Once upon a time, a very long time ago, far beyond the end of the world, I saddled a nag, leapt upon her back and rode into the forest. I ate well, I drank well, and I put the nag under my head for a pillow. All of a sudden I awoke; my nag had been stolen. That gave me a real start, and I dashed up a hill and at the top I climbed a tree. I shook the tree so hard, the mulberries, plums and hazelnuts bounced down on my head. And in that moment an old woman shouted at me.
“Hey, there, child!” she called. “Don’t trample on the mulberries, plums and hazelnuts. It’s not you that grew them!”
I can tell you, it’s all true, and another thing …
There was once a king who had a swineherd called John. One morning both John and the king noticed that outside the palace grew an apple tree that reached the sky. But this was no ordinary tree, for it blossomed in the morning, bore fruit by noon and by midnight the apples were ripe. However, every apple was soon stolen and the king hadn’t even tasted one!
So the king sent out a proclamation throughout the land that anyone who brought him an apple from the tree could marry his daughter and have half his realm, and the rest of it after his death. You see, the king had been ill for seven years, and an old woman had told him that should an apple tree grow beneath his window, and should he eat of the fruit, he would be cured at once. So he sent out the proclamation to all four corners of the land that anyone, be he rich or poor, baron or count, anyone who brought him one of the apples, could marry his daughter, the princess.
Well, there was no lack of applicants, but none could climb the tree. Then John, the little swineherd, said to the king, “Your Majesty, if I may be so bold, let me go up that tree and bring down an apple.”
“What?” laughed the king, “do you want to climb where neither count nor prince could climb? What nonsense! Go back to your work!”
But John, the swineherd would not leave the king in peace. He kept on begging until the king gave him permission.
“Alright, alright,” sighed the king. “And what will you need, pray tell? How are you going to climb the tree? I will give you whatever you need.”
“Your Majesty should have three iron rings made to girdle the tree so that I can climb up them like a ladder. And I will also need three pairs of iron boots, and enough food for a week,” said John.
So when all these things were ready, John set out to climb the tree. He climbed so high that day, he could no longer be seen. He went on climbing for three more days until he noticed that one of his boots had a hole in it and the iron was rubbing his foot. So he pulled off his boots and let them drop far below.
“Let them return to my master!” he cried.
“Well,” said the king when the boots dropped down, “the boy is still alive, though he has already had to change his boots!”
When John reached the seventh branch of the tree, he found a staircase that he could climb easily from now on.
“I’m grateful to the king for his help,” he thought, “I’ll drop down the second pair of boots as well, so he can see I’m still alive and I’ll drop down the axe also as I won’t be needing it any longer”.
He was so high up when he dropped the axe that by the time it reached the ground, the handle had rotted away completely. And by the time the boots fell down to the royal palace they had grown so old that nobody recognised them. Nobody except the guard, that is, who had been appointed to stand under the tree and report as soon as John sent down any signals or messages.
By the seventh day all three pairs of boots had worn out, but on that day, John reached the top of the tree.
Now the boy did not give the king another thought, for he was so high up that he’d almost forgotten why he was there at all. After a time he found himself in a large castle. He walked through the first hall, then the second, then the third, and on and on until he reached the eleventh hall. There he found a beautiful girl, more beautiful than any he had ever seen. The king’s daughter was beautiful too, but even she paled beside this pretty maid.
“Good day, fair maiden. Forgive me, I do not know whether to call you a princess or not,” said John politely.
“My name is Etelka. I am a princess, and an orphan,” replied the girl. “My parents are both dead. But tell me, how did you come here, higher than any bird ever flies?” Well, John was so stunned by her beauty that he stammered, “I have come to serve you.” “Then you came in good time, as I am all alone. You may stay with me as long as you like. Whatever you ask, I will grant, but you must never enter the twelfth room.” The lad promised to put everything in order, and to work like a bee. So they agreed and he remained with the princess, and he even dined with her every evening.
And it came to pass that after a while together they fell in love and became betrothed. Then one day the princess said to John, “I’m going to church now, here are the keys to eleven rooms, clean them all thoroughly, and cook supper. Everything is ready, all you have to do is light the fire. But whatever you do, don’t look for the key to the twelfth room.” And with this, she set off.
John did everything he had been told, and did not give a thought to what might be in the twelfth room. But once he had finished his chores, he could not stop wondering what might be there, and went in search of the key to the twelfth room in order to clean it. It must have been ages since it was last done!
He saw an old broom standing in a corner. He decided to throw it away and put a new one in its place, but as he picked it up, the door of the twelfth room began to open and he wasted no time, but went in. And bang! Right away the door closed behind him. Well! Guess what, his eyes nearly popped out of his head for there, nailed to the wall, was a seven-headed dragon. Two huge iron balls that must have weighed at least fifty tons hung from its legs. Two colossal nails pinned its wings to the walls and its head was squashed between two vast millstones. What a sight!
“Oh, how happy I am to see you, my lad!” cried the dragon. “If you bring me a bucket of water, I’ll give you a kingdom. But make sure you come back right away, or I’ll breathe on you with my hot breath till you choke. Actually, you don’t even have to leave the room, for there are three buckets of fresh water in the corner. I am thirsty, but there was no one to bring them to me. Pour half a bucket into my mouth at one end, and half into my mouth at the other end, because I have seven heads.”
