Once upon a time, there was a country where the sun never shone. But the people here did not exist in the gloom of the grave, for their king possessed a most wondrous horse, a horse blessed with a sun on its forehead. Every day the king’s sun-horse was led up and down the dark country, and the people were able to exist in the light that came from all sides of this marvellous horse.
One day, the sun-horse disappeared. Darkness more dark than night fell on that country then and nothing could disperse it. Terror spread among the people for they could not live in such blackness, and confusion reigned. Knowing his sun-horse must be found for the sake of his people, the king readied his army and set forth.
Through impenetrable darkness, the king led his army the best he could to the frontier of his realm. As they made their way over jagged mountains thousands of ages old, light began to break from another country, as if the sun were rising out of thick fog. Deep in the mountains, the king and his army came across a poor cottage.
The king went in to inquire where he was, and the way out of the mountains. He found a peasant sat at a table with an open book before him, from which he was reading most diligently. Suspecting this was no simple peasant, the king bowed and greeted him.
The man raised his eyes, thanked the king and stood up. His whole demeanour, and the words he spoke, confirmed the king’s suspicions for this was no mere man but a seer.
“I was just now reading about you,” he said to the king. “I know you are journeying to seek your sun-horse. Journey no further, for you will never find him. But rely on me, o king, and I will find him for you.”
“I promise you, good man, that I will recompense you royally if you bring my sun-horse here to me,” said the king.
The man smiled. “I require no recompense. Return home with your army, for you are wanted there. Only leave me one servant.”
The next day the seer set out with the servant. They journeyed far, passing through six countries, and journeying further still, until they reached the seventh country. Here they stopped at the royal palace, home to the three brother-kings of the country. Each brother had to wife three sisters, whose mother was a witch.
The seer told the servant to wait outside the palace while he went in to ascertain whether the kings were at home. “The sun-horse is in their possession, and it is the youngest who rides him.” He then transformed himself into a green bird and flew to the window of the eldest queen’s tower. He pecked at it until she opened the window to allow him to fly in.
To her delight, he perched on her fair hand. “Oh, what a dear creature you are,” she said. “If my husband were at home he would indeed be as delighted with you as I am. But, alas, he won’t be home until evening, for he has gone to visit the third part of his country.”
Just then, the queen’s mother, the old witch, came into the room. Seeing the bird, she screamed, “Wring that accursed bird’s neck! Can you not see it is making you bleed?”
But her daughter paid no heed. “What of it? It is such a dear, innocent bird.”
“Dear innocent mischief!” said the witch. “Give him here, I will wring his neck.” She grabbed at the bird, but the seer quickly transformed back into a man, and, using their confusion to his advantage, disappeared out the door.
Finding his way to another window, he transformed again into a green bird, and this time flew to the window of the middle queen’s tower. Again he pecked at it until she opened the window for him.
He flew in and landed on her fair hand, fluttering from one hand to the other. Filled with delight, the queen said, “What a dear creature you are. If only my husband were at home, for he would be delighted with you. But he has gone to visit his third of the kingdom and will not return until tomorrow evening.”
Suddenly, the old witch burst into the room. “Wring that accursed bird’s neck!” she screamed at her daughter. “Wring it, I say, for it is making you bleed.”
Her daughter only laughed. “What if it should make me bleed? It is such an innocent dear.”
“Dear innocent mischief!” said the witch. “Give him here, I will wring his neck.” She made ready to seize it, but the seer again transformed back into a man, and successfully disappeared out the door.
For a third time, he changed himself into a green bird, and flew to the tower of the youngest queen. Again, he pecked at the window until she opened it for him.
He flew in and fluttered around her before finally landing on her fair hand. She was as delighted as her sisters. “Oh, you dear, dear creature. I wish my husband were here to share my delight, but he has gone to visit his third of the country and will not come home until the day after tomorrow at eventide.”
The old witch came into the room, and, again, screamed, “Wring that accursed bird’s neck! Wring it, I say, for it is making you bleed.”
Like her sisters before her, this one also laughed. “What if it should make me bleed? It is only a dear, innocent bird.”
“Dear innocent mischief!” said the witch. “Give him here, I will wring his neck.”
But, just like before, the seer transformed back into a man, and successfully disappeared out the door, and was seen by no one. Now the seer knew where the kings were, and when they would return.
He went to his servant and, together, they rode away from the palace towards a bridge, over which the kings were obliged to pass in order to arrive at their palace.
The seer and the servant waited under the bridge until the evening. As the sun began to descend behind the mountains, the sound of a horse could be heard nearing the bridge; it was the eldest king returning home. Close to the bridge, his horse stumbled over a log, which the seer had thrown across the way.
The king exclaimed in anger. “What scoundrel has thrown this log across the road?”
The seer leapt out from under the bridge, sword at the ready, and shouted, “How dare you call me a scoundrel?” With that, he attacked the king.
The king hurriedly drew his sword to defend himself, but the seer proved the better swordsman and soon the king fell dead from his horse.
The seer, with the help of the servant, bound the dead king to the horse. He then laid his whip across the horse’s back to make him carry his dead master home. Then seer and servant withdrew under the bridge to await the arrival of the next evening.
