The forest was utterly still. There was no birdsong in the canopy. No rustling of small mammals in the undergrowth. Just the gentle thump of the great horse’s hooves caressing the forest floor. The horse of power, untold hands high, unbroken, unshod, without saddle or bridle, the young archer on his back riding with his consent.
On the ground before them, something glinting in a shaft of sunlight, a feather from the firebird’s burning breast. The firebird had past this way, filling the forest with awe and fear.
The young archer slipped down from the horses back, bent to pick up the feather, “This will be a gift to the Tzar, he will reward me handsomely and take me into his service. No Tzar has a feather from the firebird’s breast.”
The horse of power spoke, “Leave the feather where it lies, else you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear.” But the young archer, in his eager ambition, took no heed.
They cantered through the forest to the palace, and leaving the horse of power in the courtyard the young archer rushed excitedly into the presence of the Tzar, knelt before him and laid the firebird’s feather at his feet.
The Tzar’s heart filled with pride to possess what no other Tzar possessed, but his mouth curled with greed and malice, “A feather is not a fit gift for a great Tzar. If you can bring a firebird’s feather you can bring the firebird, and I will reward you with silver and gold. Else by my sword your head will no longer sit between your shoulders. Bring me the bird.”
The young archer ran into the courtyard weeping with disappointment and dread, told the horse of power what the Tzar had demanded. The horse pawed the ground, shook its great head, and the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear. “Do not fear,” said the horse, “the trial is not now, the trial is to come. Now you have a journey to make.”
Bringing the firebird
Guided by the horse of power, the young archer begged the Tzar for 1000 bushels of maize, and journeying to the great field at the heart of the kingdom had the maize scattered at midnight upon the ground. Then he shinned up the mighty oak at the centre of the field, hid himself among its branches and waited for the dawn.
As the red sun rose from out the eastern lands, a great wind blew up, tearing at the forest canopy, the seas at the edge of the world piling themselves up into mountains of spray and dashing themselves against the distant shores. The firebird flew from out the sun, fiery wings outstretched and breast of gold burning bright. It alighted on the field, folded its wings and greedily began to eat the maize.
The horse of power sauntered around the field, pretending to graze but drawing closer and closer to the firebird, until with a sudden lunge he trapped the firebird’s fiery wing beneath his might hoof. Shinning down from the oak tree the young archer threw a wide net over the firebird, binding it tight. With the firebird over his shoulder, he staggered bent-backed to the palace to receive his reward, leaving behind him a trail of golden feathers. Entering the presence of the Tzar he flung the firebird at his feet. It filled the Tzar’s heart with cruel rapture; since the beginning of time no Tzar had had a firebird cast casually before him like a duck caught in a snare.
The Tzar turned to the young archer, his mouth curling with greed and desire, “What is a bird after all? If you can get the bird you can get my bride, whom I have awaited for so long, Princess Vasilisa. Bring her, from the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the blue sea, and I will reward you with silver and gold. Else by my sword your head will no longer sit between your shoulders. Bring me my bride.”
The young archer ran into the courtyard weeping with chagrin and dread, told the horse of power what the Tzar had demanded. The horse pawed the ground, shook its great head, and the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear. “Do not fear,” said the horse, “the trial is not now, the trial is to come. Now you have a journey to make.”
Bringing Princess Vasilisa
Guided by the horse of power, the young archer begged the Tzar for a silver tent with a golden canopy, fine carpets, rich wines and tasty delicacies, and with these they journeyed. Through the deep forests. Across the great steppes. Over the high mountains. To the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the blue sea.
Whilst the horse of power wandered on the beach, its great hooves sinking into the sand, the young archer raised the silver tent with its golden canopy beside the shore, laid out the fine carpets, wines and delicacies, and began to regale himself of the tasty dishes.
Princess Vasilisa sat lightly in her silver boat, lightly dipping her golden oars in the blue sea, moving the silver boat lightly through the dancing waves, closer and closer to the edge of the world, where she saw the silver tent with its golden canopy and the young archer. Her silver boat crunched against the golden sand and stepping ashore Princess Vasilisa approached the silver tent and seated herself on a fine carpet beneath the golden canopy. The young archer bowed low and invited her to partake of the rich wines and tasty delicacies. They ate with delight and toasted each other in the rich wine from golden goblets, until the Princess’ eyelids 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 gently over the horse’s back and set off back to the palace. Over the high mountains. Across the great steppes. Through the deep forests.
