The Orphan Boy and The Hell-Hounds

An Estonian folktale, this version is taken from The Hero of Esthonia, compiled by W. F. Kirby and published in 1895.

Once upon a time there lived a poor labourer and his wife, who dragged on a wretched existence from day to day. They had three children, but only the youngest survived. He was a boy of nine years old when he buried first his father and then his mother, and he had no other resource than to beg his bread from door to door. A year afterwards he happened to come to the house of a rich farmer just when they wanted a herdboy. The farmer himself was not such a bad man to deal with, but his wife had control of everything, and she was a regular brute. It may easily be imagined how much the poor orphan boy suffered. The blows that he received daily were three times more than sufficient, but he never got enough bread to eat. But as the orphan had nothing better to look forward to, he was forced to endure his misery.

One day the poor boy had the misfortune to lose a cow from the herd. He ran about the forest till sundown from one place to another, but could not find the lost cow; and although he well knew what awaited him when he reached home, he was at last obliged to gather the herd together without the missing cow. The sun had not set long when he already heard the voice of his mistress shouting, “You lazy dog, where are you dawdling with the herd?” He could not wait longer, but was forced to hurry home to the stick. lt was already growing dusk when the herd arrived at the gate, but the sharp eyes of the mistress had already discovered that one cow was missing. Without saying a word, she snatched the first stake from the fence, and began to belabour the boy, as if she would beat him to a jelly. She was in such a rage that she would certainly have beaten him to death, or made him a cripple for life, if the farmer, hearing his cries and sobs, had not compassionately come to his aid. But as he knew the temper of the furious woman, he would not venture to interfere directly, but sought to soften her, and said beseechingly, “Don’t beat the boy quite to pieces, or he won’t be able to look for the lost cow. We shall get more profit out of him if you don’t quite kill him.” “True enough,” said the woman, “his carrion won’t be worth as much as the good beef.” Then she gave him a few more good whacks, and packed him off to look for the cow, saying, “If you come back without the cow, I’ll beat you to death.” The boy ran from the door sobbing and crying, and went back to the forest where he had been with the herd in the daytime, and searched all night, but could not find a trace of the cow anywhere. But when the sun rose next morning, he made up his mind what to do. “Whatever may happen to me,” he said, “I won’t go back again.” Then he made a start, and ran straight forward at one stretch, till he had left the house far behind him. He himself could not tell how far he ran before his strength failed, and he sank down half dead when it was already almost noon. When at length he awoke from a long heavy sleep, he felt something cool in his mouth, and on opening his eyes, he saw a little old man with a long grey beard putting the ladle back into a milk-can. “Please give me a little more to drink,” said the boy. “You have had enough for to-day,” answered the old man. “If I had not been passing this way by accident, you would have slept your last sleep, for you were already half dead when I found you.” Then the old man asked the boy whence he came and whither he was going. The boy related everything that had happened to him, as far back as he could remember, down to last night’s beating. The old man listened attentively to the story, but without interrupting, and after a while he remarked, “My dear child, you have fared neither better nor worse than many others whose dear friends and protectors lie beneath the sod. As you have run away, you must seek your fortune elsewhere in the world. But as I have neither house nor farm, nor wife nor child, I cannot do anything to help you but give you good advice gratis. Sleep here quietly through the night, and to-morrow morning note carefully the exact spot where the sun rises. You must proceed in that direction, so that the sun shines in your face every morning, and on your back every evening. Every day you will feel stronger, and after seven years you will see a great mountain before you, so high that its summit reaches to the clouds. There you will find your future fortune. Take my wallet and my flask, and you will find as much food and drink in them as you require each day. But take care always to leave a crumb of bread and a drop of liquid untouched, or else your store of food will fail you. You may give freely to a hungry bird or to a thirsty animal, for God is pleased when one of His creatures is kind to another. You will find a folded plantain-leaf at the bottom of the wallet, which you must take the greatest care of. When you come to a river or lake on your journey, spread the leaf on the water, and it will immediately change into a boat which will carry you over to the other side. Then fold the leaf together again, and put it into your wallet.” After thus speaking, he gave the wallet and the flask to the boy, and said, “God bless you!” The next moment he had vanished from the boy’s eyes.

The boy would have supposed it to be all a dream, if he had not held the wallet and flask in his hand to convince him that it was a reality. He then looked into the wallet, where he found half a loaf, a small case of salt herrings, another of butter, and a nice piece of bacon. When the boy had eaten enough, he lay down to sleep, with the wallet and flask under his head, so that no thief should be able to take them from him. Next morning at sunrise he awoke, refreshed himself with food and drink, and then set out on his journey. It was strange that he felt no weariness, and only hunger made him aware that it was nearly noon. He ate the good fare with relish, took a nap, and travelled on. He found that he had taken the right course when the sun set behind his back. He travelled for many days in the same direction, when he arrived on the bank of a small lake. Now he had an opportunity of testing the properties of the leaf. All befell as the old man had foretold, for a small boat with oars lay before him on the water. He stepped in, and a few good strokes of the oars landed him on the other side. Then the boat changed back into a leaf, and he put it into his wallet.

