ONCE there was a king who groaned many a day; doctors came from far and near, but they could not cure him. At last his condition was such that one day all thought he must die. The following night he had a marvellous dream. It seemed to him that he was on Black Island, had freed three princesses, and straightway recovered. When he woke he felt a certain relief, but had almost forgotten the dream. The next night he had the same dream, and again on waking felt easier, but did not ascribe the relief to his dream. The third night he had no dream, but a vision, in which the three princesses appeared to him and said: "Free us, and thou wilt recover; if not, thou wilt die." Then they vanished, and the terrified king felt such pain that he could barely wait till morning. He summoned his twelve sons in haste, and when he had told them of his vision he said in a sad voice: "But how can I, poor man, go on a long journey to Black Island, of which I have never even heard?"
"I will go instead of thee," said Boyislav, the youngest son, with decision.
"We will all go," said the others, looking angrily at Boyislav, whom they hated with all their hearts, because he was his father's favorite.
"Ye cannot all leave me; and thou, Boyislav, surely not," said the king, shaking his head. "Who would there be to reign in my place?"
"Let Boyislav stay at home," said the eldest; "besides, he would be merely a hindrance to us on the road."
"I a hindrance!" said Boyislav, flushing up with anger and pity. "Let me go, father; I will free the princesses alone."
His brothers began to laugh at him and then to dispute as to who should go to Black Island. Since they could not decide, the king said: "I know that ye would all gladly serve me, but since some of you must stay at home, I will make six blank lots and six written ones; whoever draws a written one will go, whoever a blank will remain."
The princes were satisfied and drew lots. They were angry when Boyislav drew a prize, and the king was sad; but he had given his word and could not withdraw it. That very day the princes set out and Boyislav with them. While on dry land they were prosperous; it was worse when they entered a boat and knew not whither to turn. Boyislav said that they ought to go north, but his brothers laughed at him. When they had sailed many weeks in one direction and another without finding Black Island, they were glad to follow his advice; and the third day they arrived at the place, but so terrible was it that no one dared to land save Boyislav. He took provisions and sprang on shore, telling his brothers to await his return. While light lasted he ran up and down on the island, but saw nothing except black rocks. He was forced to pass the night on a bare stone, but rose early, completely refreshed by sleep, and examined farther.
One day passed, and a second; the third day appeared, and still he found nothing. At last, in the evening, he came to a large stone, which seemed to him hewn out by men's hands. He lifted with all his might, turned it over, and found a great dark opening, from which a pleasant odor arose. He went down without delay, and soon found himself in a glorious garden, in which were three golden castles at a great distance. He gazed with astonishment; though there were things there without number such as he had never seen before, still his attention was attracted first by three horses, which rushed around him three times in a wild gallop, and then vanished in the twinkle of an eye. Boyislav looked after them, and heard a voice saying: "I welcome thee, Boyislav, youngest of twelve!"
He looked on every side, but could see no one. The voice cried out the second time: "I welcome thee, Boyislav, youngest of twelve!"
Now he knew where the voice came from; but though he went in that direction and examined everything very carefully, he could see no one. Only after the voice had called much louder than the first and second time, "I welcome thee, Boyislav, youngest of twelve!" did he see behind a rock a famished little horse, so poor that he could count all its ribs.
"What dost thou want of me?" asked Boyislav, not a little astonished that the horse knew him.
"'Tis thy wish to free the three princesses," answered the horse; "then listen to what I advise: In the first castle thou wilt find the first princess, who will greet thee with kindness beyond measure, and offer thee food and drink. Eat with relish, but let not the princess eat with thee or kiss thee. Take what is left of the food when thou hast eaten, and go to the second castle; there the second princess will greet thee with still greater kindness, and offer food and drink. Eat with relish, but for no reason let her eat with thee or kiss thee. Take what is left after eating, and go to the third castle, where the third princess will give thee the most kindly reception of all, and place food and drink before thee; eat freely, but let not the princess eat with thee or kiss thee. Take what is left, and come here to me."
