The Story of Ilona and the King’s Son
There were once two orphans, a brother and a sister, who lived alone in the old farmhouse where their fathers before them had lived for many generations. The brother’s name was Osmo, the sister’s Ilona. Osmo was an industrious youth, but the farm was small and barren and he was hard put to it to make a livelihood.
“Sister,” he said one day, “I think it might be well if I went out into the world and found work.”
“Do as you think best, brother,” Ilona said. “I’m sure I can manage on here alone.”
So Osmo started off, promising to come back for his sister as soon as he could give her a new home. He wandered far and wide and at last got employment from the King’s Son as a shepherd.
The King’s Son was about Osmo’s age, and often when he met Osmo tending his flocks he would stop and talk to him.
One day Osmo told the King’s Son about his sister, Ilona.
“I have wandered far over the face of the earth,” he said, “and never have I seen so beautiful a maiden as Ilona.”
“What does she look like?” the King’s Son asked.
Osmo drew a picture of her and she seemed to the King’s Son so beautiful that at once he fell in love with her.
“Osmo,” he said, “if you will go home and get your sister, I will marry her.”
So Osmo hurried home not by the long land route by which he had come but straight over the water in a boat.
“Sister,” he cried, as soon as he saw Ilona, “you must come with me at once for the King’s Son wishes to marry you!”
He thought Ilona would be overjoyed, but she sighed and shook her head.
“What is it, sister? Why do you sigh?”
“Because it grieves me to leave this old house where our fathers have lived for so many generations.”
“Nonsense, Ilona! What is this little old house compared to the King’s castle where you will live once you marry the King’s Son!”
But Ilona only shook her head.
“It’s no use, brother! I can’t bear to leave this old house until the grindstone with which our fathers for generations ground their meal is worn out.”
When Osmo found she was firm, he went secretly and broke the old grindstone into small pieces. He then put the pieces together so that the stone looked the same as before. But of course the next time Ilona touched it, it fell apart.
“Now, sister, you’ll come, will you not?” Osmo asked.
But again Ilona shook her head.
“It’s no use, brother. I can’t bear to go until the old stool where our mothers have sat spinning these many generations is worn through.”
So again Osmo took things into his own hands and going secretly to the old spinning stool he broke it and when Ilona sat on it again it fell to pieces.
Then Ilona said she couldn’t go until the old mortar which had been in use for generations should fall to bits at a blow from the pestle. Osmo cracked the mortar and the next time Ilona struck it with the pestle it broke.
Then Ilona said she couldn’t go until the old worn doorsill over which so many of their forefathers had walked should fall to splinters at the brush of her skirts. So Osmo secretly split the old doorsill into thin slivers and, when next Ilona stepped over it, the brush of her skirts sent the splinters flying.
“I see now I must go,” Ilona said, “for the house of our forefathers no longer holds me.”
So she packed all her ribbons and her bodices and skirts in a bright wooden box and, calling her little dog Pilka, she stepped into the boat and Osmo rowed her off in the direction of the King’s castle.
Soon they passed a long narrow spit of land at the end of which stood a woman waving her arms. That is she looked like a woman. Really she was Suyettar but they, of course, did not know this.
“Take me in your boat!” she cried.
“Shall we?” Osmo asked his sister.
“I don’t think we ought to,” Ilona said. “We don’t know who she is or what she wants and she may be evil.”
So Osmo rowed on. But the woman kept shouting:
“Hi, there! Take me in your boat! Take me!”
A second time Osmo paused and asked his sister:
“Don’t you think we ought to take her?”
“No,” Ilona said.
So Osmo rowed on again. At this the creature raised such a pitiful outcry demanding what they meant denying assistance to a poor woman that Osmo was unable longer to refuse and in spite of Ilona’s warning he rowed to land.
Suyettar instantly jumped into the boat and seated herself in the middle with her face towards Osmo and her back towards Ilona.
“What a fine young man!” Suyettar said in whining flattering tones. “See how strong he is at the oars! And what a beautiful girl, too! I daresay the King’s Son would fall in love with her if ever he saw her!”
Thereupon Osmo very foolishly told Suyettar that the King’s Son had already promised to marry Ilona. At that an evil look came into Suyettar’s face and she sat silent for a time biting her fingers. Then she began mumbling a spell that made Osmo deaf to what Ilona was saying and Ilona deaf to what Osmo was saying.
At last in the distance the towers of the King’s castle appeared.
“Stand up, sister!” Osmo said. “Shake out your skirts and arrange your pretty ribbons! We’ll soon be landing now!”
