This week, on the myths and legends podcast, I tell the story of a cursed sorcerer from Russian folklore, a sad, bizarre, hilarious, and touching tale. There's a stupidly arrogant horse, and you'll see that even gross, insane wizards can get lonely. Then, on the creature of the week, you'll see that if you woke up feeling tired, it was probably this skinless old woman sitting on your chest all night, sucking up your morning breath.
Tried and Died
This is the Myths and Legends Podcast, Episode 5A: Tried and Died
This is a podcast where I tell the original tales behind legendary stories. Some are popular stories you think you know, but with surprising origins. Others are stories you probably haven’t heard, but really should.
This week, I’m telling the story of a magician from Russian mythology. His name is Koschei.
Ok, so the Russian fairy tales this episode is based off of were put down to paper in the 1800s, but it’s safe to assume the story takes place in a much older world. How much older is anyone’s guess, because unlike the King Arthur tales, the Volsungs, or Mulan, they don’t attempt to connect it to any historical people, places, or times. It’s all some vaguely medieval, vaguely eastern European or Russian setting.
That’s actually the chief difference between a fairy tale and a legend. Legends are tied to a historical place and time, and are possibly believable. Fairy tales are obviously made up and there isn’t really much attempt to tie them to something real, and myths are generally associated with religion and gods. As you can probably imagine, there is a huge amount of overlap between these categories, and even the definitions are a point of contention among scholars.
Anyway, this was originally going to be a creature of the week, but I was so fascinated by his story, that I thought I should tell it in its entirety.
Our story starts not with Koschei, but with a prince.
Prince Ivan becomes King Ivan but we'll continue to call him prince for some reason
Prince Ivan's parents were dying, and he had three sisters. The king was well aware he was leaving the kingdom in a bad position, and advised his son to marry his sisters off to the first suitors who came by, should they be of good blood, no matter how different or odd they were. He agreed, and his father died. Days later his mother died, leaving him as the king in control of the kingdom.
He and his sisters were in the garden on a stroll, and blue in the sky began to be crowded out by charcoal gray stormclouds. They rushed inside before the lightning started.
Inside watching the storm, they could see something off in the distance. It was a bird, the size of a man. They watched with curiosity which transformed into terror when they realized it was coming for the open window. They backed up, and a falcon shot in through the storm, his wingspan twice the size of a normal man. The wings folded back, and they cold see the feathers sliding back into skin as his back straightened. It was a man.
He greeted the family and said he was here to court one of the daughters. Ivan said he didn't really care – it was up to the daughter. If she wanted to marry the obvious magician, he wouldn't stand in their way. She said she absolutely wanted to marry the charming tresspasser, and they were wed. He took her back to his kingdom in a puff of smoke.
Days flowed to weeks, weeks to years, and the family was once again walking in the garden. Once again, the sky darkened, and once again they went inside. Instead of coming in through the window, though, this one came in through the roof, tearing a hole. A giant eagle landed among the debris, and transformed into a man. He asked for the hand of the middle sister. Once again, the sister wanted to marry him and Ivan didn't get in the way. He carried her back to his kingdom.
Time passed again, and the same thing happened with the third sister, except this magician came in the form of a raven. She left to his kingdom, and left Ivan alone. He was alone in the castle for a whole year, with no one but some servants to spend time with.
After the year passed, he decided to visit his sisters. He packed up and left.
He had been traveling for weeks though the mountains and the moors, and up ahead he saw smoke. He had his servants drop back, and rode up on his horse, sword drawn.
He rode up a hill and looked down, and saw bodies strewn everywhere. They were warriors, still in their armor, and their force had been completely annihilated. He rode around, looking at the men, and wondered aloud who had done this. He heard a cough, and name, and a groan from one of the men, then nothing else. The name was Marya Morevna. Ivan and his servants pressed on until they found a tent and an army encamped.
To Marya, it was obvious Ivan was a prince, and he strode into her tent boldly. She was intrigued, and they talked, obviously hitting it off. He spent two nights in her tent, and on the third day, they agreed to be married.
Princess Marya had long been away from her castle and people, and needed to return. Since his was deserted, anyway, Ivan agreed to go with her. He sent word back that his lands were to be overseen by the steward, and he took up residence in Marya’s castle after they were wed.
