The room fell silent as he entered, but Ivan was used to it—and he could not blame them, a lively party interrupted by a man in a dark, all-encompassing cloak, not even a hint of his face visible. Even without the hooded cloak, he tended to make rooms fall silent for one reason or another.
If he did not, then certainly his strong and silent shadow stopped conversations. Ivan was not conceited, but he knew they each had a presence lent them by the lives they had led—and together their presence was all the stronger.
His mouth quirked in amusement, from within the shadowed depths of his hood. Behind him, his bodyguard closed the door to the inn, blocking out the sounds of howling wind, thunder, and pounding rain. Then he moved across the room to hang up his sodden cloak, leaving Ivan by the door. Ivan did not bother to remove his own cloak; the weather was no match for the enchantments he had laid upon it.
He took in the dozen or so people gathered around a large ring of tables in the middle of the otherwise empty inn, and realized immediately that was all was not as it seemed. By the way they were dressed, the food and drink upon the table, the veil hung traditionally above the fireplace, Ivan realized they had interrupted a wedding celebration.
What, he wondered, simmered beneath the elaborate façade of gaiety?
Only one way to find out. Pushing back the hood of his cloak, letting his gold hair spill free, baring the beauty he knew he possessed, he stepped closer to the table and swept a bow. “Lords and ladies, I apologize for our intrusion. We did not mean to interrupt your wedding celebration. Regretfully, the weather gave us no choice but to stop and take cover for a time. Please, do carry on. We will go to our rooms and trouble you no further.”
“Not at all,” the bride said warmly, but he could hear the desperation left unspoken. “Please, sit and join us. As happy as we are today, it is only fitting and our pleasure to share that happiness as we may. There is food and drink aplenty, my lords, though it be humble enough.”
Ivan laughed softly. “I am no lord, dear lady, and no man is too good to refuse a warm meal. We accept your offer, mostly gladly, and with deep thanks.”
He motioned, and his bodyguard fetched two chairs and helped to rearrange everything so that there was space enough for the two of them. Then he held out Ivan’s chair, and saw Ivan was comfortably settled, before taking his own seat.
Ivan looked up at him, and shared a look, knowing and loving, of the same mind as always.
Then he turned back to the group, and thanked the woman who handed him a cup of mulled wine. Looking to the bride and groom, he asked, “So you were married this day? I hope the weather held until it was over, and did not interfere with the ceremony.”
“It was a beautiful wedding,” the woman declared, holding fast to her groom’s arm, laying her head on his shoulder.
“Many blessings upon you, and your children, and your children’s children,” Ivan replied. “You’re a handsome couple, like the look of a painting finally completed.”
“Thank you,” the groom replied.
The idle conversation continued, and Ivan began to pick out more and more anomalies in the wedding party—forced laughter, empty smiles, plates of food barely touched, alcohol drunk too heavily here, not drunk at all there. The bride was too joyous, the groom to mild, his words well practiced and smoothly spoken, but with no sincerity. The groom’s friends were much the same, with an undercurrent of menace that most people would miss. He also noted that the groom and his friends were the only ones eating, and they ate only tender, mostly raw meat.
But he said nothing, did nothing, save to keep the conversation flowing. “So what were you doing when we so rudely interrupted?”
“Telling stories,” said an old woman, who by her appearance must be the bride’s mother. “My husband, gods rest his soul, was a Storyteller. We all were taking turns telling our favorites.”
The bride laughed, a shockingly sincere sound when everything else was fearful lies. “We were actually arguing over a story—the tale of King Grey and Ivan the Heartless,” she said. “Everyone knows a different version, and we were trying to decide whose was the most correct.”
Ivan’s mouth quirked. “Indeed. A popular tale, that one, especially given the events all took place only a decade or so ago. I know a version of my own, if you would like to hear it. I am told it is the true version, but hear the tale for yourselves, and then you may decide if it be true or false.”
“Yes, please,” the bride said, clapping her hands once in excitement, all but the groom and his men adding their own eager encouragements.
