Once upon a time…in the immense Russian steppe, lay a little village where nearly all the inhabitants bred horses. It was the month of October, when a big livestock market was held yearly in the main town. Two brothers, one rich and the other one poor, set off for market. The rich man rode a stallion, and the poor brother a young mare.
At dusk, they stopped beside an empty hut and tethered their horses outside, before going to sleep themselves on two heaps of straw. Great was their surprise, when, next morning they saw three horses outside, instead of two. Well, to be exact the newcomer was not really a horse. It was a foal, to which the mare had given birth during the night. Soon it had the strength to struggle to its feet, and after a drink of its mother’s milk, the foal staggered its first few steps. The stallion greeted it with a cheerful whinny, and when the two brothers set eyes on it for the first time, the foal was standing beside the stallion.
“It belongs to me!” exclaimed Dimitri, the rich brother, the minute he saw it. “It’s my stallion’s foal.” Ivan, the poor brother, began to laugh.
“Whoever heard of a stallion having a foal? It was born to my mare!”
“No, that’s not true! It was standing close to the stallion, so it’s the stallion’s foal. And therefore it’s mine!” The brothers started to quarrel, then they decided to go to town and bring the matter before the judges. Still arguing, they head ed for the big square where the courtroom stood. But what they didn’t know was that it was a special day, the day when, once a year, the Emperor himself administered the law. He himself received all who came seeking justice. The brothers were ushered into his presence, and they told him all about the dispute.
Of course, the Emperor knew perfectly well who was the owner of the foal. He was on the point of proclaiming in favor of the
poor brother, when suddenly Ivan developed an unfortunate twitch in his eye. The Emperor was greatly annoyed by this familiarity b y a humble peasant, and decided to punish Ivan for his disrespect. After listening to both sides of the story, he declared it was difficult, indeed impossible, to say exactly who was the foal’s rightful owner. And being in the mood for a spot of fun, and since he loved posing riddles and solving them as well, to the amusement of his counselors, he exclaimed:
“I can’t judge which of you should have the foal, so it will be awarded to whichever of you solves the following four riddles: what is the fastest thing in the world? What is the fattest? What’s the softest and what is the most precious? I command you to return to the palace in a week’s time with your answers!” Dimitri started to puzzle over the answers as soon as he left the courtroom. When he reached home, however, he realized he had nobody to help him.
“Well, I will just have to seek help, for if I can’t solve these riddles, I will lose the foal!” Then he remembered a woman, one of his neighbors, to whom he had once lent a silver ducat. That had been some time ago, and with the interest, the neighbor now owed him three ducats. And since she had a reputation for being quick-witted, but also very astute, he decided to ask her advice, in exchange for canceling part of her debt. But the woman was not slow to show how clever she really was, and promptly demanded that the whole debt be wiped out in exchange for the answers.
“The fastest thing in the world is my husband’s bay horse,” she said. “Nothing can beat it! The fattest is our pig! Such a huge beast has never been seen!