They were both happy, and though she was troubled by news of warring tribes far off in her realm, they spent plenty of time together and hid nothing from each other. The whole of Marya’s kingdom and castle was open to Ivan.
Whispers in the Dark
One night, when Marya was up taking news from far off, Ivan couldn’t sleep. He felt as if he heard a pounding far off. A voice, coming from somewhere in the castle. He felt as if he were going crazy. It was little more than a hint of a shade of a whisper, but it was there. He lit a candle, and went off to find it.
It took him hours, but finally he tracked the pounding to the door of the dungeons. As far as he knew, the dungeons were empty. The princess didn’t take prisoners. He turned the heavy iron handle.
Descending the stairs, the sounds grew louder and louder. It was screaming. Someone was screaming incomprehensible gibberish, and clanging chains against stone. He began moving more quickly down the stairs. Then, another sound. It was the dull thud of metal hitting skin and bone, and then silence. There was the scrape of iron on stone, a door closing, and footsteps. Ivan rounded the bottom of the stairs and saw another candle. It was Marya.
She asked what he was doing down here, and he said he heard screaming. She said it was nothing, he was dreaming, and he should return to bed. Ivan looked off into the distance, down the hall beyond the barred cells of the dungeon to an iron door. He approached it, and tapped. It was thick, immovable. He tried the handle, but it was locked. He looked back to Marya, whose hand closed around a small black key on a leather strip.
You must tell me what…who is in there, Ivan said, but Marya refused. She said her whole kingdom was open to him, except for this. He must never mention this door to anyone, it was too dangerous. He was too powerful. Who was too powerful? Ivan asked, but Marya refused to continue. She said she must go to bed, and left.
Things were more cold between them after that, and from that point on, Ivan noticed Marya constantly wore the key around her neck.
The tribes became more unruly, and Marya was gone more and more often, sending orders. Ivan was almost as lonely in his wife’s castle as he had been in his own, and he often found himself in the dungeon, sitting in front of that door, hearing chains rustle on the other side. The faintest sounds of words if he pressed his ear to it. He had to know what was inside.
Finally, the tribes on the fringes of Marya’s kingdom had united and were invading, so she decided she must see to the problem personally. Ivan had his moment. In the past few days, he studied that key every chance he got, and the leather strip. He travelled to the market, and found two that looked exactly like it. He waited and waited, watching for the moment she took it off. He found it in a pile of clothes while she was bathing, and switched the keys. That day, she left for the front.
Ivan watched her march out from the parapet, and when she had dipped below the horizon, he sprinted to the dungeon.
He knew every step now, every contour of the door, and he shoved the key in, and turned it. The door took some coaxing, but eventually rust sprinkled off the hinges as he scraped the door against the stone floor. He didn’t know what he expected to see, but it wasn’t this.
Inside there was darkness, and then he saw the light reflecting off of two eyes.
He heard someone whisper “help me.”
He walked in, and saw an old man chained in the center of the room. His hands were strung up, pulled apart and wrapped - chained to the ceiling. His feet chained to the floor. There were chains around his neck, legs, torso, and arms. Twelve in all.
The man, though, looked undeserving of such measures. He was so emaciated that every Ivan could see the outlines of every bone. To quote Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club, he looked like a skeleton dipped in wax. Ivan looked up to the man’s face, and saw that he was trying to say something. His eyes, sunken and beady, looked around hungrily, and his skin was stretched so thin over his sharp cheekbones that Ivan could see his dry, cracked tongue under move under his cheeks. He was trying to say something, but only breathy nothing came out. His frayed lips moved, and Ivan understood. He ran to grab the man some water.
He ran to the well and pulled up a bucket, running back to the dungeon. The man was slumped over, his chains taut, with the wisps of his gray hair shielding his face. Ivan gave him the bucket to drink from, and he drained it, but it was not enough. Ivan ran to get a second bucket, and the man drank that. Ivan ran to get a third, and he downed that as well.
Ivan ran to get a fourth, and when he was at the door he heard, “wait.” Ivan spun around, and saw the man standing there, no longer held by his chains, but holding them. In an instant, the old man flung his arms out, and tore the chains link from link. All twelve rained down to the floor around him.
