Ivan and the Gray Wolf
by Jörn Grote
Once upon a time in a far away land, there lived a mighty tsar. During his reign the land had prospered, but with the flow of time the tsar grew old and he began to think about the day when he would die. He wanted his kingdom to prosper even after his death, and so one day he called his three sons.
“My dear sons,” the old tsar said,” I will send each of you on a quest, to find out who of you three is the most fitted to rule over my kingdom. You, Aleksei,” and he looked at his oldest son, “you will find me the skull the Baba Yaga uses to light the darkness.
“You, Nikolai, will bring me the armor of Ilya Muromets, the mightiest defender mother Rus once had.”
Then he looked at his youngest son. “And at last you, Ivan.” It seemed as if the old tsar shuddered. “Your quest will be to find immortal Koshchei, the oldest and meanest dragon walking on the earth of mother Rus. Even Ilya Muromets could only fight to a tie with him. He looks like a man, but don’t be deceived. He’s as old as time itself, but whatever aids his mortality, I want you to end his vile life.”
And with that, the three sons went on their quests, each one as dangerous as the other.
Aleksei, the oldest, wandered from the kingdom of his father until he entered a dark forest. After days of wandering he knew that he was lost, until he saw a light. It was the Knight of Morning, clothed in red armor, whom he followed until the Knight of Day, clothed in white appeared. Aleksei followed him, until a knight clothed completely in black appeared. He was so black, that the darkness of the forest looked bright in comparison. When the Knight of the Night vanished, Aleksei had reached the hut of the Baba Yaga.
The story of how Aleksei gained the skull that lights the darkness is a long one, but let this be said: When Aleksei reached the hut of the Baba Yaga, the old hag opened her eyes, and light that burned like fire left them. Aleksei knew that he had to find a way to slay the old hag and to live through it. And so he did.
When he got her skull, he made way home.
Nikolai, the middle son of the old tsar, followed the same path his older brother had chosen. Since he had later, he met his brother on his way home.
Aleksei thought long, when they met, but then he told him of all the dangers he had seen on his quest. “Fair game,” he said to his younger brother. “Fair game,” Nikolai answered, and they shook hands. Then they hugged each other and both went their ways.
Nikolai’s quest to find the armor of the dead legend Ilya Muromets proved difficult, because so many stories were told about his life and death. But after a long search, he found his remains. It was said that no one could have beaten him in a fair fight, and even immortal Koshchei only drawn the struggle.
When Nikolai found the still standing armor, with the skeleton of Ilya within, it was in the lair of Chudo Yudo. Both, Ilya and the dragon were dead. The second slain by the first, and the first slain by someone from behind. Nikolai had heard stories that it had been a close friend of Ilya who had killed him.
Nikolai buried the remains of Ilya and carved a gravestone with his own hand. On the gravestone was written “Here lies the greatest hero of mother Rus.” Then he went home with the armor.
The youngest brother Ivan, who left when his oldest brother arrived back home, wandered farther away from home than his two brothers had. But wherever he went in the world, immortal Koshchei remained hidden.
One day, far away from home he lost all his hope of ever completing his quest. He sat down on a stone and felt miserable. As he sat there, a big, gray wolf came along. “Why are you miserable?” the Gray Wolf asked young Ivan.
Ivan looked up to the wolf. “My father send me on a quest, but I’m unable to find what I seek,” said he.
“Why did your father sent you and your brothers on a quest?” the wolf asked curiously.
“He wants to find the perfect heir to reign over his kingdom,” said Ivan.
The gray wolf looked thoughtful. “What is more important to you, young Ivan, to fulfill your quest or to be heir and reign over the kingdom of your father?”
The gray wolf had to wait a long time for an answer, for young Ivan never had thought that much about it. He had went on the quest because his two older brothers had done so, and his father had asked. “Why do ask?” was his answer.
“That is easy, I can help you with both tasks. If you want to be heir and reign over the kingdom of your father, I can help you with that, make you tsar with force against any opposition. The price would be the two things your brothers gained on their quest. But if you want to fulfill your quest, the price I seek is you, and then you can’t be the heir anymore.”
“ME?” young Ivan asked. “Why me?” he said.
“You’re handsome and I haven’t had a mate in a long time.”
“A mate!” screamed young Ivan. And then Ivan realized that the Grey Wolf was a female of his race. Because it had been the biggest, meanest looking wolf he had ever seen, he had assumed the wrong gender. “But I’m not a wolf,” he said defending.
The Gray Wolf looked up to him, and it seemed to Ivan as if he was smiling. “That is no problem, I have mighty shape-changing magic at my disposal. So what will it be: heir to your father or mate to me?”
In the end, Ivan thought, it was an easy decision. He loved his brothers and would never have used force to gain a hold of the kingdom of his father. And so he followed the Gray Wolf, for he knew where immortal Koshchei lived. No, that is wrong, Ivan thought, she knew where immortal Koshchei lived. The Gray Wolf is a she.
Ivan and the Gray Wolf journeyed for a long time, until Ivan had lost count of the days that had gone by. Together they faced many dangers and threats to their lives, but in the end they always remained victorious, for the Gray Wolf was a fierce and capable fighter. Ivan liked that, even if he knew it was wolf and a female at that. But always, when he tried to see her as his mate, changing form from wolf to human female, he failed to picture her in his head. All he could see was the big, gray wolf.
One day they reached the end of the world, where the shape of the land is chaotic and undetermined. Here, at the border of reality, a castle stood, built out of the bones of heroes who had tried to fight immortal Koshchei.
“What should I do now?” Ivan asked the Gray Wolf.
