THE aged Tsar was dying, and his three sons and three daughters were standing round his bed. He had yet strength to give his last commands, which were extraordinary.
‘It is my will, O my sons,’ he said, ‘that you give my daughters in marriage to the first suitors that come to demand them. Question me not, but fulfil to the letter this, my last injunction. If you fail, my curse will fall upon you.’
These were the Tsar’s last words before he died. It was approaching the hour of midnight when he passed away; and, when the dawn found his sons and daughters weeping for grief, they were startled by a dreadful noise. Came a loud beating against the palace gates, and instantly an awful tempest sprang up around the palace. Peal on peal of thunder roared, and vivid lightning flashed. The whole place rocked and swayed and trembled to its foundations. Then above the fearful din came a loud voice: ‘In the name of a King, open the gates!’
‘Do not open!’ cried the eldest brother.
‘See to it that you do not open!’ insisted the younger one. But the youngest disregarded them both, and rushed to the gates.
‘‘Tis I will open!’ he flung back to them as they followed at his heels. ‘Though the earth dissolve, what have we to fear? We have done no wrong!’
With this he flung the gates wide. There was no one there, but a sizzling light moved in towards them, and, out of the heart of it came a clear, cold voice:
‘I have come to demand the hand of your eldest sister in marriage. Forbid me not. I await your consent, but, if you refuse, it will be at your peril.’
The eldest brother answered at once, without a glance at the other two: ‘It is unheard of! I cannot see you; I do not know you; who is to know where or how you will bestow my sister? I might never see her again.’ He turned to the younger one and added, ‘What say you, brother?’
‘For my part, I will not consent,’ replied he readily. ‘I like not these signs of ill omen.’
Then they both turned to the youngest.
‘What say you, little brother?’
He was quick to answer:
‘I obey my father, and counsel you to do the same. It is not that I fear his curse, but I love him, and will obey his wish.’
Without waiting for any reply he ran within, and soon returned, leading his eldest sister by the hand.
‘Here,’ said he, offering her to the unseen visitant, ‘in accordance with the custom of my country and the dying wish of my father, I give you my sister for your wedded wife. May she be faithful to you.’
The Princess was then taken by an invisible hand and led away; and, as she stepped across the threshold of the palace gates, a tremendous clap of thunder burst overhead; the lightning flashed again, and the whole earth rocked at the sound and sight of it; and, at terror of it, the courtiers who had gathered round fell on their faces and prayed for deliverance with all their might.
When the sun rose, the palace was still astir. None had slept, so none had dreamed; therefore, when eyes met eyes, the truth was known: a terrible thing had happened, but none knew how it had happened. All sought to find some clue to explain the disappearance of the eldest Princess, but there was no clue to the midnight mystery of the thing.
And on the second night the same terrible thing occurred again. The palace was stormed by thunder and lightning till its foundations quaked. Then, above all, came another commanding voice: ‘Open the gates immediately--in the name of a King!’
Again the elder brother demurred, and again the youngest admitted the invisible but powerful applicant, and bestowed upon him the second sister.
‘I trust she will be loyal and faithful to you,’ he said; and, as she stepped over the threshold, the elements roared like a great lion glutting on his prey. And still, to the courtiers who stood by, the mystery of the thing was greater than their fear of the quakings of the earth and the sudden gasps of icy air that smote them.
Again, on the third night, while the youngest sister, who was very proud, was preparing to reject a suitor promised by her brothers, a greater storm than ever swept up about the palace, and, to hear it, one would have thought that half the world were rolling down a hill. It was terrific, and still more terrific was a voice that cried: ‘Open these gates, in the name of a King who comes on his own business!’
As before, the two elder brothers demurred, but the youngest was more obedient to his father’s dying wish. He bestowed the youngest sister upon the first to seek her hand. And, as she stepped over the threshold, the whole palace trembled and fluttered as if disturbed by the wings of a thousand giant eagles.
The two elder brothers mourned and grieved for their sisters, saying they were lost for ever. How could they see them again? How could they visit them? They were gone--swallowed up in the invisible.
‘It is not so,’ said the youngest. ‘We have fulfilled our father’s command. We have done no wrong; though the skies fall down, what have we to fear? Follow me forth: we will go and search for them!’
And so, not knowing what had befallen their sisters, nor whom they had married, they set out to search far and wide for them.
After journeying for some days, they reached a wild, inhospitable country, where, in a mighty forest so dense they could see neither the sun by day nor the stars by night, they lost their way. But still they pushed on, hoping to find an outlet. At last, after wandering for days, they came at sunset to a small lake, where they prepared to pass the night.
The eldest watched while the two younger brothers slept.
