It was easy to be a horse, for a long time. I could run across the grass-covered plains for days, or at least, it felt as though I could. Time seemed to move differently for me now: no longer fluid and full of possibility, it seemed like a river in the winter, choked with ice and slow with mud. I wasn’t sure if this was due to the doom that the Lawkeepers had placed on me, or simply being in the form of the horse, but I suspected the former. After all, I had changed forms many times before, and not noticed any such change. This must be how Man experiences life, I thouhgt, and the realization made me sick at heart. How tragic, to spend such a short span of days and never be able to use them fully!
I kept running, hooves pounding the ground, stopping to eat the grass when I was hungry and drinking from one fo the many ice-melt streams when I found myself thirsty. There were many wild horses in the lands in those days, and I lost myself among them quickly. I had no desire to go anywhere near any of the little peasant villages that were scattered across the steppe. I had seen enough of their kind to last a lifetime, and I did not wish to see more.
But sometimes, what we wish is not what we receive.
I do not know how long I had been living in that form, but one day, when the sun was shining warmly enough to make me think of home, I felt a sudden chill creep down my spine. The other horses seemed to notice it as well, for they began to stamp their hooves and snort at the air, eyes wide and nostrils flaring.
I saw him then, riding through the nearby forest, just inside the treeline. He was a man with ragged hair, clothed in robes of thick black fur, and seated on a horse as black as night. Horse and rider moved uncommonly fast, seeming to flit through the trees like wraiths. A definite chill moved through the air from their direction, and I knew who the mysterious rider was.
I was once told a tale of a man of my race, who was so determined to win glory for himself at any cost, that he sold his essence to the forces of evil. His heart was taken by the darkness, and shrunken into an egg, which was hidden in a fish, which in turn was hidden inside a duck, which was inside a hare, all kept in an iron chest on the highest mountain on the other side of the world. Then the heartless creature was immortal, doomed never to die unless someone held his heart in hand and crushed it beneath his heel. This creature, this pathetic, terrifying creature, was Koschei the Deathless.
Of course, I had never considered that he might be real. Like all figures from childhood tales, he had faded into the background until he became an image, a figure, a example for those who would strive for mere power. But I know this ominous figure could be none other than Koschei himself. He was said to ride a horse black as night, fast as the wind, and cruel as cold iron.
At that moment, he pulled back on the horse's reins, drawing it up sharply, and wheeling around to look at me. To all human eyes, I knew, I would appear as any other horse, dappled silver and brown, and swift of foot. But what could those eyes see?
I was frozen in place as he stared: his horse snorted hot breath, expelling a cloud of steam into the air, and pawed impatiently at the muddy ground. Finally, he turned and continued on his way, casting one final look over his shoulder before he disappeared among the trees.
As soon as I could no longer hear the pound of his horse's hooves, I wheeled and ran as fast as I could.
I ran until I could run no farther, and was panting for breath. I could feel my sides heaving with the exertion, and thought I might drop into the mud then and there. But as I slowly began to come back to myself, I found myself at the edges of a farm. I had run through the carefully plowed fields without noticing, and large gouts of mud still clung to my hooves.
Dawn was approaching, and I took shelter in the nearby woods. The brush soon closed around me, and I slept.
I was woken by the shouts of distant shouting. The light told me it must have been mid-morning, but there was still a chill in the air. I got to my feet, and trotted around until I was warm. I had not yet grown accustomed to the cold of this world, and it took me time to drive the chill from my bones.
I moved closer to the shouting, trying to hear what was being said. It had been a very long time since I had heard speech of any kind, and it was both jarring and welcome. As I drew closer, I began to make out the words.
“Of course we cannot fix it! The fields have been trampled into the mud, do you want to thresh dust along with the what? Do you want to eat mud spread into your bread?” finally, I saw the source of the sound; an old farmer was shouting at a young man, whom I took to be his son. All around them, their golden wheat had been trampled into the spring mud. It was the aftermath of my panicked flight through their fields, and I watched with interest to see what they would make of it.
“It's only one part of one field,” protested the son. “The others are fine. I'll even stand watch myself tonight to make sure that nothing harms the rest of our crops.”
“See that you do!” the father shouted before storming back into his barn. The young man looked angry, but determined. He sat down on his heels to examine the damage more closely. I withdrew back into the forest; I was sure I could outrun any of them, if it came to it, but better not to be seen at all.
