In a certain far-away kingdom not in this empire, there lived a king named Wyslaff. He had three sons: the first was Dimitry, the second was Wassily, and the third was Ivan.
The king had a walled garden, so rich and beautiful that in no kingdom of the world was there a more splendid one. Many rare trees grew in it whose fruits were precious jewels, and the rarest of all was an apple-tree whose apples were of pure gold, and this the king loved best of all.
One day he saw that one of the golden apples was missing. He placed guards at all gates of the garden; but in spite of this, each morning on counting, he found one more apple gone. At length he set men on the wall to watch day and night, and these reported to him that every night there came flying into the garden a bird that shone like the moon, whose feathers were gold and its eyes like crystal, which perched on the apple tree, plucked a golden apple and flew away.
The king was greatly angered, and calling to him his two eldest sons, said: "My dear children, I have for many days sought to decide which of you should inherit my kingdom and reign after me. Now, therefore, to the one of you who will catch the glowing bird, which is the thief of my golden apples, and will bring it to me alive, I will during my life give the half of the kingdom, and he shall rule after me when I am dead."
The two sons, hearing, rejoiced, and shouted with one voice: "Father! We shall not fail to bring you the glowing bird alive!"
Prince Dimitry and Prince Wassily cast lots to see who should have the first trial, and the lot fell to the eldest, Prince Dimitry. At evening he went into the garden to watch. He sat down under the apple-tree and watched till midnight, but when midnight was passed he fell asleep.
In the morning the king summoned him and said: "Well, my son, did you see the glowing bird who steals my golden apples?"
Ashamed to confess that he had fallen asleep, however, Prince Dimitry answered: "No, father; last night the bird did not visit your garden."
The king, however, went himself and counted the apples, and saw that one more had been stolen.
On the next evening Prince Wassily went into the garden to watch, and he too fell asleep at midnight, and next morning when his father summoned him, he, like his brother, being ashamed to tell the truth, answered: "I watched throughout the night, but the glowing bird that steals the golden apples did not enter your garden."
And again, the king went himself and counted and saw that another golden apple was missing.
On the third evening his youngest son, Ivan, asked permission to watch in the garden, but his father would not permit it. "You are but a lad," he said, "and might be frightened in the long, dark night." But Ivan continued to beseech him till at last the king agreed.
So Ivan took his place in the garden, and sat down to watch under the apple-tree that bore the golden apples. He watched an hour, he watched two hours, he watched three hours. When midnight drew near sleep almost overcame him, but he drew his dagger and pricked his thigh with its point till the pain aroused him. And suddenly, an hour after midnight, the garden became bright as if with the light of many fires, and the glowing bird came flying on its golden wings to alight on the lowest bough of the apple-tree.
Ivan crept nearer, and as it was about to pluck a golden apple in its beak he sprang toward it and seized its tail. The bird, however, beating with its golden wings, tore itself loose and flew away, leaving in his hand a single long feather. He wrapped this in a handkerchief, lay down on the ground and went to sleep.
In the morning the king summoned him and said: "Well, my dear son, you did not, I suppose, see the glowing bird?"
Then Ivan unrolled the handkerchief, and the feather shone so that the whole place was bright with it. The king could not admire it enough, for when it was brought into a darkened room it gleamed as if a hundred candles had been lighted. He put it into his royal treasury as a thing that must be safely kept forever, and set many watchmen about the garden hoping to snare the glowing bird, but it came no more for the golden apples.
Then the king, greatly desiring it, sent for his two eldest sons, and said: "You, my sons, failed even to see the thief of my apples, but your brother Ivan, has at least brought me one of its feathers. Take horse now, with my blessing, and ride in search of it, and to the one of you who brings it to me alive will I give the half of my kingdom." And Dimitry and Wassily, envious of their younger brother Ivan, rejoiced that their father did not bid him also go, and mounting their swift horses, rode away gladly both of them, in search of the glowing bird.