As the sun withdrew behind the mountains to herald the second evening, the middle king came to the bridge. Seeing the ground sprinkled with blood, he cried out, “Someone has been killed here. What villain has dared to perpetrate such a crime in my kingdom?”
Once again, the seer leapt out from under the bridge, sword drawn, and shouted, “How dare you insult me by calling me a villain? Defend yourself as best you can.”
The king did defend himself, but was no match for the seer, and soon he too fell dead from his horse.
Again, the seer and the servant fastened the corpse to the horse, and smacked the horse to make him carry his dead master home. Again, they withdrew under the bridge to await the coming of the third evening.
As the sun set on the third evening, along came the youngest king, riding the sun-horse. He came at some speed, then had to fight the sun-horse to make it slow down for he had spied blood on the bridge. “What outlaw has dared murder a man in my kingdom?”
For the third time, the seer leapt out from under the bridge with sword drawn and demanded the young king defend himself, for he had wounded the seer’s honour by calling him an outlaw.
When the king drew his sword and proceeded to defend himself manfully, the seer realised that this one would not be as easily defeated as his brothers. Long they fought until finally they broke their swords. “We will come to no conclusion without swords,” said the seer. “Instead let us make ourselves into flames, and the flame which burns up the other shall be the victor.”
“Agreed,” said the king.
“Then make yourself into a bluish flame,” said the seer, “and I will make myself into a red one.”
They changed themselves into flames, and proceeded to burn each other most unmercifully. But even in this were they evenly matched, and long did one try to outburn the other. Until finally an old beggar with a long, grey beard, approached the bridge; he was leaning on a thick staff and carrying a small container.
“Old father,” cried the bluish flame, the king, “is that water you have there? Only quench this red flame. I will give you a penny for it.”
“Old father,” said the red flame, the seer, “I will give you a shilling if you will pour the water on this bluish flame.”
The beggar looked from one flame to the other. “I like the shilling better than the penny,” he said, and poured the water from his container onto the bluish flame.
And that was the end of the youngest king. The red flame turned itself back into the seer, called the servant, paid the beggar and thanked him for his service, mounted onto the back of the sun-horse and went off.
In the royal palaces of the three brothers, there was deep grief at the murder of the two kings. The old witch, angered at the death of her sons-in-law, plotted vengeance on their murderer. Seating herself on her iron rake, she gathered her three daughters, and sped away into the air.
The seer and the servant by now had already got through a good part of their journey, and were crossing a treeless waste, when a terrible hunger seized the servant, but there was nothing to be had to assuage the hunger.
All of a sudden, they came across an apple-tree, so laden with apples, the branches were all but breaking under the weight. Beautifully scented, they were almost offering themselves to be eaten.
“Praise be!” cried the servant. “I shall eat these apples with an excellent appetite.”
“Do not touch those apples,” cried the seer. “Allow me to gather them for you.” But instead of plucking an apple, he drew his sword and thrust it into the tree, whereupon blood spurted from it. “You see? If you had eaten one of those apples, you would have come to harm, for the apple-tree was the eldest queen, placed here by her mother, the witch, to put us out of this world.”
After a time they came to a spring. Water, clear as crystal, bubbled up in it, all but running over the brim in such a manner as to attract thirsty travellers. “If we cannot get anything better,” said the servant, “let us at least have a drink of this good water.”
“Stay,” said the seer, “I will get you some.” Standing over the spring, he plunged his sword into the midst of it; it was immediately discoloured with blood, which began to flow from it in mighty waves. “This is the middle queen, placed here by her mother to put us out of this world.”
The servant thanked the seer, and they journeyed on.
After a time they came to a rose-bush, covered all over with wondrously red roses, their scent filling the air around them. “Oh, what beautiful roses,” cried the servant. “I have never seen such beauties in all my life. I will gather some and comfort myself with them if I cannot assuage my hunger and thirst.”
“No,” said the seer, “allow me.” For the third time, his hand went to his sword, and he cut into the bush. Red blood spurted out, as red as the roses. “That is the youngest queen, whom her mother placed here with the intention of taking vengeance upon us for the death of her sons-in-law.”
Once more the servant thanked the seer for his life, and they continued their journey.
Finally, and with no further mishaps, they crossed the frontier of the dark realm. Almost immediately, flashes flew in all directions from the sun-horse’s forehead, and everything came to life once more.
The king did not know how to thank the seer, for he had brought life back to his kingdom. He offered the seer half his kingdom as a reward.
But the seer declined. “You are king,” he said. “Rule over your realm. I am but a humble seer, and I will return to my cottage in peace.” With that, he took leave and departed.
The repetitious nature of this tale is very much like the traditional fairy tale. I like the character of the seer; intriguing man – he knew of the king’s mission and, even though the loss of the sun-horse was of no consequence to him, still took on the responsibility and danger of finding the horse. And I especially like that he considered the successful completion of the mission to be his ‘reward’, not anything material – I think that’s what I’m liking about the Hungarian tales I’ve found so far – the ‘rewards’ and focus are all the opposite of ‘material gains and beauty’, unlike many other tales. But I do have one quibble about this story – what happened to the witch-mother? How come she didn’t take a stand against the seer? She seemed capable enough and scary enough to take him on …