In the middle of the night, while his brothers slept soundly, he was gazing upon the waters of the lake, watching the moonbeams play with the ripples stirred by the soft night wind, when he saw a great black head appear on the surface and rapidly approach the shore where he was standing. Presently, as the monster emerged from the water, he found himself face to face with a great alligator rushing upon him to devour him.
Like lightning he drew his sword and smote the alligator between the eyes, cleaving its head in one mighty stroke. Then, when it had ceased its death struggles, he cut off both its ears and placed them in his haversack.
As his brothers still slept he resolved to say nothing about the matter, and, to this end, he rolled the carcase of the alligator down the shelving shore into the water, where it sank like lead. At sunrise he roused his brothers, and, with few words, they resumed their wandering.
After three days struggling through the forest, they came to another lake, where they camped for the night. This time the second brother watched, while the eldest and the youngest slept.
And he, too, had a strange adventure, but more terrible than that the eldest brother had encountered. At midnight the waters of the lake began to move, and a great alligator with two heads emerged and came up on the shore. Then, with both mouths wide open and his long sharp teeth gleaming in the moonlight, the monster rushed at the watcher and the sleepers. But the watcher sprang forward, sword in hand, and dealt two terrific blows, one on each head, killing the alligator instantly. Then he cut off the four ears and placed them in his haversack, and rolled the huge carcase back into the lake. As the eldest brother had done, he kept the matter to himself, and let his brothers sleep on.
In the morning he aroused them, and they all set out again on their wandering.
During that day they came to the edge of the forest, but only to find a vast desert before them. Their hearts sank within them, but, nothing daunted, they set forth, saying one to the other, ‘There is no desert that has no boundaries. We shall come to the other side.’
But for three whole days they journeyed on, and all was still desert as far as the eye could see; and their food and water were exhausted, and they were sore distressed. Then, as they saw that the desert had no end, they cried to God to deliver them. And it seemed that the haze of the desert lifted, and they saw before them a lake, calm and peaceful. On its shore they would spend the night.
Having refreshed themselves from its waters, and eaten of some luscious fruits that grew upon its margin, they made their camp; and this time the youngest brother watched while the other two slept.
And he, also, had an adventure, but far more terrible than either of his brothers had encountered. As they were sleeping soundly, and he was looking at the still surface of the lake, something heaved up out of the depths and swam rapidly towards him. When it came up out of the water he saw that it was a monstrous alligator, with three heads. As it advanced upon him, with all three mouths wide open, ready to devour him and his sleeping brothers, he sprang to meet it, and, with three mighty strokes like flashes of lightning, severed the three heads from the body. Then he cut off the six ears and placed them in his haversack. As the other two brothers had done, he, also, kept the matter to himself.
It was not yet dawn, and the fire was burning low. In order to replenish it the young Prince went into the surrounding desert to look for fuel. After searching for some time in vain, he mounted a rock and looked around; and there, not very far away, he saw the gleam of a fire. He ran towards it, knowing he should find some fuel. But, when he arrived at the place where the fire was burning, he found the glare of it came from within a large cave. Creeping forward cautiously, he peered in, and saw a strange sight. The fire was blazing in the middle of the floor, and round it sat nine giants, eating the flesh of human beings, whose limbs they drew from a huge cauldron over the fire.
Horrifying was this sight to the Prince. He made up his mind to trick the giants. He advanced boldly into the cave and gave them greeting.
‘Good-morrow, my friends,’ he cried jauntily; ‘I’ve been searching for you everywhere.’
‘Good-morrow, friend!’ replied the biggest of the giants. ‘And, if you’re indeed one of us, you will, of course, join us in our feast, and then help us in our search for more.’
‘With every pleasure!’ cried the Prince; ‘indeed, I need hardly thank you for the kind invitation, since I am at all times ready to assist you in your hunting expeditions. I have a rare tooth for the flesh of mortals, and the bigger they are the better I like them.’
The giants looked at one another and grunted approvingly. Then said the chief: ‘Since you are with us, what is your name?’
‘I am Nine Man Mord,’ replied the Prince, taking the name of that hero of a far land who had slain nine men in so many strokes of his sword. ‘I have journeyed from the North and have come to dwell among you, and be one of you.’
They were all astonished, for they had heard wonderful stories of Nine Man Mord; and they seemed to forget that they themselves were nine.
‘Come, Nine Man Mord!’ they cried; ‘come, sit and eat with us.’
Readily the Prince took his place among them; but, though it seemed to them that he ate of the human flesh, he did not really do so. While pretending to eat, he told them such tales of his adventures in the far country that none of them noticed he was not eating, but disposing of the flesh cunningly, sometimes by throwing it behind him, and again by offering a tit-bit to one or another in token of friendship.
When the feast was over, the giants rose and stretched themselves.
