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[Fairy Tales] In which a prince discovers that his quest is somewhat more difficult than he expected. New Year Resolutions 2004 story for Thyme.
It was with some trepidation that young Ivan poked his head out of the bedroom window that morning, wondering if it was safe to go out. While the ability to keep his head down and out of the way was an excellent virtue to cultivate in the youngest and least imposing of three brothers, he quite felt that he had gone above and beyond the call of duty in that regard, having barricaded himself in his chambers and allowed the castle to forget about his presence for a whole week. He was running out of bread and water, for one thing, and for another, he had run out of books and really wanted to get some more out of the palace library. Also, his room smelled and he wanted a bath.
But it was not to be. As he had feared, his father was in the orchard, loudly berating the browbeaten head gardener as he gesticulated at the broken branches and ruined fruit of his favourite apple tree. It normally bore beautiful golden apples, but for the past week, it had been afflicted by a mysterious vandal that broke branches and delicately nibbled on the choicest fruit every night. Worse yet, his father looked up and spotted him before he could close the window, and roared for him to come down.
His brothers were already down there waiting with the King, and loudly resented how he had hidden himself away to avoid helping out while his poor brothers worried about the precious tree and how the aggravation would affect their dear father's health. Meanwhile Ivan cringed and tried to look like a particularly tall stand of grass.
"Enough," roared the old King, narrowly missing Ivan as he waved his cane and decapitated an overgrown daisy. "You three useless sponges will watch over my tree every night until you catch the villain, or I will throw you out to learn some ridiculous trade to make your own fortunes with." Then he stomped back to the palace in a huff.
The three princes looked at each other. The eldest spoke decisively. "We'll take turns to watch the tree. As the eldest, I'll go first." He had in mind to catch the thief and claim the reward himself, of course. One wiser might have advised the young man that he was likelier to succeed if the three of them stood watch together, and in any case he was doomed to failure in the usual way of things, but neither of his brothers were wiser, so there was that.
Thus dawn broke to find the prince peacefully asleep under the despoiled apple tree. "What have you to say for yourself?" roared the King as he rapped the sleeping prince smartly on the shins with his cane.
"I saw a falling star, Father, and closed my eyes to wish for your long life and good health," cried the prince thus woefully beset as he hopped out of reach. "But when I opened my eyes the damage was already done, so I thought it best to rest and keep up my strength to watch again tonight."
"Tonight?" the King rasped, and called for wine. "Will I leave my precious tree to be injured again in your care? Go back to your room and don't show your face again until I call for you."
And so it was the second prince's turn. He fared similarly ill, having taken off in pursuit of a fruit bat feeding on the ordinary apples in the next tree and returned to find the damage done, as before. The King cursed both his elder sons soundly and swore to disinherit them. Then he threatened to marry poor Ivan to the first beggar to chance along if he should fail. He proceeded to swoon dramatically, but revived quickly enough to write his will before they could hope for his untimely demise, and exited, pursued by a bear of a headache.
Deeply apprehensive, Ivan brought his biggest and most interesting book down to the tree with a fat candle that he might keep from falling asleep or getting distracted by minor disturbances. That worked quite as well as you might have expected, if you have more than a mild liking for books.
At some point during the night, a gust of wind blew out the candle, but Ivan noticed nothing amiss, as it remained bright enough to read by. Then a wolf howled from what seemed to be almost directly behind him, startling Ivan from hazy visions of farmer's sons with clever cats and pretty maids disguised in rags as his light source seemed to dim in response. He absently reached out and grabbed hold of the retreating light instead of reaching for his sword lying on the grass at his side as any sensible person would.
The shining bird whose tail he'd seized upon unawares uttered an ear-splitting screech fit to wake the dead and tore free, crashing through the branches and streaking into the night sky like a fallen star returning home. There was a whuff of irritation, and something large bounded away. Ivan found himself left with a long, fiery tail feather clutched in his fist, surrounded by amazed soldiers and admiring gardeners.
"Well done!" croaked the King with delight the next morning, stroking the beautiful feather covetously. Though his golden apple tree was quite unrecognisably battered by now, his gardeners were hopeful that it would make a full recovery given time and peace, and he had become determined that he should possess the amazing golden Firebird as well as the golden apples.
Feeling amiable, and also doubtful that Ivan's dumb luck would continue to hold, he summoned his disgraced elder sons before him as well. "Whoever among you finds the Firebird and brings it back to me will be my heir," he whispered to the three princes, and sipped at his tea. "What are you waiting for? Go!"
