A certain merchant died. His son was nineteen years old at the time. He said to his mother: “Mother dear, I’m going to try my luck in the world.”
His mother answered: “Go, dear son, but don’t stay long there, for I am old, and should like some help in my old age.” She fitted him out for the journey, and said good-bye to him.
Out into the world went the son, and he travelled on till he came into a forest. He had been going through it for three days, and no end appeared. On the third day he kept on and came at last to a cottage. He went into the cottage and he saw a horrible being seated on a stool. The fellow asked him where he was going.
“I don’t know where I am going. I’m seeking my fortune in some service.”
“Well, if you like, you can enter my service.”
The lad was very hungry, so he took service with the other.
His master said to him: “You must serve me for a year at least.”
So he served him for a year. He was treated very well, and he was a faithful servant to his master. The master was a sorcerer, but he didn’t do any harm to the lad. He had a big pond, and three doves used to come there to bathe. Each of them had three golden feathers. These three doves were three enchanted princesses.
When the year’s service was ended, the sorcerer said: “What wages shall I give you?”
The lad said he left it to him.
“You’re a good lad,” said the sorcerer. “Come with me to my cellar and take as much money as you like, gold or silver, just as you wish.”
So the lad took as much as he could carry, and the sorcerer gave him one of the three doves too, saying:
“When you get home, if you haven’t got a house of your own, have one built, and then pluck those three feathers out of the dove, and hide them away so carefully that no human eye can see them. The dove will turn into a lovely princess and you may marry her.”
So he took the dove and returned home. He had a house built and made a secret place in one of the walls for the three feathers. When he plucked out the feathers the dove became a beautiful princess, but she did not know where the feathers were. But his mother knew quite well, for he had told her all and showed her where the feathers were hidden.
When they had been living together for three years he went a-hunting one day with another lord, and his mother stayed at home with her daughter-in-law. The mother said to her: “Dear daughter-in-law, I can’t tell you how beautiful I think you. If one were to search the whole world through, one couldn’t find so beautiful a woman.”
The daughter-in-law answered: “Dear lady, the beauty I have now is nothing to what I should have had I but one of my golden feathers.”
The mother went straight off, fetched one of the feathers, and gave it to her.
She thrust it into her skin, and she was immediately far more beautiful than before. The mother kept looking at her, and said: “If you had the others as well, you would be even more beautiful.” Then she fetched the other two feathers and gave them to her.
She thrust them into her skin, and behold! she was a dove again. She flew off through the window, thanking her mother-in-law: “Thank you, dearest mother, for giving me these three feathers. I will wait a little for my husband, to say good-bye to him.”
So she perched on the roof to wait till her husband should return from the forest.
Now, the husband’s nose fell to bleeding violently. He grew frightened, and began to wonder what great misfortune had befallen him at home. He mounted his horse and hastened home. As he was approaching the door the dove called out: “Good-bye, dear husband. I thank you for your true love, but you will never see me more.”
Then the dove flew away, and the husband began to weep and to wail. Of course, he was very angry with his mother, and he decided to go away again and follow wherever his eyes might lead him. So he started off, and he went back to the sorcerer in whose service he had been before. As soon as he entered the sorcerer said:
“Aha! you have not followed my advice. I won’t help you this time; the three doves are gone from here. But go to my brother, for all the birds and animals are under his power, and perhaps some of them might know where the doves are. I will give you a ball, and when you roll it three times, you will get there this evening. You must ask him whether he knows anything about the doves, and you must tell him, too, that I sent you to him.”
The lad thanked him heartily and went on his way. He rolled the ball thrice and reached the other brother’s by evening. He told him that his brother had asked to be remembered kindly to him, and then he asked whether he knew where the doves that used to bathe in his brother’s pond were.
The brother answered: “My good lad, I know nothing at all about them. You must wait till morning. All the birds and animals are under my power, and if they know anything about it, it will be all right.”
In the morning they went to the forest. The brother blew a whistle, and instantly swarms of birds gathered round, asking what was their master’s will.
He said: “Tell me, does any one of you know about those three golden doves which used to bathe in my brother’s pond?”
None of them knew, so he blew his whistle again and all manner of animals gathered round him: bears, lions, squirrels, wolves, every kind of wild animal, and they asked what was their master’s will.
He said: “I would know whether any one of you knows anything about three golden doves which used to bathe in my brother’s pond.”
None of them knew. So he said:
“My dear lad, I cannot help you any more in this matter, but I have another brother, and, if he cannot tell you anything about them, then you will never hear of them any more. He dwells twice seventy miles from here, and all the devils of Hell are subjected to him. I will give you another ball like the one you had yesterday, and, when you have rolled it thrice, you will get there before evening.”
He rolled the ball thrice and got there the same evening. The sorcerer was sitting in his garden on the grass. His hair was all dishevelled like a mop, his paunch was bare like a pail, his nose reached to his middle, and was as bare as a stick—in fact, his appearance was terrible.
The lad was terrified, but the sorcerer said: “Don’t be frightened, my boy; though I look so hideous, yet I have a good heart. What do you want?”
“I have come from your brother to ask whether you can tell me about the three doves which used to bathe in your brother’s pond.”
“My dear lad, I know nothing about them, but as soon as you get up in the morning I will call my apprentices, to find if any one of them knows anything about the doves.”
