THERE was once a king who had long been unmarried. Now one day, going through his palace, he came to a room that he had never opened before. So he sent for the key and entered it, and opposite the door was the picture of a most beautiful princess with skin white as snow and cheeks red as blood and hair black as ebony. No sooner had he seen this picture than he fell in love with it and asked who she was.
His chamberlain said, "That is the Princess of the Golden Horde, with which your Majesty's kingdom has been at war these last twenty years. Only three years ago, when your Majesty's father was alive, there was some talk of peace and of betrothing you to her, and that was when her portrait was sent here. But now the two kingdoms are at war and it does not seem that peace will ever come."
But though there was no hope of marrying her the King could not help but think of the Princess of the Golden Horde, and thought and thought till he became quite pale and sick with love for her. Now he had a faithful servant, the son of his own nurse, and thus his foster-brother, and he was so devoted to the King that everybody called him John the True.
When John the True saw his foster-brother pining away he went to him and said:
"What ails thee, Oh sire?" for he alone had the right of calling the King "thou."
Then said the King to John the True:
"Come and I will show thee, John." And he took him to the closed chamber and showed him the portrait and told him how he felt towards the Princess of the Golden Horde.
"Be of good cheer," said John the True; "I will go and fetch her for thee."
"How can that be?" said the King; "we are at war with the Golden Horde, and they would never give her to be my bride."
"Leave that to me," said John the True; "give me only a ship full of merchandise and put in it a complete set of furniture made all of gold, and see if I do not bring the Princess back to thee."
So the King did all that John the True demanded. And he sailed away with the ship and its merchandise to the country of the Golden Horde. And when he came there to the chief port he did not declare from what country he was but sent up, as tribute to the King of the Golden Horde, a beautiful chair all made of gold.
Now when the King saw this he became curious about this merchant and his wares, and came down with his Queen and the Princess to view the rarities. And when he saw the set of furniture all made of gold he asked John the True what its price was.
But John said it was not for sale, but that he kept it to make gifts of tribute to the kings whose realm he was visiting.
But the Princess had set her heart upon one dressing-table all of gold, with crystal mirrors and lovely fittings, and asked John if he could not sell it to her.
But John said, "No, that is kept for a special purpose, which I am not allowed to tell."
This aroused the curiosity of the Princess, and later on towards the evening she came down with only one maid to see if she could not persuade John to let her have the dressing-table.
When she came on board John went to the captain and told him to set sail as soon as the Princess went down into the cabin. And when she came there he began telling her a long story, how that his master the King had sent him to visit all the kingdoms of the earth, and that this dressing-table was intended for the most beautiful princess whom he should come across in his travels.
And then the Princess wanted to know whether he would have to finish his travels before giving the table, and what the King expected from the Princess.
John told her that everything was left to him and that, when he found a princess with skin as white as snow, and cheeks as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony, he was to present the table to her.
Then the Princess looked in the mirror and said:
"Have I not skin as white as snow, and cheeks as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony? Then give me the table."
But just then she began to feel the motion of the ship and knew that it was sailing away, and commenced to shriek and cry. But John told her all that had happened, and how that he had come only for her, and that his foster-brother the King was dying for love of her, and could not come himself because the two countries were at war. So at last the Princess became content, and they sailed on and on towards the country of John the True.
As they were nearing land John was sitting in the prow, and the Princess was reclining on a couch on deck, and three black ravens were flying about the mast of the vessel. Now John, being the son of a huntsman, knew the language of birds; and he listened to what they said, and this was it:
"Caw, caw!" said the first raven. "There sits the Princess of the Golden Horde, thinking that she will marry John's master the King. But I know something which will prevent that."
"What is that?" asked the second raven.
"Why," said the first, "when the Princess lands and the King meets her they will bring out to him a bay horse richly caparisoned, with a pillion for the Princess. And if the King takes her with him on the horse he will run away with them and dash them both to pieces. Caw, caw!"
"But is there no remedy for that?" said the third raven.
"Only if some one cuts off the head of the horse, or tells the King; but woe unto him if he does that, for as soon as he has told he will become marble up to his knees. Caw, caw!"
"Even if he escapes that," said the second raven, "the King would never marry the Princess, for at the wedding feast wine will be presented to him, in a glass goblet, and at the first drop of it he drinks he will fall down dead. Caw, caw!"
"But is there nothing to remedy that?" asked the first raven.
"Only if some one dashes the glass from his hand, or tells of the danger; but if he tells he will become marble up to his waist. Caw, caw!"
