Telling Tales – Chapter 2
I’ll See You a Spirit and Raise You a Quest
“And that’s how I freed the prince,” said the old traveler. His bottle was long since tucked away into his bag, which in turn had vanished under his threadbare overcoat.
The woman behind the bar poured a glass of vodka for the man seated in front of her. She shook the bottle, urging out every last drop. PLUNK. The last drop fell. The last drop of the last bottle and here they were in the middle of a storm with no way to get more and a house full of merchants on their way to the tsar’s court. If the snow continued to fall, and it showed no signs of stopping, the merchants might be stuck for another night, another two or three. It is a well known fact that men who drink too much are excitable, and that excitement can lead to boasting, and boasting to challenges, and violence. The woman knew as well that those men, the ones who fought, could often be persuaded to keep drinking. They moved past anger and to sleep, for vodka has that property that it livens the spirit yet dulls the brain. She knew that those same men, the angry ones, should they have no vodka at all, she knew that they became angry sometimes anyway. And then there was no way to calm them down.
The man on the stool in front of her, attending to the traveler’s story, was one such man. She wondered how she would be able to keep him from his rage once it began, and what the state of her inn would be in its aftermath. Anger, she knew better than her husband, was infectious and traveled from person to person with the speed of thoughts and words.
“I don’t believe you!” said the man, pointing a finger at the traveler. “I served under Tsarevitch Ivan, grandson of Tsar Pyotr, and that never happened to him. He was never a dragon at all. You’re a liar, old man.”
“How many Tsar Pyotrs do you know of?” countered the traveler.
The not-yet-angry man stopped, expecting outrage but not a question. “Well…”
“There’s Tsar Pyotr here, of course, but he has no children as of yet,” began the traveler.
“Tsar Pytor of the kingdom beyond the mountains,” suggested the woman behind the bar.
“Tsar Pyotr who rules by the Caspian Sea,” said another merchant, taking a seat by the not-yet-angry man. And soon there more and more Tsar Pyotrs (or perhaps is “Tsars Pyotr”?) and all the merchants were arguing.
“You see?” interrupted the traveler before the argument could become a fight. “And have you ever known a tsarevitch who was not Prince Ivan?”
That stopped them. Indeed, all princes worth the name were always, ever, Ivan. “Besides,” said the second man, “I know that game, the one where he beat the dragon. My grandfather taught me that game. But if this story is as old as you are,” he went on, raising his own accusing finger, “that Prince Ivan should be tsar himself, and the tsar there is Pyotr.”
The traveler smiled. “Then you are testing me, for we both know that Prince Ivan was the youngest of three brothers, and his eldest brother, Pyotr, now sits on the throne.” The merchants roared with laughter.
The woman behind the bar wiped her relief into the shiny surface of the wood under her hands, for she saw that the traveler might keep these angry men at bay.
“What happened, next, then, old liar?” demanded the first man. “Go on. Make me believe you.”
“Very well. Prince Ivan, as you may expect, was devastated…”
* * *
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 had been furious. He had recognized Prince Ivan at once, but it could not stanch his emotion at his daughter’s disappearance. It had been 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 had grown 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, no more than sad coals, really, 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.”
The two creatures had the shapes of men but their bodies were hard and their hands and feet were overly long. They were dressed in rags that did not look as though they could hold off a chill, much less the bitter cold that had long since descended upon the land. Their nails were gummed with rotted flesh and they stank like corpses. The one who had spoken had two long, simple crutches and no legs.
“I smell Russian flesh,” said the one next to him, who had no eyes.
“Hello, uncles!” called the soldier.
“What did he say?” asked the one with no legs.
“He called us ‘uncle,’” said the one with no eyes.
“May we offer you some of our supplies?” asked the soldier. “We do not have much, but what is ours is yours to share.”
“But -” said Prince Ivan.
“Shush,” said the soldier. From his bag he produced the last of the horse meat and laid it before the two creatures that were not quite men.
“You’ll want yours cooked, I suppose,” grumbled the one with no eyes, and he nudged his companion.
