An Estonian fairy tale, this version is from Tales of The Amber Sea, compiled and translated by Irina Zheleznova in 1974.
Once upon a time some men out hunting for mushrooms in the forest found one that was bigger than any they had ever seen before. They began pulling it out of the ground when lo! – a little old man sprang out from under it. No larger than a finger he was with a beard twice that size. The little old man rushed off but the men ran after him. They caught him and asked who he was.
Said the little old man:
“I am king of all the mushrooms growing in this forest.”
The men did not know what to do. They thought and they thought and could think of nothing better than to make a gift of the little old man to the king. This they did and the king rewarded them generously and ordered the little old man to be locked up in the cellar. “I shall hold a big feast,” said the king to himself, “and show my guests what funny little bearded old men live under the mushrooms in my forest. Meanwhile, he must stay under lock and key.”
Now, the king had a young son. One day the boy w«s in the courtyard playing with a golden egg and he chanced to send it rolling through a window straight into the cellar. The little old man saw the egg and at once snatched it up.
“Give me back my egg!” cried the boy.
But the little old man called back:
‘I won’t! Come and get it yourself.”
“How can I do that? The door is locked,” the boy said.
“That’s nothing. The keys are in the palace. Go and fetch them.”
The boy did as he was told, and, when he had brought the keys, unlocked the door and came down into the cellar. The little old man gave him the golden egg and himself whisked between the young prince’s legs and out the door and vanished.
The prince who had not noticed anything now decided to take a good look at the little old man before locking him up again. He gazed round, and, finding the little old man gone, was badly frightened. Locking the door quickly, he took the keys back to the palace and never breathed a word about what had happened to anyone.
The day of the feast arrived and many guests came from all parts of the kingdom. A big crowd gathered round the palace, for everyone had heard that the king had a surprise in store for his guests.
The king now sent a servant of his to fetch the little old man. The servant returned empty-handed, but when he said that the little old man was not there, the king refused to believe him and himself climbed down into the cellar.
However, what is gone is gone, and though the king felt ashamed at having called together his guests for nothing, he could not conceal from them that the little old man had vanished. He told them that he had got out of the cellar through a mouse-hole, and this they all believed and were very sorry indeed not to have seen him.
Many years passed and the young prince grew to manhood. Once at dinner the talk turned on the little old man, and the prince confessed that he had sent his golden egg rolling into the cellar and that that was how the little old man had managed to escape.
The king was very angry. He would not listen to anyone, not even to the queen, and drove the prince out of the palace. But he let him take a general along for company, for he knew that it was easier for two people to roam the world together and feed themselves.
The prince and the general set off on their way, they walked and they walked and they reached a forest. It was very hot and the prince felt thirsty, but where were they to get water? They walked on a little there before them was a deep well.
Said the general:
I’ll let you down into the well on a rope if you like, and, when you have drunk your fill, pull you out again”
The prince agreed and the general let him down into the well, but when he had drunk his fill, called down to him:
“I’ll pull you out again on one condition – that from now on you will be general and I will be prince.”
What was the prince to do? If he refused, the general, knave that he was, would leave him in the well. There was nothing for it but to agree.
The general pulled out the prince and they went on again.
They came to the king of a strange kingdom and asked him if he had any work for them. And all the time they kept to their compact, the general ending himself prince and the prince calling himself general.
The king took the sham prince into the palace with him and he made the real one his chief groom. The other grooms drove the horses to pasture into the forest and the chief groom went with them, for it was his job to watch over them.
The chief groom sat down on a rock and he sorrowed and grieved over his sad plight. All of a sudden there before him stood the selfsame little old man whom he had let out of the cellar all those many years ago.
“Why are you so sad?” asked the little old man
Said the prince in reply:
“There is no reason for me to be gay. My father drove me out of the palace for having let you escape and now the general has taken my name and title. He calls himself prince and I am obliged to pasture horses.”
“Don’t you grieve, everything will turn out all right,” the little old man said, trying to comfort him. “Come to my eldest daughter’s palace today.”
Now, this made the prince very curious.
“Who are you, then?” he asked.
Said the little old man:
“They call me the King of the Mushrooms, for I am chief among them.”
And he led the prince to his eldest daughter’s palace. It was a copper palace, everything in it being made of copper, and truly a place to fill one with wonder! So happy did the prince feel there that he did not notice how the hours passed.
