The late winter damp seeped through the sheepskin door of the Great Tur in Berestye. The proprietor, Old Askold, shivered and tossed another log on the fire that was the primary source of light in the tavern.
Although it was still early in the afternoon, the tavern was busy, customers lining both sides of two long trestle tables. In one corner, Askold’s sons played a tune, Gleb plucking his trapezoidal gusli, and Dir gently tapping a domra, while balancing Young Askold, his infant son, on his knee. Dir’s wife, Lybid, served the patrons, pouring from great wooden flasks full of golden mead and fragrant birch-sap harelka.
Two strangers sat, sandwiched between a red-haired Khazar, and a morose-looking, and increasingly drunk Avar, who was dressed in furs. Both strangers wore glossy jackets, and black trousers of a fabric and cut that were unfamiliar to Lybid. They spoke loudly over the racket, in a gutteral tongue. As Lybid approached them, one of the strangers held out his wooden mug for a refill. From up close, she could smell the leathery odor of their jackets.
“Are you Goths?” she asked, as she filled his mug.
The strangers looked at each other, and then both laughed.
“You look good dressed in black,” the second stranger said to the first, in passable, but accented Rus. Lybid must have looked puzzled, because he added, “No, we’re from further away.”
“You speak the language of the Eastern Slavs well,” Lybid said.
“Don’t talk to them,” interjected the Avar. “They’re foreign sorcerers.” Everyone ignored him.
“We had a party of Goth traders here last month,” said Lybid. “They didn’t dress like you though.”
“We’re not traders,” said the first stranger. He drank deeply from his mug. “We’re playing a game. Your turn.” The last was addressed to his companion.
“By law,” said the second companion in their own language, the words meaning nothing to the other bystanders. Immediately after speaking, he vanished.
Lybid gasped, and stepped back a pace.
“I told you they were sorcerers,” said the Avar. He held out his mug for a refill.
With a popping sound, the stranger reappeared. “I fixed that parking ticket,” he said in their language. Then he added in Rus, “Never happened. Your turn now.”
“No magic in my tavern.” Old Askold banged on the other trestle, straining to make his reedy voice heard. “You take that musor ugar garbage outside, hear?”
“What game is this?” said Lybid, glancing uneasily at her father-in-law.
“We drink,” said the first stranger. “We take turns.”
“We change things,” said the second.
“What does that mean?” asked Lybid. She finally noticed the Avar’s still outstretched mug, and refilled it. Her hand must have been shaking, because she spilled a few drops of harelka on the sandy floor.
“My friend broke a minor custom,” said the first stranger. “Very hard to explain. I left my…,” he appeared to grope for words. “I left my wagon where I shouldn’t have. Now, he fixed that, so it didn’t happen. So we both drink, and then it’s my turn.”
“It’s harder each time,” said the second stranger. He clapped his friend hard on the shoulder with a meaty hand. “Now he has to break a real law, not a custom. It’s serious this time.”
“I need another round first,” said the first stranger. His mug was empty once more. “Yes, we take turns, breaking and fixing.”
“And drinking,” added his friend.
“How does this game end?” asked Lybid. She refilled both of the stranger’s mugs, her hands still shaking slightly.
“Usually when we pass out,” said the first stranger. He drank.
“Or when somebody winds up in jail,” said his friend. He drank as well.
“Or dies,” added the first.
“You play with the fates of other people,” said Lybid. “And it’s all just a game?”
“It’s okay,” said the first stranger. “We fix everything after.”
“Never happened,” said the second.
“And this never happened also?” asked Lybid.
The first stranger shrugged. Then, abruptly, he said, “I don’t feel well.”
“Me neither,” said his friend, looking pale. “Too much to drink?”
“We don’t like sorcerers here,” said the Avar, staring into the hidden depths of his mug.
“What did you do?” asked the first stranger, looking at Lybid with alarm. He turned back to his friend, whose head was now resting on the table.
Lybid held up a small sack, held closed with a hempen drawstring. “Didn’t happen,” she said.
The first stranger’s head made a small sound as it hit the table.