ILYA rose early one morning, dressed himself in his best, and respectfully informed his parents that he wished to leave his home. The old people, who now felt that it would be very unwise, as well as useless, to interfere in the proceedings of their wonderful son, gave him their blessing. His father then went off to his duties with a grunt, and his mother turned to her cooking on the stove with a sigh; for the stove always reminded her of the cripple boy who had been of no use to any one.
Meanwhile Ilya had saddled his good steed Cloudfall, and in a short time had ridden far across the open plain. As night was falling he came to a large tent of fair white linen which had been set up near a spreading oak tree. Peeping into this pavilion, he saw a huge bed with the skins turned down, the pillow smoothed, and everything ready for rest. So he fastened Cloudfall to the oak, crept into the bed, and fell into a deep slumber which lasted for three days and three nights.
On the third day of the sleep of Ilya, Cloudfall raised his head from his grazing and pricked up his ears, for out of the north came a noise like an earthquake. Moist Mother Earth rocked from side to side, the tall pines shook and staggered as if they were about to fall headlong, and the water of the river suddenly heaved and then overflowed its banks. Roused by the sound, the intelligent animal beat loudly with his hoof upon the earth in the hope of rousing Ilya; but the young man slept the sleep of a tired child.
Then Cloudfall put his head through the opening of the tent and snouted above the storm in the speech of Holy Russia, "Ho, ho! Ilya, do you sleep there and take your ease, unmindful of the great misfortune that threatens to o'erwhelm you? The hero Svyatogor is coming to his pavilion where you lodge unasked. Loose me, and let me take to the open plain, and as for yourself, climb up at once into the tall oak tree on the top of yonder hillock."
It would have been too wonderful if Ilya had slept when this strange voice sounded in his ear. Up he sprang, fresh from his slumber and wide awake at once, as every young and healthy person must be who has slept well, loosed the thong which bound Cloudfall to the oak, and climbed without further delay into the branches of the tree on the hillock.
When he looked down, he saw Svyatogor for the first time, and there could be no doubt that he was a hero. He was taller than the trees of the wood, and his flowing locks seemed to be somewhat confused with the flying clouds. Upon his broad shoulder he carried a casket of crystal, and when he drew near to the pavilion by the first oak tree, he stooped and set it gently upon the ground and opened it with a key of gold.
The crystal door swung back without a sound, and out stepped the wife of the hero. In all the white world no beauty like this had ever been seen or told. She was tall and stately, but she stepped as daintily as a white hind. Her eyes were clear and steady as those of the falcon, her eyebrows were as black as a starless night, and the whiteness of her skin dazzled the eyes of Ilya in his oak.
As soon as she had stepped out from the crystal casket, she prepared the table for her lord, spreading upon it a cloth of lawn with drawn thread-work as white as Russia in winter, and placing upon it sweetmeats of various kinds. Then she stepped back to her crystal casket and brought out a flagon, wondrously fashioned, containing mead, whose strength assailed the nostrils of Ilya in his oak on the hillock with a power which passed right through him. In a few moments she sat down with her husband, and the two ate and drank while the laughter of the hero shook the trunk of Ilya's oak and the gentle murmur of his fair companion's merriment rustled the leaves in a tender whisper.
When Svyatogor had eaten well and drunk better, he went into the pavilion, lay down on the broad bed and fell fast asleep. But his beautiful wife roamed about in the open plain, singing softly to herself; and as she walked about she happened to look up, and saw Ilya, who was gazing at her so steadfastly that he seemed to be nothing but eyes.
"Come down," cried the hero's wife; "come down, good and stately youth. Come down out of the damp oak, or I will tell my husband that you have been unkind to me." Now it was not in Ilya's nature to be unkind to any one, so without further words he slipped nimbly down the trunk of the oak; and as soon as he touched the lap of moist Mother Earth, the woman popped him into the pocket of the sleeping hero, and by so doing roused the latter from his heavy sleep.
The hero stretched himself, yawned, and sat up blinking, for he was not so young as Ilya, and therefore did not wake so readily. Then he arose, placed his wife in the crystal casket, locked it with the golden key, mounted upon his horse, and took his way towards the Holy Mountains.
