The Mouser of Peter the Great

1704

Tsardom of Muscovy

 

Ibrahim watched as Tsar Pyotr of the Russians was seated into a wooden chair in front of a fireplace. It was made for a very big man, with a high back and curved arms carved like lions. And the Tsar was certainly big, taller than any of the other men in the room. Taller perhaps than any man Ibrahim had ever seen, and he wondered if these Russians were all ruled by giants.

The Tsar settled into a long red coat trimmed in gold, drawing it tighter as if seeking warmth. He leaned forward, inspecting the two boys that stood before him. His appearance—those black eyes, and even blacker hair, all on a face that could have been cut from stone—should have been terrifying. And it might have been, had the man also not looked so very tired.

At a nudge from Bilal, Ibrahim lifted his gaze to meet the Tsar. This Pyotr of the Russians didn’t sit in his great wooden chair so much as he sagged in it—as if doing all he could just to hold himself up. The whites of his eyes were tinged with red, and the skin around them swollen. His face looked drained, so that cheekbones showed just beneath the flesh. And he was so very pale.

Well, Ibrahim mused, that wasn’t so uncommon here. Not like at the Sultan’s palace, where there were pale people, sand-brown people, bronze people and every type of people you could imagine. Some had even been like him, with black skin and hair that curled and coiled. Here, everyone was pale, or red, like they’d been pinching each other’s faces. But this Pyotr of the Russians was even paler than that—pale as milk. When he spoke, the tiredness that showed on his body filled his voice.

Ibrahim listened, and understood nothing. He and Bilal had only just arrived in this Tsardom of Muscovy, this place with no sun and only clouds, where it rained cold white ashes that covered everything in ice. At the Sultan’s court they had been instructed in Turkish, which he now knew well. This was definitely not Turkish.

“His Majesty is speaking to you,” someone said.

Ibrahim turned to look upon a silver-haired man in a long green coat with bright yellow stripes, reminding him of a bird in the Sultan’s palace that bore the same color of feathers. He and Bilal had met the odd man when they arrived. He told them to call him Spafarius. But they had already named him No-Nose—on account that he had no nose. There were just two holes where a nose should have been, and Ibrahim wondered if perhaps some people here didn’t have noses. Or maybe in all that pinching of cheeks, it had been pinched off. The nose-less man did, however, speak Turkish.

“The Tsar asks if you know how old you are?” Spafarius No-Nose translated. He gave Ibrahim an expectant look, knuckling at long silver whiskers that drooped on his nose-less face. “Come on boy. Vasil’ev said you were the bright one.”

Ibrahim blinked. He opened his mouth then stopped. How did you say numbers in this language? Deciding on another course, he held up one hand to show five fingers and a second to add three more.

The Tsar smiled, a slight spark touching his dreary face. He spoke again.

“Clever,” Spafarius No-Nose remarked. “His Majesty asks if you know your name?”

“Ibra—” Ibrahim began, then changed to, “Abram.” That was what they called him here. A proper Christian name, the man Vasil’ev had said, the one who brought he and Bilal to this place. To Ibrahim it didn’t matter much, because in truth neither of those were really his name.

“And were you and your brother treated well in your travels, Abram?” No-Nose translated once again.

Ibrahim looked to Bilal who just shrugged. Bilal seemed to shrug at everything these days, and Ibrahim thought perhaps his brother blamed him for having to leave the Sultan’s palace. Well it hadn’t been his fault. At least, he hadn’t meant for it to happen. He thought some more on the Tsar’s question. Treated well? They hadn’t been beaten on their long trip with Vasil’ev. They had been fed. And dressed in thick furs when it turned cold. But they were still slaves, as they had been before. Of that he was certain.

“Da,” he answered finally. Then gave a bow, like he’d seen some men here do, and added, “Tsar Pyotr.”

The Tsar’s eyes rounded at this and he laughed aloud, shrugging off some of his tiredness. Ibrahim met Bilal’s surprised look with a satisfied smile. He’d picked up a few things. The Tsar lifted a long finger to point at him and spoke.

“His Majesty is impressed,” Spafarius No-Nose winked. “He would have you in his personal service, Abram.”