Ten years, he said. Ten years she’s kept him, without food or drink or rest. He’s died a thousand deaths, but now it would be the princess’s turn. He thanked the young prince, and said for his kindness in freeing the old man, he would let him live. Unfortunately, the old man said, Ivan would sooner see his own ears than Princess Marya again, apparently forgetting we live in a world where mirrors exist.
Lightning began radiating from the man, striking around the bare stone room. Smoke began swirling around him, and consumed the whole room. Ivan was flung on his back, out into the hall, and in an instant, the room was calm. The man was gone.
Ivan got his armor, the scantest amount of provisions and his weapons, and jumped on his horse, spurring him to a gallop. The princess and her forces shouldn't have gotten far.
It wasn't long before he was upon the destruction. Everyone was milling about around a spot of torn up ground and a horse lying dead. Apparently Marya had been riding at the head of her army when lightning struck. A whirlwind came out of the sky, blinding those nearby. When it cleared, she was gone.
He barely waited for the soldier to finish before he galloped off. Ivan knew he had done something horrible. He should have listened to his wife, should have trusted her. To fight a magician, he needed magicians. He rode off in the direction of his sisters’ castles.
He rode through the day and night and day until he came to the first castle. They greeted him warmly, and he consulted with his brother-in-law, the falcon magician. His countenance changed when he learned of what happened.
The magician wasn’t sure, but the man in the dungeon could be a sorcerer that disappeared over a decade ago. He ruled a land far away, and his name was Koschei, and he was extremely dangerous. When he found out that Ivan meant to confront him, he asked for a small item from Ivan, something made of silver. Ivan rustled through his pack, and found a small silver spoon. Because even when royalty hastily packs their bags, even their camping equipment is made of pure silver. He stayed briefly and left for the next castle.
At the next one, he was greeted warmly and explained what happened. He learned more about the sorcerer. He had an insanely fast, talking horse. He could cover kingdoms in hours, completely aside from his significant magical prowess. He also rides around naked, for some reason. It was definitely Koschei, but that was all the Eagle magician knew. He also requested an item, also of silver. Ivan gave him a silver fork, bade them farewell, and left.
Finally he came to his youngest sister’s castle. Here, he learned what he needed to know He was known as Koschei the deathless, because he simply could not die. He had been the same age for decades and decades. More importantly, the raven magician knew where he was. The kingdom had been abandoned for a decade, but if Ivan was going to find Marya, she would be there. On his way out, his brother-in-law asked him for a silver item. He insisted on it. Ivan reluctantly parted with his silver snuffbox, and left.
Meanwhile, in Koschei's castle, princess Marya sat in her room. The last time she had heard of Koschei's exploits – of him taking young women and keeping them captive. A friend of hers was taken, and so she roused her army, rode to his castle, and took the wizard. Marya had never been taken herself.
Now that she was she could see that it was...not horrible. Sure, there was a thick layer of dust on everything, and her captor was an evil, almost-skeletal monster, but he didn't harm her in any way. In fact, she had her own space and could do as she liked. Except if she wanted to leave. She definitely could not leave.
Now, seeing Koschei the Deathless up close, she saw a duality within him. Something powerful and dangerous – a demonic unpredictability and madness that the world knew, but also something quiet and human. A person who would bubble up to the surface occassionally and fill the mad eyes with a deep sadness and longing for human connection. In those flickers of humanity, she almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
She was a warrior princess. Kings bowed to her. She would not die in obscurity, another maiden taken by Koschei. She would get out of here, and be the death of him. This aggression would not stand, man.
Every day she played the part, but secretly looked for escape or some advantage she could use over him.
Ivan rode, provisioned, along the road. He slept on the ground and rode for days until he came to the border of Koschei’s lands. He crossed in, and everything was wild and overgrown. It has been a decade since the ruler set foot in it, yet no one had dared to try to take it. Everyone knew he wasn’t gone for good. He was Koschei the Deathless.
He rode up to a castle, and saw no watchman or any manner of guard, and rode straight up. He entered.
