ONCE upon a time there was a King who was very fond of hunting. He had extensive forests full of all kinds of game. But at the farthest boundaries of his dominions was a strip of land, surrounded by steep hills, which the people of the country considered enchanted ground, because none who had gone thither for the purpose of hunting had ever returned. One day the King said to his noblemen:
"Let us go and see what is there."
His men asked him to be advised and not to go. But the King insisted; they started upon the fatal journey and never came back. The King had two sons, the eldest of whom succeeded him. One day the younger brother said to the new King:
"I will go and revenge my father's death."
The King tried to dissuade him, but all in vain; the lad insisted. He had some very faithful servants who said they would accompany him, and they all set out upon the perilous journey. As soon as they entered the enchanted ground they saw a beautiful antelope running before them. They began to chase the animal, which seemed to mock them with its graceful bounds over the bushes and rocks. They continued chasing it until late in the day, when they came to a thick forest surrounded by steep rocks. The antelope leaped over the rocks and disappeared in the forest. But the hunters' horses could go no farther, and they all dismounted. They were surprised to find an elegant tent pitched among the trees beside a fountain of pure water. Entering the tent, they saw a table spread with all kinds of delicious foods. They were very hungry and began to devour the food with ravenous appetites; after that they quenched their thirst from the crystal waters of the fountain. But the lad never tasted the food or the water; he thought to himself that there must be some deviltry at the bottom of this banquet. While his men gave themselves up to eating and drinking, the lad occupied himself in examining the neighborhood. To his great terror he saw not far from the tent a heap of human skeletons bleached and showing their grinning teeth. What could these be if not the bones of those who, from time to time, had come to hunt in that enchanted ground and been lost? Among these, perchance, were the bones of his own father. How could he have been killed? With these thoughts he came back to the tent, and to his great horror and grief saw that some of his men were already dead and others were breathing their last. He wished to help them, but in vain; they were soon as dead as stones. He could plainly see the cause; both the food and the water were poisoned. He now understood how all human beings who hunted in this region were done away with and heaped up on the pile of skeletons. But who was the perpetrator of this devilish crime? His blood began to boil, and he determined to do battle with the perpetrator whether human being, fairy or demon, until he had revenged the victims of this diabolical plot. He was buried in this meditation when he heard the footsteps of approaching horsemen, and he immediately withdrew to the depths of the forest, bound his horse to a sycamore tree, and concealed himself behind the bushes, whence he could see the tent and the neighborhood without himself being perceived. Soon a number of horsemen arrived, who appeared to be greatly pleased at seeing the dead men, and at once began to strip them of their clothes. They loaded each man's property upon his own horse, and prepared to drive the horses away. One of the riders, who no doubt was their leader, wore a complete suit of white armor, had locks of long hair and a graceful countenance, feminine in its beauty. The lad who was watching them closely, took aim with his bow and arrow and was just about to shoot the leader in the forehead, when he suddenly stopped.
"That is a woman," he said to himself. "I will not shoot at a woman." At once he jumped out from the place of his concealment and standing before the leader exclaimed:
"Are you a human being, a fairy or a demon? Disclose yourself. To lead people astray and to destroy human life by poison are not the deeds of heroes. Come, let me measure swords with you."
These words of the lad at first called forth expressions of rage upon the countenance of the leader. But the next second the natural feminine grace again bloomed upon her cheeks, and she answered with a sweet musical voice, the sweetest that ever fell upon a human ear:
"Youth, I spare your life provided that your heart is as brave as your words. Zoolvisia is my name. If you want to show your courage before me, you must come where I live."
And she spurred her horse, and galloping disappeared behind the trees and rocks. The lad stood stone-still as if struck by lightning. The beauty of the horsewoman had charmed him; her face was of light, her hair of gold, her horse of lightning. Was she a maiden?
"Zoolvisia! Zoolvisia!" the lad exclaimed suddenly, "I will find you."
And at once he mounted his horse and started in the direction whither Zoolvisia and her followers had gone. It was late in the evening, the sun having long before disappeared behind the horizon. After groping his way in the darkness for a while, he saw a light gleaming at a distance and turned his horse in that direction. When he arrived he saw a cave where a fairy woman was kneading dough.
"The goodness of the hour upon you, mother!" said the lad.
"Heaven bless you, son!" said the old dame. "Neither the snake on its belly, nor the bird with its wing could come here; why did you venture to come?"
"Your love brought me hither, mother," answered the lad.
The fairy woman was pleased with the lad, and said to him:
"The seven fairies, my sons, have just gone out a-hunting; they hunt all night long and come back in the morning. If they find you here they will devour you. Let me hide you."