Ibrahim bowed again. He’d become accustomed to the ways of powerful men at the Sultan’s palace, and knew this was not a request.

There were a few more questions and then an exchange of words between the Tsar and the other men in the room. After a while, some of them helped him to his feet. He grumbled but leaned his tall frame on them, letting the men guide him. It was as he turned to go, that Ibrahim first saw the eye.

It was an ugly eye. A big pale grey thing, with long fleshy roots that clutched to the Tsar like a weed. It sat there riding his back, twisting this way and that, glaring out upon the room. When it caught sight of Ibrahim it squinted thick eyelids on its stalk, looking him up and down.

Then it shrieked.

Ibrahim cupped hands to his ears, clenching his teeth at the sound. No one else did. No one even paid the ugly eye any attention. Not Bilal, not Spafarius No-Nose, or even the Tsar. Because he knew, none of them could see it or hear its angry screams. And that bad feeling that came from it didn’t prick their skin like needles and make them shiver either. He could see it, hear it, and feel it, because that was who he was—who he’d always been.

The shrieking didn’t stop until the Tsar was gone. And when Ibrahim took his hands from his hears he found Spafarius No-Nose eyeing him. There was a curious look on his face.

“Your brother will come with me,” the man declared. “You however, Abram, will stay here. The Tsar is not well. His sleep is troubled and he eats little. He is here secretly at the home of his friend, the Count, while the Count and his family are away. There are only a few servants in the house to care for him—and now, you. He needs your very special help I think.”

Ibrahim looked up at the man, trying not to stare at his no-nose. Bilal had said that was rude. “Me? What can I do?”

The man knelt, so that he was nose-less to nose with Ibrahim. His breath smelled of onions and things both sweet and bitter. “I want you to hunt mice,  Abram. As you did for the Sultan. You know how to hunt mice, yes?”

Ibrahim thought of the eye, and knew right away that Spafarius No-Nose wasn’t really talking about mice.

The next day Ibrahim found himself alone in the big house. Spafarius No-Nose had taken Bilal away and now there was no one to talk to. The servants bathed and dressed him. They gave him new clothes—a blue coat with tight sleeves, white puffy pants and brown house slippers. It was more clothes than he’d ever worn. But he was cold all the time here, and so he didn’t complain.

He hadn’t seen the Tsar all morning. He’d dreamt about that shrieking eye though. And that bad feeling still hovered in the air. Spafarius No-Nose wanted him to do something about it, like he’d done for the Sultan. But how was he supposed to do that?

The sharp sound of echoing laughter suddenly caught Ibrahim’s attention. Curious, he followed it through several rooms of the big house. The tingling scent of unfamiliar spices and cooking meat told him he was in a kitchen. There, an old woman was trying to roll out a bit of dough. But each time she did so it folded back up, sticking together.

Ibrahim could see the problem. It was a little man, no taller than himself. He was covered in long black hair like a shaggy dog, with an even longer grey beard. He tugged at the dough between hairy fingers, pulling it and pushing it even as the old woman tried to smooth it out. Each time she grunted her frustration he giggled and did it again.

“Why are you doing that?” Ibrahim asked.

The old woman looked up over a bulbous nose then clucked her tongue, saying something he couldn’t understand and waving him away. But he wasn’t talking to her and the hairy little man answered.

“Because it’s fun,” he remarked.

“It’s not very nice.”

The little man seemed set to dismiss him then stopped, looking up with round shining eyes. “You can see me?”

Ibrahim nodded. In a blur the hairy little man was in front of him. He looked Ibrahim up and down. “But she can’t see me, or hear me. How can you?”

“I just can,” Ibrahim answered truthfully. He always could. The old woman looked to him again and frowned. Not that she understood spirit-talk, which he knew sounded like nonsense to everyone else. Still, he’d learned at the Sultan’s palace that speaking to things others couldn’t see frightened people. He didn’t want that here.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” he suggested.

The little man nodded eagerly, trailing along behind. They found an empty room and the two sat down across from each other in big wooden chairs.

“Are you a witch?” he asked.

“No,” Ibrahim answered. At least he didn’t think so.