Ivan bowed his head, acknowledging he was now storyteller, then took a long draught of wine before settling back in his seat and beginning his tale. “Now, most versions I have heard begin the tale when a lost prince encounters a wolf while he journeys—but this tale truly begins well before that, dear listeners. Our tale begins not with a prince, but with a King and a Queen…
Fifteen years ago, King Grey went out riding with his sister, Princess Elena the Fair, his beautiful betrothed, Princess Vassilissa the Wise, and his faithful friend and bodyguard, the soldier Tarabanov. Tragedy struck them in the forest, however, and only Princess Elena emerged again, blood-soaked and terrified, sobbing mournfully about the dragon which had attacked them, devoured all but she.
Grief-stricken, the Kingdom held ceremonies for their lost King and the Queen that would never be, and faithful Tarabanov, who no doubt had died first in a valiant effort to save his King.
After a suitable length of time, they crowned their new Queen. In honor of her coronation, the neighboring kingdoms all sent suitable gifts. Later, Queen Elena sent gifts to them in thanks and in promise of continued good relations.
To King Vyslav of the eastern-most kingdom, she sent a rare and beautiful gift indeed—a firebird of breathtaking magnificence, with wings of gold and eyes like crystal. King Vyslav was much pleased by the gift, and ordered the firebird placed in his private garden, where it spent its days eating golden apples from the king’s favorite tree.
Now it happened that King Vyslav had three sons, and of these sons, the youngest was dearest to him. His name was Prince Ivan, and for love of his father he spent his days in the palace, attending the King and keeping him happy, despite his own private wishes to see the world as his brothers had.
When he looked upon the firebird, Prince Ivan found himself enchanted by its beauty, enthralled by its voice. More than that though, he was drawn to its sadness, the mournful way it looked to the sky in which it could not fly, bound by magic to the garden.
Every day, Prince Ivan begged his father to set the firebird free, but always the king refused. Every night, Prince Ivan climbed into the golden apple tree and listened to the firebird’s sad songs, occasionally humming along as best he could. Day by day, he and the firebird grew closer, until whenever he went to the garden, the firebird would fly to him and settled in his lap, and sing.
One day, the King of a neighboring kingdom visited, and brought with him a handsome wolf of enormous size, with thick dark fur and eyes like moonlight. In those eyes, Ivan saw a sadness that echoed the mournful songs of the firebird, and so during the King’s stay, Ivan befriended the wolf, which followed him around as often as it may, and seemed delighted by the firebird, not leaving its side until his King called for him, angered by his prolonged absence.
As the days passed, the Kings spoke at length, and at last decided to exchange pets, for Prince Ivan’s father fascinated by the wolf, and weary of sad songs, and the wolf’s King was weary of an animal that would not obey.
Devastated by the loss of the firebird, feeling as though a piece of him was gone forever, Ivan wandered the halls in anguish, soothed only by the presence of the wolf and the forlorn howling he cast upon the sky when dark fell.
By and by, his discontent grew, until even his father’s happiness was not enough to keep him bound to the castle. “Shall we run away?” he asked the wolf, and the wolf seemed to say they should, and so they fled in the dark of night, never looking back.
At the wolf’s silent bidding, Ivan climbed upon its back and off they raced, faster than the wind, until Ivan realized the wolf had carried them to the palace of the King who had taken the firebird. Leaping the walls of the palace, the wolf landed in the garden, and Ivan slowly slid from his back.
He listened for a moment, and heard a familiar mournful song, and followed it to the heart of a lush garden, where the firebird sat inside a golden cage. Ivan moved forward, eyes upon the firebird, unable to think of anything else.
Too late, he heard the wolf call a warning, fingers on the golden cage, springing a trap, sealing them in the garden. Swearing, Ivan opened the cage and freed the firebird, cradling it against his chest, feeling suddenly at peace despite their dire situation.
But then the firebird freed itself from Ivan’s embrace, and flew atop the cage, and began to sing a song that made the guards who came rushing in clutch at their ears and cry out in agony.
Grabbing one of them, Ivan demanded the man tell him how to break the spell that trapped them. And the man told him, frightened of the wolf, pained by the bird, and enchanted by the beautiful prince with golden hair and ruby lips.
Breaking free, Prince Ivan, the wolf, and the firebird fled into the night, Ivan upon the wolf’s back, the firebird flying above them, his golden feathers shining brightly to show the way in the dark.