"Is nothing more needed to gain their freedom?" asked Boyislav.
"Nothing," answered the horse; "but thou must not speak a word all this time."
"That is very easy," thought Boyislav.
But the horse said with great emphasis: "Have a care; for to thee 'tis a question of life or death."
Boyislav went with quick step to the first castle, where a princess of wonderful beauty ran forth toward him. "I welcome thee, Boyislav, youngest of twelve!" cried she, with glad voice. "How art thou here? Come to my chamber; let me give thee good cheer. What is thy father doing? How are thy brothers?"
Then she took his hand and seated him at the table, to which she brought the most savory food and drink, continually speaking of his home. But he gave no regard; and when she wished to eat with him, he thrust her aside without mercy. Then he seized what was left of the food and hurried away. The princess gave him the sweetest of names, and stretched her hands toward him, but he acted as if he neither saw her nor heard her.
At the second castle a still more beautiful princess ran toward him, greeted him with still greater gladness, led him into a chamber, seated him at a table, and brought the most savory food and drink, talking continually. She moved toward him, wishing to kiss him; but he thrust her aside very rudely, so that she fell to the floor. Before she could rise he had taken what was left of the food, and was gone.
He had barely reached the third castle when a princess ran out to meet him. She was far more beautiful than the other two, and wished to fall on his neck straightway. He was amazed at her beauty; but keeping in mind the words of the horse, he thrust her away. But still she led him into the castle, seated him at a table in the loftiest chamber, and entertained him with the best food and drink. Boyislav ate and drank heartily, but when the princess wished to eat, he pushed her aside so rudely that, after staggering a few steps, she fell to the floor. Then, quickly gathering the remnants of food, he ran off, though the princess called him with heart-rending voice.
When he came to the horse he spread on the rock the remnants of food, which the horse devoured eagerly. "What now?" asked Boyislav.
"Go for the three princesses, and bring them to thy brothers in the boat; they are free, for they are the horses which thou hast seen running around thee. A wicked sorceress enchanted them, so that twelve hours they were horses and twelve hours princesses. Then come for me, or thou wilt suffer."
Boyislav did as the horse desired, and brought to his brothers the three princesses, who, with tearful eyes, thanked him for their liberation. Then he returned to the horse, which said, with sad voice: "Too bad! too bad!"
"What has happened?" asked Boyislav.
"Thou art unfortunate," answered the horse; "thy departure from home was unfortunate, for know that thy brothers have gone."
"Then I must perish here!" cried Boyislav.
"Now thou wilt not perish; but hadst thou gone on the boat thy death would be sure, for thy brothers had conspired to kill thee."
"Oh, the thankless wretches!" cried Boyislav. "What shall I do now?"
"If thou wilt obey me," said the horse, "thou wilt gain thy object in time. Go now to the garden of the first castle, and pluck four golden apples, but only four."
Boyislav went, and for the first time noticed the beauty of the whole garden; he went back and forth, and would have soon forgotten the apples had he not heard the neighing of the horse. Now he saw the tree with golden apples, and plucked four. Since they were so beautiful, he wanted more, but the horse neighed so fiercely that the whole castle trembled; his arm, which was stretched to the apples, dropped of itself, and he returned to the horse, which said, "Now sit on me."
Boyislav did so, and the horse bore him soon to the shore of the sea, and said, "Throw an apple in the sea."
"But it is a pity to lose it!" said Boyislav.
"Throw it in!" repeated the horse, with stern voice; and Boyislav obeyed. That moment a road five hundred miles long rose out of the sea. The horse stepped on the road, and hurried along night and day. When the domes of a great city were seen in the distance, he said to Boyislav: "Now we are going to Red Island, to a king who has a very ugly daughter; but have no fear in the world of her. When she casts eyes on thee, say that thou art seeking a bride, but before choosing thou must consult thy father. Then the king will offer thee a present; take nothing but a piece of rope for my bridle."