“Where do you come from?”

“Far away,” he answered. “I wanted to ask—”

“Can everyone there see? Like you can see?”

Ibrahim shook his head. “No. Just me. Have you seen—?”

“And your skin,” the little man cut in. “It’s so…black!”

“It is. But do you—?”

“Does it come off? Your skin I mean?”

Ibrahim frowned. What a silly question. “Of course not. Does yours?”

The little man pursed his lips and thought hard. “I don’t think so.”

Ibrahim sighed. “I just want to know—”

“Your hair is so curly! May I touch it?”

“No!” Ibrahim snapped. “Touch your own hair!” He had hoped to ask the little man something about the eye, but this was becoming annoying.

“Does everyone have hair like you where you come from? And skin? How far away is it? Do you have a Tsar? Are you sure it doesn’t come off…?”

Ibrahim sat listening to the endless questions, and grew increasingly frustrated. Mostly he was frustrated because the little man wouldn’t stop talking. And because he was, after all, only eight, what he did next was entirely understandable.

Ibrahim reached into the air and pulled out a sword. It was a big sword, with a broad curving golden blade. One of the guards in the Sultan’s palace had owned such a sword, and Ibrahim had wanted one like it. So he made one up, the way he was able to always make such things up. It was almost as tall as he was, and should have been much too heavy for a boy of eight. But as he was the one who conjured it, the sword weighed whatever he wanted it to weigh. He lifted the large blade above his head and glared at the talkative little man.

“Be quiet! Or I’ll chop you up like a radish!”

The little man let out a single shriek and vanished in a puff of hair.

Ibrahim felt his temper die down and he put away his sword with a sigh. That had probably not been a good idea.

It took all morning to find the hairy little man again, hiding under a set of stairs. It took still another hour to coax him out. When it was all done the two sat by a window, looking out at the cold ash coming down from the grey sky. The hairy little man called it snow.

“I’m sorry I said I would chop you up,” Ibrahim apologized. He really was sorry. “I’ll answer your questions if you answer mine.” He paused. “But you still can’t touch my hair.”

The little man blinked, as if he’d forgotten about that entirely. “I’m Domovoi,” he said, “a house spirit.”

“Domovoi,” Ibrahim repeated. “Is that your name?”

The house spirit shrugged. “All Domovoi are named Domovoi. We help take care of homes.”

Ibrahim raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t look like you were helping this morning.”

“Not my home,” Domovoi explained. “My house was here long ago. I cared for an old man and woman. I would spin straw for them and mend broken things. Then someone sent them away. Or they died. I can’t remember which. This bigger house is built where their house once was. And so I remain.”

“My name’s Ibrahim. That’s the name the Sultan gave me. Now I’m Abram.”

“What was your name before that?” Domovoi asked.

“I don’t know,” Ibrahim admitted. “I don’t know my name.”

“Where did you come from then? Before the Sultan?”

“I don’t know that either.”

Domovoi cocked a hairy head. “Don’t you remember?”

Ibrahim shook his head. He didn’t. Neither did Bilal. All the two of them remembered was that they came from somewhere else, where there was always sun, and people had faces like them. He told Domovoi as much.

“We were taken by men. It happened at night. I think they wanted me, for what I could do, what I could see. But I was with Bilal, so they took him too. Then they worked some kind of magic and made us forget.”

“Where did they take you?” the little man asked.

“Far away from our home, to the Sultan’s court. That’s where we learned Turkish. Then one day the Sultan’s mother called for me. She told me I had to help the Sultan. There was a bad spirit in the palace she said. It haunted the Sultan in his dreams. She knew what I could do, and I was put in his room at night to find it.”

“Why was this bad spirit angry with her son?” Domovoi asked.

“The Sultan got his throne by taking it from another Sultan—his brother,” Ibrahim explained. “The spirit haunted the new Sultan for doing this bad thing.”

“Oh!” the little man exclaimed.

“One night I awoke to find the spirit there. It was a great big ogre with a fiery eye. It frightened the Sultan. He was so scared, he couldn’t even call for his guards.”

“What did you do?” Domovoi whispered, his bright eyes round as plates.

