Once upon a time, beyond the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom, there was a village nestled high in the mountains. It had once been very prosperous but fell on hard times. The people whispered of a curse. Drought killed their crops. Famine killed their livestock. The mountains withheld their precious ore.
Semyon the Blacksmith still diligently worked at his forge. He tried to make the farmers better scythes and plowshares. He tried to make horseshoes for the wild horses they would capture from the steppe. He tried to make pickaxes for the miners so that they could dig deeper into the mountain. Always, when he turned to temper the iron, it would shatter.
“What will become of us?” he cried. “Nature was cruel, and now Father Frost will kill us with cold. The fire of my forge is too weak. If I cannot make tools, we cannot work the land. If we cannot work the land, we cannot eat. May the winter take us quickly to spare us the suffering!”
Day after day, Semyon worked at his forge, but he failed to make any tools the villagers could use. He was about to douse his coals when a blast of heat blew in from behind him on a gust of wind. He turned to look and saw the form of a firebird upon the stone. Her magnificent plumage glowed like a strong flame, but her body was weak and panting for breath.
“Help me,” she pleaded. “A man hunts me, and I can go no further. Let me hide in your forge. Do this for me, and whatever is within my power, I will grant you.”
Semyon helped the firebird to roost in the forge and pumped the bellows until the fire was as high as he could get it. A single brilliant tail feather remained on the floor. Semyon picked it up and took it into his small cottage.
In the morning, a stranger arrived. He was a tall youth richly dressed in furs and fine cloth. Semyon hammered away at his work while the firebird remained hidden among the coals. The stranger called out to him.
“I am Prince Ivan, and my father is King Vasily. Have you seen the great firebird that flew this way? I have traveled far and cannot return home until I have captured her.”
Semyon turned back to his forge as he tried to think of an answer.
The firebird whispered to him. “Tell him you saw a streak of light, but it was only a feather that fell. Give it to him, and send him away.”
Semyon told the prince about the feather and gave it to him as the firebird said.
“Perhaps this will be enough to satisfy my father,” Prince Ivan replied and went on his way.
When the prince was gone, the firebird said, “You have helped me, and so I shall help you. The crops have failed. The livestock has died. Your iron is brittle. I will stay and do what I can to help your village through the winter.”
With that, the firebird shed her plumage and transformed into the most beautiful woman that Semyon had ever seen. She called herself Elena. Those in the village called her Elena the Fair. During the day, Elena would go with the other village women to forage nuts and berries from the woods. She always knew where to find the best and ripest ones. At night, she became a firebird again to make sure that the embers of the forge never went out.
After a long time or a short time, Prince Ivan came to the village again.
“Blacksmith,” he said, “I still hunt for the firebird, and you are the only other to have seen her. The feather made my father want her all the more. I implore you—is there any other sign of her?”
Semyon turned back to his forge as he tried to think of an answer. Elena stepped out from the cottage with a small basket in her hands.
“We saw a streak of light, but when we followed it, there was only this egg that had melted all the snow around it. It was surely left by the firebird.”
“Perhaps this will be enough to satisfy my father,” Prince Ivan replied and went on his way.
Elena continued to do what she could to help the village. During the day, she would wander the steppe with the others to ensnare the wild horses and tame them to be ready to plow. She always knew where to find the smartest and most obedient ones. At night, she would build up the fire in the forge and sleep among the glowing embers.
It was not only the fire of the forge that burned hotter and brighter. Semyon fell in love with Elena, and the warmth he had in his heart was no match for the bite of the bitter winter wind. Elena helped him in the forge. She worked the bellows to keep the coals hot and beat the metal as Semyon taught her. The plowshares were the sharpest, the horseshoes the sturdiest, and the pickaxes the strongest that had ever been made.
The plowmen were able to use the new horses to work the fallow fields at the first sign of thaw. The miners dug enough ore from the mountain to keep the smelters busy for a year. The village would want for nothing.
“Winter is nearly over,” Elena told Semyon as she prepared the coals for the night. “I must leave you in the morning.”
Semyon could feel his heart breaking. He turned away from his forge as he tried to think of how to tell Elena what he felt. Behind him was a flash. When he turned back, the firebird was settling into the hot coals to sleep. She was gone at daybreak.
The spring produced fine crops. The smelters produced fine iron. Semyon was kept busy at his forge. A single feather had been left behind to keep the fire burning, and it let him hope that he might one day be reunited with the woman he loved.
Prince Ivan returned to the village when the sun was high and hot and the fields golden with grain.
“The firebird's egg hatched,” he told Semyon. “Inside was this golden ring that will stay on no finger. A witch told me that it can only be worn by the most beautiful woman beyond the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom. Her name is Elena the Fair. My father has sent me to claim her for his wife.”
“You are a dutiful son,” Semyon replied, “but Elena is not here.”
“I cannot return home until she wears this ring. I have nothing to eat. My horse has no shoes. My sword was stolen by bandits. If you help me, whatever is within my power, I will grant you.”
Semyon knew that this was his only chance to find Elena again. He forged new shoes for the horse: burnished and brilliant, they struck fire with every step. He forged the prince a new sword: sharp and strong, it could cleave through solid stone. Semyon took for himself a horse from the steppe and the single feather from his forge and rode with Prince Ivan in search of Elena.
They traveled for a long time or a short time, across hills and valleys, rivers and plains, until they came to the deepest forest either man had ever seen. At the first crossroads, they encountered an old beggar.
