The Tale of the Golden Cockerel
by Alexander Sergeevitch Pushkin, 1834
Somewhere, in a thrice-nine kingdom, in a thrice-ten state, lived the great Tsar Dadon. In his youth he had been bold and ruthless, and waged terrible wars against the rulers of neighbouring kingdoms -- but in his old age he wanted to rest from war, and build a peaceful life. Then the neighbouring rulers started to attack the old king, as viciously as he had done before. To guard the borders of his kingdom he had to maintain a huge army. His officers tried hard, but they just could not succeed -- if they were expecting the enemy from the south, the armies would appear from the east. If they were organized against attack on land, the savage intruders would appear from the sea. Tsar Dadon could not sleep; he wept with fury. Life was becoming unbearable. So he turned for help to a sorcerer, and astrologer; he sent a messenger begging him to come to the court.
The sorcerer came up close to Dadon's throne, and pulled from his bag a golden cockerel. "Take this bird," he said to the tsar, "and place it on top of the highest pinnacle. My cockerel will guard you faithfully -- as long as all is peaceful, he will sit in silence on the spire. But if there is a threat of war from any side, or forces massed for attack, or an unexpected danger, in a flash the cockerel will raise his crest, spread his wings and crow aloud, and will turn on his spire to face the direction from which danger comes."
The tsar was delighted with the sorcerer, and made him a promise. "In return for this favour," he said, "I will grant your first wish, whatever it may be, as if it were my own."
The cockerel kept watch over the kingdom from his high spire. Whenever danger could be seen, the faithful sentry would rouse himself as if from a sleep, spread his wings, and turning towards the danger, cry: "Cock-a-doodle-doo! Reign in peace, tsar!" And the neighbouring rulers grew quiet, and did not dare to go to war, for Tsar Dadon could now fend them off from all sides.
A year, and then another, went by in peace. The cockerel sat in silence. Then, one day, Tsar Dadon was awakened by a terrible noise: "Tsar, your Majesty!" shouted the commander, "Sir, wake up, please!"
"That's the matter?" asked Dadon, yawning. "Who's there -- what's the trouble?" The commander told him: "The cockerel is crowing; the whole city is filled with fear and chaos." The tsar went to the window -- he saw that the cockerel had turned on the spire to face the east. There was no time to lose. "Quickly! Men - to horse! Faster - faster!" The tsar sent out an army to the east, with his eldest son in command. The cockerel calmed down, the clamour quietened, and the tsar settled down again.
Eight days passed, and no news came from the war. No one knew whether or not there had been a battle, and Dadon received no messenger. Then the cockerel crowed again. The tsar called up another army force, and this time he sent his younger son to the rescue of the elder. The cockerel was silent.
Once again, no news came. And again, eight days passed. The people of the town spent the days in terror...then the cockerel shrilled once more. The tsar called up a third army, and himself lead them away to the east, not knowing what they would find.
Day and night they moved on; it was becoming unbearable. They found no sign of killing, no camp site, no burial place. A week had already passed, and the tsar was leading his men into the mountains. Suddenly, among the highest peaks, they saw a silken tent. In a narrow mountain pass lay the bodies of the defeated army; men stood around the tent in silent amazement. Tsar Dadon rushed forward - what a terrible sight! Before him his two sons lay dead, without their armour, their swords driven through each other. Their horses wandered loose in the crushed and blood-stained grass. The tsar began to weep: "My sons, my sons! Both my proud falcons caught in one net! I shall die from grief!" The people began to mourn with their tsar. With a heavy moan the depths of the hills echoed, and the heart of the mountains shook at its foundation
Suddenly, the silken tent swept open, and a girl, a princess of Shamakhan, shimmering with beauty like the dawn, stepped out to meet the king. Like the birds of night before the sun, the tsar was silenced. At the sight of her, he forgot the death of his sons. She smiled at Dadon - and with a little bow, took his hand and led him into her tent. There she sat him at the head of the table, and feasted him with sumptuous food, and he lay on a bed of brocade. A week passed, as Dadon stayed with her in utter entrancement, spellbound.
At length, Dadon set out on his journey home, with his armies and the young princess. Before them galloped the rumours, spreading both fact and fiction. The townspeople met them at the city gates, with a noisy welcome. Everyone ran behind Dadon and his princess in the royal carriage, and Dadon greeted everyone. Then, in the town, he caught sight of his old friend the sorcerer, whose turbaned head rose in the crowd like the head of a grizzled swan. "Greetings, old man" called the tsar. "Come over here and tell me if there is anything you want." "Tsar," replied the wise man, "do you remember? You promised me that, in return for my favour to you, you would grant the first thing I ask for. So please let me now have the girl, the Shamakhan princess."
"What!" cried Dadon, aghast. "Either a devil has got into you, or you have lost your senses. What can you be thinking of? Of course I gave you my promise, but everything must have its limits. And remember who I am - ask me rather for a chest of gold, or a noble title, or a horse from the royal stables - ask for half my kingdom!"
"I want none of those. Let me take the Shamakhan princess," the wise man replied. The tsar spat with fury: "What an evil man! No, you will get nothing! You have brought trouble on yourself, old man - drag him away!"
The old man wanted to argue in his defense, but with some people it is best not to argue. Tsar Dadon hit him on the forehead with his staff; the old man fell to the ground, and died. The whole crowd shuddered in horror, but the princess burst into high peals of laughter. The tsar, although he was greatly alarmed, smiled at her. Then, as Dadon was moving on into the town, a sudden slight sound was heard, and the assembled townspeople watched as the cockerel swooped down from the spire, flew to the carriage, and alighted on top of the tsar's head. He spread his wings, pecked once a the tsar's head, and soared up into the sky ... and Dadon fell from his carriage, sighed once - and died. And the princess vanished, as if she had never existed....
This story isn't true, but there's a hint in it; a lesson for all the young and ruthless.
(1834 Pushkin's Fairy Tales)