“I pulled my sword,” Ibrahim said. “And I fought the ogre.”

Domovoi inhaled. “You fought an ogre?”

Ibrahim nodded. “For a long time. We fought and fought, all around the room as the Sultan watched. And then I chopped off his head.” He made a cutting motion with his arm and Domovoi gasped. “The Sultan cried when it was over. He laid his head on my lap and just cried and cried. The next day, his mother sent Bilal and I away.”

“But why? You helped him. You chopped off the ogre’s head!”

“I think because I saw him cry. I don’t think Sultans are supposed to cry.”

Domovoi made a face. “That’s silly. Everyone cries.”

It was Ibrahim’s turn to shrug. He didn’t understand it either. “A man named Vasil’ev took us. We traveled on a river, then over land and then on a ship across a lot of water. Someone called it a sea. The man brought us here where Spafarius No-Nose took us to see the Tsar.”

“That is quite a story!”

Ibrahim supposed it was. “Are there others here?” he asked. “Like you?”

“I am the only Domovoi in this house,” the little man said proudly. “But yes—there are many others! A Kikimora lives in the kitchens behind the stove and steals food, but she’s stingy and won’t share any. There’s an absent-minded Lesovik nearby that likes to scare cattle. He tends to forget where he lives and spends a lot of time wandering about. There’s a Bagiennik or two sleeping under the ice in the lake. We don’t want to wake them up however—big eyes and teeth and very bad tempers. Almost as bad as those Rusalki nymphs…”

Ibrahim listened as Domovoi listed more spirits than he could possibly remember. The little man would probably go on forever if he didn’t jump in.

“What about the eye?” he asked. “You’ve seen it? ”

Domovoi’s mouth clamped shut. He made a face and nodded. “I only saw it for the first time when he arrived.”

Ibrahim guessed he was the Tsar.

“It’s an omen,” Domovoi went on. “That’s what the others say—of something bad to come. That’s why so many of them are leaving…”

“Leaving?” Ibrahim asked sitting up. “You mean the spirits?”

Domovoi nodded. “There are barely any in the house any longer. When he arrived with that thing on his back—most of them left. Something’s coming, and no one wants to be here when it arrives.”

Ibrahim frowned, thinking of the bad feeling. It hadn’t gone away. If anything, it was stronger now. “Why aren’t you leaving?” he asked.

Domovoi grinned, showing blocks of white teeth. “Because I like it here!” In a blur he was gone. From the distance came the sound of something crashing. Someone shouted and that familiar laugh echoed through the house.

Ibrahim let the mischievous spirit have his fun and sat back, thinking on what he’d learned. Only then did he notice the girl. She sat in a corner of the room, looking at him with watery blue eyes beneath long brown hair. He wondered how long she had been there? Had she seen him talking to Domovoi? Well no, he’d look like he was just talking to himself. That was hardly better.

As if waiting to be noticed, she got up and walked over to him, sitting nearby. She looked near his age, and was just as tall. When she smiled he smiled back, fumbling through his head for something to say. But nothing came to mind. So they just sat there, staring at each other until finally the girl giggled. He giggled too, uncertain what else to do, and soon the two were speaking the one language it seemed everyone understood.

Their laughter was interrupted when the old woman from the kitchens walked in. She looked flustered—Domovoi’s doing no doubt—but called the girl over, handing her a pastry. The two walked away and into another room leaving Ibrahim alone again. Disappointed, he settled back down and was surprised when the girl quickly reappeared. She ran up to him with her pastry, grinning as she broke it in half and gave him a piece.

“Vatrushka,” she said before leaving.

Ibrahim watched her go and wondered if that was her name or the pastry? He decided at the moment he didn’t much care which—only that maybe he’d made a friend. Two, if he counted Domovoi. Then he ate the pastry happily.

The next day Ibrahim woke up to find the bad feeling had gotten worse. It seemed outside the sky was filled with more clouds. Even the flames in the fireplace looked dim, as if struggling to stay alight. He was staring at them when Domovoi found him. The hairy little man sat down right in front of the fireplace, wriggling his long toes at the heat.