So John did as the dragon said.
“Thank you, my boy,” said the dragon, “you will get your kingdom. But if you will bring me another bucket of water, I will give you another kingdom. Pour half of it into my mouth at one end, and half into my mouth at the other end.”
And once again John did as he was bid and when it was done, the dragon was freed from between the millstones, and the two iron balls fell from his feet, all because he had drunk the two buckets of water.
“Now,” he said, “give me the third bucket as well! Pour half of it into the middle head, and the other half into the remaining heads.”
And John obeyed once again.
“Thank you, my boy,” said the dragon. “For setting me free, you will get three kingdoms, but for the sake of setting us both free, I have one more request. We cannot leave this room, because try as you might, the door is locked and neither of us can leave.”
John did not believe him so he tried the door to see if it would open, but sure enough, the dragon was right; it was locked. And he could not leave. Well, what a turn-up! “Listen,” said the dragon. “There is a small chest over there, and in the middle drawer is a small apple. Throw it into my middle mouth.”
John found the apple and threw it into the dragon’s mouth and at once the door opened. Then in a flash the dragon shook himself and flew away on his mighty wings. “We shall meet again!” he called back.
John was a bit surprised by all that he had found in the twelfth room, but he shrugged his shoulders and went back to his work. But he had three magic mares, and they were all neighing as hard as they could, as they knew their master had been tricked.
Meanwhile, the princess came home and the moment she entered the room she cried, “John, what have you done? I told you not to go into the twelfth room. Now we have little time left together. In vain are we betrothed, the moment we come out of the church after the wedding, the dragon will carry me off.”
John burst into tears. If only he had known.
“The dragon promised you three kingdoms,” said the princess, “But you will never enjoy them, one by one they will be taken from you as you try to win me back.” And they hugged each other, tears streaming down their faces.
On Sunday, the day of the wedding, they invited all the princess’s close relations, and the closest of them accompanied the young couple to church.
When the mass had been sung and the wedding ceremony was over, a great storm broke out. Lightning flashed and thunder roared, you would have thought it was the end of the world. And as soon as they set foot outside the church, the dragon swooped down and seized John’s bride.
“Three kingdoms have I given you, lad, three times may you visit your wife. But try as you may, you will never get her back!” And with a great roar, the dragon was gone. John burst into tears. He went home with the wedding guests, but there was no trace of his bride. The poor soul wondered what on earth he could do. Where should he look for his bride? And he vowed to bring her back home, even if it cost him his life. He went sorrowfully to the stables and said to his mares, “My precious mares, your master’s bride has been taken from him.”
“Don’t worry, master, we’ll bring her back to you. Saddle me up,” said one, “and bring food and drink enough for us both!”
The very next day, John saddled the horse, leapt on her back, and flew away, for it was a magic steed.
They flew over hill and dale, from one strange country to another, through forests and meadows, but they found no trace of the princess anywhere.
Then suddenly his horse said to John, “Look down, there on the ground! I can see a little house there, with a woman sitting outside the door. Let’s see if it’s your bride. She has a washtub in her hands full of blood-soaked clothes. She is about to go to the well, to wash.”
And they landed at once, and guess what, it was indeed John’s bride. They hugged one another, and cried for joy and sorrow.
“Have we a little time,” asked John, “so my horse and I can have a rest?” “Yes,” Etelka replied, “but only a little, for the dragon may come home any minute.” “Then let’s not waste time. Pack your things, jump on my horse and let’s be off!” said John. “I would gladly jump on your horse, But there is no point,” Etelka explained, “the dragon will catch up with us, because his horse is faster than yours.”
But John didn’t care and said, “Never mind. Just jump up and let’s be off.” So the princess skipped up onto his horse and they set off for home.
But when the dragon’s horse saw that his mistress had been taken, he began to stamp and paw the ground and whinny, bringing the dragon quickly home.
“Dogs eat your liver,” he snarled at the horse, “ravens gouge out your eyes! You have golden hay in your manger, sweet oats and a clear stream to drink from! What more do you want?”
And the dragon’s horse spoke, “Your wife has been taken away!”
“Have I time to eat? Have I time to drink? May I crack a bag of nuts and eat them?” asked the dragon.
“Never fear. We shall catch up with them anyway,” replied the horse.
So the dragon ate and drank peacefully, cracked a bag of nuts and smoked a ton of tobacco in his pipe. Then he leapt on his horse and they set out after John and the princess. They soon caught up with them, plucked the girl from John’s lap, and the dragon said, “John, my lad, you have just lost one of your kingdoms!” Well, John was in despair. What could he do now?
“Don’t you fret,” said his horse, “I will fly home and you can ride my sister. She is younger and stronger than I, she won’t tire so quickly. Perhaps you’ll be luckier with her.”
So John did as the horse suggested. They went home, but he was very restless and could hardly wait till dawn before setting out again. The horse knew the way, as her sister had explained it exactly – you see, all the horses were sisters.
And they set out with such speed that they reached the dragon’s abode by midday. This time John found his wife washing at the well, weeping.
“I’ve come back for you, jump on my horse, and let’s be off,” he called to her. “We can try,” replied Etelka, “But I know it’s in vain, because the dragon will catch up with us again.”
