‘For fuck’s sake… bastards…’ mumbled Khariton, a stocky, shaggy and bearded ginger bloke with a long bestial scar across his face. Dangling his feet, chewing a straw, with a flask, a dagger and a loaded shotgun beside him, he sat in the horse-drawn cart stuck in the traffic jam on the serpentine road bending around the mountain. Khariton peeked over the bend and saw countless carts, some carriages and stagecoaches, one motorcar (bloody fumer), pedestrians, lurking among the vehicles, militia patrols keeping it all in vague order; in the distance – people swearing at each other, struggling to free the way by turning one large cart that blocked it, transversally – all jammed like it's the bloody exodus or a sales day. He looked down the road’s edge near him, swallowed, and sneezed, losing the lousy balance of his position to gravity and almost falling off his cart. Downwards, dozens of metres or more, polishing the black stones, splashing, gurgling, the river murmured. Khariton felt dizzy, closed his eyes, turned around, leaned against the cart's side, and looked at the large chest behind him, padlocked, and wheeled for transportation conveniences.
'Once upon a time, I ‘ad a hustle in that bloody cold place in the mountains, there,' Khariton started his story, pointing to the mountain, a chain of enormous grey cones studded with a density of fir trees and other coniferous greenfinches, their tips shyly hidden in thick clouds, fighting for the reign over the pastel blue firmament. In response, a series of thuds sounded from inside the chest. '’ush! Quiet there! Lemme finish me story and then you can litter t’ air wi’ yer dutty words again.'
'Let me out, you bearded cunt! I’m thirsty!' sounded a nasty hoarse voice.
Khariton grabbed the chest by the handle and pulled closer.
'Cunt on me again and I'll...'
'Cunt, cunt, cunt! You bearded cunt, you've mistaken me for someone else. For the hundredth time, LET-ME-O...'
Pulling the chest closer, Khariton pounded his fist on it. '’ush! People ‘ere ain't nesh. A yabberin’ chest wun’t surprise ‘em either. Can you ‘ear t’ water murmuring beneath? One moor peep, an’ al’ set you on a few seconds flight to say ‘ey up’ to them stones. Nice fellas, they are – chill, serious, ‘arrrd. You'll bloody love ‘em.' Khariton sighed tiredly. 'An’ fuck t’ reward,' added he, leaning closer to the chest. 'Is that clear, lad?'
Silence. Khariton patted the chest, turned around, rubbed his nose. 'Good lad...' said he, and indulged in a savoury sneeze, spattering a generous amount of snot around, then uncorked his flask. 'Reight. So, once upon a time, I worked in t’ mountains, serving as a nightmilitia. Month or two ago it was.' Khariton paused to sip from the flask and grimaced. ‘Can’t remember, lad. I was militiaing ibex, a reight good flock of ‘em, furry bastards. Then, one bloody cold, coldblooded morning we noticed two goats went missing from the flock. Poof! Disappeared, imagine those bastards! It dint tek long for us to realise tha’ one sneaky creature, who was hiding in a cave during the daylight, had robbed us of two horned pets with which I was entrusted. See, the night before, I was sitting by t’ fireplace, wholly holly-golly warm inside out: ‘art, soul, and arse – all that, first supping, then burping and farting wi’ flammable substances together wi’ me comrade – a wretch’n’twat, as it turned out. The creature ‘ad encroached upon our possessions, and Maria, oh, Maria, me magnificent mistress, ‘ad instructed Boris, tha’ twat, an’ me to deal wi’ that fearsome feral bastard and... Ahh... Shan’t this deed pave a path for me to her fervent ‘art! Aye!’ said Khariton, basking in engorging memories of callipygian shapes.
'He-he!' laughed the chest.
'What's funny, lad?' said Khariton, and spilt some liquid from the flask onto the chest. It seeped through the thin gaps between the boards and rained inside. '’ere, ye’re welcome, thirsty little bastard! Cheers!'
'Fuck! What I lacked here is a bearded cunt pissing on me. No courage, no honour, you, fucking dimwit!'