“Not I, but them,” the one with no legs replied. With his crutch he poked the coals and in a trice the fire roared before them, fierce enough to beat back the worst that winter could bring. “I’m like you. I prefer my meat red and squirming.”
“Oh,” said the soldier, and to the prince he whispered, “you should probably dismount.”
“But -” said Prince Ivan, and “Oof!” as the soldier dragged him to the ground.
“Which of you will cook?” asked the one with no legs.
“Ouch! I will,” said Prince Ivan, glaring at the soldier who had kicked him in the backside. “What are you doing?”
“It is eat or be eaten, Prince Ivan,” the soldier whispered back. To the two creatures he said, “First allow me to remove our equipment from your meal. The tanned leather would get caught in your teeth and sit poorly in your stomachs.”
“I don’t understand,” whispered the prince.
“Cook the meat,” answered the soldier. To the two creatures, he went on, “I understand that you prefer your meals alive, but our horse has been good to us. Surely it will be little different if the beast is freshly dead as opposed to living when you feast upon it. Its pain would not increase its flavor, would it?”
“No, that’s true,” said the one with no eyes.
“You have the right of it,” said the one with no legs.
“Are you talking about killing my horse?” asked the prince, and in one mighty blow the soldier cleaved the horse’s head from its body, so quickly and swiftly that it took a moment before the horse realized it was dead.
“You are a generous man,” said the one with no eyes to the soldier as he devoured a leg.
“And polite,” said the one with no legs, nibbling on a hoof. “Indeed, had you not called us your uncles, we would have torn you limb from limb and eaten you living and raw, the way we like our food.”
“If you had not offered us meat after, we would have killed you quickly and eaten you as we do this horse now,” said the other. “Now, though, we would return your favor.”
“We seek Koschey the Deathless,” ventured the prince.
“Ah,” said the one with no eyes.
“Oh,” said the one with no legs.
“That is a different matter,” they said. “That is a different matter altogether.”
“Koschey the Deathless took my eyes,” said the creature with no eyes.
“Koschey the Deathless took my legs,” said the one with no legs. “We bear him no love.”
“But we are powerless before him,” added the first. “He is a mighty sorcerer.”
“Nevertheless, we shall do what we can,” said the second.
“Indeed,” said the first. “Powerless before Koschey does not mean powerless in all things. Take this reed pipe.” He nudged his companion, and the one with with no legs produced a small flute. “Play this when you are in need and we will come to your aid.”
The second considered a moment, and said, “Do you suppose, Brother, that the King FIsher might know where they could find Deathless Koschey?”
“The King Fisher might well know,” the one with no eyes agreed. To the two men, he explained, “King Fisher travels much farther than we do. You see our home. We do not leave very often.”
“How can we find him?” asked the prince.
“Take this ball of twine and follow it where it falls. It will lead you directly to the castle of King Fisher,” said the one with no legs, and passed them a roll of string no bigger than a fist. “Fare well, and good luck to you!”
The two men rolled the ball out in front of them. “I miss my horse,” Prince Ivan said to the soldier with no little accusation.
“You’d miss being alive even more,” pointed out the soldier.
The ball trailed out before them, never getting smaller. It rolled up and down hills. It rolled around rocks and trees. It rolled through a stream. When it finally stopped, its size finally diminished to nothing, it lay before a copper door set into the side of a tall cliff.
“At least the wind has let up here,” bellowed the soldier over the force of the gale that froze their fingers and chapped their cheeks. He seized the door with his numb hands but it didn’t budge, not even an inch. “It’s locked!” he yelled.
The prince stood up with the last of the twine. The end was tied around a hooked copper key. He inserted it into the lock and the door swung open on smooth hinges.
“Oh,” said the soldier. “Good thinking.”
They stepped inside, the prince wrapping the string back around the key. They shut the door behind them and with it the wind and looked around. They were in a large cavern, as tall as it was wide, and it was very wide indeed. Before them was a vast staircase made entirely of gleaming copper and at its base was a round well. “Where do you suppose those stairs go?” asked the soldier.
