Telling Tales 91
A Walk in the Dark
It was as black as pitch in that place and not a glimmer or spark showed above him where the bed had moved back into place. “If the only direction to go is down, then down I’ll go,” said Ivan. Fortunately, this was no crudely hewn staircase carved from living rock and worn with thousands of years of millions of feet. These stairs were as straight and regular as those in a new house and laid by a master mason. With one hand on the wall – not a dank wall like the dungeon, either – Ivan put one foot in front of the other.
He descended for what seemed like hours. A gentle curve of the wall told him that the stairs turned widdershins. He couldn’t be sure in the dark, but he guessed that he would have less than fifty feet of sight to the front or the back. If he’d been able to see. At length, a light breeze touched his face. He took two steps to his right, but the other wall was no longer there. A third and a fourth step told him that the stairs were widening, for there was still no wall.
It was the spark that finally made him stop. Although he had descended along the left-hand side of the passage, the spark that he glimpsed was far below him and to the right. Frozen where he stood, it seemed to him as though the spark appeared and re-appeared at irregular intervals, shifting up and down, left and right.
Ivan dropped low to the ground so that he could move as quickly as possible without abandoning all caution. The spark was a long way off and he hastened as much as he dared. It was a good deal faster than he had been moving, and yet still it was painfully slow. Eventually, he grew confident enough in the stairs and concerned enough with his speed that he stood up and began to jog through the dark. His footsteps echoed lightly against the stone and he heard a voice say, “Sisters! Wait! Someone comes behind us!” Ivan stopped in place. It was Natalya’s voice, the youngest of the tsarevnas. He had found them.
“Nonsense,” he heard Vasilisa respond. The spark was clear now, larger than before, and more than one, he realized. “It’s only your imagination.”
While they talked, Ivan removed his boots, laced them together, and slung them around his neck. As quietly as could be, he began to run after the light again – the lights, rather, carried by the princesses to illumine their way. Each had one and they carried them in front of their bodies, which would shield them at this distance from Ivan and make it seem as though they jumped here and there.
“The boats have not yet arrived,” Vasilisa said in the distance. Her voice echoed clearly. Were they in a cavern? Had the stairs opened to the outside? But above there were neither stars nor moon. Ivan increased his pace. In short order, he heard the sound of water splashing, then footsteps in shallows.
One after another, twelve noble masculine voices invited princess after princess aboard, and one at a time, twelve boats pushed off from the shore. Ivan reached the shore in time to make out the silhouettes ahead of him. “This could be a problem,” he murmured. “Here I am, alone in the dark on the banks of an underground lake,” and a rumble from below assured him that he was correct.