This Transylvanian fairy tale is a Ruth Manning-Sanders retelling from the collection A Book of Sorcerers and Spells and begins with a farmer whose fortune has dwindled to the point of bankruptcy. His only hope is to try and recoup some old debts, but being so poor, he has no horse for the journey to his debtors. Instead he sets off on foot, and gets himself badly lost.
Ending up on the edge of a village he’s never seen before, he observes a revel in progress, with musicians playing and all the villagers dancing in the square. The crowds make any forward progress impossible. The farmer is about to leave when a gang of laughing boys catch him and drag him into the tavern, shouting remonstrances. “What the devil! Why aren’t you joining in the fun? You can eat and drink here to your heart’s content, there’s nothing to pay, our lord Kaldoon provides it all! And if you have no money, well, our lord Kaldoon will provide that too!”
Our lord Kaldoon will fix you up with whatever the village is on! is perhaps a more accurate statement. Certainly, nothing about this place is normal, but the farmer is not given any time to think. Someone starts tearing his clothes off, someone else gives him a fashionable new suit. Dressed to the nines and dazed by the insanity of it all, he is propelled inside to meet Kaldoon for himself. The village benefactor/drug dealer is a handsome young man dancing in circles around a table, tossing gold and silver coins like a cross between an obsessive conjurer and a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge.
The farmer is very poor and the extravaganza before his eyes is too much temptation to bear. Filling his pockets, he turns to go, only to find Kaldoon between him and the door. “Don’t go away, old man,” the young lord tells him. “I’ve been expecting you for a long time.” He then makes the farmer an offer: as much money as he wants in return for his daughter Anna’s hand. “Am I not rich?” Kaldoon asks, rhetorically. “Am I not handsome? Am I not a fitting bridegroom for any maiden?”
It doesn’t take the farmer long to decide. Picturing full barns and abundant fields, he accepts the offer on Anna’s behalf, and Kaldoon certainly comes good on the terms. The farmer returns home in a golden coach, trailed by twenty one ox-carts, some bulging with sacks of money, others piled high with beautiful clothes. The carriage is Kaldoon’s own. In seven days time it will come back for Anna.
At first, the farmer’s wife and daughter are petrified at the sight of the lordly procession, assuming that some wealthy lord has come to collect on unexpected debts. Instead, the farmer jumps out, brimming over with excitement, and shares his story. His wife is over the moon. Anna, less so. She’s appalled that her father could sell her life away like this, as if she’s just another commodity. GOOD ON YOU, ANNA.
Her parents do not see things from her perspective. When Anna won’t sleep or eat, her mother shouts that she is ungrateful, and frets that spoiling her beauty might make Kaldoon renounce his bargain. Fortunately, they are not the only advisers in Anna’s life. Her old nurse Maria lives in a nearby cottage with her three grown boys: Seppi, Curran and Flores. Hearing of her neighbours’ abrupt change in fortune, she goes to offer her services, and finds her erstwhile charge sobbing in the courtyard. “Nurse, nurse! I believe my father has sold me to the devil! For surely no human being behaves as that Kaldoon has behaved, throwing about gold and silver, and all of a sudden producing a golden coach that makes music, and such piles of money.” She noticed the weirdness. Anna, you may be the most perspicacious person in a fairy tale ever.
Maria goes inside to talk the matter over with Anna’s mother, only to find her sick in bed with the manic excitement of the past few days. So Maria kindly feeds her some broth, then goes home to think and talk things over with her boys. The brothers are immediately fired up with heroic indignation. “Nothing untoward shall happen to her!” Flores exclaims. “I’ll kill that Kaldoon first!” “What, and be hanged, my son?” Maria points out. Curran suggests they just show up to the wedding and take it from there, so when on the seventh day the golden coach returns to collect the very unwilling bride, the boys are waiting.
Anna has taken measures of her own, hiding in the hayloft. Her father has to physically drag her out and shove her into the coach, and she cries all the way to the village. A grand reception awaits her there, all Kaldoon’s minions having turned out as a welcoming committee, led by Kaldoon himself in a crown and glittering robes. After all that effort, he’s not expecting a white-faced, tear-streaked girl covered in hay who screams at the sight of him. Bribing a girl’s father doesn’t mean she wants to marry you. Who knew?
Outraged, Kaldoon hauls her into the tavern. “So you don’t fancy me, my lady,” he sneers. “Very well, for today I will leave you. But tomorrow is our wedding day, and if you won’t come willingly, I’ll drag you to church at the end of a rope!”
Some time later, a pretty young man sneaks into the tavern with food and wine. He introduces himself as ‘only a poor lad’, but offers to spirit Anna away from the sinister Kaldoon’s clutches if she will accept his love. She decides to take her chances. Unfortunately, he is not one of Maria’s sons; he is in fact Kaldoon, disguised with sorcery, with plans to humiliate and torment the girl who screamed at the sight of him. It turns out you can’t always trust a handsome hero.
Fortunately, there are other options. When Anna and her ‘rescuer’ depart in the dead of night, the three brothers follow with axes and coils of rope, prepared for anything. Seppi and Curran are looking out for Anna as a favour to their mother; Flores, the one who wanted Kaldoon dead from the first, is in love with Anna and sure her suitor is up to no good. He’s perfectly correct. Coming to a ravine, Anna asks how they are to cross and the pretty youth reveals himself not only to be Kaldoon, but a horned, clawed demon sorcerer. He seizes Anna and leaps directly into the ravine.
The boys come running from the cover of the forest. Seppi catches and ties up the horse; Flores tries to leap after his beloved, but Curran pulls him back to plan a more considered descent. The axes come in handy for hacking out footholds. They come at last to a candle-lit cavern, but if they jump down, there is no easy way to get out again. The older brothers lower Flores by the ankles to scout. Kaldoon is within sight, bathing himself and getting into a bed, all the while being served by Anna and screaming abuse at her. When he is at last asleep, Flores calls softly to bring Anna over.
At first she urges the brothers to go away, sure that Kaldoon will wake and tear them to pieces, but they lower a rope to pull her up and somehow all four reach the surface alive. Thanks to Seppi’s foresight, they have a horse for the getaway. Unfortunately, there are rather too many of them to fit on its back. Seppi lifts Anna up and they take it in turns to ride with her, the others running behind.
It’s said there’s no rest for the wicked, but nobody ever told the sorcerer Kaldoon. He sleeps straight through the night, and it’s only when he shouts for Anna’s attendance in the morning that he realises she’s gone. Infuriated beyond belief, he bursts into flames, setting everything within the cavern alight. When the flames die down, all that is left of him is ash. That’s why anger management is so important.
Anna reaches home safely with her trio of heroes and tells the story to her duly repentant parents. The farmer, whose newly gained fortune is still intact, offers the boys any rewards they may choose to ask. Seppi and Curran politely ask for new tools, but Flores cannot articulate what he wants. He just looks at Anna, who is still covered in hay and had no sleep last night and is so beautiful she leaves him speechless. Anna has had two close calls with proposals of late; it’s just as well he doesn’t ask. She does that for him, and her father cannot deny her. “For I think you are both wiser than I am,” he admits, and the right wedding finally takes place.
I adore fairy tale meta and this story bubbles over with fabulous inversions of the norm. Even a tradition as universal as the three brothers is different here, with the boys working as a team to rescue the girl, and the youngest brother being the least sensible of the lot. Anna, of course, is marvellous – she knows from the start there’s something bizarre about her father’s benefactor, and tries repeatedly to escape her fate. It’s because of her good sense, sharing her problem with a friend, that she gets rescued at all. I loved this one the first time I read it and I love it even more now.