Once upon a time that should happen DID happen; and if it had not happened this tale would never have been told.
There was once an emperor, very great and mighty, and he ruled over an empire so large that no one knew where it began and where it ended. But if nobody could tell the exact extent of his sovereignty everybody was aware that the emperor”s right eye laughed, while his left eye wept. One or two men of valour had the courage to go and ask him the reason of this strange fact, but he only laughed and said nothing; and the reason of the deadly enmity between his two eyes was a secret only known to the monarch himself.
And all the while the emperor”s sons were growing up. And such sons! All three like the morning stars in the sky!
Florea, the eldest, was so tall and broad-shouldered that no man in the kingdom could approach him.
Costan, the second, was quite different. Small of stature, and slightly built, he had a strong arm and stronger wrist.
Petru, the third and youngest, was tall and thin, more like a girl than a boy. He spoke very little, but laughed and sang, sang and laughed, from morning till night. He was very seldom serious, but then he had a way when he was thinking of stroking his hair over his forehead, which made him look old enough to sit in his father”s council!
“You are grown up, Florea,” said Petru one day to his eldest brother; “do go and ask father why one eye laughs and the other weeps.”
But Florea would not go. He had learnt by experience that this question always put the emperor in a rage.
Petru next went to Costan, but did not succeed any better with him.
“Well, well, as everyone else is afraid, I suppose I must do it myself,” observed Petru at length. No sooner said than done; the boy went straight to his father and put his question.
“May you go blind!” exclaimed the emperor in wrath; “what business is it of yours?” and boxed Petru”s ears soundly.
Petru returned to his brothers, and told them what had befallen him; but not long after it struck him that his father”s left eye seemed to weep less, and the right to laugh more.
“I wonder if it has anything to do with my question,” thought he.
“I'll try again! After all, what do two boxes on the ear matter?”
So he put his question for the second time, and had the same answer; but the left eye only wept now and then, while the right eye looked ten years younger.
“It really MUST be true,” thought Petru. “Now I know what I have to do. I shall have to go on putting that question, and getting boxes on the ear, till both eyes laugh together.”
No sooner said than done. Petru never, never forswore himself.
“Petru, my dear boy,” cried the emperor, both his eyes laughing together, “I see you have got this on the brain. Well, I will let you into the secret. My right eye laughs when I look at my three sons, and see how strong and handsome you all are, and the other eye weeps because I fear that after I die you will not be able to keep the empire together, and to protect it from its enemies. But if you can bring me water from the spring of the Fairy of the Dawn, to bathe my eyes, then they will laugh for evermore; for I shall know that my sons are brave enough to overcome any foe.”
Thus spoke the emperor, and Petru picked up his hat and went to find his brothers.
The three young men took counsel together, and talked the subject well over, as brothers should do. And the end of it was that Florea, as the eldest, went to the stables, chose the best and handsomest horse they contained, saddled him, and took leave of the court.
“I am starting at once,” said he to his brothers, “and if after a year, a month, a week, and a day I have not returned with the water from the spring of the Fairy of the Dawn, you, Costan, had better come after me.” So saying he disappeared round a corner of the palace.
For three days and three nights he never drew rein. Like a spirit the horse flew over mountains and valleys till he came to the borders of the empire. Here was a deep, deep trench that girdled it the whole way round, and there was only a single bridge by which the trench could be crossed. Florea made instantly for the bridge, and there pulled up to look around him once more, to take leave of his native land Then he turned, but before him was standing a dragon–oh! SUCH a dragon!–a dragon with three heads and three horrible faces, all with their mouths wide open, one jaw reaching to heaven and the other to earth.
At this awful sight Florea did not wait to give battle. He put spurs to his horse and dashed off, WHERE he neither knew nor cared.
The dragon heaved a sigh and vanished without leaving a trace behind him.
A week went by. Florea did not return home. Two passed; and nothing was heard of him. After a month Costan began to haunt the stables and to look out a horse for himself. And the moment the year, the month, the week, and the day were over Costan mounted his horse and took leave of his youngest brother.
“If I fail, then you come,” said he, and followed the path that Florea had taken.
