Long ago there lived a nobleman in a castle in Tirol. His eldest son Eligio was very fond of playing cards, and thought he knew than his elders, and would disregard good advice.
When he played cards he always won. Everyone said his luck must turn at last and each thought he should make it happen. But it was in vain.
The son came to desire to travel abroad and play against strangers. His parents agreed to let him go and see what the world was made of.
After some days travel he came to a large and fertile plain. There were many towns on it, and he rode to the nearest one. There he found card-players and politely asked to be allowed to join them. They let him partake, and he was in luck as usual. Again and again it was always the same. The people gathered to see him play.
Towards evening a tall, serious man came and watched his play attentively for a while, and then said: "I see you are an expert player, but I would like to try my skill with yours. May I invite you to dinner, and then afterwards let us play cards."
Eligio thanked him for the offer, and the stranger then led him to his home. It was exquisite. After a bath they had a good meal and then went to an upper room and played their game.
Eligio played in his own rough-and-ready style, expecting luck to come as it used to do. But this time his host was the winner!
"You must give a change to get even," said Eligio.
"Certainly," said the other.
This time Eligio paid more attention and calculated every card he played; but he was beaten again. He pledged the same sum once more and they played again.
This time fortune seemed to have come back to him, but when his host threw down his last card he was the winner.
Eligio had nothing more to stake.
His host said," Never mind. Tomorrow your luck may turn. Come down with me to supper and have a quiet night's rest and think no more about the play."
But Eligio could neither eat nor sleep. "I must stake something. My horse and all my servants shall be yours and serve you if I lose."
"Since you insist," said his host. "I can match your horse and servants."
Eligio sat down to play again, but in vain; the game went against him like the last. He called in his servants and told them they had passed into the service of the new master.
Still he wanted to retrieve his fortune.
"Leave it for tonight," recommended his host.
But Eligio got an idea:
"Myself! my life! Will you accept the wager of my life?"
"If you insist," answered his host. "But I really advise you to leave it till the morning, when you are cooler."
Eligio would not stop playing, however, but sat down and played with the same result as before! His life was now in the hands of his host.
As he stood there and did not know what more to say, a great cry rose in another room- It was the cry of a distressed young girl. rom under the tapestry hanging before a door came running a sleek white rat in terror for its life. Behind it came a bouncing cat. "Save my white rat!" sobbed the girl.
"Keep back, girl," said Eligio's host to her sternly. Quickly Eligio in the meantime stamped the life out of the bouncing cat, and the little white rat returned to the room whe came from. A shout of joy from the girl was Eligio's reward.
"Who have you got there, father? May I come in and thank him?" asked the girl.
"Don't think of it!" said the Eligio's host and sounded antry.
"Then do something for him instead. Ask him what he wants and do it for him."
"Very well, that will do," answered the host impatiently.
"No, you do not say it as if you meant it. Promise me you will give him something nice. It is only fair, for he has done me a good turn."
Her father promised he would do as she wished, and turned to Eligio:
"I have promised my daughter to give you a good gift," he said. "I grant you a year of the life you have lost to me. Go home and say goodbye to your friends and be sure that you are back here by this day in a year, or I will make your family suffer."
Eligio now began to suspect that he had fallen into the power of a magician. The more convinced he felt of this, the more terrible he felt, and thought he had been bound by a spell.
He returned home. When his parents saw him all alone and looking so forlorn, they said nothing; but by little and little he told them all.
When the year he had been given was drawing to a close, Eligio started in good time. After saying goodbye to his dear parents he set out with a heavy hear. As he journeyed farther he met a hermit coming towards him .
The hermit presented himself:
"My name is Anthony, and I have come to help you."
Eligio had never felt more in need of help than now.
"Yes, I am minded to save you, but not only you. The girl you liked to listen to, is not the magician's daughter, but a child he stole from good folks. Now you must do it exactly what I tell, or you will fail to help her and save yourself.
"Go on along this public road towards the city till you get to the last milestone. Nearby you will see a track through the shrubs to the right. Follow that track till you come to a knoll of ilex-trees, there lie down for the night. But tomorrow morning wake up at daybreak and lie in wait. Then you will see a flock of white doves come before you. They will lay aside their feathers and hide them, but you must watch them very closely, for they are the magician's daughters. One among them is the one you are to deliver. Notice well where she puts her feathers, and as soon as the girls have gone, take her feathers from their hiding-place and keep them with you.
