A fool’s bolt may sometimes hit the mark.
(Old Russian Proverb)
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MAGICAL MYSTICAL CREATURES
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION
THE X FACTOR
The Spoiled Son and the Enchanted Princess
Derived from “Russian Fairy Tales” by Aleksandr Afanas’v (Random House, 1945) translated by Normal Guterman.
In a certain kingdom lived a wealthy merchant. He had an only son named Ivan who had never lacked for anything. One year, the merchant left his shops in the care of his wife and son while sailing off to distant lands. Business was good in his absence, which pleased Ivan and his mother; but the other merchants in the town grew envious. “Why is that rake, Ivan Ivanovich so lucky? He’s nothing but a spoiled fellow who has never lacked for anything. Now he’s stealing all our customers!” they said. Together they conspired and wrote up a petition claiming Ivan was a drunkard and a thief, unworthy of belonging to their Guild. He was brought before the court and sentenced to become a soldier. Straight away, he had his head shaven and was sent to the regiment.
He suffered not one year, but ten. Finally, he requested a visit to his family and his native town and was given furlough. His father, overjoyed at his return, took him to his secret chamber in the cellar which was filled with gold and silver. "Son, " he said, “you’ve served your country well and I have missed you. Take all the money you desire. Help yourself!”
His father provided him a fine, strong horse, as well. So Ivan stuffed his pockets full of money, then rode off. But the separation grieved him. It wasn’t long before he stopped at an alehouse along the road to drown his sorrows. First he drank a pint, then a second pint. That was not enough, so he drank a third. Then he headed for his horse but fell asleep along the stairwell. Robbers saw him sleeping there and stole every ruble to his name. He awoke to find his pockets empty!
Ivan thought of going home. Then he changed his mind. How could he tell his father he had had one too many at the alehouse and fallen prey to thieves? He continued down the road, thinking, “I will make it. to my regiment. Somehow!”
As nightfall came, he reached an Inn. The sign said, “100 Rubles for the night.” Ivan had no money but he’d think of something… wouldn’t he? And so he hitched up his horse. He knocked on the gate. A boy rushed out to greet him, calling. “Welcome, Soldier!” He then led Ivan to a room where he was served a sumptuous dinner. But when the food and drink were gone, Ivan’s face fell long. The boy said, “Why so sad, Mr. Soldier? Did you not like the meal? Or is it because you have no money to pay for the food and bed?”
“Of course not,” Ivan lied. “It’s only my poor horse I’m thinking of… I have eaten like a king. The poor animal is out there starving, even as we speak.”
“Not true. We gave him oats.”
“Yes, but if I’m not right beside him, he won’t eat,” Ivan said. “That’s his habit.Take me to the stable and I’ll show you!”
So they went into the stable. Sure enough, the horse stood there with his head hung down, ignoring his feed. “How intelligent he is!” the steward said. “He’s attached to his master. I admire that.”
“Then perhaps I ought to sleep out here and keep him company,” Ivan said.
So a bed was brought into the stable and a servant made it up. Ivan had a good night’s sleep and just before the sunrise, off he went.
By nightfall he reached another Inn, more expensive than the last. The sign said, “200 Rubles for the Night.” Ivan played the same trick and got away with it a second time. The next night, he reached a third Inn, a place more expensive yet. And and for the third time he tried the trick.
But there, his luck ran out. The inn-keeper had a wife and the wife was a sorceress. Suspicious from the first, she checked her magic book and saw at once that Ivan had not a single penny in his things. “Let him sleep in the stable. But don’t you let him get away!” she told her husband. “Put some men out there. I don’t trust that rascal.”
This time, Ivan bit off more than he could chew. In the wee hours of the morning when he slipped into his clothes and mounted up to flee, six guards were waiting and they blocked his way. “You’re not going anywhere! You haven’t paid your room and board!”
“But I was robbed!” he protested. “I don’t have a ruble to my sorry name!”
“Then, we’ll whip it out of you!” they cried, whereupon they dragged him from his horse and started beating him with sticks.
The inn keeper, seeing all of this, took pity on the fellow and came running from the house. “No, no, let him live. He can work off his debt by staying here to work. What about it, scoundrel? You will work here for a year and then we’ll let you go.”
