Beyond the thrice-nine lands, in the thrice-ten kingdom there once lived a king and queen who had no children. One day the king went travelling to distant lands and was away from home for a long time, and in his absence the queen gave birth to a son who she named Prince Ivan. Of this the king knew nothing. He was on his way back to his own realm and was not far from it, when, the day being very, very hot, he felt so thirsty that he would have given anything for a drink of water! He looked about him, and, seeing a large lake ahead, rode up to it, got off his horse, lay down on the ground on his belly and began taking great gulps of the icy lake water. He drank and he drank and did not know there was anything to fear when all of a sudden someone clutched him by the beard! "Let go of my beard!" he cried. "No, I won't! How dared you drink this water without my permission?" said the King of the Sea, for it was he who was clutching the beard. "Take any ransom you want of me, only let me go!" "Promise to give me that which you have in your house but do not know about." The king thought it over, and, being quite sure that there was nothing in his house he did not know about, agreed. He felt his beard, saw that no one was clutching it any more, and, getting to his feet, mounted his horse and rode away.
He came home, and there was the queen, as happy as could be, welcoming him back! She was holding the baby in her arms, and when the king learnt that he had a son, he burst into tears. He told the queen about the King of the Sea, and she wept with him, but what could they do! And as for Prince Ivan, he grew and grew, not by the day but by the hour, as fast as dough with yeast added to it, and before long was quite grown. "I can't keep him with me forever, I'm afraid," thought the king. "The day will come when I'll have to give him up to the King of the Sea, there's no avoiding it!" He took Prince Ivan by the hand and led him to the lake. "Look for my ring, I dropped it here somewhere the other day," said he, and, leaving Prince Ivan all by himself, turned his way homewards.
Prince Ivan began looking for the ring, and as he walked along the shore, he met an old woman coming toward him. "Where are you going, Prince Ivan?" she asked. "Leave me alone, you old witch, I have trouble enough as it is!" Prince Ivan said. "Oh, all right, then, and may God be with you!" And the old woman left him and turned off the road. But Prince Ivan regretted having behaved so badly. "Now, why was I so rude to the old woman?" he asked himself. "I'd better go after
her and get her to come back. Old people are wise; she may be able to tell me something that will be of help to me." And he called to the old woman, begging her to forgive him for his foolish words and come back. "It was because I was troubled that I was so rude," said he. "My father told me to look for his ring, but though I have looked and looked I cannot find it anywhere." "It isn't because of the ring that your father brought you here," the old woman said, "but because he promised the King of the Sea that you would be his. The King of the Sea will soon appear and take you away with him to his underwater kingdom."
Prince Ivan burst into tears. "Do not grieve, Prince Ivan, luck will yet come your way," said the old woman. "Only you must listen to me. Hide behind that currant bush there and keep very quiet. By and by twelve doves, fair maids all, will come flying here, and a thirteenth will follow them. They will bathe and splash about in the water, and while they are at it, you must carry off the thirteenth maid's shift and not give it back to her till she gives you her ring. If you fail to do this, you are lost, for the King of the Sea has a high fence a full ten miles long round his palace, with a human head crowning every paling. One paling only has no head on it, so beware lest it be crowned with yours!" Prince Ivan thanked the old woman and hid behind the currant bush.
All of a sudden twelve doves came flying to the lake shore. They struck the ground and turned into maids so fair as pen cannot write or tongue tell! They flung off their gowns and rushed into the water, and they played and splashed about there merrily. Then the thirteenth dove came flying up. It struck the ground and turned into a maid, and of them all, fair as they were, she was the fairest! She took off her gown and shift and stepped into the water, and Prince Ivan could not take his eyes from her so smitten was he, but then, recalling what the old woman had told him, he crept out from behind the bush and carried off the shift.
The maid came out off the water and looked about for her shift. It was not there, and though she and her sisters searched and searched for it, they could not find it. "Do not search for it any longer but fly home!" said the maid to her sisters. "It's my fault that I did not keep an eye on it and I must be the one to answer for it." And the twelve maids, her sisters, struck the ground, and, turning into doves, flapped their wings and flew away. The maid was left alone, and she looked all around her and said: "You, whoever you are, who have my shift, come out and show yourself! If you are old, you shall be as my own father to me; if you are in your middle years, you shall be as a brother to me; if you are of an age with me, you shall be my own dear love!" And she
no sooner uttered the last word than Prince Ivan appeared before her. She gave him her gold ring and said: "Ah, Prince Ivan, why did you not come here sooner? The King of the Sea is sorely vexed with you. Yonder lies the road that leads to his underwater kingdom. Follow it without fear and you will find me at the end of it! For I am Vassilissa the Wise, daughter of the King of the Sea." Vassilissa the Wise turned into a dove and flew away, and Prince Ivan set out for the underwater kingdom which, when he got there, he found to be, what with the sun shining overhead and green fields, meadows and groves everywhere, very much like any kingdom on earth. He came into the presence of the King of the Sea, and the King of the Sea roared at the top of his voice: "What made you tarry so long? Why did you not come here sooner? I shall punish you for it by setting you a task! I have a waste plot of land thirty miles long and thirty wide, which is all ditches, gullies and sharp stones. Now, I want this to be made as smooth as the palm of a man's hand and sown with rye, and the rye to be high enough by tomorrow morning for a jackdaw to hide in. And if you do not do it, I'll have your head cut off!"
