It happened once upon a time. For had it not happened there would be nothing to tell. It happened in the days when poplar-trees bore pears and willow-trees flowered into violets; when bears fought each other by colliding their tails; and when wolves and lambs embraced, kissing each other like true brothers.
In those days a fly would sign its name on the wall. The bigger liar he who doesn't trust me at all.
Once upon a time there was a great emperor and an empress. Both were young and handsome, and as they wanted to have children they did everything that was necessary to that end. They asked wise men that they should read their fortune in the stars and tell them if they were to have children. But ail in vain. At long last the emperor heard of a clever old man in a neighbouring village and sent for him. But the old man said to the messengers: "Those who want advice, let them come to me."
So then the emperor and the empress made ready and taking along a few boyars, soldiers, and servants, they made for the old man's house.
As soon as he saw them from afar the old man came to meet them and said:
"Welcome, and I'm glad to see you in good health. Yet what is it that Your Highness is trying to find out? The longing you have shall bring sorrow."
"I have not come to hear that," said the emperor, "but rather, if you have any cure that would enable us to have children, to ask for it."
"That I have," the old man said. "But one single child shall you beget. He will be Prince-Handsome the Well-Beloved, but you shall have no joy of him."
After a time, the empress gave birth to a son.
However, after the hour of his birth the child began to sob and no doctor was able to quieten him. Then the emperor started promising him all the wonders of the world, but it was still not possible to put an end to his sobbing.
"Quiet, my son," the emperor would say, "for I shall give you such and such lands. Be still, son, for I shall give you such and such emperor's daughter in marriage." And so on and so forth. Finally, seeing there was no way of soothing him he added: "Be quiet, my son, for you shall have youth everlasting and life without end." At that the baby stopped crying. The emperor's men beat the drums and blew their fifes and for a week there was great rejoicing throughout the empire.
As he grew older so did the boy become more astute and more daring.
They sent him to schools and to men of learning, but all the schooling that took other children one year to learn, he would master in one month, so that the emperor was as happy and as proud of his son as he could be. The whole empire would boast that it would have a wise and learned emperor such as King Salomon had been.
Yet after a while there seemed to be something wrong with the boy for he was constantly melancholy and sad and deep in thought.
One fine day, on the boy's fifteenth birthday, just as the emperor was dining and making merry with all the boyars and the dignitaries of the empire, Prince-Handsome got up and spoke thus:
"Father, the time has come for you to give me that which you promised at my birth."
Upon hearing this the emperor grew very sad and said to him:
"How now, my son, how could I possibly give you a thing unheard of? And if I then made such a promise it was solely to soothe you."
"If you, Father, cannot give it to me, then I must ransack the world in quest of that for which I came into this world."
At these words the emperor and the boyars fell upon their knees pleading that he should not leave the empire.
"Your father is now an old man," the boyars said, "and we shall put you upon the throne and shall get you the handsomest princess under the sun to be your wife."
But they were unable to change his mind, he being as hard as a rock in his decision.
Seeing there was no way out, his father gave him his blessing and ordered food to be prepared and all the necessaries got ready for the journey.
Prince-Handsome then went to the court stables, which held the finest horses in the whole empire, to choose one for himself, but as soon as he grabbed one by the tail it would fall down, and in this way, one after the other, all the horses went down. Just as he was leaving the stable, he once more glanced around, and saw in one corner a horse that was covered with sores and was mere skin and bones. He went up to him, but when he grabbed him by the tail the horse turned its head and said:
"What is your wish, Master? Thank God for granting me days that I might once more feel the touch of a brave man's hand."
And straightening his legs he stood as upright as a candle. Then Prince-Handsome told him what he meant to do, and the horse said to him:
"In order to have your wish you must ask your father to give you the sword, the lance, the bow, the quiver and the arrows, and the armour that he wore as a young man. And me you must tend with your own hands for six weeks, and the barley you give me must be boiled in milk."
