Telling Tales 13
Of Serpents and Stairs
The serpent pursued the soldier and Prince Ivan for nearly two full days down the copper staircase before giving up and returning to the top. By that time, the two men were within sight of the bottom. “That snake reminds me of one of my old comrades in the regiment,” remarked the soldier. “You never wanted to get in his way at mealtime.”
“I need not to move for several days,” said the prince, and collapsed upon the bottom step.
When they had recovered sufficiently to stand, they became aware of their powerful thirst. “That’s what happens after three days of climbing and two days of running,” judged the soldier. “There’s a well over here as I recall.”
They went to the edge of the well, where there was no bucket to be found. In fact, the bucket was at the bottom of the well, half-submerged in the dim water that gleamed against the well’s copper walls. An upright handle was visible, but there was no rope or winch or any other way to secure the bucket from this distance.
“There’s no climbing it, either,” said the soldier. “Look at how smooth the walls are.”
The prince was not paying attention. He was unwinding the ball of twine that No Legs and No Eyes had given them, until he held once again the hooked copper key. “Do you think this might work?”
It took some doing to catch the hook around the handle of the bucket, especially since the soldier demanded several times that it was his turn to have a go, but eventually the prince succeeded in lifting the bucket out of the well, the soldier’s lectures on the softness and pliability of copper notwithstanding and how the prince really should have hooked the key up and around the twine so that the weight of the water would fall on the string and not on the key itself. The prince drank half of the water and then passed the bucket over to the soldier who had to tilt it higher up in order to get the last of the liquid.
It was then that the prince spied writing on the bottom of the bucket. He grabbed it firmly, holding it in place so that he could read. “It’s directions on how to calm the serpent!” he exclaimed.
“Glugag bleargh,” answered the soldier.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?”
“No,” sighed the thirsty soldier. “What do we do now?”
“The serpent only wants some water. We bring it the bucket and we will be able to pass.”
It took several minutes to get the bucket full enough, not to mention three days to climb back to the top, but the moment the giant snake saw the bucket it began bobbing its head in an almost playful fashion. The two men backed away and gave the snake all the room that it desired. It coiled its body around and around the bucket, the tip of its tail lashing like a happy dog’s. Its head disappeared into the coil, and there was a splash of water.
The prince had to slap the soldier again, since his eyes had gone all wobbly looking at the patina designs on the copper scales, and then they fled past the snake to the gate beyond where a path lined with metal plates led them away from the snake, through an autumnal-colored garden to a twilight-colored forest and a pleasantly burnt-looking castle at the forest’s far edge.
“Welcome,” said the woman who emerged to greet them. “Please. Be welcome in Our Kingdom.”