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The Dragon's Strength

from The Laughing Prince Jugoslav Folk And Fairy Tales





There was once a King who had three sons. One day the oldest son went
hunting and when night fell his huntsmen came riding home without him.

Where is the prince? the King asked.

Isn't he here? the huntsmen said. He left us in midafternoon chasing
a hare near the Old Mill up the river. We haven't seen him since and we
supposed he must have come home alone.

When he hadn't returned the following day his brother, the second
prince, went out to search for him.

I'll go to the Old Mill, he said to the King, and see what's become
of him.

So he mounted his horse and rode up the river. As he neared the Old Mill
a hare crossed his path and the second prince being a hunter like his
brother at once gave chase. His attendant waited for his return but
waited in vain. Night fell and still there was no sign of the second
prince.

The attendant returned to the palace and told the King what had
happened. The King was surprised but not unduly alarmed and the
following day when the Youngest Prince asked to go hunting alone the
King suggested that he go in the direction of the Old Mill to find out
if he could what was keeping his brothers.

The Youngest Prince who had listened carefully to what his brothers'
attendants had reported decided to act cautiously. So when a hare
crossed his path as he approached the Old Mill, instead of giving it
chase, he rode off as though he were hunting other game. Later he
returned to the Old Mill from another direction.

He found an old woman sitting in front of it.

Good evening, granny, he said in a friendly tone, pulling up his horse
for a moment's chat. Do you live here? You know I thought the Old Mill
was deserted.

The old woman looked at him and shook her head gloomily.

Deserted indeed! My boy, take an old woman's advice and don't have
anything to do with this old mill! It's an evil place!

Why, granny, the Prince said, what's the matter with it?

The old woman peered cautiously around and when she saw they were alone
she beckoned the Prince to come near. Then she whispered:

A dragon lives here! A horrible monster! He takes the form of a hare
and lures people into the mill. Then he captures them. Some of them he
kills and eats and others he holds as prisoners in an underground
dungeon. I'm one of his prisoners and he keeps me here to work for him.

Granny, the Youngest Prince said, would you like me to rescue you?

My boy, you couldn't do it! You have no idea what a strong evil monster
the dragon is.

If you found out something for me, granny, I think I might be able to
overcome the dragon and rescue you.

The old woman was doubtful but she promised to do anything the Youngest
Prince asked.

Well then, granny, find out from the dragon where his strength is,
whether in his own body or somewhere else. Find out to-night and I'll
come back to-morrow at this same hour to see you.

So that night when the dragon came home, after he had supped and when
she was scratching his head to make him drowsy for bed, the old woman
said to him:

Master, I think you're the strongest dragon in the world! Tell me now,
where does your strength lie--in your own beautiful body or somewhere
else?

You're right, old woman, the dragon grunted: I am pretty strong as
dragons go. But I don't keep my strength in my own body. No, indeed!
That would be too dangerous. I keep it in the hearth yonder.

At that the old woman ran over to the hearth and, stooping down, she
kissed it and caressed it.

O beautiful hearth! she said, where my master's strength is hidden!
How happy are the ashes that cover your stones!

The dragon laughed with amusement.

That's the time I fooled you, old woman! My strength isn't in the
hearth at all! It's in the tree in front of the mill.

The old woman at once ran out of the mill and threw her arms about the
tree.

O tree! she cried, most beautiful tree in the world, guard carefully
our master's strength and let no harm come to it!

Again the dragon laughed.

I've fooled you another time, old woman! Come here and scratch my head
some more and this time I'll tell you the truth for I see you really
love your master.

So the old woman went back and scratched the dragon's head and the
dragon told her the truth about his strength.

I keep it far away, he said. In the third kingdom from here near the
Tsar's own city there is a deep lake. A dragon lives at the bottom of
the lake. In the dragon there is a wild boar; in the boar a hare; in the
hare a pigeon; in the pigeon a sparrow. My strength is in the sparrow.
Let any one kill the sparrow and I should die that instant. But I am
safe. No one but shepherds ever come to the lake and even they don't
come any more for the dragon has eaten up so many of them that the lake
has got a bad name. Indeed, nowadays even the Tsar himself is hard put
to it to find a shepherd. Oh, I tell you, old woman, your master is a
clever one!

