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THE FIRE-BIRD, THE HORSE OF POWER, AND THE PRINCESS VASILISSA
 ONCE upon a time a strong and powerful Tzar ruled in a country far
away. And among his servants was a young archer, and this archer had a
horse—a horse of power—such a horse as belonged to the wonderful men
of long ago—a great horse with a broad chest, eyes like fire, and
hoofs of iron. There are no such horses nowadays. They sleep with the
strong men who rode them, the bogatirs, until the time comes when
Russia has need of them. Then the great horses will thunder up from
under the ground, and the valiant men leap from the graves in the
armour they have worn so long. The strong men will sit those horses of
power, and there will be swinging of clubs
 and thunder of hoofs, and
the earth will be swept clean from the enemies of God and the Tzar. So
my grandfather used to say, and he was as much older than I as I am
older than you, little ones, and so he should know.
Well, one day long ago, in the green time of the year, the young
archer rode through the forest on his horse of power. The trees were
green; there were little blue flowers on the ground under the trees;
the squirrels ran in the branches, and the hares in the undergrowth;
but no birds sang. The young archer rode along the forest path and
listened for the singing of the birds, but there was no singing. The
forest was silent, and the only noises in it were the scratching of
four-footed beasts, the dropping of fir cones, and the heavy stamping
of the horse of power in the soft path.
"What has come to the birds?" said the young archer.
He had scarcely said this before he saw a big curving feather lying in
the path before him. The feather was larger than a swan's, larger than
an eagle's. It lay in the path, glittering like a flame; for the sun
was on it, and it was a feather of pure gold. Then he knew why there
was no singing in the forest. For he knew that the
fire-  bird
that way, and that the feather in the path before him was a feather
from its burning breast.
The horse of power spoke and said,—
"Leave the golden feather where it lies. If you take it you will be
sorry for it, and know the meaning of fear."
But the brave young archer sat on the horse of power and looked at
the golden feather, and wondered whether to take it or not. He had no
wish to learn what it was to be afraid, but he thought, "If I take it
and bring it to the Tzar my master, he will be pleased; and he will
not send me away with empty hands, for no Tzar in the world has a
feather from the burning breast of the fire-bird." And the more he
thought, the more he wanted to carry the feather to the Tzar. And in
the end he did not listen to the words of the horse of power. He leapt
from the saddle, picked up the golden feather of the fire-bird,
mounted his horse again, and galloped back through the green forest
till he came to the palace of the Tzar.
He went into the palace, and bowed before the Tzar and said,—
"O Tzar, I have brought you a feather of the fire-bird."
 The Tzar looked gladly at the feather, and then at the young archer.
"Thank you," says he; "but if you have brought me a feather of the
fire-bird, you will be able to bring me the bird itself. I should like
to see it. A feather is not a fit gift to bring to the Tzar. Bring the
bird itself, or, I swear by my sword, your head shall no longer sit
between your shoulders!"
The young archer bowed his head and went out. Bitterly he wept, for he
knew now what it was to be afraid. He went out into the courtyard,
where the horse of power was waiting for him, tossing its head and
stamping on the ground.
"Master," says the horse of power, "why do you weep?"
"The Tzar has told me to bring him the fire-bird, and no man on earth
can do that," says the young archer, and he bowed his head on his
"I told you," says the horse of power, "that if you took the feather
you would learn the meaning of fear. Well, do not be frightened yet,
and do not weep. The trouble is not now; the trouble lies before you.
Go to the Tzar and ask him to have a hundred sacks of maize
over the open field, and let this be done at midnight."
The young archer went back into the palace and begged the Tzar for
this, and the Tzar ordered that at midnight a hundred sacks of maize
should be scattered in the open field.
Next morning, at the first redness in the sky, the young archer rode
out on the horse of power, and came to the open field. The ground was
scattered all over with maize. In the middle of the field stood a
great oak with spreading boughs. The young archer leapt to the ground,
took off the saddle, and let the horse of power loose to wander as he
pleased about the field. Then he climbed up into the oak and hid
himself among the green boughs.
The sky grew red and gold, and the sun rose. Suddenly there was a
noise in the forest round the field. The trees shook and swayed, and
almost fell. There was a mighty wind. The sea piled itself into waves
with crests of foam, and the fire-bird came flying from the other side
of the world. Huge and golden and flaming in the sun, it flew, dropped
down with open wings into the field, and began to eat the maize.
