Telling Tales – Chapter 8
The First Homecoming
The flying boat lashed to the top of the mountain, the company of eight began their descent to the lands below.
“How’d you come to this, then, Ivan? Love at first sight, was it?” asked the blue-eyed girl.
Ivan’s face turned a light red, prompting one of Vasilisa’s eyebrows to go up in the way that made him so nervous. “Well, it’s rather a longer story than that. But certainly, the moment I actually saw the princess…”
“Was that before or after you’d stolen her dressing gown?” asked the pile of dead-looking skins.
The hunter and the runner roared with laughter, but the scaled man scolded the women for their speech. “Love is nothing to mock. Love, true love, is the only thing that can slake one’s thirst for companionship and fulfillment.”
The blue-eyed girl with blonde hair like a bramble patch said quietly to the skins, “As a metaphor it’s one thing, but he takes it a little far, don’t you think? He makes it sound like it’s real thirst.”
“Some men get carried away,” murmured the skins in return.
“I’m not sure I know the details of your arrival, Prince Ivan,” observed Vasilisa, eyebrow reaching for the stars.
“They’re always so proper,” snorted the girl. “Why don’t they just jump on each other?”
The pile of skins gave a sharp, shocked gasp. “Never!”
The girl rolled her eyes and fell back to talk with the hunters, whose brusque humor was often more to her liking.
“I did so tell you!” Ivan was protesting. “When I was a dragon. Every fortnight I would visit and we talked into the night and all the way until morning.”
Vasilisa considered. “I’m fairly certain you mostly declared your love for me and I wept bitter tears on your behalf.”
The pile of skins would have liked to remark that, while this sounded very romantic and heartfelt indeed, it was utterly lacking in direction and nothing she herself would have supported beyond a good first cry. Unfortunately, the bramble-headed girl was exchanging ribald jests with the leather-clad hunter Ipiktokiyakovik.
“Halt!” commanded a voice that was evidently used to commanding.
At the front of the group, Ivan pulled to a sudden stop. Before them on the narrow path, just wide enough for them all to travel two by two comfortably, sat a company of men on horseback. The men as well as the horses were laden with armor and festooned with blades.
“Who are you? Whence do you travel and to what purpose?”
Ivan drew himself up, and for all his ruined garments, he still knew how to cut a noble figure, Vasilisa observed.
“I am Prince Ivan Pyotrovich. I am returning the tsarevna Vasilisa to her father as per his command. With us are my stalwart friends and companions.”
“Which tsarevna Vasilisa would that be?” challenged the captain. Ivan could see his insignia. What followed was a lesson in genealogy and geography as the two men isolated exactly which Tsar Pyotr was Ivan’s father, exactly which Tsar Pyotr was Vasilisa’s father, the relative distance between the two lands, and their exact position at that point in time. “Welcome, then,” the captain finally said, “but I’m afraid you can’t get there from here.”
“We fear nothing!” affirmed Ivan and his company.
The captain scoffed. “It doesn’t matter if you fear the giant or not, he’ll crush you all the same.”
“A giant,” sighed Ivan. “I wonder if my friend the soldier served with him.”
The captain of the horses went on his way with his company, crossing the mountains in search of an army that would be willing to take on the giant. He believed neither Ivan nor Scrobarnach Armtha that there was an army at hand, for which they could not, in all honesty, blame him.
“I can shoot out the giant’s eyes,” said Ipiktokiyakovik as they descended.
“I can get behind him before he knows what has happened,” said Haraka.
“I can hear his plans,” suggested Entendtout.
“I’ll knock him over with a wind,” offered Juleidah.
“My army will cut him to pieces then,” declared Scrobarnach Armtha.
“I’m not sure what I can do,” mourned Kou Ke.
“Not to worry,” said Ivan reassuringly, “I’m sure we will all know what we must do when the time arrives. Our skills will reveal themselves in time.”
“What is your skill, if one may ask?” asked Kou Ke.
“Ah, well,” said Ivan, “that’s just it. I’m a prince. I wasn’t really raised with skills in mind. Not even rulership. Aside from the fact that I’m the youngest of three brothers and don’t expect to assume the throne, even my eldest brother hasn’t received the most formal of educations. I can swing a sword and dance in the most current modes… Though I’m probably even a year out of date with those. I’m a fancy hunter, really, and compared to Haraka who can run down a deer or Ipiktokiyakovik who can shoot the eye from a songbird at a hundred leagues, I’m not even that impressive.”