The dragon on the bridge was more fearful and his three heads more terrible than before, and the young hero rode away still faster than his brother had done.
Nothing more was heard either of him or Florea; and Petru remained alone.
“I must go after my brothers,” said Petru one day to his father.
“Go, then,” said his father, “and may you have better luck than they”; and he bade farewell to Petru, who rode straight to the borders of the kingdom.
The dragon on the bridge was yet more dreadful than the one Florea and Costan had seen, for this one had seven heads instead of only three.
Petru stopped for a moment when he caught sight of this terrible creature. Then he found his voice.
“Get out of the way!” cried he. “Get out of the way!” he repeated again, as the dragon did not move. “Get out of the way!” and with this last summons he drew his sword and rushed upon him. In an instant the heavens seemed to darken round him and he was surrounded by fire–fire to right of him, fire to left of him, fire to front of him, fire to rear of him; nothing but fire whichever way he looked, for the dragon”s seven heads were vomiting flame.
The horse neighed and reared at the horrible sight, and Petru could not use the sword he had in readiness.
“Be quiet! this won”t do!” he said, dismounting hastily, but holding the bridle firmly in his left hand and grasping his sword in his right.
But even so he got on no better, for he could see nothing but fire and smoke.
“There is no help for it; I must go back and get a better horse,” said he, and mounted again and rode homewards.
At the gate of the palace his nurse, old Birscha, was waiting for him eagerly.
“Ah, Petru, my son, I knew you would have to come back,” she cried. “You did not set about the matter properly.”
“How ought I to have set about it?” asked Petru, half angrily, half sadly.
“Look here, my boy,” replied old Birscha. “You can never reach the spring of the Fairy of the Dawn unless you ride the horse which your father, the emperor, rode in his youth. Go and ask where it is to be found, and then mount it and be off with you.”
Petru thanked her heartily for her advice, and went at once to make inquiries about the horse.
“By the light of my eyes!” exclaimed the emperor when Petru had put his question. “Who has told you anything about that? It must have been that old witch of a Birscha? Have you lost your wits? Fifty years have passed since I was young, and who knows where the bones of my horse may be rotting, or whether a scrap of his reins still lie in his stall? I have forgotten all about him long ago.”
Petru turned away in anger, and went back to his old nurse.
“Do not be cast down,” she said with a smile; “if that is how the affair stands all will go well. Go and fetch the scrap of the reins; I shall soon know what must be done.”
The place was full of saddles, bridles, and bits of leather. Petru picked out the oldest, and blackest, and most decayed pair of reins, and brought them to the old woman, who murmured something over them and sprinkled them with incense, and held them out to the young man.
“Take the reins,” said she, “and strike them violently against the pillars of the house.”
Petru did what he was told, and scarcely had the reins touched the pillars when something happened– HOW I have no idea–that made Petru stare with surprise. A horse stood before him–a horse whose equal in beauty the world had never seen; with a saddle on him of gold and precious stones, and with such a dazzling bridle you hardly dared to look at it, lest you should lose your sight. A splendid horse, a splendid saddle, and a splendid bridle, all ready for the splendid young prince!
“Jump on the back of the brown horse,” said the old woman, and she turned round and went into the house.
The moment Petru was seated on the horse he felt his arm three times as strong as before, and even his heart felt braver.
“Sit firmly in the saddle, my lord, for we have a long way to go and no time to waste,” said the brown horse, and Petru soon saw that they were riding as no man and horse had ever ridden before.
On the bridge stood a dragon, but not the same one as he had tried to fight with, for this dragon had twelve heads, each more hideous and shooting forth more terrible flames than the other. But, horrible though he was, he had met his match. Petru showed no fear, but rolled up his sleeves, that his arms might be free.
“Get out of the way!” he said when he had done, but the dragon”s heads only breathed forth more flames and smoke. Petru wasted no more words, but drew his sword and prepared to throw himself on the bridge.
“Stop a moment; be careful, my lord,” put in the horse, “and be sure you do what I tell you. Dig your spurs in my body up to the rowel, draw your sword, and keep yourself ready, for we shall have to leap over both bridge and dragon. When you see that we are right above the dragon cut off his biggest head, wipe the blood off the sword, and put it back clean in the sheath before we touch earth again.”
