PRINCE Vladimir lost no occasion of making a royal feast, and his banquets were the admiration of Holy Russia and of all the white world. To one banquet he invited a large number of princes, nobles, mighty heroes and their body-guards, as well as a company of merchant princes who had bought land with their wealth in order that they might be accounted gentlemen. The host made good cheer, the food was of the richest, the wine of the greenest, and the white oak tables gleamed like the newly fallen snow on the wide steppe. The stove glowed fiercely, and Ilya sat in the great corner honoured of all.
As the wine-cup passed, the heart of Prince Vladimir grew more and more generous, and he gave cities to one prince, towns to a second, villages to a third, and hamlets to another; but to Ilya he gave a cloak of marten skins with a collar of sables. Then the hero arose, left the banquet-hall with the cloak held out at arm's length from him, and came at last to the kitchen. There he dragged the cloak about the brick floor by one sleeve as if he wished to defoul it and said savagely:
"Just as I drag about this cloak of marten skins with its collar of sables, I will drag about that poisonous serpent Tsar Kalin by his yellow curls. As I pour green wine upon this cloak," suiting the action to the word, "I will pour out his heart's blood."
Then a kitchenmaid came with unwashed face into the presence of Prince Vladimir, and said without preface: "Ilya hath been in my kitchen and hath dragged about the brick floor the mantle of marten skins with the collar of sables, saying that even so would he drag Vladimir by his yellow curls. And he has poured green wine upon the mantle, saying that even so would he pour out the heart's blood of Prince Vladimir." Then wiping her hands upon her apron she added, "And I know not what to do in the matter."
Prince Vladimir rose to his feet and his face was black with anger. "Ye mighty heroes!" he cried, raising his right hand aloft, "lead Ilya to our dungeon and place him behind the iron grating. Pile up trunks of oak trees against the door and heap yellow sand over all."
At once a great company of heroes left the banquet-hall, and coming to the kitchen stood in a ring round Ilya, who smiled at them as a father might smile at his boys; and no man laid hands upon him, for he was the pride of them all. "Help us now, Ilya of Murom," they said, "or Prince Vladimir will visit upon us his sore displeasure." So Ilya, smiling still, called Cloudfall, saddled him and rode himself to the entrance of the dungeon. There he dismounted and let the shaggy bay steed go free, after having taken from him his saddle and plaited bridle.
Then Ilya went down into the dungeon, and the heroes set up the iron grating, piled up trunks of oak trees at the door, and heaped yellow sand over all, as the prince had commanded. After that they went back to their host, who praised them for their obedience and their expedition; but Princess Apraxia dug a deep passage underground, and with her own fair hands carried food of the richest and drink of the sweetest to Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck. And this went on for three years, until Tsar Kalin heard of it, and he was head of the Golden Horde, who in all his wanderings had seen no fairer lady than the Princess Apraxia, whom he meant to take as his own in spite of Prince Vladimir and all his band of well-fed heroes.
Tsar Kalin assembled the Golden Horde, which was in number like the yellow sands upon the seashore, to ride against the royal town of Kiev. Under him were forty Tsars and Tsareviches, and forty Kings and their heirs, each with a company of forty thousand men, and when the host was all assembled it stood along the banks of swift-flowing Mother Dnieper and round about Kiev town on all sides for a distance of a hundred miles all told--a goodly escort for a fair princess. When all was ready Tsar Kalin sat down upon an armless chair in his gold-embroidered tent of white linen, and wrote a letter in great haste, using a swan-quill pen with molten gold in place of ink, and crimson velvet in place of parchment. Then he called his best and favourite runner and gave the royal letter into his hands.