When the prince asked the emperor for the things that the horse had advised, the emperor sent for the court steward and commanded him to open ail the chests containing clothes so that his son could choose those he liked best. Having rummaged for three days and three nights, Prince-Handsome at last found the weapons and armour that had been his father's when a young man, but they were very rusty. He began to clean off the rust with his own hands and after six weeks he succeeded in making them bright like a mirror.
At the same time he tended the horse as he had been told to. Work he had in plenty, but no matter since he succeeded.
When Prince-Handsome told the horse that the armour and weapons were well cleaned and polished and ready for use, the horse suddenly shook himself and ail sores fell off him and he appeared just as young as he had been years before: a strong shapely horse with four wings.
Seeing him thus, Prince-Handsome said:
"In three days from now we'll be off."
"God bless you, Master," the horse answered. "I'm ready today, if you'll have it."
On the morning of the third day the court and the empire were full of sorrow. Prince-Handsome attired like a knight, sword in hand, and astride the horse he had chosen, was taking leave of the emperor and the empress, of all the high and low courtiers, of the soldiers, and of all the servants of the Royal Household. Tears stood in all eyes and all begged him to give up his journey lest he should, alas, lose his very life. Yet he, spurring his horse on, rode out as fast as a windstorm. After him came the carts carrying foodstuffs and money, and after them some two hundred soldiers that the emperor had commanded to follow.
Once he had left his father's empire behind and had reached an unfriendly country, Prince-Handsome, keeping for himself just as much food as his horse could carry, divided all his goods among the soldiers and, bidding them farewell, he sent them back. Then turning eastward he rode on and kept riding on and on three days and three nights, till he reached a broad plain.
While they were resting the horse said to him:
"Know ye, Master, that we here stand on the land of a Woodpecker who is so wicked that none steps upon her domain but to find death. She was once a woman like every other, but the curse of her parents, whom she would not obey but only anger, caused her to turn into a woodpecker. At this moment she is with her children but tomorrow we'll meet her coming to destroy you in this forest that you see before you. She is fearfully big. Don't be frightened, but have your bow ready to shoot an arrow into her. Your sword and your lance have at hand for use at the right time."
They dozed off, yet one of them was always watchful. The following morning, as dawn was breaking, they made ready to cross the forest.
Prince-Handsome saddled and bridled the horse, fixing the girth tighter than usual, and then they set off. When lo! such a woodpecking was heard, something fearful. Then the horse said:"Be prepared, Master, for here the Woodpecker comes."
And she came, felling the trees in passing, so swiftly did she come. But the horse soared wind-like and hovered above her head so that Prince-Handsome was able to shoot off one of her legs with an arrow. And as he was about to shoot a second arrow, she cried:
"Stop, Prince-Handsome. I do not mean to hurt you." And seeing that he didn't trust her she gave him a sworn oath.
"Long live your horse, Prince-Handsome," she then said. "He is endowed with magic powers for had it not been for him, I should have utterly destroyed you. As it is, you have now destroyed me. Know you that no mortal man has so far dared to cross the borders of my land. A few fools who took it upon themselves to do so did barely reach that plain."
She took them home with her and there she entertained and honoured Prince-Handsome as you should every wayfarer. While they were dining and merry-making, Woodpecker meanwhile groaning with pain, Prince-Handsome suddenly fetched the leg that he kept in his quiver, set it in place and Woodpecker was hale and hearty again. So great was her joy that she kept up the feast for three days, and she asked Prince-Handsome to choose one of her three daughters to be his wife. Lovely as they were, as all fairies are, he would have none, and honestly told the Woodpecker what he was after. Then she said:
"With such a horse as yours, and valiant as you are, I trust you shall succeed."
When the three days were over, they made ready to go and set out. He rode, did Prince-Handsome, on and on, a long way, yet ever longer. At last, when he rode over Woodpecker's boundaries he came upon a lovely plain. On one side the grass was strewn with flowers, on the other side it was burnt. Then he asked of the horse:
"Why is the grass scorched?"
