ONE day Ilya rode his shaggy bay steed Cloudfall across the open steppe; and as he went slowly onward he was thinking deeply, for he had performed many deeds of the greatest valour, and was now wondering greatly what he should do next.
"I have visited many lands," he said in a brooding voice, "and have seen many strange people, but for a long time I have not visited Kiev, where I took Nightingale the Robber as a prisoner firmly bound to my stirrup of bright steel. I will go now to Kiev once more, so that I may see what is happening in the household of Prince Vladimir."
Raising his head and smiling quietly like a man filled with a secret purpose, he gave Cloudfall the rein, and before he could say "Svyatogor" he was in the city of Kiev, where it was told him by a cook whom he met hurrying across the street that Prince Vladimir was holding a merry feast.
Ilya at once tethered Cloudfall to the carven pillar in the cathedral court and took his way on foot to the banquet-hall of Prince Vladimir, which he entered without invitation, knowing that all wayfarers were welcome to the board of the hospitable Prince.
As soon as he had passed the threshold, Ilya bowed to North, South, East, and West, and then to Prince Vladimir and Princess Apraxia in particular, thinking that the royal couple would surely have a clear remembrance of all the wonderful things that had taken place on his last visit to their town. But neither the Prince nor the Princess knew him again, and it was as a perfect stranger that Vladimir addressed him.
"What is your name and to which horde do you belong?" he asked; "and have you any title of degree?"
"Fair Sun Vladimir," said Ilya, who was secretly taken aback at his reception, but determined not to show it, "I am called Nikita from beyond the Forest."
"Welcome, my brave and merry little fellow," said the Prince with great heartiness; "sit down at our board and eat and drink freely. You will find a little room at the lower end of yonder table. I am sorry there is not more room, but your sharp eyes will see at once that I feast to-day a noble company of princes, statesmen, wealthy merchants, and bold warrior-maids as well as sixty great Russian heroes whose adventures have been many."
Now Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck did not relish the tone of the Prince's speech, and felt it a deep humiliation that the conqueror of Nightingale the Robber should break the royal bread at the lower end of the table. His anger rose, and raising his head he cried:
"Fair Sun Vladimir, do you think to place me among the crows while you feast with the eagles? Nay! I will not eat bread with those beneath my degree."
Such a speech from a man who had made no claim to higher rank than that of Nikita from beyond the Forest, who was clearly a nobody, roused in turn the anger of the Prince. He sprang nimbly to his feet, his face as black as a thunder-cloud, and roared like a crowded den of wild beasts:
"Ho, there, ye mighty heroes of Holy Russia! Will you hear yourselves classed with carrion crows? Seize the stranger, but take care that three of you hold each arm, hale him to the courtyard and strike off his head." Then there was a great commotion, and the cooks began to wring their hands, for they knew that if they did not keep the food hot while the quarrel was proceeding, the Prince would need new cooks on the following day.
Three heroes grasped the right arm of Ilya and three heroes grasped his left arm. He waved his right hand and three heroes fell breathless to the floor of red brick; then he waved his left hand and three heroes fell on top of them. Thereupon Vladimir roared out a command that twelve fresh heroes should seize him, but these champions fared like their fellows. Then twelve more rose before him and six more behind; and these met the same fate as the rest.
Meanwhile the cooks had been able to snatch away the dishes from beneath the nose of the angry Prince and were now hurrying away to place them in the ovens. Then they heaved in unison such a sigh of relief that the fire burned as brightly as it burns upon a frosty night.
Ilya strode forth from the banquet-hall and the anger burned fiercely within his breast. When he reached the courtyard he turned about and fitted an arrow to his bow. As he drew the cord he whispered to the shaft, "Fly, my dart, about the princely towers and strike off the spires and crosses of gold from the royal palace." Off went the arrow, but it did not travel by a straight road. It made a circuitous tour of the pinnacles and domes of the stately building, and as it went on its way spire after spire and cross after cross tumbled down upon the pavement. Ilya gathered up these golden trophies, went to the tavern in the market-place and ordered the landlord to bring out his best green wine, for which he would pay with the royal spires and crosses. Then he stood in the doorway and invited all the loafers of the market-place to come and drink the health of Prince Vladimir, who had been good enough, as he grimly remarked, to provide the means of drinking it.
For once the loafers hesitated to lift the green wine to their lips. "What will the Prince do to us in the morning," they asked, "when he finds that we have drunk up all his golden spires and crosses?"
"Drink, my men," said Ilya. "To-morrow I myself will reign as Prince in Kiev town, and ye shall be my chiefs." Then they drank and drank again; but Ilya of Murom did not put the bowl to his lips in such company, for he merely meant to use these men in his determination to win respect and ample apology from the Prince.
