The Golden Apple Tree and the Nine Peahens
(A Serbian Tale)
ONCE upon a time there lived a king who had three sons. Now, before the king's palace grew a golden apple tree, which in one and the same night blossomed, bore fruit, and lost all its fruit, though no one could tell who took the apples. One day the king, speaking to his eldest son, said, "I should like to know who takes the fruit from our apple tree!"
And the son said, "I will keep guard tonight, and will see who gathers the apples."
So when the evening came he went and laid himself down, under the apple tree, upon the ground to watch. Just, however, as the apples ripened, he fell asleep, and when he awoke in the morning, there was not a single one left on the tree. Whereupon he went and told his father what had happened.
Then the second son offered to keep watch by the tree, but he had no better success than his eldest brother.
So the turn came to the king's youngest son to keep guard. He made his preparations, brought his bed under the tree, and immediately went to sleep. Before midnight he awoke and looked up at the tree, and saw how the apples ripened, and how the whole palace was lit up by their shining.
At that minute nine peahens flew towards the tree, and eight of them settled on its branches, but the ninth alighted near him and turned instantly into a beautiful girl -- so beautiful, indeed, that the whole kingdom could not produce one who could in any way compare with her.
She stayed, conversing kindly with him, till after midnight, then thanking him for the golden apples, she prepared to depart. But, as he begged she would leave him one, she gave him two, one for himself and one for the king his father. Then the girl turned again into a peahen, and flew away with the other eight. Next morning, the king's son took the two apples to his father, and the king was much pleased, and praised his son.
When the evening came, the king's youngest son took his place again under the apple tree to keep guard over it. He again conversed as he had done the night before with the beautiful girl, and brought to his father, the next morning, two apples as before.
But, after he had succeeded so well several nights, his two elder brothers grew envious because he had been able to do what they could not. At length they found an old woman, who promised to discover how the youngest brother had succeeded in saving the two apples. So, as the evening came, the old woman stole softly under the bed which stood under the apple tree, and hid herself. And after a while, came also the king's son, and laid himself down as usual to sleep. When it was near midnight the nine peahens flew up as before, and eight of them settled on the branches, and the ninth stood by his bed, and turned into a most beautiful girl.
Then the old woman slowly took hold of one of the girl's curls, and cut it off, and the girl immediately rose up, changed again into a peahen and flew away, and the other peahens followed her, and so they all disappeared.
Then the king's son jumped up, and cried out, "What is that?" and, looking under the bed, he saw the old woman, and drew her out. Next morning he order her to be tied to a horse's tail, and so torn to pieces. But the peahens never came back, so the king's son was very sad for a long time, and wept at his loss.
At length he resolved to go and look after his peahen; resolving never to come back again unless he should find her. When he told the king his father of his intention, the king begged him not do go away, and told him that he would find him another beautiful girl, and that he might choose out of the whole kingdom.
But all the king's persuasions were useless, so his son went into the world -- taking only one servant to serve him -- to search everywhere for his peahen.
After many travels he came one day to a lake. Now by the lake stood a large and beautiful palace. In the palace lived an old woman as queen, and with the queen lived a girl, her daughter. He said to the old woman, "For heaven's sake, grandmother, do you know anything about nine golden peahens?"
And the old woman answered, "Oh, my son, I know all about them. They come every midday to bathe in the lake. But what do you want with them? Let them be. Think nothing about them. Here is my daughter. Such a beautiful girl! And such an heiress! All my wealth will remain to you if you marry her."
But he, burning with desire to see the peahens, would not listen to what the old woman spoke about her daughter.
Next morning, when day dawned, the prince prepared to go down to the lake to wait for the peahens. Then the old queen bribed the servant and gave him a little pair of bellows, and said, "Do you see these bellows? When you come to the lake you must blow secretly with them behind his neck, and then he will fall asleep, and not be able to speak to the peahens."
The mischievous servant did as the old woman told him. When he went with his master down to the lake, he took occasion to blow with the bellows behind his neck, and the poor prince fell asleep just as though he were dead.
Shortly after, the nine peahens came flying, and eight of them alighted by the lake, but the ninth flew towards him as he sat on horseback, and caressed him, and tried to awaken him. "Awake my darling! Awake, my heart! Awake, my soul!"
But for all that he knew nothing, just as if he were dead.
After they had bathed, all the peahens flew away together, and after they were gone the prince woke up, and said to his servant, "What has happened? Did they not come?"
The servant told him they had been there, and that eight of them had bathed, but the ninth had sat by him on his horse, and caressed and tried to awaken him. Then the king's son was so angry that he almost killed himself in his rage.
