ILYA of Murom rode Cloudfall across the open steppe. For nigh three hundred years he had ridden, and he wondered at the youthfulness of his heart which constant danger had kept fresh and young. "Ah, old age, old age! Thou hast chased and overtaken even Cloudfall in the open steppe, and like a bleached raven hast alighted on my head--but not on my arm." Then with a youthful gesture he flung out his sword arm, tightened the girth of Cloudfall and gave the rein to the shaggy bay steed.
Away went Cloudfall like the wind, and Ilya as he sat upon him was like the falcon clear. There was no need of bridge or ferryman for this heroic traveller, for good Cloudfall leapt over shining lake and rushing river, quivering bog and reedy swamp. And as they rode they came to a place where three roads met, and there stood a burning white stone on which was inscribed: "He who rides to the right shall gain great wealth; he who rides to the left shall gain a wife; he who rides straight forward shall gain his death." Then Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck halted and stood still with his head bowed in an attitude of the deepest thought.
"I am an old man," he said to himself, "and have all the wealth I need, for it wearies me to count it. Why should an old man wish for a wife? I will take the straight road though Death should sit athwart it." Then he added, lifting his head with the light of unquenched youth still in his eyes, "It may be that Death and I shall come to grips in one more great adventure."
Then the youthful Old Cossáck rode onward for leagues and leagues until at last he entered a gloomy forest into which he advanced for some distance, and then met a band of forty thousand robbers who cast eighty thousand envious eyes (save one, for the chief had lost an eye in a battle) upon the goodly proportions and intelligent appearance of Cloudfall the shaggy bay steed. "In all our lives," they said one to another, "we have never seen such a horse. Halt then, good youth, halt, thou hero of Holy Russia!" And they would have forced him to halt but Ilya said:
"Ho, ye robber horde! Why kill an old man and rob him? I have no money in my wallet save five hundred roubles. The cross of gold upon my breast is worth only five hundred--to any one of your company--my cloak of sables about three thousand, my cap and my sandals about five hundred each, my bridle, set with precious stones, about a thousand. My saddle, bordered with eagle feathers,--I hunted that eagle over the blue sea on the way to the palace of grey stone--is priceless and therefore of no value to any of your company. Between the ears of Cloudfall and under his eyes are clear stones of purest jacinth, but he wears these, not for youthful vanity, but because they help him to see for thirty miles on all sides as he bounds across the open steppe. As for my faithful shaggy bay steed Cloudfall, he is worth nothing at all, except to me. Here then is my inventory. Value me I pray you for yourselves."
The robber leaders jeered as they replied, "Thou art old and talkative, Cossáck. Since we took to roaming across the white world, we have never met with such a fool. Why, thou art so foolish that thou hast told us all the clear truth. Seize the old man, my brothers."
But as the robbers advanced upon him, Ilya of Murom drew a fiery dart from his quiver, and fixing it to his terrible bow shot at a tree to his right hand which was the grandmother of all the oaks. The mighty trunk was shivered into fragments, and the earth was ploughed up round about by the force of that tremendous blow, at the sound of which all the robbers fell flat upon the earth, where they lay for the space of five hours before they recovered themselves. And when they arose again to an erect posture the leader said:
"Good youth, noble hero of Holy Russia! Enter thou into comradeship with us. Take from our goodly store whatever pleases you of golden treasure, embroidered cloth, horses and cattle." But Ilya laughed the jolly laugh of the adventurer to whom goods and gear, however rich, are a trouble and a burden. "Ah, brothers, my brave foes," he said, "I have no wish to be troubled with guarding treasure, feeding horses, and tending cows and sheep. I must ride and ride ever onward across the open steppe and leave the guarding of treasure to shop-keepers and merchants who live in towns behind bolts and bars."
Then Ilya of Murom turned Cloudfall in his tracks, and came again to the burning white stone, from which he erased the inscription and wrote in its place:
I, Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck, have ridden straight forward and have not gained my death.
Once more the aged hero with the heart of youth rode out into the open steppe, turning this time to the left. He rode onward for three hundred miles and then came to a smooth meadow as green as an emerald stone, and upon this meadow stood a wonder of wonders. It was too small to be called a city and too large to be called a village. It was, in truth, a beautiful palace of white stone with roofs of shining gold and strange three-cornered towers.
Ilya drew rein before the golden gateway, whereupon there came forth upon the green sward forty beautiful maidens, who walked proudly behind Princess Zenira the All Fair. Ilya dismounted and bowed low, whereupon the beautiful Princess took him by his white hands, kissed him on the lips, and invited him to a feast in the banquet-hall of the palace of white stone. "I have travelled far in Holy Russia," said Ilya of Murom, "but I have never seen such a fair palace or such beautiful ladies." The maidens bowed their heads, like ears of corn before a gentle breeze, and the Princess led the hero within the palace.