“It is time for you to leave us,” said the King of the Mushrooms, “but, as is our custom, we will give you a farewell present. Ho .there! Bring in a copper horse!”
A copper horse was led in, and so spirited was he that it was all four people could do to hold him.
“Here is my present,” said the King of the Mushrooms.
The prince was frightened.
“What will I do with him? Why, it is all the four of them can do to hold him!” said he.
But the King of the Mushrooms replied:
“Here are four bottles of my magic potion. Drink it down if you want to be strong!”
The prince drank the potion and at once felt so strong that he feared the copper horse no longer.
Then the King of the Mushrooms gave him a copper pipe and said:
“Take good care of this pipe. If you lose it you will lose your horse too. And now put on the copper armour that is lying under the saddle.”
The prince put on the armour, sprang on the copper horse’s back and rode off at a gallop.
On the following day he went to the forest again to graze the horses. He looked, and there was the King of the Mushrooms before him.
“Come and pay my middle daughter a visit today,” said he.
The prince sprang up on the copper horse’s back and made off at a gallop for the middle daughter’s palace. Now, the middle daughter’s palace was a silver one and everything in it was of silver. Time passed quickly, and the King of the Mushrooms had a silver horse brought for the prince as a farewell present. Eight men held the horse and it was almost more than they could do, so how could one man hope to cope with him?
The King of the Mushrooms told the prince to drink eight bottles of his magic potion. This the prince did and then he took the silver armour from under the saddle.
He put it on and all of him sparkled and shone. And now the King of the Mushrooms brought out a silver pipe from his pocket.
“Take good care of it or you’ll lose your horse,” said he.
On the third day the prince went to visit the youngest daughter of the King of the Mushrooms who lived in a palace of gold. There the King of the Mushrooms gave him a golden horse for a present and it was all twelve men could do to hold him. The prince had to drink twelve bottles of the magic potion before he grew strong enough to cope with the horse. The King of the Mushrooms gave him a golden pipe for a present, saying to his daughter:
“You too must give our guest a keepsake.”
The youngest daughter brought a golden egg and gave it to the prince who thanked her, got on his golden horse and galloped away.
He came back to his grooms and on the following day went to see the king in whose service he was. He looked, and there out of the palace came the king’s youngest daughter weeping loudly.
“What has happened? Why are you crying? ” the prince asked.
And the princess replied:
“How can I help it! Tomorrow a terrible dragon is going to crawl out of the sea and eat me up. If they don’t give me to him he will destroy the whole kingdom.”
The prince took pity on the princess. On the following day, when the king’s soldiers had lined up by the side of the sea and the princess arrived and stood waiting for the dragon, he went to the forest and blew on his copper pipe. At once the copper horse appeared before him, and the prince put on his copper armour, sprang on the horse’s back and made off at a gallop for the sea.
The dragon crawled out of the sea on his four paws and asked of the people gathered on the shore:
“Is there anyone among you brave enough to fight me?”
No one replied, they all stood there in silence when all at once the prince rode up to the dragon on his copper horse.
“Whom are you going to fight for?” asked the dragon.
“For the princess and myself,” the prince replied.
“How are you going to fight – on horseback or on foot? ” asked the dragon again.
“On horseback, I think,” the prince said. “After all, you have four legs, too, like my horse.”
The dragon decided to use cunning. He ran off at first but then turned round very suddenly, thinking to swallow the prince whole together with his horse.
But this was not to be! The prince caught up with the dragon, smote off his head with a single wave of his sword, threw his body in the sea and at once galloped off into the forest. But not a word did he say to his grooms, just as if nothing had happened.
On the following day the prince went to see the king again, and there, coming out of the palace, was the king’s youngest daughter, weeping loudly.
“What has happened? ” asked the prince. “Why are you crying? “
And the princess replied:
“Tomorrow a six-headed dragon is going to crawl out of the sea and eat up my middle sister. How I wish I could find the brave man who saved me, for he would save my sister too! “
The prince returned to the forest, and on the following morning he blew on his silver pipe, and at once the silver horse appeared before him. The prince put on his silver armour, sprang on the horse’s back and galloped away. He rode up to the sea and waited for the six-headed dragon.
All of a sudden the sea boiled up, and the six-headed dragon crawled out of the water and called on he bravest among the men gathered there to fight him. All the soldiers ran off helter-skelter and only the prince on his silver horse made straight for the dragon. “That’s right, my son, come closer!” called the dragon. “It will be all the better for me, for I will eat you both!”
