The forest was quite still; there was no birdsong to be heard, nor indeed the slightest rustling of little animals in the undergrowth. You could only hear the gentle thump of the great hooves as the sped along the forest path. The horse of power, untold hands in height, unbroken, unshod, without saddle or bridle, galloped along with the young archer on his back.
On the ground before them there suddenly appeared something glinting and shining in a shaft of morning sunlight. It was a feather from the breast of the Firebird; he had recently passed this way, filling the forest with awe and wonder.
The young archer slipped down from the great horses back, and bent to pick up the feather; ‘I will take this as a gift to the Tzar; he will no doubt reward me handsomely and take me into his service. He has never had such amazing gift.’ Then the horse opened his mouth and spoke: ‘Leave the feather where it lies, or else you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear.’ But the young archer, in his eager ambition took no notice of what his horse had said.
They cantered through the forest to the palace, and leaving his horse in the courtyard the young archer rushed excitedly up the steps and into the throne room, and laid the firebird’s feather at the feet of the Tzar. When he realized that he now possessed what no other Tzar had his eyes narrowed and his lips curled with pride and greed and he said:
‘A single feather is not a fitting gift for a Great Tzar, if you can bring me a feather then you can also bring me the firebird. Then I will reward you with gold and silver, but, if you fail, then by my sword, your head will no longer sit between your shoulders. Bring me the Firebird.’
The young archer ran out into the courtyard weeping with disappointment and dread, and told the horse of power what the Tzar had demanded. The horse pawed the ground and shook its great head, and his words hung in the air between them, – you will rue the day, and learn the meaning of fear.
‘Be courageous,’ said the horse, ‘the trial is not now; the trial is yet to come. Now you have a journey to make.’
Guided by the great horse, the young archer asked the Tzar for a thousand bushels of maize, and journeying to the sacred field at the heart of the Kingdom. Very early in the morning just as the first light of dawn crept across the dark sky he scattered the maize on the ground. Then he climbed up the mighty oak tree in the centre of the field, hid himself amongst the branches and waited.
As the sun rose from out of the eastern lands, a great wind blew up, tearing at the forest canopy. Even the seas at the very edges of the world piled themselves into mountains of spray and with a thunderous roar, dashed themselves against the distant rocks. From out of the sun there shot a blinding flash of gold as the firebird, with wings outstretched, flew down in a blaze of shimmering light and landed in the field where he began to eat the maize.
The horse of power sauntered round the field, pretending to graze, but all the time drawing closer and closer to the golden bird. Suddenly with one careful step of his great hoof he trapped the its fiery wing. The young archer quickly climbed down from the oak tree and threw a net over the firebird and bound it tight. Then he leapt onto his horse, tied the precious bundle onto his back, and brought the firebird to the palace, leaving behind him a trail of golden feathers.
When he reached the palace he strode into the Tzar’s throne room and gently laid the glittering net at his feet. The proud Tzar eyed the struggling firebird and then greed filled his heart and he said: ‘What is a bird after all? If you can get a bird, then you can find me the bride for whom I have waited so long. She is the Princess Vaselisa. Bring her to me from where the red sun rises in flames from behind the blue sea, and then I will reward you with silver and gold. If you fail in this task, by my own sword, your head will no longer sit between your shoulders. Bring me my Bride.’
The young archer ran out into the courtyard weeping with disappointment and dread and burying his head in the great horses main, told him all that had taken place. The horse pawed the ground and shook its head and again the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear.
‘Do not despair,’ said the horse, the trial is not now, and the trial is yet to come. Now you have a journey to make.’
Guided by the horse of power the young archer asked the Tzar for a silver tent with a gold canopy, fine carpets, rich wines and tasty delicacies. With these they journeyed for many months, through dark forests, over the great wide steppe, and over high mountains. At last they reached the very edge of the world where the fiery red sun rises daily in rosy flames from beyond the deep blue sea.
Whilst the great horse wandered on the beach, its great hooves sinking into the fine sand, the young archer pitched the silver tent with its golden canopy, laid out the fine carpets, wines and delicacies, and then went and hid in the sand dunes.
Princess Vaselisa was not far away, she was sitting in her mother of pearl boat, lightly dipping her golden oars into the shimmering water and gliding through the dancing waves. When she saw the silver tent on the shore she quickly brought her boat to the shore, crunched it up onto the sand and ran to have a look. Having checked for danger, she seated herself on the fine carpets and began to taste the fine delicacies.
Not wishing to frighten her, the young archer, his heart thumping with excitement, started to sing very softly as he approached the tent. At first the princess was afraid, but she quickly saw that he meant her no harm. They both ate and drank with great delight and toasted each other in the rich wine from golden goblets. Soon the princesses eyes began to close, the golden goblet fell from her fingers and she lay back on the carpet in a deep sleep. To the young archer she was the image of loveliness. Quickly he rolled her in the carpet, laid her tenderly over the horses back and set off back to the palace. Over the high mountains, across the wide steppe and through the dark forest.
