Tarabanov the soldier went off to seek his fortune. He walked on and on for a week, then another, then a third, and come twelve-month he crossed the thrice-nine land, reached the thrice-ten kingdom and entered a dense forest with nothing but trees and sky. By and by he saw an open glade and in the glade a great palace. He gazed at the palace and marvelled at such riches, the like of which had ne'er been known before, save in the fairy tales of yore. Walking round the palace, he saw that there was neither gate nor door, nor entrance of any kind. So he picked up a long pole lying on the ground, stood it against a balcony, took his courage in both hands and shinned up it; then he climbed onto the balcony, opened the glass doors and strolled round the chambers. There was not a soul to be seen. The place was deserted.
The soldier entered the grand hall. There he saw a round table with twelve dishes of all sorts of food and twelve carafes of sweet wine. Feeling hungry, he took a morsel from each dish and poured a glassful from each carafe. Having eaten and drunk his fill, he climbed onto the stove-bed, made a pillow of his knapsack and lay down to rest. Before he had time to doze off, twelve swans flew in through the window, struck the floor and turned into twelve beautiful maidens, each one fairer than the last. They laid their wings on the stove, sat down at the table and began to eat and drink, each from her own dish and her own carafe. "There is something wrong, sisters," said one of them. "Someone has drank of our wine and eaten of our food." "Be quiet, sister! You think you're so clever!" The soldier had seen where they put their wings. He got up quietly, took the pair belonging to the clever maiden and hid them.
The beautiful maidens dined, left the table and hurried to the stove to put on their wings. There was one pair missing. "Oh, sisters, my wings have gone!" "Serve you right for being so clever!" The eleven maidens struck the floor, turned back into white swans and flew out of the window. The twelfth, left all alone, began to weep bitterly. The soldier climbed down from the stove. The maiden saw him and implored him to give back her wings. "Beg and weep as much as you like, I'll never give back your wings. So you'd best consent to be my wife and live together with me." Then they came to an understanding and hugged and kissed each other.
The fair maiden took her betrothed down into the cellars, opened a large chest bound with iron and said: "Take as much gold as you can carry, so we have enough to set up house and live on for the rest of our
days." The soldier filled his pockets with gold, pulled the well-worn shirts out of his knapsack and stuffed it with gold too. Then they set off together on their long journey.
By and by they came to the fair capital city, rented some chambers and set up house. One day the soldier's wife said to him: "Take this hundred rubles. Go to the shop and spend it all on silk for me." The soldier went off. On the way he passed a tavern. "Surely I could spend ten kopecks of this hundred rubles on a drink?" he thought. So in he went, drank half a bottle of liquor, paid his ten kopecks and set off to buy the silk. He got a big roll of silk, took it home and gave it to his wife. "How much was this?" she asked. "A hundred rubles." "No, it wasn't. You paid a hundred rubles less ten kopecks for it. What did you do with the ten kopecks? Had a drink in the tavern, I'll bet!" "She's a clever one and no mistake," thought the soldier. "No fooling her!" From the silk the soldier's wife sewed three beautiful carpets and sent her husband to sell them. A rich merchant paid three thousand for each of them, waited until a big feast day and gave the carpets to the king himself as a present. "What dexterous hands sewed these!" exclaimed the king in amazement. "They are the work of a common soldier's wife, Sire," replied the merchant. "Surely not! Where does she live? I will visit her myself."
The very next day the king visited the soldier's wife to order some new work from her. When he set eyes upon her beauty, he fell head over heels in love with her. He returned to the palace and began scheming to get the wife away from her husband. Summoning his favourite general, he said: "Think of an excuse to get a soldier out of the way. I will reward you with high rank, land and gold." "Give him a difficult task, Your Majesty. Send him to the ends of the earth to bring back Saura the Servant. Saura the Servant will live in your pocket and do whatever you tell him as quick as lightning!"
The king sent for the soldier and began rebuking him as soon as he was brought to the palace: "Foolish fellow! Fancy boasting in all the taverns that getting hold of Saura the Servant is as easy as pie. Why didn't you come to me first, instead of keeping quiet. You know my doors are closed to no one." "I would never dream of boasting such a thing, Your Majesty!" "Now then, my man, don't go back on your word! You must go to the ends of the earth and bring me back Saura the Servant. If you do not, I'll have you put to death!" The soldier went home to his wife and told her the bad tidings. She took out a ring and handed it to him, saying: "Follow this ring wherever it leads you and fear nothing!" Then she gave him some parting words of wisdom and sent him on his way.
The ring rolled along until it reached a little wooden house, then jumped onto the porch, through the door and under the stove. The soldier followed it inside, crawled under the stove and waited. Suddenly a thumb-sized mannikin with a long, long beard came in and called out: "Hey, Saura! Where's my dinner?" Quick as lightning a roasted ox with a knife in its loin and garlic in its groin appeared in front of him, together with a forty-gallon barrel of good beer. The thumb-sized mannikin with the long, long beard sat down by the ox, pulled out the knife and proceeded to carve the meat, dip it in the garlic, eat it and sing its praises. He picked the ox clean, downed the whole barrel of beer and said: "Thank you, Saura! Your food is good. I shall come again in three years' time." Then he took his leave and went away.