'Eh! What have you called piss?'
'Ha! You've just called it so yourself!'
Pulling the dagger, Khariton plunged it deep into one of the chest lid’s gaps so whoever was inside it hurried to dodge the weapon, twitch, and adopt the silence. 'Bloody smartarse bastard...' said he, dissatisfied. The silence, weirdly, was eerie. The least Khariton wanted now is to ruin his quest. 'Are you still alive out there, aye, lad?' asked Khariton, and sneezed again. He took a garlic clove from his pocket and ate it.
'Your knife is shite, too!'
'Aye, alive then. Anyway... Listen… I’m narrating… Me magnificent Maria ordered me to obtain some fangs of the nightly beast, and Boris, that wretch’n’twat, came wi’ me. He said he had courage, a trap, a shotgun, and steel axes – perfect instruments to beat the living bastard shite out of the feral bastard. So I trusted ‘im and we went to wait for the beast by t’ cave. Bloody freezing it was, (Khariton sneezed) and we thought: let's wrap ourselves in some warm fur coats, sit down and wait, and Borya was like, “I'm gonna go and bring us some warm fur coats and ammo, I forgot the ammo,” and went away. Now I don't know if he had the courage or maybe he didn't, I'm not sure ‘ere, and I'm not sure about the coats either, because somehow, whether ‘e ‘ad the courage or not, that bastard din't come back and left me standing in the blizzard wi’out guns or coats, freezing me ‘airy arse off - just like if I was a total twat, too, not able to understand a damn thing (he sneezed). Ain't I right?'
The absence of sounds from the chest was bloody annoying.
'Oi, lad, are you still there? Ain't I right, I'm saying?'
'Right about what?' said the chest, wryly.
'That twat bastard. See, what yer see don’t always match what t’ other man’s tongue wiggles to yer. An experienced and mature man would believe ‘is own eyes more, except being drunk maybe, and the fact that you're some kind of a midget and not a chort, I won't believe whatever shite yer pour into me ears from yer filthy mouth!'
'THEN OPEN THE FUCKING CHEST AND SEE ME YOURSELF, YOU CUNT!'
‘Nah, if I unlock it, you'll brek out and cripple everyone around ‘ere, mebbe even murder. That's what t’ client told me. Do you think I'm a fool? Do you tek me for an idiot? Everyone knows the only thing more deceitful and menacing than a chort is a mountaineer in one of them drunken stupors.'
Here, another amply hairy bloke approached Khariton's cart from the front. He had nothing interesting in his appearance apart from bright blue eyes, raven hair with silver linings, a shrivelled and frayed beard and moustache, a blissfully stupid grin, protruding ears, and a big bag made of an old sack.
Khariton noticed him and cheered in relief. 'Huh! Here comes the courier!'
Howbeit, once Khariton looked into the courier's face, his cheerful mood evaporated. He took his flask and threw it into the courier, shouting, 'Oi, you, wretch’n’twat!' Khariton jumped off the card and pummelled the courier. He groaned and hit back.
'Oi! Stop that, bastards, I have no time for you,' shouted one of the militia, a Zmei, which is a hefty anthropometric lizard, large tail, emerald scale, teeth, those dreadful teeth, crescent eyes, golden, clear, full ammunition, causing attrition of trust, tightening rectal fear, as he strolled nearby the conflicting hooligans. Khariton and the courier heard him and, ruffled and alerted, noted and obeyed the order, retreating to Khariton’s cart.
'Is tha’ out o’ yer mind, lad?' asked the courier.
'Don't recognise me, eh, Boris, yer bastard?'
'Ah, Khorya!’ said Boris, squinting. ’You alright? I see time hasn't bin kind to yer.'
'You’re the reason for it, traitor.'
Khariton knocked Boris on the head, rather friendly. Boris shoved him back. The Zmei militia busted them up again. 'I said stop that right now!' They nodded in response, clenching their lips, shivers running across their hairy backs. Khariton climbed up to his wagon, and sneezed again, blowing snot and drooling conically.