They rode for three days whether by a near or a far road, or on highland or lowland, the tale is soon told, but the journey is not done quickly till they came to a green plain from whose centre three roads started, and there a great stone was set with these words carved on it:
"Who rides straight forward shall know both hunger and cold. Who rides to the right shall live, though his steed will die. Who rides to the left shall die, though his steed shall live."
They were uncertain what to do, since none of the three roads promised well, and turning aside into a pleasant wood, pitched their silken tents and gave themselves over to rest and idle enjoyment.
Now when days had passed and they did not return, Ivan besought his father to give him also his blessing with leave to ride forth to search for the glowing bird. The king first refused to let him go, saying: "My dear son, the wolves will devour you. You are still young and unused to far and difficult journeying. Enough that your brothers have gone from me. I am already old in age. If I die and you too are gone, who will remain to keep order in my kingdom? Rebellion may arise and there will be none to quell it, or an enemy may cross our borders and there will be none to command our troops. So please, do not try to leave me!"
In spite of all, however, Ivan would not stop beseeching till at length his father gave in. He got his father's blessing, chose a swift horse for his use, and rode away he knew not where.
Three days he rode, till he came to the green plain where the three ways started from. There he read the words carved on the great stone that stood there. He thought, "I may not take the left road, for on that road I shall die, it says, nor the middle road of hunger and cold. I will rather take the right-hand road, where I will keep my life, even though my poor horse will perish." So he reined to the right.
He rode one day, he rode two days, he rode three days, and on the morning of the fourth day, as he led his horse through a forest, a great grey wolf leaped from a thicket. "You are a brave lad, Ivan," said the wolf, "but didn't you read what was written on the rock?" When the wolf had spoken these words he seized the horse, tore it to pieces, devoured it and disappeared.
Ivan wept bitterly over losing his horse. The whole day he walked, and gradually got so weary that he nearly fainted from weakness. Then he met the grey wolf again. "You are a brave lad, Ivan," said the wolf, "and I feel pity for you. I have eaten your good horse, but I will do you a service in payment. Sit now on my back and say where I shall bear you and why."
Ivan seated himself on the back of the wolf joyfully enough. "Take me, grey wolf," he said, "to the glowing bird that stole my father's golden apples," and instantly the wolf sped away, twenty times swifter than the swiftest horse. In the middle of the night he stopped at a stone wall.
"Get down from my back," said the wolf, "and climb over this wall. On the other side is a garden, and in the garden is an iron railing, and behind the railing three cages are hung, one of copper, one of silver, and one of gold. In the copper cage is a crow, in the silver one is a jackdaw, and in the golden cage is the glowing bird. Open the door of the golden cage, take out the glowing bird, and wrap it in your handkerchief. But on no account take the golden cage; if you do, great misfortune will follow."
Ivan climbed the wall, entered the iron railing and found the three cages as the grey wolf had said. He took out the glowing bird and wrapped it in his handkerchief, but he could not bear to leave behind him the beautiful golden cage.
The instant he stretched out his hand and took it, however, there sounded throughout the garden a great noise of clanging bells and the twanging of musical instruments that the golden cage was tied to by many invisible cords. Fifty watchmen, waking, came running into the garden. They seized Ivan, and in the morning they brought him before their king, who was called Dolmat.
King Dolmat was greatly angered, and shouted in a loud voice: "How now! This is a fine, bold-handed fellow to be caught in such a theft! Who are you, and what country do you come from? Whose son are you, and what is your name?"
"I come from the kingdom of Wyslaff," answered Ivan, "I am king Wyslaff's youngest son, and I am called Ivan. Your glowing bird entered my father's garden by night and stole many golden apples from his favourite tree. Therefore the king, my father, sent me to find and bring to him the thief."
"And how should I know that you speak truth?" answered King Dolmat. "Had you come to me first I would have given you the glowing bird with honour. How will it be with you now when I send into all kingdoms, declaring how shamefully you have acted, seeking to steal from me? However, Ivan, I will excuse you this if you will do me a certain service. Across twenty-one countries lies the kingdom of King Afron. If you will ride to him and win for me from him the horse with the golden mane, which his father promised me and which is mine by right, then will I give to you with all joy the glowing bird. But if you do not do this for me, then will I declare throughout many kingdoms that you are a thief, unworthy to share your father's honours."