Entering the presence of the Tzar, the young archer unrolled the carpet to reveal the sleeping princess.
‘Sound the trumpets,’ called the Tzar, ‘Ring the bells for we are to be wed.’ The ringing bells woke Vaselisa, ‘Where are my silver boat, my blue sea, and my golden oars?’ Bur the Tzar only replied: The blue sea is far away, and fro your silver boat I give you a golden throne. The trumpets are sounding for our wedding, the bells are ringing for our joy.’
The princess turned away from the Tzar with his cruel eyes and curling lips and with love in her heart she looked at the young archer. Then she said to the Tzar:
‘I will not marry without my wedding gown. At the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flames from beyond the blue sea, there on the rocky floor of the sea beneath a great stone you will find a golden casket and in it you will find my wedding gown.’
The young archer turned to the young archer, his mean mouth curling with desire and said:
‘How could you bring me my bride without her wedding gown? Bring her gown from the edge of the world, else by my sword your head will no longer sit between your shoulders. Bring it to me.’
The young archer ran into the courtyard weeping with anguished love and burying his head in the great horses mane, he told him what the Tzar had demanded. The horse pawed the ground, shook his great head, and the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear.
‘Do not be afraid,’ said the horse, ‘the trial is not now; the trial is yet to come. Now you have a journey to make.’
The young archer and his great horse journeyed together for many months over the high mountains, across the wide steppe, and through the dark forests. At last they reached the edge of the world where the sun rises in flames from beyond the blue sea.
The young archer stood on the shore and looked sadly at the blue sea. But the horse of power searched the rocky sand carefully until he found a lobster crawling sideways round the rocks. When the lobster came close the horse gently lifted one of his forelegs and brought his hoof down firmly on the lobsters tail. The lobster struggled in vain under the heavy hoof and screamed, I am the Tzar of all the lobsters, release me and we shall all do whatever you ask.’ So the lobster was released and the horse told him what he must do.
The lobster Tzar stood up on his tail at the edge of the world and called out. Then the blue sea grew as dark as indigo and it seemed to boil with a foaming crown and from its depth crawled thousands of lobsters who were carrying the golden casket taken from under the stone in the middle of the great blue sea. Taking the casket the young archer bowed low and thanked all the lobsters, and leaping onto the horses back they began their long journey back to the palace, over the high mountains, across the wide steppe, and through the dark forests.
The wedding gown was presented, and the princess put it on, she appeared holier then daylight, and more beautiful than the stars of heaven. The Tzar looked at her with his hard eyes and held his hand out to her, but she would not take it, ‘I will not marry until the one who brought me here has done penance in boiling water.’
The furious Tzar smiled a mean smile and ordered his servants to prepare a fire and to set upon it a large cauldron of water. Then he ordered them to throw in the young archer so that he could do penance for bringing his bride from the edge of the world.
The young archer’s heart was in despair at the thought loosing his life at the behest of the women he had so much come to love.
‘Great Tzar,’ he said, ‘before I die please may I be allowed to say goodbye to my horse. ’At a sign from the princess the Tzar assented, ‘But make it quick, for our nuptials await.’
The young archer once more ran out into the courtyard weeping in an agony of betrayal and fear and told his horse everything. But the horse pawed the ground and shook his great head and said: ‘The trial is indeed now, now you have a final journey to make.’
Secretly, the horse was encouraged by what the princess had ordered, all the same he counseled the young archer as to how he must face his trial.
The great cauldron was beginning to boil. Princess Vaselisa remained impassive. The Tzar was torn between his relish to see the young archers suffering and his desire for the princess. Two servants held the young archer firmly who stood there filled with dread and resolution.
The princess stepped towards the cauldron; she moved her hand over the bubbling and seething water. Her lips moved briefly. A fleeting enigmatic smile flickered across her features, ‘The water boils’, she said, ‘all is ready.’
As the drums rolled the young archer wrenched himself free from his captors. He ran boldly forward and flung himself into the boiling foam. He swirled round and round, twice sinking below the surface and rising again. Then he sank for the third time. The Tzar’s lips curled with malicious pleasure. The princess’s face shone with a quiet radiance. With a great splash the young archer leapt from the cauldron unharmed and stood before them transformed and in the full flower of mature manhood.
The Tzar stared at the handsome young man, and his heart seethed with envy and spite. He thought of his own grey hairs, his bent back, and his gnarled face, ‘If the waters can work a miracle for this mere archer then what can they work for a mighty Tzar?’ He stumbled forward and eagerly climbed into the cauldron. He immediately sank to the bottom and died in agony. The servants boiled his flesh for pig meal and caste his bones to the dogs.
The young archer became the new Tzar and the princess the Tzarina. They loved each other with great tenderness every day and they ruled wisely until the time came for the Tzar to journey to the next world, and for Vaselisa to follow her next call.