The Fleetfooted Princess

An Estonian fairytale, this version is from Tales of The Amber Sea, compiled and translated by Irina Zheleznova in 1974.

In a certain kingdom there lived a princess, and so beautiful was she that her fame spread throughout the whole wide world. From all sides, from the south and the north, the east and the west, wooers came to plead for her hand, and at the gate of the royal palace horsemen of noble birth mounted on their best chargers appeared again and again. But matchmaking was not so easy a matter for them as it is in our day when a suitor need fear nothing even if he spends the morning going round to seven different houses asking for the hands of seven different maids. The young men who wanted to marry the beautiful princess had to be very brave indeed. For the princess had feet that were as light and fleet as the wind and she vowed to her father that she would only marry a man who was her match in this and more, being able not only to overtake but to outdistance her. Now, this would not have been so bad had the princess not added another condition to this, and that was that any suitor she beat in a race be put to death at once.

Strange as it may seem, many youths of noble birth, though they knew that they were forfeiting their lives, took up the challenge. As a consequence, they had their heads chopped off and then stuck up on stakes in front of the king’s palace where they were jeered at by all who saw them and struck terror in the hearts of would-be suitors.

Now, a sober-minded person will say that these heads must have been empty heads in the first place, since their luckless owners would hardly have let them go so easily otherwise. But to speak thus is to forget that it is hot blood that flows in a youth’s veins and sometimes drives him to rash and imprudent actions.

However, in the long run the heads that crowned the stakes had their effect, for as time passed there were fewer and fewer wooers, and if one happened to come riding into the king’s courtyard he did not tarry there but rode off again straightaway without trying his luck. As for the rare fool who did, he never saw his home again but left his head on the palace fence for ravens to peck clean.

The clatter of a horse’s hoofs on the road had not been heard for some time and the people were beginning to hope that these vain attempts at matchmaking had come to an end, when a prince from a far-off land arrived in the palace. Now, this prince was a clever young man, for before setting out to ask for the princess’s hand he had spent several years practicing running daily and had learned to run so fast that he could outrun the strongest arid fastest runners in his kingdom.

Wanting, first, to boast of his wealth and, second, to give his feet a rest before the race, the prince set off on his journey in a coach, taking a sack of gold half a pood in weight with him and tying it to the back of the coach just as if it were a sack of oats.

He had only put a few versts behind him when he saw out in the open field ahead a man who seemed to be flying toward him as if on wings. Several moments later the man had passed the coach, rushing past it like the wind.

“Stop! Stop! ” the prince shouted as loud as he could. The man heard him and stopped. Driving up to him, the prince saw that he had a millstone tied to each of his feet, proving that he was an even better runner than he had thought at first.

“Why have you tied those millstones to your feet? ” asked he.

“So that my feet might touch the ground while I’m running,” the man replied. “If it were not for that, I would be swept up to the skies.”

“A man like that could be of great help to me,” thought the prince. “Who knows how things may turn out! If I see that I stand little chance of winning, perhaps I can send him to take part in the race in my stead.”

“How would you like to take up service with me? ” asked he of the runner.

“I have nothing against it if we can come to terms. How much will you pay me? “

“I will give you as much to eat and to drink as you like, the finest of clothing to wear and a purse of gold every year besides,” the prince replied.

They struck hands, and the prince told Fleetfoot to seat himself on the sack of gold at the back of the coach.

“Why should I do that?” said Fleetfoot surprised. “I can go faster than your horses, believe me”

They set off on their way, the prince in the coach and Fleetfoot on foot, and soon saw a man sitting by the wayside with a rifle in his hands. He seemed to be aiming at something, but what it was neither the prince nor Fleetfoot, hard as they looked, could see.

“What are you doing here?” asked the prince.

But the hunter made no reply and only waved his hand as if to tell him not to make any noise lest he frighten off the game.

“What are you doing?” the prince asked again, but as no reply followed, repeated the question a third time.

“Be quiet,” the hunter said in low tones.

He fired his gun and then rose and said:

“There, I’ve got him! Now I can answer your question. That was a mosquito I shot. He’d been spinning round the tower in the city of Babylon, trying to light on the tip of the steeple. I had to stop him, for he weighed over five poods and might have broken it.”

“Can you really see that far?” asked the prince in surprise.

“Do you call that far?” laughed Keeneye. “I can see much farther than that!”

“Wait!” Fleetfoot cried. “I’ll run there and see if he’s told us the truth.”

And with these words he took off like a whirlwind and at once vanished from sight.

“A wonderful shot like that might be of great help to me, too,” thought the prince.

