provenance: unknown


Once upon a time there was an old man who lived with his daughter and three sons. They lived alone in a small house in a dark wood. One day, a traveller happened upon their home in the night. He was tired and hungry, and asked for a place to sleep for the night.

As he was elegantly attired, and wore a sword with a gilded scabbard, the old man bid his daughter to heat some mush. She was very pretty, and the traveller was very polite to her.

He was on a very dangerous quest, the traveller told them. The king's daughter had been kidnapped by a giant bird, and locked in a silver cage atop a far-off mountain. He was going to rescue her, he said, and the king had promised her hand in marriage and half the kingdom to the hero who brought her home to him.

He left the next day after an early breakfast. Half the kingdom, the older brothers said to each other. Why shouldn't they rescue this princess? They would follow this traveller, to learn where she was, and claim the prize for themselves.

The old man begged them not to go, but they laughed at him. We will not grow old and sad like you, they said, and fade into nothing in the middle of nowhere. We must go forth into the world, and make a name for ourselves.

So the old man gave them his blessing, and promised always to welcome them home again.

Now some time passed, and again a traveller came upon the house in the night. He was very dirty, and his cloak worn thin. And he wore a scabbard, but it was empty.

What had happened, the old man asked. Had he met upon some misfortune?

He had been to a range of far-off mountains, the traveller replied, and there was beset upon by bandits. They had banded together to pray upon the young noblemen who sought to rescue the princess and claim the kingdom. They had stolen his sword and horse, and sent him off unarmed and afoot. Now he was returning home, ashamed.

But why did these bandits not seek to rescue the princess themselves? the old man asked. Did they not desire half the kingdom?

The mountains are very treacherous, the traveller said, and their denizens wicked and cruel. The bandits were weak and greedy, and very fearful, and had not the courage to brave their heights.

The old man gave the traveller a new cloak and provisions, and even brought out the honey at breakfast. After he had left, the old man said to his youngest son, You must go and find your brothers, for I am afraid they are not strong, and may have fallen upon poor luck. And he gave to him a goblet, and told him, Take good care of this goblet, for it has great magic in it. He who possesses it and drinks of it from his own grasp, will find in it the purest water. But he who owns it not but grabs it and drinks, will taste the strongest liquor.

So the youngest son packed his provisions on his back and bid farwell to his sister and father. He followed the path the first traveller and his brothers had taken for two days, until he had passed beyond the wood and into the rolling hills above it. He camped under a crag on a hilltop, and in the morning he could see the sun rising over the distant mountains.

For four hard days he plodded eastward, fording creeks and skirting rocky ledges, until at last he reached the sandy bank of a broad, swift river. The current was too strong for him to cross unaided, so he turned downriver to find a crossing.

In the afternoon he came to place where the river had cut a deep chasm into the earth. Here the two banks were much closer, and a great tree, wide enough even for a horse to walk upon, had been felled and lain across the gap. A young fellow sat upon the trunk, dangling his feet over the frothing water below and wittling with his knife.

Hallo there! Tom (for that was the youngest brother's name) called out. Well met!

The other fellow pulled his feet under him and greeted him joyously. Well met indeed, better than you know! Have you any food? He looked him up and down. I see you have no sword, are you unarmed? he asked.

I have some bread, Tom said, and shared it with the boy as they talked. But I must be on my way, for I have far to go. And with that he moved to continue on his way, across the chasm.

Oh, you daren't cross, there is a gang of bandits that awaits travellers on the other side, the boy told him. Your only hope is to sneak across at dark. Morning is best. I will help you!

So Tom and the boy moved away from the edge and set a camp. The boy's companions had abandoned him, he said. They had brought him to cook and clean, as they were too important to do such things for themselves. Great heroes they were, on a dangerous quest. But they'd been ambushed by the bandits, who'd somehow found their camp at night and murdered them in their sleep, sparing only him, and he had snuck off alone.

Then we shall travel home together, said Tom. It is not good to be alone in the wild.

No sooner had Tom fallen asleep, however, than the boy crept over to him with his knife. He would have cut his throat, but Tom had lain among the roots of a great tree, and the boy stumbled. Tom awoke and they wrestled, and Tom forced the knife from him.

Please do not kill me, cried the boy. If you do the bandits will surely kill you, they will not forgive my death so easily.

Then Tom knew that the boy had not been lying about the bandits, and tied him to the tree. He felt his way across the log bridge over the chasm with his feet, and though it was dark passed safely across.