Next morning he went down again to the shore to wait for the peahens, and rode about a long time till the servant again found an opportunity of blowing with the bellows behind his neck, so that he again fell asleep as though dead. Hardly had he fallen asleep before the nine peahens came flying, and eight of them alighted by the water, but the ninth settled down by the side of his horse and caressed him, and cried out to awaken him, "Arise, my darling! Arise, my heart! Arise my soul!"
But it was of no use. The prince slept on as if he were dead. Then she said to the servant, "Tell your master, tomorrow he can see us here again, but nevermore."
With these words the peahens flew away. Immediately after, the king's son woke up and asked his servant, "Have they not been here?"
And the man answered, "Yes, they have been, and say that you can see them again tomorrow, at this place, but after that they will not return again."
When the unhappy prince heard that, he knew not what to do with himself, and in his great trouble and misery tore the hair from his head.
The third day he went down again to the shore, but, fearing to fall asleep, instead of riding slowly, galloped along the shore. His servant, however, found an opportunity of blowing with the bellows behind his neck, and again the prince fell asleep.
A moment after came the nine peahens, and the eight alighted on the lake and the ninth by him on his horse, and sought to awaken him, caressing him. "Arise, my darling! Arise, my heart! Arise, my soul!"
But it was of no use. He slept on as if dead. Then the peahen said to the servant, "When your master awakens tell him he ought to strike off the head of the nail from the lower part, and then he will find me."
Thereupon all the peahens fled away. Immediately the king's son awoke and said to his servant, "Have they been here?"
And the servant answered, "They have been, and the one which alighted on your horse, ordered me to tell you to strike off the head of the nail from the lower part, and then you will find her."
When the prince heard that, he drew his sword and cut off his servant's head.
After that he traveled alone about the world, and, after long traveling, came to a mountain and remained all night there with a hermit, whom he asked if he knew anything about nine golden peahens.
The hermit said, "Eh! My son, you are lucky. God has led you in the right path. From this place it is only a half a day's walk. But you must go straight on, then you will come to a large gate, which you must pass through. And, after that, you must keep always to the right hand, and so you will come to the peahens' city, and there find their palace."
So next morning the king's son arose, and prepared to go. He thanked the hermit, and went as he had told him. After a while he came to the great gate, and, having passed it, turned to the right, so that at midday he saw the city, and beholding how white it shone, rejoiced very much.
When he came into the city he found the palace where lived the nine golden peahens. But at the gate he was stopped by the guard, who demanded who he was, and whence he came. After he had answered these questions, the guards went to announce him to the queen.
When the queen heard who he was, she came running out to the gate and took him by the hand to lead him into the palace. She was a young and beautiful maiden, and so there was a great rejoicing when, after a few days, he married her and remained there with her.
One day, some time after their marriage, the queen went out to walk, and the king's son remained in the palace. Before going out, however, the queen gave him the keys of twelve cellars, telling him, "You may go down into all the cellars except the twelfth -- that must on no account open, or it will cost you your head."
She then went away. The king's son whilst remaining in the palace began to wonder what there could be in the twelfth cellar, and soon commenced opening one cellar after the other.
When he came to the twelfth he would not at first open it, but again began to wonder very much why he was forbidden to go into it. "What can be in this cellar?" he exclaimed to himself.
At last he opened it. In the middle of the cellar lay a big barrel with an open bung-hole, but bound fast round with three iron hoops. Out of the barrel came a voice, saying, "For God's sake, my brother, I am dying with thirst. Please give me a cup of water!"
Then the king's son took a cup and filled it with water, and emptied it into the barrel. Immediately he had done so, one of the hoops burst asunder.
Again came the voice from the barrel, "For God's sake, my brother, I am dying of thirst. Please give me a cup of water!"
The king's son again filled the cup, and took it, and emptied it into the barrel, and instantly another hoop burst asunder.
The third time the voice came out of the barrel, "For God's sake, my brother, I am dying of thirst. Please give me a cup of water!"
The king's son again took the cup and filled it, and poured the water into the barrel, and the third hoop burst. Then the barrel fell to pieces, and a dragon flew out of the cellar, and caught the queen on the road and carried her away.
Then the servant, who went out with the queen, came back quickly, and told the king's son what had happened, and the poor prince knew not what to do with himself, so desperate was he, and full of self reproaches. At length, however, he resolved to set out and travel through the world in search of her.
After long journeying, one day he came to a lake, and near it, in a little hole, he saw a little fish jumping about. When the fish saw the king's son, she began to beg pitifully, "For God's sake, be my brother, and throw me into the water. Some day I may be of use to you, so take now a little scale from me, and when you need me, rub it gently."
Then the king's son lifted the little fish from the hole and threw her into the water, after he had taken one small scale, which he wrapped up carefully in a handkerchief.
