hey! It's Baba Yaga's pestle!"

"It's much nicer than hers. Hers is old." she gasped, bounding effortlessly up and into the wooden bowl. The pestle took a step back and vanished through a doorway. The whiff of musk and orchids and loam lingered for a moment, and then the crappy burnt cabbage and ozone smell was all that was left.

"Any other information for me before I remove your beady little eyeballs?" croaked the pewter-eyed wretch.

"Not really. Why are you blinding me, again? I thought you had it in for Ivan. You think he's going to trade his eyes for mine? A swap?"

"I just like reminding him I'm out here, every once in a while. I thought it'd be a nice excuse for Ghannoush to introduce herself at Ivan's oh-so-regal court, with a sack of your eyeballs." Shemyaka was efficiently sharpening a nasty-looking little dirk with an s-shaped blade, drawing it against a strop while he spoke.

"Ideomenes! Bring the sack for the eyeballs please. And some cotton balls for the sockets. And I'd love a glass of aqua vitae and coriander." He turned to Afanasy. "Ivan's father had my eyes put out many years ago. Or did you know that already?"

"I've been told. You were going to poke my eyes out the last time you captured me, remember?"

"It's coming back to me. How did you escape that time?"

"My idiot Foma was hiding in your galley and snuck out under a serving dish. You thought he was a suckling pig when you smelled him. Then he bit your - "

"Yes! The roast pig. Ideomenes! No roast pig, you understand? None! None at all!"

Ideomenes bobbed into the hall, hunchbacked and hooded. He was pushing a heavy wooden cart missing a wheel.

"No pig, master."


"Why is your voice different, Ideomenes? Why do you sound like a woman?"

"I'm not Foma, master."

"I know that. Foma only speaks when he wants something, am I right?"

Afanasy and Dmitri chuckled together at this, and shook their heads as they silently recalled how awful Foma is.

"Ha... no, but really. Do you have a cold or something?"

At which point, of course, Olga took the burlap eyeball-bag and pulled it firmly over Shemyaka's disbelieving head, then pulled the drawstring tight and secured the knot with the nasty little zig-zag dirk. She drank the aqua vitae and coriander, and parked the broken cart and the cotton balls on top of the villain. With the two damascene cuirasses, she flayed the linen cords binding Afanasy, and together they ran into the stables where a pestle awaited. Shemyaka, head still bound, shook his fist at the sky as they soared into the clouds.

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