“How would you like to take up service with me? ” asked he of Keeneye.

“I have nothing against it if we can come to terms,” Keeneye replied. “How much will you pay me? “

“I will give you as much to eat and to drink as you like, the finest of clothing to wear, and a purse of gold every year besides,” said the prince.

They struck hands, and just then Fleetfoot appeared, carrying the huge mosquito shot by Keeneye on his back.

Keeneye now seated himself on the sack of gold at the back of the coach, and they moved on.

They had only gone a short way when the prince, who had been looking about him carefully and letting nothing go unnoticed, saw a strange man lying by the wayside. He had his ear, which was huge and looked like nothing so much as a trumpet, to the ground and seemed to be listening to something.

“What are you doing here?” asked the prince.

“Five kings have come together in the city of Rome and are holding a conference on questions of war,” the man replied. “I wanted to learn whether or not they were plotting to fight against us.”

“Can you really hear what is being said such a great distance away? ” asked the prince in surprise.

“Do you call that far? So sharp is my ear that it can catch sounds coming from much farther away,” Longear said. “In fact, had I been the least bit inclined to listen to so much empty prattle, I could have known of everything that is being talked about throughout the world.”

The prince decided that this man, too, could be of help to him.

“How would you like to take up service with me? ” asked he.

“I have nothing against it if we can come to terms,” Longear replied. “How much will you pay me?”

“I will give you as much to eat and to drink as you like, fine clothing to wear and a purse of gold every year besides,” said the prince.

They struck hands and then moved on, Longear curling up his long trumpet-like ear that it might not brush against the ground and seating himself beside Keeneye on the sack of gold.

They had not been on their way very long when a large forest loomed ahead of them. Even at a distance the prince could see the crown of now one, now another of the trees rising several inches above that of its neighbours and then sliding back again and out of sight. He asked his servants if they knew how this could come about but they were as puzzled as he. That a tree, when cut down, should vanish from sight as it fell was only natural, but that it should rise into the air before falling was not and there seemed to be no explanation for it.

The travellers now reached the forest, and, riding into it, saw a man there uprooting trees. He would come up to one, clasp it with both hands and pluck it out of the ground together with the roots just as though it were a turnip or a head of cabbage.

The coach drew to a stop and the man stopped working and came up to it. Thinking the prince in his rich coach to be the owner of the forest and fearing that he would forbid him to fell the trees, he said very humbly:

“Do not be angry, kind sir, that I felled several trees in your forest. I did not touch any of the really big ones. My old woman wanted to cook some porridge and she told me to bring her an armful of firewood. I was just about to take another log or two and go home when you drove up.”

The prince, amazed at the man’s vast strength, decided to pretend just for the fun of it that he really was the owner of the forest.

“I have nothing against you felling my trees,” said he. “You can take one of the thicker ones if you like.”

The man was overjoyed, and, choosing a tree so thick that he could hardly clasp it with both hands, pulled it effortlessly out of the ground.

“How would you like to take up service with me? ” asked the prince.

“I have nothing against it if we can come to terms,” the man replied. “How much will you pay me? “

“You will get all the food and drink you want, fine clothing to wear and a purse of gold every year besides,” said the prince.

The man scratched the back of his head as if in hesitation and then said: “Allow me to take the firewood home first and tell my old woman where I am going so as not to make her wait in vain. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”

The prince gave him leave to do so, and the man gathered up the uprooted trees in his arms and quickly went off home. He was soon back, and the prince was very pleased at having procured for himself the services of yet another man who could well be of help to him on occasion.

Leaving the forest behind them, the travellers rode across a broad plain. On and on they rode for a long time till at last they saw a city ahead with seven windmills lining the road that led to it. The prince, who was quick to notice things, saw that though the air was balmy and still and not a leaf stirred on a tree, the arms of the windmills were turning.

Riding ahead a little way he felt the wind blowing. It was a sudden gust, the kind that creeps in through a pipe or a crack in the wall and comes at you in a room. However, it died down almost at once, and the air was still again. The prince looked to all sides of him but could not understand where the wind might have come from. Riding up to the city gate, he noticed a man of no great height standing by the side of the road. He was leaning on a large stone with his right hand, and, his head thrown back a little, covering now one, now the other of his nostrils with his left one.

The prince stopped the horses.

“What are you doing here, my good fellow?” asked he.

“What is a poor man like me to do! I could find no better work, so I decided to blow at the city windmills on windless days like this one and make them turn. But it is a trifling job and one that brings in only enough to keep me from starving to death.”

“Is this work as easy as all that for you? ” the prince asked.

