Translator: Emily J. Harding
In ancient days there lived a king and queen; the former was old but the latter young. Although they loved one another dearly they were very unhappy, for God had not given them any children. They fretted and grieved about this so deeply that the queen became ill with melancholy. The doctors advised her to travel. The king was obliged to remain at home, so she went without him, accompanied by twelve maids of honour, all beautiful and fresh as flowers in May. When they had travelled for some days, they reached a vast uninhabited plain which stretched so far away it seemed to touch the sky. After driving hither and thither for some time the driver was quite bewildered, and stopped before a large stone column. At its foot stood a warrior on horseback, clad in steel armour.
“Brave knight, can you direct me to the high-road?” said the driver; “we are lost, and know not which way to go.”
“I will show you the way,” said the warrior, “but only on one condition, that each of you gives me a kiss.”
The queen looked at the warrior in wrath, and ordered the coachman to drive on. The carriage continued moving nearly all day, but as if bewitched, for it always returned to the stone column. This time the queen addressed the warrior.
“Knight,” said she, “show us the road, and I will reward you richly.”
“I am the Master Spirit of the Steppes,” answered he. “I demand payment for showing the way, and my payment is always in kisses.”
“Very well, my twelve maids of honour shall pay you.”
“Thirteen kisses are due to me; the first must be given by the lady who addresses me.”
The queen was very angry, and again the attempt was made to find their way. But the carriage, though during the whole time it moved in an opposite direction, still returned to the stone column. It was now dark, and they were obliged to think of finding shelter for the night, so the queen was obliged to give the warrior his strange payment. Getting out of her carriage she walked up to the knight, and looking modestly down allowed him to kiss her; her twelve maids of honour who followed did the same. A moment later stone column and horseman had vanished, and they found themselves on the high-road, while a perfumed cloud seemed to float over the steppes. The queen stepped into her carriage with her ladies, and so the journey was continued.
But from that day the beautiful queen and her maids became thoughtful and sad; and, losing all pleasure in travel, went back to the capital. Yet the return home did not make the queen happy, for always before her eyes she saw the Horseman of the Steppes. This displeased the king, who became gloomy and ill-tempered.
One day while the king was on his throne in the council chamber he suddenly heard the sweetest warblings, like unto those produced by a bird of paradise; these were answered by the songs of many nightingales. Wondering, he sent to find out what it was. The messenger returned saying that the queen and her twelve maids of honour had each been presented with a girl baby, and that the sweet warblings were but the crying of the children. The king was greatly astonished, and while he was engaged in deep thought about the matter the palace was suddenly lit up by lights of dazzling brightness. On inquiring into the cause he learnt that the little princess had opened her eyes, and that they shone with matchless brilliancy.
At first the king could not speak, so amazed was he. He laughed and he cried, he sorrowed and he rejoiced, and in the midst of it all a deputation of ministers and senators was announced. When these were shown into his presence they fell on their knees, and striking the ground with their foreheads, said, “Sire, save your people and your royal person. The queen and her twelve maids of honour have been presented by the Spirit of the Steppes with thirteen girl babies. We beseech you to have these children killed, or we shall all be destroyed.”