‘Now,’ said the biggest one, ‘we’ll go a-hunting. There’s always to-morrow’s feast to be thought of. We go, O Nine Man Mord, to the Tsar’s city. There is still good flesh to be got there, though we have been feeding on it for many, many years. And, I may tell you, as the prey is not so plentiful as it used to be, it affords all the better sport in the taking.’
‘I’m with you,’ replied the Prince, ‘and, maybe, I can show you a trick or two.’
So they set out and journeyed together--the nine giants and the Prince--till they came to the outskirts of a large and beautiful city. Here, in the surrounding forest, the giants plucked up two great trees by the roots, and took them to the city walls, where they placed one tree as a ladder.
Then the chief giant said to the Prince: ‘O Nine Man Mord, climb by this to the top of the wall, and then we will pass the other tree up to you so that you can fix it as a ladder on the other side for all of us to descend by.’
The Prince climbed the tree-ladder; and, when he had reached the top of the wall they pushed the other tree up to him.
‘Now,’ he called down, ‘I don’t quite know how you want it placed. Will one of you come up and show me?’
In answer to this the chief himself climbed up and swung the tree over roots first, while he held and steadied it by its topmost branches. At this moment the Prince, unseen by the others, drew his sword, and, with one stroke, hewed off the giant’s head. It fell within the city walls, and, in another second, the headless body went tumbling after it.
‘Now,’ he cried down to the others, ‘it’s all fixed, and your chief has gone down. Come up one by one, and I will hold the tree for you, and steady it, so that you can reach the ground quickly.’
And they came up one by one; and, one by one, off went their heads; and they, and their bodies after them, reached the ground very quickly. Then he climbed down the tree, and over the piled carcases of the nine giants, and made his way into the city.
It was true what the giants had said; for, although the sun had not yet risen, signs were not wanting that the city, if not deserted, was very thinly inhabited. The streets were neglected; the houses for the most part were falling to decay; and though, no doubt, those who remained--if any--feared a visit from the man-eating giants, still no watch was set, and the Prince, as he made his way through the streets, saw no one.
At last, as he went on, he espied a high tower, and, at one of its windows, there was a light. He made his way to this tower, and quickly ran up the stairs leading to the room that contained the light. At last, seeing its rays through the crack of the door, he turned the handle and entered.
A strange sight met his gaze as he stood a moment on the threshold. It was a splendid apartment of velvet and gold, magnificently decorated; but what immediately riveted his eyes was the figure of a beautiful princess sleeping upon a richly furnished couch. She was lovely to look upon; and, as he advanced into the room, he could see nothing but her. Presently, however, a hiss greeted his ears; and, looking up, he was startled to see a huge snake lying on the ledge above the couch, with its arched neck bent down ready to strike the sleeping girl.
With a loud cry the Prince tried to attract its attention; then, as it raised its head, he snatched his dagger from his belt, and, with one blow, pinned its head to the wall.
‘Hold wood! Hold dagger!’ he cried, releasing the hilt. ‘None can draw that blade from the wall but him who planted it there!’
Then, without waking the beautiful maiden, he stole from the room and went back over the city wall, and beyond, till he came again to the giants’ cave, where he quickly gathered some fuel and hurried back to his brothers, whom he found still sleeping. When he had set the fire in a blaze, he watched till the hour of sunrise, and then woke them with a loud cry:
‘Arouse ye, my brothers; the day is here!’
But he told them nothing of his adventures of the night.
When they set out they came very soon to a high-road that led to the gates of the Tsar’s city. Now it was the daily practice of the Tsar to walk in the ways of the city for an hour after sunrise, and bewail the death of those of his people who had perished by the hands of the giants, and also to pray fervently that his own daughter would never so perish. So it was that on this same morning he came, by his wanderings through empty streets, to the part of the wall where the tall tree-ladder was standing; and, as he drew near, he saw with amazement the great bodies of the giants lying on the ground, each with his head severed from his body.
When the Tsar saw this he raised his hands to high heaven and cried, ‘This is a great day, for the giants are all slain!’ And the people, who still remained to him, hearing his cry of joy, came running, and gathered about him, praying that God would preserve the mighty one who had done this astonishing deed. They were still praising the unknown hero, when some attendants came running swiftly from the palace, to tell the Tsar that a great snake had almost succeeded in killing the Princess.
At this he hastened back and made his way to the room in the tower where the Princess was lying asleep; and there he found the snake pinned to the wall by a dagger. At once he took the hilt in his hand and tried to drag it from the wall, but, to his great wonder, it resisted all his efforts.
On this, seeing the great strength of the hero who had planted the dagger there, and knowing that none but he could have the strength to remove it, he ordered a proclamation to be issued throughout the whole kingdom: that, if the man who had killed the nine giants and pinned the head of the snake to the wall with his dagger, would come and draw his dagger forth again, he would be rewarded with splendid gifts and receive the Princess in marriage.
