This section is from the book "Myths And Folk-Tales Of The Russians, Western Slavs, And Magyars", by Jeremiah Curtin. Also available from Amazon: Myths and Folk-Tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and the Magyars.
IN a certain kingdom in a certain land there lived a Tsar, and in the courtyard of the Tsar was a pillar, and in the pillar three rings, one gold, one silver, and the third copper. One night the Tsar dreamed that there was a horse tied to the gold ring, that every hair on him was silver, and the clear moon was on his forehead. In the morning the Tsar rose up and ordered it to be proclaimed that whoever could interpret the dream and get the horse for him, to that man would he give his daughter, and one half the kingdom in addition.
At the summons of the Tsar a multitude of princes, boyars, and all kinds of lords assembled. No man could explain .the dream; no man would undertake to get the horse. At last they explained to the Tsar that such and such a poor man had a son Ivan, who could interpret the dream and get the horse.
The Tsar commanded them to summon Ivan. They summoned him. The Tsar asked, "Canst thou explain my dream and get the horse?"
"Tell me first," answered Ivan, "what the dream was, and what horse thou dost need".
The Tsar said: "Last night I dreamed that a horse was tied to the gold ring in my courtyard; every hair on him was silver, and on his forehead the clear moon".
"That is not a dream, but a reality; for last night the twelve-headed serpent came to thee on that horse and wanted to steal thy daughter".
"Is it possible to get that horse?"
"It is," answered Ivan; "but only when my fifteenth year is passed".
Ivan was then but twelve years old. The Tsar took him to his court, gave him food and drink till his fifteenth year.
When his fifteenth year had passed, Ivan said to the Tsar: "Now give me a horse on which I can ride to the place where the serpent is".
The Tsar led him to his stables and showed him all his horses; but he could not find a single one, by reason of his strength and weight. When he placed his hero's hand on any horse, that horse fell to the ground; and he said to the.Tsar: "Let me go to the open country to seek a horse of sufficient strength".
The Tsar let him go. Ivan the peasant's son looked for three years; nowhere could he find a horse. He was returning to the Tsar in tears, when an old man happened to meet him, and asked, "Why dost thou weep, young man?"
To this question Ivan answered rudely; just chased the old man away.
The old man said: "Look out, young fellow; do not speak ill".
Ivan went away a little from the old man, and thought, "Why have I offended the old man? Old people know much".
He returned, caught up with the old man, fell down before him, and said: "Grandfather, forgive me! I offended thee through grief. This is what I am crying about: three years have I travelled through the open country among many herds; nowhere can I find a horse to suit me".
The old man said: "Go to such a village; there in the stable of a poor peasant is a mare; that mare has a mangy colt; take the colt and feed him, - he will be strong enough for thee".
Ivan bowed down to the old man, and went to the village; went straight to the peasant's stable; saw the mare with the mangy colt, on which he put his hands. The colt did not quiver in the least. Ivan took him from the peasant, fed him some time, came to the Tsar, and said that he had a horse. Then he began to make ready to visit the serpent.
The Tsar asked: "How many men dost thou need, Ivan?"
"I need no men," replied Ivan; "I can get the horse alone. Thou mightest give me perhaps half a dozen to send on messages".
The Tsar gave him six men; they made ready and set out. Whether they travelled long or short it is unknown to any man; only this is known, - that they came to a fiery river. Over the river was a bridge; near the river an enormous forest. In that forest they pitched a tent, got many things to drink, and began to eat and make merry.
Ivan the peasant's son said to his comrades: "Let us stand guard every night in turn, and see if any man passes the river".
It happened that when any of Ivan's comrades went on guard, each one of them got drunk in the evening and could see nothing. At last Ivan himself went on guard; and just at midnight he saw that a three-headed serpent was crossing the river, and the serpent called, "I have no enemy, no calumniator, unless one enemy and one calumniator, Ivan the peasant's son; but the raven has n't brought his bones in a bladder yet".
Ivan the peasant's son sprang from under the bridge. "Thou liest; I am here!"
"If thou art here, then let us make trial;" and the serpent on horseback advanced against Ivan. But Ivan went forth on foot, gave a blow with his sabre, and cut off the three heads of the serpent, took the horse for himself, and tied him to the tent.
The next night Ivan the peasant's son killed the six-headed serpent, the third night the nine-headed one, and threw them into the fiery river. When he went on guard the fourth night the twelve-headed serpent came, and began to speak wrathfully. "Who art thou, Ivan the peasant's son? Come out this minute to me! Why didst thou kill my sons?"
Ivan the peasant's son slipped out and said: "Let me go first to my tent, and then I will fight with thee".
"Well, go on".
Ivan ran to his comrades. "Here, boys, is a bowl, look into it; when it shall be filled with blood, come to me".
He returned and stood against the serpent; they rushed and struck each other. Ivan at the first blow cut four heads off the serpent, but went himself to his knees in the earth; when they met the second time, Ivan cut three heads off and sank to his waist in the earth; the third time they met he cut off three more heads, and sank to his breast in the earth; at last he cut off one head, and sank to his neck in the earth. Then only did his comrades think of him; they looked, and saw that the blood was running over the edge of the bowl. They hastened out, cut off the last head of the serpent, and pulled Ivan out of the earth. Ivan took the serpent's horse and led him to the tent.