Telling Tales 186
Just Like Old Times
“It’s just like old times,” called Prince Ivan to Bulat the Brave as they tore away on their steeds with the Princess Kirbitievna riding sidesaddle in front of the prince.
“How do you mean, exactly?” she asked. “Do you make a habit of rescuing princesses? Am I not the first? Am I some kind of runner-up princess?”
“There is a great deal of danger in the world, Highness,” answered Bulat.
“He means that many people at times require assistance or aid,” explained Ivan, suddenly aware of the metaphorical hole in which he found himself.
Bulat said, “However, I believe Prince Ivan meant that we have often been pursued by dangerous forces before.”
Indeed, that was not at all what Ivan had meant, but he was grateful for the elaboration. At the same time, he was disappointed that Bulat was correct. Behind them a massive cloud of dust showed their pursuers. If the cloud masked their exact number, it suggested something quite large.
“The captain of the guard will have saddled his hundred best men on his hundred best horses and they will be after us even now,” said Vasilisa Kirbitievna.
Ivan considered the situation. He knew that the hundred guards could never outrun his gray mare, but he doubted that Bulat’s roan was up to the task. He was saved from having to make a decision by Bulat himself. “Oh, no! I have lost my ring! I must return for it at once before Tsar Kirbit’s men can catch up.”
“Do not be foolish, Bulat the Brave,” said the princess. “I will give you a ring. Ride on!”
“That is impossible, Vasilisa Kirbitievna. That ring is priceless. My own mother gave it to me, and when she gave it, she said, ‘Wear it, lose it not, forget not your mother.’ But if the prince would be good enough to loan me his sword, I will be able to spear the ring upon its point and ride back to join you before you have noticed I am gone.”
Although this level of pursuit was beyond their planning, Ivan trusted Bulat and passed his sword over, horseback to horseback, and rode on with Vasilisa Kirbitievna. For his part, Bulat turned back, returned his ring from his pocket where he had hidden it to his finger, and went to meet the hundred guards. He slew them all, all save one, whom he left alive to return to Tsar Kirbit with the news of their defeat, and rode back to join the prince and princess. He held his hand up so that they could see the ring, but Ivan pointed behind him to where a cloud of dust gathered in the distance.
“That will be the party set out to escort the first hundred men home with me in safe-keeping and with the two of you dead or captured,” said Vasilisa Kirbitievna.
Bulat cursed. “I have lost my handkerchief!” He held up one hand to forestall any opposition from the other two. “My grandmother gave it to me and it is quite priceless.” He raised his eyebrows in an “And so on” sort of way. “Ride on, and I will catch up with you soon, but Prince Ivan, if you would be good enough to loan me your boots, I will be able to leap faster than a hare off and on my horse and ride back to join you before you have noticed I am gone.”
Without losing speed, Ivan removed his boots and passed them to Bulat, who then rode back to meet the two hundred guards.