Telling Tales 98
The Wolf’s Version
Behind them, there was no sign of either the silver field or the copper forest, only the gently sloping golden hill that fell and then rose to block the horizon. Ivan couldn’t decide if he should inquire about the immediate – the changeable landscape – or the very soon, the tsar killing the princesses. “He’s doing what?” he finally asked.
Under the wolf’s feet, the ground sped by, soft plants growing from hard soil. “There are ways to increase one’s span of years. You might trade your heart for another to keep it safe.”
Her words sank into Ivan’s head. He found it difficult to imagine the thing that she was suggesting. “Like Koschey. We always thought it was Koschey who stole princess Vasilisa away but it was her father all the time? Her father is Koschey the Deathless?” Everything that Ivan knew, everything that he believed he knew and understood, shattered in that moment.
“No, he’s not,” said the wolf, and the world made sense again.
“But – ”
“Tsar Pyotr is the tsar Pyotr, no more and no less, but the Sunset King is another matter altogether. He learned his secrets and magic from Koschey and Baba Yaga, two of the harsher teachers one could wish for, and he tricked from them that which he could not learn.”
“What – ”
“Look beyond in the windows on the side of the palace.” Ivan did, and through the grand, tall glass he saw the bright lights of a ball, couples dancing around and around, even as the sun sank and the moon ascended. “Twelve princesses from your land and twelve princes from this one. Their nightly dance funnels their lives into the talismans that the kings consume. This is one of the secrets of Koschey the Deathless. I am grateful that you spared my life and healed my wounds and that is the first reason I am helping you here in the Sunset Kingdom.” Next to them the palace crept by, seeming to grow in length with her every step while above them the Moon sped into the sky as if hours were passing in minutes. “I am no friend to the Sunset King and therefore not to his friend and ally, Tsar Pyotr. If we may help one another, we may succeed twice over. I know your duty is to your word and to fulfill the letter of your promise to the tsar. I know that your honor is to remove Vasilisa from the thrall of her father. I submit to you, however, that your original plan is lacking.”
“How do you know my plan is lacking? How do you even know what my plan is?”
“I have described the conditions and the likely solution is that you will take Vasilisa away. While that will save her and her sisters alike from this enchantment, it will leave her eleven siblings captive and I believe, now that you are clear on that, that you will not abandon them either. Your honor must be to assist them all, not only your beloved.
She went on. “You have noticed, I hope, that Vasilisa is different now that she was before?” She interrupted before he could assent. “The tsar’s sorcery draws them all in, and while she fights as best she can, there is little beyond speaking the occasional word that she can do. Her power is not equal to his. Are you prepared for drastic measures to save her and her sisters, and in so doing, the twelve princes here?”
Ivan set his jaw and aimed for inspiring confidence. “What’s the worst that could happen?”