“Yes indeed! You can see it is for yourself,” the man replied. “I keep my mouth closed and one of my nostrils stopped up lest I raise a wind so strong that it will smash the windmills to bits.”

“How would you like to take up service with me? ” asked the prince.

“I have nothing against it if we can come to terms and you pay me enough to keep me from starving ever again,” the man replied.

“You will get what my other servants get,” said the prince. “As much food and drink as you like, fine clothing to wear and a purse of gold a year besides.”

“That will suit me nicely, thank you, until something better turns up,” said Windmaker, pleased. “It’s a bargain, then! Catch a bull by the horns, take a man at his word, as the saying goes.”

Windmaker joined them, and the prince now made with all his five servants for the king’s city to seek his fortune, never knowing what awaited him there—whether he would marry the beautiful princess or lose his head on the block.

They rode into the city and stopped at the best inn, and the prince ordered the inn-keeper to provide his servants with everything they wanted in the way of food and drink.

“Take this for the time being,” said he, throwing a handful of gold coins on the table. “I will pay you generously before leaving.”

Then he ordered the city’s best tailors and bootmakers to be called in that they might make suitable clothing for his servants who, though each was very skilled at his own trade, were dressed like beggars and lived up to the saying “has nine trades to his name and hunger for a tenth”. Rumour of the new wooer’s wealth soon reached the old king, but the prince only came to see him on the third day after his arrival when his servants’ new clothes and shoes were ready.

Seeing the young and handsome prince, the old king said to him with a father’s kindness:

“Forget this whole silly business, my dear young friend. You may be the greatest of runners, but you will never outrun my daughter who has feet like wings. I am truly sorry for you and do not want you to lose your life in vain.”

“You are very kind. Your Majesty,” the prince said. “However, I am told that he who does not wish to take part in a race with the princess himself can send his servant to do so in his stead.”

“That is so,” the king replied. “But what good would it do you? If your servant loses the race, as he is bound to, you will be the one to pay for it: your head, not his, will be chopped off and stuck up on a stake.”

The prince thought this over and then said firmly:

“This is what I have decided. Let one of my servants try his luck instead of me, and if he is beaten I will pay with my life for it. I came to your city to take part in the race and I would far rather lose my life than refuse to do so and become the laughingstock of all. Let them jeer at me, dead, rather than living.”

The old king went on for a long time trying to persuade the prince to give up his risky venture, but as the prince would not, there was nothing for it and the race was set for the next day.

After the prince left him the king decided to have a talk with his daughter and had her called in.

Longear, who was at the inn at the time but could hear everything that was said at the palace, stopped still at the king’s first words.

“My dear child,” said the king to his daughter, “you have caused the death of many young men and saddened me deeply thereby. But not one of your wooers did I like as much as I like the young prince who is to compete with you tomorrow. He is as handsome as he is clever. I beg of you, for the sake of the love you bear me, to run less quickly than usual and allow him or his servant to win. Then I will at last have a son-in-law and one worthy of inheriting the throne at my death.”

“What’s that? ” the princess cried out angrily, her cheeks flaming. “Do you think that I would do such a thing for the sake of some young pup and all in order to get married? Never! Better that I should remain an old maid to the end of my days. Who asked him to come here, in the first place? I didn’t! He came himself, unasked, like those others. Well, we have enough trees in our forest to make stakes for his and for other such empty heads. Once they are put up on those stakes the wind will blow all these crazy notions out of them. If you feel sorry for the prince, then send him off home, but don’t expect me to show him any mercy. He who doesn’t listen to kind advice has no one but himself to blame! “

The king, knowing how obstinate and ill-tempered his daughter was, argued no more, and Longear hastened to tell the prince what he had overheard.

He had only just done so when Fleetfoot came in.

“I don’t want to be seen with these millstones tied to my feet,” said he. “It will embarrass me. Order six bullock hides to be bought and have a sack made out of them and filled with iron weighing as much as the two millstones. Then I won’t feel ashamed, for everyone will take me for a travelling apprentice.”

The prince did as Fleetfoot asked. The bullock hides and the iron were purchased and brought in and on the following morning the sack was ready.

Heaving it on to his back, Fleetfoot made for the place where the race was to be run. The sack was in his way and bothered him at first but he soon got used to it.

The townsfolk flocked to the race. Many laughed at Fleetfoot for burdening himself with the sack, others said:

“A wise man removes any extra clothes he has on before running a race, but this one does not even have the sense to take down his sack.”

Longear passed on to the prince and Fleetfoot what they were saying but Fleetfoot remained unperturbed.