There was no way out of it, so Ivan said “Of course.” Thus it came about that he lived at the Inn for one week, then a second, then a third. He cleaned the stables and he scrubbed the floors. He pruned the shrubs, peeled the potatoes and emptied the commodes. At first he lay awake at night plotting his escape. Then as time went on, he decided it was better than the army so became resigned to his routine.
One day, the inn keeper asked him, “Have you learned to shoot?”
He said, “Of course. That’s what we’re trained for in the regiment.”
“Then go out and get some game. We’re out of meat.”
So off Ivan rode into the woods. He rode many versts but saw no game; not a deer, not a hare, not a pheasant anywhere. At long last, he spied a rabbit and decided it would do. For some time he stalked it through the underbrush but every time he got in range, off it ran . It led him on a merry chase appearing here, appearing there, then vanishing. It led him to the edge of an alpine meadow, one so vast and beautiful it made him catch his breath. And in the center of the meadow, stood a castle such as he had never seen. The walls were jewel-encrusted and its roofs were gold. He didn’t see the rabbit anywhere and realized the magic beast had led him there on purpose; so he ventured out across the meadow to investigate.
As it happened, the massive gates were open and the doors ajar. He saw no guards. He saw no dogs. He tip-toed in and yet again, he caught his breath. The castle was magnificent. Each corridor and room was grander than the last. In time he found a banquet hall with crystal chandeliers where long tables had been set with finest silverware and china. Foods of every kind were piled high as though the servants had prepared a feast for guests who’d never come. How fortunate for me! he thought. He was hungry, so he sampled every dish. He ate from every plate. He sampled every wine. He reveled to his heart’s content – until the sound of footsteps startled him, and up he jumped.
In strode a woman with an entourage of guards. She was dressed in black and they were dressed in black. “I thought I caught a whiff of Russian blood!” she said. “Tell me soldier, are you shirking a deed, or trying to do one? Are you here by your own volition, or have you been compelled?”
Very smartly, he saluted her. “I was out hunting when a rabbit led me here,” he said.
“So be it, then. Sit! Let us talk peacefully. Ordinarily, I would put you to death for entering my castle uninvited, but maybe you’ve come here for a reason after all. It is said, Russian soldiers fear absolutely nothing. Is that true?”
“I can’t speak for every soldier in the realm,” he said. “As for me I will serve you to my last drop of blood if that is what you’re asking me to do.”
“Perhaps it is.” They sat together at the table and she filled two goblets up with wine. “My castle has been over-taken by a horde of evil spirits,” she explained. “And when I try to leave, they follow me. I cannot defeat them on my own but maybe you can break the spell. Listen carefully! Until midnight, we will eat, drink and make merry. At the stroke of midnight, you will climb into the bed which hangs by straps up there, in the center of the chamber. You must lie there thus and such a time in total silence. Do not get up! Do not speak, shout or even whimper. No matter what you see or think you see, you must lie there silently as though asleep until the crowing of the rooster in the morning light. If you cry out, you will die. If you get up, you will die. If you even whisper you will die.”
“If that is what you wish, My Lady!” he replied. And so they made merry until midnight. Then she took her leave and Ivan climbed into the hanging bed.
No sooner had he shut his eyes, than thunder roared and storm-winds came up. So loud was the storm that he thought the walls would crumble down. The floor heaved, lightning flashed, and hordes of devils flew into the room, all shrieking hellishly. They danced and screamed around him by the hundreds, trying to frighten him in every way they could. One turned into his sergeant. “Ivan! Son of Ivan! What are you doing here? You deserter! Return to your post, or face the firing squad! Now, get up!”
Then came his lieutenant . After that his captain. After that, the colonel. “Shoot this coward and deserter!” they demanded. After which a great host of soldiers rose like spectres in the dark and he could hear the clicking of their weapons as they aimed to shoot him where he lay. Just then, came the crying of the rooster! And the imps were gone. The horde of demons and the soldiers vanished with the light of day.
In came the princess, this time dressed in white. “Fine work my Russian soldier!” she declared. “You have seen terrors, but you’ll see many more before it’s over with. Do not take fright. Serve me two more nights and I will make you very happy, after that.”
