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The Golden Apple-tree And The Nine Peahens

Source: Hero Tales And Legends Of The Serbians

Once there was a king who had three sons. In the garden of the palace
grew a golden apple-tree, which, in one and the same night would
blossom and bear ripe fruit. But during the night a thief would come
and pluck the golden apples, and none could detect him. One day the
king deliberating with his sons, said: "I would give much to know
what happens to the fruit of our apple-tree!" Thereupon the eldest
son answered: "I will mount guard to-night under the apple-tree,
and we will see who gathers the fruit."

When evening came, the prince laid himself under the apple-tree to
watch; but as the apples ripened, he fell asleep and did not wake until
next morning, when the apples had vanished. He told his father what
had happened, and his brother, the second son, then offered to keep
guard that night. But he had no more success than his elder brother.

It was now the turn of the youngest son to try his luck, and, when
night came on, he placed a bed under the tree, and lay down and went
to sleep. About midnight he awoke and glanced at the apple-tree. And
lo! the apples were just ripening and the whole castle was lit up
with their shining. At that moment nine peahens flew to the tree and
settled on its branches, where eight remained to pluck the fruit. The
ninth, however, flew to the ground and was instantly transformed into
a maiden so beautiful that one might in vain search for her equal
throughout the kingdom.

The prince immediately fell madly in love with his visitor and the
fair maiden was not at all unwilling to stay and converse with the
young man. An hour or two soon passed but at last the maiden said
that she might stay no longer. She thanked the prince for the apples
which her sisters had plucked, but he asked that they would give him
at least one to carry home.

The maiden smiled sweetly and handed the young man two apples, one
for himself, the other for his father, the king. She then turned
again into a peahen, joined her sisters and all flew away.

Next morning the prince carried the two apples to his father. The king,
very pleased, praised his son, and on the following night, the happy
prince placed himself under the tree, as before, next morning again
bringing two apples to his father. After this had happened for several
nights, his two brothers grew envious, because they had not been able
to do what he had done. Then a wicked old woman offered her services
to the malcontent princes, promising that she would reveal the secret
to them. So on the next evening the old woman stole softly under the
bed of the young prince and hid herself there. Soon afterward the
prince came and at once went to sleep just as before. When midnight
came, lo! the peahens flew down as usual; eight of them settling on
the branches of the apple-tree, but the ninth, descending on the bed
of the prince, instantly turned into a maiden. The old woman, seeing
this strange metamorphosis, crept softly near and cut off a lock of
the maiden's hair, whereupon the girl immediately arose, changed again
into a peahen, and disappeared together with her sisters. Then the
young prince jumped up and wondering what had been the reason for the
sudden departure of his beloved began to look around. He then saw the
old woman, dragged her from under his bed, and ordered his servants
to fasten her to the tails of four horses and so to destroy her.

But the peahens never came again, to the great sorrow of the prince,
and for all that he mourned and wept.

Weeping will not move any mountain, and at length the prince resolved
to go through the wide world in search of his sweetheart and not
return home until he had found her. As a good son, he asked leave
of his father who tried hard to make him give up such a hazardous
scheme and promised him a much more beautiful bride in his own vast
kingdom--for he was very sure that any maiden would be glad to marry
such a valiant prince.

The Prince's Quest

But all his fatherly advice was vain, so the king finally allowed
his son to do what his heart bade, and the sorrowful prince departed
with only one servant to seek his love. Journeying on for a long
time, he came at length to the shore of a large lake, near which
was a magnificent castle in which there lived a very old woman, a
queen, with her only daughter. The prince implored the aged queen,
"I pray thee, grandmother, tell me what you can about the nine golden
peahens?" The queen answered: "O, my son, I know those peahens well,
for they come every day at noon to this lake and bathe. But had you
not better forget the peahens, and rather consider this beautiful
girl, she is my daughter and will inherit my wealth and treasures,
and you can share all with her." But the prince, impatient to find the
peahens, did not even listen to what the queen was saying. Seeing his
indifference, the old lady bribed his servant and gave him a pair of
bellows, saying: "Do you see this? When you go to-morrow to the lake,
blow secretly behind your master's neck, and he will fall asleep and
will not be able to speak to the peahens."

The faithless servant agreed to do exactly as the queen bade, and when
they went to the lake, he used the first favourable occasion and blew
with the bellows behind his poor master's neck, whereupon the prince
fell so soundly asleep that he resembled a dead man. Soon after, the
eight peahens flew to the lake, and the ninth alighted on the prince's
horse and began to embrace him, saying: "Arise, sweetheart! Arise,
beloved one! Ah, do!" Alas! the poor prince remained as if dead. Then
after the peahens had bathed, all disappeared.