Far and wide went this proclamation, but the Tsar, to make doubly sure, posted a thousand officials at as many inns on the great high-roads that connected the city with the outlying parts of the kingdom. And these officials’ duty was to question travellers, and learn whether they had met, or heard of, any such hero as he who had killed the giants and transfixed the snake. Rewards were offered to any who could supply information, and punishments were held out to those who concealed it.
Now it so happened that the three Princes, in their search for their sisters, chanced to rest at an inn on one of the high-roads; and, when they had finished supper, they fell into conversation with an interesting stranger--a courtly man of cities, with manners that are only learnt in kings’ palaces. He begged to be allowed to call for wine,--which in those days was no offence,--and, as they drank their toasts, he fell to narrating his wonderful exploits in a far-off kingdom--so far-off, indeed, that imagination alone could reach it, and no other traveller could ever return to tell a different tale.
After describing some heroic combats the stranger at last remarked, ‘And what may be the doughty deeds that you young heroes have set to your credit?’
At this the eldest brother told how he had slain the alligator; and, to vouch for the truth of his story, showed the two ears he had preserved, placing them before the stranger.
When the unknown had applauded his story the younger brother told how he had slain the alligator with two heads, and threw down on the table the four ears as evidence.
The stranger applauded more loudly than before, and then turned to the youngest brother; but he remained silent.
‘Come,’ said the stranger, coaxing him; ‘your brothers have performed great exploits: have you not followed their example?’
Then the young Prince replied: ‘I am only young; but, now I think of it, I did kill an alligator once, myself. It was a rather ferocious beast in its way, and had three heads; but I managed to--well, here are its ears.’ And he threw the six ears on the table.
At this his two brothers were as much astonished as the stranger; for, though he was the youngest, he had done the bravest deed. The official--for such was the stranger--then begged the young Prince to tell of his other exploits. So the hero told how he had slain the giants. This was enough for the official: he sprang up and hastened away to the palace, where he informed the Tsar that he had found the mighty hero for whom every one was searching.
The Tsar was delighted; and having rewarded the official, sent for the Princes in all haste. When they arrived, he bade them tell all they had been through, and listened to their adventures with all attention. And, when they had finished, he turned to the youngest brother and said: ‘Your exploits, young sir, are the most extraordinary of all I have heard. But all of you follow me to the tower; I would make certain--quite certain!’
Beckoning the three brothers to follow him, he led the way; and, finally, they reached the room where the youngest had pinned the snake’s head to the wall.
The couch was empty, but the snake and the dagger were still there, just as the young Prince had left them.
Then said the Tsar, addressing the eldest: ‘Draw forth the dagger!’
The eldest brother seized the hilt, and put forth all his strength; but the dagger did not move.
Then said the Tsar: ‘It is so. Let your younger brother try.’
His words were obeyed; but the dagger was immovable.
Then said the Tsar: ‘It is so. Let the youngest try.’
His words were obeyed. The youngest Prince took the hilt, and, with a mighty wrench, tore it from the wall; then, as he restored it to its sheath at his side, the snake fell at his feet.
‘It is so!’ said the Tsar. ‘It was your hand saved my daughter’s life. I will give her to you in marriage, and you shall be my Prime Minister.’ Then, to the two elder Princes, he said: ‘If you would prefer to remain with your brother in my country I will bestow two ladies of the land upon you for wives, and give you suitable castles to live in.’
But, though the youngest accepted the Tsar’s offer with a proud pleasure, the other two excused themselves with thanks, saying that it was only right for their brother to remain, but, for themselves, their duty was to carry out the quest for their lost sisters.
The Tsar honoured their refusal, and, having given orders that they should be escorted from the city with every mark of royal favour, bade them farewell; and they departed the richer by two asses laden with gifts of gold and silver and precious stones. Shortly afterwards, the youngest Prince and the Princess were married; and the whole city rejoiced for three days with great celebrations.
But the Prince, much as he loved his wife, soon began to blame himself for accepting this great happiness so easily when the quest of his lost sisters was his first duty. On this account he began to pine, and the Princess could not comfort him.
One day, when his grief threatened to sink him in remorse, the Tsar came to him with a bunch of nine keys in his hand, and said: ‘My son; I am going forth to the hunt; but you remain, and, with these keys, you may open some delights while I am absent.’
Then he took him and showed him the doors of nine rooms of the palace, assuring him he would find great joy in the first four, a more hidden joy in the next three, and, in the eighth, a summing up of all the joys in the four and the three; but--the ninth he must not enter; for, what was there, no man could endure.