So Petru dug in his spurs, drew his sword, cut of the head, wiped the blood, and put the sword back in the sheath before the horse”s hoofs touched the ground again.
And in this fashion they passed the bridge.
“But we have got to go further still,” said Petru, after he had taken a farewell glance at his native land.
“Yes, forwards,” answered the horse; “but you must tell me, my lord, at what speed you wish to go. Like the wind? Like thought? Like desire? or like a curse?”
Petru looked about him, up at the heavens and down again to the earth. A desert lay spread out before him, whose aspect made his hair stand on end.
“We will ride at different speeds,” said he, “not so fast as to grow tired nor so slow as to waste time.”
And so they rode, one day like the wind, the next like thought, the third and fourth like desire and like a curse, till they reached the borders of the desert.
“Now walk, so that I may look about, and see what I have never seen before,” said Petru, rubbing his eyes like one who wakes from sleep, or like him who beholds something so strange that it seems as if . . . Before Petru lay a wood made of copper, with copper trees and copper leaves, with bushes and flowers of copper also.
Petru stood and stared as a man does when he sees something that he has never seen, and of which he has never heard.
Then he rode right into the wood. On each side of the way the rows of flowers began to praise Petru, and to try and persuade him to pick some of them and make himself a wreath.
“Take me, for I am lovely, and can give strength to whoever plucks me,” said one.
“No, take me, for whoever wears me in his hat will be loved by the most beautiful woman in the world,” pleaded the second; and then one after another bestirred itself, each more charming than the last, all promising, in soft sweet voices, wonderful things to Petru, if only he would pick them.
Petru was not deaf to their persuasion, and was just stooping to pick one when the horse sprang to one side.
“Why don”t you stay still?” asked Petru roughly.
“Do not pick the flowers; it will bring you bad luck; answered the horse.
“Why should it do that?”
“These flowers are under a curse. Whoever plucks them must fight the Welwa of the woods.” A goblin.
“What kind of a goblin is the Welwa?”
“Oh, do leave me in peace! But listen. Look at the flowers as much as you like, but pick none,” and the horse walked on slowly.
Petru knew by experience that he would do well to attend to the horse”s advice, so he made a great effort and tore his mind away from the flowers.
But in vain! If a man is fated to be unlucky, unlucky he will be, whatever he may do!
The flowers went on beseeching him, and his heart grew ever weaker and weaker.
“What must come will come,” said Petru at length; “at any rate I shall see the Welwa of the woods, what she is like, and which way I had best fight her. If she is ordained to be the cause of my death, well, then it will be so; but if not I shall conquer her though she were twelve hundred Welwas,” and once more he stooped down to gather the flowers.
“You have done very wrong,” said the horse sadly. “But it can”t be helped now. Get yourself ready for battle, for here is the Welwa!”
Hardly had he done speaking, scarcely had Petru twisted his wreath, when a soft breeze arose on all sides at once. Out of the breeze came a storm wind, and the storm wind swelled and swelled till everything around was blotted out in darkness, and darkness covered them as with a thick cloak, while the earth swayed and shook under their feet.
“Are you afraid?” asked the horse, shaking his mane.
“Not yet,” replied Petru stoutly, though cold shivers were running down his back. “What must come will come, whatever it is.”
“Don”t be afraid,” said the horse. “I will help you. Take the bridle from my neck, and try to catch the Welwa with it.”
The words were hardly spoken, and Petru had no time even to unbuckle the bridle, when the Welwa herself stood before him; and Petru could not bear to look at her, so horrible was she.
She had not exactly a head, yet neither was she without one. She did not fly through the air, but neither did she walk upon the earth. She had a mane like a horse, horns like a deer, a face like a bear, eyes like a polecat; while her body had something of each. And that was the Welwa.
Petru planted himself firmly in his stirrups, and began to lay about him with his sword, but could feel nothing.
A day and a night went by, and the fight was still undecided, but at last the Welwa began to pant for breath.