I passed that day as I had passed many others; quietly nibbling at the grass, standing in a patch of sunlight and trying to get warm, and keeping a careful eye out for anyone who might wish to try his hand at capturing a wild horse from the plains. I hoped to be on my way at nightfall; it would not do to stay here, but I could not leave by day without risking capture.
Finally, night fell, and I quietly walked out of the wood. The moon was hovering on the horizon, looking almost big enough to swallow the whole farm. Its silver light fell on everything, turning even the golden wheat to cold steel.
I had barely begun my journey when I hear the familiar sound of hooves again, and Koschei appeared in the forest across the field from me. I turned to run, but before I could go a single step, he was at my side, his furs shining darkly and his iron stirrups clanking in the darkness.
“you are not what you seem,” he breathed, the vapor from his breath drifting into the cold night air. “And I must wonder, what is one of your kind doing here, in such a humble form, so far from the warmth of the sun?”
His voice was low, and rasped slightly in his throat; not an unpleasant voice, but there was a malice in it that struck straight to the heart. If snakes could speak, they might sound like Koschei: though the words were smooth, there was poison hidden in it.
“No answer then, little not-a-horse? No matter, I do not care what your story is. I can guess all too well. You did something, some small thing, the Lawkeepers did not care for, and they exiled you from the warm world you knew into this land of ice and snow. They charged you to perform some act, perhaps of love or maybe humility, and told you that the way back would be barred to you until you did as they wished.”
I kept silent, and backed away, but there was nowhere to go. Koschei laughed. “Oh, of course they did! And you think that I am here to kill you, to slay you here in your new four-footed form, and prevent you from reaching your salvation.”
his laughter ceased, and the coldness returned to his demeanor. “I do not care about any such thing. I do not eat horseflesh, even when the horse is a Hyperborean in disguise. Too stringy.” His horse snorted, and he leaned over his saddle and brought his face close to mine.
“No, I am not here to kill you. I offer you a place in my service: you could take your proper form with no risk, and learn the secrets of power. There are many in my household who study such things, and they would be happy to teach any servant of mine what they know. You need no longer miss your home—you would learn how to create your own paradise if you so wished.”
The air seemed charged and my skin crawled. I could feel the strength of the magic he posessed. He must have learned many things since he had been one of my people, and I had no idea what he might be capable of.
I wish I could tell you that I refused his offer immediately and ran away, but such was not the case. The sting of exile still rankled in my heart, and the thought of creating my own new home held the promise of freedom. I could feel the power of Koschei rippling through the cool night air: little eddys and currents in it swirled around the clearing. Even a human would have been able to sense something unusual going on, though they would not have been able to tell that it was magic.
I almost said yes. I almost went with him. But there was a taste to Koschei's power that gave me pause; something metallic, bitter, and rank. Even when he talked of creating a new paradise, it was there behind the words, poisoning each one.
“I will find my own way,” I finally replied, “But not through you. I will find my own way.”
He laughed again, a raucous grating sound, and turned to go. “As you will, little not-a-horse. But I think you will come to regret that decision very much.”
I turned to leave the clearing, but heard a sound and looked back. Koschei was spurrign his horse to run at me; his eyes were full of fire, and I swore that little tongues of flame streamed from the ends of his hair. His horse's hooves struck sparks from the ground, though it was soft and muddy, and they came towards me like a storm full of thunder and lightning.
I ran. I ran as fast as my horse form could carry me, but it was never fast enough: wherever I went, there was fiery Koschei, laughing that horrible laugh. Any thought for the farmer's fields was gone from my head—all I wanted to do was to escape the sorcerer.
He kept me running all through the night, and when dawn came and I found myself alone in the forest once more, I was ready to collapse from exhaustion. I found a spot warmed by the sun, and quickly fell asleep.
Whether the dreams were brought on by my fear, the night of exertion, or by nearness to Koschei himself, I do not know. I found myself in my old form, wandering through my beloved garden. It was overgrown and choked with grass. My flower vines had not been trimmed, and had grown through the garden, turning everything into one vast tangle.
I walked through the garden, trying to untangle it, but nothing would respond to my touch, and the tangle grew tighter. When I reached the middle of the garden, the flower vines began to cling to my arms, wrapping themselves around me. I tried to move, to cry out, but as is so often the case in dreams, I found myself silently rooted to the spot. My vines grew around me, tighter and tighter, and finally closed over my face, blocking out the warm sun. As the last ray disappeared, I cried out and awoke in the forest clearing. The sun was warm, and there was silence all around except for the song of birds. I felt nothing but cold.