So they made merry and they ate and drank a second night. And as before, she took her leave at midnight and he climbed again into the hanging bed. Again, a storm shook the castle and the lightning flashed. This time, there were five times the demons.in the room! “Look! Here he is again!” he heard them shriek. “This Russian is a nuisance. Heat the forge! Strike him with your heated iron rods. Burn him to the bone. Burn his skin away! That will teach this interloper, won’t it!”
They had fired up the forge and were just about to burn him with a thousand red-hot glowing irons, when the rooster crowed, the sun came up, and they were gone.
Again the princess came and this time, she was draped in snow-white silk embroidered with a thousand pearls. “How has God treated you, my friend?” she asked.
“So far, I am safe and sound.”
“Take heart. Only one more night and then it’s over with!” she said. So they made merry together as before. This time, she brought a sheepskin. “You will have to wear this,” she informed him. “Otherwise, they’ll claw your flesh to bits. They are really angry now.”
When she took her leave, he climbed into the sheepskin. Up he went in to the hanging bed. As before, a terrible storm broke and thunder roared so loud it hurt his ears. The walls were shaking, lightning crackled through the room and in the night came a million imps, one more fearful than the next. Every vile thing from hell itself appeared. A million claws tried to seize him but the sheepskin proved too strong. Fangs broke off. Talons stuck. “We’re not going to get him this way, brothers!” Ivan heard them say. “Bring his friends in here. We will skin them right in front of him! Bring his father, too. And his mother. And his dear old grandmother, too! Let’s see how long he lies there quietly while they are being skinned alive!”
It was all he could do to lie there silently, so terrible was the screaming and the wailing, after that. He heard his friends shouting, “Comrade! Ivan! Have mercy on us! Leave that bed! They’re clawing us to death!” He heard his father and his mother and his dear old grandmother howling as the demons flailed at their flesh. But Ivan bit his tongue. And when the rooster crowed at last, the sun came up, the screaming ended and the devils vanished utterly, as though they’d never been.
“Well done!” said the princess when she came into the room. “You have seen many terrors and come through with flying colors. Come now, let’s get going as we need to leave this place.”
He said, “No, let’s rest a bit. I haven’t slept.”
“Never mind your sleep!” the princess said. “Hurry now, and take that sheepskin off. We won’t live an hour if we stay in here. The imps can’t follow me – you have seen to that – but now, they’re imprisoned in these very walls!”
And so they mounted up and off they rode. This time, she was dressed in silk as brilliant as the sun with inlaid jewels. After they had gone some distance, she said “Look behind you, fellow. And you’ll see why I was in a hurry.”
Ivan looked behind him and was glad they’d fled. Behind them, the castle was in flames. And as he watched, the Earth beneath it opened up and down it went, to Hell itself.
“So be it. Let them have the place! We are still alive. As for me, now I’m free to wander where I will. Here.” She handed him a purse. “Take this with you.”
“Why?” he asked. “Will we not ride on together?”
“No. I will meet you on the island in the Thrice Tenth Kingdom just beyond the mountains. There, I have another home. You must go and pay your debts. Shake that purse and it will give you all the money you will need. I will wait for you on the island near the great cathedral. There, we will attend mass together and be married. But mind you, don’t be late. I will wait three days but that is all. Life is short and I am not as young as yesterday, you know.”
With that, she was off. She rode toward the right, Ivan toward the left.
He went to the first Inn and paid his bill. He went to the second Inn and paid his bill. Then he reached the third Inn, where he’d lived for weeks and there he paid the keeper six times over for his debt. Not only that, he brought back meat and plenty of it, for the larder. So the host was happy and he bade him fond farewell. After that, he rode away.
But the inn keeper’s wife was not so easily pleased. “Where did that scoundrel get such money?” she remarked. “He had nothing when he got here and now, he’s rich. Well, my magic book will tell me what is what.” When she checked, she said, “Aha! He rescued the princess and she gave him an enchanted purse! There is no end to the money that purse will produce! He paid us thus and so – a pittance! If we had the purse ourselves, we would live like the Czar and never have to work again. I must have that purse!”
“Take care, " her husband said. “Your greed will be the end of you. Leave the soldier be.”