As the hero rode onward his horse began to bend at the knees and then to stumble, whereupon Svyatogor beat him soundly with a silken whip. The animal stopped short, turned his head and said to his master in a human voice, "I was proud enough to carry a hero and his heroic wife, casket and all, but when I am obliged to add another hero to my load, it is not surprising if I stumble."
Svyatogor looked round, and for the first time was aware of his bulging pocket. A little further investigation showed him that he was carrying a fine young man with broad shoulders, on which was set the unmistakable head of a hero. In a moment he had drawn Ilya from his deep pocket and was holding him aloft while he questioned him with knitted brows.
"Whence come you, young man?" he cried, and at the sound of that terrible voice the mountains shook, the forests waved, and the river found that its usual channel was not steady enough to contain it, while it occurred to Ilya that it would be best to tell the truth. So he said boldly enough, though his position could scarcely be described as dignified:
"It was the noble lady in the crystal casket who bade me come down from the oak, and who placed me in the pocket of your hero-ship." Then the youth's eyes were filled with terror, for a fierce frown suddenly creased the brows of Svyatogor, who turned in his saddle, after having seated Ilya before him, and hurled the crystal casket into the rushing, rocking stream.
"Lie there, faithless one," he shouted; "it was surely of little avail to take you out locked up in a glass case if you were to speak to the first goodly young man you meet." Then with a huge gesture of disgust he urged on his steed and took his way along the side of a rocky mountain, talking pleasantly to Ilya as if nothing had happened out of the ordinary. He asked the young man about his parents, his home, and the dearest wish of his heart, which he found was to meet himself, the famous hero Svyatogor.
"Yes, I am he," said the rider as lightly as his huge size permitted, "and I would gladly come among you people of Holy Russia, but moist Mother Earth is too soft to bear me up, and I am forced to ride on the rocky crags and high precipices of the great mountains which are strong enough to bear the weight of myself and my steed. I will take you with me to the Holy Mountains, for you are a young man after my own heart." And as they rode onward he told Ilya how a hero lived and how he did the deeds which roused the wonder and the fear of all men.
Suddenly Svyatogor said to Ilya, "When we come to my home, I will present you to my father. But before you meet him you must take care to heat a piece of iron in the stove, and when he comes with outstretched hand to greet you, take further care not to place your hand within his own, but let him grasp the heated iron."
Ilya promised to follow the instructions of his friend, and before long they came across the craggy peaks to the Holy Mountains, and on the summit of one of them Ilya saw a wonderful palace of white stone. The hero rode forward to the gateway, where he was met by his aged father, whose beard swept his knees like a snow-drift. "Welcome, my dear child," said the old man, to whose tenderness the giant on the mighty steed was still a loving youngster. "Welcome, and thrice welcome! Have you been far afield?"
"I have been in Holy Russia, my father," was the reply. "And what saw you in Holy Russia?" asked the old man. "Nothing but melting snow and moist land," said Svyatogor, "too moist indeed for the feet of my steed. But stay, I did meet with some one of note, and I have brought him with me."
The old man quickly raised his head, but the movement was merely one of habit, for his eyes were sightless. Sadly he dropped his chin once more upon his breast, and said, "Bring to me the hero of Holy Russia that I may greet him."
In the meantime Ilya had found a piece of iron, and having also found a furnace near the gate-way, he quickly made the iron red-hot. Then he grasped the glowing metal in his hand and went forward to greet the blind father of his friend. The old man held out his hand, but Ilya did not clasp it. He placed in its palm the red-hot iron which the old man grasped as if it had been the hand of a friend returned after a long journey. As he felt its burning glow he said, "Thy hands are the hands of a hero, O Ilya, son of strength. Now you are indeed worthy to become the younger brother of Svyatogor. Come within the palace of white stone and rest until the call comes, which comes to all true men of deeds, to sally forth upon yet another journey of adventure."
