Telling Tales 53
The Next Beginning
“Honor demands nothing less,” said Ivan, “nor does friendship. I must return to Yumni’s castle, as there is no sign of the soldier anywhere, and yet, according to the tracks on the ground, he lay here, right here – grievously injured.”
“Could he not be dead?” suggested Vasilisa with as much gentleness as she could muster for her fiancé’s feelings.
“The tracks indicate that yes, he could have lain dead here, but there are no marks to indicate he walked away. Did he fly? The most likely event is that Yumni knocked him out with his flail billowing lightning and thunder, then took his unconscious body back to his castle.” The agony of a necessary decision wore hard upon his face.
Vasilisa read his dismay. “The problem is solved,” she said. “I will come with you. If you are in danger, I will be in danger with you. Your friend is my friend.” Her decision resigned the issue of his friendship with the soldier, but not of his duty to her. “Truly, you need not worry so much. I am not as helpless as you seem to think I am.”
Ivan sighed heavily, kissed her hand even while keeping an appropriate distance from her, and, drawing his sword, they turned back toward the castle of water like diamonds off the shore of the glittering, sandy beach. They found the gates closed, drawn fast, and the castle itself was drifting out to sea. Yumni’s giant footsteps lead them across the sand, straight back toward where the entrance had once been. “Look here,” Ivan explained. “On his way out, his footprints are spread far across because he is running, and on the way back they are closer together and shallower. He is not coming down so hard on to the sand – which means that he was not carrying the soldier. He was the same weight going out as he was returning.”
“How can you tell?” Vasilisa was mystified by his reasoning.
“I can’t show you here,” he said, “but the next time we have a gold crown and a bathtub full of water, I will explain it to you.” Then they both blushed and abandoned the topic.
Vasilisa pointed to the castle. “He is upset. Yumni only retreats from land when he is distressed.”
“Then we have time. Let us not lose a moment!” declared Ivan.
They looked and they looked. They explored the trees, in case the soldier managed to climb away. They listened at the earth, in case there were tunnels beneath. In the end, because there was no other likely or even unlikely possibility, they decided that it must have, in fact, been No Eyes and No Legs who had spirited him away in the nick of time. With a heavy heart, for hoping is not knowing, after days upon days of searching, they finally set out, back into the jungle and on their way home.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Vasilisa asked.
“Toward the rising sun,” Ivan said. To ease his mind, Vasilisa asked him about his journeys with the soldier. “We thought it was Koschey the Deathless who had stolen you away. We followed him across half the world, east of the sun and west of the moon, practically, north of the north wind, and it wasn’t until we met the monarchs of the Gold Kingdom that we learned it was not Koschey but Yumni. I’ve never heard of him before. Who is he?”
She sighed. “He is a lost soul.”