'Still sulking, ain’t you, lad? Maria refused to give me t’ fur coats, saying "they aren’t reserved for twats". Instead, she told me to seek ‘em... well, in the village,' said Boris, climbing up the cart and placing himself near Khariton. 'So, I went to t’ village and drank myself to sleep.' He paused. 'Wait, did you stay by the cave all that time?'
Angry Khariton only muttered in return.
'Ha-ha-ha!' laughed Boris. 'Why?'
'He-he-he!' laughed the chest, hysterically. 'To freeze his hairy arse off, of course! He-he-he!'
Khariton slammed the chest.
'Boris, you're the first bearded twat that could cheer me up like that! I’m literally spinning in this pissed coffin, getting colics in my guts.'
'My pleasure, Chest,' said Boris and saluted, then, whispering, added, 'So, Khorya, tell me, is it that most wanted chort? Fer real?' He took a folded sheet of paper out of his bag and handed it to Khariton. On it, there was painted a menacing, hellish creature, a dark woolly man with red eyes, horns and hoofs and a tail, absolutely fucking criminal.
‘Yes, but the bastard says he ain’t no chort but a midget. Just like us, but a little lad.’
‘Midget? Wait, haven’t yer seen him yerself?’
'I understand that you brave lads were born somewhere in a ditch in the arse end out of the womb of a mother enthusiastically consuming snuff, both are good fellas, to and fro, but this is still humiliating and insulting when you use the word "midget". Do you know we aren’t comfortable with such an attitude?'
‘Insulting that I use the word "midget", midget?’ said Boris. ‘I'll be rewarded one hundred lucres for yer midget's head and I'm gonna use the word midget unless all o’er the midgets grow up by at least a span! Shove yer semantics up your midget arse.'
‘Ain’t there a menacing chort in any quiet midget anyway, huh?’ said Khariton.
‘True that, comrade.’
‘I’m not a chort! And I’m not menacing!’
'Well, then let's open and find out,' said Boris.
'To open ‘im, we first need to open the chest,' said Khariton, grudgingly, sending the chest into a burst of chuckles. 'And I ain’t gonna do that – I ‘ave plans for me life: I'm gonna sink in ales today, so open the chest yerself if yer don't wanna enjoy yer twatful existence anymore.'
'Wouldn't say any shorty could be dangerous, though. Not for me at least.' Boris jiggled the lock and lid of the chest, peered through the gap where the dagger still protruded, saw nothing recognisable, and sniffed. 'Smells like... well, piss, like they're supposed to smell, aye? We'll go on wi’ that!'
'I told you! He-he-he!'
Scowling and sulking, Khariton hung the shotgun on his shoulder, climbed over to the chest, grabbed it and commenced wheeling it out of the wagon, sneezing now and then.
'Where are you off to, comrade?' asked Boris.
'I've been getting jerked ‘ere since noon and already ‘eard plenty of gibberish leaking from ‘is bastard mouth. I'm gonna drop him down the cliff and look for lucres elsewhere.'
'Oi-eh! You're gonna do what, comrade? It's my ‘undred lucres right here, in this chest, and you’re gonna throw them away, aye?'
'Aye, you bet I am! You owe me for my physical suff’ring... (scratching his scar) an’ a fortune for failures in my personal life (sneezing)… See?' said Khariton, pulling the chest further.
'Just leave this midget to me if yer don't want the money.'
'Oi! Dwarfs, not midgets. Remember, you, ignoramus?' shouted the chest, preparing to giggle.
'What did you just say? Teaching me here, ain’t you, midget?' said Boris. 'You are my ‘undred lucres, I'll call yer whatever I like.'
‘T’ midget is right, Borya. Ye’re an igarames, ye’re talkin’ ‘bout a ‘undred but yer owe me thirty, which means yer must get a ‘undred plus thirty, which makes one ‘undred thirty lucres for t’ job, then thirty to me, which respectively makes one ‘undred and sixty, to ‘ave a profit out of this bloody business.’