So speaking, she hid the lad in a hole near the cave. At daybreak the seven fairies returned, and smelling a human being, exclaimed:
"O mother! last night you ate a human being; have you not kept at least some bones for us to pick?"
"I have eaten no human being," said their mother; "but my nephew, the son of a human sister, has come to visit us."
"Where is he, mother? we want to see our human cousin," said the fairies.
The old woman brought the lad out from the hole and presented him to the fairies, who were much pleased with him and asked him the reason for his journey. The lad said that he was going after Zoolvisia.
"Zoolvisia!" exclaimed the seven brothers. "Be advised, cousin, do not go. This is a most dangerous journey. Zoolvisia is a cruel tyrant. No human being who has ever undertaken this journey, has returned. Come, cousin, stay with us; be our elder brother, we your subordinates, and let us live together in happiness."
"No," said the lad, "let come what may; I will go." Thereupon he gave the seven brothers a pair of scissors, saying:
"When you see blood dripping from the scissors, know that I am in danger and come to my rescue."
And he took leave of his adopted cousins. On his way he came to another cave where seven fairies lived with their mother, the sister of the former fairy woman, who accepted him as their cousin and tried to dissuade him from going. He gave to them a looking-glass, saying:
"When you see the glass covered with sweat, know that I am in trouble, and hasten to my rescue."
Then he came to a third abode, where seven fairies lived with their mother, who was a sister of the former two. They also accepted him as cousin, and sought to dissuade him from going. He gave them a razor, saying:
"When you see drops of blood falling from the edge of this razor, know that my life is in danger, and run to my rescue."
Departing on his way he met an old monk in a cottage, who also tried to dissuade him; but as the lad insisted, the monk said:
"Let me advise you; Zoolvisia is the most beautiful maiden in the world. She is a princess endowed from above with a talisman. She has forty maids under her command who play the part of Amazons. She goes up to the top of the tower of her castle every morning at daybreak, dressed in her robe of pearls. Thence she gazes all about her realm, to see whether human beings or genii have trespassed upon her boundaries. Three times she cries out with a loud voice, and all who have been on her ground, on hearing her voice immediately drop dead as if struck by lightning. It is she who, taking the shape of an antelope, leads hunters astray and destroys them by poisonous food and water. Now, do as I advise you. As soon as you reach the vicinity of her castle, set up a stick and put on it your cloak and cap, and dig a trench in the neighborhood and conceal yourself, at the same time sealing both your ears with beeswax, so that no sound can penetrate them. At the beginning of daybreak watch her on the top of the tower. Do not stir at her first nor second call, but as soon as her third call is ended, jump up from your place of concealment and stand before her. By this means you will break her talisman, and subdue her."
The lad thanked the old monk, and continuing his journey soon saw, at a distance, Zoolvisia's magnificent castle decorated with gold and jewels. He did just as the monk had advised him, and at Zoolvisia's third call jumped up and stood before her gazing at her. Zoolvisia recognized him, and said:
"You have overcome me; you are brave and a real hero worthy of me. No one except you has ever heard my voice and lived. Now my talisman is broken, and I have become a mere woman. Come in, hero, I and my forty maids will serve you."
The lad's heart began to yearn. All the hatred he cherished toward her who had perpetrated such terrible crimes had vanished. He had fallen in love with her, and Zoolvisia on her part loved the lad. She let the rich locks of her golden hair hang down from the window. The lad approached, took hold of them and kissed them, and lo! he was drawn up to the castle by them. They accepted one another as husband and wife, and celebrated their wedding for forty days and nights. The forty maids served them. At the end of forty days Zoolvisia presented to the lad her horse of lightning. The animal seemed to be greatly pleased with his new master. The lad mounted the steed and prepared to go hunting when Zoolvisia gave him as a keepsake one of the locks of her hair in a pearl box. So the lad continued to hunt every day. One day, as he was chasing a deer on the precipitous borders of the river, the pearl box fell into the water and disappeared. The lad was sorry, but he could not help it, and came home without it. The pearl box was carried by the current of the river to the country of the King of the East, where the King's fishermen drew it from the water and took it to their master. The King, opening the box, was surprised to see the lock of golden hair. He called his noblemen and peers in council, and placing the box before them, said:
"You must tell me whose hair this is. If you do not give me an answer in three days I will cut off your heads."
"Long live the King!" answered the men. "In three days we will bring you word."
Forthwith they sat in council and asked the advice of all the learned men and magicians of the country, but in vain; they could not solve the riddle within the three days. On the third day, a witch hearing of the case, came to the King's noblemen, saying:
"I can tell you what it is, but what will you give me?"
"If you save our heads," said the noblemen, "every one of us will give you a handful of gold coins."