So Ilya and his elder brother went into the palace of white stone and rested as long as they could, which was not really long, for one morning the sun shone and each found the other at the gate looking with longing eyes upon the world.
Now as he looked outward, Ilya saw to his surprise and pleasure that a horse was feeding near the outer wall of the palace of white stone. He looked more closely and found to his great delight that it was none other than his own good steed Cloudfall. Quickly he ran to the horse and gaily he greeted it, and before long he was mounted upon its back and racing to and fro over the moist grass before the palace of white stone. As he reached the gate for the third time, he found Svyatogor mounted also, and ready to set out with him in search of adventure. Then they rode out along the ridge of the Holy Mountains, and before long they came to a great casket with a lid lying by its side, and upon the lid was written the inscription, "This casket shall fit him for whom it has been hewn from the rock."
The inscription was a plain invitation to one of adventurous spirit, and in a moment Ilya had leapt from his horse and lay at full length within the casket. But it was too long and too wide for him, and he rose saying, "It is not for me that this casket was hewn from the rock."
"The casket was meant for me," said Svyatogor, quietly stepping into it and lying down. His words were true enough, for his heroic body fitted it as if he had been measured for it. "Take the cover, Ilya," he said, "and lay it over me." But his younger brother had no desire to perform an entombment of this kind and he said:
"I will not lift the cover, elder brother, and shut you up in such a manner. Surely you would amuse yourself with what is to me a jest of the poorest kind, if you would prepare for your burial in this way!"
Svyatogor spoke not a word, but reaching forth his hands lifted the lid and covered the casket with it. Then he tried to raise it again, but found that it was easier to get into such a casket than to get out of it. He strove with all his mighty strength to lift the lid, but even this was of no avail, and he cried out through an aperture which still remained between the cover and the side of the casket, "Alas, my brother! It is clear that Fate, who is stronger than heroes, has entangled me at last. I cannot raise the lid. Try to lift it and live to say that you have rescued the prince of heroes."
Ilya thereupon put forth all his strength but, strong as he was, he could not raise the lid. "Take my great battle-sword," said Svyatogor, "and strike a blow across the cover." Ilya grasped the sword, which his brother had unbuckled, before he lay down, but was not able to raise it from the earth, so great was its weight. "I cannot lift it," he said in disgust and despair, "to say nothing of wielding it." "Bend down to this rift," replied his elder brother, "that I may breathe upon you with my heroic breath." Ilya obeyed the command, and when Svyatogor had breathed warmly upon him, he felt new strength rise within him, so that he was three times the man he had been.
He was now able to raise the sword and struck the lid of the casket a mighty blow, so that all the Holy Mountains re-echoed with the sound. Sparks of flame leapt from the lid of the casket, and an iron ridge was formed upon the stone in the path of that tremendous stroke, so as to strengthen the cover rather than weaken it.
"I stifle, younger brother," cried the imprisoned hero. "Try the effect of another blow upon the lid of the fatal casket." Then Ilya smote the cover lengthwise, and the sound of the blow re-echoed more loudly among the Holy Mountains; but the only effect was to raise another ridge of iron upon the lid. Again the imprisoned hero spoke imploringly.
"I die, little brother. Bend down again so that I may breathe once more upon you, and this time give you all my heroic strength."
Then Ilya spoke, and as the words came from his lips he felt as if a voice within him framed them in despite of his own desires.
"My strength is enough, elder brother; if I had more, then moist Mother Earth would not be able to bear me."
"You have done well, younger brother," said the voice of Svyatogor, "in that you have disobeyed my last command. Had I breathed upon you again, it would have been with the breath of death. And now, farewell! Take my great battle-sword, which you have fairly won, but tether my good steed to my iron-bound tomb. None but Svyatogor may ride that horse."
Then Svyatogor spoke no more, and stooping to the crevice Ilya was no longer able to hear the whisper of his breathing. So he bound the good steed to the casket, girt the great battle-sword about his waist, and rode forth upon Cloudfall into the open plain. But as he turned away, he saw the tears of the imprisoned Svyatogor flowing in a crystal stream through the crevice in the iron-bound casket on the lonely hills.