“Very well then,” she replied. Then, when he wasn’t looking, she summoned the son of one of her workers, a young boy of only ten. “Take this apple,” she instructed. “Go into the field with the cows.” For she had had a vision, and she knew Ivan would be waiting there. “You will meet a soldier. He will want a drink of water. Tell him you have no water! Offer him this juicy apple, in its stead. And when he falls asleep you must take his purse and bring it here to me.”
And so the boy went off into the field with the cows . Just as she foretold, he found the soldier resting there beneath an oak. “Say young friend!” called Ivan. “Do you have some water? I am terribly thirsty.”
“No. I have this fresh juicy apple,” said the boy. “Maybe you would like some of that.”
“Why, thank you,” Ivan said. He ate the apple. Not a minute afterwards, the poison had him and he toppled to the ground and hit his head There he lie in a stupor underneath the oak for four whole days.
The princess in the meantime, waited one day – two days – three days – then decided it was not her fate to marry Ivan after all. With a sigh, she mounted up and rode away. But s she crossed the fields sometime later on, she came upon the boy. “Say, little herdsman! Have you seen a Russian soldier anywhere?” she asked.
He said, “Why yes. He’s been sleeping underneath that oak right there, for days!” And when he pointed, she could see him there, sound asleep beneath the tree. She tried to wake him but no matter how she nudged him he did not respond. Finally, she took paper and a pen in hand and wrote a note and slipped it in his pocket. “I am returning to the Thrice Tenth Kingdom,” said the note. “You must catch the ferry. If you don’t make it to the Thrice Tenth Kingdom, we will not be wed. As before, I will wait for 3 more days but after that, I’ll leave and we will never meet again. Life is short and I am not as young as yesterday, you know.” She kissed him as he slept, wept a bitter tear and rode away.
Ivan finally wakened in the night. “I had a dream,” he told the boy, who hadn’t left his side. “A beautiful woman kissed me and left a note.”
“But that was not a dream, "said the boy. “Look in your pocket. She was really here! I think she was an angel,” he confessed. For that is why he didn’t take the purse. And this is why he hadn’t left the soldier’s side.
Ivan read the note and then he crossed himself. He ran for his horse, mounted up and raced away. When he reached the shore, he shouted for the ferry-men. "Hey! Brothers! Take me to the island of the Tenth Thrice Kingdom! I need to be there in the next three days! I will pay you handsomely! " With that, he shook the magic purse and so much money spilled into their boat, it filled it up.
He thought they would rejoice. Instead, their faces fell. “What’s the problem, fellows? Do you need more money, yet?”
“Alas. We can take you to the Thrice Tenth Kingdom yes, but it will take a good three years to get there if we do.”
“Three years!” wailed Ivan. “I don’t have three years!”
“That’s how long it takes. We have to skirt the shoreline, go around the bay and then across the swamp. Many haven’t lived to tell the tale. Kosheyev the Deathless lives there, so the trip is perilous, indeed..”
“Why not sail out across the water?” Ivan asked.
“Where have you been living, sir? There is a griffin living in these parts, my man. Next to him, what is Kosheyev the Deathless? Nothing but a joke. No one sails to the island. Some have tried, but they are eaten every time.”
“And is there no escape? Won’t one of you attempt the trip?”
The boatmen shook their heads. “No one but a suicidal fool would try that journey, comrade! As it is, the townsfolk live in terror hereabouts. Every month a citizen is sacrificed out here, lest the griffin flies into a rage and eats the population up!”
“Then I will have to gather up this money,” Ivan told them sadly. “If I don’t arrive within the next three days there is no use going there at all.”
He was scooping up the coins when along came another fellow who overheard. the conversation Eyeing all that money, he was determined he would have it. “I can tell you how to get there!” he announced. “Leave those coins alone.”
“And how do you propose to get him there alive in three short days?” the boatmen scoffed.
“I will leave you all this money if you do!” Ivan told the man. “You can keep my fine strong horse, as well! Will you take me on your boat?”
“I have no boat. Only an old dead horse,” the fellow said.
“Bah! You are a madman and an idiot!” said Ivan. “What use have I, for an old dead horse? Go. Be gone from here!”