Boyislav promised obedience. When they came to Red Island, the road sank in the sea, and the horse hurried on. Boyislav left him on the meadow outside the city, and went straight to the king's castle, where he was courteously received. "Where art thou going, noble prince?" asked the king.
"In search of a bride," answered Boyislav; and the king led him to his daughter. She was so ugly that Boyislav was frightened.
"Does she not please thee?" asked the king.
"Oh, she pleases me," said Boyislav,--"pleases me greatly; but first I must talk with my father." The king smiled, and led his guest to the supper-chamber, where he was entertained in king's fashion. Boyislav wished to go very soon, but the king took him first to his treasury, and offered him much gold and silver.
"Thanks to thy Grace!" answered Boyislav. "My father has great treasures also; but if thou wilt make me some present, give me a piece of rope to repair my horse's bridle."
"Oh, I will give thee a splendid bridle and saddle!" said the king.
But Boyislav answered: "I wish no rich outfit on the road; it is an enticement to robbers."
The king tried to persuade him, but could not; then he had a rope brought which was very slender, but very long, so that Boyislav was hardly able to bear it away. After a kindly farewell to the king and the princess, he hastened outside the town, where the horse called from a distance: "Thou hast done well; now wind that rope round my body."
Boyislav opened the bundle, and a whole hour passed before he could wind the rope around the horse. When he had finished, they hurried to the sea, where the horse said, "Throw a second apple in the sea."
"But it would be an eternal pity!" said Boyislav.
"I tell thee to throw the second apple in the sea!" repeated the horse, with stern voice. Boyislav obeyed. That moment five hundred miles of road rose from the waves of the sea, along which the horse rushed like the wind, night and day. When the domes of a great city were visible in the distance, he said to Boyislav: "Now we are coming to Green Island, ruled by a king who has a daughter, not beautiful and not ugly; thou wilt say that thou art looking for a bride, but before choosing thou must consult thy father. When thou art taking leave, the king will offer all kinds of jewels as a gift; accept nothing, but ask for the cloth of the table from which thou hast eaten."
Boyislav promised this. When they had come to Green Island, the road sank in the sea, and the horse hurried toward the city. The horse remained in a meadow outside the gates. Boyislav went to the palace, where he was welcomed by the king, and presented to the princess.
"What brought thee to me?" asked the king.
"I am in search of a bride," answered Boyislav, looking at the princess, who seemed pleased at his words.
"And hast thou found one?" asked the king.
"Not yet," replied Boyislav.
"Does my daughter not please thee?" The princess blushed.
"Oh, she pleases me greatly," said Boyislav, "but first I must talk with my father."
The king frowned at these words, and the princess was flushed with anger; but Boyislav changed not, and was so courteous that the king grew ashamed, and conducted him to the supper-chamber, where there was a small table covered with a poor-looking cloth, but upon which stood the choicest food and drink. Boyislav ate with relish. When he had finished, the king took him to his treasure-chamber, where he offered him the richest presents; but Boyislav said: "My father has many treasures, and I prefer to travel unburdened." When the king insisted on his taking something as a keepsake, even if of the smallest value, Boyislav said: "Give me the cloth of the table on which I was entertained by thee."
"Oh, I should be ashamed to give such a thing," said the king. "I will give thee another very skilfully woven."
"I want no other," answered Boyislav, making ready to go.
"Then take it," said the king, giving the cloth with evident reluctance.
Boyislav parted with him and the princess, and hastened to the horse, which called out from afar: "Thou hast done well; now sit on my back, we'll fare farther." Boyislav sprang on the horse, and he raced over Green Island till he came to the sea.
"Throw the third apple in the sea," said the horse.
"But 'tis a pity forever to lose it," said Boyislav.
"Throw the third apple in the sea, I say," commanded the horse, sternly; and Boyislav obeyed.
That moment a road five hundred miles long rose from the waves of the sea. The horse ran like a flash, day and night, till they saw in the distance the domes of a great city.