The race was to be run on a road seven versts long, on either side of which trees had been planted to shield runners from the hot sun. There was a small spring at the end of the road, and, according to the rules, each participant was given an empty bottle which he had to fill with water from the spring before starting back, on the second leg of the race.

At a signal, the princess and Fleetfoot took off together. But only a few minutes later, Fleetfoot, the sack round his shoulders, had swept as fast as the wind past the princess, reached the spring, and, filling the bottle, started back. He was halfway to the finish when he met the princess who was still on her way to the spring.

“Do stop for a moment, my good fellow! ” begged she. “I have hurt my foot. Give me a little water from your bottle for me to bathe it with, and then we can run on.”

“Very well,” Fleetfoot said, not suspecting that the princess was trying to trick him. “I am in no hurry. I can sit here if you like and wait for you while you run to the spring, and then we can run back together.”

He sat down on the ground, and the princess quickly thrust a sleeping powder under his nose which at once put him to sleep. She then snatched up his bottle and started at a run for the finish.

Keeneye, who had been watching the race and seen what happened, picked up his rifle. He fired at the tree under which Fleetfoot lay sleeping and knocked down a twig which fell on Fleetfoot’s nose and woke him.

Seeing the princess’s empty bottle beside him and the princess herself running away from him in the distance, Fleetfoot was alarmed. He rushed to the spring, filled the bottle, and, rushing back again as fast as a whirlwind, passed the princess and came in first.

The prince was proclaimed winner, and the princess returned home in a temper. She could not reconcile herself to the thought that another could run better than she.

The prince and his helpmeets came back to the inn where he had a rich feast served them and then generously rewarded Fleetfoot and also Keeneye for having wakened him in time.

Great as was the noise of the feast, it did not keep Longear from overhearing what the king and his daughter were saying to each other in the palace.

“My dear child,” began the king, “you must make up your mind to marry the prince, you really must. There is nothing to be done, a pair of feet that is faster than yours has at last been found! And I am very glad of it, since it means that, first, no more young men will lose their lives because of you, and, second, that I will have a son-in-law after my own heart.”

The king wanted to go on but could not, for his daughter’s tongue, numbed by fury, now loosened, and the words began to tumble out of her mouth like water from a spring. She announced that if her father tried to force her to marry she would take her own life and that no power on earth could compel her to become the wife of a man who owed his victory over her to the prowess of his servant.

Finally, seeing that her outburst had tired her and that she was beginning to run out of words, the king again spoke up. But neither threats nor gentle words moved the princess.

“Give him half your kingdom if you must, only buy him off! ” cried she. “I’ll never marry him, never!”

The prince, to whom Longear passed on this conversation, was much saddened.

All of a sudden who should speak up but Felltree.

“Do not grieve, prince,” said he. “The world is not so small as the princess thinks. There are prettier and better mannered maidens than she in it. Let her pine away, for soon no one will want so much as to look at, to say nothing of marrying her. And as for the king, you must make him pay for having forfeited his word. Ask him to give you as much gold from his treasury as a man can carry away in a sack.”

Felltree’s words pleased the prince. On the following morning he went to see the king, and, hearing from him what he had already heard from Longear the night before, said:

“I will free the princess from her word and woo her no more if only you let me take as much gold from your treasury as a man can carry away in a sack.”

The king, overjoyed to be let off so cheaply, hastened to agree.

“I thought the prince was wiser than that,” said he to himself. “It doesn’t seem to enter his head that gold is very heavy and that even the strongest of men can carry away only a little of it.”

And at that they parted, both of them equally pleased with the bargain.

Said Felltree when the prince was back at the inn again:

“Send your servants into town and tell them to buy up every piece of canvas they can find in the shops. After that call in fifty tailors and have them fold over the canvas six times and make a sack out of it. In that sack I will carry away the king’s gold.”

The prince did as Felltree told him, promising to reward the tailors richly if they had the sack ready by morning, and the tailors at once set to work. With what zeal they worked can only be imagined, for not for nothing is it said that the mistress of the house has only to put a roast of meat in the oven for the needle to start dancing in a tailor’s hand. They sat bent over their sewing the whole night through, and the one care each had was how to keep his eyes from being accidentally put out by his neighbour’s flying needle.

They finished the sack just before noon, having sewn each seam over twice, and were richly rewarded for it, getting enough to feast on for three days on end if they chose.

Felltree now took the sack, and, throwing it over his shoulder, went with it to the treasury.

Seeing how huge was the sack, the treasurer said with a laugh:

“Haven’t you made a mistake, my good fellow? Your sack is far too large. If it was chaff you were after you shouldn’t have come here.”