“As long as my legs can carry us, he will never catch up!” said the magic horse, and with that, they took off. But the dragon’s horse began to stamp and paw the ground and the dragon came with a whirr and a roar.
“Dogs eat your liver,” he snapped, “ravens gouge out your eyes! You have golden hay in your manger, sweet oats and a clear stream from which to drink! What more do you want?”
“Your wife has been taken away!” answered his horse.
“Have I time to eat? Have I time to drink? May I crack a bag of nuts, eat them and take a nap as well?” asked the dragon.
“Never fear. We shall catch up with them anyway,” replied his horse.
So, the dragon ate and drank, had a nap and then jumped on his horse and set off after them. He soon caught up with John, and seized Etelka once more. “Well, John,” he growled, “now you have lost two kingdoms!”
And what a pity, for John and Etelka were quite close to the border. But still, they could not make it.
John flew home again for his third and youngest mare. Early the next morning when day had hardly broken, he set off once again.
“Come what may,” said the horse, “this time we will not fail.”
So, they set out, flying over the ground, flying through the air. They came to the dragon’s house again, and again Etelka was washing blood-stained clothes at the well.
“Here I am again,” John announced. “Quick, jump up on my horse!” “I will, but it is all in vain,” cried Etelka.
And so saying, she leapt on the horse, and they started homewards, flying faster than the wind.
But once again the dragon’s horse began to stamp and paw the ground, and in a terrible rage, the dragon came home.
“Why can’t you leave me in peace? Dogs eat your liver! Ravens gouge out your eyes! You have golden hay in your manger, sweet oats and a clear stream from which to drink! What more do you want?”
“Your wife has been taken away!” replied his horse again.
“Have I time to eat? Have I time to drink? May I crack a bag of nuts and eat them?” laughed the dragon.
“Yes, you have time for all that,” replied his horse.
So the dragon began to eat and drink, stuffing his seven mouths all at once. Then he set out after John and Etelka. They had almost reached the border of the last of the dragon’s twelve countries, but he caught up with them, just like before. “Well now, John, you have lost all three of your kingdoms. I said you could visit your wife three times. Now, if you come once more, you will lose your life into the bargain.”
So saying, the dragon grabbed Etelka and flew off with her.
Then his faithful horse turned to John: “Don’t you fret, we’ll try again, even at the cost of our lives!”
“All right,” he replied. “Even if it costs me my life, I must try to get my bride back!” Hardly had the dragon reached home, set Etelka down and gone back to his guests, when John was there again.
“My sweet wife,” he begged her, “jump on my horse once more! I don’t care if
I die, for then my heart won’t bleed for you at least.”
What a scene it was, you should have seen it! His wife begged him not to take her, as she knew it would mean his death. She pleaded and pleaded but John repeated bravely, “I don’t care if I die, just jump up and let’s be off!”
So saying, they got on the horse and flew homewards faster than the wind. “Hold tight, both of you,” said the horse on the way, “for now we either reach home or we die!” No sooner had they set out than the dragon’s horse began to stamp and paw the ground. Again the dragon came in great fury, just as before. “Dogs eat your liver! Ravens gouge out your eyes!” he snarled, “you have golden hay in your manger, sweet oats and a clear stream from which to drink! What more do you want? Why don’t you leave me in peace?”
“Your wife has been taken away,” replied his horse.
“What?” cried the dragon. “Did he dare come for her again? Have I time to eat? Have I time to drink? May I crack a bag of nuts, eat them and have a nap as well?” “Not this time,” answered the dragon’s horse. “They are already drawing near the border. We have no time to lose!”
Upon that, the dragon flew into a rage, leapt on his horse at once, and set out after them. He caught up with them on the bank of the ditch bordering the very last country of the dragon’s realm. Only a few paces separated them from the other side, where the dragon would have no power to go after them.
“I warned you,” he roared. “I warned you fair and square that I’d forgive you three times, but not a fourth!”
So saying, the dragon yanked Etelka from John’s lap, tossed her onto his horse and snarled at her. “How dare you ride on his horse, when I forbade you even to talk to him again?”
Then he took hold of John and tore him limb from limb. He had a big sack with him, and told Etelka to pick up the pieces, put them inside, and tie the sack to John’s horse. “Let the people see what becomes of anyone who dares come after you!” sneered the dragon.
So Etelka put all the bits into the bag, placed it on the horse and sent it home. “Take your master home, and tell everyone there never to come after me again!” she sobbed. Then the dragon picked up Etelka, put her on his horse and flew home. Sorrowfully, John’s horse jogged homewards. How sadly she carried her dead master on her back! What could she do to turn him into a man again?
As she jogged along, she caught sight of a tiny snake. In its mouth, it carried a beautiful blade of grass.
“What are you carrying, little snake?” she asked.
“Life-giving grass,” replied the snake. “A carriage ran over my son, and I’m trying to cure him with this blade of grass.”
“Lend it to me for a little while,” begged the horse. “I have a kind master, and
I want to bring him back to life. He’s here in a bag on my back.”
“All right,” agreed the snake. “But my son is still lying across the road, if another carriage comes along it will break his back in other places, too. Let me cure him first.” “Well,” said the horse, “come along, I’ll help you. I’ll take his tail between my teeth, and pull him off the road so he’ll be safe. I won’t bite him, don’t worry.”