"In the evening they will all come back and become doves again and fly away while your girl will keep looking for hers. Then come forward and tell her that you want her help to overcome the sorceries of the magician.
"Remember this well, and for the rest do as she bids you."
Eligio did just as he had been told. He found the knoll of ilex-trees, and the next morning he was ready before dawn. After some time the doves came flying and tucked away their feathers in different places under the heather. Eligio listene to them as they talked with one another, and then kept his eyes fixed on one of them, for he recognised her voice well.
When the girls walked away, Eligio gathered her feathers from their hiding-place and put them somewhere else. He had to wait a long day before the girls came back.
When evening came the girls returned, put on their dove's feathers and flew away, all but one. She looked for hers without finding them. Then Eligio came forward and said:
"Escuse me, I know what you seek and I can help you to find it. But first promise to do me a great favour."
The girl started and remembered his voice from a year ago.
"Surely, if I reasonably can!" she answered. "Just tell me what it is, then."
"I came across a hermit on the way," said Eligio, "and he told me that you had been stolen from your real parents when you were a child."
"Did he say that?" answered the girl.
Eligio was eager to get out of the country with her, but she calmed him down:
"By your own error you gave the magician power over you and now you are his. You can only be free by his will. His magic spell is all round you, even though you do not see its meshes. though you see not its twisted meshes. But I can see the threads of his magic spell woven around you, and only if he speaks you free you can be so. Therefure, it is by similar arts we must make him give up his claim on you. I will show you how to, for he forced me to learn his magic when I was only a child and did not want to."
She thought for a while, and then said, "When you come tho him I will be there and say he should not do away with you at once, but give you some hard trial. And if you succeed, he must agree to speak you free. He will perhaps give you a trial that is so hard that a man may not succeed. But after he has given you the task, come in the evening to me in my grove outside his house and coo three times like a dove. Then you can tell me what the trial is, and I may tell you how to pass it, from what I have learnt. "So, whatever task he sets you, undertake it with a good heart. Now, give me my dove's feathers quickly, for the others will soon question why I am so long behind."
He showed her where to find her feathers, and then she changed into a dove and flew away.
The next day Eligio went to give himself up to the magician. The magician offered to set him free if he could accomplish a difficult feat.
"Okay," answered Eligio.
The magician smiled while he paused to think the most fit trial for Eligio.
" The first thing you have to do is to find me the phoenix-bird and let it sing for me, so that I can hear better. You have three days to do it."
"Three days to find the phoenix-bird," affirmed Eligio. Without delay he started on his way, saying, " I have no time to lose."
When evening came, Eligio found his way to his girl's grove and cooed three times. When she appeared he told her what his trial was.
"The phoenix-bird!" she said. "It is a magic bird that lives for centuries than is born again from its ashes. Yes, he has chosen a difficult task. But wait," she said and went back to her room. There she took down scroll after scroll and turned them over for a long time. At last she came back to him and looked grave.
"Three days is a time for you. You must start tonight, without losing a minute. Set out by the stony path outside the town and ride ahead till you come to a forest. There a bear will come out on you. As soon as you see him, spring on his back. Then he will take you to the castle where the phoenix-bird is kept."
Eligio got on his horse and rode away over the stony path outside the city all night. At daybreak he came to the thick forest. There a bear attacked him. Eligio sprang from his horse and managed to jump on his back while the bear was turned to his horse.
The bear was not easy to ride. He growled and shook Eligio off into a bed of nettles Eligio tried again, and this time the bear was willing..
"Sit steadily, for I have to go swiftly; but do not say even one word. When I bring you to the castle where the phoenix-bird is kept, walk straight ahead through terrace and galleries and hallways till you come to a room for birds. It does not look like much, but the phoenix-bird is perched there. Put this hood over him and bring him away with you; but do not listen to the songs of the other birds all around. Above all, do not touch the golden owl that sits in the shade above the phoenix-bird!"
The bear bounded away with an awkward gait, but Eligio would ride very well. After many hours they came to the castle where the phoenix-bird was, so he climbed down from the bear's back and walked straight ahead until he came to a room for birds. Many, many birds fluttered and chirped around. Eligio walked straight up to the perch of the phoenix-bird.
The bird looked shabby and old. But avove him in the shade was the dazzling golden owl. He came to think that the golden bird was much more worth having, and disregarding the bear's warning he threw the hood the bear had given him over the head of the golden owl and brought it down.