“That’s all right. At least the gold won’t fall out of it,” said Felltree.

Talking in this way, they came to the storeroom, and when the doors were unlocked and they saw the barrels of gold within, the treasurer said in mocking tones:

“Is there enough gold here, do you think, to fill your sack? “

“We’ll see,” Felltree replied. “How can I tell beforehand! When my master the prince came to your kingdom he thought he would be bringing home a young wife, and, as it has turned out, all the reward he will be getting is a little gold. Oh, well, a sack of gold is better than a wicked-tempered wife! “

“A pity you haven’t brought a scoop with you! It’s a slow and tedious business to fill a sack, especially one so large, without one.”

“My late father,” said Felltree, “used to say: ‘If you haven’t a cup drink straight from the keg.’ “

And lifting the first barrel of gold as if it was a bagful of down, he asked the treasurer to hold the sack for him and poured the jingling coins into it.

When he had done the same with the second and third barrels, the treasurer turned white as a sheet. Soon all the barrels stood empty but the sack was not even half full.

“Hasn’t the king any more gold? ” Felltree asked.

“There is some in the chests by the wall but it’s in bullions,” replied the treasurer.

“Let’s have it,” said Felltree, and he emptied the chests in the same way as he had the barrels.

When the storeroom had been swept clean of gold, Felltree heaved the sack on to his back and made off for the inn. And as for the treasurer, leaving the doors of the storeroom ajar, for he had no need any more of bolting and locking them, he ran as fast as his legs could carry him to the king.

When the king had heard him out he was filled with fear and ordered his daughter to be called in at once.

“See what a great misfortune you have brought upon us by your obstinacy! ” cried he. “I am ruined and as poor as a church mouse! And a king without money is like one without hands. I cannot even war against my enemies! When my men hear that I cannot pay them they will run away from me.”

“You mustn’t leave things at that, you’ve got to get your gold back,” said the princess.

But before they could make up their minds what to do, the prince left the city.

“There is nothing for it now but to use force,” the princess said. “Muster your host and send it after that knave of a prince. He could hardly have gone very far with a heavy load like that.”

The king did as the princess told him and sent out his host in pursuit of the prince the very next day, the horse leading the way, the foot following and himself and his daughter making up the rear in a coach. To encourage his men the king said that a third of the gold they recovered would be theirs.

In the meantime the prince and his servants had put many miles between themselves and the city, and they might have gone much farther had not Felltree who carried the sack been obliged to travel on foot. For even if a good sum of money procured them enough horses, where could a wagon be found whose axles would stand up under so huge a weight?

When Felltree, the sack on his back, had made his way over a mountain and sat down for a rest at its foot, Longear told his friends what had been said in the palace and Keeneye declared that he could already see the host that had been sent after them.

The prince was troubled but Windmaker said:

“Let’s move away from the mountain a little to make it easier for me to blow at the king’s men when they reach the summit.”

They went a little way further, and, finding a suitable spot, sat down there and waited.

No sooner did Keeneye announce that the first detachment of horsemen had reached the summit than Windmaker puffed out his cheeks and began to blow. And—o wonder of wonders! —like dust raised by a whirlwind the men and the horses were lifted high into the air, and, falling down again, were smashed to a pulp. The same fate overtook the foot. At last nothing remained on the mountain but the coach in which sat the king and the princess.

“Shall I blow at them, too?” asked Windmaker.

“No,” said the prince. “I will try to come to an agreement with them first.”

And setting out in his coach, he drove up to the king, bowed politely to him and said:

“You have lost everything, your gold and your host, and cannot rule over your kingdom. But give me your daughter in marriage, and an end will come to all your misfortunes.”

“You can have her! ” cried the king readily, for in truth there was nothing that he or the princess could do.

“That’s settled then,” said the prince, and he added:

“I will have your gold sent back to you at once. And if you reign over your kingdom with wisdom and care, new men will grow up in time to replace those you lost today. Until then, my servants will keep watch over your borders. One of them has sight so keen that he can see the tiniest speck in the sky, the second has hearing so sharp that he can hear a mouse scraping deep underground, the third is so strong that he can carry away all of the gold and silver found in a king’s treasury, and the fourth can blow so hard that he can blow a whole army away.”

They came back to the king’s city, and soon after that the prince and the princess were married. Their wedding was rich and sumptuous and the festivities lasted for four whole weeks. The prince settled down with his young wife in the king’s palace, and at his death ascended the throne and reigned over the kingdom for many, many years.

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