The horse answered:
"We are now on the lands of a she-Scorpion, Woodpecker's sister. So wicked they are, they cannot live together. The curse of their parents is upon them and therefore are they turned into animals just as you have seen. The hatred between them is fearful and mortal. They want to steal each other's lands. When the Scorpion is very angry she belches forth fire and black pitch. It may be she has had some difference with her sister, and as she came to oust her from her lands, she scorched the grass on her way. She is more wicked than her sister, and she has three heads. Let us rest ourselves, Master, and be ready tomorrow at break of day."
On the following day they got themselves ready as they had done before reaching the Woodpecker's lands, and then they set forth. All of a sudden they heard such howling and blowing as they had never heard before.
"Take care, and be ready, Master, for here comes the old Scorpion."
The Scorpion, mad with rage and belching forth fire, was coming as fast as a windstorm. The horse soared up like an arrow and came plunging down somewhat on one ride of her. Prince-Handsome shot an arrow and sheared off her tail. As he was preparing to shoot again the Scorpion appealed for mercy with tears in her eyes, swearing she would not harm him. And that he might rest assured, she gave him a sworn oath. The Scorpion then entertained Prince-Handsome even more handsomely than had the Woodpecker; while he for his part gave her back the tail taken off with his arrow which fitted and stuck as soon as he put it back on; three days later he and his horse went on their way.
Leaving behind the boundaries of Scorpion-land, they rode on and on and yet still further until they came to a meadow that was full of flowers and where it was always springtime. Every flower was beautiful, and so sweet-smelling that the scent went to your head. There was a soft breeze, such that you hardly noticed its breathing. Here they sat down to rest and the horse said:
"We've done it so far, Master, as well as we could. There is one more trouble ahead. We shall come upon great danger, and if God be willing that we shall come through, then will we be brave indeed. Somewhat farther on there is a castle where dwells youth everlasting and life without end. That dwelling-place is surrounded by a tall, thick forest, full of the most savage beasts to be found in the wide world. Day and night they watch sleeping not a wink, and their number is great. Fighting with them is out of the question, and crossing the forest is more than man can do. We, however, shall do our best to take a big jump over the forest."
They rested themselves a couple of days, and then began to get ready. Sucking in his breath, the horse said:
"Make the saddle-girth as tight as you can, Master, and once in the saddle hold fast, well fixed in your stirrups, and clinging to my mane. Your legs you should keep close under my forelegs so they shan't be in the way when I soar."
They rose by way of a trial and in one minute they came close to the forest.
"Master," the horse further said, "now is the time when the beasts of the forest are being fed and they are all assembled in the courtyard. Let us push through."
"Let us do it," Prince-Handsome said, "and God's grace be with us."
They shot up into the air and they saw the castle shining in the sunlight. You could have looked into the sun, but the castle was even more blinding to the eyes.
They flew over the forest and just as they were about to come down on the steps of the castle, the horse lightly touched the top of a tree and at once the whole forest burst into life. The beasts howled so that one's very hair stood on end. They made haste to come down to earth. And had it not been for the lady of the castle who was outside feeding her chickens—so, they say, she called the beasts of the forest—they would have found their death, forthwith. She saved their lives for very joy at their coming; for she had never seen a human soul in those parts. She called off the beasts, soothed them, and sent them about their business. Their mistress was a fairy; tall and slender; fair of face; and kind of heart. As soon as he set eyes on her, Prince-Handsome stood transfixed. But she, considering him wistfully, spoke thus:
"Welcome, Prince-Handsome. What is it you seek here?"
"We seek," said he, "youth everlasting and life without end."
"If that be what you seek, then here it is."
So he dismounted and entered the castle. Within there were two more women, both equally young. They were the elder sisters.
He began to thank the fairy for saving him from danger, while the other two, overjoyed as they were, cooked a tasty dinner all in gold dishes. The horse was set free to graze wheresoever it pleased. They were then introduced to ail the beasts that they might walk the woods at their leisure and when they pleased.
The women asked Prince-Handsome to stay with them for ever because, as they said, they were sick of always living by themselves. And he never waited to be asked twice but joyfully accepted, as one who had found what he had been searching for.