In the meantime Prince Vladimir sat at the board with the hungry revellers about him; but he was so deeply wrapped in thought that he did not even notice that the cooks had taken away the dishes. "Who is this who has come to town?" he asked moodily. Then a young nobleman, whose name was Nikitich, sprang to his nimble feet and said, "I have met all the mighty heroes of Holy Russia save one, and that one is Ilya of Murom, who, I have heard, will not die in battle. This wonderful visitor is no Nikita from beyond the Forest. It must be none other than Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck. I fear, my Prince, with all respect to your Highness, that you did not know how to pay worthy honour to your guest either at his coming or his going."
The Prince's face lighted up, for the young nobleman who had spoken was the only man in the whole of the company who could read and write, and on that account was privileged to speak his mind when his fellows feared for their heads. "Whom shall we send," asked Prince Vladimir, "to invite the hero to our banquet?" (At these words some of the cooks hurried off to prepare fresh food.) "My royal chamberlain will not know how to address him, and my chief page is like a peacock--only fit to strut about in the sun among the women. Go you, Nikitich, for you can read and write and therefore have supernatural wisdom. Bow down before him, with your forehead upon moist Mother Earth, and invite him by his name and title thrice repeated to honour us with his presence at a worshipful feast.
"Say that I did not, to my lasting sorrow, recognise him when I placed him at the lower end of the board, but that now I entreat him to honour us with his truly remarkable presence. Tell him that I bear no ill-will for what has passed, and that instead of sitting at the lower end of the board--though there is now more room in that quarter--he shall sit in the great corner near to the Princess Apraxia herself."
Now Nikitich, having learnt to read and write, did not act upon rash impulse, but stood for a few moments looking supernaturally wise and weighed the matter with the utmost circumspection. "Shall I go?" he asked himself. "It may mean sudden death for me at the hands of Ilya. On the other hand, it will certainly mean slow death at the hands of Prince Vladimir if I do not obey. Perhaps I had better go." Then with a low bow to the Prince and another to the Princess, he left the banquet-hall with the step of resolution.
In a few moments he came to the tavern where he saw Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck sitting grimly watching the loafers while they drank the health of Prince Vladimir. "It will be better," said Nikitich to himself, "if I come upon him from behind, for then I shall be able to deliver my message without being put in deadly fear by his eyes of terror." So he approached Ilya from behind as he sat there and, placing his hands upon the hero's mighty shoulders, told him all that Prince Vladimir had said; but being able to read and write, and therefore full of supernatural wisdom, he missed out the sentence about the Prince bearing no ill-will for what had passed.
Had he been able to watch the face of Ilya as he spoke the Prince's message, Nikitich would have seen a bright gleam of laughter steal into the terrible eyes of the Old Cossáck. But when the speech was over, Ilya did not turn his head. "It is well for you, young Nikitich," he said grimly, "that you come upon me from behind. If you had approached me from before, your body would have been dust and ashes before now. Go at once and deliver to Prince Vladimir the following message in answer to his own:
"Let strict orders be issued to all the inn-keepers of Kiev and Chernigof that they invite all who care to come to quaff green wine at the expense of Prince Vladimir; and for those who care not for green wine let vodka, the drink of the peasants, be provided; while those who love neither shall drink sweet mead beloved of fair ladies and their squires. By this all men shall know that Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck who led captive Nightingale the Robber is now come to town. Let the Prince also prepare an honourable banquet and reserve the great corner near the high table for me.
"Otherwise," continued Ilya, at last turning his head and fixing his heroic eyes on the young man of supernatural wisdom who could both read and write, "otherwise----" But the ambassador of Prince Vladimir did not stay to enquire what would happen. The sight of Ilya's countenance was enough for him, and only the drunken loafers heard the completion of the hero's threat "--the Prince shall reign in Kiev no longer than to-morrow's morn."
Then quickly, quickly, very very quickly, and with lightning speed, ran the wise young man to Prince Vladimir, and quickly, quickly, very very quickly, and with lightning speed, were the "requests" of Ilya complied with. Great crowds drew to the tavern, though they came not to drink but to see the Old Cossáck. They were however disappointed, for Ilya had gone, post-haste upon the heels of the envoy, to take his place at the banquet, taking his invitation for granted. But being a true gentleman, he bowed on entering the hall to the North, South, East, and West, and then in particular to Prince Vladimir and Princess Apraxia.
Vladimir rose quickly to his feet and cried with hands extended, "Ho, there, Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck. Here is a place for you beside me, in the great corner near the stove. Or if it please you to sit elsewhere it shall be as you will." So Ilya sat in the great corner, and before long the cooks and the serving men were passing to and fro like a whirlwind.