When at last they were well away and safe, deep in the woods, Ivan made a fire and cooked the hare the wolf brought him. When they were warm and fed, he said quietly, “You are no firebird, and you are no wolf. I am no wizard, but I know a curse when I see one. How might I help to save you?”
The wolf growled, and the firebird trilled sadly, and Ivan understood they did not know the secret to breaking their curses. “Then we will search every kingdom, until we discover a way,” Ivan vowed.
And so they travelled, through the thrice-nine kingdoms across the thrice-nine lands. Ivan spoke with every witch, consulted with every wizard, read every book he could find, in search of a way to save his friends. He searched and searched, growing ever wiser in the ways of magic, until he became a wizard himself.
Then, after a year and a day had passed, they were walking along a forest road when they heard someone coming. Fearing robbers, preferring to avoid a fight, they hid behind some trees and waited. But rather than robbers, the riders instead proved to be a King and his retinue. Prince Ivan stared in wonder at the king’s horse, an impressive mare with a golden mane. She moved as quick and light as the wind, and put all other horses to shame.
And the wolf whined quietly, sadder than Ivan had ever heard him, and the firebird sang in forlorn sympathy.
“The mare is one of you?” Prince Ivan asked, and when they indicated she was, Ivan declared they must save her.
And so they followed the King and his retinue back to his hunting lodge and waited until dark fell and all within the hunting lodge slept. Then he bid the wolf and firebird wait for him, and crept into the stable.
In the farthest stall, the mare stood with her head drooping, moonlight making her golden mane look more silver. Prince Ivan slipped into her stall, and whispered to her of the wolf and firebird, and she immediately brightened.
Prince Ivan reached out to take her bridle, but then saw that it was spelled. Hastily withdrawing his hand, he spoke the words of magic he had learned, and the spell on the bridle died. Removing it, he opened the stable door, and led the mare away from the hunting lodge.
And when they reached his friends, the wolf and mare and firebird were overcome by the sight of one another, and the wolf and mare could not be parted for any reason, but lay together before the fire as Prince Ivan cooked their supper.
When all were warm and fed, Prince Ivan said, “We have looked and looked for a way to break your curses, but found it nowhere. I think I must get the answer from the one who cursed you.” So decided, Ivan asked them a thousand questions, until at last he deduced it was Queen Elena the Fair who had cursed them—and realized at last the true identities of his dear friends. “Then I will go to your kingdom, Majesty, and coax from your sister the Queen the secret to breaking your curse.”
So they journeyed to the wolf’s Kingdom, and got as close as they dared. Leaving his friends in an empty cabin in the forest, Prince Ivan looked to the wolf and said, “Noble wolf, I bid you take my strength, and keep it safe, for I will need to be weak to deceive the Queen.”
Then he turned to the mare, and smoothed her golden mane, and said, “Sweet mare, I bid you take my honor and keep it safe, for I will need to be cowardly to deceive the Queen.”
Finally, he turned to the firebird, and stroked its shining feathers, and said, “Dearest firebird, I bid you take my heart and keep it safe, for I must be quite heartless to deceive the Queen.”
And they promised each to guard what he had given into their care, and Prince Ivan left them and went to the palace of Queen Elena.
There he begged an audience with the Queen, and he was so weak and simpering and pathetic, that the guards took pity on him and granted his request. And so Prince Ivan went before Queen Elena the Fair, and said to her, “Beautiful Queen of Unsurpassed Magnificence, I am but a homeless prince, hated by his jealous, unworthy brothers, banished by his father, seeking a place I might call home.”
When the Queen asked why his problems should concern her, Prince Ivan told her that his brothers hated him because his magic was greater, and they had lied to and deceived his father until they convinced him to cast Prince Ivan out. Having nowhere to go, he had journeyed to her, eager to see if the tales of her magical prowess were true. “For I am but a novice before your great skill, Majesty,” he said. “If you would but take me in, gladly would I be your slave, if only you will teach me what you know.”
Amused and flattered, and taken by the foolish prince’s beauty, the Queen assented to his request, and took him as her slave, silently vowing to teach him nothing but the most trivial of spells and tricks.
So the days and weeks passed, and Prince Ivan searched secretly for the secret to breaking the curse laid upon his friends, but all his efforts were in vain, for he could find not even a hint of a solution.
