ONCE upon a time a poor scholar going to town chanced to come across the body of a man which had been cast by some one under the walls of the town near to the gate. The scholar had very little money in his pocket, but for all that he willingly paid for the body to be buried in a Christian manner, so that it might be protected from insult. Having seen to this, he said a few prayers over the grave, and then continued his journey.
It chanced that one day, as he passed through an oak-wood, he felt tired, and laid himself down to sleep under one of the trees. When he awoke, how astonished was he to find that his pockets were all full of gold! He called down blessings on the head of whoever it was that had done him this good turn, and went on. At length he came to the bank of a wide river too deep for him to ford. Seeing the money he had with him, two boatmen offered to row him across. He entered the boat, and the men rowed till they came to the middle of the river, when they set upon him, robbed him of his gold, and then threw him into the water.
Almost insensible he was carried away by the stream, but as he was floating along he found a log of wood beside him. He clung to it, and, keeping himself afloat by means of it, managed to scramble to shore. The log, however, was not really what it seemed to be. It was the spirit of the dead man whom the poor scholar had buried, and now, when he was on shore, the spirit spoke to him, and said—
“I am the spirit of him whose corpse you honoured with burial. I am grateful for what you did, and in return I will teach you three things: how to change yourself into a crow, a hare, and a roebuck.”
Having acquired these strange powers, the poor man went on his way. In time he came to the court of a mighty king, in whose service he entered as an archer. Now this king was the father of a beautiful princess who lived alone in a castle on a solitary island. The walls of the castle were of copper, and in it was a sword of such an extraordinary kind that one could, by waving it in the air, cut down a whole army at one sweep. It was natural that the sword should be coveted by very many, but no one durst venture upon the island to endeavour to obtain it.
Now at the time that the poor scholar came to the court, the king was sore troubled by his enemies, who were invading his dominions. He had great need of the sword, but how could he get it? He determined to see whether there was any among his subjects who would dare to go to the island, and so he caused a proclamation to be published to the effect that if any one would bring him the magical sword he should receive his daughter in marriage and succeed him on the throne.
For a while no one came forward, but at last the scholar determined to make the attempt. Every one was astonished at his audacity, but he boldly went to the king and begged him to give him a letter that he might deliver to the princess asking her to give the sword to him. The king wrote the letter and gave it to the man, who at once set out, making his way through the forest. Unknown to him he was followed at a little distance by another of the king’s archers who had determined to go after him and see how he sped. To travel the quicker, the archer assumed the shapes of a hare and a roebuck, as was suited to the ground over which he had to pass, and at last he came to the sea-shore. He then took the shape of a crow, and, flying over the waves as quickly as his wings would bear him, he at length came to the island on which was the castle.
He landed, and, making his way to the castle, entered and delivered the king’s letter to the princess, begging her at the same time to let him have the victorious sword. The beautiful princess, who had lived so long without looking upon a stranger, scanned the archer closely, and fell in love with him. She inquired of him how it was that he had had the courage to undertake a task from which others drew back, and to come to the castle which had not been visited by man for so many years, and the archer told her all about himself and the wonderful powers he possessed. The princess, asking him to give her proof that what he said was true, and desiring him to change himself into the various forms, the archer immediately did as she desired, and a handsome roebuck gambolled and played around her. As the princess stroked it she plucked a tuft of hair out of the animal’s coat, but the archer did not notice it. Next he changed himself into a crow, and flew about the room. The princess laid her hand upon the bird, and, while she stroked it, contrived to pluck some feathers out of its wing without the archer noticing it. He last of all changed himself into a hare, and again the princess plucked a tuft of hair out of his coat unobserved.
Then the princess wrote a letter to her father, delivered the sword to the archer, and dismissed him.
Taking the form of a crow, the man flew over the sea, and, having reached the shore, he changed himself to a roebuck, and ran till he came to the forest. Then he changed himself into a hare, and began to make his way as fast as possible through the forest depths. Now, the archer who had followed him had seen all that he had done till he came to the sea-shore to fly over to the castle. There the man had stopped awaiting the other’s return. He saw him come back in the shape of a crow, change himself into a roebuck, and again into a hare. As the hare was making its way through the forest the archer bent his bow, and discharged an arrow so well aimed that the hare at once fell dead to the ground. The archer came up to it, took the letter and the sword, and set out to the palace. When he arrived there he gave the king the sword, and demanded the promised reward.
The king was delighted to find himself in possession of the sword which would destroy all his enemies. He confirmed his promise of the reward, leaped into the saddle, and set off to the place where the hostile army was encamped. Scarcely had he come near enough to distinguish the flags of the enemy in the distance than he brandished the sword. At every stroke fresh foes fell to the ground, and at last the few of them that were left fled from the field stricken with terror at their comrades’ mysterious fate. The king collected together the booty he found in the enemy’s camp, and, returning home, sent to his daughter to tell her to come to his court so that he might give her to the archer.
Meanwhile the poor fellow who had been slain while he was travelling as a hare lay dead in the forest under an oak-tree. All of a sudden, however, he came to life again, and, looking around him, he saw the spirit of the dead man, whose body he had buried, standing near him. The spirit told him that it had witnessed what had befallen him, and had by the power it possessed called him back to life.
“The wedding of the princess,” it said to the man, “is to be celebrated to-morrow, and if you would keep her you must go as fast as you can to the palace. She will know you as soon as she sees you, and you will also be recognised by the archer who so wickedly slew you.”
So the young man lost no time, but went on to the palace. When he came to the court he found all the guests already assembled. He entered the room, and no sooner had the princess cast a glance on him than she knew it was he, and was beside herself with joy. As for the treacherous archer, he turned pale when he saw the man, whom he thought he had murdered, alive and well.
Then the man told all the company everything that had happened, and how the archer had slain and robbed him. The tale was so wonderful that the guests could scarcely credit it, so the man changed himself into a roebuck to show them that what he had said was true. Then the princess put her hand in her pocket and took out of it a tuft of hair which was found to exactly fit a bare place on the roebuck’s coat. The man changed himself into a hare, and the princess again produced a piece of a hare’s coat which exactly fitted a bare spot in the animal’s skin. Lastly he changed himself into a crow, and the princess producing the feathers she had formerly plucked out of the bird, it was found that they were missing in its plumage.
When the king saw all this he required no further proof of the man’s story, and he ordered that the treacherous archer should be at once led forth and put to death by being torn to pieces by four wild horses.
Within the palace all was joy and festivity. The archer married the princess, and they wanted nothing, for the wish of their hearts was obtained.