'You!' she cried. 'Ah! my beloved, you are in unseemly haste to quit this life, since you come for me a fourth time.'

'Listen to me,' he said; 'for you are my wife, and none shall keep you from me.' Then he showed her the three feathers, and explained to her that they were pledges of help in time of need. He placed them in her hand, and gave her also the burning-glass he used for kindling a fire, and said: 'Do not burn them until you see the combat is going against me. He will certainly follow us, but, this time, I think he will fight.'

The Princess seemed to agree to his wish, and, soon afterwards, they set out and rode rapidly away.

It was high noon when they heard the whir of wirgs and knew they were followed. Bashtchelik approached at a great speed, and they saw his sabre flashing in the sun. The Prince drew rein and dismounted; then, drawing his weapon, he advanced to meet his foe. But, ere their sabres clashed, the Princess, fearful for her husband's life, had taken the burning-glass and pinned the sun's rays to the feathers. A tiny curl of blue smoke arose, and then they burst into flame.

Instantly - ere yet the heart could beat twice - there was a shrill chord of three sounds, and as many colours shimmered like lightning in the air. Then as the feathers blazed, came dragon hosts upon the plain; flaming eagles flocked in; and the Falcon King with his myriads swooped down. Bashtchelik was surrounded on three sides, but he dealt a mighty stroke at the Prince's heart; and then, seeming invincible, fought his way through with much slaughter and gained the side of the Princess. Before she knew it she was caught up, and Bashtchelik was bearing her on rapid wings away.

But the Prince? Among the thick of the slain the three kings - his brothers-in-law - found him dead! But they took thought together as to how they might recall him to life, and at last decided to send for some water from the Jordan. They summoned three of the swiftest dragons and asked how long it would take to fetch it. 'Half an hour!' said the first. 'Ten minutes!' said the second; but the third said at once, 'Nine seconds!'

So they dispatched him; and, like a flash, he winged his fiery flight, returning in nine seconds with the water from the Jordan. With this they bathed the Prince's wounds, and they healed up at once; and lo, he rose up alive and well, but with only two lives left to him.

'Venture not again,' was the counsel of the three kings. 'Go not forth against Bashtchelik, for he is perfect steel, the mightiest of all; and none can conquer him: he has all Force behind him.'

But the Prince would not accept their words of warning. 'Force is not the strongest thing,' he said. 'Force is hard as steel, yet it can be overcome by the will of Love, which is so soft that it melts at a touch. In that I go forth again to conquer Bashtchelik, and regain my wife.'

They could not restrain him, but, ere he went, they counselled him again: 'Since you are willing to risk all, you must go; but think not that by mighty blows you can conquer Bashtchelik. Get speech with your wife, and bid her learn from him, by a woman's wit, wherein the secret of his strength lies. Then come and tell us; and, with that knowledge, we can help you to slay him.'

The Prince agreed, and parted from them. Making his way very cautiously to the cave, he waited till Bashtchelik had gone forth to the hunt, and then entered and found his wife, and bade her glean from Bashtchelik the secret of his strength. Then he returned to his place of concealment.

That evening, when Bashtchelik returned to the cave, the Princess praised his great strength and flattered him mightily upon it.

'Tell me, I pray thee,' she said at last, 'wherein thy great strength lieth, and wherewith thou mightest be bound; for' - with a laugh - 'I would fain bind thee with my hair.'

Bashtchelik laughed, well pleased at her words. 'Wouldst thou know it?' said he. 'My strength is in my sword; were that taken from me I should then be weak, and be as another man.'

The Princess then bowed down before his sword and did homage to it, and sang a great song of joy that all power on earth was in the sword. But, on hearing this, Bashtchelik laughed, and laughed again, saying, 'Foolish one! my real strength lies no more in my sword than in its scabbard.'

'Then,' said she, 'thou hast mocked me. Tell me, I pray thee, wherein thy strength lieth.'

'In my bow and arrows,' replied he. And at once the Princess bowed down and did homage to his bow and arrows, singing their praise: how swift their flight through the air, how true their aim, how deadly their piercing points.

But Bashtchelik laughed again, and again, and again.

'Foolish one!' said he. 'My real strength lies not in my bow, nor in my arrows. But, tell me, why do you seek to know the secret of my strength?'

'Because I am a woman; and was there ever a woman who loved a man and did not want to know his secret?'

'Ay - to know it, and to impart it to others.'

'Nay, nay; to know it is enough. Tell me, I pray thee, and tell me truly, wherein the secret of thy great strength lieth.'

At this he was much distressed, and, thinking that the Princess believed her husband dead, he hoped at last to win her love; and so he told her.

'Listen to me,' said he. 'Far away in a high tableland in the interior of this country there is a mountain reaching up to the sky, and rooted far down into the earth. In a spot of that mountain - in a den where a serpent lies asleep - there is a fox, and in its heart there hides a bird. That bird is the storehouse of my strength. One flutter of its wings would scatter a whole army; one beat of its heart would shake the whole world - if the fox so willed it. But the will of the fox is over mine, and what strength I have comes from the bird through the will of the fox. And that fox is the hardest thing in the world to catch: it can take any shape it likes. So, now, you know all.'

'You have told me truly?'

'I do not laugh: I have told you truly.'

Then the Princess dallied with him, giving ear to his tales of terror and triumph. But, when he had supped and fallen asleep, she stole out and told the Prince all about it. And he, bidding his wife farewell, rode off in haste to tell his brothers-in-law. When they heard his news they called up their forces - the dragons, the eagles, the falcons - and proceeded forthwith against the mountain on the high tableland.

By certain signs the Prince discovered the den of the sleeping serpent, and there they surprised the fox, who, seeing the vast array on the sides of the mountain and on the plain, quickly took refuge in flight. But a host of eagles and falcons tore after him and overtook him near a great lake. Here he changed himself into a duck with six wings, and dived and disappeared. Presently, far away on the lake, they saw him reappear on the surface, and rise from the water, and wing his way up into the clouds. Immediately the dragons gave chase, and the eagles and falcons strove to encircle the swift-winged bird. Finally, seeing no way of escape, the duck swooped to earth, and changed again into a fox. Then the pursuers pounced and caught him.

The three kings then consulted together and decided to cut open the fox and take its heart out. This was soon done; then they built a great fire and threw the heart into it. And, as it burned, they saw a bird fly from it through the flames and fall scorched at their feet. Now, as they gazed upon it, it changed rapidly, growing in size and altering in shape, until at last there lay before them the body of Bashtchelik, his wings all burnt and his body charred.

So this monster perished, and the Prince regained his long-lost bride.

Bashtchelik Or Real Steel A Serbian Fairy Tale Par 22