At once the other birds began screeching. The bird-cries brought a crowd of servants. They surrounded him and held him fast, while the lord of the palace came down and asked why he did such things.
Eligio told his story, but trying to steal the golden owl was too bad.
The old owner of the castle: "Taking the phoenix-bird might have been excused, but not touching the golden owl." The servants dragged Eligio off to a deep dungeon with a window in it, overarching a steep cliff. Right beneath the window was a ledge.
In the dungeon he had nothing to do but regret how foolish he had been. "Hermit I met!" he muttered when night fell on, "give me one chance again!"
A little while later he heard a sound outside the dungeon window, and saw the tusks of a boar tusks between the bars.
"Hello, boar!" cried Eligio; "have you come to set me free?"
"Yes," said the boar, "the hermit wants to give you another chance to save the dove-girl and yourself."
Eligio set to work with the boar to remove three of the bars, and after some toil he was able to force himself through the narrow opening.
"Now return to the aviary," said the boar; "and take away the phoenix-bird. Say nothing there, and climb on my back afterwards. I will carry you back to the city. Hurry if you can, for time is short."
Eligio succeeded in getting the phoenix-bird, and got back to the town just in time to hand it over to the magician right before the three days were gone. The magician was surprised at it, but could not recall his word, so he was forced to say Eligio was free. Eligio in turn went to the dove-girl to thank her and ask what was to be done to set her free too.
The girl said, blushing, "First you are to release my dear nurse from the rat shape that the magician has cast upon her. She is forced to eat a living mouse and nothing else every week, so she is hungry all the time and cannot resist eating it. But if the mouse is killed by a sword, the spell will be broken and she will change into herself again. If any blood of the mouse is spilt, the magician will know and understand that I have instructed you. Then he will do something bad to us. Now, to prevent that any mouse blood is spilt, cut the mouse in two by drawing your sword against you, and make the rat lick off the blood off the sword afterwards."
At sunset Eligio watched closely for the rat, his sword ready in his hand. But he thought, "The dove-girl does not know how to use a sword."
He cut the mouse it his own way. As a result, three drops of blood were spilt on the ground Anyway, the white rat got a dead mouse to eat instead of a live one and at once changed into a woman.
When Eligio went to visit the dove-girl after this, she did not reproach him for not following her instructions, but told him frankly that the would get some trouble because of those three drops of blood. She could not tell what it would be.
The next thing he had to do was, to go by midnight to the magician's stables under the rock and take out the thinnest horse there. Its tail was only one hair. This horse he was to saddle and bring under her window. Then all three would ride away on it together.
Eligio went down into the magician's stable under the rock by midnight, found the thin horse and said to himself, "This horse cannot be the swiftest horse in the world. I doubt it could move at all under the three of us!"
He saddled instead a bigger horse and led it under the dove-girl's window. When she saw the stout chestnut horse instead of the lean horse, she cried with disappointment.
She said, "You have left the swiftest horse behind. Now the magician can overtake us."
Eligio said: "Oh, well, I can go and get that other horse."
But she told him the stable-door was only open at midnight, and not it was past that time. The best to do was to start off at once.
Away went their horse at great speed, but the lean horse was swifter. Before the end of the second day's journey they could see him coming, far behind, with the magician on his back.
When the dove-girl saw the magician coming, she turned the horse into a wayside chapel and herself into a peasant girl weaving chaplets on the grass outside.
"Have you seen a chestnut steed pass this way, with a young man and girl, pretty child?" said the magician, bending low over his horse's neck to pat the peasant girl's cheek, but without recognising her.
The give-girl shied away from his touch; but answered:
"Yes, sir. They went into the chapel."
"A chapel, you say? It is one of the places I should never go into," said the magician. "I had better not trust myself to such a place."
With that he mounted his lean horse and rode home.
Then the dove-girl changed herself and her companions to their own forms, and they soon reached home. There Eligio was received with shouts of joy, but his mother did not like the beautiful dove-girl at first.
"It is because of hocus-pocus from the magician," the dove-girl whispered to Eligio. "Remember the three drops of blood you spilled."
The dove-girl seemed to know how to remove that spell too, for next morning Eligio's mother received the dove-girl as lovingly as a daughter.
After this, the dove-girl and Emilio were married to great rejoicings throughout the valley. They lived together for the rest of their days and were also happy together.
The devil helps those who sin. (Proverb from Trentino)
A savory bread is worth more than many [other] gains. (Proverb from Trentino)