So now the old woman had the dragon's secret and the next day she told
it to the Youngest Prince. He at once devised a plan whereby he hoped to
overcome the dragon. He dressed himself as a shepherd and with crook in
hand started off on foot for the third kingdom. He traveled through
villages and towns, across rivers and over mountains, and reached at
last the third kingdom and the Tsar's own city. He presented himself at
the palace and asked employment as a shepherd.

The guards looked at him in surprise and said:

A shepherd! Are you sure you want to be a shepherd?

Then they called to their companions: Here's a youth who wants to be a
shepherd! And the word went through the palace and even the Tsar heard
it.

Send the youth to me, he ordered.

Do you really want to be my shepherd? he asked the Youngest Prince.

The Youngest Prince said yes, he did.

If I put you in charge of the sheep, where would you pasture them?

Isn't there a lake beyond the city, the Prince asked, where the
grazing is good?

H'm! said the Tsar. So you know about that lake, too! What else do
you know?

I've heard the shepherds disappear.

And still you want to try your luck? the Tsar exclaimed.

Just then the Tsar's only daughter, a lovely Princess, who had been
looking at the young stranger, slipped over to her father and whispered:

But, father, you can't let such a handsome young man as that go off
with the sheep! It would be dreadful if he never returned!

The Tsar whispered back:

Hush, child! Your concern for the young man's safety does credit to
your noble feelings. But this is not the time or the place for
sentiment. We must consider first the welfare of the royal sheep.

He turned to the Youngest Prince:

Very well, young man, you may consider yourself engaged as shepherd.
Provide yourself with whatever you need and assume your duties at once.

There is one thing, the Youngest Prince said; when I start out
to-morrow morning with the sheep I should like to take with me two
strong boarhounds, a falcon, and a set of bagpipes.

You shall have them all, the Tsar promised.

Early the next morning when the Princess peeped out of her bedroom
window she saw the new shepherd driving the royal flocks to pasture. A
falcon was perched on his shoulder; he had a set of bagpipes under his
arm; and he was leading two powerful boarhounds on a leash.

It's a shame! the Princess said to herself. He'll probably never
return and he's such a handsome young man, too! And she was so unhappy
at thought of never again seeing the new shepherd that she couldn't go
back to sleep.

Well, the Youngest Prince reached the lake and turned out his sheep to
graze. He perched the falcon on a log, tied the dogs beside it, and laid
his bagpipes on the ground. Then he took off his smock, rolled up his
hose, and wading boldly into the lake called out in a loud voice:

Ho, dragon, come out and we'll try a wrestling match! That is, if
you're not afraid!

Afraid? bellowed an awful voice. Who's afraid?

The water of the lake churned this way and that and a horrible scaly
monster came to the surface. He crawled out on shore and clutched the
Prince around the waist. And the Prince clutched him in a grip just as
strong and there they swayed back and forth, and rolled over, and
wrestled together on the shore of the lake without either getting the
better of the other. By midafternoon when the sun was hot, the dragon
grew faint and cried out:

Oh, if I could but dip my burning head in the cool water, then I could
toss you as high as the sky!

Don't talk nonsense! the Prince said. If the Tsar's daughter would
kiss my forehead, then I could toss you twice as high!

After that the dragon slipped out of the Prince's grasp, plunged into
the water, and disappeared. The Prince waited for him but he didn't show
his scaly head again that day.

When evening came, the Prince washed off the grime of the fight, dressed
himself carefully, and then looking as fresh and handsome as ever drove
home his sheep. With the falcon on his shoulder and the two hounds at
his heels he came playing a merry tune on his bagpipes.

The townspeople hearing the bagpipes ran out of their houses and cried
to each other:

The shepherd's come back!

The Princess ran to her window and, when she saw the shepherd alive and
well, she put her hand to her heart and said:

Oh!

Even the Tsar was pleased.

I'm not a bit surprised that he's back! he said. There's something
about this youth that I like!

The next day the Tsar sent two of his trusted servants to the lake to
see what was happening there. They hid themselves behind some bushes on
a little hill that commanded the lake. They were there when the shepherd
arrived and they watched him as he waded out into the water and
challenged the dragon as on the day before.

They heard the shepherd call out in a loud voice:

Ho, dragon, come out and we'll try a wrestling match! That is, if
you're not afraid!

And from the water they heard an awful voice bellow back:

Afraid? Who's afraid?