Some time afterwards, as he traveled about the world, he came upon a fox, caught in an iron trap. When the fox saw the prince, he spoke, "In God's name, be a brother to me, and help me to get out of this trap. One day you will need me, so take just one hair from my tail, and when you want me, rub it gently."
Then the king's son took a hair from the tail of the fox, and let him free.
Again, as he crossed a mountain, he found a wolf fast in a trap; and when the wolf saw him, it spoke, "Be a brother to me. In God's name, set me free, and one day I will help you. Only take a hair from me, and when you need me, rub it gently."
So he took a hair, and let the wolf free.
After that, the king's son traveled about a very long time, till one day he met a man, to whom he said, "For God's sake, brother, have you ever heard anyone say where is the palace of the dragon king?"
The man gave him very particular directions which way to take, and in what length of time he could get there. Then the king's son thanked him and continued his journey until he came to the city where the dragon lived.
When there, he went into the palace and found therein his wife, and both of them were exceedingly pleased to meet each other, and began to take counsel how they could escape. They resolved to run away, and prepared hastily for the journey. When all was ready they mounted on horseback and galloped away.
As soon as they were gone, the dragon came home, also on horseback, and, entering his palace, found that the queen had gone away. Then he said to his horse, "What shall we do now? Shall we eat and drink, or go at once after them?"
The horse answered, "Let us eat and drink first. We shall anyway catch them. Do not be anxious."
After the dragon had dined, he mounted his horse, and in a few moments came up with the runaways. Then he took the queen from the king's son and said to him, "Go now, in God's name! This time I forgive you, because you gave me water in the cellar. But if your life is dear to you, do not come back here any more!"
The unhappy young prince went on his way a little, but could not long resist, so he came back next day to the dragon's palace, and found the queen sitting alone and weeping.
Then they began again to consult how they could get away. And the prince said, "When the dragon comes, ask him where he got that horse, and then you will tell me so that I can look for such another one; perhaps in this way we can escape."
He then went away, lest the dragon should come and find him with the queen.
By and by the dragon came home, and the queen began to pet him, and speak lovingly to him about many things, till at last she said, "Ah! what a fine horse you have! Where did you get such a splendid horse?"
And he answered, "Eh! Where I got it everyone cannot get one! In such and such a mountain lives an old woman who has twelve horses in her stable, and no one can say which is the finest, they are all so beautiful. But in one corner of the stable stands a horse which looks as if he were leprous, but, in truth, he is the very best horse in the whole world. He is the brother of my horse, and whoever gets him may ride to the sky. But whoever wishes to get a horse from that old woman, must serve her three days and three nights. She has a mare with a foal, and whoever during three nights guards and keeps for her this mare and this foal, has a right to claim the best horse from the old woman's stable. But whoever engages to keep watch over the mare and does not, must lose his head!"
Next day, when the dragon went out, the king's son came, and the queen told him all she had learned from the dragon. Then the king's son went away to the mountain and found the old woman, and entered her house, greeting, "God help you too, my son! What do you wish?"
"I should like to serve you," said the king's son. Then the old woman said, "Well, my son, if you keep my mare safe for three days and three nights, I will give you the best horse, and you can choose him yourself. But if you do not keep the mare safe, you shall lose your head."
Then she led him into the courtyard, where all around stakes were ranged. Each of them had on it a man's head, except one stake, which had no head on it, and shouted incessantly, "Oh, grandmother, give me a head!"
The old woman showed all this to the prince, and said, "Look here! All these were heads of those who tried to keep my mare, and they have lost their heads for their pains!"
But the prince was not a bit afraid, so he stayed to serve the old woman. When the evening came he mounted the mare and rode her into the field, and the foal followed. He sat still on her back, having made up his mind not to dismount, that he might be sure of her. But before midnight he slumbered a little, and when he awoke he found himself sitting on a rail and holding the bridle in his hand.
Then he was greatly alarmed, and went instantly to look about to find the mare, and whilst looking for her, he came to a piece of water. When he saw the water he remembered the little fish, and took the scale from the handkerchief and rubbed it a little. Then immediately the little fish appeared and said, "What is the matter, my half-brother?"
And he replied, "The mare of the old woman ran away whilst under my charge, and now I do not know where she is!"
And the fish answered, "Here she is, turned to a fish, and the foal to a smaller one. But strike once upon the water with the bridle and cry out, 'Hey! mare of the old woman!'"
The prince did as he was told, and immediately the mare came, with the foal, out of the water to the shore. Then he put on her the bridle and mounted and rode away to the old woman's house, and the foal followed. When he got there the old woman gave him his breakfast. She, however, took the mare into the stable and beat her with a poker, saying, "Why did you not go down among the fishes, you cursed mare?"