When the Tsar had gone to the hunt, the young Prince opened the doors one by one, and he was truly amazed at what was revealed to him. The first four led him to all the delights of earth; the next three to all the delights of heaven; and the eighth to the Great Joy of Earth and Heaven in one.
And now he stood at the door of the ninth.
‘What is here?’ said he. ‘What is here that is denied me? I have slain the three-headed alligator; I have hewed off the heads of nine giants; I have vanquished the serpent that encircles the world, and rescued the Princess from his lowering fangs. Surely the Tsar is testing me! Come what may, I will enter at this door; for he who does not go on, slides back.’
With this he selected the key; and, inserting it in the lock, opened the ninth door, and entered. What an unexpected sight was there! The joys of the four, the three, and the eighth--were they at last bound up in this?--this man with the strength of the under-world in his limbs, the strength of the mid-world in his set face, and the strength of the skies in his calm gaze beneath tortured brows?
There, before him, was a man, bound, it seemed, by all the bonds of the universe. His legs were encircled with bands of iron, which, at their fastenings into the floor, were rusted. His hips and loins were bound with lead. A copper girdle held his breast. A silver band enthralled his tongue and hands, and what seemed like a spider’s web of thin, light-blue wire encircled his body and gathered itself in a circlet of the same woven material upon his brows. Truly, if ever a man was fast bound, this man was; for, in addition to all these things, there was a ring of gold round his neck, and from it extended thick cables of platinum, which were firmly riveted into four strong beams, one in each corner of the room. Around him, on the eight sides of the room, were open windows revealing all the joys of the eight chambers; but the man was bound in the centre.
And, as the Prince looked upon him, the captive gasped, ‘O young man, for the love of God, bring me a cup of water from yonder fountain; and I, in return, will give thee another life.’
The Prince at once drew him the draught from the nearest fountain, thinking the while that it would be good to have a life to spare. Then, when the chained captive had drunk the water eagerly, the two looked at one another.
‘What is your name?’ asked the Prince.
‘My name is Bashtchelik, which, as you know, means "real steel."‘
‘Farewell, then, Bashtchelik; I hear the hoof-beats of the Tsar’s horses in the distance.’ And he turned towards the door.
‘Nay, leave me not!’ cried Bashtchelik, and then he implored him: ‘Give me a second cup of water, and I will give you a second life.’
The Prince drew him another cup of water and handed it to him with a good heart, thinking, as it was returned to him empty, that a second life was well worth having. Then, hearing the approach of the Tsar more distinctly, he bade farewell a second time and turned away; but the captive again besought him.
‘O mighty one!’ he cried; ‘do not leave me. I know thee, I know thy name; I know thy noble deeds. Twice hast thou given me to drink; I pray thee, do it yet a third time and I will give thee a third life.’
Hastily the Prince filled the cup and gave him to drink, for the Tsar and his company were now at the gates, and he knew not how to face him. But, before he could gain the door, he heard a crash behind him; and, looking back, he saw that the captive had broken his bonds and stood free. Then, before one could say it had happened, he had loosed a great pair of wings from his sides, and rushed through the doorway. The Prince, looking out, saw him snatch up the Princess, his wife, from the terrace of the Palace, and soar rapidly away.
Ere the beating of wings was lost in the distance, the Tsar came in and demanded to know why the ninth room was open and the captive gone. The Prince then explained everything, and begged the Tsar not to be angry.
‘He broke his bonds,’ he said, ‘and has gone, taking my wife--the daughter that you gave me--away with him. But give me leave, and I will find her and kill Bashtchelik.’
‘Alas!’ replied the Tsar, ‘you have done a rash thing. You know not this man. I lost the best part of a whole army in capturing him. What can you do, my son?’
‘I will go forth and seek him,’ replied the Prince without wavering. ‘If he is stronger than I, then you will see neither me nor my wife again; but, if I prevail, we will return to you.’
* * * * *
So the Prince set forth on his quest; and after three days’ journey, he came to a beautiful city. And, as he rode beneath the walls of a castle, he heard a voice from a window high in the tower, calling to him. He drew rein and dismounted; then, as he advanced into the courtyard, a girl came running towards him.
‘O my brother!’ she cried; ‘you have come at last!’
It was his eldest sister whom he had found so easily. They embraced and kissed, and then she led him into the castle.
‘And your husband?’ he asked as they stepped aside into a dimly-lighted antechamber; ‘who and what is he?’
‘He is the Dragon King,’ she replied in a whisper; ‘and he is no friend of my brothers. Yet I will hide you, and then ask him what he would do if you sought me out.’
That evening, when the Dragon King came home on whirring wings, there was no sign of either the Prince or his charger. Yet he raised his nostrils in the air and sniffed.
‘I smell a human being,’ he said. ‘Confess, woman; who is it?’