By and by, the Queen made him her lover, and dutifully Prince Ivan went to her bed when bid. But whenever he could, he snuck off to the forest to be with his friends, and their presence and comfort renewed his determination to set them free, and to the palace he returned.
One night, lying on the floor after she had dismissed him from her bed, Prince Ivan had a sudden thought, and decided it was worth trying. “Beautiful Queen, I am stupid and in need of advice. I wish to curse my brothers, for the way they treated me, but I know not how to ensure the curse is never broken.”
The Queen laughed, sated and smug, and told him, “You are stupid, it’s true, to be unable to think of anything! Make it so that one who is his kin must kill him, in order to break the curse. No family loyal to them will be able to lift a sword against them, because familial bonds make men weak.”
And Prince Ivan knew then she had told him how to save the wolf, and that he would be able to do it.
Several nights later, lying on the floor beside the Queen’s bed, Prince Ivan asked her, “My most enchanting Queen, I wish to curse a beautiful woman who spoke against me.”
Laughing, the Queen replied, “Gullible fool. Say that one who will never find her beautiful must kill her, because all men are weak against the beauty of women, and would never be willing to slay one.”
And Prince Ivan knew then how to save the mare, and that he would be able to do it.
Several nights later, lying on the floor beside the Queen’s bed, Prince Ivan asked her, “I am hopeless, my most perfect Queen. There is a man I want to curse, but his bodyguard prevented me. I would like revenge on the bodyguard, to curse him brutally, but I know not how to ensure the curse is never broken.”
The Queen laughed, and said, “You really are stupid. Say that only one who loved him truly must kill him to break his curse, for even if someone could love a man meant only to die for others, love makes men weak and no man could kill the one he loves.”
And Prince Ivan knew then how to save the firebird, and that he would be able to do it.
The next day, while they in the library researching an old spell for the Queen, Prince Ivan picked up a book of myths and opened it to a particular page, then began to laugh loudly. The Queen looked up, annoyed, and demanded to know what a fool found amusing, slapping him for good measure.
“It is only that this book has gotten the Tree of Golden Apples completely wrong,” Prince Ivan said, showing her the picture of a legendary tree whose fruit granted eternal youth and life. His father’s tree was only a charm, meant for amusement, but the Queen would never know that. “My father’s Tree of Golden Apples looks completely different.”
She looked at him sharply. “Your father cannot have such a tree, it does not exist, you fool.”
“But it does,” Prince Ivan said. “My father is three hundred years old, he stole the tree from a witch at the ends of the earth. I am not allowed to have an apple, however, until I make of myself a proper prince, with a palace and wealth and wife of my own. That was the condition he set, when he cast me out at the bidding of my brothers.”
The Queen smiled at him, gentle and sweet, voice like an angel as she said, “Well, you may write to your father and tell him you are to wed me, and become a true King. You have been my faithful slave for a year and a day now, and proven yourself handsomely. Tell your father to send his golden apples as our wedding gift. We shall be married in a fortnight.” And she bid him kiss her, and then go off to write his letter.
Instead, Prince Ivan raced off to the cabin in the forest, and told his friends of the marriage, and that it was part of his plan. He bid them to come to the palace in a fortnight, when the wedding bells first tolled, and to enter the great hall when the wedding bells finally ceased, and then he would free them. He begged them to trust him, and they made known they trusted him whole-heartedly.
Prince Ivan departed, and spent the fortnight bracing himself for what he must do on his wedding day.
At last the day came, and Prince Ivan wed himself to the Queen, and became her Regent. He kissed her and said, “Most beautiful wife, light of my life, I have for you three wedding gifts.”
As he finished speaking, the wedding bells ceased to ring, and he bid the doors be opened. As they opened, the wolf, the mare, and the firebird entered.
The Queen paled, but could say nothing, could do nothing, for on his lips Prince Ivan had placed poison, and with his kiss the Queen had been frozen in place.