"Now we are nearing White Island," said the horse, "where a king reigns who has the most beautiful daughter under the sun. All the people on the island are asleep; for in the king's palace a taper is burning which never burns out, and till some one quenches it they must all sleep. Go to the palace, look at the princess as much as may please thee, then take the taper, but be careful that it does not go out on a sudden; if it is quenched, run to me with all speed or thou wilt have trouble."
Boyislav promised to obey faithfully. When they came to White Island the road sank in the sea. Boyislav, leaving his horse before the gates of the city, hastened to the palace. The most luxuriant trees were growing all over the island, and beautiful flowers were in bloom; the city was splendid, the palace of silver and gold, but nowhere was a living creature to be seen. Boyislav moved on carefully through the empty streets as if afraid of waking some person. When he entered the palace he was amazed at its matchless beauty, but all was as nothing in comparison with the beauty of the princess who was sleeping on a dark purple couch in the last chamber. She was clothed in a light garment, white as new-fallen snow, her dark hair fell on her white, slightly moving bosom, her lips were half open, her teeth shone like pearls, and her whole figure was so full of charm that Boyislav held his breath. With head inclined, with crossed hands, he looked at her long,--forgot the horse, the taper, and the whole world, not thinking whether he was living; he only felt that the princess was beautiful. When he had waited a long time he remembered the taper, looked around the room, saw it on the table, and saw on two couches the king and queen. He stepped quickly to the table to quench the taper and rouse the princess, when all at once he heard the horse neigh so fiercely that the palace trembled to its foundation; his hand dropped of itself, and he muttered: "Thanks to thee, oh horse! Had I quenched the taper all would have risen, and who knows what might have come to me?"
He took the taper quickly and turned away, but when passing through the door he could not refrain from looking at the princess again; she seemed still more beautiful. He put the taper on the table, knelt and kissed her hand; with that her face became ruddy as a rose, and around her mouth appeared a smile. He sprang up; and as dark night had come, he thought of his return, seized the taper quickly, looked at the princess, wrote on the table, "Boyislav, youngest of twelve," and went from the palace, taking care that the taper should not be quenched. He reached the gate of the city, but there the taper was blown out by the wind. That moment was heard in the city a shout, which grew louder the longer it lasted; but the trusty steed appeared and bore him in a flash to the shore of the sea.
"Throw in the last apple," said the horse.
Boyislav obeyed without a murmur. That moment there rose from the waves a road which reached to firm land, and as dawn was appearing they came to the shore. Then the road sank in the sea.
"Now come down," said the horse; "let me rest, and do thou rest, too."
The horse went to the green meadow, and Boyislav lay on the grass and mused on the princess of White Island. Since he was wearied greatly, he fell asleep, but thought of the princess so that he sighed from sorrow when the horse roused him and said, "Let us go."
Boyislav mounted in silence. They travelled till they saw the domes of a great city. "What city is this?" inquired Boyislav.
"Seest not," asked the horse, "that is thy birthplace?"
"Sure enough! Go quickly, dear horse, that I may embrace my father."
"Hurry not," said the horse; "for it would be better for thee not to go."
"Why?" asked Boyislav with wonder.
"Because thy father has uttered sentence of death against thee."
"I do not believe that," replied Boyislav, shaking his head; and the horse was silent.
Boyislav's heart beat with joy when he entered the gates of his native place, but his joy was short-lived. He had scarcely passed one street when people began to gather around him, till at last an officer of the king's army seized the bridle of his horse, and ordered the people who were standing around to seize his arms. All rushed like hungry birds of prey on the terrified Boyislav.
"What art thou doing!" cried he, when at length he recovered himself. "Do ye not know that I am your prince?"
"Prince or not," cried all, "we know thee well enough to know that to-morrow thou wilt dance in the air." They took the unfortunate Boyislav to the castle, where, by command of the king, he was cast into a dark dungeon, and his horse, which they all laughed at, was shut up in a pen. The officer who brought Boyislav to the palace got a great reward, and went in high glee to the nearest inn to drink with his comrades.