“Grandfather, where can we find Elena the Fair?” Prince Ivan asked.
“She lives with King Dolmat in his castle. Every day, she sits in the garden and sings a sad song. If you go there, do not eat from the tree of golden apples. They grant King Dolmat long life, but to other men they only bring death.”
Semyon and Prince Ivan continued on. The forest opened up to a beautiful meadow. In the middle of the meadow was a lake. In the middle of the lake was an island. In the middle of the island was the castle of King Dolmat. There was no way to cross the water, and Prince Ivan cried out in despair. Semyon drew forth the firebird's feather and held it aloft. The wind caught it and carried it over the castle wall.
A woman's sweet voice sang out in reply.
My heart has grown cold as the winter.
My heart has grown cold as the stone.
I left my love with this feather.
Now, it returns to me alone.
Semyon spurred his horse around the lake, desperate to find a way across. He plunged into the cold water until it was as high as his neck, but he could get no closer to the castle. The firebird's feather had been able to reach the gardens, however. He turned to Prince Ivan.
“I forged your horseshoes with the firebird's magic. Let us see if that will carry us across.”
Semyon rode behind Prince Ivan as the young hero drove his horse into the water of the lake. The surface bubbled and roiled. Steam billowed up. A cloud formed a bridge that let them ride through the main gate and into the courtyard.
“Who is this that comes uninvited to my home?” bellowed King Dolmat. He stood garbed in golden raiment as brilliant as the sun. About his shoulders was clasped a cloak the color of fire and trimmed with the blazing plumage of a firebird.
“I am Prince Ivan, son of King Vasily. This is Semyon the Blacksmith. My father has sent me in search of Elena the Fair to be his wife.”
“My prince, if you had but told me, I would have let you in gladly. Stay and dine with me tonight. I will bring Elena to you in the morning.”
They sat down at a long table heavy with food. Prince Ivan and Semyon were both served more than they could possibly ever eat. Near the end of the meal, a bowl filled with golden apples was offered to them. Prince Ivan reached for one without even thinking.
“My prince, perhaps we should retire for the night.” Semyon grabbed the young man's hand before he could take a bite. “King Dolmat has been most generous, but golden apples are far too rich for the likes of me. Perhaps leave them for the morning. Something as sweet as those would unsettle the stomach.”
“I assure you of the contrary,” King Dolmat replied. “A single bite from my golden apples will bring the deepest sleep to even the staunchest of men.”
“My prince,” Semyon cautioned again, “I encourage you to be wise and heed the words of your grandfather.”
Prince Ivan nodded and set the apple down. “You are right, my friend. The sooner to bed, the sooner to rise. To see Elena the Fair again will be sweetness enough.”
The prince slept soundly that night, but Semyon could not. He followed the haunting echoes of Elena's song but could seem to get no closer to the gardens.
My love kept me safe in the winter.
My love sheltered me from the snow.
I abandoned him when the spring rains came,
And his heart I now never will know.
Semyon could not bear it. Somehow, without needing to think about it, he found the words to reply.
My heart beats like hammer on anvil.
My heart burns as hot as the fire.
I abandoned my forge just to find my love,
And my love is my only desire.
He turned a corner to find a set of doors ornately carved and gilded with gold. They opened to let him pass, revealing a garden lush with flowers. At the center was a tree heavy with golden apples. Elena sat beneath it on a velvet couch. Around her was what appeared to be a large golden cage. Semyon rushed to her side. The cage had no door and no lock. His strength was not enough to move it.
“It is useless, my love,” Elena cried. “King Dolmat has stolen my magic and imprisoned me here for eating his golden apples. He will set me free only if I marry him.”
“Prince Ivan has come to take you to his father. The egg you gave him held a ring for your finger alone.”
“That ring will return me to my true form. I do no want it.”
“Your magic may be the only way to free you.”
“If I become a firebird again, I will forget that I love you!” She grasped at his hand. “I would sooner die.”
“Then, what can we do?”
“Wait for the morning,” Elena told him. “King Dolmat will honor his promise to bring me to you. When he does, you must steal his cloak and throw it into the lake. He will lose his power over me.”
It was hard to leave her, but Semyon did as she said. When the morning came, he and Prince Ivan waited by the castle gate. King Dolmat came forth with Elena on his arm. While Prince Ivan bowed to kiss her hand, Semyon stole the king's cloak of fiery feathers and cast it into the lake as he had been instructed. King Dolmat howled as the water bubbled and boiled, and Prince Ivan cut off his head with one blow of his sword.
“Come, Elena,” Prince Ivan said. “Put on this ring so that I may take you to my father.”
“You are a dutiful son,” Elena replied. “But your father is dead, and your brothers fight over his crown. You must take back the kingdom and rule it wisely.”
Elena drew forth the feather Semyon had brought and used the last of her magic to form a woman from the cloud of steam. She was the most beautiful woman that Prince Ivan had ever seen. He placed the golden ring on her finger, and she came to life. He called her Vasilisa the Wise and lifted her onto his horse.
Semyon held Elena close as they rode home across plains and rivers, valleys and hills. They arrived back at the village in time for the harvest and wished Prince Ivan and Vasilisa every happiness. Elena helped the farmers to thresh the grain. They taught her the best ways to keep it safely stored for the winter. No one would suffer from Father Frost's biting chill. At night, she would build up the fire on the hearth and fall asleep wrapped in Semyon's arms. The forge never went cold again, and they lived their lives in happiness and prosperity.