The soldier climbed out from under the stove, plucked up his courage and shouted: "Hey, Saura! Are you there?" "Yes, soldier!" "Then give me some dinner too." Saura brought him a roast ox and a forty-gallon barrel of beer. "That's far too much for me, Saura," the soldier exclaimed. "I couldn't eat and drink all that in a twelve-month." He had a few slices and drank about a bottle, thanked Saura for the meal and asked: "How would you like to serve me, Saura?" "Willingly, sir, if you will take me. My old man is such a glutton that I wear myself out trying to satisfy his appetite." "Let's go then. Climb into my pocket." "I'm there already, sir."
Tarabanov went out of the house. Off rolled the ring to show them the way and, by and by, it led the soldier home. He straightway went to the palace, called Saura out and left him to serve the king. The king again summoned his general. "You said Tarabanov would perish and never fetch Saura, but he has returned hale and hearty with Saura in his pocket!" "Then we must find him a more difficult task, Your Majesty. Tell him to go to the after-world and find out how your late father is faring there." Without further ado the king dispatched a messenger to summon Tarabanov the soldier to the palace. The messenger rode there post-haste: "Hey, soldier-boy, get dressed. The king wants you."
The soldier polished the buttons on his greatcoat, got dressed, sat down beside the messenger and rode to the palace. When he appeared before the king, the king said to him: "Listen, foolish fellow! Why did you go boasting in all the taverns that you could visit the after-world and find out how my late father is faring, without a word to me?" "For pity's sake, Your Majesty! I would never dream of boasting such a thing. I know of no way to visit the after-world save by dying, so help me!" "Well, be that as it may, you must go and find out about my father, or my sword will have your head from your shoulders!" Sad at
heart, Tarabanov returned home, his curly head drooping between his powerful shoulders. "Why so downcast, dear heart?" asked his wife. "Tell me all." So he told her the whole story. "Never mind, do not worry. Just go to bed. Morning is wiser than evening."
The next morning, as soon as the soldier awoke, his wife said: "Go to the king and ask him to let you take as your companion the general who keeps thinking up tasks for you." Tarabanov dressed, went to the king and asked: "Let me take the general to keep me company, Your Majesty. Let him witness that I have indeed visited the after-world and found out about your revered parent without any trickery." "Very well, my man! Go home and prepare for the journey. I will send him to you." Tarabanov went home and prepared for the journey. Meanwhile the king summoned the general. "You must go with the soldier too," he said. "He is not to be trusted alone." The general was scared out of his wits, but there was nothing for it. A king's word is not to be disobeyed. So off he went unwillingly to the soldier's home.
Tarabanov filled his knapsack with rusks and his flask with water, bade farewell to his wife, took the ring from her and said to the general: "Let us be on our way." They went into the yard. A carriage and four was standing by the porch. "Who's that for?" asked the soldier. "What do you mean? For us, of course." "No, Your Excellency. We have no need of a carriage. The way to the after-world is on foot." The ring rolled along, followed by the soldier, with the general puffing and panting behind. It was a long journey. When the soldier felt hungry he took a rusk from his knapsack, soaked it in the water and munched it, while his companion watched with his mouth watering. If the soldier treated him to a rusk, all well and good, but if not he would go hungry.
Time went by, how much who can say? The tale is told ere the deed is done. By and by they came to a dense forest and went down into a deep ravine. Here the ring stopped. The soldier and the general sat down on the ground and began to eat rusks. Before they had finished, they saw the old king pulling a cart piled high with firewood, while two devils urged him on with cudgels, one on his right and the other on his left. "Look, Your Excellency! Isn't that the old king?" "Yes, His Majesty is carting firewood!" "Hey, there, master devils!" shouted the soldier. "Let me have that old fellow for a moment. There's something I must ask him." "We haven't got all day. Who'll cart the firewood while you're talking to him? Not us!" "Why should you! Here, take this new man in his place.
The devils quickly unharnessed the old king from the cart, put the general in his place, and gave him a taste of their cudgels. Off the
general trotted, puffing and panting. Then the soldier asked the old king how he was faring in the after-world. "Badly, soldier, badly! Take greetings to my son and bid him have prayers said for my soul, then perhaps the Lord will take mercy on me and free me from eternal torment. And charge him strictly in my name not to offend the common folk or the soldiery, or the good Lord will punish him!" "He may not believe my word. Give me some token." "Take this key! When he sees it, he will believe all." They had barely finished their conversation, when the devils came back. The soldier bade farewell to the old king, collected the general and set off home with him.
They reached their kingdom and went straight to the palace. "Your Majesty," said the soldier to the king. "I have seen your late revered parent, and he is faring badly in the after-world. He sends you greetings and bids you have prayers said for his soul so that the good Lord may free him from eternal torment. And he bade me charge you strictly not to offend the common folk or the soldiery! For the Lord punishes that most severely." "But did you in truth go to the after- world and see my father?" Then the general said: "My back still bears the marks where the devils beat me with their cudgels." But the soldier handed over the key. "Ah!" exclaimed the king, "this is the secret cabinet key that they forgot to remove from my father's pocket when they buried him!" Then the king no longer doubted that the soldier was telling the truth. He made him a general and stopped coveting his fair wife.