KING Kojata ruled over a mighty kingdom, and was beloved by his subjects; but because he had no heir to his crown, both he and the Queen were very unhappy.
Once, while traveling through his territories, he came to a well that was filled to the brim with clear cold water; and being very thirsty, he stopped to drink. On the top of the water floated a golden cup, which the King attempted to seize; but just as his hand touched it, away it floated to the other side of the well. He went around to where the cup rested and tried again, with the same result. Every time the King touched the basin it glided from his grasp. At last, losing patience, he gave up trying to seize the cup, and bending over the well, he began to drink. His long beard had fallen into the water, and when he had quenched his thirst and attempted to rise, he found himself held stuck by it. After vainly pulling and jerking for some time, he looked down into the water and saw a hideous face grinning at him. Its eyes were green and shining, its teeth showed from ear to ear, and it held him by the beard with two bony claws. In horror, the king tried to release himself, but a terrible voice came from the depths of the well:
“You cannot get away, King Kojata, so do not make me pull your beard too hard. There is something at the palace of which you do not know; promise to give it to me, and I will release you.”
The King did not know of anything that could have arrived at the palace during his absence worth the discomfort he was experiencing; so he very readily gave his promise, and was freed. When he had shaken the water from his beard, he looked in the well for the ugly monster which had held him captive, but he was nowhere to be seen. Summoning his attendants, he at once set out for home, where he arrived in a few days.
The people along the way hailed him with delight; and when he reached the palace, the Queen led him to the royal chamber and showed him a beautiful son that had been born during his absence. His joy was so great that he forgot all else; but after a time he recalled with horror his promise with the monster of the well, and the meaning was all plain to him. The thought of what he had promised haunted him day and night, and the fear that something would happen to his little son tortured him. But as days and months passed, and the little Prince grew more beautiful all the time, the King at last forgot his fears and became happy once more.
Years went by without anything happening to disturb his peace of mind, and the Prince grew to be a beautiful youth, who was the joy and pride of the King and Queen. One day he went with the hunters to the forest, and while pursuing a wild boar, became separated from them. He got farther and farther away from his companions, and at last found himself alone in a dark part of the wood where he never before had been. Not knowing in which direction his path lay, he called again and again to the hunters. At last a hoarse voice answered him, and from the hollow trunk of a lime-tree appeared a hideous man with green eyes and terrible teeth.
“I’ve waited for you a long time, Prince Milan,” said he.
“Who on earth may you be?” asked the Prince.
“Your father will tell you who I am. Just give my greetings to his Majesty, and tell him that I am ready to claim the debt he owes me.”
The green-eyed man then disappeared into the hollow tree from which he came; and when the Prince reached home, he related his experience to his father. The King turned white, and cried:
“At last, it has come!” Then he explained to the Prince what had occurred at the well, and added, “Now my happiness is at an end, for you, my son, will be taken from me.”
The Prince told the King not to despair, for though he might go away, he was certain to return to him. His father provided him with a handsome horse with golden stirrups, and the Queen gave him a cross to wear about his neck. When he had said farewell to his unhappy parents, he mounted his horse and rode for two days without stopping.
On the third day he came to a lake on whose smooth surface thirty ducks were swimming, while spread about upon the grass were thirty white dresses. The Prince dismounted, and taking up one of the dresses, seated himself behind a bush and waited to see what would happen. The ducks dived under the water and frolicked amongst themselves for a time, then came ashore and putting on the little white dresses, they became beautiful maidens, and disappeared. But there was one little duck, that remained on the lake and swam about in the most distracted manner, uttering piteous cries. The Prince came from behind the bush and the little duck begged him to give back her dress. He had no sooner done so than before him stood the loveliest maiden he had ever seen.
“Thank you, Prince Milan, for restoring my garment,” said she. “My name is Hyacinthia, and I am one of the thirty daughters of a King of the Underworld, to whose castle I will lead you, for he has waited long for you. Approach him on your knees and do not fear him, for I will be there to help you, whatever happens.”
She tapped her little foot on the ground, which opened; and they were immediately transported to the palace of her father in the Underworld. When his eyes became accustomed to the radiant light, the Prince saw the magician of the lime-tree sitting on a dazzling throne. His green eyes looked out from under a golden crown, and his hideous claws clutched the air with rage when he saw the Prince. Remembering what the maiden had told him, Prince Milan walked boldly up to the throne and knelt at the feet of the magician, who cursed in a voice that shook the Underworld. As the youth was not at all frightened, the magician at last stopped swearing. Laughing at his courage, he welcomed him to his palace, and showed him to a beautiful chamber which he was to occupy. On the following day he sent for him and said;
“You are very brave, Prince Milan, but you must pay the penalty for keeping me waiting so long for you. To-night build me a palace of gold and marble, with windows of crystal, and about it the most beautiful gardens in the world, or tomorrow I shall cut off your head.”