Kou Ke nodded his agreement. “We must take heart in our experiences and in the kinds of men that they have made us. You and I are brothers under the skin, for we have both been victim of horrible enchantments. Truly, this must be our measure.”
Ivan nodded. “We cannot help but be who we are, but that does not change the fact that I would I were faster, or a better marksman, or commanded the winds or could summon an army.”
“Would you have those things if it meant going through what our companions have undergone?”
“Perhaps not,” he agreed. Then he laughed with true joy and not a shred of bitterness. “We are a wonderfully motley crew, is that not true?”
Vasilisa smiled at the man Ivan was becoming. She might have said something then to Juleidah, who was walking alone, but their walk was interrupted by a roar that would have made thunder itself shake. “What is that?”
The noise continued, growing in intensity as they drew closer. It was a moan. It was a cry. It was without reason. It was fury.
“Oh,” said Scrobarnach Armtha, suspecting that her army, as large as it was, might be of little use.
“Oh,” said Entendtout, who understood that there were no words that the giant might utter.
“Oh,” said Ipiktokiyakovik, who saw no weak points to shoot out.
“Oh,” said Haraka, who saw that speed mattered little against that size.
“Oh,” said Juleidah, who felt how little her desert wind would accomplish.
Oh,” said Kou Ke.
“Giant” was a tame word for what was before them. It stood three – no, four times the height of the tallest tree. Its legs planted solidly against the ground, and even from this distance it was clear that its skin was like bark or stone. Its cudgel was a mighty oak tree. It had no eyes. The giant swung all around, crushing all within its reach and howling like a madman.
“Uh oh,” said Ivan.
The gray wolf panted from where it lay bleeding at their feet. “I cannot run and am at your mercy, but if you let me live I will recover.”
“You have already spared a bird and a fish,” pointed out Ipiktokiyakovik, “and all of us are hungry.”
Ivan considered the wolf. “Have you ever eaten one of these?” he asked the hunter.
“Where there’s muscle there’s meat. Though this animal has seen fatter days.”
The wolf’s pelt was matted black with blood and it appeared to be little more than skin and bones. Its tongue dragged its jaw to the ground. It was much worse off than the hawk with the broken wing or the trout cast ashore, far from the river. “What happened to you?” asked Ivan.
“My pups are on the far side of the river. I attempted to get past the giant, but he is too large and too wild. A branch on his club caught my side and flung me against this rock and you see me as I lay.”
As it was with the wolf, so it had been with the bird, whose nest had been nearly crushed, and the trout who had lain on the shore. “Is there anything you can do for her?” Ivan asked Vasilisa.
“My skills are not precisely with healing, but I will do what I can. If you will allow me?” she asked the wolf. “It will hurt.”
“I will do my best not to bite you,” she answered back.
“I’ll hold you,” said Ivan, whose strength had indeed become marvelous to behold. “I cannot permit you to harm my princess Vasilisa.”
The wolf struggled and howled as Vasilisa worked with Ipiktokiyakovik’s help. They placed a red-hot blade against the open wound after they had washed it clean and then Vasilisa smeared a combination of plants against the raw and oozing but no longer bleeding flesh. The wolf snapped her jaws in agony, striking out at anything and everything, but Ivan held her fast. At last Vasilisa was done. She thanked the hunter for his help and Ivan rose stiffly to his feet. The wolf whimpered at their feet, delirious.
“It smells like cooking meat,” observed Ivan. “Will she heal?”
“She would have healed without me, I am sure that with my help it will only be faster.” Vasilisa smelled the air. “But yes, it does smell like meat.”
“That is us,” said the runner from behind them.
Entendtout bowed. “I listened for a deer. Monsieur le Hunter shot it from five hundred leagues away and Monsieur le Runner retrieved it. Mademoiselle des Skins dried the wood and I have lit the fire. Dinner shall be ready anon.”
“I saved a raw leg for the wolf,” offered the wild girl. “I know how they are. And we should leave the innards for the birds.”
“As you say,” said Ivan, thankful for the independence of his company.
“I am in your debt,” gasped the wolf. “For my life, for my healing, for this food. Call on me when you are in need and I shall help you as best I can.”
Ivan thanked her and left her to mend.
“What can a wolf do?” asked Vasilisa. “Or for that matter, a bird and a fish? They have all promised aid, but what are they against a giant when our very company is helpless?”
Ivan remembered the soldier’s kit and how it had got them into Yumni’s castle. “It is not right to measure their offer against our immediate problem. When the problem is right, then will we call upon them.”