So she did as the horse said. Then the snake touched its son a few times with the blade of grass and right away the baby snake was cured and slithered away. Meanwhile the horse looked for a clearing. Then she reared up twice so that the bag slipped off her back. She opened it and shook out the pieces with her muzzle. She began to arrange the pieces of flesh to take the shape of a man and as she put them together, the little snake touched them with the blade of grass and at once the scars were healed.
Well, you should have seen it!
The faithful mare saw that her master was only sleeping and was now seven times more handsome than before. Gently she nipped his shoulder, and stood him on his feet. Then she gave him a gentle kick with one of her hooves.
“Master,” she called, “wake up!” And in a flash John woke up.
“Oh my faithful horse, I’ve had such a good sleep,” he said.
“You would have slept till kingdom come if I had not met the little snake who gave me this life-giving grass to heal you,” said the mare.
“Now that I have woken up let’s not waste any time, we must go back again,” said the brave boy. But the mare had another idea.
“Let’s go home,” she said. “Then in three days time we’ll set out again. By then the dragon will have forgotten what had happened, and won’t be suspicious anymore.” So they went home and had a good rest. On the third day, they set out once more, and as they went along, the horse began to speak.
“Dear master, listen to what I have to say. We should not go straight to the dragon’s house but make a little detour round it, as even his dead ones warn him when strangers enter his country. And whatever you do, make sure that the dragon is not at home when you go in. Then ask Etelka where the dragon bought his horse, or else you will never bring your wife back home.”
So they went round the house and hid behind a hill, listening hard all the time. When the dragon left his house, John went to his wife at once. Poor Etelka took fright when she saw him, she could hardly believe her eyes.
“Don’t be afraid, my sweet wife,” said John. “Only hide me so no one knows I’m here!” “Where is your horse?” asked Etelka, a little worried lest the dragon should come back early.
“In a safe place!” laughed John.
Etelka hugged and kissed him and led him to her room. She really was glad to see him, I can tell you!
“My sweet wife,” John began, “I want you to ask the dragon where he got his horse! Once he has told you and gone away, I will come back. Then I shall go and get a horse from the same place, but one even better than his. But first I must know where he gets them from!”
So John hastily bade leave of his wife, as the dragon was coming home. He returned to his horse and whispered into her ears, “Etelka is going to find out, but we must wait a little. Perhaps she can ask tonight.”
Meanwhile the dragon came back. “Is my lunch ready?” he growled at Etelka.
“It will be ready in a moment,” she replied pretending that nothing had happened. “Come my dear husband, let’s have lunch together!”
Well, you could have knocked the dragon over with a feather. He was really surprised, and was almost moved to tears by her kind words. Usually she wept, but now she spoke tenderly. And they sat down to the first course.
“Tell me, dear husband,” said Etelka, “where did you get your horse?”
At these words the dragon gave Etelka such a slap that she was dashed across the room to the door.
“What has that to do with you?” roared the dragon. “Why do you want to know where I got my horse from? Some day I’ll tell you, but till then you must wait! Go and get the next dish! I’m starved!” So Etelka brought the next dish and set it on the table.
“I really had no bad intentions when l asked you,” she said. “Do please tell me where you got your horse, for a finer horse I have never seen!”
But upon her second demand the dragon dealt her such a blow that she was struck right into the kitchen.
“Why do you keep asking? Leave me in peace while I eat! Go and get the third dish!” he roared again.
Etelka brought the third dish and set it on the table. Then once more she began, “My sweet husband, indeed I have no bad intentions, please tell me where you bought your horse?”
For the third time he struck her so hard she landed in the courtyard and the poor girl burst into tears. But the dragon was touched by her tears and said, “Ah, you are asking in good faith, I see. At first I was not sure, just wait a little, and I will tell you. First I would like a little walk after such a big dinner.”
So saying the dragon went out into the graveyard, where his dead ones lay, those who had died at his hand. He asked each one if they had seen a stranger.
“No one has come since your wife was taken for the fourth time,” the dead ones replied. And so he was satisfied and went home and said to Etelka, “Come now and sit beside me. Listen, I will tell you because at any rate you cannot tell John. You saw for yourself how I tore him to pieces. As for you, there is not much you can do if you do know. At the left corner of your palace there is a little foot path. It is hard to see as it is rarely used, but the grass is shorter there. This path leads to the shores of the Seventh Sea. Where the path meets the sea there is a shallow strip of water and then the path continues on the other side, at the border of the next country. There lives an old woman, a witch. She still has three horses left. One of these is an iron-grey, twice as strong and as intelligent as mine. The old woman has to be served faithfully. Three days make a year in that land and the man who serves her well receives whatever he wishes, and there is no bargaining. And that,” said the dragon, “is all there is to know.”
Later the dragon went out again and before you could say boo to a goose, John’s horse spotted him and said, “The dragon has just gone out of the gate. Run, master, and ask Etelka what he said!”
Without a moment’s thought John went in and embraced his wife. “Tell me, my dear wife, what did he say?”