Now, as they sat at meat and as the wine pails freely passed, there happened a very great wonder; for Prince Vladimir turned to pledge Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck, and behold! he no longer sat in the great corner. The Prince rubbed his eyes in astonishment, but the Princess, with a somewhat scornful smile, told him to look for Ilya under the banquet table. Then they looked, but Ilya was not there. So the Prince sent out messengers upon the broad road which ran for forty furlongs to the city of Galich; but Ilya was not upon the broad road, and the only man they met was an old pilgrim who was making his way slowly and painfully to Kiev town. His smock was tattered with use, and a ragged girdle was bound about his waist. His cap was heavy with moisture, his feet were covered with rotten straw, and he leaned so heavily upon a crooked staff that the moist earth squirted out beneath his step.
The ancient pilgrim entered the town and went to the chief inn, where he asked courteously enough for a pail and a half of green wine. "You old grey dog," said the inn-keeper, "we do not trust such as you, nor can we give you green wine without your money." Then the old man took from his neck a cross of gold, wonderfully chased, of great weight, and clearly of as great antiquity. "Take this cross in payment," he said, but not one of the men dared to handle it. Then seeing that the old man was faint for want, the peasants about the place gave each a kopeck that he might have his wine; and when it was brought to him he drank it in a draught and a half and at a breath and a half. Having done this, he climbed upon the stove, lay down as if he were in his mother's cottage, and fell fast asleep.
Very early in the morning, as the warm red sun arose, the old pilgrim descended from the stove, went down to the cellars, burst open the door with his foot, took a cask of wine under each arm and rolled a third before him with his right great toe. So he came out to the green meadow and then into the market-place, where he shouted out, in a voice wonderfully strong for so aged a pilgrim, "Ho, ye peasants of the village, come to the old man's feast." By this time, however, the men from the tavern were upon him; but though there were many of them they could not take the wine from the old man, so they went to make their complaint to Prince Vladimir.
"Bring him before me," said the royal judge, and they did so. Then the ancient pilgrim raised his eyes, and by means of the smile in the depths of them Vladimir knew him for Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck.
"Plague upon my love of fun," said Ilya, "but these thick-headed varlets are easily imposed upon. Let me pay them for my fun and, Prince, give me work worthy of a hero."
"The time demands a hero's help," said Prince Vladimir, "for my royal city goes in fear by day and passes sleepless nights in terror for Falcon the Hunter, who rides the heavens and can pass over the loftiest barriers to hurl his fiery darts upon every golden pinnacle which rears upward to the sky. Make a barrier, Ilya, upon the road by which he comes, and check him, if you can, with fiery shafts from your magic bow."
Then Ilya's eyes gleamed with pleasure, and he called for six of the mightiest heroes to help him to form a barrier in the path of Falcon the Hunter; and among the six was Nikitich, the young man of supernatural wisdom who could both read and write, as well as Vaska Longskirt, who was very brave but hampered in his fighting by his voluminous coat in which he defied the white world. The seven made a strong barrier on the road by which Falcon the Hunter took his flight, so strong that no horseman ever so swift could gallop by, nor wayfarer circumvent it; no wild beast could break it, and if a ravening eagle or carrion crow soared above it the fiery darts of Ilya brought it down in a shower of feathers and a rain of blood. "Surely," said Princess Apraxia, whose bright eyes always closed involuntarily as Falcon the Hunter was seen riding upon the clouds, "we shall be safe from the horror that stalks in the darkness by reason of the barrier of Ilya of Murom."
But late that night young Falcon the Hunter passed by, leaping from one low black cloud to another, and with a dazzling smile scorning the barrier of the seven heroes. In the early dawn Ilya went forth and traced the footsteps of his black horse--a blasted pine tree with its heart scorched to charcoal, a tall tower, and several golden pinnacles of the royal pavilion lying upon the bosom of moist Mother Earth. He went back to his brother heroes. "While we slept until the white dawn," he cried in a loud voice, "Falcon the Hunter swept by in his malignity. What a barrier is this of ours! What a fortress! Let us arm ourselves, my friends, and go out upon the steppe to seek this rash intruder whose malignant glance causes the Princess Apraxia to close her eyes in fear." Then they sat down in a circle to hold a wise council, having no immediate fear of Falcon the Hunter, who never came to the city of many golden pinnacles while the sun shone broadly upon it.
