A gurgling cry broke the morning stillness. A veiny hand burst from the icy river and clutched at the frozen bank. The skin was pale and had a blue tint, and a strangled roar erupted from the ravaged man that feebly hauled himself out of the water. With great difficulty, he lifted his head a few inches from the ground to see a horse-drawn carriage slowing on the road. A man and woman sat high on the carriage and gestured animatedly in his direction while talking.
They scrambled down from the carriage; the man leading the way at a brisk pace.
“Sir, are you all right?”
The nigh-drowned man could not manage a response, only a weak groan.
“Of course he’s not, you idiot,” the woman snapped, “Just look at him. He’s been shot. And stabbed and who knows what else.”
“Perhaps we could help. What is your name, sir? I am Joseph and this is my friend, Nadia.”
“Dmitri,” he lied with a croak. In reality, it was his son’s name, but he had often donned it in the past. He coughed then, his body convulsing, acrid water escaping his lungs, the pain washing over him anew.
The woman huffed and looked at the sky, seeking help from above.
“Exchanging names? Come on, let’s get him up,” she said.
The man calling himself Joseph groused under his breath, stalked closer and secured a tight grip before heaving upward.
Dmitri leaned heavily into the man as they staggered toward the carriage. He winced as broken ribs crunched together. His eyes rolled around of their own accord and the world spun, but he still noted the woman, Nadia, appraising him thoroughly as they struggled along. She was no doubt inspecting the many wounds he had suffered and an equal number of questions.
“Quite the mess,” she remarked as she marched beside the two men, her deep green dress lifted slightly to avoid dragging on the ground.
Somewhere in Dmitri’s addled mind, the horse registered. He had to get the horse and had no time to debate it. With a desperate lunge, he pulled free of the man’s grasp and hurled himself toward the animal. It was only a few steps away, but the effort was crushing. He grabbed the harness as he fell and then dragged himself closer. He sensed that the couple behind him had stopped. They said nothing as he rubbed his other hand and his head against the horse, profane words pouring forth almost without thought. The words were no language that anyone present understood, other than the horse.
The fog in his mind dissipated, but the weakness of his body persisted. He sagged further, his hold slipped and he crumpled to the ground. He laid on his back, panting. The horse stood over him and snuffled quietly.
“He’s mad,” Joseph finally pronounced from somewhere. “Absolutely mad.”
“All the more reason to help,” Nadia retorted as she approached. Delicate hands tugged at his arms, attempting to lift him. “Don’t just stand there, help me.”
The couple manhandled him into the carriage. The wife wrapped him in a thin blanket that lay in the front seat. Her gaze kept drifting to his eyes as he watched her work without speaking. Joseph stood impatiently with one boot on the foot-board and only watched. The woman seemed more determined than her husband to help him.
Dmitri shuddered in the back as the carriage once again began to creak forward along the cobblestones. His thoughts grew stronger and clearer at a rapid pace that surprised even him.
“Thank you for your kindness,” he began, “Not everyone would have stopped and helped someone in my state.”
Joseph glanced back.
“You do seem to have made some enemies,” he mused. “What happened to you exactly?”
“I was assaulted on the bridge by several men,” Dmitri said after some hesitation. The woman sat sideways so she could watch him. Their eyes held each other.
He continued, “I’m not sure that I knew any of them, but they were quite determined to kill me. None of them actually spoke that I remember.”
Joseph turned his gaze to Nadia and noticed that she was staring.
“Are you okay, love?”
She startled and blinked before returning his look, “Yes, fine.”
“Why are you staring at him?”
“I’m not,” she turned her attention forward again. “Just drive, would you?”
Dmitri changed the subject quickly, “That’s a fine horse, you have. Thanks to him, I’m feeling much more myself now.”
Nadia looked back over her shoulder occasionally as he talked and Dmitri winked at her once, prompting a shy smile that she immediately hid.
“Oh? The horse?” Joseph said. “What do you mean?”
“I simply asked him for the gift of his strength and he was kind enough to share it,” Dmitri lied again. He had not asked the horse, exactly.
“That’s… good,” Joseph said haltingly. “Do you hold conversations with horses often?”