The horse of power wandered in the field. This way he went, and that,
but always he came a
 little nearer to the fire-bird. Nearer and nearer
came the horse. He came close up to the fire-bird, and then suddenly
stepped on one of its spreading fiery wings and pressed it heavily to
the ground. The bird struggled, flapping mightily with its fiery
wings, but it could not get away. The young archer slipped down from
the tree, bound the fire-bird with three strong ropes, swung it on his
back, saddled the horse, and rode to the palace of the Tzar.
He stepped on one of its fiery wings and pressed it to the ground.
The young archer stood before the Tzar, and his back was bent under
the great weight of the fire-bird, and the broad wings of the bird
hung on either side of him like fiery shields, and there was a trail
of golden feathers on the floor. The young archer swung the magic
bird to the foot of the throne before the Tzar; and the Tzar was glad,
because since the beginning of the world no Tzar had seen the
fire-bird flung before him like a wild duck caught in a snare.
The Tzar looked at the fire-bird and laughed with pride. Then he
lifted his eyes and looked at the young archer, and says he,—
"As you have known how to take the fire-bird, you will know how to
bring me my bride, for whom I have long been waiting. In the land of
Never, on the very edge of the world, where the
 red sun rises in flame
from behind the sea, lives the Princess Vasilissa. I will marry none
but her. Bring her to me, and I will reward you with silver and gold.
But if you do not bring her, then, by my sword, your head will no
longer sit between your shoulders!"
The young archer wept bitter tears, and went out into the courtyard,
where the horse of power was, stamping the ground with its hoofs of
iron and tossing its thick mane.
"Master, why do you weep?" asked the horse of power.
"The Tzar has ordered me to go to the land of Never, and to bring back
the Princess Vasilissa."
"Do not weep—do not grieve. The trouble is not yet; the trouble is to
come. Go to the Tzar and ask him for a silver tent with a golden roof,
and for all kinds of food and drink to take with us on the journey."
The young archer went in and asked the Tzar for this, and the Tzar
gave him a silver tent with silver hangings and a gold-embroidered
roof, and every kind of rich wine and the tastiest of foods.
Then the young archer mounted the horse of power and rode off to the
land of Never. On and on he rode, many days and nights, and came at
 last to the edge of the world, where the red sun rises in flame from
behind the deep blue sea.
On the shore of the sea the young archer reined in the horse of power,
and the heavy hoofs of the horse sank in the sand. He shaded his eyes
and looked out over the blue water, and there was the Princess
Vasilissa in a little silver boat, rowing with golden oars.
The young archer rode back a little way to where the sand ended and
the green world began. There he loosed the horse to wander where he
pleased, and to feed on the green grass. Then on the edge of the
shore, where the green grass ended and grew thin and the sand began,
he set up the shining tent, with its silver hangings and its gold
embroidered roof. In the tent he set out the tasty dishes and the rich
flagons of wine which the Tzar had given him, and he sat himself down
in the tent and began to regale himself, while he waited for the
The Princess Vasilissa dipped her golden oars in the blue water, and
the little silver boat moved lightly through the dancing waves. She
sat in the little boat and looked over the blue sea to the edge of the
world, and there, between the golden sand and the green earth, she saw
the tent standing, silver and gold in the sun. She dipped her oars,
 and came nearer to see it the better. The nearer she came the fairer
seemed the tent, and at last she rowed to the shore and grounded her
little boat on the golden sand, and stepped out daintily and came up
to the tent. She was a little frightened, and now and again she
stopped and looked back to where the silver boat lay on the sand with
the blue sea beyond it. The young archer said not a word, but went on
regaling himself on the pleasant dishes he had set out there in the
At last the Princess Vasilissa came up to the tent and looked in.
The young archer rose and bowed before her. Says he,—
"Good-day to you, Princess! Be so kind as to come in and take bread
and salt with me, and taste my foreign wines."
And the Princess Vasilissa came into the tent and sat down with the
young archer, and ate sweetmeats with him, and drank his health in a
golden goblet of the wine the Tzar had given him. Now this wine was
heavy, and the last drop from the goblet had no sooner trickled down
her little slender throat than her eyes closed against her will, once,
twice, and again.
