Once upon a time there lived a king, and this king had three sons, and went blind in his old age. He summoned all the healers in his kingdom, but not one of them could find a cure for his eyes. In his despair he called his eldest son and said: ‘You will have to go and bring me the medicine I need for my eyes, if I am to see again.’
‘Go where? I haven’t been anywhere,’ said his son.
‘Go as far as you can, to a land I have never seen myself. Even a little soil from such a land will cure my eyes.’
The young prince led a horse out of the king’s stable, mounted, and rode off. He travelled for six months in a barren desert country until he came to a spring flowing by a dead tree.
‘At last some water, thank heaven,’ he said. ‘But it’s very strange that a tree growing so close to water should dry up and die.’
He looked for a shady spot but couldn’t find any. So he threw his felt cape over the dead tree and slept under it. When he awoke he saw that the tree had turned green and was loaded with apples, each weighing about a pound. He packed his saddlebags with these apples, drew enough water from the spring to fill five or six bottles, and started for home. ‘I will take these to my father,’ he thought. ‘I am sure he has never been here himself.’
It took him another six months to get back, and people congratulated his father for his son’s successful journey. The old king heaved a deep sigh and said: ‘He went empty-handed, came back empty-handed.’
‘My dear son, how far did you go?’ the king asked the prince.
‘Far enough. Not even your forebears ever saw that land, I’m sure.’
‘Well, tell me, where is it?’
‘I rode on and on until I came to a spring...
‘You needn’t tell me the rest, my son. You saw a dead tree, didn’t you ? You slept under it, and when you woke up the tree had turned green and was loaded with apples. Am I right?’
‘That’s right, father.’
‘Son, I used to have my breakfast tea here in the morning and eat my lunch there at noon on the same day. No, you didn’t bring me the medicine I need for my eyes.’
And the king called his second son. ‘It is now your turn to go and find the cure I am looking for.’
‘But, my dear father, how can I, when my older brother came back empty-handed?’
‘We must try again.’
The second son also led a horse out of the stable, mounted, and rode off. In six months he too reached the same dead tree by the spring in the desert and thought to himself: ‘My brother came as far as here.’ He travelled for another three months and reached a hill covered with topazes, diamonds and other precious stones. ‘If my father had ever been here our treasury would be full of these gems,’ he thought. He packed his saddlebags with these stones and went home. People congratulated his father, and the king heaved a deep sigh and said: ‘Yes, he came back empty-handed.’
The youth kissed his father’s hand, and the king kissed him on both cheeks. ‘Well, my son, tell me, how far did you go?’
‘My dear father, I am certain no ancestor of ours for seven generations back ever trod the country I went to.’
‘Well, tell me, where is it, where did you go?’
‘I rode as far as a hill...’
‘And you brought me pearls and precious stones.’
‘Let’s see what’s in your saddlebags.’
They opened the saddlebags and found them packed with worthless rocks.
‘Well, son, you tried, God bless you.’
The king called his youngest son.
‘My dear father, I have scarcely been out of this house and I don’t even know the roads. How can I succeed when my two older brothers failed?’ the lad said.
‘Son, there is no other way, we have to try again.’
The boy went to the garden and lay down by the marble fountain to think it over. He fell asleep and heard a voice tell him in his dream: ‘Why are you sleeping here, what’s troubling you?’
‘My father expects me to go find a cure for his eyes when I don’t even know where to go and which road to take,’ said the boy.
‘Son,’ said the voice, ‘ask your father to give you his ring, his sword and his horse, and you will be ready for your journey.’
The boy sprang to his feet and ran to his father. ‘Give me your own horse, your own sword, and the ring on your finger, and I will be on my way,’ he said.
The king embraced his youngest son and kissed him on both cheeks. ‘If I have a truly brave son it’s you, and I know you will succeed.’
The next morning the king gave him his ring and his sword, and said to his chief groom ‘Saddle my horse.’ The boy mounted his father’s steed and rode off. As his father had done before him, he ate his breakfast at home and his lunch under the dead tree on the same day, and at sundown he rode past the hill of precious stones that turned out to be worthless rocks. Instead of stopping here for the night he kept going, and what did he see? One sun in the sky, another sun on the ground. ‘Praise be to God,’ he said, ‘what country is this? There are two suns here.’
As he spurred his horse and came closer to the sun on the ground he saw nothing but a feather. He dismounted, picked up the feather, and stuck it in his lambskin cap.
‘Throw it away,’ said his horse.
‘Why should I?’
