FAR behind the blue sea-ocean, beyond the void places, in a city set in the midst of pleasant meads, there lived a Tsarevitch whose name was Alexei, and he had three sisters, Tsarevna Anna, Tsarevna Olga and Tsarevna Helena. Their mother had long been dead, and when it came the father's time to die he called the Tsarevitch to him and put the three sisters in his care.
"Heed thou, my dear son, my counsel and command," he said. "Keep not thy sisters overlong with thee, nor delay their marriage, but whoever may be first to ask the hand of either of them, to that one, if she consent, give her to be wed."
So the father died and was buried, and the Tsarevitch and his sisters sorrowed, as was right, until time had dulled their grief. Before the Palace was a fenced garden, where, in the cool of the day, they used to walk together, and often as they walked the Tsarevnas would recall their father's words, and would say one to another: "I wonder which will be the first to be wed and what manner of lover will come wooing her."
One day as they strolled under the green trees, plucking red poppies, a great cloud, black as ink and shaped like a hawk, suddenly rose in the sky. "Let us hasten indoors, little sisters," said Tsarevitch Alexei, "for a dreadful storm is about to break." They quickened their steps, and just as they entered the Palace a crash of thunder sounded, the roof split in two and a bright hawk came flying in. It alighted on the floor and was instantly transformed into a handsome youth.
"Greeting to thee, Tsarevitch Alexei," said the youth. "Once I came to thy land as a visitor, but now I come as a suitor. I pray thee give me to wife thy little sister Anna."
"If she choose to wed thee, I shall not forbid," answered the Tsarevitch. "How sayest thou, my sister?"
So comely was the youth that Tsarevna Anna at once agreed, and the same day they were married and set out for the Hawk's Tsardom.
Hours grew into days, and days ran swiftly after one another till a year had vanished as if it had never been. Again one day Tsarevitch Alexei went walking with his two sisters in the green garden, and again there rose up in the sky a cloud like a huge black eagle, with white light- flings flashing across it. "Let us seek shelter, little sisters," he said, "for a terrible whirlwind is rising." They hurried to the Palace, and as they entered it the thunder roared, the ceiling split in two and into the gap came flying an eagle. It alighted on the floor and instantly turned into a comely youth.
"Health to thee, Tsarevitch Alexei!" he said. "Heretofore I came to thy Tsardom as a visitor, but now I come to woo. Give me, I beseech thee, thy little sister Olga for my wife."
"If she so wills, then will I not deny thee," replied the Tsarevitch. "What is thy mind, my sister?"
The Hawk had been well-favored, but the Eagle was more handsome, and Tsarevna Olga lost no time in accepting him, so that same day the marriage was performed and the Eagle took her away to his own country.
Another year passed swiftly, and one day the Tsarevitch said: "Come, little sister, let us walk in the green garden and refresh ourselves." As they strolled among its flowers, again there rose the cloud, shaped like a great black crow, and he said: "Let us return with all speed to the Palace, for a fierce tornado is upon us." They did so, but before they had had time to sit down, there came a terrific clap of thunder, the ceiling split and opened, and into the room flew a crow. As it alighted it became a graceful youth, who said:
"Prosperity to thee, Tsarevitch Alexei! In the past I came to thy realm as a visitor, but now I come seeking a wife. Grant me, I pray, thy little sister Helena to wed."
"If she favor thy suit, I may not refuse her," returned the Tsarevitch. "Wilt thou say 'aye,' my sister?"
The Hawk and the Eagle had been handsome but the Crow was even more brilliant and splendid than they and Tsarevna Helena agreed without delay. The marriage took place at once and the Crow set out with his bride for his own Tsardom.
Tsarevitch Alexei, left solitary, was sad and lonely and when a whole year had passed without sight or sound of them, he said to himself: "I will go and search for my three little sisters." So he called for his best horse and rode out into the white world.
He rode one day, he rode two days, he rode three days, till he came to a plain whereon a numerous army, with weapons broken and scattered, lay dead and dying. Sitting on his horse he cried aloud: "If there be one man here left alive, let him answer me. Who hath routed this great host?" And one man whose life was yet in him replied where he lay: "These thousand stout warriors, O Tsarevitch, were beaten by Maria Morevna, daughter of three mothers, grand daughter of six grandmothers, sister of nine brothers, the beautiful Tsar's daughter." And saying this he died.