“Let us wait a little and rest,” gasped she.
Petru stopped and lowered his sword.
“You must not stop an instant,” said the horse, and Petru gathered up all his strength, and laid about him harder than ever.
The Welwa gave a neigh like a horse and a howl like a wolf, and threw herself afresh on Petru. For another day and night the battle raged more furiously than before. And Petru grew so exhausted he could scarcely move his arm.
“Let us wait a little and rest,” cried the Welwa for the second time, “for I see you are as weary as I am.”
“You must not stop an instant,” said the horse.
And Petru went on fighting, though he barely had strength to move his arm. But the Welwa had ceased to throw herself upon him, and began to deliver her blows cautiously, as if she had no longer power to strike.
And on the third day they were still fighting, but as the morning sky began to redden Petru somehow managed–how I cannot tell–to throw the bridle over the head of the tired Welwa. In a moment, from the Welwa sprang a horse–the most beautiful horse in the world.
“Sweet be your life, for you have delivered me from my enchantment,” said he, and began to rub his nose against his brother”s. And he told Petru all his story, and how he had been bewitched for many years.
So Petru tied the Welwa to his own horse and rode on. Where did he ride? That I cannot tell you, but he rode on fast till he got out of the copper wood.
“Stay still, and let me look about, and see what I never have seen before,” said Petru again to his horse. For in front of him stretched a forest that was far more wonderful, as it was made of glistening trees and shining flowers. It was the silver wood.
As before, the flowers began to beg the young man to gather them.
“Do not pluck them,” warned the Welwa, trotting beside him, “for my brother is seven times stronger than I'; but though Petru knew by experience what this meant, it was no use, and after a moment”s hesitation he began to gather the flowers, and to twist himself a wreath.
Then the storm wind howled louder, the earth trembled more violently, and the night grew darker, than the first time, and the Welwa of the silver wood came rushing on with seven times the speed of the other. For three days and three nights they fought, but at last Petru cast the bridle over the head of the second Welwa.
“Sweet be your life, for you have delivered me from enchantment,” said the second Welwa, and they all journeyed on as before.
But soon they came to a gold wood more lovely far than the other two, and again Petru”s companions pleaded with him to ride through it quickly, and to leave the flowers alone. But Petru turned a deaf ear to all they said, and before he had woven his golden crown he felt that something terrible, that he could not see, was coming near him right out of the earth. He drew his sword and made himself ready for the fight. “I will die!” cried he, “or he shall have my bridle over his head.”
He had hardly said the words when a thick fog wrapped itself around him, and so thick was it that he could not see his own hand, or hear the sound of his voice. For a day and a night he fought with his sword, without ever once seeing his enemy, then suddenly the fog began to lighten. By dawn of the second day it had vanished altogether, and the sun shone brightly in the heavens. It seemed to Petru that he had been born again.
And the Welwa? She had vanished.
“You had better take breath now you can, for the fight will have to begin all over again,” said the horse.
“What was it?” asked Petru.
“It was the Welwa,” replied the horse, “changed into a fog “Listen! She is coming!”
And Petru had hardly drawn a long breath when he felt something approaching from the side, though what he could not tell. A river, yet not a river, for it seemed not to flow over the earth, but to go where it liked, and to leave no trace of its passage.
“Woe be to me!” cried Petru, frightened at last.
“Beware, and never stand still,” called the brown horse, and more he could not say, for the water was choking him.
The battle began anew. For a day and a night Petru fought on, without knowing at whom or what he struck. At dawn on the second, he felt that both his feet were lame.
“Now I am done for,” thought he, and his blows fell thicker and harder in his desperation. And the sun came out and the water disappeared, without his knowing how or when.
“Take breath,” said the horse, “for you have no time to lose. The Welwa will return in a moment.”
Petru made no reply, only wondered how, exhausted as he was, he should ever be able to carry on the fight. But he settled himself in his saddle, grasped his sword, and waited.