Why was the king enraged with his favorite son? Because shameless lies had been told by his other sons. When Boyislav brought the three princesses of Black Island to the boat and returned for his horse, his brothers weighed anchor at once and sailed off. On the way they forced the unfortunate princesses to promise on oath to tell the king that they were the liberators, and to say that Boyislav on Black Island had attached himself to a worthless woman, and made sport of his old father.
Meanwhile they agreed to cast lots for the princesses. When the brothers declared their wish, the princesses said that they would not break their oaths, but could never be the wives of such men. The brothers paid small heed to this, for their hearts were hard. They were satisfied with having got rid of Boyislav. They ordered the oarsmen to press on. As a favorable wind blew without stopping, they soon arrived safely on firm land, where they hired horses and hurried to their native place.
The king, who had recovered as soon as the princesses on Black Island were freed, welcomed his sons and the princesses with tears in his eyes. But how he flushed up with anger when they told the story to which they had been forced by oath! He ordered the death of Boyislav at once, and offered a great reward for his capture. The wicked brothers rubbed their hands with glee, but the princesses withdrew to the chambers given them by the king, and passed their time in silent grief.
The king was astonished at this, and wished to know what prince they loved; he would give his blessing at once, and the proper income. But the princesses only shook their heads, and the king asked his sons the reason of the princesses' sorrow. The young men evaded the question, saying that perhaps the princesses were homesick. At last they led the conversation to Boyislav. The king flushed up with anger, which was all his sons wanted, so as to avoid speaking of the princesses of Black Island, for they knew nothing about them.
And now, when Boyislav was in prison, they continued to excite the king to give an order forbidding any one to ask mercy for him under pain of death. "Why should I endanger my life?" thought every one; "the king of course knows why he puts his son to death." Many pitied the prince, but only one man shed tears. He was an old warrior who had once commanded the king's armies, and was retained as a friend of the king; he did not believe that Boyislav deserved death, and resolved to ask pardon for him. "Well," thought he, "I shall not live till spring, and it is all the same whether I die a day earlier or later. I have been in danger of death times without number and have never been even wounded; perhaps I shall escape now."
He went bravely to the king, who greeted him very kindly, as was his wont. "What dost thou wish?" asked he of the old man, who was silent.
"I ask mercy for Boyislav," said he.
"How darest thou slight my order?" asked the king, angrily. "Knowest not thou art doomed to death?"
"I know," answered the old man with dignity; "but I fear not death. I mean to say that thou art disgracing thyself by giving thy own blood to the hangman."
The king was struck with these words, and walked up and down the room with bowed head.
"Who knows whether Boyislav is really guilty or not?" said the old man, "for the conduct of the princesses from Black Island is strange."
"Thou art right, and I will not give him to the hangman; but still he must die. I shall have him confined with the lions. Let them tear him."
The old man made further effort, but the king would not be persuaded. When night came Boyislav was taken secretly from prison and shut in with the lions. But the brothers were not satisfied yet; they told the king that Boyislav could easily escape, and advised him to wall up the doors. The king consented, and the next day the doors were walled up, there remaining only a small opening on the other side. This was fortunate, for otherwise Boyislav must have perished for want of air. He looked at the lions without fear; they did not harm him. Then he took out the taper and the tablecloth, which he kept in his bosom, lighted the taper, laid the cloth on the ground, and asked for the choicest food; it appeared. He fed the lions first, then ate and drank himself. The lions lay at his feet in thankfulness; he lay on them and fell asleep. When awake he played with the lions,--who in a few days were tame,--or thought of the princess on White Island. In this way his days passed quickly, and before he knew it a whole year had gone.
Meanwhile the princess of White Island travelled over the world with an army in search of her liberator; she had already visited many kings, but in no royal family had she found twelve sons. At last she came to the dominions of the old king and learned that he had twelve sons. Her heart jumped for joy, and she marched night and day till she appeared before the capital. Straightway she sent messengers to the king, asking him to send her that prince who had freed her and her whole kingdom.
The king called the five princes who went with Boyislav, and asked if they had been on White Island.