Then they saw the water of the lake churn this way and that and a
horrible scaly monster come to the surface. They saw him crawl out on
shore and clutch the shepherd around the waist. And they saw the
shepherd clutch him in a grip just as strong. And they watched the two
as they swayed back and forth and rolled over and wrestled together
without either getting the better of the other. By midafternoon when the
sun grew hot they saw the dragon grow faint and they heard him cry out:

Oh, if I could only dip my burning head in the cool water, then I could
toss you as high as the sky!

And they heard the shepherd reply:

Don't talk nonsense! If the Tsar's daughter would kiss my forehead,
then I could toss you twice as high!

Then they saw the dragon slip out of the shepherd's grasp, plunge into
the water, and disappear. They waited but he didn't show his scaly head
again that day.

So the Tsar's servants hurried home before the shepherd and told the
Tsar all they had seen and heard. The Tsar was mightily impressed with
the bravery of the shepherd and he declared that if he killed that
horrid dragon he should have the Princess herself for wife!

He sent for his daughter and told her all that his servants had reported
and he said to her:

My daughter, you, too, can help rid your country of this monster if you
go out with the shepherd to-morrow and when the time comes kiss him on
the forehead. You will do this, will you not, for your country's sake?

The Princess blushed and trembled and the Tsar, looking at her in
surprise, said:

What! Shall a humble shepherd face a dragon unafraid and the daughter
of the Tsar tremble!

Father, the Princess cried, it isn't the dragon that I'm afraid of!

What then? the Tsar asked.

But what it was she was afraid of the Princess would not confess.
Instead she said:

If the welfare of my country require that I kiss the shepherd on the
forehead, I shall do so.


So the next morning when the shepherd started out with his sheep, the
falcon on his shoulder, the dogs at his heels, the bagpipes under his
arm, the Princess walked beside him.

Her eyes were downcast and he saw that she was trembling.

Do not be afraid, dear Princess, he said to her. Nothing shall harm
you--I promise that!

I'm not afraid, the Princess murmured. But she continued to blush and
tremble and, although the shepherd tried to look into her eyes to
reassure her, she kept her head averted.

This time the Tsar himself and many of his courtiers had gone on before
and taken their stand on the hill that overlooked the lake to see the
final combat of the shepherd and the dragon.

When the shepherd and the Princess reached the lake, the shepherd put
his falcon on the log as before and tied the dogs beside it and laid his
bagpipes on the ground. Then he threw off his smock, rolled up his hose,
and wading boldly into the lake called out in a loud voice:

Ho, dragon, come out and we'll try a wrestling match! That is, if
you're not afraid!

Afraid? bellowed an awful voice. Who's afraid?

The water of the lake churned this way and that and the horrible scaly
monster came to the surface. He crawled to shore and clutched the
shepherd around the waist. The shepherd clutched him in a grip just
as strong and there they swayed back and forth and rolled over and
wrestled together on the shore of the lake without either getting the
better of the other. The Princess without the least show of fear stood
nearby calling out encouragement to the shepherd and waiting for the
moment when the shepherd should need her help.

By midafternoon when the sun was hot, the dragon grew faint and cried
out:

Oh, if I could but dip my burning head in the cool water, then I could
toss you as high as the sky!

Don't talk nonsense! the shepherd said. If the Tsar's daughter would
kiss my forehead then I could toss you twice as high!

Instantly the Princess ran forward and kissed the shepherd three times.
The first kiss fell on his forehead, the second on his nose, the third
on his mouth. With each kiss his strength increased an hundredfold and
taking the dragon in a mighty grip he tossed him up so high that for a
moment the Tsar and all the courtiers lost sight of him in the sky. Then
he fell to earth with such a thud that he burst.

Out of his body sprang a wild boar. The shepherd was ready for this and
on the moment he unleashed the two hounds and they fell on the boar and
tore him to pieces.

Out of the boar jumped a rabbit. It went leaping across the meadow but
the dogs caught it and killed it.

Out of the rabbit flew a pigeon. Instantly the shepherd unloosed the
falcon. It rose high in the air, then swooped down upon the pigeon,
clutched it in its talons, and delivered it into the shepherd's hands.

He cut open the pigeon and found the sparrow.

Spare me! Spare me! squawked the sparrow.

