The Prince and the Eagle
Once upon a time there was a King who had three sons. Now, one day he had a fancy for a dish prepared with the fat of a male hare, and sent his sons to hunt in the woods.
The older brothers found nothing, but when they were returning home they met the youngest brother carrying two male hares. At this they were very angry, for they had refused to let him come with them on the chase, as he was inexperienced and they did not want him to learn anything from them and capture the prize. Yet now he had caught these two fine hares all by himself, while they had nothing.
So they loitered behind together, planning how they could spoil his triumph and keep their father’s favour for themselves.
Presently they came to a well surrounded with marble slabs over which the water trickled. It was a very old well, in a dark part of the forest, and few people used it. But the water gurgled and splashed in a refreshing way, and the eldest brother stopped when he saw it and proposed they should have a drink.
“Let us drink, however, in order of our age,” said he cunningly. “I will drink first, then the next in age, and then the youngest.” He lay down to drink, however, leaning far over the well, and calling out how delicious the water was and how easy it was to obtain a good draught this way; and the second brother followed his example, also calling out how cool and delicious the water was, and how convenient it was to drink when one leaned right over. So of course when the youngest brother knelt down, he stretched himself flat on the stones and imitated the way they had leaned over the water. This was what the elder brothers wished, and taking his feet they pushed him right into the well.
Then they took the two hares and went off to their father, weeping and wailing and pretending to be terribly sorry they had lost their brother. They told their father he had been carried off by a band of robbers, and pretended they had been so busy chasing the hares that they had been separated from him and had not been able to overtake the robbers and rescue their brother in time.
The King was so distressed to hear that his best-loved son was lost that he took no notice of their hares; instead of feasting, he and the Queen put on mourning and there was great sadness throughout the kingdom.
But the youngest Prince whom they had thrown into the well, was not really drowned or lost. He continued to fall and fall for ever so long until instead of descending with a bump at the bottom, he stepped gently onto dry land, and found himself in what the Macedonians call the Nether World.
It was quite dark, but after he had walked a little way, he began to get used to the gloom and presently he saw a light in the distance and, coming up, beheld a cottage. He looked through the window and saw an old woman kneading dough. She had no water, but was weeping bitterly and kneaded the dough with her tears. The Prince felt very sorry for her and tapped at the door. When she opened it he asked if he might not fetch some water for her so that she might mix her dough. “For,” said the Prince, “I am very hungry and should be grateful for a piece of hot bread.”
But the old woman told him they had no water at all. There was a well, certainly, but it was guarded by a dragon. Every now and then it demanded a maiden, which had to be given it for its dinner, before it would allow the countryside to have any of the water it so selfishly and cruelly guarded. The old woman was weeping because her only daughter was now bound to a tree waiting for the dragon to come.
“Well, I am sorely in need of food,” said the Prince, “but if you will put that little cake on the ashes and give me a piece when it is baked, I will willingly rescue your daughter.”
“That is impossible,” said the old woman. “The King and his army have been trying to overcome the dragon for years without any success. How could a boy like you conquer it?”
At this moment, they heard a cry, “Kra kra,” from the corner of the room, and turning round, the Prince beheld a great golden eagle standing in the corner of the cottage. It flapped its wings and uttered the strange sound again, as if to encourage the Prince. He asked what such a beautiful great bird was doing, standing in a corner of a cottage, and the old woman told him her husband had left her this bird to take care of, and for a hundred years she had fed it and tended it until it had grown to be the powerful bird the Prince beheld. The next moment, another snorting sound came from another dark corner, and the Prince to his surprise beheld a buffalo standing in the corner behind the door, and heard that the husband had left the buffalo to the old woman and she had tended and fed it also for a hundred years.
“Well, you are not without friends then,” said the Prince.
“But now I have nothing to feed them with,” said the old woman. “This cake is the last bit of food I have, for as we have no water, no crops will grow. However, though I do not believe you can help me or my daughter, I will give you half of it, for I would not send a stranger away, unfed.”
With this the old woman drew the cake from the embers and gave the Prince a good half, and he ate and felt much refreshed.
From Wonder Tales of the World, Constance Armfield,New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920.