"Ah me!" says the Princess, "it is as if the
 night itself had perched
on my eyelids, and yet it is but noon."
And the golden goblet dropped to the ground from her little fingers,
and she leant back on a cushion and fell instantly asleep. If she had
been beautiful before, she was lovelier still when she lay in that
deep sleep in the shadow of the tent.
Quickly the young archer called to the horse of power. Lightly he
lifted the Princess in his strong young arms. Swiftly he leapt with
her into the saddle. Like a feather she lay in the hollow of his left
arm, and slept while the iron hoofs of the great horse thundered over
They came to the Tzar's palace, and the young archer leapt from the
horse of power and carried the Princess into the palace. Great was the
joy of the Tzar; but it did not last for long.
"Go, sound the trumpets for our wedding," he said to his servants;
"let all the bells be rung."
The bells rang out and the trumpets sounded, and at the noise of the
horns and the ringing of the bells the Princess Vasilissa woke up and
looked about her.
"What is this ringing of bells," says she, "and this noise of
trumpets? And where, oh, where is the blue sea, and my little silver
boat with its
 golden oars?" And the Princess put her hand to her eyes.
"The blue sea is far away," says the Tzar, "and for your little silver
boat I give you a golden throne. The trumpets sound for our wedding,
and the bells are ringing for our joy."
But the Princess turned her face away from the Tzar; and there was no
wonder in that, for he was old, and his eyes were not kind.
And she looked with love at the young archer; and there was no wonder
in that either, for he was a young man fit to ride the horse of power.
The Tzar was angry with the Princess Vasilissa, but his anger was as
useless as his joy.
"Why, Princess," says he, "will you not marry me, and forget your blue
sea and your silver boat?"
"In the middle of the deep blue sea lies a great stone," says the
Princess, "and under that stone is hidden my wedding dress. If I
cannot wear that dress I will marry nobody at all."
Instantly the Tzar turned to the young archer, who was waiting before
"Ride swiftly back," says he, "to the land of Never, where the red sun
rises in flame. There—do you hear what the Princess says?—a great
stone lies in the middle of the sea. Under that stone is
 hidden her
wedding dress. Ride swiftly. Bring back that dress, or, by my sword,
your head shall no longer sit between your shoulders!"
The young archer wept bitter tears, and went out into the courtyard,
where the horse of power was waiting for him, champing its golden bit.
"There is no way of escaping death this time," he said.
"Master, why do you weep?" asked the horse of power.
"The Tzar has ordered me to ride to the land of Never, to fetch the
wedding dress of the Princess Vasilissa from the bottom of the deep
blue sea. Besides, the dress is wanted for the Tzar's wedding, and I
love the Princess myself."
"What did I tell you?" says the horse of power. "I told you that
there would be trouble if you picked up the golden feather from the
fire-bird's burning breast. Well, do not be afraid. The trouble is not
yet; the trouble is to come. Up! into the saddle with you, and away
for the wedding dress of the Princess Vasilissa!"
The young archer leapt into the saddle, and the horse of power, with
his thundering hoofs, carried him swiftly through the green forests
and over the bare plains, till they came to the edge of the world, to
the land of Never, where the red sun
 rises in flame from behind the
deep blue sea. There they rested, at the very edge of the sea.
The young archer looked sadly over the wide waters, but the horse of
power tossed its mane and did not look at the sea, but on the shore.
This way and that it looked, and saw at last a huge lobster moving
slowly, sideways, along the golden sand.
Nearer and nearer came the lobster, and it was a giant among lobsters,
the Tzar of all the lobsters; and it moved slowly along the shore,
while the horse of power moved carefully and as if by accident, until
it stood between the lobster and the sea. Then, when the lobster came
close by, the horse of power lifted an iron hoof and set it firmly on
the lobster's tail.
"You will be the death of me!" screamed the lobster—as well he
might, with the heavy foot of the horse of power pressing his tail
into the sand. "Let me live, and I will do whatever you ask of me."
"Very well," says the horse of power; "we will let you live," and he
slowly lifted his foot. "But this is what you shall do for us. In the
middle of the blue sea lies a great stone, and under that stone is
hidden the wedding dress of the Princess Vasilissa. Bring it here."