He had walked for a short time on the other side when he heard a great commotion and saw the light of a fire. A group of ragged and armored men were gathered in a ring, shouting with pleasure at two men inside it. Fight, they said, or we will kill you both, and they laughed and mocked them. The two men, Tom saw, were his brothers, and though they pleaded with their tormentors, and even called them by name, they saw no mercy.

Removing the goblet from his pack, Tom stumbled into their midst. Bringing himself up short, he stopped and drank deeply, dribbling water down his front and pouring it down into his mouth. The men all turned suspiciously, and one closest reached grabbed the goblet from his hand. Tom did not resist, but fell to the ground, as if drunk.

The men had had but little by way of drink in their time there. It was not long before they discovered that this new cup quick replenished itself, and they were soon drunk. When it was quite safe, the bandits having passed out or drunk themselves into a stupor, Tom's brothers rushed to him. They had been taken by the bandits, they said, and held prisoner, reserved for their future entertainment. It was good that Tom had come just then, else they would both have soon been dead.

Picking himself up, Tom hugged them and said, Well, we are free now, and can go home. But we cannot go home, said his brothers. We have survived the bandits, now we must rescue the princess! And they would not be dissuaded, but set off higher into the mountains, intent on their quest.

Seeing that there was nothing to be done for it, and sensing that they would again need him, Tom followed. For three days they climbed, higher and higher, and the air got thin and cold. On the fourth day they passed above the trees. Just beyond the trees, they came upon an old man lying on his back on the rocks. Strapped to his back was a thick bundle of wood, and no matter how he struggled he could not right himself.

Laughing, Tom's brothers stepped over him. Hey old man, are you a turtle? But your house is small and leaky! And, greedy to save their own strength, they continued ahead. Tom stopped and lifted the bundle from the ground, so the man could raise himself off the ground. Thank you, the old man said, and moved to leave, but Tom stopped him. I will carry your burden for you, he said; I am yet young and strong, and you have suffered.

You are wise and generous, the old man said, but I do not need any more of your help. Instead I will help you. In the pass above there is a lake. Its waters are powerful, for any who drink of it soon succumb to forgetfulness and oblivion. Do not drink of it! For if you do, nought can again awaken you but a scratch from the talon of the great bird, and by then it will be too late for you, and you will be eaten.

Tom thanked the old man and went in haste to catch his brothers, but he was too late. They had knelt beside the lake and drank, and already their wits had departed them. Dismayed, Tom sat beside them and fed them some bread, but they said nothing, and the food dribbled out of their mouths.

There came then a terrible shriek from the sky above them, and Tom saw the great bird circling. In an instant it dived toward them, but Tom snatched from his brother's belt a sword taken from a drunken bandit, and his movement and the sword's cold gleam convinced the bird to find easier prey. Diving down again, it snatched from the opposite shore a shivering figure, who opened his eyes at last and screamed his last earthly scream. Tom watched as the bird flew atop a nearby peak and began to tear apart his meal.

Tom led his brothers back from the lake and down the mountain again, until he found a hardy tree that had rooted in the shelter of a crumbling rock. He tied his brothers to the tree so they would not stray, and climbed back up the mountain.

Above the lake, the slope became sheer rock, and Tom was hard put to reach the peak where the bird had taken its grisly repast. The top was littered with bleached bone, but just below it on the other side, hanging above an aching drop, a round-topped cage of the whitest silver held a sleeping form, whose shape Tom could not perceive.

The bird was not to be seen, but Tom made ready for it. He crept into a cavity beneath a large rock, and drew out his sword. For a night and a day he waited, until at last the bird returned, clutching its next meal, and descended upon the peak.

Tom leapt forward and lunged at the feasting bird, and slew it with a single blow. He cut a single talon from its claw, and dropped the bloody carcass off the cliff.

Seizing the chain from which the silver cage hung, Tom hauled it up atop the peak. The princess slept inside, wrapped in filaments of gold and platinum, and lying on a bed of softest down. She was beautiful beyond all imagining, and for an instant Tom saw her, as if in a dream, afloat in a cloud of radiant light, with a single tear upon her perfect cheek. But he looked again, and saw how still she slept, her perfection unblemished, its purity guarded by the devices that surrounded her.

Taking the talon, Tom danced down the mountain side. He freed his brothers with a scratch, and went directly home, where he lived happily until the end of his days.


Copyright ©2002 Matt Pfeffer


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