The witch consented, took the gold and told them of Zoolvisia and her golden hair. The men told the King what they had heard from the witch, at the same time boasting that it was they who solved the riddle.
"Well, then," said the King, "I wish you to bring me Zoolvisia. I desire to marry her. I give you forty days' grace; if you do not bring her by that time I will cut off your heads."
The men at once went to the witch, saying:
"Witch, it is only you who can accomplish this and save our heads. We will give you whatever you demand if you will bring Zoolvisia."
The witch promised. Immediately she caught a score of snakes, and putting them in a large pitcher, corked its mouth. She then made a whip of a great black snake, and mounting upon the pitcher, gave it three blows. Thereupon the pitcher began to fly through the sky as if it had wings, with the witch on its back. Soon she came to Zoolvisia's garden, and hiding the pitcher under the weeds, she went and sat on the roadside where the lad would pass on his way from hunting. She had intentionally put on her torn dress, and her worn and dusty shoes. In the evening, the lad seeing her, asked her who she was and how she had come there.
"O son!" the witch exclaimed with a pitiful voice, "may Heaven bless you! I am a pilgrim to Jerusalem. I missed the caravan and went astray; seeing your house at a distance, I came to take rest. For Heaven's sake, give me bread and water, and let me lodge with your dog at your gate."
The lad had compassion on her and took her on the back of his horse. But the wise animal knew by instinct that she was a wicked woman, and standing on his hind legs, caused her to fall down.
"I will follow slowly, son," said the witch. "Do you go ahead with your horse."
Zoolvisia, hearing that the lad had brought an old woman, said:
"Don't let her enter our house; she may be a witch and bring calamity upon us."
The lad gave orders to the maids to keep the old woman apart and not let her appear before Zoolvisia. But the witch was clever, and soon won the favor of the maids, who praised her before their mistress and asked her for the sake of merriment to summon her to her presence, at least once. She consented, and the witch was brought before her. The witch had a thousand and one ways of winning a young woman, and she soon became a great favorite with Zoolvisia, who could not spend an hour without her. One day she said to Zoolvisia:
"Blessed are you that have for a husband such a hero, who encounters and overcomes all, and himself is never destroyed. He discovered your secret, broke your talisman, and won your love. Of course you know his secret of bravery. May Heaven preserve his life! But can you tell me what his secret is?"
"No," answered Zoolvisia, "I don't know what his secret is."
"What sort of a husband and wife are you?" said the witch, scornfully. "He knows your secret, and you do not know his; and he says he loves you. Strange, strange!"
These words were enough to excite the curiosity of Zoolvisia, who in the evening again and again importuned the lad, until he was induced to tell her that the secret of his bravery was his magic dagger, which he carried in his belt in daytime and put under his pillow at night. As soon as that dagger was taken away, he would lose all his power. With that they exchanged vows that nobody should know the secret, and also they exchanged rings as a sign to be true to one another, even to death. But woman is frail. On the following day Zoolvisia told the secret to the witch, adding:
"I have told you this to show you how my husband loves me from his heart."
But she did not tell her anything in regard to the vows and exchange of rings. On that night the witch, using her craft, caused a heavy sleep to fall on all the inmates of the house. At midnight she entered the lad's room, and taking the magic dagger from under his pillow, threw it from the window into the neighboring pond. Then she went to bed and pretended to sleep. In the morning Zoolvisia and the maids saw that their master did not rise. They entered the room, and lo! the lad had fallen from his bed and lay benumbed, foaming at the mouth. They called him; but there was no answer.
"Look under the pillow and see whether the magic dagger is there," exclaimed Zoolvisia. They looked, and lo! it had been stolen. Then they all began to wail and cry. Thereupon the witch came in to see if the lad were really dead. She beat her breast, she beat her knees, she pulled her hair, crying and yelling all the time. Then she went out, brought the pitcher to the door of the castle, and re-entered surrounded by scores of snakes, which were hissing with their forked tongues. All were stricken with terror and began to scream and yell. She bade the snakes bite the maidens, who all fell down in a swoon. Then she said to Zoolvisia:
"Now you must obey me and come with me, else I will set on you all these snakes, which will bite you and tear you into pieces."
Zoolvisia was terrified and mute. The witch pushed her down the stairs, and thrusting her into the pitcher, shut its mouth. She then mounted the pitcher, and gave three strokes with the snake whip, which caused it to fly. She alighted in the country of the King of the East, and taking Zoolvisia out, gave her to the King's ministers, who paid her with a horse-load of gold. Zoolvisia was taken to the King's palace.
