Telling Tales 52
The Mystery of the Soldier
“Is that so,” laughed the old traveler, “is that really so? A marvel! I knew of the great gray wolf, of course, but I’ve never before heard where she came from and how she came to be the way that she is. Wonderful! Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll pick up Prince Ivan’s story, since he’ll be meeting that wolf before too long.”
As there were no objections (at least, none to his suggestion – the contrary Dmitri was objecting to many things, not least of which was passing over the last bottle of vodka that he owed), the old man accepted a wide brimmed glass of beer, leaned against the wall, and began his story.
* * *
You can imagine Vasilisa’s joy at being reunited with Prince Ivan. Captive at the top of a tall tower, alone, friendless, and terrorized by Yumni one moment, the next she’s running for her life with the Prince and his companion, Yumni fast upon their heels, then silence and she and the Prince are together at long, long last.
“I wasn’t actually terrorized,” she said. “I wouldn’t say terrorized.” The Prince was shorter than she remembered.
“Aren’t you happy to see me? Aren’t you happy to be free? Aren’t you looking forward to going home?”
Vasilisa considered the answers to these questions, but Ivan was rushing forward. It was one of the things she loved about him, his exuberant energy.
“Your father is desperate to see you. He is so desperate that he has threatened me with banishment should you not return.” He paused, waiting.
“What are you waiting for?” asked Vasilisa.
“Oh, my friend the soldier, he’s always chiming in. I say banishment, he says death, that sort of thing.” Ivan looked around and noticed for the first time that there were only two of them standing at the banks of the river where they had stopped. “How long have we been here?”
“Not much longer than it has taken to catch our breath.”
Ivan cocked his head. “I don’t hear that terrible Yumni any more.”
“He’s not that terrible,” said Vasilisa. “I mean, I don’t hear him either.”
Together, the two of them retraced their steps, back into the forest. Ivan held out his sword and forged forward, making sure that Vasilisa was safe close by him. “He’s an excellent fellow,” he assured her. “I’m sure you’ll like him. As much as it pains me to say it, I couldn’t have made it this far without him. He is quite resourceful, although some of his stories are a little suspicious.”
“Suspicious how?” asked the princess.
Ivan considered the two gloves and the ring that the soldier had left with their hosts, the sovereigns of the Copper, Silver, and Gold kingdoms and his unfortunate experience playing cards as a dragon against the soldier all that time ago. “Oh, you know,” he answered. “Wait!”
They stopped at the edge of a clearing. It was not, Ivan explained to the princess, a clearing made by natural forces. “I don’t remember running through a clearing like this,” she said, looking at the wide path that led away from them in a straight line, leading inexorably back to the beach and Yumni’s castle.
“We didn’t,” considered Ivan. He pointed at two sets of four holes. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say this is where our friends No Eyes and No Legs were sitting. And here, this looks like where Yumni turned back. That means the soldier must have fought him off!”
They looked around. “But where is he?” asked Vasilisa.