The weight of the door carried it, and gray light from the outside illuminated a carpet of dust and cobwebs. He heard footsteps, and before he could draw his sword, she was there. Yes, she.
It was Marya, and when she saw it was him she embraced him, then swatted at his armor for allowing Koschei to escape.
He said, you know what, let’s not spend time trying to figure out who let the deathless sorcerer out of his prison and let’s go. Apparently Koschei was out hunting, so Marya jumped on the back of Ivan’s horse, and they rode off.
Hours later, Koschei was trotting up, naked on his horse. Yeah, he actually did ride around naked. If you’re wondering why he does that, why the horse can talk, why the brothers-in-law can turn into birds, well, so am I. The official sources for all these things are contradictory on a lot of points, so it seems it’s a lot to ask to get a consistent story, let alone have the story make sense.
Anyway, the horse drops to his knees. Koschei strokes his mane and asks if he is ill. The horse says, no, use your eyes. Your door is open. Also, the scent of some Russian man is all over the road, along with Marya. He came and rescued his wife.
Koschei gasped, and asked if it was possible to catch them. The horse then replies in the first of several ridiculously cocky statements about himself. He says he’s so fast, they could sow wheat in the field, reap it, thresh it, grind it to flour, make five pies out of it, eat those pies, and then start, and still catch them before they are out of his realm.
Koschei says…Ok, yeah…I get it, you’re fast, let’s just go. And they speed off.
In no time, they catch the pair. Koschei uses some magic to freeze them in place, and plucks Marya off the horse. He looks down at the helpless Ivan, the breath from long-rotted teeth wafting in the prince’s face. His hand goes to his sword, and he pauses. He smiles, and says that because Ivan was so gracious in letting him out, he gets a pass this time. And you know what, he understands Ivan’s gonna want to try to rescue her again, and if he does, Koschei will forgive him again. He says this with a chuckle.
He continues laughing as he says that if Ivan keeps at it, and tries it a third time, he’ll cut him to pieces. He stops laughing, and Ivan sees the fire in the sorcerer’s eyes. He doesn’t look like a crazy, naked old man on a horse, but the demon that shattered his chains in Marya’s castle. Koschei rides off with Marya.
So, yeah, Ivan tries again a day later, when Koschei is out. This time, as they are coming back, the horse says that he is so fast that they would have time to sow barley, wait for it to grow, reap it, thresh it, use it to brew beer, get drunk on the beer, sleep it off, and then set off, and they would still catch them.
Koschei says that I don’t think that’s even pos--- you know what, whatever, let’s just go.
They catch them again, and as he’s riding off with Marya, again, Koschei says through chuckles that he’s going to cut Ivan to pieces if he sees him again.
Ivan sat there, on his horse, and wept. He would be caught, of course, but he couldn’t let this stand. He had to go back for his wife. He tried again the next day. Earlier. Maybe they could get to safety before he caught them.
As Koschei was riding up, the horse again smelled Ivan. He said that he’s so fast that – and Koschei interrupts him. That’s getting pretty old. Let’s just go.
They ride up to Ivan and Marya, and again Koschei plucks Marya off the horse with his magic. Instead of his idle threats, though, he wordlessly, grabs his sword. With this magic sword, he slices Ivan from shoulder to hip, and then three more times before the man can fall to the ground in pieces. He is dead. Marya screams and sobs as she sees the organs and blood of the man mingled with the dirt and stone of the road.
Koshei calmly dismounts and whistles to himself as he scoops up Ivan’s pieces, putting him in a bag he had hanging off the horse. He rides back to his castle, drops Ivan’s pieces off in a barrel, seals it with pitch, binds it with metal hoops, and rolls it into the sea.
As soon as his sword glided through Ivan's torso, though, somewhere far away, the silver items Ivan left with his brothers-in-law turned black. The three magicians knew what this meant, and carried the message amongst themselves. Days later, they met on the highest tower of one of the brothers' castles. They all transformed into their bird forms and took off for the sea.
The eagle, using the silver, found the barrel and caught it in his talons. The other two had the water of life and the water of death. They popped open the barrel, and found the stinking remains of prince Ivan. Carefully and disgustingly, they pieced him back together and sprinkled him with the waters, and he healed and came back to life.