So it was they packed and set off on their quest. Having failed to learn his lesson the first time, the eldest prince decided that they should split up, and they each went their own way with reasonable dispatch as soon as they were out of sight of the palace.
With no idea where to begin searching for the Firebird, nor any particular inclination for the throne, Ivan decided one way was as good as any other and allowed his placid old nag (the only horse he could ride safely) to follow the tender shoots of grass off the beaten path. Ivan looked up from the map he was attempting to draw so he might be able to find his way home to discover that the nag had steered them inerrantly along the grassy, less-travelled path into the ominous woods, of which many dark tales abounded. It was a rather worrying development, as he'd intended to turn her towards the nearest town, and had marked his route as such.
Moreover, he was starting to suspect he was being stalked by a wolf, as he kept catching flashes of grey in the underbrush out of the corner of his eye. This was decidedly odd, he felt, since he was neither a lamb nor a little girl. Nor a little pig, at that. It was possible his books were not altogether entirely accurate on the habits of wolves. Or perhaps it was not a --
Scratch that, it was a Wolf, he thought faintly. A Big, Grey Wolf, he corrected himself as the huge beast, growing bolder, stepped out of the undergrowth and into plain sight. "Grrr," it said. Ivan urged his horse into a slightly faster trot, though it hardly needed the encouragement. The Wolf trotted after them.
Some time after that, Ivan stopped his nag to examine the nearly indecipherable scratches on a rather mud-tracked signboard where the path divided three ways. The wolf had finally given up and disappeared back into the woods a few hours ago, and the horse was once again impossible to coax into anything faster than a grazing walk, so he was glad of the excuse to get off and stretch his legs.
Ivan frowned and tried to brush away some of the still-moist mud. The person who had made the signboard, besides being drunk and armed with a blunt knife, must have been eating meat, because the Wolf had, apparently, come and stood up to put its muddy paws on the sign, making it harder to read.
Go STRAIGHT and SUFFER.
Turn RIGHT and be SAFE, but your horse dies.
Turn LEFT and your horse will be safe, but YOU DIE.
Ivan considered these dire predictions with due respect, then turned his horse around to head back the way he came. With a rumbling growl like distant thunder, the Wolf burst out of the forest again and startled the horse, which tried to rear a little, then jerked its head around and carried Ivan down the right lane. Ivan sawed at the reins as the Wolf trotted calmly after. "Hey! Stop that!"
The Wolf glanced back at the sign and seemed to shrug. It pulled down the horse and ate it.
Ivan watched the Wolf wolf down gobbets of horsemeat, frightened and disbelieving. As the Wolf burped and made no move to attack him, he threw up his hands in disgust and continued walking down the path since the horse had indeed died. The Wolf looked up in frank amazement and hurried after him. Ivan ignored it with grim determination.
"Damn it," growled the Wolf at last. "Don't you feel at least a little inclined to chop off my head and mount it on the wall, or something of the sort?"
Now a talking Wolf was an unexpected development and seemed to suggest the Wolf had taken him for a lamb, pig or little girl after all. But on the other hand, Ivan felt an attempt at conversation was vastly preferable to an attempt to eat him. It was probably best to try to keep the conversation going. "Um, no? What would I want with your head?"
"Big wolf head! It's a trophy! What's wrong with you?"
"Trophies are creepy! Are you trying to get me to kill you?" It occurred to Ivan that perhaps it was not altogether wise to begin arguing with the Wolf, and that his words sounded rather like a threat. "Of course it's a very impressive head," he said in mollifying tones, "but it looks much better with the rest of you. Was there something you wanted from me? Besides my horse, that is."
The Wolf regarded him thoughtfully for several moments, then changed the subject, suddenly seeming as well bred as any hunting hound. "I am sorry about the horse. How can I make it up to you? Where were you headed before I ate your mount?"
Ivan told the Wolf his tale of woe. "I don't know, really. I need to get the Firebird or I can never go home, but I have no idea where to start looking. All I ever wanted was to be able to lead a life of quiet retirement in the library," Ivan sighed, and the Wolf looked sympathetic.
"Well, I know who owns the Firebird, but it's a long distance for a man to walk. Climb on my back and I'll take you there," said the Wolf decisively, and Ivan was so bemused at this sudden turn of events that he did as the Wolf asked, and before he could begin to reconsider the wisdom of this action, the Wolf bounded off and Ivan had to throw his arms around the Wolf's great furry neck to stay on.