“You were talking to old Varvara’s granddaughter yesterday,” he remarked.

The girl, Ibrahim remembered. “We didn’t really speak.”

“She gave you a pastry,” Domovoi sulked. “She never gives me pastries.”

“She can’t see you Domovoi,” Ibrahim reminded.

The little man’s bright eyes flared. “Oh! That’s right!”

Ibrahim stifled a laugh. “What’s her name?”

“Eva,” Domovoi pronounced. “She and old Varvara belong to the house.”

Ibrahim frowned. Belonged? How could people belong to a thing?

“They’re slaves? Like me?”

Domovoi shook a hairy head. “Not like you. They belong to the house. You belong to the Tsar. A Tsar is more important than a house. So you must be more important. That’s good, yes?”

“I don’t want to belong to anyone,” Ibrahim replied.

Domovoi shrugged, as if there was nothing more to say. Then he blinked and sat up. “I almost forgot! I found someone you can talk to—about the omen!”

“Who? Someone…like you?”

Domovoi nodded. “He keeps to himself. The others don’t like him much. But he knows a lot of things. Or he thinks he does.”

“Take me to him,” Ibrahim begged. “Please!”

Domovoi jumped up and motioned for him to follow. They walked through halls and up stairs, to another part of the house. A few times Ibrahim had to run to keep up, yelling at the hairy little man to slow his blurring pace. Fortunately this part of the house was empty so no one else could see him. They finally stopped at a set of doors and Ibrahim pushed them open.

It was another large room. There were books everywhere, some on shelves and more heaped in piles on the floor. Ibrahim followed the house spirit past what looked like small wooden ships, some of them half-built and on their sides. There were other things here that he couldn’t name: round glasses filled with colorful liquids, contraptions of wood and metal that somehow fit together.

In the middle of it all was a small man—as tall as Domovoi, but not hairy at all. He wore a long blue coat with gold buttons and tight short pants that fell to the knees with white stockings. Stacks of books rose up around him like miniature hills, and he muttered beneath his breath as he read and scribbled on a piece of paper with a feather quill. He seemed to exclaim at every other word, wriggling his pointed pink ears through a curly white wig. Ibrahim walked up and introduced himself.

“And is that supposed to mean something to me?” the small man asked, never bothering to look up. He scratched at the end of a long nose, leaving a smudge of ink.

“I was looking for help,” Ibrahim said.

“Help?” The small man smacked his lips together, showing two large front teeth that jutted down like a rabbit’s. “I have no time to help. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Ibrahim eyed the stack of books. “Doing what?”

The small man pulled a hand from his quill, which continued writing all the same. He looked up at Ibrahim with black eyes over wire-rimmed spectacles. “Doing what?” he repeated. “Why, plotting the future! The future is coming! We must plan for it! We are so behind! All of you are lucky I’m here!”

“And who are you?” Ibrahim asked.

The small man sputtered, looking offended. “Why, I am the spirit of progress, you silly boy! The spirit of invention and proper government! Do you know of the salons in Paris? The Royal Society of natural philosophers and experiments in London? Where’s our Descartes? Who has written our Leviathan? How shall we compete? We must strive to move forward, boy! Always forward!”

Ibrahim watched as the excitable little man went back to his writing, muttering the whole time. He looked to Domovoi.

“I told you no one liked him,” the house spirit remarked.

Ibrahim could see why. “Where does he come from?”

“I came back with his Majesty’s Grand Embassy,” the small man answered before Domovoi could speak, sparing the house spirit a glare. “His Majesty has placed his hopes in us. We work to make our land more modern, like those of the West!”

Domovoi laughed. “The Tsar cut off their beards!”

“What?” Ibrahim asked, now completely confused.

“His Majesty ordered that all men of the nobility shave their beards,” the haughty spirit proclaimed. “These are the ways of the men of the West that we must adapt.”

“He made them dress different too,” Domovoi added. “And if they wouldn’t do as he said, they had to pay money. They didn’t like that.”

“All part of the struggle to make a backwards people modern,” the other spirit huffed. “But some are stubborn. They don’t want us to move forward. And now they hobble His Majesty with their superstitions!”