Drawing his sword as his friends approached, Prince Ivan turned to the wolf and said, “You are my friend, my brother in deed, and now in fact. I am your kin now, and true family bonds strengthen a man, rather thank weaken him, and so I set you free.” So saying, he swung his sword, and cut off the wolf’s head—
And before him suddenly stood a tall, broad, handsome man with dark hair and pale eyes, and the bearing of a King. “My friend, my brother,” King Grey said, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart.” He embraced Prince Ivan, and declared him the strongest man alive.
Turning to the mare, Ivan said, “You are dear to me like a sister, but never will I think you beautiful as most men will, for I have never cared to take a woman to my bed. Because my eyes will always pass over you, I set you free.” So saying, he thrust his sword into the mare’s neck, killing her—
And suddenly before him was a woman with golden hair and a sweet smile. “Thank you, my brother,” she said, and kissed his cheeks, and declared that no man could possess greater honor.
Then, at last, Ivan turned to the firebird, whose eyes of crystal clarity watched him intently. The firebird sang a few soft, sweet notes, and Prince Ivan found he still had the strength to do what must be done. “Dearest firebird, ever have you called to me, thought I could not at first fathom why. Your songs drew me into a world greater than my own, and my world faded without you in it. Because I love you, I set you free.” So saying, he cut off the firebirds bowed head, then dropped his sword, weeping—
But gentle hands wiped the tears away, and Prince Ivan looked at last upon the soldier Tarabanov, who was possessed of dark hair, and dark, kind eyes, and the weathered body of a hardened soldier, with a handsome face and soft smile. “Thank you, Vanya,” Tarabanov said, and vowed his own love for Prince Ivan. Instead of returning the heart Prince Ivan had entrusted to his care, Tarabanov instead gave Prince Ivan his own.
And then the truth was made known to all, of Queen Elena’s treachery, and King Grey had her executed immediately. Then he married his own sweet Princess Vassilissa, and made known to all that Prince Ivan was his brother, and asked Prince Ivan to spend the rest of his days with them, to which Prince Ivan happily assented.
They all lived together in that palace, the noble King and his fine Queen, faithful Tarabanov and steadfast Prince Ivan.
Silence lingered as Ivan finished his tale, until it was finally broken impatiently by the groom. “So if he’s so grand, why do they call him heartless?”
Beside him, Ivan’s bodyguard spoke for the first time. “Because people remember violence and pain and unpleasant things far more than they remember happiness. People recall the way Prince Ivan deceived the Queen, and killed three creatures, and was unmoved when his bride was hanged. They do not remember what she did in the deep of a forest, or that his killing of three beasts saved three people. Strength is not killing those you hate, it is being willing to kill those you love when its necessary. People often see kindness, and mistake it for cruelty, and never realize that the kindness they saw was in fact a cruelty.”
“For example,” Ivan said, picking up where his bodyguard left off. “I see at this table much levity, much joy, and a great show of love between bride and groom. But there is too much of it, and all of it too perfect, to be genuine. Real love is not so perfect or easy, and real family bickers as often as it smiles.”
The groom scowled, and his friends stiffened, and the bride went pale and still. “What are you trying to say?” the groom demanded. “That I don’t love my wife?”
“Oh, you love her, I daresay, but not the way a man should love a good woman,” Ivan replied, then spoke three words of powerful magic, freezing everyone at the table, save himself and his bodyguard. He motioned quietly, and his bodyguard rose and dragged the groom from the inn, outside into the dark of night.
Ivan rose, and assisted, and eventually they had all the men outside, where they killed them quickly and quietly, and left the bodies in the wood for the animals to feast upon.
Then they returned to the inn, and he freed the other people. The bride fell into his arms, weeping. “Thank you, my lord. I don’t know how you knew—he killed my sister and I came to find her and he trapped me—oh, thank you!” She kissed his cheeks, and embraced him, tears streaming down her cheek.
Ivan kissed her cheek, then gently gave her into her mother’s care. “I know better than most the look and feel of pretending to love someone you despise and who only means you harm. I am happy we chanced upon this inn, and could help. I hope the gods favor you with a peaceful life, from here on.”
By the front door, his bodyguard called out, “The rain has stopped, Vanya. We should be going.”
“I am coming, Tarabanov,” Ivan said, and offered a parting smile, ignoring the gasps and looks the people gave them. Drawing up his deep hood, he followed Tabaranov back out into the night, towards home.