Prince Ivan left the King of the Sea, and the tears poured from his eyes. And Vassilissa the Wise, sitting at the window of her chamber, saw him and said: "Good morrow, Prince Ivan! Why do you weep?" "How can I help it!" said Prince Ivan. "The King of the Sea bids me level his waste plot of land which is all ditches, gullies and sharp stones, to sow it with rye and to have the rye grow high enough by morning for a jackdaw to hide in." "That is no great misfortune, there is worse to come. Go to bed and to sleep with God's help. Night is the mother of wisdom, and all will be done for you!" Prince Ivan went to bed, and Vassilissa the Wise stepped out on the porch and called in a loud voice: "Come, my faithful servants, fill in the ditches and gullies, bear off the sharp stones, plough up the plot and sow it with rye, and have it all done by tomorrow morning!"
Prince Ivan woke with the dawn, he looked about him, and lo!— everything had been done: not a ditch or a gully was there, the ground had all been levelled, the plot sown with rye, and the rye had grown high enough for a jackdaw to hide in. He went and told the King of the Sea about it, and the King of the Sea said: "Thank you for doing as I bade. And now here is another task for you. I have three hundred stacks of wheat, with three hundred sheaves in each, and you are to thresh it all for me to the last grain and yet leave every single one of the sheaves and stacks whole, and if this is not done by morning, I'll have your head cut off!" "I will do as you bid, Your Majesty!" said Prince Ivan, and as he walked out of the palace and across the
courtyard the tears poured from his eyes. "Why do you weep?" Vassilissa the Wise asked him. "How can I help it! The King of the Sea bids me thresh all of his wheat in the space of one night, and I am not to lose a single grain and keep all of the stacks and sheaves whole." "That is no great misfortune, there is worse to come! Go to bed and to sleep, and may God be with you. Night is the mother of wisdom, remember!"
Prince Ivan went to bed, and Vassilissa the Wise stepped out on to the porch and called in a loud voice: "Come, ants, crawl here, all of you, as many as there are in the world, pick out the grains from my father's stacks of wheat and do not leave a single grain behind!" Morning came, and the King of the Sea summoned Prince Ivan. "Have you done as I bade?" he asked. "I have, Your Majesty!" "Come along, then, I wish to see it for myself." They came to the threshing floor, and there were all the stacks whole and of a piece; they came to the granary, and it was filled to the top with grain. "Thank you, my lad!" said the King of the Sea. "Just build me a church out of wax and have it ready by morning, and I will ask you to do nothing more." Off went Prince Ivan, and as he crossed the courtyard the tears poured from his eyes. "Why do you weep?" Vassilissa the Wise, sitting at the window of her chamber high up in the palace, asked him. "How can I help it! The King of the Sea bids me build him a church out of wax in the space of one night." "That is no great misfortune, there is worse to come. Go to bed and to sleep; night is the mother of wisdom, remember!"
Prince Ivan went to bed, and Vassilissa the Wise stepped out on to the porch and called in a loud voice: "Come, bees, all of you, from all over the world, fly here and build a church of wax in the space of one night!"
Morning came, Prince Ivan rose, and there stood the church before him, made of the purest wax! He went and told the King of the Sea about it, and the King of the Sea said: "I thank you, Prince Ivan! Many are the servants I have had, but not one of them pleased me as you have. Be my heir and the defender of my realm! And you can take to wife whichever one you choose of my thirteen daughters." Prince Ivan chose Vassilissa the Wise, they were at once married, there was great joy in the palace, and a feast was held which went on for three days.
Whether a short or a long time passed nobody knows, but Prince Ivan missed his parents and badly wanted to go back to Russ. "Why so sad, Prince Ivan?" Vassilissa the Wise asked him. "It is that I miss my mother and father and wish to go back to Russ," said Prince Ivan. "Ah, now there is indeed great misfortune ahead! For if we leave this realm,
many men will be sent after us to try to bring us back, and the King of the Sea will be greatly angered and have us put to death. But we may yet outwit them all!" And she went and sprayed three of the corners of their sleeping chamber with water, and, leaving it and locking the door behind her, rode away together with Prince Ivan.
