In a certain realm there once lived a king who had three daughters so beautiful as cannot be described. The king treasured them as the apple of his eye and had underground chambers built where they were kept like birds in a cage that the wild winds might not blow on them or the bright sun burn them with its rays. One day the three princesses read in a book about the wonders of the great wide world, and when the king came to pay them a visit, they began pleading with him with tears in their eyes to let them out of their chambers. "Please, Father, you who are our king and ruler, let us out for a walk in the green garden that we may see the light of day!" they said. The king tried to talk them out of it, but they would not listen to him, and the more often he entreated them to think better of it the more they badgered him and the louder they begged him to do as they wished. It could not be helped, and the king gave in.
The beautiful princesses came out for a walk in the garden, they saw the bright sun and the trees and flowers and took great joy in being free and out in the fresh air. They ran about and played, marvelling at every blade of grass and every flower, when all of a sudden the wild wind caught them up and carried them off none knew where. Their maids and women were greatly alarmed and ran to tell the king about it, and the king at once sent his many faithful servants to all parts of the realm, promising that he who found some sign of them would be richly rewarded. But though the servants searched far and near, they came back with nothing to show for it. The king then called together the highest of his courtiers and asked them if there was not one among them who would undertake to try to find his daughters. And he said that he who found them would get whichever one he chose of the three in marriage and a dowry that would make him rich for the rest of his life. He addressed the courtiers once, and they were silent; he addressed them a second time, and they said nothing; he addressed them for a third time, and they uttered not a word! The king burst into tears. "It seems I have no friends or defenders to help me in my trouble," he said. And he had it heralded throughout the realm that he was waiting for someone from among the ordinary folk to come forward and offer to find his daughters.
Now, at that selfsame time, in a certain village there lived a poor widow who had three sons, strong and fearless lads all three. They had been born on one day: the eldest son in the evening, the middle son at midnight, and the youngest son at dawn, and because of that were
named Evening, Midnight and Dawn. Hearing of the call put out by the king, they asked their mother's blessing, made ready and rode off for the king's own city. They came to the palace, bowed low before the king and said: "May you prosper for many years to come, Sire! We have not come here to feast but to serve you. Allow us to go to seek the princesses." "May good luck attend you, brave youths! What are your names?" "We are brothers, and our names are Evening, Midnight and Dawn." "Is there anything I can do for you before you go?" "We want nothing for ourselves, Sire, but do not leave our mother in her old age; help her if she should be in want." The king did as they asked. He had their mother brought to the palace to live there for as long as she desired, and he gave orders that she should share of his board and be given clothes to wear from his own coffers.
The three brothers set out on their way, they rode for a month, and another, and a third, and they came to a great and empty plain. Beyond it stretched a dense forest, and they were halfway through it when there before them they saw a little hut. They knocked at the window, but there was no reply; they came inside, and there was no one there. "Well, brothers, let us stay here awhile and rest from our journey," they said. They took off their clothes, said their prayers and went to bed, and on the following morning Dawn said to his elder brother Evening: "Midnight and I will go off to hunt, and you must stay home and prepare our dinner for us." To this Evening agreed, and there being a shed full of sheep near the hut, he slaughtered the best one he could find among them and roasted it. Then, everything being ready, he lay down on a bench for a sleep. All of a sudden there came a great thumping and banging, the door opened, and a bearded old man the size of a thumb stepped into the hut looking glum as glum. "How dared you play the master in my house, how dared you slaughter my sheep!" he cried. "First grow a wee bit so a man can tell you from a bug!" Evening said. "You don't want me to drown you in a spoonful of soup, do you!" The little old man became angrier still. "I'm small but bold and can knock you out cold!" he cried. And grabbing a crust of bread, he began hitting Evening over the head with it and gave him such a walloping that he was all but dead by the time he got through with him. Then he thrust him under the bench, ate up the roasted sheep and went away. And as for Evening, he came to after a while, tied a rag round his head and lay there moaning. The two brothers came back, and, seeing him in so sorry a state, asked what had happened. "Well, you see, brothers, I lit the oven and got such a terrible headache from the heat that I lay around all day in a half-swoon and could not cook anything."
On the following day Dawn and Evening went off to hunt, and they left Midnight at home to prepare the dinner.
Midnight lit the oven, slaughtered the fattest sheep he could find in the shed and, having roasted it, lay down on the bench for a sleep.