Let us return to the lad. The twenty-one fairies, the lad's adopted cousins, seeing that blood was dripping from the scissors and the razor, and that the looking-glass was covered with sweat, understood that their human kinsman was in danger, and hastened to his rescue. Reaching the castle they saw the lad still in a torpor, and the maids covered with snakes. On killing the snakes, all the maids revived, and told the fairies what had happened. They looked everywhere for the dagger, but in vain. In the evening they were all hungry, but there was nothing at home to eat. The fairies, seeing that large fishes were swimming in the pond, dove in and threw the fishes ashore. A great fish being thrown ashore, was divided into two halves, and lo! the magic dagger fell out. The fish had swallowed it. The moment the dagger was put under the lad's pillow he jumped up, washed himself, and was surprised to see that his fairy cousins had come. They told him everything. Immediately he ran to the stable. The horse was there, but in a pitiable condition; it had neither eaten nor drunk; it had fallen in the dust. As soon as the animal saw the lad and smelled him it jumped up, neighing. The lad gave it food to eat and water to drink, brushed it clean, and kissing it on the forehead, said:
"O my wise horse! you foresaw the calamity by your unerring instinct, for you threw the hag from your back; and lo! what she has brought upon us. Now let us go after Zoolvisia."
The animal, as if understanding what the lad said, neighed and beat the ground with its hoofs, and seemed to say, "Yes, let us go; I am ready to go."
The lad came back to the castle, gave to the maidens many precious presents, and sent them away free. He gave the castle and the treasures in it to the fairies, himself taking only his saddlebags full of gold coins. He mounted the horse and went down the river until he came to the city of the King of the East. He stopped before the cottage of an old woman on the outskirts of the city and knocked at the door.
"Have you a night's lodging for me, mother?" asked the lad.
"No, master, I have no place for you," answered the dame. "You had better go elsewhere."
"Here is something for you," said the lad, giving her a handful of gold. "You are the crown of my head, son!" exclaimed the old woman. "I have room both for you and your horse."
The lad entered in to lodge. After the meal he asked the old woman in regard to the news in the city, and was told that Zoolvisia was in the King's palace, where for thirty-five days there had been a wedding festival, and after five days she would be married to the King. But she had said to the King that she did not wish to marry him, as she was the wife of some one else, and that rather than to be forced to it she would die by drinking poison, which she had ready in her hand. She therefore received nobody.
"Well, well, mother; that is enough," said the lad. "You keep a secret, don't you?"
"Oh, better than you desire," answered the old woman.
"Here is another handful of gold coins," said the lad; "go to the market place and buy a suit of costly garments. Put them on, and go and see Zoolvisia. Take this ring, put it on your finger, and show it to her; then bring me word what she says."
The old woman did just as he had told her. The palace servants thought she was the wife of the prime minister, and told Zoolvisia that the greatest lady in the realm had come to visit her.
"I don't want her, I don't!" cried Zoolvisia; "let her not come near me."
The old woman did not pay any attention to the words of the servants, who told her that Zoolvisia did not want to see her, but pushed on and opened the door of the room where Zoolvisia was confined, and held the ring before her eyes. As soon as Zoolvisia caught a glance of the ring, she became as tame as a lamb.
"You are welcome, kind lady!" she exclaimed, with her sweet voice; "please be seated," and she shut the door. When they were alone she said:
"Where is the owner of that ring, mother?"
"He is a guest in my house," replied the woman, "and is waiting to know your will."
"Go tell him," said Zoolvisia, "to rest for three days. Do you immediately go to the King, and say that you have persuaded me to become his wife. Let him be of good cheer. On the third day I shall go for recreation to the public garden. It is the business of your guest to do the rest. Farewell!"
"Farewell!" said the old woman, and went directly to the King's apartment, saying proudly that she had persuaded Zoolvisia, who early on the third day would go to the public garden for recreation, and when she returned would become his wife. The King was delighted, and gave the old woman costly presents. She came and told her guest all that had happened. Early on the third day, as Zoolvisia had gone to the public garden with great pomp, the lad came on the back of his horse like a flash of lightning, put his arm about Zoolvisia's waist, and in the twinkling of an eye, disappeared. The crowd thought it was a hurricane, and all were stricken with terror. As soon as the King and his men realized the fact that she had been taken away, they mounted their horses and started in pursuit of the unknown horseman. The lad, having put Zoolvisia in a safe place, came back with his horse of lightning, killed the King and his favorites with his magic dagger, and told the crowd in the public garden who he was. The people, who were tired of their tyrannical King, prayed that he would become their King and Zoolvisia their Queen. The lad went and brought Zoolvisia back. A crowd conducted them with great pomp to the throne, where they are still reigning as King and Queen.
Three apples fell from heaven; one for me, one for the story-teller, and one for him who entertained the company.