Ivan went out from King Dolmat in great grief. He found the grey wolf and related to him the whole thing.
"You are a foolish youth, Ivan," said the wolf. "Why didn't you recall my words and leave the golden cage?"
"I am guilty, I see!" answered Ivan sorrowfully.
Well," said the grey wolf, "I will help you. Sit on my back, and say where I shall bear you and why."
So Ivan a second time mounted the wolfs back. "Take me," he said, "across twenty-one countries to the kingdom of King Afron, where the horse with the golden mane is."
At once the wolf began running, fifty times swifter than the swiftest horse. Whether it was a long way or a short way, in the middle of the night they came to King Afron's palace, and stopped beside the royal stables, which were built all of white stone.
"Now, Ivan," said the wolf, "get down from my back and open the door. The stablemen are all fast asleep, and you may win the horse with the golden mane. Only take not the golden bridle that hangs beside it. If you take that, great ill will happen to you."
Ivan opened the door of the stables and there he saw the horse with the golden mane, whose brightness was such that the whole stall was lighted by it. But as he was leading it out he saw the golden bridle, and it was so beautiful that he was tempted to take it also. Scarcely had he touched it, however, when there arose a great clanging and thundering, for the bridle was tied by many cords to instruments of brass. The noise awakened the stable men, who came running, a hundred of them, and seized Ivan. In the morning they led him before King Afron.
The king was much surprised to see so gallant a youth accused of such a theft. "What!" he said. "You are a goodly lad to be a robber of my horses. Tell me what kingdom you come from, who is your father, and what is your name."
"I come from the kingdom of king Wyslaff," replied Ivan, "I am his son, and my name is Ivan. King Dolmat laid on me this service, that I bring him the horse with the golden mane, which your father promised him and which is his by right."
"Had you come with such a word from King Dolmat," answered King Afron, "I would have given you the horse with honour, and you need not have taken it from me by stealth. How will it be with you when I send my heralds into all kingdoms declaring you, a king's son, to be a thief? However, Ivan, I will excuse you this if you will do something for me. You shall ride over twenty-seven lands to the country of the king whose daughter is known as Lovely Helen, and bring me the king's daughter to be my wife. For I have loved her for long with my soul and my heart, and yet cannot win her. Do this and I will forgive you this fault and with joy will give you the horse with the golden mane and the golden bridle also for King Dolmat. But if you don't render me this service, then I will name you as a shameful thief in many kingdoms."
Ivan went out from the splendid palace weeping many tears, and came to the grey wolf and told him all that had happened.
"You have again been a foolish youth," said the wolf. "Why didn't you remember my warning not to touch the golden bridle?"
"Grey wolf," said Ivan still weeping, "I am guilty, I can see that!"
"Well," said the wolf, "be it so. I will help you. Sit on my back and say where I shall bear you and why."
So Ivan wiped away his tears and a third time mounted the wolfs back. "Take me, grey wolf," he said, "across twenty-seven lands to the princess who is called Lovely Helen. And straightway the wolf began running, a hundred times swifter than the swiftest horse, faster than one can tell in a tale, until he came to the country of the beautiful princess. At length he stopped at a golden railing surrounding a lovely garden.
"Get down now, Ivan," said the wolf; "go back along the road by which we came, and wait for me in the open field under the green oak tree." So Ivan did as he was bidden. But as for the grey wolf, he waited there.
Toward evening, when the sun was very low and its rays were no longer hot, the king's daughter, Lovely Helen, went into the garden to walk with her nurse and the ladies-in-waiting of the court. When she came near, suddenly the grey wolf leaped over the railing into the garden, seized her and ran off with her more swiftly than twenty horses. He ran to the open field, to the green oak tree where Ivan was waiting, and set her down beside him. Lovely Helen had been greatly frightened, but dried her tears quickly when she saw the handsome youth.
