His skin was old and ashen. Not ashen like a cigarette but ashen like the scorched embers of a campfire that had been left burning too long. Nikolai was the exact opposite: A tan-skinned, lanky figure of twenty six, with sun-dipped curls in his hair and a bright rose to his cheeks. They were the unlikeliest of pairs to be traveling on a dirt road that ran through Bebsk, a small town years ago slipped unaware into the hushed, Belarusian hillside. But there they were, together, their fates peculiarly entwined. Optimism and distrust walking not quite hand in hand.
“We improve with age,” Olix told Nikolai. “Your father used to say that because I’m three months younger, he’s more improved a man than I.” Olix laughed, or maybe cackled, and Nikolai noticed his jagged teeth – where he still had them – were stained a deep brown.
“A good man nonetheless,” said Olix. “So much better than they make them these days.”
He looked at Nikolai; his eyes narrowing and a faraway memory passing along his face, slithering something terrible across a pock-marked complexion and wiry cheekbones that hadn’t seen a good meal in weeks. Olix shook his head. “Those were different times. And they teach us change is the step-mother of progress …”
His voice trailed off into the gray morning air. For as long as Nikolai had known him, which was as long as today’s walk on the dirt road, Olix spoke in these strange bites of knowledge.
“Are you ready for this?” Olix asked.
“Yes, I think so,” replied Nikolai.
“No. You cannot think. If you are ready, then you know.”
“Then so you are.”
The two men exchanged glances and it was clear in the folded wrinkles of Olix’s eyes that this was the final turn. One step farther and all that used to be would vanish into the truth of what now was. Here Nikolai stood at the threshold of choice as a boy looking down the face of sudden manhood and telling it he was ready for the fight. He straightened his wide-set shoulders. Yes, he didn’t just think he was ready; he knew.
“Come on, Nikolai. Waiting is the surest mark of cowardice. Let’s carry onward.”
They were at Ye Olde Zloba Inn, a poor man’s excuse for a tavern that sat just off the dirt road, small and inconsequential as a sleeping fruit fly. Nikolai kept a good grip on the leather knife sheath attached to his belt. The task before them wasn’t particularly complex but Olix had warned of Pavel the innkeeper’s rage and inclination toward violence – “See my misshapen ear? It was perfectly shaped and intact when I came to this inn three years ago. I asked for a second cup of hot milk because that’s all you can drink there and found myself without my left lobe.” – and his words cast a foreboding shadow across whatever might be found ahead. Every muscle in Nikolai’s young body ticked with unease.
“Breathe and you’ll survive,” said Olix as he grabbed Nikolai’s hand and pushed him through the door, through a hallway and finally, into a room dank and tiny. Two tables had been set. An older woman drank from a large ceramic mug at one, the other, empty. The woman said not a whisper as she sipped and contemplated, swirling her drink then taking a gulp before swirling yet again. Inside this quiet space, Nikolai could feel the devilish weight of Pavel the innkeeper before he could even see him.
“Malice tends to lurk outside of reason or noise,” Olix declared, as if he could read Nikolai’s mind.
Then, the bag. It was easy to spot laying against a single wooden shelf crookedly attached to the back wall of the room. Nikolai stared at the leather thing, at its fine copper rivets and its sheeny, chocolate-brown coat, wondering why Pavel hadn’t tried to do a better job at hiding such an object of obvious beauty. A book jutted from the top of the bag—Handcrafted read the title—and Nikolai cringed to think its owner was in the throes of sewing together an honest living when her life was ruthlessly stripped away.
A secret of this bag: Inside there was money, enough to hold over a small child for at least a year or two. It was hidden between the pages of the book and Olix, with as close to a smile as Nikolai had seen, said on their dirt-road travels that he was sure Pavel hadn’t found any of it yet. “Every sinister deed has its fatal misstep,” Olix had explained. “And this one can be found in the fact that evil beings rarely read anything but their own minds.”
Nikolai was about to contemplate what might be his fatal misstep when with one nod by Olix, it began.
Gasps then a scream from the woman as Nikolai bumped her table in haste, spilling the remaining hot milk onto her lap as he made his way to the shelf.
Feigning confidence and ignoring the scorched, screeching woman, Nikolai grabbed the bag in one swipe and cradled it protectively against his chest.
Nikolai’s heart was beating fast and loud, hammering from his ribcage to his eardrums. But no, that wasn’t his heart. Sounds were escaping from somewhere beyond, these were heavy footsteps clunking down a distant hallway, drawing ever closer then closer still …
Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk clunk, clunkclunckclunk …
The air inside the little room blistered with anticipation. The woman cried out. Olix held tight to what was left of his left ear. Nikolai held his breath, waiting.
“Don’t think!” Olix yelled to Nikolai. “Run, boy. Run!”
Nikolai didn’t want to think. He wanted to obey. And he ran. From the inn, from the woman and her spilled milk, from an advancing Pavel, back to the dirt road, toward the house with a blue door – Number 28 – where Olix said a girl would be waiting.
The hills of the Belarus countryside melted into irrelevant paint strokes of green grass and cloudy sky as Nikolai tore down the road and finally arrived, breathless, at the house marked 28.
He knocked twice on the door before it creaked open, held ajar by a small, skinny girl no older than twelve or thirteen.
“This is for you,” Nikolai managed to spit out and the girl nodded because she knew. “I believe it was your mother’s.”
“If you need anything from now on,” Nikolai began, his voice sounding more like Olix than his own, “remember it’s all in the bag.”