Ilona could see her brother’s lips moving but of course she could not hear what he was saying.
“What is it, brother?” she asked.
Suyettar answered for him:
“Osmo orders you to jump headlong into the water!”
“No! No!” Ilona cried. “He couldn’t order anything so cruel as that!”
Presently Osmo said:
“Sister, what ails you? Don’t you hear me? Shake out your skirts and arrange your pretty ribbons for we’ll soon be landing now.”
“What is it, brother?” Ilona asked.
As before Suyettar answered for him:
“Osmo orders you to jump headlong into the water!”
“Brother, how can you order so cruel a thing!” Ilona cried, bursting into tears. “Is it for this you made me leave the home of my fathers?”
A third time Osmo said:
“Stand up, sister, and shake out your skirts and arrange your ribbons! We’ll soon be landing now!”
“I can’t hear you, brother! What is it you say?”
Suyettar turned on her fiercely and screamed:
“Osmo orders you to jump headlong into the water!”
“If he says I must, I must!” poor Ilona sobbed, and with that she leapt overboard.
Osmo tried to save her but Suyettar held him back and with her own arms rowed off and Ilona was left to sink.
“What will become of me now!” Osmo cried. “When the King’s Son finds I have not brought him my sister he will surely order my death!”
“Not at all!” Suyettar said. “Do as I say and no harm will come to you. Offer me to the King’s Son and tell him I am your sister. He won’t know the difference and anyway I’m sure I’m just as beautiful as Ilona ever was!”
With that Suyettar opened the wooden box that held Ilona’s clothes and helped herself to skirt and bodice and gay colored ribbons. She decked herself out in these and for a little while she really did succeed in looking like a pretty young girl.
So Osmo presented Suyettar to the King’s Son as Ilona, and the King’s Son because he had given his word married her. But before one day was past, he called Osmo to him and asked him angrily:
“What did you mean by telling me your sister was beautiful?”
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Osmo faltered.
“No! I thought she was at first but she isn’t! She is ugly and evil and you shall pay the penalty for having deceived me!”
Thereupon he ordered that Osmo be shut up in a place filled with serpents.
“If you are innocent,” the King’s Son said, “the serpents will not harm you. If you are guilty they will devour you!”
Meanwhile poor Ilona when she jumped into the water sank down, down, down, until she reached the Sea King’s palace. They received her kindly there and comforted her and the Sea King’s Son, touched by her grief and beauty, offered to marry her. But Ilona was homesick for the upper world and would not listen to him.
“I want to see my brother again!” she wept.
They told her that the King’s Son had thrown her brother to the serpents and had married Suyettar in her stead, but Ilona still begged so pitifully to be allowed to return to earth that at last the Sea King said:
“Very well, then! For three successive nights I will allow you to return to the upper world. But after that never again!”
So they decked Ilona in the lovely jewels of the sea with great strands of pearls about her neck and to each of her ankles they attached long silver chains. As she rose in the water the sound of the chains was like the chiming of silver bells and could be heard for five miles.
Ilona came to the surface of the water just where Osmo had landed. The first thing she saw was his boat at the water’s edge and curled up asleep in the bottom of the boat her own little dog, Pilka.
“Pilka!” Ilona cried, and the little dog woke with a bark of joy and licked Ilona’s hand and yelped and frisked.
Then Ilona sang this magic song to Pilka:
Pilka barked and frisked and said:
“Yes, mistress, yes! I’ll do whatever you bid me!”
Ilona gave the little dog an embroidered square of gold and silver which she herself had worked down in the Sea King’s palace.
“Take this,” she said to Pilka, “and put it on the pillow where the King’s Son lies asleep. Perhaps when he sees it he will know that it comes from Osmo’s true sister and that the frightful creature he has married is Suyettar. Then perhaps he will release Osmo before the serpents devour him. Go now, my faithful Pilka, and come back to me before the dawn.”
So Pilka raced off to the King’s palace carrying the square of embroidery in her teeth. Ilona waited and half an hour before sunrise the little dog came panting back.
“What news, Pilka? How fares my brother and how is my poor love, the King’s Son?”
“Osmo is still with the serpents,” Pilka answered, “but they haven’t eaten him yet. I left the embroidered square on the pillow where the King’s Son’s head was lying. Suyettar was asleep on the bed beside him where you should be, dear mistress. Suyettar’s awful mouth was open and she was snoring horribly. The King’s Son moved uneasily for he was troubled even in his sleep.”
“And did you go through the castle, Pilka?”
“Yes, dear mistress.”
“And did you see the remains of the wedding feast?”