“They go up,” said the prince as he began to climb.
“Truer words,” agreed the soldier.
They climbed and climbed and climbed and on the morning of the third day they finally reached the top.
“Would you say,” wheezed the soldier, “that that is a dragon before us?”
A vast scaly bulk raised a cruel head and stared at them through slitted eyes. Its copper scales gleamed even more than the copper gates that it guarded.
“As something of an expert on dragons,” panted Prince Ivan, “I would say, no.”
The serpent’s body lifted away from its coiled mass and a wide hood flared at its neck. Green patina designs etched against its skin seemed to dance and sway in the soldier’s eyes.
“Snap out of it,” said the prince, slapping the soldier’s face.
“What happened?” he asked.
“We should be running,” said the prince.
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 and wet 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.”
She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman the soldier had ever seen. Midnight black hair flowed like water over her tanned skin. She wore a dress of animal hides of varying colors, silvers and blacks and browns with flashes of reds, greens and blues. Like the patina on the copper snake, the designs seemed to shift across her body.
“Snap out of it,” said Prince Ivan with a slap.
“Oh, yes. Thank you,” said the soldier, rubbing his reddening cheek.
“Your Highness,” said Prince Ivan, and he bowed low to the woman. The soldier followed suit. “Thank you for welcoming us to your home.”
“You must have traveled far,” she said. “We do not have many visitors in the Kingdom of Copper. How is it that you have arrived?”
“We are in search of the tsarevna…” the soldier trailed off. He turned to his companion. “What is your beloved’s name, exactly?”
A dreamy expression came over the prince’s face. “Vasilisa.”
“Yes. The tsarevna Vasilisa has been kidnapped by Koschey the Deathless and on pain of death -”
“Banishment, really,” said the prince.
“Death,” repeated the soldier, “we are sworn to rescue her. We met two…”
“Gentlemen, really,” said the prince.
“Gentlemen,” agreed the soldier, “one with no eyes and one with no legs -”
“And they sent you to us,” said the queen. “They really are the sweetest neighbors.”
“Undoubtedly,” said the soldier, thinking of their teeth.
“Assuredly,” said the prince, thinking of his horse.
The queen thought for a moment, and said, “Koschey the Deathless has never traveled in our lands to my knowledge. It is possible that my husband, the King Fisher will know. In the meantime, it is clear that you have traveled far. Allow me to extend our hospitality. We will give you rooms to rest in, clean clothes to sleep in, and food and drink to dine upon.”
“As you say, Majesty,” bowed the Prince.
At that, the Queen’s dress seemed to fall away – or at least two parts of it fell away. Out of the dizzying array of shifting patterns, two shapes emerged, one for Prince Ivan and the other for the soldier. A sleek brown otter, fur still wet and dripping, hopped over to the prince. A bear cub, similarly damp, waddled before the soldier. It was at that moment that the men understood that the Queen’s dress was in no wise made of hides, but of the animals themselves. As for the patterns, what there was was an accident of light and shape, and if they paid close attention, they could hear the sound of rushing water and whistling wind. The fur that they took for hide and the feathers that they took for decoration were not the remains of some animal or another. Birds flocked around the queen and animals seemed to swim across her and the odd flash of silver and red were fish leaping out of the surface of her dress before diving back in and disappearing in its depths.
The otter and the bear galumphed ahead of the men into the palace and veered apart at one set of doors. The soldier and the prince hesitated, then followed their guides in their own separate ways. As it turned out, there was nothing to fear. In short order, they found themselves clean, rested, and full of food, having told their entire adventure to the queen who sat opposite them at a grand table.
“It is my turn, then,” she said. “My name is Ahtna.”
