Youth Without Age and Life Without Death ~ part 2
On the morning of the third day there was great mourning throughout the whole court and empire.
The handsome prince, clad like a hero, holding his sword in his hand and riding the horse he had chosen, took leave of the emperor, the empress, the great nobles and lesser grandees, the army, and all the attendants who, with tears in their eyes, implored him to give up the journey and not risk his life. Yet setting spurs to his steed, he dashed through the gate like the wind, followed by carts loaded with provisions and money, and the two hundred horsemen the emperor had commanded to accompany him.
After reaching the boundaries of his father’s country and arriving at the wilderness the prince distributed all his property among the escort, bade them farewell, and sent them back, keeping for himself only as much food as his horse could carry. Then he turned toward the east and rode for three days and three nights, till he came to a wide plain where lay a great many human bones.
When he stopped here to rest the horse said: “You must know, master, that we are on the land of a Woodpecker Witch who is so wicked that nobody can enter her domain without being murdered. She was once a woman, but the curse of her parents, whom she angered by her disobedience, turned her into a woodpecker. She is with her children now, but you will meet her tomorrow in yonder forest. She will come to kill you. She is terribly big, but don’t be frightened. Hold the bow ready to pierce her with an arrow and keep your sword and lance in hand, so that you can use them in case of need.”
Then they went to rest, taking turns in standing watch.
At dawn the next morning they prepared to pass through the forest. The prince saddled and bridled the horse, drew the girths tighter than usual, and mounted. Suddenly he heard a tremendous crashing. “Make ready, master,” said the horse, “the Woodpecker Witch is coming!”
As she approached, she moved so fast that she tore the trees down. But the horse leaped upward like the wind so that it was almost over her, and the prince shot off one of her feet with an arrow. But just as he was about to discharge the second arrow she cried:
“Stop, my young hero, I’ll do you no harm.” And seeing that he did not believe her, she gave him a promise written with her own blood.
“May your horse live long and prosper, my young hero,” she added, “for it is enchanted. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have roasted and eaten you. Know that until today no mortal has ventured to cross my boundaries as far as this. A few bold unruly who dared to make the trial reached the plain where you saw the sea of bones.”
They now went to the witch’s house where she entertained them as guests. But while sitting at the table enjoying the banquet, the Woodpecker Witch moaned with so much pain that the prince pulled out of his traveling bag the foot he had shot off and, fastened it on, it instantly healed. The hostess, in her joy, kept open house for three days and begged the emperor’s son to choose one of her three daughters for his wife, all as beautiful as fairies.
Yet he would not do that, but told her what he was truly seeking and she replied:
“With your horse and your heroic courage, I believe you will succeed.”
After three days had passed, the prince prepared to continue his journey and departed. He rode on, and on, and on. The road seemed to grow longer and longer, but when he had finally crossed the frontiers of the Woodpecker Witch’s kingdom, he entered a beautiful meadow, one side of which was covered with blooming plants, but the other was scorched.
The prince asked why the grass was singed, and the horse answered:
“We are now in the domain of the Termagant Witch; she is the Woodpecker Witch’s sister, but they are both so wicked that they can’t live together. Their parents’ curse has fallen upon them, and so, as you see, they have become monsters. Their enmity goes beyond all bounds and they are always trying to get possession of each other’s lands. When this one is very angry she spits fire and pitch. She must have had some quarrel with her sister, and, to drive her out of her kingdom, has burned the grass on which she was standing. She is even worse than her sister, and has three heads. We will rest awhile now, and be ready at the first peep of dawn to-morrow.”
The next day they prepared themselves just as they did when they expected to meet the Woodpecker Witch, and set out. Soon they heard a howling and rustling unlike any thing ever known before.
“Make ready, master, the Termagant Witch is coming.”
The Termagant Witch, with one jaw in the sky and the other on the earth, approached like the wind, spitting fire as she came, but the horse darted upward as swiftly as an arrow and then rushed over her a little on one side. The hero then shot an arrow and one of her heads fell, but just s he was about to strike off another the Termagant Witch implored him to forgive her. She would do him no harm, she promised, and to convince him of this she gave him proof of her promise, written in her own blood.
Like the Woodpecker Witch before her the Termagant Witch entertained the prince, who, eventually, returned her head which grew on again, and at the end of three days he resumed his travels.
When the hero and his horse reached the far boundaries of the Termagant Witch’s kingdom they hurried on without resting till they came to a field covered with flowers, where reigned perpetual spring. Every blossom was remarkably beautiful and filled with a sweet, intoxicating fragrance; a gentle breeze fanned them all. They remained here to rest when the horse said:
“We have succeed thus, master, but we still have one great peril to undergo and, if the Lord helps us to conquer it, we shall really be valiant heroes. A short distance further on is the palace where dwell Youth without Age and Life without Death. It is surrounded by a high, dense forest where roam all the wild animals in the world, guarding it day and night. They are very numerous,and it is almost beyond the bounds of possibility to get through the wood by fighting them. Thus we must try, if we can, to jump over them.”
After resting about two days they prepared to continue their journey and the horse, holding its breath, said:
“Buckle my girth as tight as you can and when you have mounted hold fast to my mane and press your feet close to my neck, that you may not hinder me.” The prince mounted, and in a moment they were nearing the forest.
“Master,” said the horse, “this is the time that the wild beasts are fed. They are all collected together. Now! We’ll jump over.”
“Forward,” replied the handsome prince, “and may the Lord have mercy on us.”
They flew upward and saw the palace, which glittered so that it would have been easier to look at the sun. They had passed over the forest when, just as they were descending towards the palace steps one of the horse’s hoofs lightly touched the top of a tree and put the whole woods in motion.
The wild animals began to howl till it was enough to make one’s hair bristle. The prince and his horse hastily alighted and, if the mistress of the palace had not been outside feeding her chickens (for that is what she called the wild beasts), they would certainly have been killed. She spared their lives out of pure pleasure, for she had never before seen a human being. Restraining the savage beasts she soothed them and sent them back to their haunts. She was a tall, slender, lovely fairy, quite too beautiful. And when the young hero saw her he stood still as though was turned to stone. But as she gazed at him she pitied him and said:
“Welcome, my handsome prince. What do you seek here?”
“We seek Youth without Age and Life without Death.”
When the prince dismounted from his horse and entered the palace to discover two other ladies, both of about the same age, the elder sisters of the first one.
The prince thank the fairy for having delivered him from danger when she and her sisters, to show their joy, had a handsome banquet served in golden dishes. They gave the horse liberty to graze wherever it chose, and afterward made it acquainted with all the wild beasts, so that it might rove about the forest in peace.
The ladies pleaded with the prince to stay with them saying that it was so tiresome to be alone. He did not wait to be asked a second time, but accepted the offer with the satisfaction of a man who has found precisely what he sought.
By degrees they became accustomed to live together. The prince told them his story and related what he had suffered before meeting them, and after some time he married the youngest sister. At their wedding permission was granted to him to go wherever he liked in the neighborhood. They only begged him not to enter one valley, which they pointed out to him, otherwise some misfortune would befall him. It was called, they said, the Valley of Sighs.
Do return tomorrow to find out how the story ends.
The Romanian term for wicked Woodpecker Witch is outstanding and reserved to it alone: Gheonoaie, deriving from Albanian Gjon “owl” and “woodpecker”.
Youth Without Age and Life Without Death (Tinerete Fara de Batranete si Viata Fara de Moarte) is a Romanian folktale discovered by Petre Ispirescu, Romanian editor, folklorist, printer and publicist, and first published in 1862 in local newspaper Țăranul român (Romanian Peasant).