“But fellow! Hear me out! All dead animals are piled there along the shore; not so far away: horses, cows, sheep and even ducks. The griffin flies by every day to carry off the meat. He takes it to his lair on the Thrice Tenth Island, where he leaves it for his young. All you have to do is climb into the carcass of an animal and off you go. How you fare if he discovers you — that is up to you and God alone.”
The ferrymen were laughing. “It will be a smelly journey! And when you come out, the griffin’s sure to rip you into shreds!”
Ivan said, “If I must, I must. I have always gotten what I wanted in this life, and I’m not stopping now. Comrade, if you’ll clean the carcass out and sew me in, all these coins are yours to keep. My fine, healthy horse, as well!”
Shortly, Ivan left the money and his fine, strong horse and climbed into the belly of the poor dead nag. The stranger sewed him in and told him, “When you get there, swing your blade. Get out and run for your life! Even griffin chicks are thrice the size of eagles, and will rip you asunder if they catch you in the nest.”
Shortly after that, Ivan was jostled by a frightening shake and lifted skyward when the monster seized the carcass in its talons. Off he went, high into the clouds and it seemed to him he flew for days. It was really just a day and night and half a day. He landed with a sickening thud, he knew not where; until at last he dared slit the horse’s belly with his blade and then he peered outside. The chicks, thrice the size of eagles, were asleep so he climbed out stealthily and and crept away. The nest sat high upon a crag above the sea. Looking landward he could see a great cathedral in the distance so he knew he’d reached the Thrice Tenth kingdom. He climbed from the precipice, washed up as best he could, then headed for the church.
But he was not to make it there. A band of soldiers seized him on the road and took him to the king. “You are not among my subjects!” said the king. "How did you reach my island? No one comes here from the mainland. "
His court adviser said, “This stranger is a sorcerer! He could not have come here, otherwise. He must be in league with devils!” For the fact was, he was a sorcerer himself but thought Ivan’s magic must be stronger than his own. He was wont to see him put to death, lest he win the favor of the king and take his place.
“Then I sentence him to death!” declared the king..
“Sire!” Ivan said. “Have mercy on me, king! I will pay you great amounts of money if you’ll spare my life! See this. Pay attention, now!” Ivan shook his magic purse and so many coins spilled out, the throne-room floor was flooded in a sea of gold.
“Aha! Now we know he’s a sorcerer!” shouted the adviser. “What mortal man produces such a fortune from a tiny purse? This money is the devil’s work! Good king, you must execute this fellow promptly or the realm is doomed to fall beneath an evil spell!”
The king said, “Take him to the shore and leave him for the griffin! He will make a tasty snack. But mind you, first seize that purse and give it here.”
The king’s attendants seized Ivan’s purse, then hauled him off and left him by the water’s edge alone. A second time, he headed for the great cathedral but a sound like thunder came, and then a terrible wind; the sound of griffon-wings! Down, down the monster swooped, blotting out the sky and sun. “I smell a Russian soldier here!” the monster crowed. “What fool has dared to enter my domain and how did you get here, puny little man?”
“You yourself brought me from the other shore!” cried Ivan. “I deceived you! I was in the belly of the horse!”
“Had I known, I’d have eaten you already!” roared the griffin.
“You will not be eating me! I will cut you into shreds!” Ivan drew his blade. He swung. He clipped the monster’s wing and feathers flew.
“No! Don’t cut me, goodly youth!” the griffin said. For in fact, no one ever dared confront him in the past. At heart, the giant fiend was cowardly. “I can be of use to you, my friend! Take the flask from underneath my wing and have a drink. You will see. One taste, and you will be as strong as twenty men!”
Ivan took the flask and drank. Sure enough, he felt a fire in his bones, the strength of twenty men. “Now, I can slice you up more easily!” he said. “Who is the fool, now?” Again he swung. Again, more feathers flew.
“No!” said the griffon. “Stop! Let me live! I can be of further use to you. There is a second flask beneath my other wing. Try that! One sip, and you will have the strength not of twenty soldiers, but of twenty regiments!”
Ivan took the second flask and drank of that, whereupon he felt the strength of twenty regiments. “Fool that you are!” he said. “Now, you stand no chance against me, griffin! Tell me this: will you give up feasting on the townsfolk? The people of this realm have lived in terror long enough. Swear to me, you’ll leave the citizens alone and stick to carrion! Maybe I will spare your life.”