"Mount my back, Ivan," said the wolf, "and take the king's daughter in your arms."
Ivan sat on the grey wolf's back and took Lovely Helen in his arms, and the wolf began running more swiftly than fifty horses, across the twenty-seven countries, back to the kingdom of King Afron. The nurse and ladies-in-waiting of the king's daughter hastened to the palace, and the king sent many troops to pursue them, but fast as they went they could not overtake the grey wolf.
Sitting on the wolfs back, with the king's beautiful daughter in his arms, Prince Ivan began to love her with his heart and soul, and Lovely Helen began also to love him, so that when the grey wolf came to the country of King Afron, to whom she was to be given, Ivan began to shed many tears.
"Why do you weep, Ivan?" asked the wolf, and Ivan answered: "Grey wolf, my friend! Why should I not weep and be desolate? I myself have begun to love Princess Helen, yet now I must give her up to King Afron for the horse with the golden mane. For if I do not, then King Afron will dishonour my name in all countries."
"I have served you in much, Ivan," said the grey wolf, "but I will also do you this service. Listen. When we come near to the palace, I myself will take the shape of the king's daughter, and you shall lead me to King Afron and shall take in exchange the horse with the golden mane. You shall mount him and ride far away. Then I will ask leave of King Afron to walk on the open steppe, and when I am on the steppe with the court ladies-in-waiting, you have only to think of me, the grey wolf, and I shall come once more to you."
As soon as the wolf had uttered these words, he beat his paw against the damp ground and instantly he took the shape of the king's beautiful daughter: so like to her that no one in the world could have told that he was not the king's daughter herself. Then, bidding Lovely Helen wait for him outside the walls, Ivan led the grey wolf into the palace to King Afron.
The king, thinking at last he had won the treasure he had so long desired as his wife, was very joyful, and gave Ivan, for King Dolmat, the horse with the golden mane and the golden bridle. And Ivan, mounting, rode outside the walls to the real Lovely Helen, put her before him on the saddle and set out across the twenty-seven countries back to the kingdom of King Dolmat.
As to the grey wolf, he spent one day, he spent two days, he spent three days in King Afron's palace, all the while having the shape of the beautiful princess, while the king made preparations for a splendid bridal. On the fourth day he asked the king's permission to go for a walk on the open steppe.
"Oh, my beautiful princess," said King Afron, "I grant you whatever you may wish. Go then and walk where it pleases you, and perhaps it will soothe your grief and sorrow at parting from your father." So he ordered serving-women and all the ladies-in-waiting of the court to walk with her.
But all at once, as they walked on the open steppe, Ivan, far away, riding with the real princess on the horse with the golden mane, suddenly remembered and cried: "Grey wolf, grey wolf, I am thinking of you now. Where are you?"
At that very instant the false princess, as she walked with the ladies-in-waiting of King Afron's court, turned into the grey wolf, which ran off more swiftly than seventy horses. The ladies-in-waiting hastened to the palace and King Afron sent many soldiers in pursuit, but they could not catch the grey wolf and soon he overtook Ivan.
"Mount on my back, Ivan," said the wolf, "and let Princess Helen ride on the horse with the golden mane."
Ivan mounted the grey wolf, and the king's daughter rode on the horse with the golden mane, and so they went on together to the kingdom of King Dolmat, where the cage with the glowing bird was hanging in a garden. Whether the way was a long one or a short one, at length they came near to King Dolmat's palace. Then Ivan, getting down from the wolfs back, said:
"Grey wolf, my dear friend! You have rendered me many services. Serve me also one more time, the last and greatest. If you can take the shape of Princess Helen, you can take also that of this horse with the golden mane. Do this and let me deliver you to King Dolmat in exchange for the glowing bird. Then, when I am far away on the road to my own kingdom, you can again rejoin us."