“Wow, I’ve been asleep for a long time,” he said, and then what happened flashed before his eyes.
“You’d have been asleep a lot longer, if it weren’t for us,” the birdmen said.
As an aside, it seems like the writers or storytellers are quickly losing control of the fantastical elements of this story. They’re like, oh, you’re willing to suspend disbelief for magicians who can turn into giant birds and a sorcerer that can’t die? Ok, well here’s a talking horse. Oh, and now we can bring people back to life like it’s nothing. It’s ok though, there’ll be another sorcerer coming up and a magic handkerchief.
Anyway, against everyone’s pleading, he goes back for Marya. He’s smarter this time, and doesn’t take her away immediately.
Also, apparently Koschei hasn’t harmed her at all. He’s just keeping her there and playing house. I mean, if she weren’t being held there against her will by an decrepit, evil sorcerer, well, it would almost be pleasant.
He asks her where Koschei got that ridiculously fast steed, and she says she doesn’t know, but she’ll ask him when the time is right. He steals out a side passage, and camps in the forest that night.
Back in the castle, Koschei and Marya are eating dinner, and, presumably to break the extremely awkward silence of eating a meal with your kidnapper, she asks where he got the horse. He tells her a fantastic story.
Beyond thrice nine lands, in the thirtieth kingdom, so really really far away, there lives Baba Yaga across a fiery river.
I should back up and talk about Baba Yaga. She’s an old crone who lives in the forest – a famous witch from Russian folklore. She lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and flies around in a mortar wielding a pestle, because of course she does. She’s largely either an antagonist or ambiguous in her stories, but she can be helpful. She’s perhaps the only being more powerful than Koschei. I could do a whole episode on her, and might, but since this is Koschei’s story, this will have to suffice for today.
Anyway, Baba Yaga had Koschei watch her horses, and since he didn’t lose one, she gave him a foal which grew up into his steed, which he apparently rides around on naked.
But how’d you get over the river of fire, Marya asks, and he smiles. I don’t know if he’s just excited that they’re bonding or what, but he pulls out a handkerchief, saying that if he waves it three times with his right hand, a bridge will spring up. And, you know what, why don’t you hold on to it, he says to Marya, and gives it to her.
The next day, she tells Ivan and gives him the handkerchief. He sets off for the thirtieth kingdom.
It takes him weeks to traverse the lands, staying anonymously in inns in the civilized parts, and camping out under the stars, in caves, and in forests when he couldn’t find any lodging. Through rain, snow, bogs, and moors, he came at last to the fiery river.
He waved the handkerchief, and a massive earthen bridge shot out of the ground in front of him, arced, and landed on the other side of the river. Ivan crossed, and as soon as he stepped foot on the bank, the bridge crumbled to dirt.
He traveled for several days in this new, wild land, completely running out of provisions. He came to a chicken’s nest, and was about to eat the eggs when a chicken begged him, yes, begged him, not to eat her children. She’ll do a good turn by him, she promises. Since it’s very different to eat scrambled eggs when the mother is pleading with you, he relents, and goes on. He finds some bees, and as he’s about to reach his hand in and take the honey, since that’s apparently no big deal, the queen bee begs that he not, and he agrees, though he’s still starving. He finds lion cubs, and as he’s about to run then through with his blade and eat them, the mom comes and once again pleads with him instead of mauling him. He sighs and says, yes, ok, I won’t eat your children, and continues on.
In a marsh, he’s about to collapse into the mud from starvation when he sees Baba Yaga’s house. It’s a hut atop chicken legs, and around it are twelve pikes. Eleven of the pikes have a human head on them, but the twelth is empty. A wizened face pops out of the doorway.
Hail, prince Ivan, she says, and asks why he’s here. He says he wants one of her famous horses, and will do anything for it. She says great! And in her best infomercial pitch, she says that he won’t have to work for her for a year, or even six months. This horse is available for three easy payments of one day of work. Basically he’ll have to work for her for three days.
Ok, this seems reasonably enough, he says, what’ll I need to do? Oh, just keep the horses in one place? How hard can that be? They’re only magical talking horses that are really fast. She says that if he doesn’t, he shouldn’t be offended if she takes his head and sticks it on a pike. Really, with all due respects, she’s just going to murder him and stick his head on a pike. He agrees to it, and camps out that night.