“Listen carefully, my dearest husband. At the left corner of my palace there is a foot path that leads to the shore of the Seventh Sea. You will recognise it for the grass is shorter there. The water of the sea is shallow where the path meets it, and you can wade across to the other side. In the next country there lives an old woman and you must serve her faithfully. She has three horses left, the youngest is an iron-grey, and twice as strong and quick as the dragon’s horse. How you will get it, I do not know. God help you, I can do no more. But go now, for the dragon is coming back, I can hear his horse galloping homewards. I will wait for you, however long you may be. Take care of yourself!”
John kissed his wife and left. He mounted his horse and as they went on their way, he told her all he had heard. When they reached home, John fed his horses and tied them up in the stable. The next day he took out the knapsack where he kept the piece of life-giving grass the snake had given his horse and set out along the untrodden path. On and on he walked.
When he came to the shore of the Seventh Sea he caught sight of a little fish with beautiful golden scales writhing in the dust. One side of it was already quite scorched by the sun, but the fish was still alive and John took pity on it. “You poor little fish! You will die here, the sun has burnt you, and you are far from the water.” And with that he bent down, picked it up and tossed it into the sea.
In the very next moment the fish leapt out of the water looking twice as big as before – fresh and healthy.
“You are a kind lad. For your kindness, I shall give you a scale from my side, from the side untouched by the burning sun. If you ever run into trouble all you have to do is bend it, and I shall come to your aid at once.” Then the fish jumped back into the water and disappeared.
“Well,” thought John, “one never knows where help will spring from, but what could that small fish do to help me?” All the same, he tucked the scale away in his pocket before going on his way.
He walked on through a forest, and in the middle he came to a lake. There he saw a beautiful wild duck, sitting sadly on the water unable to fly, for its wing had been wounded by a hunter’s bullet.
John felt sorry for the duck and shouted across the water. “Little duck, come over here and I will mend your wing for you!”
“I won’t come!” answered the duck. “Do you think I am silly enough to let you make stew out of me?”
“Don’t be afraid,” said John, “I won’t harm you. Let me mend your wing.” “Oh well,” quacked the duck, “I don’t care if you do take my life. It’s worth nothing anyway. My wing is broken, so I don’t care if I die!”
Thus saying, the duck swam to the edge of the lake. John picked it up and sat down with it in his lap. He took the life-giving grass out of his knapsack and stroked the duck’s wounded wing. The moment the grass touched it, the wing was healed as if it had never been broken.
Well! The duck was delighted and spread its wings to try them out.
“You are a good lad. I thought you would take my life, but because you spared it, you can pull a glossy feather out of my left wing, the one that was not broken. If ever you are in trouble, break off the wider end and I shall come right away. But put it in a safe place, don’t lose it!” And with that, the duck bade him goodbye and flew away.
So John went on and followed a stream. At the edge of the forest he came to a spring, where he sat down to have a rest. He opened his knapsack and ate some of his food and wondered what he would ever need the scale and the feather for, but he decided to keep them all the same.
When he had rested a little he went on his way. He had to find the old woman, but where was she? Then far away in the distance, he saw a little house. It was still many miles away, but he pressed on and soon came to a thick undergrowth. As he pushed his way through, a fox leapt out of a bush. It hobbled on three legs, dragging the fourth behind it.
“Hey, wait, fox!” called John. “I see you have hurt your leg. Let me mend for you.” The fox turned back and said to John, “I am not stupid enough to let you break my other legs too, and skin me for a cape!”
“I won’t harm you, fox. I’m sorry for you, that’s all. But if you don’t stop, I cannot help you,” answered John.
“Well, all right,” said the fox. “I’ll let you, but if you hurt me, I’ll bite you!” “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” said John. “All I want is to help you.” Then he took out the blade of life-giving grass and stroked the fox’s bad leg with it. It recovered so quickly that there might never been anything the matter with it, and the fox began to hop about merrily. What a sight! You’ve never seen a happier fox in your life.
“Since you didn’t hurt me,” said the fox, “take some hair from my tail. Keep it, and should you be in trouble, stuff it into your pipe and smoke it, and I will come at once. Then the fox thanked John for his kindness and ran off on all four legs into the bushes.
John went on his way once more. It was evening by the time he reached the house and he saw an old woman sitting at the kitchen door, with her head in her hands. When she saw the approaching boy, she jumped up in surprise.
John greeted her very politely. “Good evening, mam.”
“Good evening to you too, my son! You were in luck when you called me ‘mam’. Ninety-nine men have been impaled in my garden already, and you would have been the one hundredth, had you forgotten your manners. But tell me, my son, what are you doing here, so far away from home?”
“I’m looking for work,” replied John.
“You have come at the right time, my boy. I will give you work,” the old woman said, “But I won’t fix your payment. Three days make a year here. Whatever you wish I shall give you but only on condition you tend to my three horses properly. You must bring them home each evening and see they do not run away.”
“I’ll look after them, mam, have no fear,” said John.
“All right, my lad, come on in and have supper, then I’ll show you the horses and their stable,” said the old witch in a very friendly voice. Then she gave John a hearty meal and prepared a bed for him. When John had finished eating, they went out to the stable and there he saw three magnificent horses – never had he set eyes on such beauties!
“These are the ones you must look after,” said the witch.
John stroked the three horses and the youngest licked his hand. Then they went back into the house and the witch questioned him about his life, what he did and where he had been. She really was curious about him! Then they retired to bed.