 The lobster groaned with the pain in his tail. Then he cried out in a
voice that could be heard all over the deep blue sea. And the sea was
disturbed, and from all sides lobsters in thousands made their way
towards the bank. And the huge lobster that was the oldest of them all
and the Tzar of all the lobsters that live between the rising and the
setting of the sun, gave them the order and sent them back into the
sea. And the young archer sat on the horse of power and waited.
After a little time the sea was disturbed again, and the lobsters in
their thousands came to the shore, and with them they brought a golden
casket in which was the wedding dress of the Princess Vasilissa. They
had taken it from under the great stone that lay in the middle of the
The Tzar of all the lobsters raised himself painfully on his bruised
tail and gave the casket into the hands of the young archer, and
instantly the horse of power turned himself about and galloped back to
the palace of the Tzar, far, far away, at the other side of the green
forests and beyond the treeless plains.
The young archer went into the palace and gave the casket into the
hands of the Princess, and looked at her with sadness in his eyes, and
she looked at him with love. Then she went away
 into an inner chamber,
and came back in her wedding dress, fairer than the spring itself.
Great was the joy of the Tzar. The wedding feast was made ready, and
the bells rang, and flags waved above the palace.
The Tzar held out his hand to the Princess, and looked at her with his
old eyes. But she would not take his hand.
"No," says she; "I will marry nobody until the man who brought me here
has done penance in boiling water."
Instantly the Tzar turned to his servants and ordered them to make a
great fire, and to fill a great cauldron with water and set it on the
fire, and, when the water should be at its hottest, to take the young
archer and throw him into it, to do penance for having taken the
Princess Vasilissa away from the land of Never.
There was no gratitude in the mind of that Tzar.
Swiftly the servants brought wood and made a mighty fire, and on it
they laid a huge cauldron of water, and built the fire round the walls
of the cauldron. The fire burned hot and the water steamed. The fire
burned hotter, and the water bubbled and seethed. They made ready to
take the young archer, to throw him into the cauldron.
 "Oh, misery!" thought the young archer. "Why did I ever take the
golden feather that had fallen from the fire-bird's burning breast?
Why did I not listen to the wise words of the horse of power?" And he
remembered the horse of power, and he begged the Tzar,—
"O lord Tzar, I do not complain. I shall presently die in the heat of
the water on the fire. Suffer me, before I die, once more to see my
"Let him see his horse," says the Princess.
"Very well," says the Tzar. "Say good-bye to your horse, for you will
not ride him again. But let your farewells be short, for we are
The young archer crossed the courtyard and came to the horse of power,
who was scraping the ground with his iron hoofs.
"Farewell, my horse of power," says the young archer. "I should have
listened to your words of wisdom, for now the end is come, and we
shall never more see the green trees pass above us and the ground
disappear beneath us, as we race the wind between the earth and the
"Why so?" says the horse of power.
"The Tzar has ordered that I am to be boiled to death—thrown into
that cauldron that is seething on the great fire."
 "Fear not," says the horse of power, "for the Princess Vasilissa has
made him do this, and the end of these things is better than I
thought. Go back, and when they are ready to throw you in the
cauldron, do you run boldly and leap yourself into the boiling water."
The young archer went back across the courtyard, and the servants made
ready to throw him into the cauldron.
"Are you sure that the water is boiling?" says the Princess Vasilissa.
"It bubbles and seethes," said the servants.
"Let me see for myself," says the Princess, and she went to the fire
and waved her hand above the cauldron. And some say there was
something in her hand, and some say there was not.
"It is boiling," says she, and the servants laid hands on the young
archer; but he threw them from him, and ran and leapt boldly before
them all into the very middle of the cauldron.
Twice he sank below the surface, borne round with the bubbles and foam
of the boiling water. Then he leapt from the cauldron and stood before
the Tzar and the Princess. He had become so beautiful a youth that all
who saw cried aloud in wonder.
"This is a miracle," says the Tzar. And the
 Tzar looked at the
beautiful young archer, and thought of himself—of his age, of his
bent back, and his gray beard, and his toothless gums. "I too will
become beautiful," thinks he, and he rose from his throne and
clambered into the cauldron, and was boiled to death in a moment.
And the end of the story? They buried the Tzar, and made the young
archer Tzar in his place. He married the Princess Vasilissa, and lived
many years with her in love and good fellowship. And he built a golden
stable for the horse of power, and never forgot what he owed to him.