In the morning, he leads the horses out to the field where they graze, and they immediately bolt in every direction. His jaw drops and the color drains from his face. He chases after them, but they are too fast. He sits down, and weeps. Exhausted after his trip, sleep takes him.
The Birds and the Bees...and the Tigers
He wakes up, and all the horses are there. Baba Yaga is stomping out of the forest, fuming. Why didn’t they run off? She asks them, and the horses say that they tried, but they were attacked on all sides by chickens unless they returned to this field. Yes, the horses learned what anyone who has ever played the Legend of Zelda games has learned – nothing is more relentless than angry chickens in groups. The chickens were threatening to peck the horses’ eyes out and were just really rude and mean and they don’t want to talk about it. The chickens did this to repay Ivan for not eating the eggs on his trip in. Baba Yaga tells them to go into the forest next time, smiles at Ivan, and they take the horses back to the stables.
The next day the same thing happens, but lions chase them back. The third day, they take off yet again, but bees attack and drive them back. As this is happening, one tells him that they overheard that Baba Yaga is going to betray the man and kill him anyway, to keep from parting with one of her horses. There’s a sorry little colt that rolls in the mud, the bee says, and if Ivan steals it in the dead of night, he can probably make it to the river of fire before Baba Yaga wakes.
That evening, Baba Yaga is exceedingly pleasant. She says that she will happily give him the horse, but he should really wait for the morning, as it is dangerous to ride in darkness through the wilderness. He sees exactly what’s going on, and camps out by the stables.
In the dead of night, after he can see the lights go out in Baba Yaga’s hut, he finds the blue colt, and steals off. It’s dark and dangerous, but no more dangerous than staying near the witch’s hut. He spurs the horse on and he goes as fast as he has ever gone in his life.
The sun moves over the horizon and Baba Yaga’s eyes open. She first sees the empty pike out front, and smiles when she remembers Ivan’s fate, but then sees that his camp is gone and one of her colts is gone. She screams in rage, mounts a horse, and rides off after him.
Ivan had been riding all night, but the horse he stole was the least of Baba Yaga’s horses, and so she was able to catch up to him just as he was getting close to the fiery river. He sees her, and screams for his horse to go. He waves the handkerchief, and the bridge can barely form fast enough for his horse to gallop over. He looks back as he is almost to the other side, and sees that Baba Yaga had closed the gap, and wasn’t more than twenty feet behind him. His foot touches the ground, though, and the bridge turns to loose dirt beneath her feet. She tumbles down into the river, and her shrieks quickly die out.
Ivan had to imagine that she was dead, though he himself had been dead only a few weeks ago, so that might not be the last of Baba Yaga. Still, she wasn’t chasing him anymore.
Even better, he found that the blue colt, now outside of Baba Yaga’s realm, stood taller and began to look less sickly. As he rode on and grazed on this grass, he started looking better and better until he surpassed any steed Ivan had seen with Baba Yaga. He rode for Koschei’s castle.
The Death of Koschei the Deathless
Koschei is apparently always out hunting for food for them during the day, because Ivan found Marya alone. At first, Marya was resistant. He’s just going to slice Ivan to pieces again, but then she saw his horse and heard about Baba Yaga. They would be able to outrun him. They took off.
Koschei returned with his horse, who kneeled down and smelled the ground. This again? Alright, Koschei said to his horse, what ridiculous thing are you going to say now? His horse said…well…I can’t catch them.
What? Said Koschei
Yeah, the horse he’s on smells like one from Baba Yaga. Smells fast, too, though I have no idea how that works.
The gaping loneliness of Koschei’s solitude stood before him in the form of the door to his dank, dusty castle. He had to give chase. His horse complied, and they went after Ivan.
Koschei and his horse look ahead across the moors, and could see Ivan and Marya. Koschei pressed his horse harder and harder and spit flew from the beast’s mouth. Little could be heard over the hooves and the horse hungrily sucking at air.
Then they were gaining quickly. It was as if Ivan and Marya had stopped. Koschei smiled. They had stopped. Their horse must have become weary and refused to go on. He slid his sword out and approached, slowing down to a trot.