I rose to get a drink from the nearby stream. I felt as though I could have drained a lake, and it was several long minutes before I raised my head again. I could her the farmer bellowing again, and moved to the edge of the forest to see what I might. There were three young men with the farmer now; the eldest was the focus of his wrath and stood shamefaced in the middle of the damage my hooves had created the night before. The second one stood with a wry expression, and it was immediately clear to me that he relished the chance to show his father that he was the more worthy of the brothers. The youngest simply sat in the mess, and plaited several bruised stalks together.
“It must have made a terrible noise coming through here like this,” the farmer shouted at his eldest son. “And yet you slept through it all? You haven't been working hard enough during the day to sleep like such a rock!”
“I do not know, father,” he protested, the redness creeping up his cheeks and flushing his face. “It came over me all of a sudden. Perhaps whatever it is put a sleeping spell on me.”
“A sleeping spell? You're mad, raving mad! This is no work of magic, just some creature that's gotten loose in our fields and wrecked two of them. You, boy, you watch tonight instead of your brother. If you can manage to keep yourself awake tonight and see what has destroyed our crops, i'll make your inheritance the equal of your brother's. Catch the beast and bring it to me, and I'll give you the lion's share. I expect to see no trampled wheat tonight!”
The middle son nodded solemnly, and the eldest looked murderous. The youngest simply laughed and twisted his wheat stalks into a braided bracelet, slipping it onto his wrist with a flourish.
I found another spot in the woods to wait for night: I feared that Koschei would be waiting for me in the darkness, but I also feared being caught by the farmer or his sons. The day passed with agonizing slowness. Not even sleep helped pass the time, and the sun seemed almost to stand still in the sky. But finally, after hours had passed, it began to dip toward the horizon.
Taking up my watch at the edge of the woods, I saw the farmer's middle son preparing for his watch. His lamp was a blur of light as he walked out of the house. He had a blanket slung over his shoulder, and a flask at his side. He walked out into the middle of the fields and set up his small camp. He opened his flask and took a sip; I caught a whiff on the wind, and the acrid smell of alcohol burned my nose.
As darkness fell and the moon rose behind me, I picked my way carefully through the trees at the edge of the forest. I knew that I could move silently enough that he would not hear me, if only Koschei did not appear.
But my faint hope was in vain. Before I had gone more than a few yards, I caught the smell of Koschei's magic and heard the thunder of hooves. I darted to the side just in time to avoid the iron hooves of the night-black horse, and could hear Koschei's laughter ringing through the night.
This night was much like the one before it; no matter how hard I ran, or in which direction, Koschei and his dark horse were there, fire in their eyes and hair, and rank magic on their breath. Again, I spent the night in panicked flight, only to find myself back in the woods at morning, alone as soon as dawn spread across the sky.
Again, I slept, and again, I dreamed. This time I was not in my own garden, but in the beautiful gardens of the palace. When last I saw them, they were perfectly kept, groomed into acres of labyrinths that wove intricately together under the warm sun, green leaves overhead creating a delicate lattice. But now it too was overgrown, and the tracery of leaves had become a dark tangle, and the labyrinth was now a tunnel of foliage. I tried to find my way out, but was lost and could find no opening anywhere. I began to hear a small sound behind me, a sort of scuttling. I stopped to listen, but it fell silent, only moving when I did. I tried to keep my pace, but it slowly grew closer. I could heard the scraping sound of claws on dirt. I broke into a run, darting through the maze of overgrowth, leaves slashing at my face as I ran past. Up ahead, I could see one part of the labyrinth that was no completely overgrown; there was a faint patch of light coming from outside, though the vines were quickly growing over it. I ran toward it as fast as I could, but a wayward root jutting up from the earthen floor of the maze snagged my foot, and I fell face forward into the dust. Choking on the dirt, I raised my head and saw a pair of red eyes staring at me, and heard the sound of claws clicking together. I screamed, and found myself awake in the forest.
The next morning was much like the previous two. I watched the farmer berate his two oldest sons, each of whom accused the other of sabotaging his efforts, while the youngest lay out in the sun, barely acknowledging the events around him.