“I will not!” the griffon thundered, and the ground trembled from the noise. “No puny man is going to tell me what to eat!”
“Then, I have no choice. I will slice you up like mincemeat!”
“No! Spare me! I can be of further help to you! See these trees, for instance: deep beneath these mighty oaks there is an iron gate. Beyond the iron gate, is another kingdom . You can have your choice of pretty women there, and every dish, every sort of wine and liquor to your heart’s content.”
Ivan said, “I have found my pretty woman! Furthermore, I have no use for devils’ kingdoms, buried in the earth!” Whereupon, he sliced the griffin up to ribbons. Feathers flew in all directions. After wards, he gathered up the rest to make a great pile on the shore. He slipped the vials in his shirt.
The king, in the meantime, had a change of heart. The magic purse produced only ashes for his court magician, so he had the fellow thrown in a cell. “Woe is me,” he said. “I should not have sent that Russian lad away to meet his death, that way.” In fact, the king had been impatient and morose for years,. He had not smiled once, ever since the disappearance of his only daughter long before. “The lad is dead by now,” he told his men. “He may have been a foreigner, but we should go and get his bones. It isn’t right to leave him there. He should have a proper burial, no matter who he was.”
His agents did as bade. They went to get the man’s remains. Instead, they found him whole and healthy, and they saw the remnants of the griffin on the shore. They took him to the palace where the king welcomed him with open arms. “You have saved my kingdom from the griffin! From this day forward, I declare you a subject of the realm! Furthermore, I hereby decree that you can enter any inn or alehouse in all the Thrice Tenth kingdom, never paying one scant ruble for your food or drink!”
He presented Ivan with a patent letter, signed in his own hand, to testify to that effect. Ivan thought how fortunate for me! and then bowed low before the king to show his gratitude. “Many thanks, Your Majesty,” he said. “And yet you seem unhappy even though the griffin has been vanquished and the townsfolk never have to fear the beast again.”
“Ah, but I could smile once again if only I could find my daughter,” said the king. “But even you can’t help me, lad. Not with that. Devils spirited my daughter to a distant land and hold her there against her will, imprisoned for eternity. I shall never gaze upon her face again.”
Just then, the doors flew open and a woman dressed in silk with inlaid gems rushed into the chamber. “No, father!” came a voice. “I am free! And I am home at last!”
“Daughter!” cried the king, beside himself with joy.
“A certain Russian soldier freed me from the demons!” she announced. “And why — praise to heaven – there he stands before you now!”
What is left to talk about? Ivan, the merchant’s son, was wedded to the princess. A feast was held for all the people and it lasted many days.
Every night for the remainder of this life, Ivan went into the most expensive alehouse in town , ate ten loaves of bread, drank ten bottles of wine and dined on half an ox, then came home to his beloved wife.
The next year when a seven-headed dragon came to eat the townsfolk up, he took a drink from the griffin’s flask and then a second drink from the griffin’s second flask. Then, blade in hand, he ventured out to meet the beast. “I will hold you in one claw and shred you with the other!” said the dragon. “There will be nothing a damp spot on the earth where you were standing, little Russian fool!”
But Ivan swung his blade with the strength of twenty regiments, and severed all the dragon’s heads. “I have always gotten what I wanted in this life,” he said, “and I’m not stopping now!”
After that he went to the alehouse and had his ten loaves of bread, his ten bottles of wine, and half an ox and then went home to his beloved wife.
A compilation done in Photoshop: Griffin is a custom figure I created.
Credits for this image go to the following artists at DeviantArt.com:
Mountain background – Elenadudina
Trees and grass in foreground – Enchanted Forest by Frozenstock (partial overlay)
The griffin is a brush I made from a variety of elements, as is the cathedral in the distance. Multiple layers, light-effects, and textures are applied.
First in the series
Vasilisa and the King
Second in the series
Ruslyn and Chernomer
Third in the Series
Vasilisa the Wise Part 1
Fourth in the Series
Vasilisa the Wise Part 2
Fifth in the Series
Saved from the Dragon: Paliush’s Tale