Thus the boy travelled for several years, without the provisions in his flask and wallet failing. Seven years may well have passed, for he had now become a strong youth, when one day he beheld afar off a lofty mountain which seemed to reach the clouds. But a whole week more passed before he could reach its foot. Then he sat down to rest, and to see whether the predictions of the old man would be accomplished. He had not sat there very long when a strange hissing fell upon his ear, and immediately afterwards an enormous serpent appeared, at least twelve fathoms long, which came quite close to the young man. Horror seized him, and he was unable to move, but the serpent passed by him in a moment. Then all was still awhile, but afterwards it seemed to him as if something heavy was moving along in sudden leaps. This proved to be a great toad, as large as a foal of two years old. This ugly creature also passed by without taking any notice of the youth. Then he heard a rushing noise above him, as if a great storm had arisen, and when he looked up, he saw a great eagle flying over his head in the direction which the serpent and the toad had taken. “These are queer things to bring me good fortune,” thought the youth. Suddenly he beheld a man on a black horse riding towards him. The horse seemed to have wings to his feet, for he flew like the wind. When the man saw the youth sitting at the foot of the mountain, he reined in his horse and asked, “Who has passed by here?” The youth answered, “First of all a great serpent, perhaps twelve fathoms long, then a toad as large as a two-year-old foal, and lastly a great eagle high above my head. I could not guess at his size, but the sound of his wings was like that of a tempest.” “You have seen well,” answered the stranger. “These are my worst enemies, and I am now in pursuit of them. I might take you into my service, if you have nothing better in view. Climb over the mountain, and you will come straight to my house. I shall be there as soon as you, if not sooner.” The young man promised to come, and the stranger rode away like the wind.

The youth did not find it easy to climb the mountain. It was three days before he could reach the summit, and three days more before he reached the foot of the mountain on the opposite side. His new acquaintance was standing in front of his house, and he informed him that he had succeeded in killing the serpent and the toad, but that he had not been able to reach the eagle. Then he asked the young man if he was willing to engage himself as his servant. “You can have as much good food as you want every day, and I will give you liberal wages too, if you will do your duty faithfully.” The bargain was struck, and the master took his new servant into the house, and showed him what he had to do. A cellar was hewn in the rock, and closed with threefold doors of iron. “My savage dogs are chained in this cellar,” said the master, “and you must take care that they do not dig their way out under the door with their paws. For know that if one of these savage dogs got loose, it would no longer be possible to restrain the others, for each would follow the other and destroy everything which lives upon the earth. If the last dog should break out, the end of the world would come, and the sun would have shone for the last time.” Then he led his servant to a hill which was not created by God, but heaped together by human hands from immense blocks of stone.

“These stones,” said the master, “have been heaped together so that a fresh stone can always be rolled up as often as the dogs dig out a hole. I will show you the oxen which drag the stones, in the stall, and instruct you about everything else which you have to attend to.”

In the stall were a hundred black oxen, each of which had seven horns, and they were fully as large as the largest oxen of the Ukraine. “Six yoke of oxen harnessed before the wagon will drag a stone easily away. I will give you a crowbar, and when you touch the stone with it, it will roll into the wagon of itself. You see that your work is not very laborious, but your vigilance must be great in proportion. You must look to the door three times during the day, and once at night, lest any misfortune should happen, for the mischief might be much greater than you would be able to answer for to me.”

Our friend soon comprehended his duties, and his new occupation was just to his taste. Each day he had the best of everything to eat and drink that a man could wish for. After two or three months the dogs had scratched a hole under the door large enough to put their tails out; but a stone was immediately rolled against the breach, and the dogs were forced to begin their work afresh.

Many years passed by, and the young man had accumulated a good store of money. Then the desire awoke in him to mingle with other men again, for it was so long since he had seen any human face except his master’s. Although his master was kind, the young man found the time terribly long, especially when his master took the fancy to have a long sleep. At such times he slept for seven weeks at a stretch, without interruption, and without showing himself.

It chanced that the master had fallen into one of his deep slumbers, when one day a great eagle descended on the hill of stones and began to speak. “Are you not a great fool to sacrifice your pleasant life to good living? The money which you have saved is quite useless to you, for there are no men here who require it. Take your master’s swift horse from the stable, bind your bag of money to his neck, leap on his back, and ride away in the direction in which the sun sets, and after some weeks you will again find yourself among men. But you must bind the horse fast with an iron chain, so that he cannot run away, or he would return to his usual haunts, and your master would come to fight with you; but if he is without the horse, he cannot leave the place.” “But who will watch the dogs here, if I go away while my master sleeps?” asked the young man. “A fool you are, and a fool you will remain,” replied the eagle. “Are you not yet aware that God has created him for the express purpose of guarding the hell-hounds? It is from sheer laziness that he sleeps for seven weeks at a stretch. When he has no stranger as a servant, he will be obliged to rouse himself and do his own work himself.”

This advice delighted the young man. He followed the counsel of the eagle, took the horse, bound the bag of gold on his neck, leaped on his back, and rode away. He had not ridden very far from the mountain when he heard his master calling after him, “Stop, stop! Take your money and begone in God’s name, but leave me my horse!” The youth paid no heed, but rode away, and after some weeks he found himself once more among mortal men. Then he built himself a nice house, married a young wife, and lived happily as a rich man. If he is not dead, he must be still living, but the wind-swift horse died long ago.

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