"Go," he said, "to the town of Kiev, falsely styled 'royal.' Enter not by the gates of shining white oak, but leap over the city wall. Dismount not, but riding your charger enter without announcement the palace of white stone. Set the door wide open, but do not close it behind you. Bow not to North, South, East, or West, and do no special reverence to Prince Vladimir. But stand right over against him, and fling this letter upon the table, saying to him:
"Take this letter and ask Nikitich, the young man of supernatural wisdom who can both read and write, to tell thee what it contains, for it disposes in set terms of all your pretensions to royalty. Clean all the streets of Kiev town, take down the wonder-working crosses of the Holy Temples--but leave upon the domes the tall fiery darts of Ilya lest Falcon the Hunter should still be alive--and build stalls for horses in the churches. Cleanse also your palaces of white stone and prepare beds without number, for our host is great. Brew sweet liquors, for our thirst is also great, and let cask stand upon cask in noble array. For in less than two days Tsar Kalin and his great host shall walk the streets of Kiev, and our master shall wed the Princess Apraxia."
The boldness and the careful detail of the command caused the heart of Prince Vladimir to sink very low, and the best he could imagine was to gain time. So he caused Nikitich to write a letter in reply, saying: "Cleaning and fermenting are both slow processes. I shall need a space of three months to prepare this city for its coming guests." Then the favourite runner of Tsar Kalin brought this submissive reply to his master, and the truce was granted.
Prince Vladimir paced to and fro in his chamber, chewing his moustache, and occasionally heaving a heavy sigh when no one was near. Meanwhile, the cleaning and the brewing were proceeding apace, for as Princess Apraxia said quietly, "There is nothing lost by cleanliness, and a good store in the larders and the cellar, for who knows which of our friends will sleep in the clean beds and partake of our cheer."
"Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck is no more," said Prince Vladimir bitterly. "There is no hero to fight for our faith and fatherland. There is none to defend Prince Vladimir." When the busy Princess heard these words she paused for a moment in her work and said, "Little father, command thy trusty servants to go to the deep dungeon and see whether Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck be even yet alive." Then she went on with her dusting, for the china bowls and cups from Farthest East were always her own particular care.
"Foolish princess," said her husband, pausing in his pacing to and fro. "If I cut off your light head, will it grow again? How can the youthful aged one be alive after three years' starvation?" The Princess said nothing, but went on with her work, and in a few moments Vladimir himself went off to the dungeon on the desperate chance. And there, to his wonder, he found Ilya lying on cushions of down, with food of the richest and wine of the greenest on a table beside him, on which was also spread a wonderful written parchment of the Holy Gospels.
Vladimir was so much astonished to find Ilya not only alive and well, but to all appearance very comfortable and happy, that he bowed to North, South, East, and West, and then particularly to the hero. "Come forth, Ilya," he said, as if he had taken no share in the Old Cossáck's imprisonment. "Come forth, and defend us against the Golden Horde, for the sake of the widows and orphans which are to be." Ilya smiled gently and rose slowly from his seat of comfort, for three years' restraint had somewhat stiffened him. Then Vladimir hastened to take him by the hands, as if he had quite forgiven him for a crime which he had never committed, and leading him to his own table, placed him in the great corner and heaped food of the best before him.
But Ilya was not hungry, and he left the table without a word, for he wanted heroic exercise most of all. In the open field he saw Cloudfall grazing quietly as though his master had ridden him only yesterday; and you may be quite certain and absolutely sure that no other rider had during the past three years sat on the back of the faithful shaggy bay steed. The horse gave a joyful chuckle when Ilya once more drew near to him, and as his master proceeded to saddle him he turned his head about and gazed upon him with heroic approbation.
Certain of the people of Vladimir's palace saw Ilya mount upon Cloudfall, but they did not see him as he rode away, so swift was his flight--there was but a smoke wreath on the open steppe and streams of water burst forth where good Cloudfall's hoofs beat upon the ground. He gave a great leap upwards and alighted on the crest of a lofty mountain, from whence he looked out across the open plain to see if any of the heroes were within sight who had come out to defend Holy Russia against the Golden Horde of the Tatars.