'Yes, elementary arithmetics operations. Did you think a beard would make you a fucking Pythagoras?'
Khariton kicked the chest and, having pulled the wagon's ramp, rolled it down without sparing. Boris chased him and gripped the chest by the other side, dragging it towards himself.
'Stop! Or I'm gonna drop YOU down the cliff, Khorya!'
'I counted one ‘undred sixty lucres, we can split it equally, you give me seventy and we're even,' Khariton said, which immersed the chest into a peal of hysterical stuttering diaphragmal sounds.
'Fuck you and your seventy lucres, bastard!' exclaimed Boris and swung on Khariton.
The Zmei militia saw him and growled. 'Oi! If you start a fight again, I'll charge you five lucres each, and one more lucre per every one of my lads on the road. Understood?'
'Right. What are you hiding in the trunk from me? Smuggling illegal animals, aye?'
Khariton instinctively covered the chest with himself and gulped some emptiness. He glanced at Boris whose response was the same.
'Ghm... Ааа.. This...' mumbled Khariton and sneezed.
'Na-a-a-h, we’re just smuggling a chort, commander,' said Boris, waving his hand dismissively.
Dumbfounded, the Zmei went silent for a few moments, but then, suddenly, he burst out in a loud lizardy laugh, screechy and wheezing. Khariton and Boris exchanged confused glances again, scratched their napes, squeezing a little bit of nervous chuckle, and exploded with laughter, too.
'Huh, you're funny, humans! I like it. But...' the Zmei stopped, wiping tears, 'you're making a lot of noise. I don’t like noise. Last warning, then, remember, – five lucres and one for each of us here. If you don't have it, you're not passing through the border. Clear?'
Khariton and Boris nodded, the militia left, the chest woke up again, and whoever was there started knocking on the lid with increasing frequency. The hoarse voice started moaning from the inside.
'What a mess you fellas have made here... Was I not clear or something? Don't you understand me, don't you understand him? COMMANDER! I'M NOT A CHORT, I'M A DWARF! CAN'T YOU RECOGNISE THE KINSMAN! CAN'T YOU SEE I'M SUFFERING HERE IN PAIN AND AGONY! THERE'S NOT ENOUGH AIR! NOTHING TO DRINK, ONLY DROPS OF YOUR PISS ALE! DO YOU WANT TO KILL A DWARF? WILL YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS BEAR IT, BASTARDS? DUMB AND DUMBER, YOU FUCKING LOONIES, FUCKING CHAUVINISTS WITH ONE BRAIN FOR TWO!'
Confused, Khariton and Boris scratched their napes again, and synchronously shrugged.
‘Khariton, you know, the client won’t pay me for a midget. There’s a chort on t’ picture.’
'No way, I’m not gonna open it. Tell me, can't you read? "Extremely dangerous!" Ah, you bastard..., how much lucres do yer need to be happy?'
'And ales, aye, sure thing.'
'I dunno. Hard question.'
'Is it more than yer twatful life, Boris? I know what fighting the feral bastard is like (he pointed at his scars and sneezed)... I ain’t doing that again.'
'Then how should I know it's our chort. How do I know it's not a midget, really?'
'I'm a dwarf, for fuck’s sake, my name is Athanasios.'
'A? Atha-what?' Boris tried to clarify.
'Call me Athanasios.'
‘Shite, lad, I don't understand what you're chirping about.’
'He’s saying his name is Athanasios.'
'Oi-eh, got it! I ain’t here to solve puzzles, aye?'
'ATHANASIOS! IT'S MY NAME, YOU, CUNT!' the chest started sobbing, vanquished by the desperateness and stupidity of the situation.
Khariton kicked the chest, saying, 'Oi, stop that! Why are you crying?'
'What do you think? BECAUSE SOMEONE IS GOING TO DROP ME DOWN THE CLIFF!' shouted Athanasios, moaning.
