Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/An ancient Russian legend

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX  (1863) 
An ancient Russian legend
by Walter Thornbury


AN ANCIENT RUSSIAN LEGEND.

[Taken down from the lips of a Siberian Cossack, by a Russian gentleman, in 1840. It is probably a fragment of a very ancient Saga, preserved by oral tradition. It is entitled “How the Race of the Vitiazes (heroes) died out of Bright Russia.”]

Our brawny shoulders are not tired, nor do our strong arms ache;
Our stalwart horses need no draught their battle thirst to slake;
Our steel swords are not blunted yet,” one of the heroes cried—
Alosha Popovitsch the young, that champion lion-eyed,
Send us a host with strength divine, send us both foot and horse,
And we, the Vitiazes bold, will tame that heavenly force.”
Just as he spoke those unwise words, so full of sound and flame,
Slowly towards those boasting men two mounted warriors came,
Mantled and arm’d as simple folk: and lo, they call’d aloud,
Well! Vitiazes, let us strike, since ye’re so hot and proud.
We are but two, and you are seven; yet Heaven gives us might;
The odds are great; more fame for us,—come, heroes, let us fight.”
Alosha Popovitsch his wrath could scarcely bridle then.
He curb’d his horse, and threw himself upon those scornful men;
With all his brawny shoulders’ might, he cut those horsemen through,—
One drawing stroke, one gashing blow, and they were hewn in two.
But lo! the stricken men rose up unhurt, and changed to four.
All were alive, and all were arm’d, and fiercer than of yore.
But Dobreena, the stalwart brave, could not restrain him then;
He rein’d his horse, and threw himself upon those magic men.
With a strong shoulder blow he hew’d those sturdy horsemen through,—
One drawing stroke, one slashing cut, he clove them all in two.
But swift the stricken men rose up; the four were changed to eight!
Stern, hot, and eager for the fray—proud, fierce, bold and elate.
Then Reilga of Moorsoom his wrath could not restrain him then,
He curbed his horse, and threw himself upon those scornful men.
One mighty blow, one angry stroke, he slashed the horsemen through:
Deep-piercing brain and heart and lungs; he clove them all in two.
But swift the stricken men arose, and lo! the eight men slain
Were sixteen warriors, arm’d and fierce, and on their steeds again! [1]

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Then all the Vitiazes rode fierce spurring at the band:
With rage at heart, they hew’d and cut, and smote off head and hand;
They struck them down with spear and sword: and still, for all they quelled,
Their horses trampled under foot more than the heroes felled.
But yet the horsemen grew and grew with an increasing might,
And still they gave and took the blows, in that heroic fight.
The Vitiazes fought three days, three hours, three moments strove,
Until their mighty shoulders tired, though still they struck and clove.
Their chargers brave were waste and worn, their bridles while with froth;
Their steel swords blunted with the heat and vengeance of their wrath.
But still that army grew and grew with an increasing might,
And still they gave and took the blows, in that heroic fight.
Twas then the Vitiazes fled before that magic force,
And threw their arms away, and spurr’d each one his bleeding horse.
They fled unto the mountain-pass—unto the dark stone caves—
Where the great rocks were heaved and toss’d in changeless frozen waves.
As soon as the first Vitiaz approach’d, he turn’d to marble stone;
Ere the next horseman had come up, he to a rock had grown;
And as the rest rode fiercely on, they too were changed straightway,
And so the race of heroes pass’d from our bright land away.

Walter Thornbury.


  1. The reader must here kindly imagine the blows of the four other Vitiazes, who, in turn, in spite of the severe “punishment” they inflict, find the magic horsemen multiply horribly beneath their swords.