“If I may, monsieur,” suggested Entendtout, “we could go around.”
Scrobarnach Armtha thought that that would be akin to cowardice, a belief with which Haraka and Ipiktokiyakovik were inclined to agree. Kou Ke and Juleidah both felt that Entendtout had a point. Vasilisa said nothing.
Ivan cleared his throat. He hoped it communicated resolve and determination and didn’t come across as the stalling that it was. “The fact remains,” he said, thinking back to the beginning, “that my goal, the goal in which you have all so generously agreed to assist me, is not to fight the giant but to return Vasilisa to her father and from there to secure her safety against his sorcery. It may be the case that this giant is but one more example of her father’s…” He trailed off for a moment, uncertain whether or not he should use the adjective “wicked.” It certainly seemed that Tsar Pyotr was a wicked man, but he was still Vasilisa’s father and it was quite possible that there was more to being a tsar than Ivan had fully known before. And then there was the whole different culture thing and the fact that Tsar Pyotr didn’t want his youngest daughter to be married, but perhaps that, too, was nothing but a pretext that he’d told Vasilisa and her sisters, perhaps there was another answer altogether as to why –
“Yes! Yes! One of your father’s ensorcellments, that is what I was saying. Sorry, I began to think of all of the possibilities and I became distracted!” Which was true enough, technically. “Therefore, we should be prepared to face the giant, but until we know better we should consider it a distraction to our true goal.”
“We did help the bird, fish, and wolf,” pointed out Juleidah. “Would you consider those to be distractions as well?”
On the one hand, Ivan felt that this was a rather unkind question, because of course it was a distraction, but then he answered, “Distraction or not, there is more to being a prince than fulfilling one’s word. There is nothing preventing me or any of us from helping a fellow traveler along. In the same way that we halted our ship for each of you, we should offer assistance to those in need.”
“By that reasoning,” said Haraka, “we could all be princes.”
“And princesses,” added Vasilisa, in what might have been a challenge.
“Yes,” was all he said, not because he felt so convinced as because he wasn’t sure what else to add. Then he laughed.
“Something is funny?” asked Vasilisa.
“Oh, yes,” laughed prince Ivan, and told them a story that the soldier had once told him, about a fellow he’d known in his regiment who’d saved a tsarevna and, against all odds and social rules, had married her and found himself surrounded by a royal but inbred family. In short order, he’d taken his royal bride back to the barracks, which he proclaimed to be his own new kingdom and where they were much happier. By the end of the story, which culminated in a harrowing battle between the stalwart tsarevna and a recalcitrant pig, the entire company – save Vasilisa, who only smiled politely – was laughing to tears.
“That’s not funny at all,” scolded a commanding and confident voice.
“It’s unhealthy,” added a second one.
“Your pardon, monsieur, I was too engaged in mirth to hear them,” apologized Entendtout with a chortle.
They all looked up at the two stern men on horseback glaring down at them. “Shall I kill them?” asked Scrobarnach Armtha.
Ivan and Vasilisa stood up. “Aleksey! Arkady! It’s me, Ivan!”
The two noble men on horseback stared suspiciously at the vagabonds before them. The seven companions stared likewise, but with different sets of emotions entirely. “Ivan…” said one.
“We know a lot of Ivans,” said the other.
Ivan laughed. “How many Ivans sat with you swapping stories in an inn before venturing into the castle of Tsar Pyotr? How many of the Ivans in that inn brought you to your rooms when you were too drunk to stand?” The two men looked at one another, uncertainty growing in their eyes. “How many Ivans know that when you, Aleksey, were a young boy, you snuck into your father’s -”
“It’s Ivan! Ivan has returned to us!” said the one who must have been Aleksey in a sudden rush of words. “Oh, come, Arkady, it has to be him.” He alit from his horse and Arkady did likewise. “But where have you been, brother? You vanished, what, two years ago? Then you reappeared and left on some wild quest to rescue the missing tsarevna Now here you are with this band of…” His voice trailed off as the pile of skins that was Juleidah shifted and stood up.
Arkady’s face might have blanched.
Ivan proceeded ahead as though Aleksey had not stopped talking. “It is true that we have traveled for many months, but can it have been for so long and can she have changed so much that you no longer recognize the tsarevna?”