“Neither of you two nitwits will inherit from me!” The farmer was almost shrieking now. “And if we do not stop this disaster, nothing will be left to inherit! There is one field left, just enough wheat to allow us to make a few meager loaves this winter and replant in the spring. If it fails, then we are lost. You, Ivanushka, you watch! You may be a fool, but you cannot possibly do worse than these two. If you succeed, I will make your inheritance equal to theirs: catch the beast, and you will receive the lion's share.”
The boy simply nodded, eyes closed, enjoying the sun on his face. “Don't worry, I'll find out what it is.”
The farmer looked almost despairing, and threw up his hands in surrender.
When night neared, I watched the young one, Ivanushka, walk out to the middle of the fields. He carried no blanket nor flask, and whistled a tune as he walked. One by one, the stars came out overhead, and again I made to sneak around the edge of the forest to the open ground on the other side of the farmer's fields.
Step by careful step, I made my way, listening for Koschei at every moment and doing my best not to draw the attention of the young man in the middle of the fields.
As I crossed a small stream, I felt a hot breath on my neck and heard the low laughter of Koschei. Bolting, I dashed for the fields, still yearning for the freedom of the plains that lay just beyond the waving stalks of wheat. I looked behind me to see if Koschei was following, and when I turned back, I caught a glimpse of red flame in the darkness. Stumbling, I turned and tried to run the way I had come, but felt a sudden tightening around my throat and was jolted to a halt. A rough rope was around my neck, and the other end was gripped in the tight grasp of the young man. The lantern in his hand cast a red glow, and he examined me by its light.
“So you are the fearful beast that has been destroying our crops,” he mused. “I've been much in need of a horse of my own, since we only have three, and my father and elder brothers will not let me have use of theirs.”
I could stand it no longer. “Let me go,” I pleaded. “I am not accustomed to being closed in, and if you keep me in your stables my enemy will find me and destroy me.”
The young man was surprised to hear a horse speak, I believe, but he did not drop the rope. “Well, now, there is something I never expected to hear. And what kind of enemy could a horse have that stable doors do not keep away? No, I think you are lying to me to keep yourself out of my bridle.”
I have rarely hated anything more than I hated him at that moment. I wanted to crush his smug face with my hoof: what had any man to be so smug about? He would spend his life on this farm, grubbing a bare living out of the mud, and die before one of my kind would even notice that any time had passed at all.
But there was still the rope around my neck, and the sorcerer in the woods. “Let me go, for there is a creature in these woods whom you cannot understand. He wishes me ill, and there will be much trouble for all when he finds me. Let me go, and I will come to you when you are in need.'
The young man laughed then, and with his free hand grabbed the rope where it encircled my neck. “You will come to me in my need, will you? But you see, if I put my bridle on you and take you home to my stable, you will still be there when I am in need. So you offer me nothing I cannot take, horse.”
“My enemy will destroy me if you keep me penned in a stable,” I replied, temper flaring. “And then where will you be? No stable and no horse to keep in it. Let me go to the open plains, and run free. When you need me, simply come to the edge of your field and whistle. Call out “Silver-Brown, I have need of you, remember your promise!” I will come and give you any aid I can. Only let me go free and escape my enemy.”
Ivanushka looked as though he would refuse again, when a low snort sounded from the woods. Through the trees, we could see a faint hint of flame, then all was quiet and dark again.
In the silence, I was sure that Ivanushka could hear the thunder of my heart. He was still for a moment, then in another had loosened the rope and pulled it over my head. “Then be gone with you, but come back when I call. Run fast, horse, escape your pursuer.”
In a flash I was gone, through the small paths between fields and out onto the steppe, running faster than I had been able to run in days. The wind tore through my mane and I could feel the grass cushioning every step I took. It was times like this when I truly appreciated the form of the horse that I had put on. The feeling of speed, of power, was intoxicating. The sun was warm, the wind cold, and it was a day made for running.
The ways of human power and government are strange to me. There are so many wicked kings, and foolish men who desire power in order to gain more power, and the people they oppress who want to be like them. I do not understand it, but I have seen these same things play out many times.
A few years from the time I met Ivanushka, the men of the villages began to catch and break more of the wild horses that I ran with. There had always been a few caught each year, but never in such numbers.