Ibrahim perked up. “You mean the eye? You know about it?”

The spirit looked back up over his wire spectacles, grimacing. “A Likho,” he spat. “A curse.”

Ibrahim had heard of curses, in stories at the Sultan’s palace. You could put them on another person to do bad things. That’s what the eye was. The Tsar had been cursed!

“How do we make it go away?” Ibrahim asked.

The spirit shook his head. “The Likho is vile. Try to cut it away and it will make His Majesty cut off his own hand. Try to drown it and it will let His Majesty drown before floating away. It eats at his life and infects all about him with misfortune. But it is only a part of the curse. The Likho draws something else here. It calls it. Something more terrible.” The small man’s long ears fell and his eyes fixed on Ibrahim. “Can’t you feel it?”

The next day Ibrahim could feel it. And it seemed, so now could everyone in the house. The servants went about their tasks stooped and bent, barely even whispering. The Tsar wailed through the night in his dreams so that no one slept. A gloom settled over everything, as sure as the snow that covered outside in ice.

That day, Spafarius No-Nose arrived back at the house. He went up to see the Tsar and came down again looking tired. He sat in front of a fire and sipped from a cup, hugging himself as if he couldn’t get warm.

“Two bits of advice for you Abram,” he slurred. “One, never intrigue against a vengeful prince with a sharp knife.” His finger tapped the space where his nose should have been. “Second, never drink cheap bread wine made by peasants. It has the taste of feet.” He grimaced into his cup, but took another sip anyway. “Your brother has a gift with his voice. I am thinking he may do well in music, once we give him a proper Christian name. How goes your hunt for mice?”

“I haven’t caught any yet,” Ibrahim admitted.

Spafarius No-Nose sighed. “No? Well, I hope you do soon. His Majesty is so tired he cannot rise from bed. I do not know how much longer we can go on like this. We have kept the Count’s servants quiet of the Tsar’s presence. But now the girl is sick, and they will talk.”

“Who’s sick?” Ibrahim asked puzzled.

Spafarius No-Nose took another grimacing sip before answering. “The old cook’s granddaughter.”

Ibrahim inhaled. “Eva!”

Spafarius No-Nose raised an eyebrow. “You have met then. She has taken with a terrible fever. It burns her up, and nothing can be done for it. The servants fear it is something to do with His Majesty.” He shook his head. “No, they will not stay quiet long.”

Ibrahim excused himself and quickly left, going off in search of Domovoi. He found the little hairy man under his favorite stairs. He lay curled up into a furry ball, and his bright eyes were dim.

“Eva is sick!” Ibrahim told him.

Domovoi nodded, listless. “Everything is bad now.”

“It’s that Likho! We have to do something about it! Stop the other thing from coming!” Ibrahim didn’t know much about this Pyotr of the Russians. Maybe like the Sultan, the Tsar had done something bad to deserve this. But not Eva. Not the girl with watery blue eyes who had shared her pastry. She hadn’t hurt anyone.

Domovoi sighed. “Too late for that. It’s already here. Came in last night.”

Ibrahim glared at him. “What? Where?”

Domovoi’s eyes turned to the floor. “In the cellar.”

It took more coaxing, but Ibrahim managed to get the house spirit to lead him to the cellar. The closer they came to it, the worse the bad feelings got. When they reached a long set of stone stairs Domovoi stopped and whimpered. Taking the lead, Ibrahim walked down into the dark.

The cellar was huge, like the house had a great big belly beneath. It was filled with old things: iron suits of armor, paintings and even swords. They cluttered up the space; things from long ago hidden in dust, cobwebs and gloom. It was the perfect place for a monster to hide.

Ibrahim saw it almost immediately. A large shape sat in the dark of the cellar, sprawled out among the old things. Its bright green scales shimmered and its body heaved when it breathed. It was gigantic. Monstrous! He counted one, two, no, three heads! Each looked like a snake with horns and had sharp teeth that poked out from mouths on long snouts. Grey smoke seeped from their flaring nostrils as they slept, and a rumble like a snore rose from their throats. He had heard of things like this before, from the Sultan’s storytellers. This was a dragon!