‘That feather can cause you a lot of trouble.’
The horse repeated his warning three times, but the king’s youngest son gave no heed to his words.
‘Well, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you,’ the horse said.
The boy rode on and reached the city of a king who was told by his informers that a traveller had just arrived with a sun shining in his cap.
‘Bring him over,’ the king said. ‘Let’s see who this traveller is.’
The boy was taken to court, and the king asked him: ‘Who are you?’
‘I am just a traveller visiting your country.’
‘What’s that you’ve got in your cap shining like the sun?’
‘A feather I picked up on my way.’
‘Let me see it.’
The prince removed the feather from his cap and gave it to the king, who went wild over it. ‘You may go now,’ the king said. ‘Thank you very much.’
The king stuck the feather in the wall of his private chamber and couldn’t take his eyes off it. He was so busy admiring the feather that he couldn’t be bothered with the complaints of his subjects. One day an old woman came in and complained somebody stole her chickens. ‘Go away, don’t disturb me now, come some other time, can’t you see I am busy?’ the king said, his eyes fixed on the feather.
‘I see, O King, you are admiring that feather. What would you do if you saw the bird it belonged to?’
The king quickly turned to her and said: ‘Nanny dear, who can bring me that bird? ’
‘Whoever brought you this feather can also bring you the bird,’ she said.
The king sent for the young traveller who found the feather, and they located him at a roadside inn. ‘Maybe the king wants to give me a reward for my feather,’ the youth thought. ‘He was a bit too excited before to think of a reward.’
The boy bowed before the king seven times and remained standing with hands folded on his breast.
The king said: ‘Tell me, my lad, do you know why I called you back?’
‘How would I know, O King?’
‘I want you to bring me the bird that lost this feather.’
‘I have never been in this country before, how can I? I wouldn’t even know where to look for it.’
‘Either you bring me the bird that lost this feather, or I cut off your head.’
The boy returned to the inn with tears in his eyes. His wise horse saw him crying and said: ‘I told you not to pick up that feather. This is just the beginning of your troubles.’
‘What shall I do, dear horse? I am really in a tight spot, you have to get me out of it.’
‘Well, don’t worry. Have a good night’s rest and I will do what I can tomorrow morning.’
The boy lay awake all night. He groomed his horse in the morning, saddled it, had a slice of bread for breakfast, and mounting, said: ‘Which way shall I go, dear horse?’
‘You leave that to me. Just keep the reins loose.’
He let the horse take him wherever it liked and let the reins lie loose upon its neck.
Heaven only knows how far he went before he came to an impassable forest.
‘Do you know where we are?’ the horse said.
‘No, I don’t.’
‘They call this the Verana-wood.’
The boy dismounted. The horse said: ‘Unbuckle the girths of my saddle, take the bridle off my head, and listen carefully to what I tell you. Do you see that tall plane tree over there?’
‘I see it.’
‘Well, there is a marble pool and fountain under that tree. Dig a pit near the tree and hide in it. Today is Friday. A Bird-Peri comes to bathe in this pool every Friday. You will see this Bird-Peri take off her feather-dress, drop it on the edge of the pool, and plunge in. Then you will see her come out of the water and dress. You must not speak to the Bird-Peri while she is dressing. When she has all her feathers on and is ready to fly away you grab her by the legs and bring her to me.’
The youth did what his horse told him, dug a pit, and was hiding in it when the Bird-Peri flew down and began to undress. She plunged in, splashed around, and then came out of the pool and put on her feather-dress. Just as she was ready to fly away, the boy grabbed her.
The Bird-Peri cried: ‘Let me go! You will be sorry if you don’t.’
The youth said: ‘Dear bird, if I let you go the king will cut off my head, and I am too young to die.’
The Bird-Peri said: ‘Well, it’s up to you. I just warned you.’
He took the Bird-Peri, mounted his horse, and delivered her to the king. The king took the Bird-Peri and said: ‘Thank you, my lad, you may go now,’ without giving him a reward.
The boy returned to his lodgings at the inn. The king put the bird in a cage and hung it in his room. The bird remained silent in her cage. Not a sound came out of her. The king said: ‘Dear bird, I will give you anything you want if you will only speak to me and let me hear your voice.’
‘Good heavens, King, you can go from East to West and you will not find another maiden like me,’ said the Bird-Peri. ‘If you give me what I want I promise to take off my feathers and become your queen, and all the kings in the world will envy you.’
‘Dear bird, just tell me what you want and it shall be yours.’