By degrees they got used to one another. He told his story and what he had been through before reaching them, and shortly after he married the younger fairy. On their wedding the mistresses of the house gave him leave to roam about as he wished in ail the neighbouring territories. In one valley alone, which they actually pointed out, they forbade his going, for then, they said, it would fare ill with him. And they even told him that the valley was known as the Vale of Tears.
He stayed there, forgetful of time and without ever noticing the passing of the years, for he remained as young as upon his arrival. Carefree would he walk through the forest, taking delight in those golden palaces. He lived in peace and quiet with his wife and sisters-in-law, enjoying the beauty of the flowers, the sweet pure air just as any happy creature. He would often go hunting. It so happened that one day, as he was hunting a hare, he shot one arrow, shot a second and yet still missed. Much annoyed he ran after it and shot a third arrow that hit the target. But the unhappy prince did not notice that in the heat of the chase he had stepped into the Vale of Tears.
Picking up the hare, he was on his way home when suddenly—what do you think happened? He was seized with a sudden longing for his father and mother. He could not find it in himself to tell those fairy women and yet they knew right away for they guessed from the sadness and perplexity that they saw in him.
"Alas, unhappy you. You've gone into the Vale of Tears!" they said, frightened beyond measure.
"So I have, my dear ones, without ever intending to do such a foolish thing. And now I pine away with longing after my parents. Yet my heart won't let me abandon you either. I have spent many days with you and have no cause for complaining. I will therefore go and see my parents once more and then return, never again to leave."
"Do not leave us, beloved. Your parents have been dead these hundreds of years. We fear that you yourself, once gone, may never come back. Stay with us, for our heart tells us that you shall perish."
Neither the prayers of the three women, nor those of the horse, could stop the yearning after parents that ate at his heart and sapped his strength.
At long last the horse said:
"If you won't listen to me, Master, you alone must bear the blame no matter what happens to you. I have a word to say and if you accept my proposition I shall take you back home."
"Granted," he said contentedly. "Say it!"
"As soon as we reach your father's palace I shall put you down; and should you wish to stay there, be it only for one hour, I may be free to return."
"So be it," he said.
They made preparations for the journey, embraced the women and, having spoken their farewells, they set out, leaving them sobbing and tearful. They reached the lands they had known as the Scorpion's. There they found towns. The forests had been turned into fields. He asked one man after another about the Scorpion and its dwellings, but all said that their grandparents had heard their great-grandparents tell of such far-fetched tales.
"How is that possible?" Prince-Handsome would ask. "It was only the other day that I passed through here." And he would tell them all he knew.
The people laughed at him as if he were wandering in his mind or dreaming in broad daylight. He, becoming angry, went on his way never noticing that his beard and hair had turned white.
On reaching the Woodpecker's lands he asked the same questions, he had asked about the Scorpion, and received the same replies. He could not figure out how it came about that places could thus change within a few days. And annoyed once more he would turn away, his white beard reaching down to his waist, his legs ever shaking under him. And so he came to his father's empire. Here there were more people and more towns, while the old things were so changed that he wouldn't have known them. At long last he reached the palace where he was born. As soon as he dismounted the horse kissed his hand and said:
"Fare thee well, Master, for I am going back whence we came. If you will go with me, just jump into the saddle and let us go!"
"Farewell, go by yourself. I, too, hope to return soon."
The horse darted off like an arrow.
He saw the palaces fallen into ruin and overgrown with weeds. He moaned. Tears stood in his eyes, and he tried to remember how they once had shone with light, and how he had spent his childhood in them. He went round two or three times seeking out every room and every small corner that would remind him of things past; even the stable where he had found the horse. He then went down into the cellar, the entrance of which had been blocked by the fallen ruins.
Searching here and there, his white beard reaching down to his knees, propping up his eyelids with his own hands, and hardly able to walk upright, he found nothing but a ruined chest. He opened it but found nothing in it. He lifted the cover of a secret drawer and there! a weak voice said to him:
"Welcome. And a good thing you've come," the voice sounded from afar.And as he had grown very old, he felt tired of life and was ready to pass away from this world.