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.
THERE was once a very poor man, and he had two lean cows. The two cows were to the poor man as their mother's breast to children; for not only did they give milk and butter, for which he got a few coppers to buy salt, but he tilled his patch of land with them.
Now, he was ploughing one day at the edge of the woods with the two cows, when, from wherever it came, a six-horse coach stood before him, and in it sat no other than the King of the Crows, who found this to say to the poor man, -
"Listen, poor man; I will tell thee one thing, and two will come of it. Sell me those lean cows; I 'll give thee good money for them. I 'll pay double price. My army has n't tasted a morsel for three days, and the soldiers will die of hunger and thirst unless thou wilt save them".
"If that's the case," said the poor man to the King of the Crows, "if it be that thy Highness's army has n't eaten anything for three days, I don't mind the difficulty. I 'll let thee have the cows, not for money; let thy Highness return a cow for a cow".
"Very good, poor man, let it be as thou sayest. I will give thee a cow for a cow; more than that, for two thou wilt get four cows. For that purpose find me in my kingdom, for I am the King of the Crows. Thou hast but to look in the north for the black castle; thou 'It be sure to find it".
With that the King of the Crows vanished as if he had never been there, - as if the earth had swallowed him. The poor man kept on ploughing with the two lean cows, till, all at once, the army of the King of the Crows appeared like a black cloud approaching through the air, with mighty cawing, and seizing the two cows tore them bit from bit. When they had finished, the dark legions with tumultuous cawing moved on their way like a cloud. The poor man watched the direction in which they flew so that he might know the way.
Now he strolled home in great sadness, took leave of his two handsome sons and his dear wife, in the midst of bitter tears, and set out into the world to find the black castle. He travelled and journeyed over forty-nine kingdoms, beyond the Operentsia Sea and the glass mountains, and beyond that, where the little short-tailed pig roots, and beyond that, and still farther on, till he came to an ocean-great sand-plain.
Nowhere for gold was a town, a village, or a cabin to be seen where he might recline his head for a night's rest, or beg a morsel of bread or a cup of water. Food had long since left his bag, and he might have struck fire in the gourd1 which hung at his side. What was he to do? Where could he save his life? Here he must perish of hunger and thirst in the midst of this ocean-great desert, and then at home let them wait for him till the day of Judgment. Here the poor man's power of walking decreased, and he floundered about like a dazed fish, like a man struck on the head. While stumbling along he sees on a sudden a shepherd's fire.
He moves towards the light, creeping on all fours. At last he arrives there with great difficulty, and sees that three or four men are lying around the fire, boiling kasha in a pot. He salutes them with, "God give you a good evening".
"God receive thee, poor man; how is it that thou art journeying in this strange land where even a bird does not go?"
"I am looking for the black castle in the north. Have ye heard nothing of it in your world-beautiful lives?"
"How not? Of course we have. Are we not the shepherds of that king, who rigorously and mercilessly enjoined that, if such and such a man, who sold him the two lean cows for his army, should find us, to treat him well with meat and drink, and then to show him the right road? Maybe thou art the man!"
"I am indeed".
1 A pilgrim bottle made of a dried, long-necked gourd.
"Is it possible?"
"I am no one else".
"In that case sit here on the sheepskin; eat, drink, and enjoy thyself, for the kasha will be ready this minute".
As they said, he did. The poor man sat by the fire, ate, drank, and satisfied himself, then lay down and fell asleep. When he rose in the morning they gave him a round cheese, and drove the air out of his bottle; then they let him go his way, showing him the right road.
The poor man travelled and journeyed along the right road; and now, when he was hungry and dry, he had his bag, and his bottle too. Towards evening he sees again a shepherd's fire. He draws near the great fire, and sees the shepherds of the King of the Crows sitting around it cooking a meat stew. He wishes them, "God give you a good-day, my lords, the horseherds".
"God guard thee, poor man," said the chief herdsman; "where art thou going here in this strange land?"
"I am looking for the black castle of the King of the Crows. Hast thou never heard of it, brother, in thy world-beautiful life?"
"How not heard of it? Of course I have. Are we not the servants of him who commanded rigorously and unflinchingly that if such and such a poor man, who sold him two lean cows for his army, should wander along, to receive him kindly? Therefore, this is my word and speech to thee. Art thou, perchance, that man? "
"Of course I am".
"Is it possible? "
"I 'm no one else".
"In that case sit down here by the fire, drink, and be filled".
The poor man sat down by the fire, ate, drank, and satisfied himself; then lying on the sheepskin, he fell asleep. When he rose in the morning the horse-herds entertained the poor man again, wished him happiness, and showing the right road let him go his way; but they left neither his bag nor his bottle empty. Then he went along the right road. But why multiply words? - for there is an end even to a hundred words; it is enough to know that towards evening he came to the ground of the swineherds of the King of the Crows. He saluted them with, "God give you a good evening".
"God guard thee," said the reckoning swineherd.1 "How is it thou art journeying in this strange land, where even a bird does not go? "