“Yes, dear mistress, the remains of a feast that shamed the King’s Son, for Suyettar served bones instead of meat, fish heads, turnip tops, and bread burned to a cinder.”
“Good Pilka!” Ilona said. “Good little dog! You have done well! Now the dawn is coming and I must go back to the Sea King’s palace. But I shall come again to-night and also to-morrow night and do you be here waiting for me.”
Pilka promised and Ilona sank down into the sea to a clanking of chains that sounded like silver bells. The King’s Son heard them in his sleep and for a moment woke and said:
“What’s what?” snarled Suyettar. “You’re dreaming! Go back to sleep!”
A few hours later when he woke again, he found the lovely square of embroidery on his pillow.
“Who made this?” he cried.
Suyettar was busy combing her snaky locks. She turned on him quickly.
“Who made what?”
When she saw the embroidery she tried to snatch it from him, but he held it tight.
“I made it, of course!” she declared. “Who but me would sit up all night and work while you lay snoring!”
But the King’s Son, as he folded the embroidery, muttered to himself:
“It doesn’t look to me much like your work!”
After he had breakfasted, the King’s Son asked for news of Osmo. A slave was sent to the place of the serpents and when he returned he reported that Osmo was sitting amongst them uninjured.
“The old king snake has made friends with him,” he added, “and has wound himself around Osmo’s arm.”
The King’s Son was amazed at this news and also relieved, for the whole affair troubled him sorely and he was beginning to suspect a mystery.
He knew an old wise woman who lived alone in a little hut on the seashore and he decided he would go and consult her. So he went to her and told her about Osmo and how Osmo had deceived him in regard to his sister. Then he told her how the serpents instead of devouring Osmo had made friends with him and last he showed her the square of lovely embroidery he had found on his pillow that morning.
“There is a mystery somewhere, granny,” he said in conclusion, “and I know not how to solve it.”
The old woman looked at him thoughtfully.
“My son,” she said at last, “that is never Osmo’s sister that you have married. Take an old woman’s word—it is Suyettar! Yet Osmo’s sister must be alive and the embroidery must be a token from her. It probably means that she begs you to release her brother.”
“Suyettar!” repeated the King’s Son, aghast.
At first he couldn’t believe such a horrible thing possible and yet that, if it were so, would explain much.
“I wonder if you’re right,” he said. “I must be on my guard!”
That night on the stroke of midnight to the sound of silver chimes Ilona came floating up through the waves and little Pilka, as she appeared, greeted her with barks of joy.
As before Ilona sang:
This time Ilona gave Pilka a shirt for the King’s Son. Beautifully embroidered it was in gold and silver and Ilona herself had worked it in the Sea King’s palace.
Pilka carried it safely to the castle and left it on the pillow where the King’s Son could see it as soon as he woke. Then Pilka visited the place of the serpents and before the first ray of dawn was back at the seashore to reassure Ilona of Osmo’s safety.
Then dawn came and Ilona, as she sank in the waves to the chime of silver bells, called out to Pilka:
“Meet me here to-night at the same hour! Fail me not, dear Pilka, for to-night is the last night that the Sea King will allow me to come to the upper world!”
Pilka, howling with grief, made promise:
“I’ll be here, dear mistress, that I will!”
The King’s Son that morning, as he opened his eyes, saw the embroidered shirt lying on the pillow at his head. He thought at first he must be dreaming for it was more beautiful than any shirt that had ever been worked by human fingers.
“Ah!” he sighed at last, “who made this?”
“Who made what?” Suyettar demanded rudely.
When she saw the shirt she tried to snatch it, but the King’s Son held it from her. Then she pretended to laugh and said:
“Oh, that! I made it, of course! Do you think any one else in the world would sit up all night and work for you while you lie there snoring! And small thanks I get for it, too!”
“It doesn’t look to me like your work!” said the King’s Son significantly.
Again the slave reported to him that Osmo was alive and unhurt by the serpents.
“Strange!” thought the King’s Son.
He took the embroidered shirt and made the old wise woman another visit.
“Ah!” she said, when she saw the shirt, “now I understand! Listen, my Prince: last night at midnight I was awakened by the chime of silver bells and I got up and looked out the door. Just there at the water’s edge, close to that little boat, I saw a strange sight. A lovely maiden rose from the waves holding in her hands the very shirt that you now have. A little dog that was lying in the boat greeted her with barks of joy. She sang a magic rime to the dog and gave it the shirt and off it ran. That maid, my Prince, must be Ilona. She must be in the Sea King’s power and I think she is begging you to rescue her and to release her brother.”