Tsarevitch Alexei rode on, till at length he came to a multitude of white tents pitched by the way, from the finest of which the lovely Maria Morevna came forth to greet him. "health to thee, Tsarevitch," she said. "Whither dost thou ride? Is it by thine own will, or against it?"
Tsarevitch Alexei replied: "Brave men,
Tsarevna, ride not anywhere against their will."
The beautiful Tsar's daughter was pleased with his answer. "Well," she said, "if thy business be not pressing, I pray thee stay awhile as my guest."
Tsarevitch Alexei, nothing loath, dismounted and remained the guest of Maria Morevna, and before two days had passed they had fallen deeply in love with one another. She took him with her to her maiden Palace, where they were married with great rejoicing and there they lived many months together in happiness.
Now Maria Morevna was a warrior and at the end of this time there befell a rebellion on her border, so she called together her army and leaving Tsarevitch Alexei in charge of her Palace, rode to the fight. "Guard and rule all things," she bade him, "only on no account open the door of the rocked closet in my inner chamber."
The Tsarevitch promised to obey her command, but she had not gone far on her way before his curiosity over- mastered him. He went to the inner chamber, unlocked and opened the closet door, and there he saw an old man of huge form hanging from a beam, fettered with twelve riveted iron chains.
"Who art thou?" asked the Tsarevitch.
"I am Koshchei the Wizard," answered the old man. "Imprisoned by the father of Maria Morevna, I have suffered tortures here for ten years. Have mercy on me, good youth, and fetch me a little water to cool my parched throat!"
The Tsarevitch pitied the Wizard. "A drink of water can do no harm," he thought, and went and fetched a jugful. The Wizard took it at a single gulp. "My thirst is too great for a single draught to quench," he said. "I pray thee give me another, and when danger threatens thee I will give thee thy life."
Tsarevitch Alexei brought a second jugful and this also Koshchei drank at a draught. "In mercy, give me but one more," he pleaded, "and twice will I give thee thy life when otherwise thou must perish."
The Tsarevitch brought him the third jugful, which Koshchei also drank at a draught, but as soon as he had swallowed it all the Wizard's former strength returned; he strained at the twelve chains and broke them asunder like rotten rope. "My thanks to thee, Tsarevitch!" he shouted. "Thou art as likely now to possess thy Maria Morevna again as to see thine own ears!" He flew out of the window in a whirlwind, overtook the beautiful Tsar's daughter on her way to the war, seized her from the midst of her army and carried her away across three times nine Tsardoms to his own land.
Tsarevitch Alexei, seeing the misfortune his disobedience had wrought, wept bitterly and long. At length he wiped away his tears, and saying to himself, "Whatever may befall I shall not return until I have found Maria Morevna," he set out across three times nine Tsardoms.
He rode one day, he rode two days, and at dawn on the third day he came to a beautiful Palace of white stone whose roof shone like a rainbow. Before the Palace stood an oak tree, on whose topmost branch perched a Hawk. As soon as it saw him, the Hawk flew down from the tree, alighted on the ground and became a handsome youth. "Welcome, my dear brother-in-law," he cried; "how hath God dealt with thee these past three years?" The next moment Tsarevna Anna came running from the Palace, and kissing her brother began to ask him many questions and to tell him of what had befallen her.
Tsarevitch Alexei spent three little days
with them, at the end of which time he said: "I can remain no longer,
but must go on my search for my wife, Maria Morevna."
His brother-in-law, the Hawk, answered: "It is a far journey. Leave with us thy silver spoon, that we may look upon it and be reminded of thee."
The Tsarevitch left with him the silver spoon and rode on. He rode one day, he rode a second, and on the third, at daybreak, he came to a Palace of gray marble even finer than the Hawk's, whose roof was mother-of-pearl. Before it grew a fir tree and on the tree perched an Eagle, which as soon as it saw him, flew down, alighted, and became a comely young man. "Hasten, wife," cried the Eagle, "our dear brother is coming!" And Tsarevna Olga came running from the Palace, kissed and embraced her brother and began to ply him with questions.