"Whom shall we send against Falcon the Hunter?" asked Ilya, who did not intend to go himself until the others had failed. "It is of little use sending Vaska Longskirt, for he will get entangled in the tails of his coat. Nikitich must go, and if he finds that Falcon the Hunter is a Russian he shall swear eternal brotherhood with him on behalf of all of us. But if he finds he is an infidel he shall challenge him to mortal combat."
Then Nikitich sprang to his nimble feet, saddled and mounted his good steed, and rode forth to the place where a great river met the dark-grey sea. As he looked along the straight road he saw a rider before him who sat upon his horse with the assurance of youth and victory. His black steed was full of mettle and fresh from the untamed steppe. At each leap he covered a furlong, and the marks which the hoofs of his horse made upon the bosom of moist Mother Earth were as large as a ram or a full-grown sheep. Flames flashed from the mouth of the steed, lighting up the heavy clouds which hung over the dark-grey sea, sparks of blue fire showered from his nostrils, and from his erected ears smoke curled in tiny wreaths which quivered and then vanished in mid-air. The helmet on the head of the hero glowed like fire, and blue rays of light darted from ornaments on his doublet, from his pointed spurs and his stirrups of bright steel. At his left stirrup ran a swift grey-hound, and a fire-eating dragon was chained to the right which sang and whistled with a strange music as the horse and its rider passed on towards the dark-grey sea. From shoulder to shoulder hopped the clear-eyed bird from which Falcon the Hunter took his name, and as it passed it plucked at the long yellow locks of the rider, which streamed upon his shoulders like tongues of living flame.
The knight sat easily upon the back of his strange steed, and as he rode he amused himself by hurling his bright steel mace towards the lowering clouds which hung threatening over the dark-grey sea. It flashed across the cloudy barrier, making a bright reflection in the heaving water, and then returned obedient to the hand of Falcon the Hunter without touching either sea or land in its flight. As he played, Falcon the Hunter spoke to his wonderful mace: "Lightly as I now whirl this mace aloft, even so lightly will I twirl Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck."
Then Nikitich called out, "Ho, there, Falcon the Hunter! Have you no fear of our barrier?"
Falcon replied over his shoulder, "'Tis not for youths even of supernatural wisdom to pursue me in the open plain. It is high time that you were hiding from me in the deep depths of a feather-bed."
When Falcon the Hunter spoke, the waters of the sea were troubled, flecks of foam appeared upon the deep, and the shallows were choked with sand. The charger of Nikitich trembled sorely and fell down upon its knees, while its rider sank upon the bosom of moist Mother Earth, where he lay as if in a trance for the space of three full hours. When he awoke, the sun was shining brightly, the waves upon the ocean danced in glee, and the tumbled rack of grey clouds on the horizon was all dispersed and scattered. But Falcon the Hunter was no longer to be seen, for with all his terrors he was afraid of the jolly sun with his broad and welcoming smile.
Nikitich now mounted his charger and rode off at once to report to Ilya the Old Cossáck. The old man listened quietly and then said with a sigh, "I grow old, and yet there is none coming after me to take my place." Then he saddled his good charger Cloudfall and sprang upon his back without making any use of the stirrups. On the saddle-strap hung his war club, mighty in weight; on his left hip rested his sharp sword and in his hand he held his silken whip; but for this encounter he placed most reliance upon the fiery darts in the quiver upon his broad back and in the strength of his mighty bow. Thus armed he rode forth into the darkness of the mountains, where he found Falcon the Hunter leaping from summit to summit and rousing the cavernous echoes with his fear-compelling voice. But neither the flashing flames nor the rolling angry accents struck terror to the heart of Ilya, for with a quick movement he shifted his quiver, which was open at both ends, so that the points of the darts pointed heavenwards, and from these points streamed a blue radiance which enveloped the form of the hero like a protecting halo.
Above the noise of the voice of Falcon the Hunter was heard the voice of the heroic Ilya. "Ho there!" he cried, "Thief, dog, braggart! Why have you passed our barrier without doing reverence to me or asking my leave?" When the Hunter heard this challenge he turned and rode at Ilya, and for a moment, though only for a moment, the heart of the hero died within him. But with a tightening of the strap of that wonderful quiver, so that even in the fight his fiery darts should point heavenwards, he rushed into the fray. First they fought with their maces until these snapped short at the hilt, but neither fighter was wounded in the least. Then their swords flashed fire until both were splintered, but still neither fighter was wounded in the least. Next they fought with their spears until both were shattered, and even yet neither fighter was wounded in the least. Last of all they lighted down upon the ground and fought hand to hand.