And the mare answered, "I have been down to the fishes, but the fish are his friends, and they told him about me."
Then the old woman said, "Then go among the foxes!"
When evening came the king's son mounted the mare and rode to the field, and the foal followed the mare. Again he sat on the mare's back until near midnight, when he fell asleep as before. When he awoke, he found himself riding on the rail and holding the bridle in his hand.
So he was much frightened, and went to look after the mare. As he went, he remembered the words the old woman had said to the mare, and he took from the handkerchief the fox's hair and rubbed it a little between his fingers. All at once the fox stood before him, and asked, "What is the matter, half-brother?"
And he said, "The old woman's mare has run away, and I do not know where she can be."
Then the fox answered, "Here she is with us. She has turned into a fox, and the foal into a cub. But strike once with the bridle on the earth and cry out, 'Hey! you old woman's mare!'"
So the king's son struck with the bridle on the earth and cried, "Hey! old woman's mare!" and the mare came and stood, with her foal, near him.
He put on the bridle, and mounted and rode off home, and the foal followed the mare. When he arrived the old woman gave him his breakfast, but took the mare into the stable and beat her with the poker, crying, "To the foxes, cursed one! To the foxes!"
And the mare answered, "I have been with the foxes, but they are his friends, and told him I was there!"
Then the old woman cried, "If that is so, you must go among the wolves!"
When it grew dark again, the king's son mounted the mare and rode out to the field, and the foal galloped by the side of the mare. Again he sat still on the mare's back till about midnight, when he grew very sleepy and fell into a slumber, as on the former evenings, and when he awoke he found himself riding on the rail, holding the bridle in his hand, just as before.
Then, as before, he went in a hurry to look after the mare. As he went, he remembered the words the old woman had said to the mare, and took the wolf's hair from the handkerchief and rubbed it a little. Then the wolf came up to him and asked, "What is the matter, half-brother?"
And he answered, "The old woman's mare has run away, and I cannot tell where she is."
The wolf said, "Here she is with us. She has turned herself into a wolf, and the foal into a wolf's cub. Strike once with the bridle on the earth and cry out, 'Hey! old woman's mare!'"
And the king's son did so, and instantly the mare came again and stood with the foal beside him. So he bridled her, and galloped home, and the foal followed. When he arrived the old woman gave him his breakfast, but she led the mare into the stable and beat her with the poker, crying, "To the wolves, I said, miserable one!"
And the mare answered, "I have been to the wolves, but they are his friends, and told him all about me!"
Then the old woman came out of the stable, and the king's son said to her, "Eh! grandmother, I have served you honestly. Now give me what you promised me."
And the old woman answered, "My son, what is promised must be fulfilled. So look here. Here are the twelve horses. Choose which you like!"
And the prince said, "Why should I be too particular? Give me only that leprous horse in the corner! Fine horses are not fitting for me!"
But the old woman tried to persuade him to choose another horse, saying, "How can you be so foolish as to choose that leprous thing whilst there are such very fine horses here?"
But he remained firm by his first choice, and said to the old woman, "You ought to give me which I choose, for so you promised."
So, when the old woman found she could not make him change his mind, she gave him the scabby horse, and he took leave of her, and went away, leading the horse by the halter.
When he came to a forest he curried and rubbed down the horse, when it shone as bright as gold. He then mounted, and the horse flew as quickly as a bird, and in a few seconds brought him to the dragon's palace.
The king's son went in and said to the queen, "Get ready as soon as possible!" She was soon ready, when they both mounted the horse, and began their journey home. Soon after, the dragon came home, and when he saw the queen had disappeared, said to his horse, "What shall we do? Shall we eat and drink first, or shall we pursue them at once?"
The horse answered, "Whether we eat and drink or not, it is all one. We shall never reach them."
When the dragon heard that, he got quickly on his horse and galloped after them. When they saw the dragon following them, they pushed on quicker, but their horse said, "Do not be afraid! There is no need to run away."
In a very few moments the dragon came very near to them, and his horse said to their horse, "For God's sake, my brother, wait a moment! I shall kill myself running after you!"
Their horse answered, "Why are you so stupid as to carry that monster? Fling your heels up and throw him off, and come along with me!"
When the dragon's horse heard that, he shook his head angrily and flung his feet high in the air, so that the dragon fell off and brake in pieces, and his horse came up to them.
Then the queen mounted him and returned with the king's son happily to her kingdom, where they reigned together in great prosperity until the day of their death.
Mijatovies, Csedomille. Serbian Folk-Lore. London: W. Isbister and Company, 1874. pp. 43-58.