All of a sudden there was a great thumping and banging, and a little old man the size of a thumb came into the hut looking glum as glum. He fell on Midnight, gave him such a walloping that he was all but dead by the time he was through with him, and, having eaten the roasted sheep, went away. And Midnight tied a rag round his head and lay moaning under the bench. Dawn and Evening came back, and Dawn asked him what had happened to him. "I lit the oven and got such a headache from the fumes that I had to lie around all day and could not cook anything," Midnight said.
On the third day the two elder brothers went off to hunt, and Dawn stayed home. He slaughtered the best sheep he could find in the shed, skinned and roasted it, and, this done, lay down on the bench for a sleep.
All of a sudden there was a great thumping and banging, and a little old man the size of a thumb came into the yard looking glum as glum. He had a whole stack of hay on his head and a large tub of water in his hands, and having set the tub of water down on the ground and strewn the hay over the yard, began counting the sheep. Seeing that one sheep was missing, he flew into a temper, ran into the hut, threw himself at Dawn and gave him a sharp knock on the head. But Dawn jumped up, clutched the little old man by the beard and began dragging him over the floor, saying as he did so, "Look before you leap if it's whole you would keep!"
"Have mercy on me, brave youth!" cried the little old man. "Spare my life and let me go!" But Dawn dragged him out into the yard and up to a pillar of oak, and, using a wedge of iron, stuck his beard into a split in the wood. Then he came back into the hut and sat there waiting for his brothers. The brothers were soon back and they marvelled to see him unharmed. "Come out into the yard with me, brothers, and you'll see your 'headache'," said Dawn with a laugh. They came out into the yard, but the little old man was gone, and all they saw was a part of his beard sticking out from the split and a trail of blood on the ground.
The trail led the brothers to a deep pit, and Dawn went to the forest, stripped some bark off a tree, made a rope out of it and told Evening and Midnight to let him down into the pit on it. This they did, and, finding that he was in the netherworld, Dawn untied himself and set off along a road that stretched before him and led he knew not where. He
walked and he walked, and there before him was a palace of copper. He stepped inside, and the youngest of the princesses, a maid as lovely as a flower, came toward him. "Is it of your own free will or at another's bidding that you have come here, brave youth?" she asked. "It was your father who sent me to seek you and your sisters," Dawn told her. The princess at once seated him at a table, dined and wined him and then gave him a phial of strong water. "Here, drink this water, and it will make you very, very strong," said she. Dawn drank the water and at once felt himself to be filled with a great strength. "Now I can get the better of anyone!" said he to himself.
All of a sudden a wild wind began to blow, and the princess was frightened. "The three-headed dragon is coming!" she cried, and she took Dawn by the hand and hid him in her chamber. The dragon now came flying up, and he struck the ground and turned into a man. "I smell Russian flesh!" he cried. "Is anyone here?" "How could there be!" the princess said. "You have been flying over Russ and must have brought the smell of Russian flesh with you." The dragon asked her to give him food and drink, and she brought in a plate of food and a goblet of wine, and, first having added a sleeping powder to the wine, offered it to him. The dragon ate and drank, and, feeling very sleepy, placed his head on the princess's lap and fell fast asleep. The princess at once called Dawn, who came out of his hiding-place and smote off all of the dragon's three heads with one stroke of his sword. He then made up a fire, burnt the dragon's body and strewed the ashes over the plain.
"And now I must bid you goodbye, Princess," said Dawn, "for I am off to seek your sisters. But I will come back for you as soon as I find them."
He set off on his way, he walked and he walked, and there before him rose a silver palace in which the middle sister was kept captive by a six-headed dragon. Dawn killed the dragon, freed the princess and went on. Whether a short or a long time passed nobody knows, but he came at last to a palace of gold where the eldest princess was kept captive by a twelve-headed dragon. He killed the dragon, and the princess was overjoyed and prepared to set out for home. She came out into the courtyard and waved a red kerchief, and the kingdom of gold turned into a golden egg. This she put in her pocket and went with Dawn to where he had left her sisters. Then after the middle princess had turned her kingdom into a silver egg and the younger sister had turned hers into a copper egg, the four of them made for the bottom of the pit. Evening and Midnight dragged Dawn and the three princesses out of the pit, and they all went back together to their own realm. The
princesses sent the eggs rolling over the plain, and at once the three kingdoms, one of copper, one of silver and one of gold, appeared before them. They came to the palace, and so happy was the king as cannot be told! He married his youngest daughter to Dawn, his middle daughter to Evening, and his eldest daughter to Midnight, and he made Dawn his heir.