The next morning the witch packed John’s knapsack with food, while he saddled the horses. Then off he set riding the iron-grey horse. The witch showed him the pasture beside the forest where he had rested by the spring the day before. He unharnessed the horses, and they wandered away to graze while he sat beneath a big tree. Then he just lay there, watching the horses graze. It was very easy work. Around midday a little breeze sprang up weighing down John’s eyelids, and he fell into a deep sleep. It was late afternoon by the time he awoke. He looked around but he could not see the horses anywhere. He found the place where they had been grazing, but there was no sign of the horses themselves.
Then he remembered the scale the little fish had given him and the promise to help him when in trouble. So he bent the scale and in a flash the little fish appeared before him.
“What do you want me to do?” asked the fish.
“Oh please, little fish,” begged John, “tell me where my horses are!”
“Oh, your horses!” replied the fish. “They are with my family in the sea. One of my messengers saw three strange fish amongst them. Come with me to the shores of the sea. When the sea begins to churn, three large spiky fish will swim towards the shore. All three are black. My fish will drive them out of the sea. But take care! Hold the bridle firmly in your hand and when the middle one reaches land, hit it with all your might so that it is stunned. At that very moment you will find yourself back with your horses.”
In the twinkling of an eye, John was by the sea. He watched as the sea began to howl and churn and three black fish came swimming to the shore. He gripped the bridle of the middle one and struck it so hard that it was stunned at once. In the very same moment, John found himself back in the pasture with the horses. He saddled them all nicely, leapt on the iron-grey steed, and galloped home. “Good evening, mam!” he cried.
“The same to you, my son. Have you returned?”
“As you see, mam! What fine horses you have! They graze beautifully.” “Well, go inside son, and have your supper,” said the witch.
While John was having his supper indoors, the witch began to beat the three horses. One she hit with a poker, another with the coal shovel, beating them like drums for not escaping from the boy.
“Could you not manage to hide so he wouldn’t find you? Good-for-nothings! Just you wait, if you cannot do better tomorrow, you will see what comes to you!” she scolded. Then she turned on her heels and went back indoors as if nothing had happened. She talked pleasantly to John and then they went to bed and slept soundly till the first crowing of the cock at dawn.
The next morning the witch packed even more food into John’s knapsack, so that again he would be overcome by sleep. She even put some sleeping powder into his wine. John went out to the stables, saddled the horses, and mounted the iron-grey one. Then they galloped out to the meadow where they had been the day before, and he let the horses go. Then he sat down in the shade of the same big tree by the spring. Midday came, the breeze blew up and touched John’s eyes, he had a good meal, and fell into a deep sleep. He awoke towards evening, looked about him, and sure enough his horses were nowhere to be seen. He was just wondering where to start looking for them, when he remembered how the little fish had helped the day before. Perhaps the duck could help this time. So he took the glossy feather out of his pocket and snapped off the wider end. There was a swish in the air, and the duck swooped down beside him. “What’s wrong? Why did you summon me?” he quacked.
“My horses are lost and I do not know where to find them. Please help me if you can.” “Oh,” quacked the duck, “don’t give it another thought! There are three ravens in my flock all pure white, a rare sight indeed! My friends will make them fly down low towards you. But take care! Look out for the middle raven and hit it so hard with the bridle that it falls down, stunned, at your feet. You will then find your horses grazing in the pasture, just like before.”
And so it happened. John went with the duck to the bank of the stream. When he looked up he saw a great cloud of wild ducks driving the three white ravens right at him. But he did not fear, he just gripped the bridle, and when they came within striking distance, he hit the middle one so hard that it fell at his feet.
In the very same moment the horses were back in the meadow grazing as they had in the morning. He saddled all three quickly, leapt onto the iron-grey and galloped home. He greeted the witch cheerfully when he arrived.
“Good evening, mam!”
“The same to you, my son! Have you come back, then?” she said, pretending to be pleased.
“As you see, mam!”
“Were the horses good?” she asked again.
“Indeed they were, mam, they didn’t stray at all!” laughed John.
“Well,” said the witch, “go and have your supper, I’ll water the horses while you eat.” John went indoors and the old witch went out to the stables. She picked up a red hot poker and beat her horses, harder than she had the day before.
“Could you not find a better hiding place? Good-for-nothings! He has found you twice, but you wait till tomorrow! You’ll be right here in the kitchen, tucked away in the dough basket! Eggs under the hen, that’s what you’ll be!” she shrieked. And she turned on her heels and went indoors.
“Now, eat up, my son, I’ll have my supper, too, and then we can talk for a while,” she said, as if nothing had happened. And sure enough that’s just what they did, they talked for a while and then they went to bed.
Next morning when they got up, the witch packed John’s knapsack with food. “Here you are, my boy, your lunch. Take the horses out to graze a little!”
John went out to the stable, saddled the horses, and leaping onto the iron-grey one, galloped out to the pasture as before. There he freed the horses and lay down beside the spring at the foot of his favourite tree.
Around eleven o’clock a warm breeze sprung up, brushed John’s eyes, he had a hearty meal, fell into a deep sleep, and slumbered right through till evening. When he awoke, the horses had gone, just like before.
