Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 10



A Pleasant Stroll

The soldier and Prince Ivan rode for days and weeks. The soldier’s horse was the first to go, faltering in a snowstorm on a bad path. It was already weak when it broke two legs, and the men were nearly out of food, so they killed it quickly for the horse’s sake and removed what meat they could from its body for theirs. From that point the soldier walked, leading the Prince’s horse to make sure that they did not lose the second horse as well.

Tsar Pyotr was furious. He recognized Prince Ivan at once, but it could not stanch his emotion at his daughter’s disappearance. It was bad enough that a dragon – Prince Ivan – had been plaguing the city, but at least his daughter had been safe in the castle. He was inclined to blame her disappearance on Prince Ivan’s re-appearance and he was prepared to have the Prince banished and the soldier put to death.

“But -” said the soldier.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” said Prince Ivan.

“But -” said the soldier.

“I understand,” said Prince Ivan.

“But -” said the soldier.

“We shall retrieve her!” said the Prince. “We shall retrieve her or we shall die in the attempt!”

“Oh,” said the soldier. “It’s going to be one of those days, I guess.”

Tsar Pyotr fixed them with a steady glare. “You claim not to know what has happened to the tsarevna?” The two men shook their heads and it seemed that their hearts were beating ever louder, like the sound of building drums. “She has been taken by…” Just then there was a tremendous cymbal crash. The tsar silenced his percussion section with a harsh glance. “Koschey the Deathless.”

Prince Ivan went pale but the soldier merely said, “Oh, is that all? We will need your two best horses and enough dried food for many weeks, for Koschey the Deathless dwells in the thrice tenth kingdom.”

And so it was that their steeds grew from fat to thin in spite of the food they had brought, and that the summer turned to autumn and autumn to winter in all of the days that they had traveled. “How did you know where Koschey the Deathless lives?” asked the Prince when they were free of the tsar’s court.

“I don’t,” said the soldier, “but my old sergeant used to talk just like the tsar did back there. ‘Thrice tenth kingdom’ sounds good and remote without actually saying anything certain. One of my old comrades used to skive out of stable duty with words like those. ‘The captain is coming,’ he would cry, ‘the Fifth Regiment’s Second Battalion’s Twelfth Honor Guard’s captain is on his way!’ And then we would all have a dress parade instead of cleaning stables.”

The days of the soldier’s stories had faded with the warm air, however, and now even their horse meat was nearly gone. Then in the distance, for the first time in weeks, they saw the smoke of a fire. They pushed on and on, well past dark, even as the cold grew colder and the dark grew darker, until they reached a hovel that scarcely looked like it should stand up. It had no door to stop the wind and inside, by the smallest of fires, sat two of the ugliest creatures the men had ever seen.

“Well and well,” said one of them. “Brother, it looks like dinner has arrived.”

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