The Prince went back to his chamber and sadly awaited his doom. That evening a small bee flew in through his window, and as soon as it entered the room it became Hyacinthia. “Why are you sad, Prince Milan?” she asked. He told her of her father’s impossible command and added, “Naturally, I am not happy at the thought of losing my head.”
“Do not be distressed about that,” said she, “but trust to me.” In the morning he looked out of the window and saw a wonderful marble palace, with a roof of gold.
When the magician beheld it, he exclaimed, “You have accomplished a great wonder, but I cannot let you off so easily. To-morrow I will place my thirty daughters in a row, and if you cannot tell me which one is the youngest, you will lose your head.”
The Prince, however, was not cast down at this, for he thought he would have no trouble in recognizing Hyacinthia. That evening the little bee entered the room and told him that this task was quite as difficult as the first, because the sisters were all exactly alike. “But you will know me,” said she, “by a little fly which you will discover on my cheek.”
The next day the magician summoned him to his presence, and showed him the thirty daughters standing in a row. The Prince passed before them twice, without daring to choose; but he saw the little fly on the pink cheek of one of the maidens.
“This is Hyacinthia!” exclaimed he. The magician was greatly astonished; but not yet satisfied, he required of the Prince still another task.
“If, before this candle burns to the bottom,” said he, “you make me a pair of boots reaching to my knees, I will let you go; but if you fail, you will lose your head.”
“Then we must fly, for I love you dearly,” said Hyacinthia, when the Prince had told her of this new task. She breathed on the window-pane, and straightway it was covered with frost; then, leading Prince Milan from the chamber, she locked the door, and they fled through the passage by which they had entered the Underworld. Beside the smooth lake his horse was still grazing, and mounting it, they were borne swiftly away.
When the magician sent for the Prince to come to him, the frozen breath replied to the messengers, and so delayed the discovery of his escape. At last the magician lost patience and ordered the door burst open. The frozen breath mocked at him, and he hurried after in pursuit of the fugitives.
“I hear the sound of horses’ feet behind us,” said Hyacinthia. The Prince dismounted, and putting his ear to the ground, answered, “Yes, they are near.” Hyacinthia thereupon changed herself into a river, and the Prince became a bridge, and his horse a blackbird. Their pursuers, no longer finding their footprints, were obliged to return to the magician, who cursed them, and again sent them forth.
“I hear the sound of horses’ feet behind us,” again said Hyacinthia. The Prince put his ear to the earth and said, “Yes, they are nearly upon us.” Thereupon Hyacinthia changed herself, the Prince and the horse, all into a dense forest in which many paths crossed, so that the followers were bewildered; and they again returned to the magician.
“I hear horses’ feet behind us,” said Hyacinthia a third time; and this time it was the magician himself. Hyacinthia took the little cross from the neck of the Prince, and changed herself into a church, the Prince into a monk, and the horse into the bell tower; so that when the magician came up he lost all trace of them, and was obliged to return to the Underworld in great anger.
When he had departed, the Prince and Hyacinthia mounted the horse and rode till they came to a beautiful town.
“We must not enter,” said she, “for we may not come out again.” But the Prince would not take her advice, and insisted upon passing through the gates.
“Then,” sadly replied the maiden, “when the King and Queen of the town come out to meet you, do not kiss the little child which they will lead by the hand, or you will forget me and never come back. As for me, I will become a milestone and wait for you here.”
It was all as Hyacinthia had said. The King and Queen came out to greet him, and when the lovely little child ran up to him for a caress, he kissed its pretty face and forgot Hyacinthia.
The first and second day went by; and when the third day came, Hyacinthia wept, and became a little blue flower growing by the roadside. An old man came along, and digging up the flower carried it home with him and planted it in his garden. He watered and tended it carefully, and one day the little flower became a beautiful maiden.
“Why did you not leave me to die by the roadside?” she asked, and told the old man her story.
“To-morrow is Prince Milan’s wedding day,” said the old man.
Hyacinthia at once dried her tears, and presented herself at the palace, dressed like a peasant. She went to the cook and asked to be allowed to make the wedding cake. The cook was so struck with her beauty that he could not refuse the request. When the guests were all seated about the table, Prince Milan was called upon to cut the cake. As soon as he had done so, out flew two beautiful doves, which circled about his head.
“Dear mate,” cried one of the doves, “do not leave me as Prince Milan left Hyacinthia.”
The Prince, who suddenly recollected all he had forgotten, ran from the room and at the door found Hyacinthia and his horse awaiting him. They mounted and rode swiftly away to the kingdom of King Kojata, where the King and Queen received them with tears of joy, and they all lived in happiness to the end of their days.
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