"So be it," said the wolf and beat his paw against the dry ground, and at once he took the shape of the horse with the golden mane, so like to that the princess rode that no one could have told one from the other. Then Ivan, leaving Princess Helen on the green lawn with the real horse with the golden mane, mounted and rode to the palace gate.
When King Dolmat saw Ivan riding on the false horse with the golden mane he rejoiced exceedingly. He came out, embraced Ivan in the wide courtyard and kissed him on the mouth, and taking his right hand, led him into his splendid rooms. He made a great festival, and they sat at oak tables covered with embroidered cloths and for two days ate, drank and made merry. On the third day the king gave to Ivan the glowing bird in its golden cage. Ivan took it, went to the green lawn where he had left Princess Helen, mounted the real horse with the golden mane, set the king's daughter on the saddle before him, and together they rode away across the twenty-seven lands towards his native country, the kingdom of king Wyslaff.
As to King Dolmat, for two days he admired the false horse with the golden mane, and on the third day he desired to ride him. He gave orders, therefore, to saddle him, and mounting, rode to the open steppe. But as he was riding, it chanced that Ivan, far away with Princess Helen, all at once remembered his promise and cried: "Grey wolf, grey wolf, I am thinking of you!"
And at that instant the horse that King Dolmat rode, threw the king from his back and turned into the grey wolf, which ran off more swiftly than a hundred horses.
King Dolmat hastened to the palace and sent many soldiers in pursuit, but they could not catch the grey wolf, and soon the wolf overtook the horse with the golden mane that bore Ivan and the king's daughter.
"Get down, Ivan," said the wolf; "mount my back and let Princess Helen ride on the horse with the golden mane."
So Ivan mounted the grey wolf and the king's daughter rode on the horse with the golden mane, and at last they came to the forest where the wolf had devoured Ivan's horse.
There the grey wolf stopped. "Well, Ivan," he said, "I have paid for your horse, and have served you in faith and truth. Get down now; I am no longer your servant."
Ivan got down from the wolf's back, weeping many tears that they should part, and the grey wolf leaped into a thicket and disappeared. Ivan mounted on the horse with the golden mane, took Lovely Helen in his arms, and she held in her hands the golden cage that housed the glowing bird, and then they set off toward the palace of king Wyslaff.
They rode on three days, till they came to the green plain where the three ways met, and where the great stone stood. Being very tired, the prince and the princess dismounted here and lay down to rest. The prince tied the horse with the golden mane to the stone, and lying lovingly side by side on the soft grass, they went to sleep.
Now it happened that the two elder brothers of Ivan, Prince Dimitry and Prince Wassily, having tired of their amusements in the wood and being minded to return to their father without the glowing bird, came riding past the spot and found their brother lying asleep with Lovely Helen beside him. Seeing not only that he had found the glowing bird, but a horse with a mane of gold and a lovely princess, they were envious, and Prince Dimitry drew his sword, stabbed Ivan to death, and cut his body into small pieces. They then awoke Lovely Helen and began to question her.
"Lovely stranger," they asked, "from what kingdom do you come, whose daughter are you, and what is your name?"
Lovely Helen, being roughly awakened, and seeing Ivan dead, was greatly frightened and cried with bitter tears: "I am a king's daughter, Helen, and I belong to Ivan that you have put to a cruel death. If you were brave knights, you had ridden against him in the open field; then might you have been victorious over him with honour; but instead of that you have slain him when he was asleep. What praise will such an act receive?"
But Prince Wassily set the point of his sword against her breast and said: "Listen, princess! You are now in our hands. We shall bring you to our father, king Wyslaff, and you shall tell him that we, and not Ivan, found the glowing bird, and won the horse with the golden mane and yourself. If you do not swear by all holy things to say this, then this instant will we put you to death!"
The beautiful princess was frightened by their threats, and swore that she would speak as they commanded.
Prince Dimitry and Prince Wassily cast lots to see who should take the princess and who the horse with the golden mane and the glowing bird. The princess fell to Prince Wassily and the horse and the bird to Prince Dimitry. Prince Wassily took Helen on his horse and Prince Dimitry took the glowing bird and the horse with the golden mane and both rode swiftly to the palace of their father, king Wyslaff.