John wondered what to do next. Twice he had found them, but how would he find them for the third time? Then suddenly he remembered the lame fox. He took out the hair, stuffed it into his pipe and began to smoke. No sooner had he lit the pipe than there was a rustle in the bushes and the fox appeared. “What’s up, friend? Why have you called me so soon?” the fox said.
“Fox, the trouble is I’ve lost my horses,” sighed John.
“Hm, that’s really quite serious,” said the fox, “but we’ll see what we can do. Follow me back to the house, but make sure the old hag doesn’t see you. She has a cockerel, and a noisier cockerel would be hard to find. I’m going to catch the cockerel, he’s the old bag’s favourite, I’ll make him yell, and you get close up to the house so that when she rushes out of the kitchen with the poker, you can slip into the kitchen. You’ll find the bridle in the corner where the old witch was sitting, and in a basket you’ll see three eggs. Smash them all so hard with the bridle that they splatter all over the place. And that very same moment, your horses will be back in the meadow with you.”
So they set out, creeping from bush to bush. Soon John got near the house and the fox crept up to the dung-heap, where the hens were scratching about. All at once the fox leapt out of the bushes and grabbed the cockerel. As he ran off with it between his teeth, the cockerel set up such a screeching that the old woman hurried outside. “Stop, stop, you scoundrel! How dare you come here again? Last time I broke your leg, this time, it’ll be your back! Just wait till I catch you!” The old hag dashed from tree to tree, but the fox ran like the wind now that he had four good legs. Meanwhile, John sneaked into the kitchen, found the bridle and the eggs and struck them so hard that they splashed all over the place. At that very same moment, he found himself back in the meadow with the three horses. He saddled them up, leapt on the iron-grey, and galloped home. But on the way home the iron-grey horse began to speak to him.
“My dear master, I know it is for me that you are working here, but tomorrow you will not know me. Tomorrow I’ll be a filthy colt out by the dung-heap. The old witch will promise you all kinds of things, she’ll even offer you the other two horses, but stick to your choice, and take me, even if you have to carry me on your back. And there’s another thing I should warn you about. After you have had supper, the witch will go on and on talking to you, to make you drowsy and fall asleep long before midnight strikes. Whatever you do, do not fall asleep or your three days’ service will have been for nothing, your head will be chopped off and impaled on a stick that very night. At exactly eleven o’clock, the old woman will bid you goodnight and tell you to go to sleep. She will fall asleep right away, but at half past eleven she will get up. In her house there is an old bridle and a rusty sword in a sheath. She will draw the sword out of the sheath, but do not be afraid. Putting out her tongue, she will start to sharpen the sword on it as if it were a grindstone. This will go on until the hands of the clock reach a quarter to twelve. Then she will say, ‘Get up, my servant!’ But whatever you do, don’t move, or she will know you are not asleep. When the clock strikes twelve, she will shout, ‘Get up, servant, or the devil take your liver, I shall cut you in two!’ At that very moment you must fling yourself at the wall, because then she will lose her sight, and being unable to see she will grope under the bed and slice it in two with her sword. Stay at the head of the bed, for she will strike again and begin to search for the pieces of your body. When she cannot find you, the bed will put itself back together, and she will go back to her own bed, sheathe the sword and sleep till morning. You can sleep then, only not too deeply. But beware, this is a sword that has no equal anywhere under the sun!”
Well, what a lot to remember. But John took note of every word and did not forget a thing.
At home, he called out politely, “God evening, mam!”
The witch greeted him as if nothing had happened to her horses or the cockerel. “Go indoors, my lad, and have your supper. I’ll water the horses.” Then she took hold of the poker and the coal shovel and began to strike the poor horses just as before. “So even on the third day you could not escape him, eh? But I won’t let him have you whatever happens! I’ll kill him during the night, or I’ll turn one of you into such a decrepit old nag he won’t want you anyway!”
And with that she turned on her heels and went back into the house.
“Well, come on, my lad, let’s have supper!” she said to John as if she’d never been happier. And they sat down to eat. John was drowsy, but he remembered what he had been told. After supper the witch went on and on talking, trying to make him sleepy. She could talk the hind legs off a donkey, but John stayed awake.
When eleven o’clock came she said, “Goodnight my son, go to bed now, I’m going to sleep, too.”
So John went to bed, but he only slept like a rabbit, while she slept like a log. When the clock struck half past eleven, the witch sprung up like lightning. She went for the sword in the corner and pulled it out of its sheath. She gazed at it and muttered, “That’ll finish him off”! Then she stuck out her long tongue and began to sharpen the blade on both sides.
At a quarter to twelve she screamed, “Get up, my servant!” But John did not stir, he might have been sound asleep.
“Well, sleep on, you will get what’s coming to you in a minute!” laughed the wicked hag.
At exactly twelve o’clock, she called again, “Get up, my servant, or the devil take your liver, I’ll cut you in two!”
Quick as a flash, John flung himself against the wall, and at once the old woman lost her sight. She cut blindly under the bed with her sword and John crouched at the head of the bed as it collapsed under him. The old witch began frantically searching for him, hoping that one of the bits of his body would fall into her hands. But she felt for it in vain, she could not find it and she muttered and mumbled to herself as she searched.
“Ah well,” she said at last, “it is past midnight. I know what he wants, but I shall make it so revolting, he will not want to take it!” And then she went to bed, and fell fast asleep.