“Worry not, Ivan, for I will help you,” said the Gray Wolf. “I know what makes Koshchei immortal, for his mortality is hidden in the lands beyond the end of the world. There, where everything is changing shape, where nothing is clear-cut, his mortality is hidden inside an egg, and the egg is hidden inside the stomach of the Unnamed Thing.”
And so, together, the went into the land beyond the end of the world as we know it. There, the force of chaos ruled, and madness was near. But together they could withstand these force long enough, because they told each other stories of their lives, because somehow the storytelling weakened the force of chaos, brought some order to the surroundings. Ivan told the wolf how he had lived as the youngest of the brave sons of a mighty tsar, what he had seen, what he wanted yet so see. And the Gray Wolf, told Ivan of her live as a wolf, how she had wandered through the world and what she had seen.
Ivan did not know if only days or years had passed, when they found the Unnamed Thing, for the flow of time was also chaotic. Ivan and the Gray Wolf attacked the Unnamed Thing together, and they fought a long time. In the end they killed it, and Ivan opened its stomach and took the egg that lay therein. But when he looked upon his friend the Gray Wolf, he began to grieve.
All the time Ivan had thought the Gray Wolf was indestructible, for she had won every fight, survived every battle. But the Unnamed Thing had proved to be an formidable enemy. The Gray Wolf was dying.
And so Ivan fell on his knees, tears rolling down his face and there on the cold ground he embraced the wolf. In all the time since he had met the wolf, he had never touched her, for he had been unsure of his own feelings. She was a wolf, and he was man, and at the beginning the thought of him touching her had made him ill, even if she would later change to a human form. But all his fears had been for naught.
The Gray Wolf was dying, and nothing else mattered to Ivan anymore, not the egg with the mortality of Koshchei, not the quest of his father the tsar. “Cry not, Ivan, for everything ends, and if this is my time, then it will be.”
“No,” Ivan said, “I won’t let it end like this.” And with all his strength he put her dying body on his back and went back the way he had come. Later the only thing Ivan remembered of his walk back to the castle of Koshchei was pain, but the pain held him awake, the pain made him go on.
When he reached the castle of bones, at the border between the chaotic lands and the world as it is, he knocked at the door of Koshchei’s castle. “Koshchei,” Ivan shouted out, “come out of your castle, for I have here the egg that determines if you will live or die. If you aid me, I’ll let you live, but if fail I will kill you.”
With an earth-shattering sound the doors opened and a naked old man with an old, rusty sword came riding on an old mare. “WHAT DO YOU WANT, IVAN TSAREVICH?” said Koshchei the immortal. Ivan felt the voice of the old man vibrating in his bones. His voice was pure force, pure energy, and despite his appearance Ivan knew that this was a dragon, older than mankind itself, equal to the gods of man and the powers of the chaos beyond the world of man.
“If you save this wolf, then I will swear that I give you back your immortality and will not harm you now or ever try again.”
Koshchei looked in his eyes and said, “DO YOU SWEAR IN THE NAME OF MOTHER RUS?”
Ivan nodded, “I do.”
“THEN IT WILL BE DONE. ONE COMPLETELY USELESS EGG TO BAIT HEROES FOR THE LIFE OF A GRAY WOLF.“ The old man waved his hands and the wounds of the dying wolf closed as if they never had been there in the first place. The old man waved again, and the Gray Wolf opened her eyes. “Hello Ivan,” she said.
Seeing the Gray Wolf alive, without saying a word Ivan embraced her as he had done when she had lain dying near where the Unnamed Thing had fallen.
Koshchei left the two alone. “His bones would have make a good addition,” he grumbled, “but there will be other heroes.” With a mean laugh he went inside his castle.
About what happened next between the Gray Wolf and Ivan I will tell you naught, for this is a private matter, but I can tell you as much. When Ivan had thought she would change herself to human form to mate with him, he had been wrong.
Days later Ivan, back to his original form, together with the Gray Wolf began the long voyage home. While Ivan had failed his quest, he wanted to see who of his brothers had won the right to be heir of the kingdom.
After months the two of them reached the border of his father’s kingdom, when the Gray Wolf spoke to Ivan. “I will wait here for you.” Ivan nodded and said, “I will be back in one month.” And so he went to see his father and his brothers.
And the Gray Wolf waited. Days later a big, black wolf came out of the kingdom, and the Gray Wolf and he left to be never to be seen again. You may ask, what had happened to Ivan, his brothers and to the tsar. Well.
This is easily told. Ivan’s father the tsar never had wanted to give up control over his kingdom. When his oldest son had come back, he had slain him and gained the ultimate attack force, the skull of the Baba Yaga, which could burn anything away. When his middle son had come back, he had slain him and regained the armor of the greatest hero ever wandering the earth of mother Rus, Ilya Muromets. This armor was the ultimate defense.
The last thing the old tsar needed was a way to live forever, and he had hoped his youngest son would find the secret of Koshchei’s immortality. Alas, the youngest son didn’t deliver, and his father in his rage had used the skull of the Baba Yaga on him.
The light that comes out of the eyes of the skull can burn anything away, but it must be said by its owner what is to be burned away. When the tsar used the skull on his youngest son as he had on his two other sons, he said, “Burn away his human life,” and that was what the skull had done. But unlike his two older brothers, Ivan had been, for a short time, quite non-human, and when the skull had burned away his human life, a big, black wolf emerged.
With one bite the big, black wolf wolfed down the tsar and left. That was the end of the tsar, his kingdom, and sadly, of our story.
Copyright © 2005 by Bewildering Stories on behalf of the author