"Of course!" answered the truthless princes; and the eldest one shamelessly added that he had freed its princess.
"Then hurry to her," said the king. He went.
"Where is the taper?" asked the princess when he came; but he knew nothing of it. Thereupon the princess became so angry that she drew her sword and cut off his head with a blow.
Again she sent the messenger with the announcement that if her liberator were not sent, she would turn the city into dust and ashes.
"I freed her," said the second prince to the frightened king.
"Then go to her."
When she asked the second prince about the taper, he could give no answer, and lost his life. The messenger returned to the king, and told him what had happened to the two princes; the three remaining ones were so terrified that they confessed the truth.
The old man, Boyislav's savior, now said to the king, "I told thee Boyislav was innocent; thou wouldst not believe me. Now see how thou hast saved thy city from destruction, for the princess will surely carry out her threat unless Boyislav is delivered up."
"But how can I deliver him up when he is dead?" asked the king.
"He is not dead," replied the old man, joyfully, "for there is still a little opening in the lions' den, and there is light there night and day."
The king sprang up joyfully, hastened to the den, and had the walled-up doors opened. Boyislav looked on this carelessly; and when the king implored him with tenderness to come out, that he forgave him all, he shook his head saying: "I will not go, it is good enough for me here."
"But the princess will destroy my city," said the king.
"What princess?" asked Boyislav with curiosity.
"The princess from White Island."
In silence, but with gladness in his eyes, Boyislav quenched the taper, folded the tablecloth, and taking both with him walked out. When he went with the messenger to the princess, his heart beat with anxiety so that he could not raise his eyes when he stood before her.
"Thou art the man!" exclaimed the princess, joyfully. But when Boyislav knew not what to answer, she said reproachfully: "Has the ardor with which thou didst kiss me grown cold?"
"It has not," murmured Boyislav, wishing to kiss the golden hem of her robe.
The princess raised him up, and kissing him, said: "This is the earnest of our betrothal."
Boyislav was glad to respond; and now all returned to the castle, where feasting began, which was to be closed by the wedding of the princess and Boyislav. All were rejoiced except the princesses of Black Island, who were as sad as ever. The three princes who had gone to Black Island were in deathly terror. Boyislav in the middle of the feast grew sad, and when asked the reason, he inquired: "Where is my trusty horse?"
No one could answer him, till at last one of the servants remembered that the horse had been shut up in a pen. To the great astonishment of all, Boyislav ran out to him, fell upon his neck, and shed tears of joy.
"Thou hast done well to come," said the horse, sadly, "or I should have perished with hunger; for the cord brought from Red Island is eaten. Every span of it became a bundle of hay. But now thou hast attained thy object, and I am needed no longer; cut off my head."
"I cut off thy head!" exclaimed Boyislav.
"Then thou dost not wish to free me," said the horse, with chiding voice.
Boyislav drew his sword and cut off the horse's head at one blow. The horse disappeared in an instant, but in his stead appeared a beautiful prince, who fell on Boyislav's neck and shed tears of joy.
"What is this?" asked Boyislav, full of astonishment.
"Come to supper," said the prince; "I will explain it all." Both hurried to supper; scarcely were they at the door, when the youngest princess from Black Island fell into his arms, and the other two pressed his hands. When they had recovered from the first surprise, the prince said: "I am the only son of a powerful king, whose dominions are not far from Black Island. I would not marry the daughter of a queen who was a witch, and she enchanted me; and the princesses of Black Island--the youngest of whom is my bride--were turned into horses twelve hours of each day. Boyislav freed the princesses first, and now has freed me. The moment I regained my form, the spell was removed from Black Island."
All were delighted with Boyislav; but the king was thoughtful, and seemed to ponder over important things. At last he summoned the three princes who went with Boyislav to Black Island, and gave command to throw them to the lions; the lions tore them to pieces in an instant.
Now came new festivities; and when all was finished, Boyislav went with his wife to White Island; and the liberated prince, with his wife and sisters, went to Black Island, where they celebrated at once their wedding and their liberation.