Tell me where my brothers are, the shepherd demanded with his fingers
about the sparrow's throat.

Your brothers? They are alive and in the deep dungeon that lies below
the Old Mill. Behind the mill there are three willow saplings growing
from one old root. Cut the saplings and strike the root. A heavy iron
door leading down into the dungeon will open. In the dungeon you will
find many captives old and young, your brothers among them. Now that I
have told you this are you going to spare my life?

But the shepherd wrung the sparrow's neck for he knew that only in that
way could the monster who had captured his brothers be killed.

Well, now that the dragon was dead the Tsar and all his courtiers came
down from the hill and embraced the shepherd and told him what a brave
youth he was.

You have delivered us all from a horrid monster, the Tsar said, and
to show you my gratitude and the country's gratitude I offer you my
daughter for wife.

Thank you, said the shepherd, but I couldn't think of marrying the
Princess unless she is willing to marry me.

The Princess blushed and trembled just as she had blushed and trembled
the night before and that morning, too, on the way to the lake. She
tried to speak but could not at first. Then in a very little voice she
said:

As a Princess I think it is my duty to marry this brave shepherd who
has delivered my country from this terrible dragon, and--and I think I
should want to marry him anyway.

She said the last part of her speech in such a very low voice that only
the shepherd himself heard it. But that was right enough because after
all it was intended only for him.

So then and there beside the lake before even the shepherd had time to
wash his face and hands and put on his smock the Tsar put the Princess's
hand in his hand and pronounced them betrothed.

After that the shepherd bathed in the lake and then refreshed and clean
he sounded his bagpipes and he and the Princess and the Tsar and all the
courtiers returned to the city driving the sheep before them.

All the townspeople came out to meet them and they danced to the music
of the bagpipes and there was great rejoicing both over the death of the
dragon and over the betrothal of the Princess and the brave shepherd.

The wedding took place at once and the wedding festivities lasted a
week. Such feasting as the townspeople had! Such music and dancing!

When the wedding festivities were ended, the shepherd told the Tsar who
he really was.

You say you're a Prince! the Tsar cried, perfectly delighted at this
news. Then he declared he wasn't in the least surprised. In fact, he
said, he had suspected as much from the first!

Do you think it likely, he asked somewhat pompously, that any
daughter of mine would fall in love with a man who wasn't a prince?

I think I'd have fallen in love with you whatever you were! whispered
the Princess to her young husband. But she didn't let her father hear
her!

The Prince told the Tsar about his brothers' captivity and how he must
go home to release them, and the Tsar at once said that he and his
bride might go provided they returned as soon as possible.

They agreed to this and the Tsar fitted out a splendid escort for them
and sent them away with his blessing.

So the Prince now traveled back through the towns and villages of three
kingdoms, across rivers and over mountains, no longer a humble shepherd
on foot, but a rich and mighty personage riding in a manner that
befitted his rank.

When he reached the deserted mill, his friend the old woman was waiting
for him.

I know, my Prince, you have succeeded for the monster has disappeared.

Yes, granny, you are right: I have succeeded. I found the dragon in the
lake, and the boar in the dragon, and the rabbit in the boar, and the
pigeon in the rabbit, and the sparrow in the pigeon. I took the sparrow
and killed it. So you are free now, granny, to return to your home. And
soon all those other poor captives will be free.

He went behind the mill and found the three willow saplings. He cut them
off and struck the old root. Sure enough a heavy iron door opened. This
led down into a deep dungeon which was crowded with unfortunate
prisoners. The Prince led them all out and sent them their various ways.
He found his own two brothers among them and led them home to his
father.

There was great rejoicing in the King's house, and in the King's heart,
too, for he had given up hope of ever seeing any of his sons again.

The King was so charmed with the Princess that he said it was a pity
that she couldn't marry his oldest son so that she might one day be
Queen.

The Youngest Prince is a capable young man, the King said, and
there's no denying that he managed this business of killing the dragon
very neatly. But he is after all only the Youngest Prince with very
little hope of succeeding to the kingdom. If you hadn't married him in
such haste one of his older brothers might easily have fallen in love
with you.

I don't regret my haste, the Princess said. Besides he is now my
father's heir. But that doesn't matter for I should be happy with the
Youngest Prince if he were only a shepherd.





Next: The Little Singing Frog

Previous: The Enchanted Peafowl



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