All day they fought, till stormy even, till black midnight, till the grey dawn, and so they did the second day, and likewise the third. Then Ilya waved his right hand, and his left foot slipped from under him. Down he fell like a stack of hay, but as he fell he was able to move his quiver so that the fiery darts with their streaming blue fire pointed directly heavenwards. As he lay there Falcon the Hunter planted himself upon his breast and struck at him with a flashing dagger of steel. But the blow fell upon the upturned points of those wonderful darts and spent itself on the broad bosom of moist Mother Earth.
"See!" cried Ilya with a grim laugh. "It was foretold of me that I should not die in battle. Oh, brave good youth, tell me from what horde you come and who were your parents."
"It is time," growled Falcon the Hunter, "that you should shave your head and go to a monastery." At this taunt the heart of Ilya grew hot and his blood, still youthful, boiled within him. With a mighty blow of his fist he struck Falcon on his black breast, hurling him skywards, though not so high as the heavy clouds which lowered above the heroic fight. When the Hunter fell once more, Ilya sprang to his nimble feet and sat in his turn upon the breast of his enemy.
"Tell me now, good youth," he said, "the name of thy land, thy horde, and thy father."
"When I sat upon thy breast," growled Falcon the Hunter, "I did not enquire of thee thy land, thy horde, and thy parentage, for these things concern not me, the enemy of all mankind. And if I sat upon it again I would pierce your bosom, pluck out your heart and examine it in mere curiosity, and then scatter the fragments of your white body over the plain, to be torn by the grey wolf and picked by the black crows."
Then Ilya asked his enemy no more questions but drew forth his shining dagger of steel; and at the sight of this gleaming weapon the heart of Falcon the Hunter sank within his breast and he gave the answer required of him:
"I come from far across the sea, from the palace of grey stone where the sun has no power to enter, and my mother was the warrior-queen Zlatigorka. The name of my father I do not know. When I left the palace of grey stone my mother, who now is gentle, told me to meet Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck if I could, and having met him to dismount from my horse and do reverence to him, touching my forehead upon the bosom of moist Mother Earth."
Then the fierce eyes of Ilya grew soft with compassion, and his mind went back to the far-off day when he crossed the deep-blue sea in the strength of his manhood to see the palace of grey stone and to talk with the warrior-queen who ruled there; for he had vowed that he would win the love of that brave Princess and take her as his bride. Now, being a hero, and the maiden a right worthy mate for him, he could not hope, nor would he care, to win the Princess except he had first proved that he was stronger than she; and for a long time the two had striven day after day until at times their hearts were sick of the eternal conflict, yet neither could bring it to an end. Then at last the warrior-queen had weakened and had yielded, and had found more joy in yielding than in conquest; and Ilya had given her his golden ring set with a ruby red as a flaming heart, while she had given him a wondrous cross of gold to wear upon his heroic breast; and the two had lived in the palace of grey stone until a son was born to them and the fighting queen had forgotten her weapons and her warrior strength in her motherhood. Then Ilya had been called away on one of his many quests, and the boy had grown up without his heroic guidance--to become a scourge to his gentle mother and to all mankind. And as he thought on these matters, the heart of Ilya was saddened beyond measure, and stooping over Falcon the Hunter he took him by his white hands, kissed his lips and called him his son, weeping greatly as he looked upon him. Then raising his hands he blessed him and said:
"Ride, my son, to the margin of the waters, and then cross the grey sea until you come to the palace of grey stone and to your lady mother who lives only in her memories. Greet her lovingly from me, and say that Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck keeps her ever in his golden heart."
Then Falcon the Hunter rose to his feet and prepared to do his father's bidding. But when he came to the porch of the palace of grey stone these were the words he uttered:
"Ho, there, bold and evil woman! Come forth! Was it indeed the son of a peasant whom you gave me for a father?"
Then his mother came out upon the porch, and though her face was grey with double grief and she stooped as if she needed the strong arm of a brave man about her shoulders, the undutiful son struck at her with his flashing sword and she fell dead upon the pavement.
Even this piteous sight did not touch the cold and fiery heart of Falcon the Hunter, who shouted out so that the walls of the palace of grey stone rang again, "I go now to give the old peasant, Ilya of Murom, to speedy death." Thereupon he crossed the grey sea over which the angry clouds were lowering, mounted his charger, and rode quickly towards the fair white linen pavilion of Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck.
Lifting the curtain of the tent, he found his father sleeping and hurled a burning shaft at him; but it struck the wondrous cross of gleaming gold which Ilya wore upon his heroic breast and glanced harmlessly aside, though the mighty blow roused the hero from his slumber. He leapt from his couch, seized his undutiful son by his yellow curls, and laid him lifeless upon the plain. So Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck freed the people of Holy Russia from their fear of Falcon the Hunter, the enemy of all mankind.