I was not always as you see me now. Where I grew up, where we had no such things as kingdoms or tsars and we had never heard the name of Koschey the Deathless. I lived with my parents at the edge of our small village at the edge of the water. I was of marrying age, but I was interested in none of my suitors. The handsome ones, the hunters, the warriors, none of them could turn my head. “Stay inside when the men arrive,” my mother warned me. “Do not greet them unless your parents are there with you.” I was not worried, for as I said, none of them were for me. So it was that I was surprised on my own by a man whom I had never seen before, a magnificent man, more beautiful and handsome than any I had ever seen before. We lay together and he left, promising that he would return with enough food for our entire family. One day passed and he did not come back. Two days passed. On the third day, my stomach began to ache, and at the end of the day I had given birth to seven eggs, glossy and white. They hatched that night, seven beautiful birds, but my parents would not stand for my disobedience. They cast me into the ocean and fled far from that place, inland to where they could not hear my cries. My children flew away and I was left alone in the water where the tide threatened to drown and kill me. I clung to the rocks. A mighty bird heard my cries but his sharp beak cut off my fingers, one by one. Instead of helping me, he weakened my grip. He soared over me, joined by the seven birds that had brought him to this place. He dove beneath the waves and emerged beneath me, and up we flew. Because my clothes were so wet, I was much heavier than you see me now. In spite of the bird’s strength, my feet dragged upon the earth and gouged out a wide channel all the way inland. When he landed, he transformed back into my husband. He called our seven children to us and sent them out hunting. “We must bring my parents the fat of bear and caribou,” I told him, “then they will understand that you are a good husband.” He and the children were fishers, not hunters, so I taught them all they needed to know. I had them bind my hands. The children had to grow different from their parents to hunt on land, and we love of all of them, even the youngest, who likes to play tricks and is often lazy. When we had enough for my parents, we continued inland. My fingers, lost in the ocean, did not want to be separated from me any longer, and became fish and seal and walrus and all manner of creatures and followed my path, taking the water with them in the channel. They followed me all the way to my parents, who saw that my husband and children were magnificent hunters of all of the creatures of the world. My husband returned to the ocean and my children flew far and wide and I, not wanting to be parted from any of my family, lay down and filled the channel so that I would always be near all of them.
Ah, and here my husband is arrived.
Hawks, falcons, terns, gulls, owls, woodpeckers, and ravens preceded King Fisher into the hall. They filled the air until, one by one, they dove into Queen Ahtna’s dress, adding their movement and colors to those that already flowed over her body.
“Stop staring,” hissed the prince. “The king is here.”
“Ouch,” said the soldier, rubbing his shin where the prince had kicked him. “Quite right.”
The King bowed to the queen and took his seat by her side. A fish leapt out of her dress and landed on the plate before him. He thanked the fish and ate it whole, in a single bite. Another followed, and another, and the king thanked each in turn. When he was sated, he thanked his wife, at which point he finally turned to his guests. “Welcome to Our Kingdom,” he said, echoing the queen’s words. “I understand that you seek Koschey the Deathless.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” said Prince Ivan.
“I cannot help you either, I am sorry to say. Although my wife does not leave this place, I fly far and wide, and even in my travels, although I have heard Deathless Koschey’s name time and again, I have never encountered him, nor been where he has been.”
“Oh,” said the soldier, thinking of his death sentence from the tsar.
“Ah,” said the prince, thinking of his beloved tsarevna Vasilisa.
“Perhaps your older sister might know something?” suggested Queen Ahtna.
“Yes,” considered King Fisher, his brightly colored clothes shimmering in the twilight. “Her lands are far from here. Perhaps Koschey has passed us entirely and gone north, if he has come this way at all.”
“Where else could he have gone?” asked the prince.
“You have traveled east to find us,” said the King. “North is my sister’s realm. He may have also passed south or east, but the north is more like your home climate.”
“Then north we shall travel,” agreed Prince Ivan.
“I wish the great horned spirit had given me something to protect me from the cold,” said the soldier, who was thin-blooded and became chilly with great ease.
“What?” asked the prince.
“Nothing,” said the soldier.
“Here,” said the King, and produced a ball of silver twine. “Take this ball of twine and follow it where it falls. It will lead you directly to the castle of my sister. Fare well, and good luck to you!” He passed them a roll of silver string no bigger than a fist.