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 wed.” The ringing of bells woke Vasilisa, “Where is my blue sea? Where is my silver boat and my golden oars?” “The blue sea is far away. For your silver boat I give you a golden throne. The trumpets sound for our wedding. The bells are ringing for our joy.”
The princess turned away from the Tzar with his cruel eyes and curled lips and turned to the young archer with love in her heart for one fit to ride the horse of power. Then she spoke to the Tzar, “I will not marry without my wedding gown. At the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the blue sea, my wedding gown lies in a golden casket beneath a great stone in the middle of the blue sea.”
The Tzar turned to the young archer, his mouth curling with desire and frustration, “How could you bring 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 me the frock.”
The young archer ran into the courtyard weeping with anguished love, told the horse of power what the Tzar had demanded. The horse pawed the ground, shook its great head, and the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear. “Do not fear,” said the horse, “the trial is not now, the trial is to come. Now you have a journey to make.”
Bringing the wedding gown
The young archer and the horse of power journeyed through the deep forests. Across the great steppes. Over the high mountains. To the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from behind the blue sea.
The young archer looked sadly at the blue sea. But the horse of power searched the shore until he found a great lobster crawling sideways across the golden sand. When the lobster came close, the horse slowly lifted a foreleg and brought the hoof down gently but firmly on the lobster’s tail. The lobster struggled in vain against the heavy hoof then screamed, “I am the Tzar of all the lobsters. Release me and we shall do whatever you ask.” The horse released the lobster and said what he must do.
The Tzar of all the lobsters stood at the edge of the world and called out. The blue sea seemed to boil with white foam and from its depths crawled thousands of lobsters bearing the golden casket, taken from beneath the great stone in the middle of the blue sea. Taking the casket, the young archer thanked the Tzar of all the lobsters and leaping onto the horse’s back they began their journey back to the palace. Over the high mountains. Across the great steppes. Through the deep forests.
Later, the princess appeared in her wedding gown, lovelier than daylight, more beautiful than the stars of heaven. The Tzar looked at her with hard, hungry 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.”
His lips curling with ingratitude and malice, the Tzar commanded his servants, “Make a great fire, set upon it the largest cauldron of water, and when it boils take this creature and cast him into the boiling water to do penance for bringing my bride from the edge of the world.”
The young archer’s heart was all despair, to lose his life at the behest of the woman he had so shortly come to love. “Great Tzar,” he said “suffer me before I die to bid farewell to my horse.” At a sign from the princess, the Tzar assented, “But make it quick, for our nuptials await.”
The young archer ran into the courtyard weeping in an agony of betrayal and fear, told the horse of power what Princess Vasilisa had demanded and the Tzar had ordered and would have made his farewell. But the horse pawed the ground, shook its great head, and the words hung in the air between them, you will rue the day and learn the meaning of fear. “The trial is now, the trial is come. Now you have a final journey to make.”
The horse was secretly encouraged by what Princess Vasilisa had done. All the same, he guided the young archer how he might face the trial, face death.
The great cauldron was coming up to the boil. Princess Vasilisa remained impassive. The Tzar was torn between his relish to see the young archer’s suffering and his desire for the princess. The young archer, standing firmly in the grip of two servants, was full of dread resolution.
The princess stepped towards the cauldron. She moved her hand over the bubbling and seething water. Her lips briefly moved. A fleeting, enigmatic smile flickered across her features, “The water boils. All is ready.”
As the drums rolled, the young archer wrenched himself away from his captors. He ran boldly forward and flung himself into the boiling foam. He swirled around and around, twice sinking below the surface and rising again. He sank for the third and last time. The Tzar’s lips curled with malicious pleasure. The princess’ face shone with enigmatic glee. And the young archer leapt from the cauldron and stood before them in the full flower of mature manhood.
The Tzar stared at the apparition risen before him, his lips curling with envy and spite. He thought of his own grey hairs, his bent back, gnarled face and toothless gums, “If the waters can work this miracle for a mere archer then what can they work for a mighty Tzar?” He stumbled forward and climbed into the cauldron to a terrible death. The servants boiled the flesh from his bones for pig meal and cast the bones to his dogs.
The young man became the new Tzar. The princess became Tzarina. Each loving the other, they ruled wisely and well until the time for the Tzar to journey to the next world and for Vasilisa to follow her next call.
This is my telling of a Russian traditional story.