Far away in the east he saw the white linen pavilions of the heroes who had helped him to form the barrier against Falcon the Hunter, and the sun shone brightly on their golden embroideries. At the opening of one snowy tent his keen eyes could descry even at that distance how the fine wheat had been shaken out upon the earth for the delight of a hero's charger, and how that same hero had planted upright a spear of heroic height and hung upon it a golden tassel, not for vanity of youthfulness, but as a signal to all the enemies of Holy Russia that a champion abode within that pavilion. As he stood there with his hand shading his eyes Ilya saw another hero come to that vicinity and, even at that far distance, he knew him for the young man of supernatural wisdom--Nikitich, who could both read and write. He saw how the new-comer pitched his pavilion, shook out fine wheat for his charger's delight, planted a lofty spear and displayed two tassels, not for vanity of youthfulness, but to show that a hero and a scholar abode in that pavilion.
Then Ilya came down from the mountain-top, and before you could say Svyatogor he had arrived in the space between the two upright staffs, where he gave Cloudfall the rein that he might take his share of the fine wheat, planted his own lofty spear and hung three tassels upon it, as a sign that a hero, a scholar, and a landed gentleman had come to the assistance of Holy Russia against the Golden Horde. He now entered one of the snowy pavilions, where he found twelve Russian heroes sitting at meat, who all rose to their feet, kissed him and bade him welcome, whereupon they sat down again to go forward with the business of eating. But as he was not yet hungry Ilya did not join them. He hastened to explain his mission, and asked for their help in defending Kiev town, Vladimir, and Princess Apraxia. But one of them said:
"Nay, nay, Ilya of Murom, we will not mount our steeds to defend Kiev town, Vladimir, and his Princess. For he has many princely nobles, whom he feasts right heroically and upon whom he bestows the richest gifts."
"It will be the worse for all of you," said Ilya, in great anger, and their voices rose in wrath so that the good steeds raised their heads from the fine wheat and looked with intelligent wonder through the opening of the pavilion.
Meanwhile Vladimir wrapped himself in his black velvet mantle, which was trimmed with marten, and paced to and fro in his palace in Kiev town, for the time of the truce was almost over, and so far the heroes had not made their appearance. Now as he paced up and down to soothe his anxiety his nephew Yermak came to him and begged that he might have a warrior's charger, a coat of heavy chain mail and a ponderous mace, as well as leave to ride against the Golden Horde.
"You are a mere boaster," said Vladimir carelessly. "Why, you have never yet handled a mace."
"If you do not give me the charger, uncle," said Yermak, "I will set out on foot." The youth's quiet determination had more effect upon Vladimir than weeks of persuasion, and he bade Yermak choose what charger he desired from the royal stables as well as the armour which suited him best from the armoury. Off went the youth in great glee and equal haste, but the chain mail which he found was so rusty that he flung it down with impatience upon the brick floor, whereupon all the rust flew from it; so he picked it up, selected weapons to his taste, ran to the stables, saddled a horse, mounted it and rode at topmost speed to the pavilion of the heroes.
And what did he find in that hour of anxiety and the direst peril? Why, the twelve heroes contentedly sitting playing at draughts upon a board of gold and Ilya sound asleep upon a couch under a heavy coverlet of sables. Then the anger of Yermak was very great indeed, and he shouted with all his might. "Ho, there, you Old Cossáck, Ilya of Murom. Yonder in Kiev city there is bread to eat and to spare, but no one to defend the place against the Golden Horde."
Now Ilya, from force of habit and long practice, slept always with one ear open, and he knew also that it was a fatal mistake to lose his calmness, especially when others about him had lost their own. So he turned slowly on his couch and said quietly, "Climb up into the damp oak, young Yermak, and make an effort to number the host which comes against us by counting the standards which are displayed." So Yermak climbed up into the damp oak, and Ilya turning upon his other side went to sleep once more. From his perch in the damp oak Yermak saw a vast host of the Golden Horde, and how at that moment the leaders were marshalling their men in battle array; and he knew that the shaking of the bough on which he sat came from the trembling of moist Mother Earth at the tramp of their myriad feet. So great was the army that the swift grey wolf could not trot round it in the space of a long spring day; the black raven could not fly about it in the longest day of summer; the grey bird could not wing its flight across it in the longest light of autumn.