“This seems familiar,” said the soldier.
“Before you go,” said the queen, “I hope that you will grace us with something by which to remember your visit? We have so few guests.”
The prince patted his sides as if to say that he had left his things in another pair of trousers. The soldier sighed. He had little enough after months of travel, not money nor memorabilia. He handed over, instead, a small sheet of scaly skin that he kept near his left hand, something like a glove. Prince Ivan glared at him suspiciously, not liking the look of the skin, though he couldn’t say why. In the queen’s hands, the skin turned at once to copper and she folded it into a flower that she tucked into her hair. “Oh,” said the soldier. “Oh, my,” and “Ouch!” as the prince stomped on his foot.
“We shall be on our way,” said the prince, and thanked the monarchs for their hospitality. On the outskirts of the Copper Kingdom, he dropped the silver twine and watched it roll away, never decreasing in size.
“Here we go again,” said the soldier.
Prince Ivan and the soldier marched across fields and plains and over mountains and ever and always did the ball of silver string play out before them. The land grew wider and flatter and although it was nearly spring, there was still snow on the ground. “Did you find the queen’s story strange at all?” asked the prince.
“Never!” said the soldier.
“Do you remember her story?” The soldier hemmed and hawed and Prince Ivan said, “Yes, I thought you were too busy staring at her.”
“It was marvelous dress,” said the soldier.
“I didn’t know you had sartorial leanings.”
The soldier sniffed. “I don’t. But one of the fellows in the regiment was a tailor before he became a soldier. He was drafted after an unlikely giant-killing incident. After that it was ‘go to the front this’ and ‘go to the front that,’ and really, there’s only so long your luck is going to hold out. Good man. He was responsible for the boots that you ripped apart, by the way.”
“So he was a cobbler, too?” The prince wasn’t going to let the soldier make him feel guilty for the things that he did when he was still a dragon.
“Yes, he cobbled. Very skilled man. Lucky, even, but as I said -”
“Are you trying to avoid the topic of you ogling Queen Ahtna?”
The soldier looked very prim, which was no simple feat in the cold spring snow that fell upon them. “We weren’t talking about anyone ogling anybody else. You were talking about her story, which you thought was strange, and I said, no, I didn’t think it was strange. And I’ll tell you, since you seem convinced that I paid no attention, her story had a beginning in which she was unmarried, a middle in which she was in danger, was rescued by her children and husband and taught them what they needed to know and to do, and a reconciliation at the conclusion when she convinced her parents that she’d made a good choice. There was an inciting incident in which she married her husband without her parents’ knowledge, and that was what caused them to banish her from their house. In a classic formulation, she even related an interdiction, ‘don’t go out alone.’”
“Oh, yes, well…” said the Prince.
“Oh, yes, well, indeed,” huffed the soldier.
“I was just going to say that I thought the action seemed rather arbitrary and motivations surprising. Especially the end.”
“Would you have preferred that birds flew out of her dress and pecked out her parents’ eyes, or had them dance in red-hot iron boots until they died?”
“I’m a bit more familiar with things turning out that way,” admitted Prince Ivan.
“I hope you’ll be a gentler man when you’re king,” said the soldier. “You need to travel more. See the world. Experience other cultures.”
“And you’re an expert?”
“By no means, but there was a fellow I served with in the regiment…”
And so went their conversations, at turns argumentative and friendly, until the ball of twine rolled out and stopped in front of a silver door. A brushed nickel key lay at the end of the string. They talked their way through the silver door, as they raised a bucket of water from a silver well, and climbed a steel staircase for three days, where they left the water for a happy giant serpent, and argued past it through the gates.
“It’s weird,” the soldier was insisting, “because the bread always lands butter side down!”
“We have been expecting you,” said the woman in the gleaming dress before them.
The queen of the Silver Kingdom, Nuviya, explained that her younger brother, the King Fisher, had already come and gone and so she knew their stories. The soldier grumbled at this, but he did so only when Queen Nuviya was nowhere near them. “He could have given us a lift, don’t you think?”