‘No one,’ replied she. But he was certain about the matter, saying that his senses had never yet deceived him, though a woman might.
‘That is nought,’ said she. ‘But, tell me; if my brothers came to look for me, how would you take it?’
‘If your eldest brother came here,’ replied the Dragon King, ‘I would eat him raw. Your second brother I would stew gently over a slow fire, or, if he were nice and fat, I should roast him to a turn; but your youngest brother--him I would spare.’
Then said she, ‘O King, my youngest brother, who is your brother-in-law, is here in your castle. I will summon him.’
It was a great meeting between the young Prince and the Dragon King. One would have thought that they had known each other for years. They embraced and wished each other health and long life; and then they sat down to a sumptuous banquet quickly brought in by winged attendants, who were evidently of the uneducated dragon classes;--indeed, though richly attired, they looked like slaves.
In the course of conversation the Prince happened to mention that he was on the track of one Bashtchelik, who had run off with his wife against her will.
‘Bashtchelik!’ exclaimed the Dragon King. ‘My dear brother, I beseech you, seek him not. This kingdom itself put out five thousand strong, and took him unawares. But he escaped by a trick, gave battle to ten thousand of my picked dragons, fought his retreat to the mountains, and so escaped triumphant. Man to man--you against Bashtchelik--you cannot hope to win. If you will go back to your home, I will give you an escort and three asses laden with gold.’
‘Three asses laden with gold!’ said the Prince. ‘I thank you much, but I have better than that: I have three lives, which I won from Bashtchelik himself. I will seek him and reclaim my wife.’
The Dragon King wondered at his words; then, plucking a feather from his wing, he said, ‘You are determined, and I wish you well. Take this feather, and, if at any time you want my aid, burn it and I will come to you instantly with ten thousand chosen dragons.’
The Prince thanked him, and placed the feather in his girdle. The next morning he took leave of his sister and the Dragon King, and set out in search of Bashtchelik.
He left the city and crossed a desert, where he endured fatigues and encountered perils; but still, by his strong right arm, he preserved his three lives. Then, at last, he came to a city; and, as he took the mainway of it, the same thing happened as before. It was a woman’s voice calling from a castle tower: ‘O Prince! Dismount and come in hither!’
Again he made his way into a courtyard, and again he was met by a woman--his second sister--who greeted him with joy. Soon she led him into her boudoir, and immediately he asked: ‘My sister, who is your husband?’
‘He is the Eagle King,’ said she.
Then, as it had happened with the Dragon King, so it happened with the Eagle King. He came whirring home from a great height, and, by the artfulness of his wife, he met and embraced the young Prince; for, though the Eagle King would have pecked out the livers of the elder brothers, he was glad to meet the youngest. A feast was spread, and, afterwards, the talk led on to Bashtchelik.
‘Bashtchelik!’ cried the Eagle King. ‘Young man, will you listen to me? Once we battered him with ten thousand pairs of wings and assailed him with ten thousand beaks, but he triumphed. For one man to go up against him is as a thistledown attacking a whirlwind. Do nought. Stay with me: I will give you all you desire.’
But, as the Prince held fast to his purpose, the Eagle King plucked a feather from his wing and gave it him.
‘If you are in sore straits,’ he said, ‘burn this feather, and, on the instant, I will come to your aid with ten thousand eagles.’
Then the Prince, thanking the Eagle King, set forth once more. And, in his further journeying, he again came to a city, and heard, beneath a castle wall, a woman’s voice calling to him.
It was his youngest sister. She also contrived to bring him face to face with her husband, the Falcon King, who warned him strongly against Bashtchelik, and gave him a feather from his wing in case of need.
After a long search and many adventures, the Prince at last found his wife, standing at the mouth of a large cave. She was much surprised to see him, and ran forward to embrace him. He then told her all he had done since their parting, and she clung to him in great joy.
‘Now, dear wife,’ he said at last; ‘now that I have found you, we will go together to your father’s palace.’
‘But Bashtchelik!’ she exclaimed.
‘Bashtchelik is not your husband,’ he replied; ‘I am your husband.’
‘Yes, yes; but if we flee, beloved, Bashtchelik will surely follow us. His rage would be terrible, and I should lose you for ever, and find a frightful punishment.’
‘Nay, nay; I am your husband, and I will protect you; come!’ Then he added to himself, ‘She does not know I have three lives now, and I doubt whether Bashtchelik could kill me three times.’
So they fled together. But, some hours later, Bashtchelik returned from hunting and found the Princess had gone. From some footprints outside the cave he gleaned that she had not gone alone, and instantly guessed that her husband had carried her off. With a cry of rage he sprang into the air, and began to fly round the cave at terrific speed, and in ever-widening circles.