And then something came to him–WHAT I cannot tell you. Perhaps, in his dreams, a man may see a creature which has what it has not got, and has not got what it has. At least, that was what the Welwa seemed like to Petru. She flew with her feet, and walked with her wings; her head was in her back, and her tail was on top of her body; her eyes were in her neck, and her neck in her forehead, and how to describe her further I do not know.
Petru felt for a moment as if he was wrapped in a garment of fear; then he shook himself and took heart, and fought as he had never yet fought before.
As the day wore on, his strength began to fail, and when darkness fell he could hardly keep his eyes open. By midnight he knew he was no longer on his horse, but standing on the ground, though he could not have told how he got there. When the grey light of morning came, he was past standing on his feet, but fought now upon his knees.
“Make one more struggle; it is nearly over now,” said the horse, seeing that Petru”s strength was waning fast.
Petru wiped the sweat from his brow with his gauntlet, and with a desperate effort rose to his feet.
“Strike the Welwa on the mouth with the bridle,” said the horse, and Petru did it.
The Welwa uttered a neigh so loud that Petru thought he would be deaf for life, and then, though she too was nearly spent, flung herself upon her enemy; but Petru was on the watch and threw the bridle over her head, as she rushed on, so that when the day broke there were three horses trotting beside him.
“May your wife be the most beautiful of women,” said the Welwa, “for you have delivered me from my enchantment.” So the four horses galloped fast, and by nightfall they were at the borders of the golden forest.
Then Petru began to think of the crowns that he wore, and what they had cost him.
“After all, what do I want with so many? I will keep the best,” he said to himself; and taking off first the copper crown and then the silver, he threw them away.
“Stay!” cried the horse, “do not throw them away! Perhaps we shall find them of use. Get down and pick them up.” So Petru got down and picked them up, and they all went on.
In the evening, when the sun is getting low, and all the midges are beginning to bite, Peter saw a wide heath stretching before him.
At the same instant the horse stood still of itself.
“What is the matter?” asked Petru.
“I am afraid that something evil will happen to us,” answered the horse.
“But why should it?”
“We are going to enter the kingdom of the goddess Mittwoch, and the further we ride into it the colder we shall get. But all along the road there are huge fires, and I dread lest you should stop and warm yourself at them.” In German “Mittwoch,” the feminine form of Mercury.
“And why should I not warm myself?”
“Something fearful will happen to you if you do,” replied the horse sadly.
“Well, forward!” cried Petru lightly, “and if I have to bear cold, I must bear it!”
With every step they went into the kingdom of Mittwoch, the air grew colder and more icy, till even the marrow in their bones was frozen. But Petru was no coward; the fight he had gone through had strengthened his powers of endurance, and he stood the test bravely.
Along the road on each side were great fires, with men standing by them, who spoke pleasantly to Petru as he went by, and invited him to join them. The breath froze in his mouth, but he took no notice, only bade his horse ride on the faster.
How long Petru may have waged battle silently with the cold one cannot tell, for everybody knows that the kingdom of Mittwoch is not to be crossed in a day, but he struggled on, though the frozen rocks burst around, and though his teeth chattered, and even his eyelids were frozen.
At length they reached the dwelling of Mittwoch herself, and, jumping from his horse, Petru threw the reins over his horse”s neck and entered the hut.
“Good-day, little mother!” said he.
“Very well, thank you, my frozen friend!”
Petru laughed, and waited for her to speak.
“You have borne yourself bravely,” went on the goddess, tapping him on the shoulder. “Now you shall have your reward,” and she opened an iron chest, out of which she took a little box.
“Look!” said she; “this little box has been lying here for ages, waiting for the man who could win his way through the Ice Kingdom. Take it, and treasure it, for some day it may help you.
If you open it, it will tell you anything you want, and give you news of your fatherland.”
Petru thanked her gratefully for her gift, mounted his horse, and rode away.
When he was some distance from the hut, he opened the casket.
“What are your commands?” asked a voice inside.
“Give me news of my father,” he replied, rather nervously.
“He is sitting in council with his nobles,” answered the casket.
“Is he well?”
“Not particularly, for he is furiously angry.”
“What has angered him?”
“Your brothers Costan and Florea,” replied the casket. “It seems to me they are trying to rule him and the kingdom as well, and the old man says they are not fit to do it.”