A second three little days Tsarevitch Alexei spent with them and then said: "Farewell, my dear sister and brother- in-law, I go now to search for my wife, the beautiful Tsar's daughter."
"It is many versts to the Castle of Koshchei," said the Eagle, "and what shall we have to remember thee by? Leave with us thy silver fork."
He left with them the silver fork, and rode away A first day he rode, a second day he rode, and on the third day, at sun-up, he found himself approaching a third Palace, of porphyry, roofed with golden tiles, larger and more elegant than the Hawk's and the Eagle's put together- In front of the Palace stood a birch tree on which sat a Crow. The Crow flew down, alighted on the ground and was transformed into a graceful youth. "Come quickly, Tsarevna Helena," he cried, "our little brother is coming!" Then Tsarevna Helena came running from the Palace and met her brother joy fully, embracing him with many questions.
With them also the Tsarevitch abode three little days. when he bade them farewell to continue his search for his wife.
"Thy search may be in vain," said the Crow, "for the Wizard Koshchei is very powerful and cunning. We would have something to recall thee to us. Leave with us thy silver snuffbox that we may look on it often and know of thy welfare."
So Tsarevitch Alexei left behind the silver snuffbox and again set out. Whether he rode a long way or a short way, by wet roads or dry, he came at last to the Castle of Koshchei, where, walking in the garden, he found his dear one, Maria Morevna. When she saw him the beautiful Tsar's daughter threw herself on his breast, weeping a flood of tears. "O Tsarevitch Alexei!" she cried, "why didst thou disobey my command? Why didst thou open the closet and loose the Wizard to our hurt?"
"I am guilty before thee," answered the Tsarevitch sadly. "But remember not the old things which are past. Come with me and let us fly, while Koshchei is not to be seen. Perchance he will not be able to overtake us." So without more ado he took her up before him on the saddle and put his good steed to its best pace.
Now that day the Wizard had gone hunting. Toward evening he rode back to his Castle, when suddenly his horse stumbled under him. Thereat he rated it, crying, "Why stumblest thou, sorry flag? Hast thou not been well fed, or dost thou feel some misfortune?"
The horse replied: "Master, I feel a misfortune. Tsarevitch Alexei has been here and has carried away thy Maria Morevna."
"Canst thou overtake them?" demanded the Wizard.
"Thou mayest sow a measure of wheat," answered the horse, "thou mayest wait till it is grown, harvest and thresh it, grind the grain to flour, and of it bake five ovens of bread to eat, and after that I should be able to overtake them."
Koshchei put his horse to a gallop and easily overtook Tsarevitch Alexei. "Well," he said, "when thou gayest me to drink, I promised on occasion to give thee thy life. Therefore this time I do not slay thee." Then taking Maria Morevna from him, he returned to his Castle, leaving the Tsarevitch weeping.
Tsarevitch Alexei wept a long time, but weeping was of no avail and at length he dried his tears and at daybreak on the morrow rode again to the Wizard's Castle.
Koshchei was once more gone hunting, and the Tsarevitch, finding Maria Morevna in the garden, said: "Come, mount with me and let us fly."
"Gladly would I," she answered, "but the Wizard will overtake us, and I fear he will slay thee."
"At least we shall have had some hours together," said Tsarevitch Alexei, and taking her up before him, put spurs to his steed.
In the evening Koshchei returned from the hunt, and as he neared his Castle his horse staggered. "What dost thou, starveling hack!" he said. "Art thou underfed, or dost thou scent some evil?"
"I scent an evil, master," the horse answered. "Tsarevitch Alexei has been here, and has borne away thy Maria Morevna."
"Canst thou overtake them?" asked the Wizard.
The horse replied: "Thou mayest scatter a measure of barley, wait till it is high, cut it, thresh it, and of the grain brew beer. Thou mayest drink the beer till thou art tipsy and sleep till thou art sober, and still I should be able to overtake them."
The Wizard put his horse to a gallop and before long overtook Tsarevitch Alexei. "Did I not tell thee," he said, "that thou shouldst as easily see thine own ears as again to possess Maria Morevna? When thou gayest me water I promised to give thee twice thy life. Therefore, for the second time, I forbear to slay thee. But for the third time, beware!" So saying he took Maria Morevna and rode back to his Castle, leaving the Tsarevitch weeping salt tears.