Much sooner than Ivan expected, they stopped before the forbidding stone wall of a magnificent palace. Ivan slid off the Wolf's strong back and ruffled the rough fur on its head. "It's in there? Thank you, Grey Wolf."
"Climb over that wall, Ivan, and you will find the Firebird in the garden in a golden cage. Take the bird, but do not touch the cage, or all will be lost."
Ivan blinked as he realised what the Wolf was telling him to do. "You want me to steal it?"
"But of course," said the Wolf, unabashed. "Do you think that the King would just give it to you? What do you have of equal value to exchange for it?" The young prince had to agree after some deliberation, and steeled himself to do the deed.
It was easier than he'd expected to get over the wall and avoid the guards. He found the Firebird in the garden just as the Wolf had described it. The Firebird eyed him warily as he approached. He carefully reached into the golden cage to catch it, but as his hand came closer, the Firebird screeched and flew at him, battering his head with its wings and pecking viciously. They fell struggling together with the cage in an astounding crash that must have had shaken the palace to its foundations, for when Ivan managed to extricate himself from the tangle of infuriated Firebird and twisted metal, he found himself surrounded by disapproving guards and an annoyed King yawning in his pyjamas.
"What is the meaning of this?" demanded the King. "Why are you in my garden, trying to steal my Firebird? Speak, or I shall execute you immediately!"
Ivan crammed the Firebird back into the cage with some difficulty and closed the door on it firmly, yanking his hand away from its sharp beak. "Your Majesty! I was-- I'm Prince Ivan, son of King Y-- of U-- Kingdom. Your Firebird had been entering his garden to steal his golden apples at night, and damaging his precious apple tree. My father ordered us to obtain the Firebird for him," he explained, shame-faced.
The King studied Ivan thoughtfully for a time, as Ivan trembled and wished the Wolf had not told him to avoid the cage, for he thought the Firebird might not have minded so much if it hadn't feared he was going to pull off more of its feathers. At length, the King said, "Well, if you had but approached me directly with your complaint, I would have given you the bird, and gladly. But now that you come like a thief in the night, I cannot be so generous, or thieves would come from all around to steal my treasures. I will let you go, but if you can bring me the horse with the golden mane that belongs to King S--, I will exchange the Firebird for it."
Miserably, Ivan agreed and was released. He found his way back to the wall where the Wolf waited for him, looking quite anxious, as well it should, considering the crash caused by his advice. "I see you don't have the Firebird. Were you captured, then? Was the prison unpleasant?"
Ivan stared at the Wolf in surprise. "What? I was captured, but no, the king kindly let me go and promised me the bird should I manage to bring him King S--'s horse with the golden mane."
"You're not going to kill me for getting you into trouble, then?" asked the Wolf, looking at Ivan's sword rather wistfully. "Not going to cut off my head and flay my pelt for a rug?"
"No, you're going to take me to King S--'s palace and help me to get the horse," Ivan said firmly, and climbed onto the Wolf's back again, pulling at its fur until it rose with a sigh and began loping onwards to the next kingdom.
The landscape flashed past them as Ivan clung to the Wolf, feeling its strong muscles flex beneath him. He closed his eyes to enjoy the wind in his face and the exhilaration of the Wolf's speed. All too soon the ride was over, and they were at the palace of King S--.
Ivan looked up doubtfully at the high wall. "Are you saying I should try to steal the horse as well? How am I supposed to get it back over this wall anyway, even if I don't get caught?"
The Wolf rolled his eyes. (At some point during the ride, Ivan had made some careful queries, and thoroughly offended the Wolf by asking if he had cubs to look after. "Do I look like a bitch to you?" demanded the Wolf, and continued to bitch about the matter for half an hour before shortness of breath forced him to desist. Which lack of stamina Ivan took for further proof, since the palace maids could talk endlessly while doing any number of heavy tasks.) "The horse with the golden mane is a magical creature," the Wolf declared with a sneer at Ivan's naivete. "It can jump over this low wall quite easily. But remember, you must not touch the golden bridle hanging on the wall."
Once again, Ivan found everything as the Wolf had described, and decided to trust the Wolf once more, feeling that perhaps the Wolf had not recalled the Firebird's previous unpleasant experience with him. The horse tamely allowed him to climb onto its back, and even seemed eager. It trotted smoothly to the wall, where it jumped over with ease and left Ivan sitting in the bushes at the foot of the wall in the garden, having been unable to gain a firm grip on the horse's sleek mane of gold. Guards came running to see the cause of the crashing sound. Ivan privately cursed the Wolf and contemplated having the beast beheaded and his head mounted on the wall, if he should manage to get away without suffering a similar fate.