The King’s Son slowly nodded his head.
“Granny, I’m sure what you say is true! Help me to rescue Ilona and I shall reward you richly.”
“Then, my son, you must act at once, for to-night, I heard Ilona say, is the last night that the Sea King will allow her to come to the upper world. Go now to the smith and have him forge you a strong iron chain and a great strong scythe. Then to-night hide you down yonder in the shadow of the boat. At midnight when you hear the silver chimes and the maiden slowly rises from the waves, throw the iron chain about her and quickly draw her to you. Then, with one sweep of your scythe, cut the silver chains that are fastened to her ankles. But remember, my son, that is not all. She is under enchantment and as you try to grasp her the Sea King will change her to many things—a fish, a bird, a fly, and I know not what, and if in any form she escape you, then all is lost.”
At once the King’s Son hurried away to the smithy and had the smith forge him a strong iron chain and a heavy sharp scythe. Then when night fell he hid in the shadow of the boat and waited. Pilka snuggled up beside him. Midnight came and to the sweet chiming as of silver bells Ilona slowly rose from the waves. As she came she began singing:
Instantly the King’s Son threw the strong iron chain about her and drew her to him. Then with one mighty sweep of the scythe he severed the silver chains that were attached to her ankles and the silver chains fell chiming into the depths. Another instant and the maiden in his arms was no maiden but a slimy fish that squirmed and wriggled and almost slipped through his fingers. He killed the fish and, lo! it was not a fish but a frightened bird that struggled to escape. He killed the bird and, lo! it was not a bird but a writhing lizard. And so on through many transformations, growing finally small and weak until at last there was only a mosquito. He crushed this and in his arms he found again the lovely Ilona.
“Ah, dear one,” he said, “you are my true bride and not Suyettar who pretended she was you! Come, we will go at once to the castle and confront her!”
But Ilona cried out at this:
“Not there, my Prince, not there! Suyettar if she saw me would kill me and devour me! Keep me from her!”
“Very well, my dear one,” the King’s Son said. “We’ll wait until to-morrow and after to-morrow there will be no Suyettar to fear.”
So for that night they took shelter in the old wise woman’s hut, Ilona and the King’s Son and faithful little Pilka.
The next morning early the King’s Son returned to the castle and had the sauna heated. Just inside the door he had a deep hole dug and filled it with burning tar. Then over the top of the hole he stretched a brown mat and on the brown mat a blue mat. When all was ready he went indoors and roused Suyettar.
“Where have you been all night?” she demanded angrily.
“Forgive me this time,” he begged in pretended humility, “and I promise never again to be parted from my own true bride. Come now, my dear, and bathe for the sauna is ready.”
Then Suyettar, who loved to have people see her go to the sauna just as if she were a real human being, put on a long bathrobe and clapped her hands. Four slaves appeared. Two took up the train of her bathrobe and the two others supported her on either side. Slowly she marched out of the castle, across the courtyard, and over to the sauna.
“They all really think I’m a human princess!” she said to herself, and she was so sure she was beautiful and admired that she tossed her head and smirked from side to side and took little mincing steps.
When she reached the sauna she was ready to drop the bathrobe and jump over the doorsill to the steaming shelf, but the King’s Son whispered:
“Nay! Nay! Remember your dignity as a beautiful princess and walk over the blue mat!”
So with one more toss of her head, one more smirk of her ugly face, Suyettar stepped on the blue mat and sank into the hole of burning tar. Then the King’s Son quickly locked the door of the sauna and left her there to burn in the tar, for burning, you know, is the only way to destroy Suyettar. As she burned the last hateful thing Suyettar did was to tear out handfuls of her hair and scatter them broadcast in the air.
“Let these,” she cried, yelling and cursing, “turn into mosquitos and worms and moths and trouble mankind forever!”
Then her yells grew fainter and at last ceased altogether and the King’s Son knew that it was now safe to bring Ilona home. First, however, he had Osmo released from the place of the serpents and asked his forgiveness for the unjust punishment.
Then he and Osmo together went to the hut of the old wise woman and there with tears of happiness the brother and sister were reunited. The King’s Son to show his gratitude to the old wise woman begged her to accompany them to the castle and presently they all set forth with Pilka frisking ahead and barking for joy.
That day there was a new wedding feast spread at the castle and this time it was not bones and fish heads and burnt crusts but such food as the King’s Son had not tasted for many a day.
To celebrate his happy marriage the King’s Son made Osmo his chamberlain and gave Pilka a beautiful new collar.
“Now at last,” Ilona said, “I am glad I left the house of my forefathers.”