Tsarevitch Alexei wept till his weeping was ended, and when the next day dawned, for the third time he rode to Koshchei's Castle.
This day also the Wizard was absent. He found Maria Morevna and begged her to mount and fly with him. "Most gladly would I," she said, "but the Wizard will overtake us, and this third time he will not spare thee." But he answered: "If I cannot live with thee, I will not live without thee!" So he prevailed on her and took her up before him and spurred away.
When evening was come Koshchei rode home from his hunting, and as he neared his Castle his horse began to sway from side to side. "How now, thou beggarly cob!" he cried. "Dost thou lack fodder, or dost thou perceive some calamity?"
"I perceive a calamity, master," replied the horse. "Tsarevitch Alexei has been here and has ridden away with thy Maria Morevna."
"Canst thou overtake them?" asked the Wizard.
And the horse answered: "Thou mayest strew a measure of flax-seed, wait till it is ripe, and pick, clean and card it. Thou mayest spin thread, weave cloth, sew a garment, and wear the garment into shreds, and even then I should be able to overtake them."
Koshchei made him gallop and at length overtook the Tsarevitch. "Twice I gave thee thy life," he said, "but this third time thou shalt die," He killed his horse with a blow of the sword, dragged the Tsarevitch to the Castle, put him in a cask barred and hooped with iron, and threw the cask into the sea-ocean, while Maria Morevna again he took to himself.
Now the Hawk, the Eagle and the Crow used often to look at the silver spoon, the fork and the snuffbox, and wonder how their brother-in-law fared in his search. One day, looking, they saw that the three pieces of silver were turning black, and they said to themselves: "Our little brother-in-law is in peril of his life." The Hawk flew at once to the Eagle, and together they sought the Crow. Having made their plan, the Crow flew to the west, the Eagle to the east, and the Hawk to the north, and after searching all day they met together to confer.
"I saw naught to remark," said the Hawk, "save a band of crows flying south."
"I saw and questioned them," said the Crow, "and they replied that they sighted something afloat on the sea-ocean."
"And I saw," said the Eagle, "what it was. It was a cask, barred and bound with hoops of iron."
"Brothers," said the Hawk, "let us see what the cask holds."
They flew together to where the cask floated, pulled it to shore, and with sharp beaks and claws picked and tore it apart, and in it to their delight they found their brother-in- law, the Tsarevitch, safe and well. He told them all that had befallen him and begged their counsel.
When they had consulted together, the Crow said: "Our counsel is this. Koshchei's horse is a hundredfold swifter than any other, and for this reason, try as oft as thou wilt, it is sure to overtake thee. Find out where it was foaled, and perchance thou mayest obtain another as swift."
Tsarevitch Alexei, having thanked them, set out again afoot for the Castle of the Wizard, where Maria Morevna wept tears of joy that he was still alive, and to her he said: "Find out, if thou canst, where Koshchei obtained his good horse, and tell me tomorrow."
So that night the beautiful Tsar's daughter said to Koshchei: "All things are open to thee, wise Wizard! Tell me, I pray, where was foaled thy marvelous steed which thrice overtook Tsarevitch Alexei to his death?"
Koshchei said: "On the shore of the blue sea-ocean there is a meadow, and upon it there courses up and down a wonderful mare. Twelve hay-cutters reap the grass of the meadow, and as many mote with rakes turn it. The mare follows them, devouring the grass they cut. When she bathes the sea rises in huge waves, and when she rubs her sides against the oak trees they fall to the ground like sheaves of oats. Every month she brings forth a foal, and twelve fierce wolves follow her to devour them. Every three years the mare bears a colt with a white star on its forehead, and he who, at the moment it is born, snatches away this foal, fights off the wolves from it and brings it safely away, will possess a steed like to mine."
"Didst thou, O Koshchei," asked Maria Morevna, "gain thy horse by these means?"
"Not I," the Wizard answered. "Across three times nine lands, in the thirtieth Tsardom, on the further side of the River of Fire, there lives an old Baba Yaga. She follows the mare and snatches away each colt which bears on its forehead the white star. She thus has many wonderful horses. I once spent three days tending them, and for re ward she gave me a little foal which became the good horse I ride."