"Explain yourself!" thundered King S--, looking very much dishevelled and interrupted at an inconvenient time. Ivan sighed and did so.
"I see... well, I would have given you the horse if you had but asked, since I hardly ride it, but I cannot possibly go about giving away my treasures to thieves!" King S-- said. Ivan sighed again. "However, there is one way you can redeem yourself..." The King rubbed his hands with glee. "In the palace of Queen W--, there is a beautiful princess known as Elena the Fair. If you can bring her to me, I will give you the horse and bridle. Now go."
"Wolf!" cried Ivan in a fury as he returned to the place where the Wolf had left him. "You--" He stopped as he saw the Wolf licking his paw to try to get rid of a thorn that had embedded itself in the thick pads while they were on the road. A measure of remorse entered his heart as he recalled how the Wolf had patiently carried him through the forest, far faster than he could have gone with his horse. Remembering that he would have no idea where to go if not for the Wolf, Ivan put aside his anger and helped the Wolf extract the thorn.
"You are a very strange man, Ivan," said the Wolf when he had done so. Feeling quite the fool, Ivan told the Wolf of his new quest. The Wolf shook his head and seemed perturbed. "Princess Elena, is it? I had hoped... Well, there is nothing to be done then. Get on my back and I'll take you there."
Ivan got on and thought the Wolf was much better to ride than the horse with the golden mane. "I feel safer with you," he added, "as long as you are not offering me advice." The Wolf snorted quietly at that, and they were off.
When they stopped at the base of yet another high wall, Ivan looked up uneasily and wondered if he was doomed to keep travelling on for ever in search of further treasures to exchange. But the Wolf only frowned and said, "This time I will do it myself," and scrambled over the wall without another word, leaving Ivan puzzled and uneasy at being abandoned so brusquely.
Torn between wanting to run for the safety of the woods and worry over what might happen if the Wolf should take his own advice and get himself captured, Ivan vacillated at the edge of the forest until a girlish yelp on the other side of the wall decided him. Ivan bolted.
He had hardly gone a few steps when the Wolf's voice called after him, "It's fine, I got the Princess." Ivan stopped and watched as the Wolf came running up with Princess Elena on his back. The Princess was pulling on one of his ears to mutter darkly into it while the Wolf flicked the other ear irritably. Ivan thought she was indeed very beautiful, but she was also very frightening, especially when she straightened and glared at Ivan, obviously blaming him for her plight, which Ivan thought rather unfair, given how the Wolf had misled him and kidnapped her. Nevertheless the flash of her dark eyes was enough to make Ivan call upon long years of experience to try to look like a scruffy humanoid shrub by sheer reflex.
"Get off, you're heavy," snarled the Wolf, and Princess Elena looked so indignant that Ivan thought she might demand that he cut off the Wolf's head on her behalf, and carefully sidled out of her line of sight.
"And you're useless," Princess Elena snapped back almost instantly. "You can't even save yourself, and now you're trying to get me married to some old lecher! What are you looking at?" she turned and hissed at Ivan, who tried harder to look like moss. He was surprised when the Wolf jumped to his defence, though it might well have been simply because he was against anything the Princess was for. It seemed like that kind of longstanding quarrel.
"Leave him alone, it's not his fault he isn't as bloodthirsty as you are. If you hadn't been so quick to-- All right, if you won't marry King S--, you can just stay here. Ivan, climb on."
While reluctant to get in the middle of what sounded like a family disagreement, Ivan was glad to climb back on the Wolf's back and hug his neck for comfort. He could see the Princess considering her choices as she frowned, and was even more surprised when she climbed up behind him. She sighed and leaned into his back. "All right, go then."
It was a rather grim journey back to the palace of King S--. Ivan felt progressively worse about it as they got closer and the Princess began to sniffle quietly against his back as she confided in him about how she had been kept prisoner in the horrible Witch-Queen's palace, waiting only for a prince to rescue her, only to learn that she had to marry a foul old man and have no freedom at all. "I don't want to marry that horrible man," she wept, and when he sympathetically assured her he wouldn't want to marry the King either, she choked very hard and then let out a loud sob, at which point the Wolf sneezed. They continued in silence until they stopped before the bright pennants flying over King S--'s palace.