"Caw, caw!" said the third raven. "There is still another danger. On the wedding night a dreadful dragon will creep into the bridal chamber and kill both King and Princess. And there is no remedy against that unless some one drives off the dragon or tells of the danger. But if he tells he will become marble from head to foot. Caw, caw!"
When John the True heard all this he made up his mind he would save his brother the King without telling him of the dangers that threatened him. And when they neared the shore he caused a trumpet to be sounded three times, which was the signal agreed upon between himself and the King, that he had succeeded in bringing back the Princess of the Golden Horde.
So the King came quickly down to the ship in all his glory and received with joy the Princess, and thanked John the True for his faithful service.
When it came time for the King to lead the Princess to his palace, some one brought forth a noble bay horse richly caparisoned and with a pillion at the back of the saddle for the Princess to ride on. And just as the King gave her his hand and was about to mount the horse, John the True drew his sword and cut off the head of the bay horse.
"Treason, treason!" cried the courtiers. "John the True has drawn his sword in the King's presence."
But the King said, "What John the True does is done for me. Let a coach be brought and we will return to the palace."
So the King and the Princess and John the True went to the palace, and preparations were made for a grand wedding. And on the day of the wedding there was a great banquet held, and at the beginning a glass of wine was brought forth and presented to the King, and just as he was lifting it to his lips John the True, who stood behind the King's throne, rushed forward and dashed the goblet to the ground.
"Treason, treason!" cried the courtiers. "John the True is mad."
"Nay, nay," said the King; "what John the True does is for our good. Wherefore did'st thou do that, John?"
"That I must not say," said John the True.
"Well, well," said the King; "doubtless thou hadst thy reasons; let the banquet proceed."
On the night of the wedding John the True took his place with drawn sword before the bridal chamber, and watched and watched and watched. Towards midnight he heard a rustling in the bridal chamber and, rushing in, saw a winged dragon coming through the window towards the King and Princess. He dashed towards it and wounded it with his sword, so that it flew out of the window, dropping blood on the way.
But the noise that John the True had made awakened the King and Queen, and they saw him before them with sword dripping with blood. And not recognizing him at first, the King called out for his guard, who came in quickly and seized John the True.
When the King saw who it was he asked John if he had any explanation of his conduct, and John said:
"That I may not say."
"This is more than I can bear," said the King. "Perhaps love has turned thy brain."
And turning to the captain of his guard, the King said, "Let him be executed in the morning in our presence."
When the morning came everything was ready for John's execution, when he stood forth and said to the King:
"If your Majesty wills, I will explain my conduct."
"So be it," said the King; "I trust thou wilt prove that thou art indeed John the True."
And John the True told the King and the Queen and the courtiers all that had occurred and what he had heard from the ravens, and how he had saved the life of the King and the Queen by wounding the dragon on the preceding night. But as he told why he killed the horse his legs became marble up to the knees. And when he explained why he had dashed the poisoned wine-cup from the King's hand, the marble came up to his waist. And when he explained how he had turned the dragon from the bridal chamber, his whole body became marble from head to foot.
Then the King knew what a faithful servant he had in John the True; and he bade his men to place the marble body on a golden stand on which was written, "This is John the True who gave his life for his King." And whenever the soldiers and the courtiers passed it they gave it a salute.
Now after a time there came to the Queen two little twin boys, whom she loved better than all the world. And they grew and they grew, till they learned to speak. And every time they passed the statue of John the True they would raise their little hands and give it a salute, for the Queen, their mother, had told them what John the True had done for their father and her.
But one night the Queen dreamed that a voice from Heaven said to her, "John the True can live again if the two Princes be slain for his sake and his body smeared with their blood."
The Queen told this dream to the King, and they were terrified at it, but thought it only a dream. But twice again the same dream came to the Queen on the following two nights; and then she said to her husband the King,
"John the True gave his life for us; I feel we ought to give our children for him."
The King at last agreed to the terrible sacrifice, and the heads of the two Princes were cut off, and the statue of John smeared with their blood, when it came to life and John the True lived again.
But when he learned how he had been brought to life again, he asked to have the bodies of the Princes brought to his chamber, and, going to the bridal chamber, scraped from the floor some of the dragon's blood that had fallen there, and went back into his chamber and closed the door.
Shortly after, the King and the Queen heard the voices of their sons calling out for them; and when the door was opened there they were alive again.
So the King and the Queen and the Princes lived together in all joy, with their faithful servant John the True.