Now Yermak had in him some of the qualities of a hero, for the size of the host roused his courage to such a height that he felt impelled to advance against it by himself, single and alone. So he leapt quickly from the damp oak, sprang upon his charger, and rode fiercely across the open steppe against the vanguard of that great host. Meanwhile the game of draughts went quietly on in the fair pavilion of white linen, and Ilya slept. For three days and three nights this went on while Yermak hurled himself again and again against the forefront of the Golden Horde. Then Ilya awoke and said to Nikitich:
"Mount into the damp oak, young man of supernatural wisdom. Perhaps young Yermak has fallen down from the branch for no longer do I see him there."
Then Nikitich climbed up into the tree-top and looked out upon the Golden Horde. He saw the vast host and he saw more than that--not the black raven flying, nor the bright falcon soaring, but that heroic youth galloping boldly against the heathen horde; and he made his report to Ilya, who rose deliberately from his couch:
"Rise, ye draught players, and mount your good steeds. Then in the first place let one of you take grappling hooks and catch young Yermak by the shoulders. Say to him when he is stayed in his headlong flight, 'Thou hast breakfasted to-day. Now let the heroes dine.'"
So one of the company went out with strong grappling irons. Thrice he caught Yermak by the shoulders and thrice did the young man break away, rending his chain mail in the action. Then the messenger returned to report his failure and Nikitich made the attempt with as little success. So Ilya went himself. He sat on Cloudfall as the grandfather of all the oaks stood upon the lap of moist Mother Earth, and caught Yermak by the shoulder with his heroic hand saying to him, "Rest your heroic heart and let us labour now."
Then Ilya rode against that mighty host as the swift eagle swoops down upon the swans and geese or the falcon darts upon the wild duck; and at the place against which Yermak had beaten in vain he made a breach in the line and began to hew a path through the host as the mower makes a way through the thick standing wheat. Then Cloudfall addressed him with the voice of a man:
"Ho, thou mighty hero of Holy Russia! with a heart of steel thou hast advanced against this mighty host, but even your great might may not overcome it, for that pestilent robber, Tsar Kalin, is served by many men of great renown and warrior-maids of heroic strength and feminine fierceness. Moreover, he is a wily leader, for he has dug three trenches across the open steppe and into these you will fall. I can lift you out of the first and likewise out of the second, but out of the third I may not lift you though I should succeed in rising from it myself. For I watched them digging the trenches while you were sleeping, and, indeed, I missed a great deal of the fine wheat while I served you in this manner."
Such a counsel of despair was not pleasing to the heroic Ilya, who grasped his silken whip in his right hand and beat Cloudfall soundly upon the flanks. "Traitor and renegade," he cried in heroic anger, "I feed thee on white wheat and give you water from crystal springs and yet you will forsake me in the deep ditches of the open steppe." And he paid no heed to the warning of the intelligent animal, but rolling up the sleeve of his right arm advanced with unabated fury against the foe. In a few moments he came to the first trench, into which he fell forthwith and from which Cloudfall bore him forth in safety. On he rode, fighting all the way, until he came to a second ditch, and from that also he escaped in like manner. Then he advanced again, fighting all the way, until he came to the third ditch from which Cloudfall leapt nimbly. But he left Ilya behind. Thereupon the accursed Tatars leapt down into the trench and fell upon Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck. They bound his swift feet and his strong white hands and led him to where Tsar Kalin sat in his pavilion of fair white linen embroidered with gold.
"Ah, ho! Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck," cried the pestilent leader of the Golden Horde. "How could you hope, you old dog, to prevail against my mighty host?" Then to his guards he said, "Unfetter his swift feet and unbind his strong white hands." This was done at once, and then Tsar Kalin said in a voice of honey:
"Now sit down at my table, Ilya of Murom. Eat of my food and drink of my mead, put on an embroidered robe, and marry my daughter. Serve Prince Vladimir no longer but be vassal to me."
Then Ilya's eyes flashed fire like the fire of Falcon the Hunter, whose father he was. "If I had by me my good sword," he said, "thou dog, Kalin the Tsar, it should woo thy neck. I will do none of these things, for my duty is to fight for the Christian temples which my darts have protected even against my own son Falcon the Hunter, for Prince Vladimir and Princess Apraxia and the city of Kiev."