The king rejoiced greatly to see them. To Prince Dimitry, since he had brought him the glowing bird, he gave the half of his kingdom, and he made a festival which lasted a whole month. At the end of the month Prince Wassily was to wed Princess Helen.
As for Ivan, dead and cut into pieces, he lay on the green plain for thirty days. And on the thirty-first day it chanced that the grey wolf passed that way. He knew at once by his keen scent that the body was that of Prince Ivan. While he sat grieving for his friend, there came flying an iron-beaked she-crow with two fledglings. They would have alighted on the ground and would have eaten of the flesh, if the wolf had not leaped up and seized one of the young birds.
Then the mother crow, flying to a little distance, said to him: "Grey wolf! Do not devour my little child, since it has in no way harmed you."
And the grey wolf answered: "Listen, crow! Do something for me, and I will not harm your fledgling. I have heard that in a kingdom across twenty-seven countries, there are two springs that are so difficult to get to that only birds can get to them. One of the springs gushes forth water of death, and the other water of life. Bring to me two bottles of these waters, and I will let your fledgling go safe and sound. But if you do not, then I will tear it in pieces and eat it."
"I will indeed do you this service, grey wolf," said the crow, "if only you don't harm my child," and at once flew away as swiftly as an arrow.
The grey wolf waited one day, he waited two days, he waited three days, and on the fourth day the she-crow came flying with two little bottles of water in her beak.
The grey wolf tore the fledgling into pieces. He sprinkled the pieces with the water of death and they instantly grew together; he sprinkled the dead body with the water of life and the fledgling shook itself and flew away with the she-crow, safe and sound. The grey wolf then sprinkled the pieces of the body of Ivan with the water of death and they grew together; he sprinkled the dead body with the water of life, and Ivan stood up, stretched himself and said: "How long I must have slept!"
"Yes, Ivan," the grey wolf said, "and you would have slept forever had it not been for me. For your brothers cut you into pieces and took away with them the beautiful princess, the horse with the golden mane and the glowing bird. Make haste now and mount on my back, for your brother Prince Wassily is to wed your Lovely Helen this very day."
Ivan made haste to mount, and the grey wolf began running, swifter than a hundred horses, toward the palace of King Wyslaff.
Whether the way was long or short, he came soon to the city, and there at the gate the grey wolf stopped. "Get down now, Ivan," he said. "I am no longer a servant of yours and you shall see me no more, but sometimes remember the journeys you have made on the back of the grey wolf."
Ivan got down, and having bid the wolf farewell with tears, entered the city and went at once to the palace, where Prince Wassily was even then being wed to Lovely Helen.
He entered the splendid rooms and came where they sat at table, and as soon as Princess Helen saw him, she sprang up from the table and kissed him on the mouth, crying: "This is my beloved, Ivan, who shall wed me, and not this wicked one, Prince Wassily, who sits with me at table!"
King Wyslaff rose up and questioned Helen and she related to him the whole: how Ivan had won her, and the horse with the golden mane and the glowing bird, and how his two elder brothers had slain him as he lay asleep and had threatened her with death so that she should say what they bade.
On hearing of it all, King Wyslaff was seized with great rage. He commanded that the princes Dimitry and Wassily were to be seized and thrown into prison, and Ivan, that same day, was wed to the lovely Helen. The king made a great feast and all the people drank wine and mead till it ran down their beards, and the festival lasted many days till there was no one hungry or thirsty in the whole kingdom.
And when the rejoicing was ended, one of the elder brothers was made a scullion and the other a cowherd, but Ivan lived always with his Helen in such harmony and love that neither of them could bear to be without the other even for a single week.
AT 531. A firebird, a magical, glowing bird from far away, appears in this tale and other Slavic folk tales too. In later works the bird is somewhat like a small peacock of fire colours, a crest on its head and tail feathers with glowing "eyes".