One day, they came for the herd, and there were more of the men than ever. They carried ropes, nets, bridles and saddles, and they laughed and sang as they made their preparations. I could hear them singing and talking around their fires. The word in their mouths was that the Tsar was still heirless after many years, and there was no-one around to whom he wished to give his eldest daughter. In defiance of the tsardoms around him, he had decreed that he would choose a man from among the people to marry the tsarina and inherit his realm.
“I have heard that he has created a game by which to chose his heir, Alyosha,” cried one voice above the din.
“Ah, that he has!” came the reply. “He has shut her up in a very tall tower. He is gathering all the eligible men, and anyone who wishes to win her must mount his horse, and jump high enough to take a ring from her finger. Whoever manages this feat will win the tsarina and inherit the tsar's lands.”
“And you must catch the fastest of the horses here,” another voice added, “to even have a chance. No broken horse has the spirit to jump so high! Best to start off fresh.”
The voices quieted then, and I could see the forms of the men come over the top of the hill as they began to hunt us. The horses were wary, but not ready to run yet. Slowly the men made their way around the herd, but I had already left them behind and slipped away into a nearby copse of trees.
Then, from a great distance, I heard the sound of a voice calling. “Silver-Brown, I have need of you!”
I had feared this might happen, but I was bound by my oath, and with a heavy heart returned to the small farm where Ivanushka stood waiting.
“Silver-Brown, I need you. The Tsar--”
“I have heard about the foolishness of the Tsar,” I snapped. “And I suppose you wish for me to be your horse to help you win the princess.”
He nodded. “My brothers are taking their horses and trying their hand, and I wish to do the same.”
I sighed. “Ivanushka, you do not know the tsarina. You might be unsuited for each other. You do not even know if I can jump high enough to win her for you.”
“I cannot stay here!” he exclaimed, with a vehemence that surprised me. “My father keeps threatening to disinherit my older brothers, but he never will. Even if he did, what would I win but a muddy farm that barely produces even to survive each winter? No, horse, I want more than that. This is as good a way to find a way out as any.”
“Have it your way, then,” I said. “When is this contest to take place?”
“In three days' time. It will take us a full day of journeying to reach the tsar's palace. My brothers expect me to come with them to tend their horses.”
“Then I will meet you at the tsar's palace in three days.” I turned and galloped off across the steppes. The idea of being ridden by a human, of being in service to such a creature, rankled. But I thought that if I helped him win his heart's desire, he might release me from my oath the sooner.
I had not seen Koschei or his night-dark horse since the last night on Ivanushka's farm, but he was always present to my mind and I was always wary of seeing him. Far away into the west I could see the smoke of war, and wondered if he were there, in the midst of blood and battle.
I spent the next two days plucking certain herbs that I knew. They would have been more powerful had I been able to pick them in Hyperborea, but they retained some of their virtues even here. When I finally set out for the Tsar's palace, I was stronger and fleeter of foot than ever before.
The palace was at the edge of a great city by a large lake. The palace was made of cold grey stone, and at the eastern end was a large tower soaring up toward the sky. A young woman waited in the window in the tower, her chestnut brown hair blowing in the breeze. She looked bored and resigned, and I wondered for a moment if she had a lover of her own.
The crowds were already gathered in the large green sward below the tower. Young men called up to the tsarina, who steadfastly ignored them. Horses neighed and whinnied from every tent, many of them straining to break their restraints. Many of them seemed to be fresh off the steppes, unbroken and wild. How many young men would break their necks when they were thrown against the rock of the tower, I wondered.
I heard Ivan's whistle then, and ran to his tent. His tent was a shabby affair, little more than a large blanket thrown over an assortment of sticks. His brothers had larger tents which stood proudly in the sun. their horses were tethered outside, and they were fine horses, to be sure.
I took a look at ivan, who had arrived in work clothes stained by labor and sweat, and ragged from use. “you cannot win the tsarina like that. If you wish to become the tsar's heir, you must look like a tsar's heir. But not here. Come with me, behind the tents.”
When we were away from the rest of the crowd, and hidden from any prying eyes, I lightly tapped his shoulder with my hoof, and cast a glamour on him. In a few moments, no-one would recognize him, least of all his brothers. His blond hair shone clean in the sun, and he had grown a fine beard to go with it. His clothes were now good linen and rich fur, dyed in the richest colors and cut perfectly to suit his figure. His boots were no longer poor ragged brown bits of black, but polished black and shining.
“I do not have a saddle,” he said, almost apologetically, surveying his fine riding suit.
“You will not need one with me,” I assured him. “Just hold onto my mane and do not let go.”