Shortly after their departure the prince woke up and asked his servant:
"What has happened? Have they been here?" The servant answered that
they had indeed been there; that eight of them bathed in the lake,
while the ninth caressed and kissed him, trying to arouse him from
slumber. Hearing this, the poor prince was so angry that he was almost
ready to kill himself.

Next morning the same thing happened. But on this occasion the
peahen bade the servant tell the prince that she would come again the
following day for the last time. When the third day dawned the prince
went again to the lake, and fearing to fall asleep he decided to gallop
along the marge instead of pacing slowly as before. His deceitful
servant, however, pursuing him closely, again found an opportunity
for using the bellows, and yet again the prince fell asleep.

Shortly afterward the peahens came; eight of them went as usual to
bathe, and the ninth alighted on the prince's horse and tried to awaken
him. She embraced him and spoke thus: "Awake, my darling! Sweetheart,
arise! Ah, my soul!" But her efforts were futile; the prince was
sleeping as if he were dead. Then she said to the servant: "When thy
master awakes tell him to cut off the head of the nail; then only he
may be able to find me again."

Saying this the peahen disappeared with her sisters, and they had
hardly disappeared when the prince awoke and asked his servant:
"Have they been here?" And the malicious fellow answered: "Yes;
the one who alighted on your horse ordered me to tell you that, if
you wish to find her again, you must first cut off the head of the
nail." Hearing this the prince unsheathed his sword and struck off
his faithless servant's head.

The Quest Resumed

The prince now resumed his pilgrimage alone, and after long journeying
he came to a mountain where he met a hermit, who offered hospitality
to him. In the course of conversation the prince asked his host
whether he knew anything about the nine peahens; the hermit replied:
"O my son, you are really fortunate! God himself has shown you the
right way. From here to their dwelling is but half a day's walk;
to-morrow I will point you the way."

The prince rose very early the next morning, prepared himself for the
journey, thanked the hermit for giving him shelter, and went on as
he was directed. He came to a large gate, and, passing through it,
he turned to the right; toward noon he observed some white walls,
the sight of which rejoiced him very much. Arriving at this castle
he asked the way to the palace of the nine peahens, and proceeding
he soon came to it. He was, of course, challenged by the guards,
who asked his name and whence he came. When the queen heard that he
had arrived, she was overwhelmed with joy, and turning into a maiden
she ran swiftly to the gate and led the prince into the palace.

There was great feasting and rejoicing when, later, their nuptials
were solemnized, and after the wedding the prince remained within
the palace and lived in peace.

Now one day the queen went for a walk in the palace grounds accompanied
by an attendant, the prince remaining in the palace. Before starting
the queen gave her spouse the keys of twelve cellars, saying: "You
may go into the cellars, all but one; do not on any account go into
the twelfth; you must not even open the door!"

The prince soon began to speculate upon what there could possibly be
in the twelfth cellar; and having opened one cellar after the other,
he stood hesitatingly at the door of the twelfth. He who hesitates
is lost, and so the prince finally inserted the key in the lock and
the next moment had passed into the forbidden place. In the middle of
the floor was a huge cask bound tightly round with three strong iron
hoops. The bung-hole was open and from within the cask came a muffled
voice which said: "I pray thee, brother, give me a drink of water,
else I shall die of thirst!" The prince took a glass of water and
poured it through the bung-hole; immediately one hoop burst. Then
the voice spake again: "O brother give me more water lest I should
die of thirst!" The good-hearted prince emptied a second glass into
the cask, and a second hoop instantly came asunder. Again the voice
implored: "O brother, give me yet a third glass! I am still consumed by
thirst!" The prince made haste to gratify the unseen speaker, and as
he poured in the water the third hoop burst, the cask fell in pieces,
and a great dragon struggled out from the wreck, rushed through the
door and flew into the open. Very soon he fell in with the queen,
who was on her way back to the palace, and carried her off. Her
attendant, affrighted, rushed to the prince with the intelligence,
and the news came as a thunderbolt.

For a time the prince was as one distraught, but then he became
more calm and he resolved to set out again in search of his beloved
queen. In his wanderings he came to a river, and, walking along
its bank, he noticed in a little hole a small fish leaping and
struggling. When the fish saw the prince it began to beseech him
piteously: "Be my brother-in-God! Throw me back into the stream; some
day I may, perhaps, be useful to you! But be sure to take a scale from
me, and when you are in need of help rub it gently." The prince picked
up the fish, took a scale from it, and threw the poor creature into
the water; then he carefully wrapped the scale in his handkerchief.

Continuing his wanderings, he came to a place where he saw a fox
caught in an iron trap, and the animal addressed him, saying: "Be my
brother-in-God! Release me, I pray, from this cruel trap; and some day,
perhaps, I may be helpful to you. Only take a hair from my brush,
and, if you are in need, rub it gently!" The prince took a hair
from the fox's tail and set him free. Journeying on, he came upon
a wolf caught in a trap. And the wolf besought him in these words:
"Be my brother-in-God, and release me! One day you may need my help,
therefore, take just one hair from my coat, and if you should ever
need my assistance, you will have but to rub it a little!" This
likewise the prince did.

Some days elapsed and then, as the prince went wearily on his way, he
met a man in the mountains, to whom he said: "O my brother-in-God! Can
you direct me to the castle of the king of the dragons?" Luckily the
man knew of this castle and was able to tell the way to it; he also
informed the prince exactly how long the journey would take.

The Prince finds his Wife

The prince thanked the stranger and continued his journey with fresh
vigour until he came to where the king of the dragons lived. He entered
the castle boldly and found his wife there; after their first joy
of meeting, they began to consider how they could escape. Finally,
they took swift horses from the stables, but they had hardly set out
before the dragon came back. When he found that the queen had escaped,
he took counsel with his courser: "What do you advise? Shall we first
eat and drink, or shall we pursue at once!" The horse answered: "Let
us first refresh ourselves, for we shall surely catch them." After
the meal, the dragon mounted his horse and in a very few minutes they
reached the fugitives. Then he seized the queen and said to the prince:
"Go in peace! I pardon you this time, because you released me from
that cellar: but do not venture to cross my path again, for you will
not be forgiven a second time."

The poor prince started sadly on his way, but he soon found that he
could not abandon his wife. Whatever the cost he must make another
attempt to rescue her, and so he retraced his steps, and on the
following day entered the castle again and found his wife in tears. It
was evident that they must use guile if they were to elude the magical
powers of the dragon-king, and after they had thought upon the matter,
the prince said: "When the dragon comes home to-night, ask where he
got his horse; perchance I may be able to procure a steed that is
equally swift: only then could we hopefully make another attempt to
escape." Saying this he left his wife for a time. When the dragon-king
returned, the queen began to caress him and to pleasantly converse;
at length she said: "How I admire your fine horse! Certainly he is of
no ordinary breed! Where did you find such a swift courser?" And the
dragon-king replied: "Ah! his like is not to be got by every one! In
a certain mountain lives an old woman, who has in her stables twelve
wondrous horses; none could easily tell which is the finest! But
in a corner stands one that is apparently leprous; he is, in fact,
the best of the stable, and whoever becomes his master, may ride
even higher than the clouds. My steed is a brother of those horses,
and if anyone would get a horse from that old woman he must serve her
for three days. She has a mare and a foal, and he who is her servant
must tend them for three days and three nights; if he succeeds in
guarding them and returns them to the old woman, he is entitled to
choose a horse from her stable. But, if the servant does not watch
well over the mare and its foal, he will indeed lose his life."

The old Woman and her Horses

Next morning, when the dragon had left the castle, the prince came
and the queen told him what she had heard. Hastily bidding his
wife farewell, he went with all speed to the mountain, and finding
the old woman, he said to her: "God help you, grandmother!" And she
returned the greeting: "May God help you also, my son! What good wind
brought you here, and what do you wish?" He answered: "I should like
to serve you." Thereupon the old woman said: "Very well, my son! If
you successfully watch my mare and its foal for three days, I shall
reward you with a horse which you yourself are at liberty to choose
from my stable; but if you do not keep them safe, you must die."

Then she led the prince into her courtyard, where he saw stakes
all around placed close together, and on each save one was stuck
a human head. The one stake kept shouting out to the old woman:
"Give me a head, O grandmother! Give me a head!" The old woman said:
"All these are heads of those who once served me; they did not succeed
in keeping my mare and its foal safe, so they had to pay with their
heads!" But the prince was not to be frightened at what he saw,
and he readily accepted the old woman's conditions.

When evening came, he mounted the mare and rode it to pasture, the
foal following. He remained seated on the mare, but, toward midnight,
he dozed a little and finally fell fast asleep. When he awoke he saw,
to his great consternation, that he was sitting upon the trunk of a
tree holding the mare's bridle in his hand. He sprang down and went
immediately in search of the tricky animal. Soon he came to a river,
the sight of which reminded him of the little fish, and taking the
scale from his handkerchief, he rubbed it gently between his fingers,
when lo! the fish instantly appeared and asked: "What is the matter,
my brother-in-God?" The prince answered: "My mare has fled, and I do
not know where to look for her!" And the fish answered: "Here she is
with us, turned into a fish, and her foal into a small one! Strike
once upon the water with the bridle and shout: 'Doora! Mare of the
old woman!'"

The prince did as the fish told him; at once the mare and her foal
came out of the water; he bridled the mare, mounted and rode home; the
young foal trotting after. The old woman brought the prince some food
without a word; then she took the mare into the stable, beat her with
a poker, and said: "Did I not tell you to go down among the fish?" The
mare answered: "I have been down to the fish, but the fish are his
friends and they betrayed me to him." Thereupon the old woman said:
"To-night you go among the foxes!"

When evening came, the prince mounted the mare again and rode to
the field, the foal following its mother. He determined again to
remain in the saddle and to keep watch, but, toward midnight, he was
again overcome by drowsiness and became unconscious. When he awoke
next morning, lo! he was seated on a tree-trunk holding fast the
bridle. This alarmed him greatly, and he looked here and he looked
there. But search as he would, he could find no trace of the mare
and her foal. Then he remembered his friend the fox, and taking the
hair from the fox's tail out of his handkerchief, he rubbed it gently
between his fingers, and the fox instantly stood before him. "What
is the matter, my brother-in-God?" said he. The prince complained of
his misfortune, saying that he had hopelessly lost his mare. The fox
soon reassured him: "The mare is with us, changed to a fox, and her
foal into a cub; just strike once with the bridle on the earth, and
shout out 'Doora, the old woman's mare!'" He did so, and sure enough
the mare at once appeared before him with the foal. So he bridled her
and mounted, and when he reached home the old woman gave him food,
and took the mare to the stable and beat her with a poker, saying:
"Why did you not turn into a fox, you disobedient creature?" And
the mare protested: "I did turn into a fox; but the foxes are his
friends, so they betrayed me!" At this the old woman commanded:
"Next time you go to the wolves!"

When evening came the prince set out on the mare and the same things
befell as before. He found himself, the next morning, sitting on a
tree-trunk, and this time he called the wolf, who said: "The mare of
the old woman is with us in the likeness of a she-wolf, and the foal
of a wolf's cub; strike the ground once with the bridle and exclaim:
'Doora! the mare of the old woman!'" The prince did as the wolf
counselled, and the mare reappeared with her foal standing behind her.

He mounted once again and proceeded to the old woman's house, where, on
his arrival, he found her preparing a meal. Having set food before him,
she took the mare to the stable and beat her with a poker. "Did I not
tell you to go to the wolves, you wretched creature?" she scolded. But
the mare protested again, saying: "I did go to the wolves, but they
are also his friends and they betrayed me!" Then the old woman went
back to the house and the prince said to her: "Well, grandmother,
I think I have served you honestly; now I hope you will give me what
you promised me!" The old woman replied: "O my son, verily a promise
must be fulfilled! Come to the stable; there are twelve horses;
you are at liberty to choose whichever you like best!"

The Prince's Choice

Thereupon the prince said firmly: "Well, why should I be
particular? Give me the leprous horse, standing in that corner." The
old woman tried by all means in her power to deter him from taking that
ugly horse, saying: "Why be so foolish as to take that leprous jade
when you can have a fine horse?" But the prince kept to his choice, and
said: "Give me rather the one I selected, as it was agreed between us!"

The old woman, seeing that he would not yield, gave way, and the prince
took leave of her and led away his choice. When they came to a forest
he curried and groomed the horse, and it shone as if its skin were
of pure gold. Then he mounted, and, the horse flying like a bird,
they reached the dragon-king's castle in a few seconds.

The prince immediately entered and greeted the queen with: "Hasten,
all is ready for our flight!" The queen was ready, and in a few
seconds they were speeding away, swift as the wind, on the back of
the wonderful horse.

Shortly after they had gone, the dragon-king came home, and finding
that the queen had again disappeared, he addressed the following
words to his horse: "What shall we do now? Shall we refresh ourselves,
or shall we go after the fugitives at once?" And his horse replied:
"We may do as you will, but we shall never reach them!"

Upon hearing this the dragon-king at once flung himself upon his horse
and they were gone in a flash. After a time the prince looked behind
him and saw the dragon-king in the distance. He urged his horse, but
it said: "Be not afraid! There is no need to run quicker." But the
dragon-king drew nearer, so close that his horse was able to speak thus
to its brother: "O brother dear, tarry, I beseech you! else I shall
perish in running at this speed!" But the prince's horse answered:
"Nay, why be so foolish as to carry that monster? Fling up your
hoofs and throw him against a rock, then come with me!" At these
words the dragon-king's horse shook its head, curved its back, and
kicked up its hoofs so furiously that its rider was flung on to a rock
and killed. Seeing this, the prince's horse stood still, its brother
trotted up, and the queen mounted on it. So they arrived happily in her
own land, where they lived and ruled in great prosperity ever after.

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