‘I want my maid brought to me. She lives somewhere between the Black sea and the White sea, held captive by the Red Dev. If I can have her back with me I shall be glad to be your queen.’
‘Dear bird, who can find your maid?’
‘The lad who brought me here can also find my maid, I am sure. I should think it would be easier.’
The king sent for him again, and the young prince thought: ‘Oh my God, I have jumped into the fire. What does he want this time?’
He was led before the king and, as was the custom, bowed seven times and remained standing with hands folded on his breast.
‘Do you know why I called you back?’
‘How would I know, O King?’
‘I want you to rescue a maid from the hands of the Red Dev living somewhere between the Black sea and the White sea and bring her to me.’
‘How can I, O King, fight the Red Dev hiding himself between the Black sea and the White sea and rescue a maid, when I don’t even know how to go there?’
‘Don’t give me a headache with such lame excuses. You do what I tell you or I will cut off your head.’
The boy went back to the inn, crying.
‘Well, what is it now, what happened?’ the horse asked him.
‘What shall I tell you, dear horse? The devil take this king. He said: “I want you to rescue a maid from the hands of the Red Dev living somewhere between the Black sea and the White sea and bring her to me.”’
‘Well, stop crying,’ said the horse. ‘God is merciful. Get some sleep, and we shall see what we can do about that tomorrow morning.’
The boy could not sleep a wink, and only pretended to be asleep. He was up early in the morning, gave his horse another good grooming, ate two slices of bread for breakfast, saddled his horse, and led him out to the gate of the inn.
‘Dear horse, which way shall we go now?’
‘That is none of your affair. Just keep the reins loose, and leave the rest to me.’
Heaven only knows how far he rode to get to the shore.
The horse said: ‘This is the black sea. Do you know how to cross it?’
‘Dear horse, how would I know?’
‘Do you know what you can do with that sword hanging by your side?’
‘No, I don’t, I haven’t used it yet. It has stayed in its scabbard.’
‘That’s your father’s sword, made of lightning. Draw it out when we reach the seashore, hold the hilt against my forehead, the tip against the water, and the sea will open out before you and let you pass. When you get to the other side you will see a thin smoke curling up from a cave. Stand before the entrance of the cave and call aloud, “Red Dev, come on out and fight!” The Red Dev will say, “Come in and have dinner with me.” Don’t you go in. When you repeat your challenge three times, the dev will come out to fight. You draw your sword and slash off his head. Then you go into the cave, seize the maid, swing her up into your saddle, touch the water with the tip of your sword and the sea will open out again and let us pass, and you can take the maid to the king.’
The boy did what the horse told him, killing the monster, freed the maid, and handed her over to the king.
‘Thank you, you may go now,’ the king said, without giving him a reward.
The king turned to the Bird-Peri: ‘Is she your maid?’
‘Yes, she is!’
‘Well, I got her for you, so now take off your feather-dress.’
‘Good heavens, king, if I take off my feather-dress and you see me revealed in all my beauty you will drop dead. The sight of my beauty without my feathers on will kill you.’
‘What shall I do then?’
‘Here is what you must do. You must send for the forty fiery mares that live in the Red sea, you must bathe in their milk, and become a peri yourself. Then we can live together as man and wife and have a flock of children who will be peris too.’
‘But who will bring me those sea mares?
‘Who? The lad who brought me to you, and who now brought my maid, can also bring the mares, I am sure.’
‘Bring that young fellow back before he leaves my city,’ the king said to his courtiers.
They found him eating in his lodgings.
‘Very well, I will come,’ said the youth, ‘but let him give me a hot meal at least once in a while. I haven’t had warm food for months.’
He ran back to the king, bowed, folded his hands on his breast.
‘Do you know why I called you this time?’
‘How would I know, O King?’
‘I want you to go to the Red sea, where there are forty fiery mares, and bring them all to me. I want to bathe in their milk.’
‘You expect me, O King, to capture forty fiery sea mares all by myself?’
‘You had better do what I tell you if you want to save your neck.’
The prince went back to his horse, crying.
‘What are the tears for this time?’
‘May God wreck his home, this king is now sending me to the Red sea to bring him forty fiery mares, so that he can bathe in their milk.’
‘Don’t worry. the worst is over for you. I’ll be the one to suffer. Go back to the king and ask him to have forty camelloads of wool, forty loads of felt, and forty loads of skins sent to the Red sea. Tell him, “I’ll go get the mares if you have these supplies ready for me.”’