He swung up on my back, and we went out to see the tsar's crowd.
A great crowd had gathered at the foot of the tower. The tsar watched from a throne that had been brought out to the steps of the castle. The test was a cruel one. The window was up very high, but not so high as to be clearly impossible. Not one of the men could look at it without deceiving himself that he and his horse could perform the feat.
One by one, the men spurred their horses on. The tsarina leaned down, a golden ring dangling from her fingertips. One by one, the men and horses fell short by several feet. Sometimes a young man would lose his grip and tumble to the ground. A few were thrown by their horses and did not rise again. Neither the tsar nor the tsarina seemed to notice.
“It is time to end this farce,” I hissed into Ivanushka's ear, and he took his place in line. Soon it was our turn to try. I heard a ripple of whispers run through the crowd at the sight of this young man in his finery, and again felt disgust for the whole endeavor.
“Hang on tightly,” I whispered. I ran quickly, covering the distance to the tower in a matter of seconds. With a quick jump, I leaped up toward the tsarina, my hooves clattering on the tower walls. “Now!” I called to Ivanushka. He reached up as high as he could, stretching toward the gold ring in the tsarina's fingers.
But it was not enough, and we fell back to the earth, Ivan with empty hands.
The look of amusement had left the tsar's face, replaced by astonishment, and even the tsarina herself seemed surprised.
I turned and carried Ivan quickly away from the crowd. In a moment, his glamor fell away, and I had disguised myself as an ordinary work horse, like so many of the other horses present. “Quickly now, back into your tent. This will be the talk of the day, and your brothers will be suspicious if you are not here when they return. Say nothing of today; tomorrow, we will try again.”
He nodded and ducked into his tent; I stood behind the small camp, waiting for the brothers to return. Shortly, I heard them coming up the road, discussing the events of the day.
“No, I tell you, I have never heard tell of this man. Surely we would know if there was a young count or duke of his quality in the tsardom.” The oldest had a voice that carried far, and I heard him before I saw either one. He had a dark brooding expression, and made his point earnestly. The middle son was quieter, and bore a smirk that set him apart from his brothers. He spoke softly, but seemed determined to pull apart anything anyone else said.
“What of it? Perhaps he is from a neighboring realm, or even a traveler from far away. The tsarina is lovely, and if all one has to do to win her and her dowry is to catch a simple ring, why would a traveler not want to take his chances?”
“I tell you, there is something afoot here, some magic that...but wait, here's our youngest brother, still dawdling in his tent! What is it, Ivanushka, you could not even be bothered to wake up in time to see the games?”
Ivanushka, who had been lounging half outside his tent, looked up sleepily. “Why go see grown men jumping about on horses like centaurs playing at leapfrog? No, I shall be content to sit in my tent and decide how to use my riches.”
The middle son laughed scornfully, and kicked Ivanushka's hand with the toe of his boot. “Untill they decide to bestow great fortunes on those who sleep their lives away, you will remain as poor as you are now, foolish Ivanushka.”
“That may be so, Grigori,” he replied with a studied yawn, “but then, you never know when someone might decide to do just that.
The two brothers mocked him for a little longer, trying to provoke him, but he returned each jab with cheerful indifference, and they finally went to their own tents and silence fell over the camp.
The next day, Ivanushka stayed in his tent until his brothers left to join the crowd. He then ran to find me, and I gave him the glamour of the previous day, having returned my coat and mane to their natural appearance hours prior.
This time, he attracted the attention of everyone in the crowd as he rode in. They pointed at him, and asked him for his name and country, but he simply smiled, nodded, and kept his silence. The men had already begun trying again to reach the ring in the tsarina's hand, but were having no greater luck than they had the day before. Man after man reached and fell short. Again, there were many who were unhorsed, and some who fell against the stone of the tower with such force that they did not get up again.
Finally, when all the others had taken their turns, Ivanushka and I advanced toward the tower. Again I bid him to hold tightly to my mane, again I leaped with all my strength, and again he reached as high as he could.
This time, his fingers brushed the ring, and I could hear the gasp of surprise that came from the tsarina. But it was not enough, and again we landed without the prize.
The short ride to his tent was silent, as we were both downcast from our failure.
Ivanushka, now back in his rags and tatters, slid off my back and sat in front of his tent, face in his hands. I did not care whether he won the tsarina or not, but it wore ill with me that I could not complete such a simple task, and I was more determined than ever that we should succeed on the following day, the final day of the games.