“Oh, yes,” Dmitri said. “I’ve had something of a gift since I was a boy. A kind of bond. It was only until I spent some years to the south with some nomads did I truly know horses.”
He shifted slightly to sit more upright. Most of his pain had dulled, but the bleeding had slowed little.
The carriage jolted, lurched and then continued. Dmitri could see that that the horse was fading quickly.
“Wha — What did you do to my horse?” There was now concern and accusation in Joseph’s tone.
“He did nothing, Joseph,” Nadia admonished. “Don’t be silly.”
“Well, look at it. It’s acting as though it were drunk,” he motioned at the staggering beast. “Or poisoned.”
Even as he said it, Joseph’s posture grew more rigid.
“I did nothing of the sort,” Dmitri assured him. Nadia was once again staring at his eyes with a bemused smirk on her face.
He continued, staring back, “Though I do fear that my condition was much worse than I thought. I must apologize.”
“Apologize?” Joseph said. His confusion gave way to suspicion. The tiniest of quavers had entered his voice.
The horse stumbled again and then collapsed violently; the carriage heaving up and forward before it crashed back down. Nadia flew forward and barely caught herself before flying over the front rail. Dmitri was beside himself with glee. She was completely distracted and would not see what happened next.
Dmitri clenched his fist and struck.
The knuckle of his thumb hammered against Joseph’s temple with the speed of a cobra. Joseph grunted and toppled, prompting Nadia to look. She allowed a short shriek before clasping her hand over her mouth and stared with shock as Joseph slumped over into her lap.
Dmitri waited until her eyes met his before he moved or spoke.
“Everything will be fine, my flower,” he crooned. “I do believe the horse has strength enough left to help us both.”
“What are you doing?” she stammered as Dmitri clumsily dragged the unconscious Joseph from the wagon, dumping the man onto the cold ground.
“Just having another chat with the horse,” he huffed, pulling the body closer to the horse. Blood ran freely from his aggravated wounds.
Dmitri arranged himself, Joseph and the horse in a haphazard pile. He retrieved a short blade from his boot and sliced the horse’s flesh as deeply as he could. The horse whinnied and lifted its head, but then laid back down, unable to do anything else. Dmitri sliced Joseph’s hand open and pressed it to the horse’s wound, mingling their blood.
“Oh,” Nadia gasped quietly. She watched with clear fascination, looking at Dmitri’s eyes several times. Dmitri added his own blood to the collection and chanted a whispered phrase over and over.
She could hold back anymore and blurted, “You are Rasputin, aren’t you? I know your eyes, and — and the horse magic. You’re him. The sorcerer.”
Dmitri slumped with his back to the horse which had stopped breathing. He stared back at Nadia and hauled Joseph into his lap.
“Yes, my flower,” he said with a sleepy slur. “You’re very clever, I see. Sorceror may be a bit of an exaggeration, though.”
After a long pause, she asked, “Will Joseph be all right?”
“Hmm. I do apologize about the horse,” Rasputin said with a sad smile and closed his eyes. “You see, I needed his strength to move my essence…”
Nadia swallowed and waited a few seconds for the sorcerer to continue, but he did not. She tentatively poked at his shoulder. His head lolled back and she flinched.
Joseph inhaled sharply, lurched upward and went rigid, convulsing and waving his hands in search of something. Nadia fell backward, her dress billowing under her.
Recovering quickly, she scrambled to assist Joseph upright as he gagged. “Joseph! Are you all right?”
He waved away her administrations and blinked at her dumbly before speaking, “Joseph… yes…”
Joseph closed his eyes and rubbed his face before looking back at her. Her head tilted quizzically as he made eye contact.
“Don’t be alarmed, my flower,” he offered. “Your friend did not suffer.”
Nadia looked back and forth from him to the horse and Rasputin’s corpse.
Joseph struggled to his feet and took her hand, pulling her upright. He captured her attention with his piercing gaze.
“We should be away from here,” he said in a low tone. “This… would be awkward to explain and we have much to do. Much to do. You and I are going make Joseph Stalin a household name. And I have such wonders to show you.”
“Yes, of course,” she whispered from her trance, her eyes exploring his face as they strolled away from Rasputin’s corpse.