The sun was low down on the Western horizon when the Prince, riding hard with his wife on the saddle-bow, heard a whirring sound in the sky and looked up.
‘Hasten!’ cried the Princess in alarm; ‘it is Bashtchelik. If we can reach the shelter of yonder forest he may not see us.’
But hardly had she spoken when an angry cry from afar fell on their ears. Bashtchelik had seen them--seen her long, yellow hair floating on the breeze and gleaming like gold in the rays of the setting sun. He swerved and swooped downwards, and, madly as they rode for the edge of the forest, he was upon them by the time they reached the outskirts.
Alighting on the ground, he tore the Princess from the Prince’s arms, and cried out in sorrowful anger, ‘O Prince, I gave you three lives out of gratitude to you, but, if you attempt to steal your wife again, I will kill you.’ And with this he mounted in the air with the Princess, and soon disappeared in the distance, leaving the Prince lost in wonder at the suddenness of it all.
Nevertheless he was not to be beaten. He returned to the cave under cover of night, and, having concealed his steed, crept forward and hid himself near the cave, to wait until Bashtchelik should go forth to the hunt.
And he was not disappointed. Soon after the sun rose, Bashtchelik came out from the cave, bearing his bow and arrows, and went in search of prey. Then, when he was out of sight, the Prince dashed into the cave, took his wife and rode away with her. But again ere sunset they heard the whir of wings; and again Bashtchelik snatched the Princess from the Prince’s arms. And this time he placed an arrow on his bowstring and drew it to the full.
‘O Prince,’ he said, ‘I give you your choice: will you die by arrow or sabre?’
‘By sabre,’ said the Prince, feeling for his own.
‘Nay, nay!’ returned Bashtchelik, relenting. ‘Because I gave you three lives, I pardon you a second time; but, if you attempt to steal your wife again, I shall slay you without a thought.’
But the Prince, as he watched Bashtchelik fly away with his wife, was not daunted. ‘I wish he would stay to fight, said he; ‘but maybe he will next time, for I shall certainly take her again.’
And he did. And again they were overtaken. On this occasion it was nowise different, save that when Bashtchelik forgave the Prince it was in angry and threatening tones, before bearing the Princess away.
Having failed three times, the Prince rode sadly homewards. But he had not gone far when he bethought him of the three feathers given him by his brothers-in-law, and of their promises of help. He reined in his steed, and turned and galloped back. He would beard Bashtchelik in his cave, and then give battle, with three armies at his call, if, perchance, this powerful foe should seem to prevail.
When he reached the cave it was an hour after sunrise. He leapt from his steed and entered without knocking. There was a fire burning within, and his wife sat by it with her head on her hand, thinking. She sprang up at the sound of his footstep.
‘You!’ she cried. ‘Ah! my beloved, you are in unseemly haste to quit this life, since you come for me a fourth time.’
‘Listen to me,’ he said; ‘for you are my wife, and none shall keep you from me.’ Then he showed her the three feathers, and explained to her that they were pledges of help in time of need. He placed them in her hand, and gave her also the burning-glass he used for kindling a fire, and said: ‘Do not burn them until you see the combat is going against me. He will certainly follow us, but, this time, I think he will fight.’
The Princess seemed to agree to his wish, and, soon afterwards, they set out and rode rapidly away.
It was high noon when they heard the whir of wings and knew they were followed. Bashtchelik approached at a great speed, and they saw his sabre flashing in the sun. The Prince drew rein and dismounted; then, drawing his weapon, he advanced to meet his foe. But, ere their sabres clashed, the Princess, fearful for her husband’s life, had taken the burning-glass and pinned the sun’s rays to the feathers. A tiny curl of blue smoke arose, and then they burst into flame.
Instantly--ere yet the heart could beat twice--there was a shrill chord of three sounds, and as many colours shimmered like lightning in the air. Then as the feathers blazed, came dragon hosts upon the plain; flaming eagles flocked in; and the Falcon King with his myriads swooped down. Bashtchelik was surrounded on three sides, but he dealt a mighty stroke at the Prince’s heart; and then, seeming invincible, fought his way through with much slaughter and gained the side of the Princess. Before she knew it she was caught up, and Bashtchelik was bearing her on rapid wings away.
But the Prince? Among the thick of the slain the three kings--his brothers-in-law--found him dead! But they took thought together as to how they might recall him to life, and at last decided to send for some water from the Jordan. They summoned three of the swiftest dragons and asked how long it would take to fetch it. ‘Half an hour!’ said the first. ‘Ten minutes!’ said the second; but the third said at once, ‘Nine seconds!’
So they dispatched him; and, like a flash, he winged his fiery flight, returning in nine seconds with the water from the Jordan. With this they bathed the Prince’s wounds, and they healed up at once; and lo, he rose up alive and well, but with only two lives left to him.