"Isn't there any way we can get the Princess out of having to marry S--?" asked Ivan, and the Princess nodded enthusiastically, evidently not trusting her voice as she continued to hold a handkerchief to her face.
"What do you suggest?" the Wolf said tiredly, circling around and lying down in the grass with his head on his paws.
Ivan cast about helplessly for a solution. "If only you could assume the likeness of Elena," he sighed, and the Wolf sat up very straight, as did the Princess. "She could wait out here while we made the exchange, and you could get away when we reached a safe distance."
"Now that you mention it," said the Wolf slowly, and Princess Elena clapped her hands in delight. To Ivan's amazement, the Wolf had become the spitting image of the Princess. "Let's go quickly, while the glamour lasts."
King S-- was quite astonished to see Ivan walk in through his gates with the beautiful Princess Elena as promised, but he did not question his good fortune and immediately ordered a feast to celebrate the wedding. The Wolf quite disgraced himself with wolfing down the food in a most unregal manner, to Ivan's horror, but when King S-- solicitously enquired if Princess Elena was feeling well, the false princess only tossed her head haughtily and declared that she had eaten nothing since she met Ivan, and moreover was famished at having done so much unaccustomed travel. She then gave Ivan a meaning look. It was all quite true, which only made Ivan feel more guilty, so he kept his head down until the feast was at last over and he could make his excuses and depart with the magical horse.
Once they had ridden the horse with the golden mane safely away from the palace, Ivan wondered if the Wolf had managed to escape. "Oh, don't worry," said Princess Elena, waving her hands airily so that her rings sparkled. "I'm sure he'll change back and come to join us quite soon." And indeed, the Wolf came bounding up very soon after that, as though he'd shed his form at the very moment the Princess said he would.
Satisfied that their plan had worked perfectly, they played the same trick on the King who possessed the Firebird, for the Wolf swore the King had attempted to hunt him more than once, and would assuredly try again if he managed to obtained the magic horse. The Firebird screeched furiously, but they found that it became content if the Princess carried the cage instead of Ivan. So the King went out riding on his new mount, Princess Elena waved her hands, the horse-turned-Wolf shook off the King and ran to rejoin them.
The three travelled together merrily until they reached the place where the Wolf had eaten Ivan's nag. There the Wolf stopped, and turned to Ivan seriously. "Grrr," he said.
"Stop that, I'm not going to kill you." Ivan scratched the Wolf's ears. For a moment, Princess Elena looked as though she would speak, but changed her mind and cooed at the Firebird in its cage instead. It squawked back.
The Wolf shook his head slowly. "Then we must part here. You have a horse and the Firebird, and I can do nothing more for you."
"Wolf, wait--" Ivan began, but the Wolf had already run off without speaking further. The Princess discreetly handed Ivan her handkerchief as he remounted.
They only went on a little further before the Princess, seeing how dispirited the Wolf's departure had left Ivan, suggested they stop for a rest. Ivan picked at the grass for a while, then lay down and closed his eyes, and the princess followed his example.
It was then Ivan's two brothers, having travelled not very far at all and failed to find the Firebird besides, chanced upon Ivan with the beautiful Princess Elena, the wonderful golden-maned horse and the Firebird.
This sight excited fierce envy in their hearts, for they had wandered about fruitlessly and squandered much of what they had on inns and leads that pointed nowhere, only to find that their useless youngest brother had once again managed to succeed where they had failed. The eldest brother drew his sword and ran Ivan through where he lay, causing the Firebird to screech in terror and wake the Princess, who burst into tears on seeing poor Ivan's gruesome fate. "You killed Ivan, you bastards! How could you! My poor brother!"
"Be quiet, or you will share his fate," hissed the second brother, annoyed as the Firebird pecked at his hand with angry squawks every time he tried to pick up its cage. "Pick up the cage and come with us, and don't you dare say a word of what happened here," he warned, holding the golden bridle to make sure the Princess did not bolt with the horse. So it was the two villainous brothers headed home with their bounty, leaving Ivan's lifeless body where he had died.
So Ivan lay there for a time, until the Wolf, returning to sniff at the leftover carcass of Ivan's old horse, saw the crows circling and rushed forward to discover the sad scene. "Oh, Ivan, what has happened to you?"
"Fie, what do you mean by all this howling over such a nice, fresh carcass," said one of the crows pecking at Ivan's eyes. It's not like we can eat that much, there's plenty to go around." It was not the right thing to say to a grieving Wolf, as the crow quickly found out when the Wolf pounced on it and tore it in two. All the other crows rose up and flew away in great haste, except for one.