The boy followed his horse’s advice, and the king was happy to send these supplies to the Red sea. On their way to the Red sea the horse said: ‘They call them the forty mares, but they are really thirty-nine. One of them is my mother, and thirty-eight are my sisters. I was my mother’s only son. We quarrelled, we had arguments, and I ran away. It’s thirty years now that I have been serving your father. My mother was very angry with me and said, “Ah, if I ever lay my hands on my son, I will tear him to pieces.”’
The boy rode on and the horse continued to speak to him: ‘When we reach the seashore I’ll lie down on the sand, and you cover me first with the wool, then with the felt, then with the skins. Hide somewhere not too far from me. I will neigh a little, and don’t be afraid when a storm rises in the sea. My mother will come out of the waves, followed by my thirty-eight sisters. They will stand there and cry their hearts out. Then my mother will run up to me and start pulling the skins off my back. You must not say a word. She will throw off the felt. Keep silent. She will be tired by the time she gets down to the wool, and that’s when you have to put your foot in the stirrup and sit tightly in the saddle. She will soar up to the sky to burn you up against the sun. Hide under her belly. Se will come down from the sky and throw you off her back as she hits the ground. Get back into the saddle and stay in it like a man. Lash her hard with your whip until the milk she sucked from her mother spurts out of her nostrils, and then say to her, “I am your master!”. When she knows you are her master she will go wherever you like, and my sisters and I will follow you.’
The boy did what the horse told him, captured all the mares and led them to the king’s stables. Then he returned to his room at the inn.
The Bird-Peri said to the king: ‘You can now take your milk bath.’
‘But who will milk the mares?’ the king asked.
‘Good heavens, king, why did you let that boy go? He would be the proper person to milk them.’
The youth was summoned to the court. The horse told him on their way: ‘Keep me tied in a stall near you. Before you start milking the mares tie a string to your ring and drop it in the cauldron. Then lay your sword across the caldron. When you finish the milking, take off your clothes and step into the cauldron yourself to take a milk bath before the king does, after which wipe your ring and your sword dry, put your ring back on your finger and your sword back in its scabbard, and tell the king his bath is ready. The king will come and take off his clothes. As soon as he steps into the caldron the milk will start boiling and scald him to death. He will turn into a ball of melting fat. Dump him into the well, and throw your own clothes after him. Wear the king’s clothes and go sit on his throne.’
The boy followed his horse’s advice, and the king was scalded to death in a cauldron of boiling milk. The young prince sat on the throne wearing the king’s clothes, and nobody seemed to know or care what happened, except the Bird-Peri, who threw off her feathers and became a beautiful maiden. She flung her lovely arms around his neck and said: ‘I was working and praying for you all the time and I did it all for your sake, my dear. Now that you are king, I am your queen.’
He reigned for a few months, and then suddenly he began to cry as he remembered his father.
‘Good heavens, man, you have a wife like me and you became a king and you are still unhappy? You shouldn’t have a care in the world.’
‘My darling queen, I love you dearly, and I would gladly sacrifice my life for you, but don’t you know that I am the son of a king? My father lost his eyesight. I came all the way here to find a cure for his eyes, and what am I doing? Sitting on a throne. I don’t even know whether my father is living or dead. That’s why I am crying.’
The queen laughed out loud, and wound her arms more tightly around his neck. ‘Your father chased me for ten years and that’s why he went blind. But don’t worry, I will go back with you, cut my finger, smear a few drops of my blood on his eyes, and he will see again. Come on, let’s go.’
The young king summoned all his subjects and entertained them at a great feast. ‘I must leave you now and go to another country,’ he said to them during the feast. ‘I may or may not come back. Thank you very much for being such good subjects. Pick another man to be your king.’
They found a successor, and saw them off. He rode the mother mare and his wife rode his father’s horse. They took off their royal garments and travelled in ordinary clothes. When they reached the outskirts of his father’s city they met a shepherd and told him: ‘Run to the king and tell him his youngest son is back.’
‘What is he bringing with him?’ the king asked the shepherd.
‘Thirty-nine blue sea mares, and a very beautiful maiden.’
‘Thank heaven he succeeded,’ said the king. ‘Give this shepherd a full measure of gold.’
The youngest prince kissed his father’s hand and the king kissed him on both cheeks. The lovely princess cut her little finger and smeared a few drops of her blood on the king’s blind eyes, and lo, the king could see again. He got up and kissed her on the forehead. Then he took off his crown and put it on his son’s head.