“It looks very scary!” Domovoi squeaked behind him.

It did, Ibrahim agreed. He’d never seen anything so big. When an eye on one of those giant heads opened, it was all he could do to not run. The eye swam about to regard him, narrowing to a red slit on a bright yellow sun. A deep growl from its throat quickly woke the other heads. The three opened their eyes then lifted sinuous scaly necks to stare down at him.

“What is this?” the middle head rasped. “Who wakes us?”

Ibrahim swallowed, searching for his voice.

“I do,” he called up.

The head on the left snarled, its eyes narrowing. “And who are you?”

Ibrahim faltered. That simple question seemed suddenly very hard.

“I’m Ibrahim,” he said at last. “I’ve come to tell you that you have to leave. You’re scaring people here, making them sick. I think a curse brought you, but you shouldn’t be here. Please go away now. Go somewhere else.”

The dragon glared at him with six red-on-yellow eyes for a moment, then laughed. It came grating and barking out of three different throats to make one unpleasant sound.

“Go away?” the middle head rasped. “Why should we go away? Do you know who we are?

“We are Zmey Gorynych, the great serpent!” the right head thundered. The dragon lifted itself up on two large back paws, and two smaller front ones—each with black talons that raked on stone. “Our wings bring darkness!” the left head snarled. The monster unfurled two wings like a bat that plunged the cellar into a deeper gloom. “And our breath is fire!” hissed the middle head, orange flames licking the inside of its mouth. “We have come for this Tsar!” the right head rumbled. “The betrayer! The one who would change our lands!”

Ibrahim wasn’t certain what kept him standing. His heart pounded fast. All he wanted to do was run. Somewhere, he found the courage to speak.

“But you’re hurting everyone. You’re hurting Eva. And I won’t let you!” He reached out, and drew his sword. The broad curving blade came at his summons, gleaming gold in the dark as he held it high above his head. He hoped to at least frighten the dragon. But the monster only laughed, wisps of smoke escaping its throats.

You would harm us?” the middle head rasped. “You would stand against us?”

“You are not from these lands,” the left head growled.

“Everyone can see you are different,” the right thundered. “That you don’t belong.”

“Look at your skin,” the left sneered, “black like soot.”

“Your nose is flat, and your hair crisp and tight,” the right added.

“You are nothing more than a slave,” the middle hissed.

“The Tsar’s pet,” the right mocked with rumbling laughter.

“The boy who does not even know his own name!” they bellowed as one.

Ibrahim felt himself falter again, and the too-big sword grew heavy in his hands.

“Yes,” the middle head rasped. “What is your name, boy? Where do you come from? Do you even know?”

We know our name,” the left head declared. “Zmey Gorynych! How can you with no name harm us?”

Ibrahim felt his hand tremble with the sword as those words reached inside and pulled at him. Why was it getting so heavy? Before him the dragon seemed to grow even larger, until it was his whole world, and those yellow eyes with red slits looked big enough to fall into.

“Go away, little nameless boy, little slave,” the three heads boomed together. “You are nobody! You are no one! Run away now, before we open up our jaws and eat you up!”

Ibrahim felt his sword grow too heavy—and he dropped it. The golden blade vanished before it hit the floor and he stumbled back. Before him the dragon stalked forward, taunting and laughing. He heard its thoughts in his head, and took them as his own. Slave. No One. Nameless. How could he fight this monster if he didn’t even know his name?

“Bring back your sword!” someone pleaded.

Ibrahim looked to Domovoi. The house spirit cowered behind him but surprisingly hadn’t run away.

“I can’t,” he stammered. He had stopped moving, too frightened now to do anything but stand there, and wait for the dragon. “I don’t have a name. I’m just a slave. A boy who was stolen away. I don’t even know who I am.”

“But I know who you are!” Domovoi insisted. “You told me. You’re the boy who comes from a faraway place. You’re the boy who saved a sultan. You fought an ogre! You’re the boy who came here from all the way across a sea. You’re the boy sent to hunt mice for the Tsar. You’re the boy who talks to spirits and carries a great golden sword…!”