“What?” asked Prince Ivan, who had stars in his eyes as he stared at the retreating figure of the queen. ”Ouch, thanks,” he said, rubbing his reddening cheek.
The soldier waggled his finger at the prince. “You’re engaged, you know.”
They dined with the queen, who told them her story while they waited for her husband, King Imiq. As before, neither she nor her husband was familiar with Deathless Koschey, and as before, she suggested her husband’s older sister in the Kingdom of Gold. The soldier gave them a token, as in the Kingdom of Copper, this time his second skin glove, and Queen Nuviya transformed it into a silver flower, twinkling like frost, that she put behind her ear.
They set out the next day with their ball of golden string, through forests and across rivers and spring sped their way as the season tried to catch up with the land. The Kingdom of Gold had its own door, its own well, its own staircase and serpent and its own monarchs. Queen Natanh welcomed them and told them her story until her husband, King Ittindi arrived, but neither of them had ever met Deathless Koschey either.
“They’re not taking it very well,” said Natanh to Ittindi.
“We’ve walked so long,” sobbed the soldier.
“My Va-a-si-li-i-sa,” blubbered Prince Ivan.
“Did you say Vasilisa?” asked Ittindi.
The soldier stopped tearing his clothing mid-rend. The Prince looked up with hope displacing the tears in his puffy red eyes. “Ye-es,” he wheezed. The soldier handed him a fragment of his shirt so that he could wipe his runny nose.
“How long have you been looking ?”
“Nearly nine months,” said the soldier, who was wondering if his shirt looked better this way.
“That’s an odd coincidence, because this Vasilisa appeared just about nine months ago, wouldn’t you say so, my dear?”
“Indeed,” agreed Natanh. “She has been a good neighbor to us, but she is not happy in her situation.”
“But it was Koschey the Deathless who kidnapped her from our home in Russia!” said the prince.
“That may be,” agreed Natanh, “but it was not your Koschey the Deathless who brought her here, it was Yumni.”
“Yumni must be the name that Koschey goes by in this land,” swore the soldier, bashing his fist into his palm in a show of masculine verve.
“No,” said Queen Natanh.
“No,” said King Ittindi.
“Oh,” said the soldier.
The monarchs conferred. “Yumni is whirlwind, in your language. The Whirlwind has kidnapped your Vasilisa and now holds her captive.”
“Hooray!” cried Prince Ivan. “Can you tell us how to get there?”
“Nothing easier,” said King Ittindi.
“I can bring you a map,” suggested Queen Natanh.
“No maps,” said the soldier.
“We don’t need maps,” agreed Prince Ivan.
“Of course you don’t,” said the queen.
“Could you go over that middle bit again?” the prince asked the king. “Left at the blind canyon?”
“Straight ahead,” he corrected. “And up.”
With some sadness, the soldier gave his last token to Queen Natanh, the ring that bestowed great strength. In her hands it became a gold and white flower that she tucked behind her ear.
The Prince was full of energy the next morning. “Today we begin the rescue of Tsarevna Vasilisa! What could possibly go wrong now?”
“We’re lost, aren’t we?” asked the soldier. “We’re never going to reach the Diamond Kingdom.”
“Don’t say that!”
“I’m starting to think that a map would have been a good idea, that’s all.”
Prince Ivan said nothing, but in his heart of hearts he feared that the soldier was right. They had traveled for weeks since leaving the Kingdom of Gold, crossing plains that leached the color from gold to dull yellow to a vibrant, poisonous green, beyond a muddy brown river as wide as a sea and through swamps infested with many-toothed water dragons.
“Stop calling them dragons!” swore the prince. “They don’t look anything like dragons.”
“In the snout and the teeth, I’d have to say that they bore a distinct resemblance to the way you used to. Your teeth were much straighter, I’ll grant you.” The soldier had never explained all of his tricks with the metal walnuts, no matter how much Prince Ivan had tried to wheedle the truth out of him. “Anyway, maybe I was wrong. I think we may have arrived after all.”