‘Venture not again,’ was the counsel of the three kings. ‘Go not forth against Bashtchelik, for he is perfect steel, the mightiest of all; and none can conquer him: he has all Force behind him.’
But the Prince would not accept their words of warning. ‘Force is not the strongest thing,’ he said. ‘Force is hard as steel, yet it can be overcome by the will of Love, which is so soft that it melts at a touch. In that I go forth again to conquer Bashtchelik, and regain my wife.’
They could not restrain him, but, ere he went, they counselled him again: ‘Since you are willing to risk all, you must go; but think not that by mighty blows you can conquer Bashtchelik. Get speech with your wife, and bid her learn from him, by a woman’s wit, wherein the secret of his strength lies. Then come and tell us; and, with that knowledge, we can help you to slay him.’
The Prince agreed, and parted from them. Making his way very cautiously to the cave, he waited till Bashtchelik had gone forth to the hunt, and then entered and found his wife, and bade her glean from Bashtchelik the secret of his strength. Then he returned to his place of concealment.
That evening, when Bashtchelik returned to the cave, the Princess praised his great strength and flattered him mightily upon it.
‘Tell me, I pray thee,’ she said at last, ‘wherein thy great strength lieth, and wherewith thou mightest be bound; for’--with a laugh--’I would fain bind thee with my hair.’
Bashtchelik laughed, well pleased at her words. ‘Wouldst thou know it?’ said he. ‘My strength is in my sword; were that taken from me I should then be weak, and be as another man.’
The Princess then bowed down before his sword and did homage to it, and sang a great song of joy that all power on earth was in the sword. But, on hearing this, Bashtchelik laughed, and laughed again, saying, ‘Foolish one! my real strength lies no more in my sword than in its scabbard.’
‘Then,’ said she, ‘thou hast mocked me. Tell me, I pray thee, wherein thy strength lieth.’
‘In my bow and arrows,’ replied he. And at once the Princess bowed down and did homage to his bow and arrows, singing their praise: how swift their flight through the air, how true their aim, how deadly their piercing points.
But Bashtchelik laughed again, and again, and again.
‘Foolish one!’ said he. ‘My real strength lies not in my bow, nor in my arrows. But, tell me, why do you seek to know the secret of my strength?’
‘Because I am a woman; and was there ever a woman who loved a man and did not want to know his secret?’
‘Ay--to know it, and to impart it to others.’
‘Nay, nay; to know it is enough. Tell me, I pray thee, and tell me truly, wherein the secret of thy great strength lieth.’
At this he was much distressed, and, thinking that the Princess believed her husband dead, he hoped at last to win her love; and so he told her.
‘Listen to me,’ said he. ‘Far away in a high tableland in the interior of this country there is a mountain reaching up to the sky, and rooted far down into the earth. In a spot of that mountain--in a den where a serpent lies asleep--there is a fox, and in its heart there hides a bird. That bird is the storehouse of my strength. One flutter of its wings would scatter a whole army; one beat of its heart would shake the whole world--if the fox so willed it. But the will of the fox is over mine, and what strength I have comes from the bird through the will of the fox. And that fox is the hardest thing in the world to catch: it can take any shape it likes. So, now, you know all.’
‘You have told me truly?’
‘I do not laugh: I have told you truly.’
Then the Princess dallied with him, giving ear to his tales of terror and triumph. But, when he had supped and fallen asleep, she stole out and told the Prince all about it. And he, bidding his wife farewell, rode off in haste to tell his brothers-in-law. When they heard his news they called up their forces--the dragons, the eagles, the falcons--and proceeded forthwith against the mountain on the high tableland.
By certain signs the Prince discovered the den of the sleeping serpent, and there they surprised the fox, who, seeing the vast array on the sides of the mountain and on the plain, quickly took refuge in flight. But a host of eagles and falcons tore after him and overtook him near a great lake. Here he changed himself into a duck with six wings, and dived and disappeared. Presently, far away on the lake, they saw him reappear on the surface, and rise from the water, and wing his way up into the clouds. Immediately the dragons gave chase, and the eagles and falcons strove to encircle the swift-winged bird. Finally, seeing no way of escape, the duck swooped to earth, and changed again into a fox. Then the pursuers pounced and caught him.
The three kings then consulted together and decided to cut open the fox and take its heart out. This was soon done; then they built a great fire and threw the heart into it. And, as it burned, they saw a bird fly from it through the flames and fall scorched at their feet. Now, as they gazed upon it, it changed rapidly, growing in size and altering in shape, until at last there lay before them the body of Bashtchelik, his wings all burnt and his body charred.
So this monster perished, and the Prince regained his long-lost bride.