'Why are you such a twat, Khariton? You've made t’ midget cry. I can't believe me own eyes!..'
'Nothing midget about ‘im! He's a chort! I can't believe my eyes this is happening either!'
‘Well, if it fits into a chest like a midget, sounds like a midget, then it’s probably a midget, you know?’
‘Aye, or a bloody chort!’
'I'm gonna cry more, I'm gonna cry, yes. Believe your cunt eyes and open the chest!' said the chest and submerged into artful sobbing. Khariton shook his head, readjusted his shotgun, and dragged the chest further to the road’s edge.
'Yer not throwing me gold down t’ fuckin’ pit, bastard!' resented Boris and grabbed the chest, pulling it backwards.
'You're on his side!'
'Just bring this chest to your client, and get your bloody lucres.' said Athanasios. 'You will be surprised by the face of another fat bearded cunt when instead of a chort he gets a dwarf! Well, who would put a dwarf inside a chest, if not a complete fucking sadist cunt? Or are you one of those fucking arseholes who think they are superior to those who are smaller?'
'Well, in general, yes,' said Boris.
'Sometimes, I just don't understand you, Boris. You're either fuckin’ mental or fuckin’ genious. Don't wanna pay - I'll drop him from t’ cliff - and get it over with.'
'You cannot just kill a dwarf. It’s a hate crime!'
'You are just an extra load, whoever you are. A bloody talking chest!'
'An extra load? No one has ever treated me like that! Only you, cunts! Do you know how many find it funny that small people need to prove their courage and bravery? Do you know how many think that it's fine to joke with us? Apparently, even if I were a chort, would I deserve to BE LOCKED IN A CHEST? I just want to get out of here. But what’s in the end? I am depressed!' Athanasios cried, gasping.
'Stop playing innocent here! You're a hellish creature!'
Boris rushed forward and snatched a hanging key from Khariton's belt.
'Oi!' shouted Boris in response, ‘Stop, don't do it.’
Boris inserted the key into the padlock. Khariton aimed the shotgun at Boris. 'You're not doing that!'
‘I am. What if he’s really a midget?’
‘And you believe him? Do I have to shoot you to keep you from doing something stupid? It says, “extremely dangerous”. Holy gods!’
‘Hey! I’m not dangerous, I’m a dwarf, and your gods, by the way – the greatest shite of all times, Khariton. The longer I’m inside, the more I look through the gaps and observe what’s happening around me, and eventually, I have nothing to do but admit that something is really fucked up in this world.’
‘Shut up, yer bugger!’
‘Would you agree, Boris? Something is definitely off here.’
‘Well, in general, yes,’ said Boris, nodding in affirmation, and turned the key. Immediately, Khariton aimed his shotgun at him.
‘Step back!’ said Khariton went around Boris.
‘Calm down, comrade.’
‘I ain’t calming down if you ain’t stopping your treason again!’
‘Wait, what if he’s a chort? Chorts can make wishes come true, knew that? Why give it to some fat bearded cunt which isn’t you? We open the chest and wish for all we want: lucres, ales… Maria’s heart?’
‘Aye, I see, I see now. You fuckin’ scheming bastard! If yer don’t step back – your fat arse’s wish for buckshot will come true!’
Boris ignored him and continued to rattle the key in the lock, ‘I’ve got the fastests hands in the mountains. If he tries to flee – I’ll catch. No worries. Or maybe do you have a rope?’
‘If you don’t mind, please, tell me, is everything alright in your twat’s head, aye? First, you say he’s a midget. Now you say he’s a chort. Make you mind, shan’t you?’
‘Well, better to consider all options, aye?’
‘Ps-s-s! Don't listen to this drunkard with a frostbitten arse,’ said Athanasios.
Attempts to unlock the chest were futile, either Boris was dumb, or the lock was hard, or both.
‘Oi, Khorya, did I snatch the right key? It doesn't give in.’
‘Boris, keep up the good work,’ said Athanasios, ‘This might become the beginning of a marvellous friendship.’