Early on the following morning the servants of the King of the Sea came to rouse the young couple and summon them into the King's presence, and they knocked at the door of their chamber and called: "Wake up! Wake up! The King wishes to see you." "It's much too early, come a little later!" the drops of water called back in Vassilissa's own voice. The servants went away, but they came back again in an hour or so and knocked at the door again. "Time to get up!" they called. "Wait a little while, we have to get dressed!" the drops of water called back. Another hour passed, and the servants came back for the third time. "The King of the Sea is vexed with you, you must not dawdle any longer!" they called. "We'll be with him in a moment!" the drops of water called back.
The servants waited a while longer and began knocking at the door again, but there was no reply, so they broke down the door, and lo!— the chamber was empty. They told the King that the young couple had run away, and he flew into a temper and sent many men after them to bring them back.
By then Vassilissa the Wise and Prince Ivan had left the palace far behind them. They galloped on their fleet-footed steeds and never so much as stopped for a rest. "Come, Prince Ivan, put your ear to the ground and see if you can hear anything," said Vassilissa the Wise. Prince Ivan jumped down from his horse's back and put his ear to the ground. "I can hear men calling and hooves pounding," he said. "That means the King's men are after us!" said Vassilissa the Wise, and she at once turned the horses into a green meadow, Prince Ivan into a shepherd and herself into a sheep.
The King's men were soon upon them. "Tell us, shepherd," they called, "have you seen a youth and a maid riding past here?" "No, kind folk, I have not," replied Prince Ivan. "I have been grazing sheep here for forty years, and never has a bird flown past or a beast run by in all that time." The King's men went back to the palace. "We have not seen anyone on the way, Your Majesty, save a shepherd and a sheep," said they. "And you should have seized them, for they were the ones I sent you after!" roared the King, and he sent more of his men after the runaways. Prince Ivan and Vassilissa the Wise were far away by then, and Vassilissa the Wise said: "Come, Prince Ivan, put your ear to the ground and see if you can hear anything." Prince Ivan jumped down
from his horse's back and put his ear to the ground. "I can hear men calling and hooves pounding," said he. "The King's men are coming after us!" said Vassilissa the Wise, and she turned herself into a church, Prince Ivan into a priest and the horses into trees.
The King's men were soon upon them. "Tell us, Father, have you seen a shepherd passing by here with a flock of sheep?" they called. "No, kind folk, I have not," said Prince Ivan. "I have been with this church for forty years, but never has a bird flown past or a beast run by in all that time." The men went back to the palace. "We have seen no shepherd or sheep on the way, Your Majesty," said they. "We only saw a church and a priest standing by it." "Why didn't you pull down the church and seize the priest? They were the ones I sent you after!" roared the King, and he got on his horse and, followed by his men, set out after the runaways himself.
By then Prince Ivan and Vassilissa the Wise were far away. "Come, Prince Ivan, put your ear to the ground and see if you can hear anything," Vassilissa the Wise said. Prince Ivan climbed off his horse's back and put his ear to the ground. "I can hear men calling and hooves pounding more loudly than ever," said he. "That is the King himself coming after us with his men!" Vassilissa the Wise cried, and she turned the horses into a lake, Prince Ivan into a drake and herself took the shape of a duck. The King of the Sea came galloping up to the lake, and he at once guessed who the duck and the drake were. He struck the ground, turned into an eagle and swooped down upon them from above, but though he did this again and again the drake and the duck were too quick for him and dived into the water before he could get at them! By and by, seeing that he could do nothing, he gave up and galloped away, back to his underwater kingdom. And Vassilissa the Wise and Prince Ivan waited awhile and then set off for Russ.
Whether a short or a long time passed nobody knows, but by and by they came to Russ. "Wait for me in this wood," said Prince Ivan to Vassilissa the Wise, "and I'll go on ahead and show myself to my mother and father." "You will forget me, Prince Ivan!" "I won't." "You will, I know it! But you must try and remember me when you see two doves beating against a window pane." Prince Ivan came into the palace, and, seeing him, his parents threw their arms around him and held him close, and in his joy Prince Ivan forgot all about Vassilissa the Wise. He lived with his mother and father for a day and another day, and on the third day bethought him of marrying a princess he had met in the palace.
And Vassilissa the Wise went into town and took up service with a priest's widow who made wafers for a living. They began making
wafers, and she took two pieces of dough, fashioned two doves out of them and put them in the oven. "Do you know what will happen to these doves, mistress?" asked she. "No, for what can happen to them? We'll eat them, that's all." "Do you really think so?" And Vassilissa the Wise opened the oven and then the window, and lo!—the doves started up and flew straight to the palace. They began beating at the windows there, and try as the king's servants might they could not chase them away. Then it was that Prince Ivan remembered Vassilissa the Wise and sent envoys to all corners of the realm to try and find her. She was soon found and brought to the palace, and he took her snow-white hands in Ms, kissed her on her sugar-sweet lips and led her to his mother and father. And from that day on all the four of them knew no woe, shed never a tear, and prospered the more from year to year.