Then Ilya raised his eyes and listened and a voice sounded in his ears, "Lift up thy hands, Ilya." He raised them heavenward and into his heroic arms came the strength of twenty heroes; and in that strength he fell upon Tsar Kalin and laid his lifeless body upon the floor of the fair pavilion. Snatching up the monarch's sword he ran from the pavilion to turn it against his host, and company after company fell before him until his sword edge turned and the weapon was useless. Then he flung it aside in impatience, and picking up a Tatar by the ankles he used him as a club with which he cleared a path through the host of astonished warriors. "It is a stout club, this of mine," he cried grimly as he dealt blows to right and left; "and it has a hard end to it with which to crack infidel pates."
At last he won his way to the edge of the host, where he flung his human club from him with a last great effort, and seizing the horn which hung at his side he sounded a mighty blast; for the heroic efforts he had made had dimmed the clearness of his eyes, so that he could not distinguish either the white day or the black night. From far away Cloudfall heard the sound of that familiar horn and in two heroic leaps was once more at his master's side. In a trice Ilya had mounted him and then he rode away to a lofty mountain upon the summit of which he stood and, raising his hand to his brow, gazed far away to the eastward. There he saw again the white pavilion of the heroes and the horses feeding on the fine wheat which was strewn for them. "I will send them a swift messenger," said Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck.
As he fitted a fiery dart to his stout bow, Ilya conjured it saying, "Fly, little dart, to yonder pavilion. Tear through the roof and pierce the white breast of my brother-in-arms, Samson, that glorious hero of Holy Russia, and make a small scratch--not a wound which you would bestow upon one of the Golden Horde,--for the hero Samson sleepeth and taketh his ease while I stand here alone and have need of his help."
The shaft made a stream of blue light through the air, and reaching the pavilion tore a flaming path through the roof, but too quickly for the linen to catch fire, and made a small scratch upon the white breast of Samson, rousing him from his heavy sleep. He opened his eyes, gazed upwards, and saw the rent in the roof of the pavilion. Then he was aware of a slight discomfort on his breast, looked down, saw the scratch, and leapt lightly to his nimble feet.
"Ho, there," he cried aloud, "ye mighty heroes of Holy Russia, saddle your good steeds without delay and mount with speed. A message of distress has come from my brother-in-arms, and had it not been for the cross upon my breast it would have honoured me with a wound fit only for one of the Golden Horde."
Roused at last the heroes took their chargers from the scattered wheat, saddled them and rode them towards Kiev town; and Ilya noting this from his point of vantage came down from the mountain to join his twelve brethren, and in a long line of strength and swiftness the thirteen heroes rode against the Golden Horde.
For the space of five hours they mowed down young and old, and they left at the end of that heroic period not so many as one single soul to continue the accursed race. Flushed with victory and self-confidence, they came together in one place, and all except Ilya began to boast and to say, "If there were steps raised up to Heaven we would climb them and wage war against the sacred hosts."
As these impious words were spoken there happened a wonder of wonders. For the Tatars rose up from the field of the slain, and where there had been one man there were now three, and they all stood up strong and well upon their feet; and if Ilya had not accounted for Tsar Kalin their advance upon Kiev town would have been sudden and overwhelming; but they turned hither and thither like the sands of the desert, having no leader.
Now as the heroes saw them rise, man after man, three in place of one, they rubbed their eyes in wonder, and the impious words which they had spoken dazzled their sense and confused their wits, so that they turned their arms against each other and fought with the fury of sundered friends. But Ilya took no part in that unnatural fight. Sadly and dazedly he watched until the twelve lay dead upon the plain. Then he slowly turned his shaggy bay steed Cloudfall and rode towards a mountain cave which no man has ever seen or shall see till the end of Holy Russia; and sitting in that cavern with his sword across his knees he slowly turned to stone. Cloudfall also became a lifeless statue, and there the two heroic friends sit on, waiting, waiting, waiting for the touch of life which will come when Holy Russia is in direst need and calls aloud in distress for the courage and skill, the patience and the fiery valour of Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck.