Alexander Afanasyev / Irina Zheleznova
In a certain kingdom, in a certain realm there was once a soldier who happened to be standing guard by a stone tower one night. The door to it was locked and sealed, but just as midnight struck, the soldier seemed to hear someone calling to him from inside the tower. "Who is that calling me?" the soldier asked. "It is I, an evil spirit!" came the reply. "For thirty years have I been kept in the tower, and I haven't had anything to eat or drink in all that time." "What do you want of me?" "Set me free, and I will come to your help if ever you have need of me. All you have to do is think of me, and I will be there beside you the same moment." The soldier at once broke both the seal and the lock and opened the door, and the evil spirit flew out of the tower and up to the sky and vanished as fast as a flash of lightning. "What have I done!" thought the soldier. "All my years of service have gone for nothing. I will be arrested, court-martialled and may even be made to run a gauntlet. I had better go while the going is good." And he threw down his gun and knapsack and went off he knew not where.
He walked for a day, and another, and a third and was very, very hungry, but as there was nothing to eat or drink, he sat down by the wayside and burst into tears. "Fool that I am!" said he to himself. "I served the king for ten years and was given three pounds of bread to eat every day, and look what I've done—run away only to starve to death. It was that evil spirit, he's to blame for it!" And no sooner had he thought of him than there was the evil spirit before him. "Good day to you, soldier!" said he. "Why so sad?" "How can I help it when I haven't had anything to eat for three days!" "Oh, is that all!" said the evil spirit, and he rushed away only to come back again at once, bringing all sorts of foods and drinks with him. The soldier ate and drank, and when he had had his fill, the evil spirit begged him to come and live in his house. "You will have an easy time of it there," said he. "You will feast and make merry whenever you have a mind to and your only duty will be to keep an eye on my daughters and see that they don't get into mischief." To this the soldier agreed, and the evil spirit lifted him up from the ground and to the sky and carried him off beyond the thrice-nine lands to the thrice-ten realm. It was there, in a house of white stone, that the evil spirit's three daughters lived, and they were fair maids all three.
The evil spirit bade his daughters feed the soldier well and do as he told them to and himself flew away to do evil. And what else could be expected of him! Don't we all know that evil spirits never stay in one
place but roam the earth sowing confusion in people's hearts and putting them up to sinful deeds. The soldier stayed with the three maids, and a better life no man could wish for! Only one thing grieved him, and that was that the three maids would leave the house every night without telling him where they went. He tried asking them about it, but they would tell him nothing. "Never mind!" said the soldier to himself. "I will stay awake all night if I have to but I'll find out where it is they go."
Evening arrived and the soldier went to bed and pretended to be asleep. Then, at an hour when the three maids usually left the house, he rose, crept up to their sleeping chamber and looked through the keyhole. What was his surprise when he saw them spread a carpet on the floor, strike it, turn into pigeons and fly out through the window. "Never have I seen the like!" thought the soldier. "But that must be a magic carpet and perhaps I can change myself into a bird too!" He ran into the chamber, struck the carpet, and, turning into a robin, flew out of the window after the pigeons. By and by, when he saw them alight in a green meadow, he did the same, and, hiding himself behind a currant bush, peeked out from under it to see what there was to see. Very soon many pigeons came flying up, so many that they covered the meadow from one end to another. After them, setting the sky and the earth aglow, a chariot of gold drawn by six fiery dragons came sweeping through the air, and seated in it was Elena the Wise, a maid fair beyond compare! She stepped out of the chariot, placed herself on a gold throne that stood in the middle of the meadow and began calling the pigeons to her side one after another and showing them how to do all sorts of magic tricks. This done, she sprang into the chariot and was off in a trice!
All of the pigeons now rose into the air and flew back to wherever it was they had come from, and the robin followed the three sisters and soon found himself back in their chamber again. The pigeons struck the carpet and got back their proper shape, and the robin did the same and got back his. "Where have you been?" the three maids asked him. "In the same place as you. I flew after you to the green meadow, I saw the lovely princess on her throne of gold and I watched her show you how to do all kinds of magic tricks." "Well, it's your good luck that you're still alive! For the princess was none other than Elena the Wise, our ruler and queen. Had she had her book of magic with her she would have known it was you in a robin's shape and would have put you to death. Beware, soldier! Do not fly to the green meadow again or try to see Elena the Wise if you want to stay alive." But the soldier would not listen to them. As soon as night came he struck the carpet,
turned into a robin, flew to the green meadow and hid under a currant bush. Elena the Wise came there in her chariot and he watched her and marvelled at her beauty. "If only I could marry her, there would be nothing left for me to wish for!" thought he. "I think I'll fly after her and find out where she lives."
And as soon as Elena the Wise got into her chariot and swept to the sky in it, the robin flapped his wings and flew after her. Elena the Wise arrived at the door of her palace, which was very beautiful, and her women and maids hurried out to meet her and led her inside. And the robin flew into the garden, and, lighting on the branch of a tree that grew under the window of Elena the Wise's sleeping chamber, began to sing. It was a sad song and he sang so piteously that Elena the Wise never closed an eye and listened to him the whole night through. Dawn arrived, the sun rose in the sky, and she called out in a loud voice: "Come, my women and maids, hurry and go to the garden and catch the robin for me!" The women and maids rushed out into the garden, but they were old and slow, and the robin flitted from bush to bush, and though he did not fly far, would not let himself be caught.
Filled with impatience, Elena the Wise ran out into the garden to try and catch the robin herself. She came up to the bush on which he had perched, and, much to her surprise, the robin did not try to fly away but sat there with folded wings as if waiting for her to seize him. Elena the Wise was overjoyed. She lifted the bird gently off the branch, carried him into the palace and put him in a gold cage which she hung in her chamber. The day passed, the sun sank in the sky, and Elena the Wise flew to the green meadow. But she was soon back, and, taking off her robe, lay down on her bed. And so lovely was she that the robin trembled at the sight of her, and as soon as she was asleep, took the shape of a fly, flew out of the cage, struck the floor and turned back into a soldier again. He came up to the bed in which Elena the Wise lay sleeping and stood there gazing at her, but then, unable to stop himself, bent and planted a kiss on her honey-sweet lips. Elena the Wise stirred, and, seeing that she was about to wake, he turned into a fly, flew back into the cage and took the robin's shape.
Elena the Wise opened her eyes and looked about her, but, seeing no one, told herself that she had dreamt it all, turned over and fell asleep again. The soldier could not contain himself and kissed her a second and then a third time, and Elena the Wise, who was a light sleeper, woke after every kiss. After the third kiss she got out of bed and said: "This can't be just a dream, I think I had better look in my book of magic." And no sooner had she looked in the book than she knew that sitting in the cage was not a bird but a young man in a bird's
shape. "You boor!" cried she. "Come out of the cage at once! You will pay with your life for trying to trick me."
It could not be helped, and the robin flew out of the cage, struck the floor and became a soldier again. He fell on his knees before Elena the Wise and begged her to forgive him. "A villain like you deserves no mercy!" said Elena the Wise, and she summoned a headsman and ordered him to chop off the soldier's head. A scaffold at once appeared before her, and the headsman, a great giant of a fellow, seized the soldier, threw him to the ground, and, pressing down his head with one hand, raised high his axe with the other. Elena the Wise had only to wave her kerchief, and the soldier's head would roll off his shoulders. "O fairest of princesses, allow me to sing a song before I die!" the soldier begged with tears in his eyes. "Oh, very well! Sing your song and get it over with!" said Elena the Wise. The soldier began to sing, and so sad was his song that Elena the Wise felt sorry for him and could hardly stop herself from bursting into tears. "I give you ten hours," said she. "If during that time you will find yourself a hiding place that I will be unable to discover, I shall marry you; if not, your shall die."
The soldier left the palace and wandered off into a thick forest. He sat down under a bush there and gave himself up to sorrowful thoughts. "It's all because of you, evil spirit, that I am in such straits!" said he with a sigh. And no sooner were the words out of his mouth than the evil spirit appeared before him. "What can I do for you, soldier?" he asked. "Nothing, for my end has come!" the soldier said. "Where can I hide from Elena the Wise!" At this the evil spirit struck the ground and turned into a grey-winged eagle. "Get on my back, soldier, I will carry you beyond the clouds in the sky!" said he. The soldier got on the eagle's back, and the eagle soared to the sky and hid behind a thundercloud. Five hours went by, and Elena the Wise looked into her book of magic and saw the eagle and the soldier on his back as clearly as if they were there before her. "Come down to the ground, eagle!" she called. "You cannot hide from me."
The eagle came down to the ground, and the soldier felt more sad than ever. "What am I to do now? Where can I hide!" said he. "I will help you, never you fear!" said the evil spirit. He struck the soldier on the cheek, turned him into a pin and himself into a mouse, and, stealing into the palace, found the book of magic and stuck the pin in it.
Another five hours went by, and Elena the Wise opened the book, but though she turned the pages and gazed at each in turn, there was nothing there for her to see. Elena the Wise flew into a temper and flung the book into the stove, but the pin fell out of it, and, no sooner
had it touched the floor, than it turned into the soldier again. Seeing him so tall and handsome, for tall and handsome he was, Elena the Wise smiled and took his hand. "I am wise, but you are wiser still!" said she. And they were married then and there and lived happily ever after.