“Push on, good horse, for we have no time to lose!” cried Petru; then he shut up the box, and put it in his pocket.
They rushed on as fast as ghosts, as whirlwinds, as vampires when they hunt at midnight, and how long they rode no man can tell, for the way is far.
“Stop! I have some advice to give you,” said the horse at last.
“What is it?” asked Petru.
“You have known what it is to suffer cold; you will have to endure heat, such as you have never dreamed of. Be as brave now as you were then. Let no one tempt you to try to cool yourself, or evil will befall you.”
“Forwards!” answered Petru. “Do not worry yourself. If I have escaped without being frozen, there is no chance of my melting.”
“Why not? This is a heat that will melt the marrow in your bones–a heat that is only to be felt in the kingdom of the Goddess of Thunder.
And it WAS hot. The very iron of the horse”s shoes began to melt, but Petru gave no heed. The sweat ran down his face, but he dried it with his gauntlet. What heat could be he never knew before, and on the way, not a stone”s throw from the road, lay the most delicious valleys, full of shady trees and bubbling streams. When Petru looked at them his heart burned within him, and his mouth grew parched. And standing among the flowers were lovely maidens who called to him in soft voices, till he had to shut his eyes against their spells.
“Come, my hero, come and rest; the heat will kill you,” said they.
Petru shook his head and said nothing, for he had lost the power of speech.
Long he rode in this awful state, how long none can tell. Suddenly the heat seemed to become less, and, in the distance, he saw a little hut on a hill. This was the dwelling of the Goddess of Thunder, and when he drew rein at her door the goddess herself came out to meet him.
She welcomed him, and kindly invited him in, and bade him tell her all his adventures. So Petru told her all that had happened to him, and why he was there, and then took farewell of her, as he had no time to lose. “For,” he said, “who knows how far the Fairy of the Dawn may yet be?”
“Stay for one moment, for I have a word of advice to give you. You are about to enter the kingdom of Venus; go and tell her, as a message from me, that I hope she will not tempt you to delay. On your way back, come to me again, and I will give you something that may be of use to you.”
So Petru mounted his horse, and had hardly ridden three steps when he found himself in a new country. Here it was neither hot nor cold, but the air was warm and soft like spring, though the way ran through a heath covered with sand and thistles.
“What can that be?” asked Petru, when he saw a long, long way off, at the very end of the heath, something resembling a house.
“That is the house of the goddess Venus,” replied the horse, “and if we ride hard we may reach it before dark”; and he darted off like an arrow, so that as twilight fell they found themselves nearing the house. Petru”s heart leaped at the sight, for all the way along he had been followed by a crowd of shadowy figures who danced about him from right to left, and from back to front, and Petru, though a brave man, felt now and then a thrill of fear.
“They won”t hurt you,” said the horse; “they are just the daughters of the whirlwind amusing themselves while they are waiting for the ogre of the moon.”
Then he stopped in front of the house, and Petru jumped off and went to the door.
“Do not be in such a hurry,” cried the horse. “There are several things I must tell you first. You cannot enter the house of the goddess Venus like that. She is always watched and guarded by the whirlwind.”
“What am I to do then?”
“Take the copper wreath, and go with it to that little hill over there. When you reach it, say to yourself, “Were there ever such lovely maidens! such angels! such fairy souls!” Then hold the wreath high in the air and cry, “Oh! if I knew whether any one would accept this wreath from me . . . if I knew! if I knew!” and throw the wreath from you!”
“And why should I do all this?” said Petru.
“Ask no questions, but go and do it,” replied the horse. And Petru did.
Scarcely had he flung away the copper wreath than the whirlwind flung himself upon it, and tore it in pieces.
Then Petru turned once more to the horse.
“Stop!” cried the horse again. “I have other things to tell you.
Take the silver wreath and knock at the windows of the goddess Venus. When she says, “Who is there?” answer that you have come on foot and lost your way on the heath. She will then tell you to go your way back again; but take care not to stir from the spot. Instead, be sure you say to her, “No, indeed I shall do nothing of the sort, as from