The green jungle lay behind them and before them stood a towering palace of blue diamond, rising out of the ocean itself. Facets of the jeweled wall sparkled like water under the bright sun. No serpents awaited them at the edge of the jungle, nor on the sand that lay between them and the castle, nor at the castle gates either.
The soldier frowned. “It seems too easy.”
“Easy?” cried Prince Ivan. “Easy? When we have trod for nigh unto a year simply to get to this point? Easy, when we faced the water animals that were not dragons? The giant flying frogs? The zombies and witches of the swamps? You call that easy?”
“Oh, those,” dismissed the soldier. “Piffle. The Whirlwind shouldn’t care one whit for how easy or difficult our journey to this point has been. My surprise is that when it comes to this point it is easy. Each point should be exactly what it is, no more and no less, despite all that has come before.”
“You are a pessimist,” said the prince as he pulled on the door, which did not open. “A pessi… Pess… Urf!”
“Is it stuck?”
“I’m fine!” grunted the prince as he pulled and tugged with all of his might against the door. “I think it’s just wedged a bit!”
“Mmmm,” agreed the soldier, and while the prince struggled at the mighty entrance, the soldier went from hinge to hinge, door to door, applying the tiniest bit of oil. “How’s that?”
Prince Ivan picked himself up from the sand where he’d fallen when the doors had opened with the suddenness of a lightning strike. “How is it that you just happen to have oil on you?”
“There was this fellow in the regiment, his motto was ‘Be prepared.’ I’ve got this kit from him, see,” the soldier began, but the prince wasn’t actually interested. He was anxious to see his Princess Vasilisa on the one hand, and rather embarrassed on the other. “I’ve got a lock-pick set here, a loaf of bread,” the same which he tossed to two giant, bloodthirsty hounds which tore at them. Immediately, they set upon the bread and the two men continued on. “There is also this chamois cloth, see how good it is for polishing?” He demonstrated against a suit of armor standing at attention in the courtyard, wiping all of the rust clean from the joints.
But Prince Ivan wasn’t paying attention. He was looking up at Vasilisa, looking down at him from a tower window.
* * *
Of course, you can imagine how they ran! Like the leaves on the wind before the storm! Like animals on the prairie before the fire! The soldier at the front of a triangle, screamed, “Now, go, run!” Behind him in a perfect pair ran the prince and princess in a line, nearly as fast, cooing, “Ivan!” and “Vasilisa!” over and over. Behind them, at a distance but gaining closer and closer, ran the Whirlwind with his mighty flail.
I see I have jumped too far ahead.
You see, very little happened from the bottom of the tower until the running. Prince Ivan ran up the steps to the tower room where the princess was kept prisoner, yelling, “Vasilisa!” with every other step. Halfway up, he was forced to stop and rest and catch his breath, and if his volume in shouting her name decreased, his eagerness did not. The princess, captive in her room called, “Ivan! Ivan!” The soldier, for his part, only caught up with Prince Ivan at the landing, but by then the prince had proceeded on again. He burst through the door like a man possessed, and while it was an impressive feat of strength, it must be admitted that his feat bore very little upon the actual story. The prince and princess embraced and they might have even kissed had not the soldier, in his new and latest role as chaperone, uttered a discreet cough.
Before aught else could occur, there sounded a great and terrible wind. “It is Yumni, the Whirlwind,” cried Vasilisa. “He will strike you down with his flail that billows lightning and thunder before it! We are surely doomed!”
“Never fear,” said the prince bravely, “for we have a plan!”
“Run!” yelled the soldier, pushing them through the door.
“That’s your plan?” asked the princess.
“Run faster!” said the soldier.
Behind them, they heard the Whirlwind storm his fury. “Suit of Armor!” howled Yumni. “Raise your sword and strike them dead!”
“Not I,” clanked the armor, moving its arms experimentally, “for this man has cleaned my rust and restored me to my full health.”
“Dogs!” shrieked Yumni. “Rend them to pieces!”