When I heard the two elder brothers coming up the road, I slipped away onto the open plains again. I had no desire to hear their foolish talk.
The moon shone clear, and the sky was cloudless and full of stars. I could see their reflections in the still water of the lake that bordered the palace. It was a beautiful night, and I was glad for it. In a rush of desire to be rid of the human world, I began to trot, then gallop. I did not sleep that night, but ran all night under the light of the moon and the stars, relishing the feel of the wind in my mane, and the strength of my legs as they carried me ever onward.
When dawn came, I returned to Ivanushka's tent. In a moment, he was glamored in his finery again, and there was a look of determination in his face that I had never seen there before.
Again, we went forward to the palace. All along the road, people shouted for his attention, and applauded him. Old women threw flowers into our path, and young women threw their kerchiefs. He acknowledged each with a smile and a nod, but we did not stop, and were soon at the foot of the palace. There were no other competitors this day; instead, every man who had tried for the ring was standing in a circle, watching.
Feeling the eyes of all on us, I prepared myself for the final attempt. The tsar and tsarina did not look bored now, but the tsar was leaning forward in eager anticipation, and the tsarina could not take her eyes off Ivanushka in his finery.
I gathered myself for the last time, and dashed forward. In another moment, my hooves clattered on the palace stones, and I felt Ivan reaching up, reaching higher than he ever had.
A gasp went up from the crowd, then a deafening cheer. I caught a gleam of gold out of the corner of my eye, and knew that Ivanushka had captured the ring.
As soon as my hooves hit the grass, he leaned forward and whispered into my ear, “Quickly! Run, get me out of here!”
I leaped forward, and began the dash back to his tent. When we arrived, he slid off my back rapidly, and reached for one of his tattered shirts. “Quickly, make me a peasant again.”
I removed the glamour with a touch of my hoof. “What are you doing, Ivanushka?”
“I want everyone to know that it is Ivanushka the dreamer, the layabout, who has won the tsarina's hand.” He slipped the tsarina's ring onto his little finger, and wrapped his hand in a bandage ripped from his shirt.
“Now, my brothers will be back soon, you'd best hide before they recognize you. Surely everyone will have taken note of the marvelous horse that the handsome young man was riding.” I agree, and walked behind the tent, casting the glamor on myself as I went.
I heard Ivanushka's brother coming up the road, calling to him.
“Ivanushka, you lazybones! You should have come today—the mysterious visitor claimed the ring, but ran off before the tsar could give his daughter's hand to him!” The eldest was flushed with excitement.
The middle brother looked grimmer than usual. “Yes, at the last moment, he finally managed to reach high enough to snatch the ring, but no-one has any idea where he has gone. The Tsar is holding a feast in three days' time, to celebrate the engagement of the tsarina, and it is hoped that the young man's identity will be revealed then.”
“Well,” said Ivanushka lazily. “that sounds like quite a lot of excitement. It's a very good thing I didn't go, or I'd be far too tired to enjoy my afternoon nap.”
Grigori made a sound of disgust and entered his tent, followed by Pyotr, the eldest.
For three days, I had the freedom of the open plains, though I kept near the tsar's palace. Ivanushka did not summon me, but I could not help but be curious about his plans. I did not understand why he would continue another day in rags when he could be clothed in gold and have the tsarina's hand in marriage as soon as he wished it. But if that was what he wished, it made no difference to me. Let him have his will.
At the end of the three days, I heard his familiar call, and found my way to where he waited under the shadow of a tree at the edge of the palace grounds.
“Ah, Silver-Brown,” he greeted me quietly with a smile. “This is the last time I will need you, but I must ask you for another favor. I am going to the Tsar's feast as the layabout Ivanushka, but I intend to become the handsome young man who took the ring from the hand of the tsarina. I will need you for that transformation one more time, and then I swear to you, I will release you from your oath.”
“Ivanushka, I am bound to you by my oath. You need not ply me with any promises. If you call, I am bound to appear. Go, claim your tsarina.”
From where I stood, I could see him go up the path to the palace gate. The guards made as if to detain him for a moment, but he was joined by his brothers who reassured the soldiers that, appearance aside, he was not a wayward beggar looking for a handout. The three entered into the palace; I could hear the sounds of feasting and singing drifting out onto the night winds.
