FOR thirty years Ilya sat upon the stove in his mother's cottage, for he was a helpless cripple without arms or legs, and really of no use to any one, either in the house or out of it. But when these quiet years were past and over, Ilya came to his own, as you shall see.
One summer day his father and mother took down the wooden rakes and went out into the sunny meadow round which the tall pines stood to help to make the hay; and Ilya was left alone in the cottage with his thoughts.
All at once he heard a deep voice at the door which said, "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." "Amen," responded Ilya at once, and three wayfarers entered after bowing at the threshold. They were old and venerable, and Ilya knew them at once to be singers of holy psalms, who never lacked food and drink among the peasants whose lives they cheered. So, when they asked him for something to drink, he spoke gently to them, partly, however, because he feared the result of their displeasure.
"Venerable masters," he said, "whatever is within the house is yours, but, to my sorrow, I cannot rise to wait upon you." Then the holy men looked steadily at him, and before their steadfast gaze Ilya's eyes fell in humility as before the Holy Cross; and as he looked downwards they said to him, "Arise and wash yourself, for you shall be able to walk and to wait upon us."
Somehow, Ilya seemed to obey them in spite of himself. He got down from the stove and walked with the legs of a full-grown man of mighty stature. Then stretching out his brawny arms he took the cup, filled it with the drink of the rye, and offered it to the holy guests on bended knee. They took it from him, drank one after the other, and gave it to him again, saying, "Drink in your turn, Ilya." The young man obeyed without a word, and then awaited the further pleasure of the visitors.
"Ilya, son of weakness," they said, "how is it with your strength?"
"I thank you with reverence, venerable sirs," he replied, bowing low before them, "my strength is now such as could surely move the earth."
The old men turned from him and regarded each other with a look of wisdom so pure and clear and like a shaft of brightest sunlight that Ilya's eyes sought the earthen floor of the cottage once again.
Then one of the guests, who seemed to be the leader, said in a quiet voice of authority, "Give us to drink once more," and Ilya obeyed without question. "Drink now yourself, Ilya," they said, and he did so.
"Ilya, son of weakness," they said, "how is it now with your strength?"
"I thank you with reverence, venerable sirs," he said, "my strength is great, but only half the strength I had."
"That is well," said the old men; "if it were greater, then moist Mother Earth would be too frail to bear you."
Then the old men told Ilya to go out into the summer sunlight, and he walked out of the cottage for the first time, followed by his deliverers; and there, standing in the light, the young man received his blessing and his charge.
"Ilya, son of strength," they said, "it is God Himself who has redeemed you from weakness. Therefore you are bound to defend the faith of Christ against all unbelievers, however bold and daring they may be, remembering always that it is not written that you should come to your death in battle.
"In the whole white world there is none stronger than you except Svyatogor, whom you will meet before long. Avoid conflict with him, and him alone; do not spend your strength on the soil or the meadow or the forest, but set out without delay for the royal city of Kiev."
Having spoken these words, the old men vanished, and Ilya did not see either how or where they went. He only knew that he stood alone in the light of the sun, and he stretched out his great arms as if he had just awakened from a long refreshing sleep.
Then the young giant went to seek his father and mother, and found them resting in the shade of the pine trees by the side of the meadow. The whole company was asleep, and taking up one of their axes, Ilya began to hew at the trunks of the pines. It is a matter for wonder that the sound of the crashing trunks which was soon heard did not immediately awake the sleepers, for the young man laid about him lustily during the space of an hour, and at the end of that time had felled a small wood about the extent of a field; which is really not so very marvellous after all, seeing that he had been storing up strength for thirty years. When he had finished this work he drove all the axes lying near the sleepers into a tree-stump with a quiet laugh. "Ah," he said to himself, "they must ask me for these axes if they wish to use them again."
After a while the young man's parents and their labourers awoke from sleep, for by his tree-felling Ilya had taken away the shade, and the hot sunlight was now beating full upon their faces. With blinking eyes they looked around, and when they saw the fallen timber and the axes deeply embedded in the stump of a tree, they began somewhat slowly to be filled with very great wonder, and said to one another, "Who has done this?"
Then Ilya came out of the forest where he had been hiding and enjoying their awakening. The men were now trying in vain to draw out the axes, and he took them easily from the stump, and handed them to the wondering servants without a word being spoken on either side; for the labourers were too much dazed to break the silence by speech.
For a few moments the father and mother gazed at the tall young man, the eyes of the former dwelling upon his stature, his strong limbs, and his mighty shoulders, while the mother gazed steadfastly at the face of her son, which was radiant with a wonderful light. Then, clasping his hands and closing his eyes, the old man gave thanks to God that he should be the father of so splendid a workman; but Ilya showed no sign of continuing in his peasant's task, for with a low bow of reverence to his parents, he strode away without a word across the open plain.
His mother watched him go in silence, and then she bowed her head as before the Holy Cross; for the light which she had seen in the young man's eyes never shone in the eyes of a woodman or of one content to spend the summer day making hay in the pine-encircled meadow.
Now, as Ilya went on his way he saw a peasant walking heavily across a field, leading a shaggy brown foal, and, in spite of his manhood, this was the first foal that Ilya had ever seen. He suddenly felt a great desire to have this shaggy steed for himself, and having money in his pocket--though how it had got there he could not tell--he soon made the purchase. He paid little attention to the price asked by the greedy, crafty peasant, which was large enough as a plain matter of horse-dealing, for Ilya was no bargain driver.
"Now," he said to himself, as he patted the shaggy mane of the little horse, "I must take three months to make this brown foal into a charger; so for that time, at least, I must dwell at home." He therefore turned back to his father's cottage, and, to the quiet delight of his mother, lived there for the time he had appointed. Ilya did not think out his plans for himself at this time, but had a curious feeling that his way was being made plain before him without his will.
The foal was at once tied up in the beast-stall in his father's stable, and fed on the finest white Turkish wheat to the great surprise of the old man, who, however, made no remark, for the strange things now happening in his household were rather too much for him. When the shaggy brown foal had been fed for three months in this careful and very extravagant way, Ilya left it for three nights in the garden so that the Powers of Heaven might anoint it with three successive dews. After this, he made a trial of the horse, which was now very strong and frisky, and found that it had become a truly heroic charger, capable of trotting and galloping, and while full of fire and spirit, obedient to its master's lightest word. To this charger Ilya gave the name of Cloudfall, and he now made preparations for setting out on his adventures.