When they came to the banquet-hall, Ilya bowed to North, South, East, and West, and especially to the Princess Zenira, who placed him at the table of fair white oak in the big corner and brought him food of the best with sweet mead to drink. "Do not eat or drink of these things until you are satisfied, good youth," she said gently, "for there is more to come." But Ilya looked at her as she spoke, and looked at her again, and for a third time he scanned her face and found it beautiful with the beauty of the newly-fallen snow on the wide steppe when the moon rises; that was the beauty of the Princess Zenira. Then Ilya's eyes fell once more upon the fair white oak of the table and he said, speaking as one who knows his meaning, "I have ridden for three hundred miles and my hunger and thirst are as heroic as my steed." So he ate and drank his fill.
Then as his head seemed to droop upon his breast, though in reality he was more wide awake than ever, the Princess Zenira led him to a rich warm chamber at one side of which stood a broad bed of yew wood and ivory with pillows of the softest down.
"Here you will rest as on the lap of your mother," said the fair Princess, "but I advise you to lie near to the brick wall which is warm from the stove beneath." "Nay," said the hero, "I will lie upon the outer edge for I often rise in the night to see for myself that Cloudfall is well stabled." Then without more ado, he seized the fair Princess Zenira by the middle and flung her upon the bed of yew wood against the wall.
And behold the bed of yew with pillows of softest down was false, for it turned on a pivot when the weight was cast upon the side nearer to the brick wall, and the fair Princess was hurled down into her dungeon, forty fathoms deep. Then Ilya turned and left the chamber, and coming out into the courtyard said in the voice of him who must be obeyed: "Give me the keys of gold which unlock the doors of the dungeon and show me the way to the dark vaults beneath this palace of white stone." So they pointed out the way, and he found it choked with yellow sand and barred with huge logs of wood.
He had really no need of keys of gold, silver, iron, or steel; for in the strength of his heroic anger he tore the locks asunder with his hands and forced back the doors with his heels until they burst from their frames. Then came forth from the dungeons forty Tsars and Tsareviches, forty kings and princes, with their eldest sons, together with Nikitich the youth of supernatural wisdom, who could both read and write, but whose wonderful learning had not made him proof against the wiles of Princess Zenira although her beauty was only that of the newly-fallen snow upon the steppe illumined by the cold rays of the rising moon.
There stood this great company, blinking their eyes in the light and looking very foolish, and as they hummed and ha'ed and wondered how to explain themselves, the fair Princess Zenira, as beautiful as ever, came round a corner of the dark passage, and her moonlight beauty lit up the darkness of the dungeon. In spite of all their experiences it was clear that her fascination still worked upon the hearts of the prisoners, and seeing this Ilya cried in a voice which shook the vaults until they re-echoed again and again, "Tsars, to your tsardoms; kings, to your kingdoms; Nikitich, to my side; and, being delivered, say a prayer for Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck."
In a few moments the whole company with the exception of Nikitich was racing pell-mell across the emerald meadow, and having dismissed the youth of supernatural wisdom, Ilya advanced sternly upon the fair Princess Zenira. He took her by her lily-white hands and bound her to three Cossáck ponies fresh from the farthest steppe. Then he drove them apart and turned his head that he might not see the end of that white witch; and he divided her treasure among the prisoners, sending each man's share to his kingdom, and gave the fair white palace to the flames.
Once more Ilya returned to the burning white stone, crossed out the old inscription and wrote yet another which ran:
I, Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck, have ridden to the left and have not gained a wife.
"I will go now," said Ilya, "upon the last road, where wealth is to be won." So he rode again over the open steppe, and came at length to a green meadow where deep pits were dug, and then to a dark and gloomy forest in which there was a mountain cave filled with fair red gold, white silver, and fine seed pearls; and above the entrance to the cave, in the face of the smooth rock, were carved the words,
"This treasure will fall to Ilya of Murom."
For seven days Ilya sat wondering what he should do to dispose of the treasure. Then he arose and went to the nearest town, where he hired builders and carpenters, architects and workers in metal. These men he set to work to build a fair cathedral on the place where the gloomy forest had stood, and when the glorious building was completed, he instituted church singing and the sound of bells, for in these things his soul delighted. When this work had been finished--and it occupied a fair space of time--Ilya returned to Kiev city, where the courteous Prince Vladimir asked him where he had been.
Sitting down in the great corner near the stove, the old man smiled gently, stretched his feet to the blaze, and told the Prince the Adventure of the Three Roads and of the Burning White Stone. Then he yawned and went to bed in the peace of accomplishment.