Hours passed, and then through the night air I heard the sound: “Silver-Brown, I have need of you!” With a heavy heart, I went through the palace gates, so quickly the guards could not stop me, and galloped into the banquet room.
It was a strange scene. The Tsar sat at one end of the room, looking confused and more than a little perturbed by my entrance. The guests sat in various states of satiation and drunkeness, looking to see what would happen next. Pyotr, Grigori, and Ivanushka sat in the middle of the room. The tsarina, bringing a cup of honey around to each man to sip from, was holding Ivanushka's bandaged hand with a look of recognition on her face.
Ivanuska looked around, and spoke loudly enough to be heard by the whole room. “I am Ivanushka, son of Mikhail, and I am here to claim the hand of the tsarina.”
“By what right!” burst the Tsar, standing up. “You come here in your rags, summon a horse into my palace, and make yourself familiar with my daughter, yet you give us no proof!”
“No, Papa, the proof is here,” exclaimed the tsarina, speaking for the first time. Now that she no longer looked bored or angry, her face looked quite beautiful. She held up Ivanushka's hand and quickly unwrapped the bandage. On his little finger, the gold ring gleamed.
“See, Papa, he bears my ring! And even in his rags, I recognize him!” Her eyes shone, and she clasped Ivanushka's hand. He glanced at me, and I quickly tapped him with my hoof, once again restoring the glamor, and turning him into the handsome young man that everyone remembered from the palace green earlier.
A shout went up from the gathered crowd, and more than a few fell off their benches under the combined effect of the surprise and the beer they had been downing all night.
In the commotion, I slipped back outside. The night was cold, with a few clouds scudding across the sky. I could see faint ribbons of color rippling across the sky; it was a pale imitation of the curtains that shot through the sky in the Summer Realm, but it reminded me of it. I found it both comforting and heart-breaking.
The sound of footsteps behind me broke me out of my reverie. I turned to see Ivanushka standing there. He smiled and stepped up beside me. “I thought you might be here. I wanted to thank you. I think I will be very happy with the tsarina, and even if the marriage is nothing to boast of, seeing the looks on my brothers' faces was reward enough to last a lifetime.” He chuckled, then grew serious once more.
“I meant what I said about releasing you from your oath, horse. You are obviously more than a simple horse, and it would be wrong of me to keep you here.”
I turned to meet his gaze. He seemed a little sad, but I could detect no falseness in him. “you are giving up the right to call on a creature that can summon magic and glamor at will, simply because you do not think it right? Perhaps humans are more noble than I gave you credit for.”
He reached into his coat and drew out a package wrapped in fine linen. “The tsarina wanted me to give this to my steed. I told her that my horse was simply on loan from elsewhere, but she insisted.” He pulled back the cloth and revealed a bridle, made of the finest silver, and set with many sapphires and other stones. It was a thing of beauty, but I recoiled. Never in my horse form had I worn bridle or saddle, and I detested the thing.
Ivanushka smiled again, and wrapped the bridle back up. “Do not fear, I'm not going to put it on you. You are free, that is final. But she did give it for you, and it is yours. Do with it what you will.” He set it on the ground, and turned to go.
I looked at the bridle, and felt the hold of my oath slip free. I closed my eyes for a moment, and the form of the horse slipped away, leaving me in my original form, clothed in robes of rich brown and fine silver.
“Ivanushka,” I called to him quietly. He turned and gaped in surprise. “Thank you,” I said, bowing ever so slightly. “You are a good man, Ivanushka. Go home to your tsarina.” I slipped into the shadows of the night and hid myself: he looked for several minutes but I know how to escape discovery when I so wish it. He might have looked for a hundred years and found no more than shadows.
When he finally went back inside, I set out across the plains, relishing the feel of the thick grass on my feet for the first time in many years. The stars shone brightly overhead.
There is a tree, not far from the gate into the Summer Realm. I believe that I am the only one who knows of it. At its base, there is a papery roll of bark that peels back to reveal a hollow in the tree. I often used it for storing items when I visited the human world. When I next passed by that area, I made a visit to the tree, and secured the bridle inside.
There is a tree, not far from the gate into the Summer Realm. I believe that I am the only one who knows of it. At its base, there is a papery roll of bark that peels back to reveal a hollow in the tree. I often used it for storing items when I visited the human world. When I next passed by that area, I made a visit to the tree, and secured the bridle inside.