They didn’t turn around through, but remained sitting on the horse, staring into the distance. The horse towered over Koschei’s and the old sorcerer thought that he would need to take it for his own as he walked up. He wouldn’t have the chance, though. The horse’s back hoof came up, and buried itself in Koschei’s face in a powerful kick.
It sent the wiry old man sprawling backwards, unconscious. Ivan leapt off his horse and unhooked a mace he apparently had with him the whole time. He would waste no time. He ran up to Koschei just as the man was regaining consciousness. Koschei made to swipe upward with the sword he had in his hand, but Ivan was faster. He stepped on Koschei’s wrist, pinning it to the ground. He spent the next few using his mace to turn Koschei the Deathless into a dented carpet of flesh that almost resembled a corpse.
No one could come back from that, they thought, but they wanted to be sure. Ivan hadn’t finished with Koschei before Marya had a fire ready. They found dry wood in the surrounding wilderness and got it hot, cremating the man who was supposedly immortal. Afterward, they scooped up the ashes and carried them back to their kingdom in a bag.
Ivan was a successful and renowned king, and Marya a fierce queen, she being the more competent and intelligent of the pair. They had a long reign, and in their travels they would scatter bits of Koschei the Deathless here and there, on all the winds of the earth.
Years passed. Decades, and Ivan and Marya both died in peace, but this story isn’t about Ivan or Marya.
Koschei’s lands lay barren and his castle, door left open, became a haven for wild animals and any brigand brave enough to spend a night not only in Koschei’s lands, but in his castle.
The world, though, is a small place, and the directions on the compass and their winds are not completely separated from each other. The wind that blows in a far off land will eventually travel to this one, bearing all manner of things. Leaves, snow, dust, ash. The same magic that cursed Koschei to his extended life was drawing the pieces of his back together, assembling him in the high tower.
Gradually, anyone brave enough to stay the night in Koschei’s castle began to hear something coming from the tall tower, and on clear nights, you could see the faintest flicker of a light. Some would say that on the winds you could hear screaming and laughter and sobbing and curses coming from the horrible place.
Next week, we’ll finish up the story Koschei the deathless and you’ll see that if Voldemort had one of his horcruxes hidden the way Koschei’s is, well, the Harry Potter series would have ended very differently.
Now for the obligatory, if you’ve enjoyed the show, please rate or review it on iTunes. Want to have your phone automatically download my sometimes-crackly baritone voice every Tuesday night? Just hit subscribe in iTunes. Links are in the show notes.
Creature of the week
The creature this week is another American one, from the South. She comes from Gullah culture in the Carolinas and Georgia – basically from people who are the decendents of African slaves brought to the Americas. The creature is called the boo hag.
The boo hag is a skinless old woman who is kind of like the vampire, but without the blood sucking thing. No, she gains sustenance from sucking the breath of sleeping victims.
During the day, the boo hag wears skins she has stolen like one would wear clothes, so that she’s able to remain hidden. At night, she takes off the skin, folds it neatly, and goes riding. Much like the Alp, she can sneak in your room through any open door, keyhole, or crack in the wall. If you wake up to find a skinless old lady sitting on your chest, sucking at your nostrils, you should just let it happen. Fighting her can lead to her stealing your skin. Besides, she’ll be gone by morning when she needs to get back to her skin.
You can know she’s coming because the room will feel very hot and damp, you know, like it always feels in the American South, and the room will smell like something rotten. You’ll know you were ridden by a boo hag, because you’ll wake up still feeling tired the next morning. Thankfully, the boo hag won’t steal so much of your energy that it kills you – why kill you when she can just keep coming back?
She apparently shares another trait with the vampire through – extreme compulsions to count everything. If you want her to stay away, just put a broomstick by your bed and she’ll feel a compulsion to count the individual straws or a strainer, and she’ll feel the need to count the holes. If you leave enough of them, she’ll be so busy counting that by morning she won’t have gotten to you, and will need to return to her skin.
This legend has led to a phrase in the Carolinas and Georgia where, to wish someone a good night, you’ll say, “don’t let da hag ride ya.”