At that, Vasilisa stepped toward them. Her hair was longer, and though Juleidah arranged it in a thick braid, time had done its damage. Her skin was no longer fair, pale, and soft. Muscles defined her arms. She wore no sleeves and her skin was brown with the sun. Her leggings could not have been less royal, as much for the fact that they were leggings as for the cut and make, the softest leather that Ipiktokiyakovik could fashion. Her face was leaner, the cheeks, nose, and chin more pronounced. Her eyes were the same, but Ivan did not expect Aleksey and Arkady to see her eyes.
“Ehm,” said Arkady with some hesitation.
“Oh, be still you silly boys,” snapped Vasilisa.
“That’s her,” said Aleksey.
“It sure sounds like her,” Arkady.
“You wouldn’t have heard it so often if you hadn’t been sniffing around my sisters.”
The wild girl giggled.
“Don’t misunderstand, your highness,” stammered Aleksey, “no one could be happier than the two of us that you and Prince Ivan have returned!”
“Why would that be?” asked the man with the dark, dark brown skin.
“How is it that everyone speaks Russian?” asked Aleksey.
Arkady said, “Because, because… The tsar, her father, will not allow any of her sisters to marry except in order of age. Vasilisa is the eldest. Aleksey loves Yekaterina, the second, and I love Liliya, the third.”
“Why are you not there with them now?” asked the man again.
“The tsar has burdened us with tasks unending!” complained Aleksey.
“Tasks unachievable!” said Arkady. “We no sooner complete one with our very lives than he demands another!”
“Each more death-defying than the last!” wailed Aleksey. ”We thought you were bandits.”
“Not that you would have been our task, but it would have been satisfying to have achieved one last thing before we died.”
“I suppose you have to slay the giant,” sighed Ivan.
They shook their heads. “Tsar Pyotr does not even know about the beast. He is concerned with the town ahead. If we can’t get them to show kindness, he’ll have our heads.”
“They seem to have run out of food,” explained Entendtout. “It is difficult to say, monsieur, if that fact will make the task ahead more difficult or not.”
“Hunger does not make one rational,” said Kou Ke. “Just the opposite. I know.”
Haraka passed Kou Ke a leg from the deer that sat over the fire and everyone discreetly looked away as he engulfed it whole, in a single bite, skin, hoof, and all.
“Does he always eat like that?” whispered an even paler Arkady to the wild girl.
“He’s going slow to be polite. He doesn’t like it when people stare.”
Arkady was not positive, but he thought that the small girl might have giggled when she turned away.
“This town is famed for its cruelty?” asked the piles of skins that was Juleidah.
Ivan held back a smile. His company seemed to be going out of their way to alarm the two princes. “Cruelty is a needlessly harsh word. They are unkind, more or less, to anyone and everyone, though less to their other citizens. The place is called Chalm, it is legendary for its singlemindedness.”
“It is pronounced Chelm,” said Vasilisa.
“Chelm is a sister city,” corrected Ivan. “They are stupid. Chalm is unkind. Haven’t you heard any stories about them?” He proceeded to explain to the rest of the group how a man bought a fish at the market and took it home to have it fresh for his dinner, but he kept it in his coat. As the fish began to suffocate in the air, it thrashed about and struck the man in the face, so he took it to the magistrate to accuse it of assault. The fish was found guilty and the magistrate sentenced it to death by drowning, so the man took the fish and threw it in the river. “No, wait, that is Chelm,” laughed Ivan, “now you’ve got me all confused! In Chalm, they once let a man’s house burn to the ground because…”
Vasilisa was no longer listening to his story, however. She was fretting about Ivan, who had never corrected her before. “It is nothing,” she told herself. “I am anxious about seeing my father and my sisters again. That is the problem. Ivan loves me and I love him and once we have returned and he has completed his tasks honorably, then we may be married and live together in peace and harmony and rule a kingdom together in justice and wisdom.” She told herself that and said it over and over, hoping that she would come to believe it. What puzzled her no end was how much more she liked Ivan now that she knew him better and how much more she admired him. This was not odd in and of itself, but the fact was, the more she liked and admired him, the less she loved him.
“Tell me this,” Ivan was saying in the light of the fire. Vasilisa looked around and saw that night had fallen even as she had told herself, over and over, that all would be well. “Can your army do things other than fight? Because now that we have taken stock of our gifts and our resources, I imagine that I have an idea. My friend the soldier once told me of a time when he was starving and came upon a town not unlike Chalm, Almeirim, he said, and convinced them to feed him.”
“I have diamonds in my pocket,” offered Arkady, whom everyone seemed to be ignoring.
“This is what we shall do,” said Ivan.