“Not us,” grunted the dogs as the three fugitives fled past them, “for this man fed us good bread and we are sleepy.”
“Oh, Gate!” commanded Yumni. “Do not let them escape, but crush them between your halves!”
“Not I,” answered the gate, “for this man has oiled my hinges and I work as smoothly as if I were new,” and with that the three fleeing persons escaped the Diamond Castle back on to the sand, heading for the jungle.
“Oh, Ivan!” gushed the princess.
“Oh, Vasilisa,” swooned the prince.
“Oh, brother,” panted the soldier, who was not in nearly as good condition when he was not wearing his enchanted ring. Behind them, Yumni with his swirling gray eyes and swirling gray flail gained on them with every step.
So you see, very little of actual import happened between when I last left you with the soldier and Ivan in the courtyard, and now pick them up, complete with Vasilisa, fleeing from the Whirlwind.
* * *
“It’s die now or die later,” thought the soldier. “Return home without the princess and be killed by her father, or let her escape and be killed by Yumni here and now. At least in the second case, my friend Prince Ivan will get away with his betrothed.” And so, with a great sigh, he let the prince and princess pass him, cooing all the way, and stopped to face the Whirlwind head on.
The soldier knew he had but one chance to survive Yumni, a giant of a man if ever there was one. Although he had oiled his sword most nights before going to sleep, a year in the cold and wet had not done his blade much good, and besides, Yumni could reach much farther with just his arm, much less his flail, than the soldier could with his arm and sword together.
He no longer had his gun, either. He had used up the powder long before they encountered No Legs and No Eyes. He had kept the pistol with him just in case they were to come across some more, by the time they were a few weeks out of the Silver Kingdom, the gun had been nothing more than dead weight for so long, he had traded it away to young man for some “magic beans” on Prince Ivan’s urging.
Oh, Prince Ivan. He was so enamored with the recovery of his beloved Vasilisa that the couple had not even noticing that the soldier let them pass him by. Even now, the soldier could hear their voices fading into the distance, “Ivan!” and “Vasilisa!” But he bore them no grudge. He had never been in love the way that royalty seemed to fall in love, deeply, with conviction and no thought of the rest of the world, not even of where they would sleep that night or of what they would eat that noon. Oh, love.
No, the soldier knew that time was of the essence. They had scarcely made it into the jungle when Yumni’s footsteps sounded behind them. They had scarcely gone ten steps when the soldier realized what his course of action must be, and at that point he made his great decision. Five steps later, the prince and princess had passed him by, and now he stood alone in the early canopy of the jungle, considering his only option.
He took out the reed pipe and played.
It was a haunting yet jaunty tune, the sort of jig a drowning river fairy might play to cheer itself up. No sooner than the last of the quick notes had played, and without any warning or sound, than No Eyes and No Legs were before him, sitting on their same stumpy chairs as though the soldier and the prince had only just left them, only there was no cold, no fire, and no excuse for a hut.
“Hello, uncles!” said the soldier, hoping that he didn’t sound too desperate or hurried.
“It’s our nephew,” said No Legs.
“So I hear,” said No Eyes.
“It’s warm here,” said No Legs. “Green.”
“So I feel,” said No Eyes.
“How have you been?” asked the soldier. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead at the pounding footsteps of Yumni.
“Not so bad,” said No Legs.
“But no so good, either,” went on No Eyes.
No Legs was about to agree, when No Eyes said again, “What’s that thumping sound?”
“Oh, that?” said the soldier. “That is Yumni the Whirlwind coming to kill me. Prince Ivan and I rescued the princess Vasilisa from his castle and now they’re off running ahead, and I thought that perhaps, if you could see your way…”
“You called us for help, just like we said you should do,” said No Legs.
“Well, yes,” admitted the soldier.
“Against Yumni the Whirlwind?” frowned No Eyes. “Sorry, lad.”
“He’s out of our reach.”
And with that they were gone.
And with that arrived Yumni.
And with that arrived his flail, billowing lightning and thunder before it.
And that is how the soldier died.