When daylight dawned, the old woman got up and made breakfast.
“Well, my son, you served me honestly, so tell me what you want! I will give you whatever you want!” she said as cheerfully as if nothing had happened.
“All I ask for, mam, is that rusty sword and the old bridle, that dirty old saddle in the stable and the nag on the dung-heap,” said John.
The old woman cackled, “What in the world would you do with them? They wouldn’t even do for junk! And as for that decrepit old nag on the dung-heap, why you’d have to carry it, for it would never bear you!” she scoffed.
“Never mind, I’ll set everything to rights at home, and polish them up, and feed the horse well!”
The old hag just cackled and said, “I’ll give you gold and silver, as much as you can carry. You’ll be a rich man, you’ll never have to work again!”
“Thank you all the same, mam, but I’m quite content with what I’ve asked for,”
“All right, then,” said the witch. “If that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get! But I warn you, you’ll have to carry the old nag, it won’t walk until it’s clear across the border!”
So John took the horse, filthy as it was, bridled it and put the mud-caked saddle on its back. Then he tied the rusty sword to his belt, and heaved the horse onto his back, for it was unable to move a step.
“God bless you, mam,” called John. “And thanks for the job!”
“God be with you, my son! Feed that nag well or it won’t stand on its feet!” So John hauled the horse right to the border of the old woman’s land. Three times on the way he had to throw it from his shoulders, so weary was he, but three times he picked it up again. When he had crossed the border of the witch’s lands, the horse said, “You can put me down now, and I shall carry you.”
So saying, the horse jumped to its feet, shuddered, and suddenly changed itself into a beautiful iron-grey steed with a flowing golden mane. John had never seen anything like it. Then he looked down at himself and could hardly believe his eyes! His sword, his garments, spurs and boots shone and glittered as never before. He was not even quite certain if he was really himself.
“Come on, master, get on my back!” said the horse. “And tell me, do you wish to go as fast as the wind or as swift as a passing thought?”
“Either way,” answered John, “as long as neither of us is harmed!” And in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, they were flying through the air.
“Dear horse,” said John, “let us now go for my wife.”
“In the twinkling of an eye,” the horse replied. “I know where she is, she is with my uncle!” For indeed, the dragon’s horse was his uncle.
John had barely time to blink his eyes before they were at the dragon’s castle. As John appeared on his iron-grey steed, his wife was drawing water from the well. “Beloved, I have come for you at last!” he cried. “I did as I promised. Is the dragon at home?”
“No, he is visiting his relations,” answered his wife when she had recovered from her surprise.
“Then let him enjoy himself, while we enjoy ourselves here!” said John. And as it was long since they had last seen each other, they kissed and embraced. “Now,” said John, “pack your things, and climb up onto my horse!”
So Etelka packed her belongings, climbing up in front of John in the saddle, and they set off for home.
No sooner had they gone through the gate than the dragon’s horse began to stamp and pound the ground. And that very moment the dragon came home with a whirr and a roar.
“Dogs eat your liver,” he snarled at the horse in great fury, “ravens gouge out your eyes! You have golden hay in your manger, sweet oats and a stream from which to drink. What more do you want?”
“Your woman has been taken away!”
“Have I time to eat? Have I time to drink? May I crack a bag of nuts and eat them?” asked the dragon. “You might as well,” answered his horse, “you will never reach them anyway!”
Oh! The dragon flew into a fit of rage. He strapped on his ten-ton spurs, leapt on his horse and dug the spurs into his sides. The poor horse gasped until his lungs nearly fell out, but John just laughed at them. But the dragon’s horse neighed to the horse John was riding. “Please, stop, the dragon is cutting my very innards!” “Serves you right if you haven’t got it in you to throw him off,” called his nephew in return.
At that the dragon’s horse made one last effort and the dragon was thrown to the ground and reduced to a pitiful heap. Then John’s horse went up to his uncle and Etelka jumped across onto his back. Then slowly and peacefully, they made their way home where they lived quietly for some time.
Then one day John met a handsome boy, not unlike him in looks. “Listen, my friend,” said John. “I want to tell you something. I can make you a happy man if you but listen to my words. Come with me to my old country, as the king there will soon die of sorrow if he does not hear word of me.”
“I would go with pleasure,” said the other, “But I could never walk that far.” “Don’t worry, I’ll help you. I’ll give you a horse that will carry you with ease.” And so the boy agreed. They bade goodbye to their relations and set out for John’s country and reached it on the third day.
Well, the king was surprised to see him after all this time, but John greeted the king politely and presented him with a bag full of the promised apples. Then he said, “Your Majesty, I can no longer marry your daughter, for I have a wife already. But here is a good friend of mine. If the princess agrees, I highly recommend him to her.”
The king consented at once, for no sooner had he eaten one of the apples than his health returned.
They held a magnificent wedding with so much to drink that even the dogs were up to their knees in wine. And anyone who had a drop was a happy man. They crammed the river Danube into a sack, and from a carrot made a spur for a little boy’s boot. But as he was dancing about, showing it off, his spur pierced the sack and the mighty river began to flow once more.
And that is the end of my tale. Put it on the frozen river, and let it slide hither and thither.
Translation by Caroline Bodóczky