Once upon a time, a long while ago, when the very flies wrote upon the walls more beautifully than the mind can picture, there lived an Emperor and an Empress who had three sons, and a very beautiful garden alongside their palace. At the bottom of this garden there grew an apple-tree, entirely of gold from the top to the bottom. The Emperor was wild with joy at the thought that he had in his garden an apple-tree, the like of which was not to be found in the wide world. He used to stand in front of it, and poke his nose into every part of it, and look at it again and again, till his eyes nearly started out of his head. One day he saw this tree bud, blossom, and form its fruit, which began to ripen before him. The Emperor twisted his moustache, and his mouth watered at the thought that the next day he would have a golden apple or two on his table, an unheard-of thing up to that moment since the world began.
Day had scarcely begun to dawn next morning, when the Emperor was already in the garden to feast his eyes to the full on the golden apples; but he almost went out of his mind when, instead of the ripened golden apples, he saw that the tree was budding anew, but of apples there was no sign. While he stood there he saw the tree blossom, the blossoms fall off, and the young fruit again appear.
At this sight his heart came back to him again, and he joyfully awaited the morrow, but on the morrow also the apples had gone - goodness knows where! The Emperor was very wroth. He commanded that the tree should be strictly guarded, and the thief seized; but, alas! where were they to find him?
The tree blossomed every day, put forth flowers, formed its fruit, and towards evening the fruit began to ripen. But in the middle of the night somebody always came and took away the fruit, without the Emperor's watchers being aware of it. It was just as if it were done on purpose. Every night, sure enough, somebody came and took the apples, as if to mock at the Emperor and all his guards! So though this Emperor had the golden apple-tree in his garden, he not only never could have a golden apple on his table, but never even saw it ripen. At last the poor Emperor took it so to heart that he said he would give up his throne to whosoever would catch and bind the thief.
Then the sons of the Emperor came to him, and asked him to let them watch also. Great was the joy of the Emperor when he heard from the mouth of his eldest son the vow he made to lay hands upon the thief. So the Emperor gave him leave, and he set to work. The eldest son watched the first night, but he suffered the same disgrace that the other watchers had suffered before him.
On the second night the second son watched, but he was no cleverer than his brother, and returned to his father with his nose to the earth.
Both the brothers said that up to midnight they had watched well enough, but after that they could not keep their feet for weariness, but fell down in a deep sleep, and recollected nothing else.
The youngest son listened to all this in silence, but when his big brothers had told their story, he begged his father to let him watch too. Now, sad as his father was at being unable to find a valiant warrior to catch the thief, yet he burst out laughing when he heard the request of his youngest son. Nevertheless, he yielded at last, though only after much pressing, and now the youngest son set about guarding the tree.
When the evening had come, he took his bow, and his quiver full of arrows, and his sword, and went down into the garden. Here he chose out a lonely place, quite away from wall and tree, or any other place that he might have been able to lean against, and stood on the trunk of a felled tree, so that if he chanced to doze off, it might slip from under him and awake him. This he did, and when he had fallen two or three times, sleep forsook him, and weariness ceased to torment him.
Just as it was drawing nigh to dawn, at the hour when sleep is sweetest, he heard a fluttering in the air, as if a swarm of birds was approaching. He pricked up his ears, and heard something or other pecking away at the golden apples. He pulled an arrow from his quiver, placed it on his bow, and drew it with all his might - but nothing stirred. He drew his bow again - still there was nothing. When he had drawn it once more, he heard again the fluttering of wings, and was conscious that a flock of birds was flying away. He drew near to the golden apples, and perceived that the thief had not had time to take all of them. He had taken one here, and one there, but most of them still remained. As now he stood there he fancied he saw something shining on the ground. He stooped down and picked up the shining thing, and, lo and behold! it was two feathers entirely of gold.1
1 Compare the incident of the Bird Zhar in my Russian Fairy Tales.
When it was day he plucked the apples, placed them on a golden salver, and with the golden feathers in his hat, went to find his father. The Emperor, when he saw the apples, very nearly went out of his mind for joy; but he controlled himself, and proclaimed throughout the city that his youngest son had succeeded in saving the apples, and that the thief was discovered to be a flock of birds.
Boy-Beautiful now asked his father to let him go and search out the thief; but his father would hear of nothing but the long-desired apples, which he was never tired of feasting his eyes upon.
But the youngest son of the Emperor was not to be put off, and importuned his father till at last the Emperor, in order to get rid of him, gave him leave to go and seek the thief. So he got ready, and when he was about to depart, he took the golden feathers out of his cap, and gave them to his mother, the Empress, to keep for him till he returned. He took raiment and money for his journey, fastened his quiverful of arrows to his back, and his sword on his right hip, and with his bow in one hand and the reins in the other, and accompanied by a faithful servant, set off on his way. He went on and on, along roads more and more remote, till at last he came to a desert. Here he dismounted, and taking counsel with his faithful servant, hit upon a road that led to the east. They went on a good bit further, till they came to a vast and dense wood. Through this tangle of a wood they had to grope their way (and it was as much as they could do to do that), and presently they saw, a long way off, a great and terrible wolf, with a head of steel. They immediately prepared to defend themselves, and when they were within bow-shot of the wolf, Boy-Beautiful put his bow to his eye.