THERE was once upon a time a king who had an only son named Slugobyl. The young prince was very fond of travelling, and when he was twenty years of age he begged his father and mother so much to let him go to see the world, that they gave him their consent, giving him as an attendant an old servant on whose fidelity they thought they could rely. The prince, well equipped and armed, mounted his horse, and, after having taken a tender leave, set off to distant countries in the hope of acquiring knowledge and returning wiser, and more fitted to rule.
As he rode along he saw a cygnet pursued by an eagle, which threatened to overtake it every moment. The prince seized his bow, and shot so well that the eagle, mortally wounded, fell at his feet. The cygnet seeing this stopped in its flight, and said to the prince—
“Prince Slugobyl, it is not a poor cygnet that thanks you, but the daughter of the Invisible Prince, who, changed into this shape, sought refuge from the pursuit of the giant Koshchei. My father will reward you for this good action. Remember when you have need of him, you have only to speak these words thrice—‘Invisible Prince, come to me.’”
When it had thus spoken, the cygnet flew away, and the prince, having watched it till it was out of sight, continued his journey. He went on for a long time until he found himself in the midst of a plain scorched up by the heat of the sun. Not a tree, not a bush, not even a plant, was to be seen. No bird flew by, no insect broke the stillness with its hum. Everything seemed as if it had been stricken with death by the sun’s rays. The prince, after having travelled some hours on this plain, began to feel very thirsty, so he sent his servant off to see if he could find some spring or well at which he could alight. By good luck the servant found a well, very deep, and containing plenty of fresh water, but there was nothing by means of which they could draw the water up. What should they do? At length the prince said—
“Take the cord with which we secure our horses and fasten it around you, and then I will let you down into the well, for I am nearly dead with thirst.”
“My prince,” answered the servant, “I am heavier than you, and you are not so strong as I am. If I go down you will never be able to draw me up again. It would be better for you to go down the well, and then I can pull you up when you have drunk as much as you wish.”
The prince thought the advice good, and the servant tied the cord under his arms, and let him down into the well. When he had drunk as much as he wished, he got some of the water for his servant, and then he pulled the cord as a signal for him to draw him up. Instead of doing so, however, the servant looked down and said to him—
“Listen to me, prince. Since the day of your birth up to the present time you have had everything you wished for, while I have undergone great misery, and have slaved all my life. Now we will change places. Take your choice. Will you be my servant? If not, pray Heaven to have mercy on you, for I shall leave you to drown.”
“Stop, my good servant,” said the prince, “don’t do that, I beg you. What good would it do you? You would never find so good a position as you have with me, and you know that murderers meet with a dreadful fate in the next world. Their hands are plunged in boiling pitch, their shoulders are scourged with red-hot iron, and their necks are sawn with wooden saws.”
“I do not care for all that,” said the servant, “but I know that I shall drown you unless you consent.”
And he commenced to loosen the cord.
“Well then,” said the prince, “I agree to what you ask. You shall be my prince and I will be your servant. I pledge you my word.”
“I don’t believe in words,” cried the servant, “which the wind blows away. Swear to me that you will confirm the promise in writing.”
“I swear it,” said the prince.
The servant let down a paper and pencil, and dictated the following words—
“I declare that I renounce my name and all my rights in favour of him who carries this paper, and that I take him for my prince, and will serve him.
Signed, in the well—
The servant, who was unable to read, took the paper, drew the prince up out of the well, and then changed clothes with him. Thus disguised, the two went on for a week, until they entered a large town and came to the palace of the king. The false prince sent his companion to see to the horses, while he presented himself boldly to the king, and said to him—
“I am come, sire, to ask the hand of your beautiful and wise daughter, whose fame has spread even to my father’s court. If you consent I assure you of our friendship, but if you refuse we shall make war with you.”
“The request and the threat are alike unseasonable,” said the king. “Listen, prince; I am willing to show my respect for the king, your father, by granting his request, on one condition. Our enemies, enraged against us, have assembled a large army, and now threaten our town. If you deliver us, my daughter is yours.”
“Very well,” replied the false prince, “I will utterly destroy the hostile army. Let them come as near as possible to the town. I promise you that I will acquit myself so well, that to-morrow morning you shall find no traces of them.”
When it was evening, he called his pretended servant to him from his lodging in the stables, and, when the prince had respectfully saluted him, said—
“Listen, my friend. Go out at once and destroy the hostile army which is encamped outside the city, and do it so that folk will think that I am the vanquisher. In return for this service, I promise to give you back the writing by which you agree to let me have your title and to serve me.”
The prince put on his armour, jumped on his horse, and, going out of the town, called thrice on the Invisible Prince.
“Here I am,” said a voice close to him. “What do you wish? I will do whatever you tell me, for it was you who saved my daughter from Koshchei, and that is a service I shall never forget.”
Prince Slugobyl showed him the army he wished destroyed. The Invisible Prince whistled, and said—
“Magical horse with the golden mane, come to me, not on the ground but through the air, quick as an arrow, nimble as the lightning’s flash.”
That moment, in the midst of a whirlwind of smoke, there came a magnificent horse of an iron grey colour, and with a golden mane. It flew like the wind. Fire came from its nostrils. Its eyes sparkled like stars, and its ears smoked.
The Invisible Prince jumped upon it, and said to Prince Slugobyl—
“Take my sword and go and exterminate the left wing, while I destroy the right and the centre.”
So the two set off, each to his place, and attacked the enemy with fury. To the right and to the left the soldiers fell like mown down grass. The slaughter was dreadful. The soldiers fled in all directions, but the two princes pursued them, and only ceased their labour when there remained on the field of battle only the dead and the dying. Then the two returned to the town. When they came near to the palace they shook hands. The Invisible Prince disappeared, and Prince Slugobyl went back to his stable.
It chanced that the king’s daughter had been in such trouble that she had not been able to sleep. So she had gone out upon her balcony, and from there she had observed all that had occurred. She had heard the conversation between the false prince and his servant. She had seen Slugobyl call the Invisible Prince to assist him, and she had seen him give his clothes and armour to the impostor, while he told him all that he had done during the night. The princess divined all, but she resolved to be careful, and not to speak till the right time.
The next day the king ordered that the victory gained by his guest over the hostile army should be celebrated by great festivities. Calling his daughter to him at the banquet, he was about to give her to the false prince, when she, leaving the table, made her way among the servants, and embracing Slugobyl, who stood amongst them, brought him forward.
“My father,” said she, “and all you who are here present, here is he who gained the victory, and whom Heaven has sent me to be my husband. He whom you have been honouring is nothing more than a vile impostor, who has robbed his master alike of his name and of his rights. Last night I could not sleep, and, going out upon my balcony, I saw things such as eye had never before seen, and heard things such as ear had never before been acquainted with. I will tell you all, but first of all command that traitor to show you the paper by which he claims to be what he pretends.”
The false prince then produced the paper signed by his master, and it was found to contain these words—
“Let the bearer of this paper, the traitorous and wicked servant of Prince Slugobyl, receive the punishment he well deserves for his treachery.
(Signed), PRINCE SLUGOBYL.”
“What!” cried the traitor, “do you say that that is what the writing means?”
“Yes,” cried they all. “That is what is here.”
Then he threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for mercy, but he only received what he deserved. He was tied to four wild horses and torn to pieces.
Prince Slugobyl married the princess. I, who tell you of these things, was there myself, and I there drank wine and hydromel, but, though my beard was wetted, none of the drink went into my mouth.