Ibrahim listened as the talkative spirit told his tale. Had all of that happened to him? Had he really done all those things? He listened, and the words began to drown out the taunting laughter. Soon they were on his tongue and coming from his own lips. He felt the fear that made him numb ease away. Doubt shriveled inside him as his courage returned, filling up the emptiness. And he pulled his sword.

The blade came at his call, settling into his hands and almost singing with anticipation. He stared up at the dragon that now hovered in front him, so big it seemed to take up the entire cellar. It still laughed and sent its taunts. But Ibrahim was no longer listening.

With a yell, he lifted his sword at the head closest to him and brought it down with all his strength upon those scales. The blade bit through spirit flesh and bone to come clean through the other side. The dragon’s neck wobbled momentarily where he had cut it and then the horned head slid away. It tumbled down, landing with a thunderous thud on the cellar floor. Those red-on-yellow eyes were turned up with a look of surprise and a long red tongue hanged from its open mouth. The remaining heads howled their pain, and Ibrahim smiled. Sword in hand, he stepped forward.

“I am the boy who was stolen!” he cried out, swinging again at a paw sent his way. It came off beneath his blade, talons and all tumbling into the darkness.

“I am the boy who chopped off the ogre’s head!” Another head roared at him with jaws opened wide, showing a hundred teeth. Ibrahim jumped as it came, bringing his sword down to cut through its thick neck. The head fell away and the dragon retreated now, as if to run. But Ibrahim wasn’t finished.

“I am the boy who saw the Sultan cry!” he shouted. The dragon’s last head sucked in air and then spewed a blast of bright orange flame at him that lit up the dark. Ibrahim dodged beneath the fire, feeling its heat on his back as he raced to hack off another paw. The dragon lurched off balance, pitching forward. Ibrahim jumped aside as it came crashing down in a heavy mass of green scales and spirit flesh. He quickly moved back in, bracing a foot on the dragon’s neck and lifting his giant blade up above the remaining head.

“I am the boy with the golden sword!” Ibrahim proclaimed, as the red slit in that yellow eye stared up at him—afraid. “Today, I will be the boy who cut all the heads off the great Zmey Gorynych!” And with a final swipe he sent his blade through that scaly neck, until it struck stone—severing the last head of the dragon. Its monstrous body shuddered with tremors, and its wings folded in to cover it like a shroud. With a loud whoosh, it vanished into a green mist that fast swirled away to nothingness.

Ibrahim looked down, breathing heavy from the battle. Where the dragon had been there was now a tiny pale worm—with three tiny heads. It let out a squeal and began inching away. He brought a heel down on it, mashing hard and squishing out colorful goo that smeared the ground like a rainbow.

“You killed the dragon!” Domovoi yipped, jumping up and down in delight.

Ibrahim smiled. So he had.

It was later in the day that Ibrahim sat in the kitchens eating a pastry prepared by Eva’s grandmother. The old woman was happy her granddaughter’s fever had unexpectedly broken. She couldn’t know he had anything to do with it, but she was giving out pastries all the same. These had cheese and sweet fruit jam in the middle.

The Tsar felt better as well, and was now eating so much food the cooks were kept busy preparing one meal after another. The Likho was gone from his back. Ibrahim had seen it shuffling through the halls—now a small, scrawny old woman with bony limbs and one big eye. It had glared at him but he waved his sword and the thing shrieked, fleeing the house. The gloom in the place had lifted and Domovoi claimed the other spirits were already returning, all of them talking about the strange new boy with the big golden sword.

As he sat eating, Spafarius No-Nose appeared. The man approached and sat down. He looked somewhat pleased and his white whiskers twitched as he eyed Ibrahim.

“So…did you catch your mouse?” he asked.

Ibrahim shoved a pastry whole into his mouth before answering.

“A worm,” he replied.

 

Originally published in Hidden Youth: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Reprinted by permission of the author.

P. Djèlí Clark

Phenderson Djèlí Clark is the award-winning and Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon nominated author of the novellas The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His stories have appeared in online venues such as Tor.com, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in print anthologies including, Griots, Hidden Youth, and Clockwork Cairo. A forthcoming novella, Ring Shout, will be published by Tor.com in October 2020.

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