'Last warning, Bo...' Khariton was going to say “Boris”, but interrupted and prepared to sneeze, thoroughly. As the clown music started playing in the background, his whole body trembled, his fingers twitched, and he burst with snot and drool. Then a gunshot rang out, leaving a smoky cloud. A few droplets of blood sprinkled from Boris’s butt onto the chest. The militia buzzed in the distance and hurried to the incident, slowly getting through the traffic jam. Horses around stirred, swaying the carts. Athanasios squealed. Khariton’s jaw chose the downward direction, hair on his arse stood on end, as he lost all movement abilities realising what had happened.
Boris, wiping Khariton’s drool off himself, exclaimed, ‘Oi, lad! What the fuck! You’ve drooled me all over!’ Then he, feeling some minor pain pulsing in his arse – the shot only went off on a tangent, mainly hitting the chest – raised the eyes up to Khariton, and added ‘You’ve almost shot my arse off!’
‘Oi-oi-oi-oi-oi! I'm sorry, comrade, it was...by accident. Does it hurt?’
‘Hurt?! What do you think, bastard?!’
Khariton stared at the shotgun and, terrified of where the technological progress brought them and how dangerous that coldblooded thing was in his hands, shuddered and dropped it.
It shot again and hit the padlock.
‘You, bastard!’ shouted Boris and charged at Khariton, pummelling him in the face, and pushed him onto the road. They clung to each other and immersed in the duo of fierce frenzy, pulling, hitting, kicking, groaning and growling. The world around disappeared: the road, the river, other carts, the militia, even the chest and its content did not matter anymore. A chort or a dwarf inside, locked or unlocked, open or closed, who cared? There was only the fight, just like in a kabak in the good old days. Khariton managed to stand up on his feet, bellowed bestially and attacked Boris, smacking his comrade with one large fist after another. Now Boris reeled back, stumbled and fell onto the chest. It turned over onto its lateral side, and the broken padlock fell off.
The chest opened and from there crawled a dark woolly anthropomorphic creature with little horns, a hairdo à la Capoul, dressed in a tattered suit.
‘Wait! Look! It’s a chort! For real!’ shouted Boris. They stopped fighting and stared at the chort, both flapping their eyes as wide as a lucre coin of the largest denomination.
Athanasios looked at Khariton and Boris with his red eyes, smirked, sent them an air kiss, and, his hooves clattering and his arrowhead tail waggling, leaning down, disappeared around the next bend in the labyrinth of carts and carriages.
At that moment, the militia appeared, two of them, including the Zmei, and pulled the hooligans aside.
‘Who shot?!’ The Zmei poked Khariton in the back, bending him down to his knees.
‘Eghm, a gun, commander,’ said Boris, alerted, staring at Khariton.
The Zmei pondered for a moment, puzzled, widening his lizard eyes, and added, ‘And who held the gun?’
‘Nobody, commander. It shot by itself. ‘ere it is, lying still, a vicious thing.’
‘What do you mean, “by itself”?’
‘Life’s a gamble, a gun is a gun,’ said Boris, shrugging.
‘Aye, I've always said so,’ said Khariton, nodding.
The Zmei sniffed the air: it reeked of deception. He noticed the opened chest.
‘What was inside?’
‘A chort, commander. He’s just fled!’ said Khariton.
‘Yes, a chort, the bastard must have enchanted the gun!’ said Boris.
The Zmei looked at them, squinting his crescent eyes. He paused for a moment, and then nodded to the two militia – the third one had just approached the accident.
‘Seize both! Take them with me!’ the Zmei ordered and waved somewhere forward. ‘A chort, ha-ha!’ chuckled, shaking his head.
Khariton and Boris, their hands back, followed him, getting occasional pokes in their backs.
‘Our lucres are lost because of yer, bastard,’ said Boris. He looked disappointed as if the whole world's supply of flammable, gut- and soul-warming liquids had ceased to exist in one moment.
'Come on, Boris. Camaraderie before lucres, innit? And it was bloody fun.’