And the dragon opened wide his jaws, thinking to swallow the prince together with his horse. But the prince’s sword flashed, and all of the dragon’s six heads rolled down on to the sand like ordinary cabbage heads.
The prince returned to the forest just as if nothing had happened, let his silver horse go and went off for a sleep.
On the following day he went to see the king again and again met the princess in tears.
“What has happened? ” asked the prince. And the princess replied:
“Tomorrow a twelve-headed dragon is going to crawl out of the sea and eat up my eldest sister. How I wish I could find the brave man who saved me and my middle sister!”
The prince took pity on the girl, and when morning came he blew on his golden pipe. The golden horse appeared before him, and the prince put on his golden armour, sprang on the horse’s back and made off at a gallop for the sea.
The eldest princess was already on the shore waiting for the twelve-headed dragon, and even the king was there with his host, for he wanted to see how his daughter would fare.
After a time there came the most fearful noise, the sea began to seethe and to boil, and the twelve-headed dragon thrust all his twelve heads out of the water and then crawled out all of him on to the shore. The soldiers ran off in fright, the king took to his heels and only the prince on his golden horse galloped boldly straight for the dragon. The dragon saw him and began to mock and to jeer at him.
“That’s right, my son, come closer!” cried he. “It will be all the better for me, for I will eat up both you and your horse! “
And, thinking to swallow the prince, the dragon opened wide his jaws. But the prince waved his sword and six of the dragon’s heads rolled to the ground like cabbage heads. At this the dragon flew into a rage and began threshing the prince and his horse with his tail. Smoke poured from the dragon’s mouth and steam from his nostrils and there seemed to be no way of getting at him. He was about to swallow the prince when the prince looked and saw the King of the Mushrooms standing before him by a large rock.
“Make haste and crack the golden egg!” called he to the prince.
The prince took the golden egg out of his pocket and broke it in two, and at once a whole host of warriors poured out of it and threw themselves fearlessly at the dragon from all sides.
The dragon stood gaping at them, and the prince made good use of this and with one wave of his sword smote off his six remaining heads. The dragon fell lifeless to the ground, and the prince taking out the two halves of the golden egg, the whole host at once poured into it and hid there.
The dead dragon was left on the beach, and the prince galloped off into the forest and slept there for three days and three nights on end just as if nothing had happened. On the fourth day he felt someone shaking him, and when he opened his eyes, saw the King of the Mushrooms standing beside him.
“Get up quickly and go to the king,” said the King of the Mushrooms. “That knave of a general of yours is there, demanding that the princess be given him in marriage. He says that it was he who killed the three dragons.”
The prince jumped up and blew on his copper pipe. The copper horse appeared, and the prince put on his copper armour and made off at a gallop for the palace. The general stood there boasting about how he had vanquished the three dragons when the prince came galloping up. The youngest daughter saw him and was so overjoyed that she cried to the king:
“Look, father, there is my true saviour! ” But the prince turned his copper horse round and rode off into the forest. There he blew on his silver pipe, got off the copper horse and on the silver one and rode back again to the king’s palace. The middle daughter saw him and cried:
“Look, father, there is my true saviour!” But the prince turned round his horse and rode off into the forest. There he blew on his golden pipe, and, getting off his silver horse and on the golden one, made for the king’s palace. The eldest daughter saw him and cried:
“Look, father, there is my true saviour!”
The prince was about to ride back to the forest again, but the king stopped him and invited him into the palace that he might reward him for having saved Ilis daughters.
“There is a prince from a far-off land here who says that he saved my daughters,” said the king. “I don’t know why they call you their true saviour.”
Said the prince:
“The man who is passing himself off as a prince is only my general.”
The king was much surprised.
“Then it is you who is the prince? ” said he. “Well, then, you shall be richly rewarded for your valour. And you can take any one of my daughters in marriage besides. Just choose the one you like.”
But the prince thanked the king, and, saying that there was nothing he needed, galloped off into the forest without waiting for his reward.
And the king came back to his palace and drove out the general.
The prince now made straight for the golden palace where lived the youngest daughter of the King of the Mushrooms, she who had given him the golden egg. They were married arid lived together long and happily. But as for the King of the Mushrooms, from that day on no one laid eyes on him again.