"But how didst thou cross the River of Fire?" asked Maria Morevna.
"As to that," replied the Wizard, "I have in my chest a fine handkerchief. I have only to wave it three times to my right side to have a strong bridge so high that the fire cannot reach it."
Maria Morevna listened attentively, and when Koshchei was asleep she took the fine handkerchief from the chest, brought it to Tsarevitch Alexei, and told him all the Wizard had said.
The Tsarevitch hastened away, crossed three times nine countries, and in the thirtieth Tsardom came to the River of Fire. By means of the magic handkerchief he crossed it and went on to find the old Baba Yaga.
He walked one day, he walked two days, he walked three days, without either food or drink. When he was like to die from hunger he came upon a bird with her fledglings. One of these he caught, when the mother bird, flying near, said: "Tsarevitch, do not, I pray thee, eat my little one, If thou wilt set it free, one day I will serve thee a service."
The Tsarevitch let the fledgling go, and soon thereafter, in a forest, he found a wild bees' hive. He was about to eat the honey when the Queen Bee said: 'Tsarevitch, do not take the honey, since it is food for my subjects. Leave it to me, and one day, in return, I will serve thee a service."
The Tsarevitch left the honey, and went on till he came to the sea-ocean, and on the sand he caught a crayfish. When he was about to eat it, however, the crayfish begged for its life. "Do not eat me, Tsarevitch," it said, "and one day I will serve thee a service." So he let the crayfish go also, and went on his way, so tired and hungry that he could scarcely crawl.
Whether he went a long way or a short way, he came at length, at daybreak, in a forest, to the hut of the old Baba Yaga, turning round and round on hens' legs. About the house were planted twelve poles. On the tops of eleven were men's heads, but the twelfth had none.
Tsarevitch Alexei drew near and said:
Little Hut, little Hut!
And when the hut stood still facing him, he climbed up one of the hens' legs and entered. There lay the old witch on the stove, snoring.
The Tsarevitch woke her. "Health to thee, Grandmother!" he said.
"Health to thee, Tsarevitch!" she answered. "Why hast thou come to me? Is it by thine own will, or by need?"
'By both," said Tsarevitch Alexei. "I come to serve thee as herder, to graze thy she-horses and to earn a colt for my payment."
"Why shouldst thou not?" the Baba
Yaga said. "With me folk serve no round year, but only three days.
If thou dost graze well my mares, I will give thee a steed fit for a hero.
But if thou dost lose one of them, thy head shall be set upon my twelfth
Then the Tsarevitch began to weep and to lament. He sat down on a stone and after weeping for a long time fell asleep.
When the sun was setting a bird woke him by pecking at his sleeve. "Rise, Tsarevitch Alexei," said the bird; "the mares are all in the stockade. I have served thee the service I promised when thou didst loose my little fledgling."
He thanked the bird and went back to the witch's hut, where the Baba Yaga was shouting to her she-horses. "Why did ye come home?" she cried to them angrily.
"Why should we not?" they answered. "We did thy bidding. We galloped far and further, but flocks of birds came flying from the whole world and came near to pecking out our eyes!"
"Well," she bade them, "tomorrow run not on the meadow, but scatter throughout the thick wood."
Tsarevitch Alexei slept soundly. In the morning the old witch sent him out again, saying: "Mind thou losest none today, or thy head shall be put upon my pole!"
He opened the stockade, but the moment they were out the mares switched their tails and set dif running into the pathless woods. And again the Tsarevitch sat down on a stone and wept until he went to sleep.
Scarce, however, had the little sun begun to set behind the trees than a great bee came buzzing and woke him, and said: "Hasten, Tsarevitch Alexei; the mares are all in the stockade, and I have repaid thee for leaving my honey."
He thanked the bee and returned to the hut, where he found the Baba Yaga again scolding her she-horses for returning.
"How could we help it?" they replied. "We obeyed thy command and ran deep into the trackless forest, but thou sands of angry bees came flying from the whole world and stung us till our blood came, and pursued us even here."
"Well," she told them, "tomorrow go neither to the meadow nor to the forest, but swim far out into the sea-ocean."