"Oh, Caw, what has happened to you?" wailed the remaining crow, flapping over its dead companion. "Cruel Wolf, how could you do this! Give me Caw's body and let me mourn him in peace."
"I know you crows know where the Waters of Life and Death are," snarled the Wolf, refusing to budge. "Get some for me, or I will eat your friend."
"All right, all right!" The crow flew off, and soon returned with two small vials of water. The Wolf seized the vials and tested it on the dead crow, watching carefully as the Water of Death knitted its flesh back together and the Water of Life revived it. Satisfied, he sprinkled Ivan's body with the rest of the water, and waited until he saw that Ivan was breathing before he let the crows go.
"Have I been asleep that long?" asked Ivan muzzily as he blinked at the setting sun. "Wolf, you came back!" he cried in delight. "But where are Princess Elena and the others?"
"You have been asleep longer than you think," said the Wolf grimly, "and now you owe me a life. Get on my back quickly. We have to go save Elena from your brothers."
They arrived at the palace as the wedding feast was in progress. Seeing them, Princess Elena shoved aside the second brother, whom she was to have married, and jumped up with a glad cry, running to embrace the Wolf and Ivan. "You came for me! Ivan, you're alive!"
This unexpected proclamation caused quite the ruckus, and when the King finally roared down the confused shouting, he demanded to know what had taken place. And so the whole sordid tale came to light, to the general amazement of all present.
"What," he croaked between ordering his guards to throw his two elder sons into prison and sending for a priest to exorcise the corpse of his youngest, "is my heir to be a Wolf?"
"He's not a zombie," declared the priest coolly, after sprinkling Ivan with holy water to no effect.
"The Princess said he was dead!"
"He was! I saw the bastard (begging your Majesty's pardon) run him through with a sword!"
"I thought I was only sleeping..."
"I said I brought him back to life--"
"Anyway, as long as I'm not dead now--"
"Be silent, all of you!" the King slammed his tankard on the table until everyone quieted. "So, you're not dead." Ivan nodded. "And you obtained the Firebird."
"But I don't want--" "Neither do I!"
"The two of you can sort it out between yourselves later. There will be no wedding?" the King asked Princess Elena for confirmation, and she nodded in relief. "Very well, then. I see no reason to waste the preparations. Let the feast continue."
As the festivities resumed, the Wolf pulled Ivan out to a quiet corner of the garden, under an ordinary apple tree, where they stood and stared at each other for a long while. "You owe me a life, Prince Ivan," said the Wolf quietly.
"But why?" Ivan cried, anguished.
"You have to."
Ivan could only shake his head. Still, seeing that the Wolf was quite determined to die, he drew his sword at last.
"Don't you dare miss," the Wolf said, and Ivan swung his sword down, cutting off his dear friend's head in one clean stroke. Then he knelt down, gathering up the dead Wolf, and wept.
"You really did it," marvelled Princess Elena, drawing out of the shadows behind them. Startled, Ivan twisted around to look at her. The body of the Wolf suddenly shook violently in his arms, and drew in a sharp inhalation. Ivan looked back and was dumbstruck to see a beautiful Prince stirring as the wolfskin slipped free.
"What?" Ivan asked, clutching the Wolf-Prince more tightly as the latter coughed and shook.
"It was all my brother needed to lift the curse," she said, smiling radiantly as the Wolf-Prince opened his eyes and took stock of his situation.
"I wouldn't have needed a prince to chop off my head if you'd not been so quick to kill the Witch-Queen," the transformed Prince growled as he put his arms around Ivan. "You could have forced her to change me back, or waited to learn how to lift the curse. Help me up," he commanded, and Ivan numbly obeyed.
"She wasn't your mother, and in any case, what does it matter?" said the Princess airily. "You're free now, and I don't need to come up with a way to make one of his brothers do it or get rid of them afterwards. I think I shall return to my palace now. Farewell!" With that, she gracefully mounted the horse with the golden mane and galloped off.
Ivan reluctantly let go and stepped back. He hastily picked up the wolfskin and took off his own cloak, holding them out to let the Wolf-Prince pick one. "We need to get you some clothes and provisions if you're going back to your own kingdom, now that your curse is lifted," he said. "Or maybe this is yours now, and I should pack..."
"We can sort it out later," said the Wolf gently, and took Ivan's hand.