Again Tsarevitch Alexei slept soundly, and when the next morning came the witch sent him a third time to graze her mares, saying; "Beware I miss no one of them at night, else shall thy head certainly be set upon my house pole."
He loosed the mares from the stockade, but scarce were they outside when they flirted their tails and galloping to the blue sea-ocean plunged into the water up to their necks and swam until they were lost to view. And the Tsarevitch for a third time sat him down on a stone to weep and so fell asleep.
When the sun was low, he woke to find a crayfish nipping his finger. "Come, Tsarevitch Alexei," it said, "the she- horses are all safe in their stalls, and I have served thee my service in payment for my life. Return now to the hut, but show not thyself to the old witch. Go, rather, into the stable and hide thyself behind the manger. In a corner there thou wilt find a shabby little colt which is so poor that it drags its hind legs in the mire. When midnight comes, take this little colt and depart to thine own land."
The Tsarevitch thanked the crayfish, went back to the hut and hid himself behind the manger. And soon he heard the Baba Yaga rating her she-horses for returning.
"How could we remain in the water?" they answered. "We swam to the very middle of the abyss, but hosts of crayfish came creeping from the whole sea-ocean, and with their claws pinched the flesh from our bones, so that to escape them we gladly would have run to the end of the white world."
The old witch waited and waited for the Tsarevitch's return, but at length she fell asleep. At midnight he saddled the shabby colt, led it from the stable and made his way to the River of Fire. He waved the Wizard's handkerchief three times to his right side and a strong high bridge sprang from bank to bank. He led his colt across it, and waving the handkerchief twice to his left side, the bridge shrank and became thin and narrow, till it was but one- third as high and one-third as strong.
Now at daybreak the Baba Yaga woke and missed the colt from the stable. She at once sprang into her iron mortar and started in pursuit, driving with her iron pestle and sweeping away her trail behind her with her kitchen broom. She came to the River of Fire, and seeing the bridge, started to cross it. But she had scarce come to the middle when it gave way, and the old witch, falling into the flaming stream beneath, met her instant death.
As for Tsarevitch Alexei, he grazed his colt twelve mornings at sunrise on the green meadow and it became a horse fit for a hero to ride. Then, mounting, he galloped back to the Tsardom of Koshchei, to the Wizard's Castle. He found Maria Morevna, and said: "Haste and mount before me, for now I have a horse as good as Koshchei's!" He took her on the saddle and rode off at full speed.
In the evening when the Wizard returned, as he neared his Castle, his horse fell upon one knee. "What! thou dawdling bag of bones!" he said. "Dost stumble again? Art thou weak from emptiness or dost thou smell some mishap?"
"I smell a mishap, master," replied the horse; "Tsarevitch Alexei has been here and has ridden away with thy Maria Morevna."
"Canst thou overtake them?" asked Koshchei.
"I cannot tell," the horse answered. "The Tsarevitch has now for his steed my youngest brother."
The Wizard put his horse at its best pace and galloped in pursuit. Whether he rode a long way or a short way, by rough roads or smooth, at length he overtook them and lifted his sword to cut Tsarevitch Alexei to pieces.
At that moment the horse the Tsarevitch rode cried to the other: "O my brother! Why dost thou continue to serve such an unclean monster? Cast him from thy back, and strike him with thy sharp hoofs." And the horse of Koshchei heard the counsel of his brother and threw his rider on the ground and lashed out with his hoofs so cruelly that the Wizard was forced to crawl back to his Castle on all fours.
Then Tsarevitch Alexei mounted Koshchei's horse, and setting Maria Morevna on his own, they rode to visit his brothers-in-law, the Hawk, the Eagle and the Crow.
At each of the three Palaces they were received with rejoicing. "So thou hast gained thy Maria Morevna," they said. "Well, thou didst not take so much trouble for naught, since were one to search the whole world, he could find no other such a beauty!" And when their visits and feastings were ended they rode back to the Tsarevitch's own Tsardom and lived happily together always and got all good things.
The text came from:
Wheeler, Post. Russian Wonder Tales.
New York: The Century Company, 1912.
To read more about the changes made to the text and various editions of this book, please see my Notes About This Book.