In the morning they got up and went into the forest. The sorcerer blew a whistle, and at once hosts of devils appeared, such a multitude that they darkened the whole forest.
The lad was frightened, but the sorcerer said: “Don’t be afraid; not a hair of your head shall be harmed.”
The devils asked what was their master’s will.
He said: “Does any one of you know anything, about the three doves which used to bathe in my brother’s pond?”
None of them knew anything. The sorcerer looked about him and asked: “Where is the lame one?”
The lame one had been left behind, but he was hurrying up for fear he should be too late. He came and asked what was his master’s will. The sorcerer answered: “I want to find out whether you know anything about those three doves that used to bathe in my brother’s pond.”
“Of course I know about them, for I have been driving them before me. They are bathing in the Red Sea now.”
The sorcerer said: “You must take up this man and carry him as far as their gold-roofed palace,” and he took the lad aside and whispered in his ear:
“When the devil asks you how quick he is to take you, if he says: ‘As quickly as the wind blows?’ say ‘No’; and if he says, ‘As quickly as the step goes?’ say ‘No’ again. But if he says, ‘As quickly as the air goes?’ say ‘Even so.’ If your cap falls, do not look after it, and don’t tell the devil about it, or he will let you fall and won’t carry you to the palace. When you are seven miles from the palace you will see it, and the devil will ask you if you see it; but shut your eyes tight and say that you can’t see it. When you are three miles from it, you will see it quite plainly, and he will ask you again whether you see it. But you must shut your eyes tight and say that you can’t see it. Then you will be above the palace roof, and he will ask you again whether you see it. You must say again that you can’t see it, or he will let you drop on the roof and you won’t be able to get down.”
The devil took the man and flew with him as the air goes. When they were seven miles from the palace, the devil asked: “Do you see the palace now? It is quite plain to see now.”
The lad shut his eyes tight and said that he couldn’t see it. So they flew on, and when they were three miles from the castle the devil asked him did he see it now. He shut his eyes tight and said that he couldn’t see it. When they were right over the roof, the devil asked: “Surely you must see it now; we are just over the roof.”
But he shut his eyes tight and said: “I don’t see it.”
The devil said angrily: “You must be blind if you can’t see it; we are just above the roof.” And he seized him in anger, and set him on the golden table in that royal castle.
The three princesses were sitting at the table, knitting with golden thread. His own wife was the middle one, and she knew him at once. She sprang up right gladly and welcomed him with joy. She nearly fainted, she was so pleased that he had been able to come so many miles in such a short time.
“Welcome, dear husband, welcome! Welcome, our deliverer! You will save us from the enchantment under which we are in this castle.”
The time passed very slowly there. So one day his wife brought him the keys and showed him through all the rooms and closets, letting him see everything except one room, which she would not open for him.
The three princesses had to take the shape of doves for two hours in the morning and three hours before the evening, and they had to go to the Red Sea to bathe there. One day when they had gone out to bathe he thought: “Why don’t you want to open that room for me?” So he went and searched among the other keys for the key, and opened the room for himself.
In the room he saw a three-headed dragon, and each of its heads was stuck upon a hook so that it hung down from it. Under the dragon were placed three glasses of water. The lad was terrified and started to run away. But the dragon kept on calling out: “Don’t be frightened, don’t run away, but come back again and give me that glass of water. Your life shall be spared this once.”
So he gave him the glass of water; the dragon drained it up, and instantly one of the heads fell from the hook. He begged again: “Now give me that other glass of water, and your life shall be spared a second time.”
He gave it him; the dragon drank it up, and immediately the second head fell from the hook. Then the dragon said: “Now do as you like. But you must give me the third glass of water, whether you like it or not!”
In terror he gave him the third glass; the third head drank it up and fell from its hook. Now the dragon was quite free, and instantly he made for the Red Sea, and began to chase after the three doves until he caught one of them. It was the lad’s wife.
The other two princesses came back again and began to weep and to wail.
“Thou luckless fellow! we were happy in the hope that thou wouldst deliver us, and now we are worse off than ever—now our torments will last till doomsday!”
He, too, burst into tears, for he was sad at heart that the dragon had carried off his wife, whom he had won at the risk of his life.
The princesses’ three brothers were under enchantment too. One of them was in the castle, changed into the shape of a horse. One day the horse said to the sorrowing husband: “The dragon is away from home now. Let us go and steal the princess.”
So they went to the dragon’s castle, carried off the princess, and ran for home. The other brother of the three princesses was in the dragon’s castle under enchantment in the shape of a horse.
When the dragon came home, he said to the horse: “Where is my princess?”
The horse answered: “They came and carried her away.”
The dragon mounted the horse at once and said: “Now we’ll ride as fast as we can. We must overtake them.”
The horse answered: “We cannot possibly overtake them.”
But the dragon said: “Only let us start; we shall overtake them.”
They started, and they overtook them near the castle. The dragon snapped the princess away at once, saying to the lad: “I promised to spare your life in return for that glass of water; now I have spared it, but don’t dare to come to my castle ever again.”
And with that the dragon rode home, carrying the princess with him.
Some time after that the horse said to the sorrowing husband: “The dragon is away from home again. Let us go and steal the princess.”
So they went and stole her again.
The dragon came home and asked the horse: “Where is my princess?”
The horse answered: “Hibad! They have stolen her again, but we cannot overtake them this time.”
The dragon said: “We must overtake them.”
He mounted the horse, and they went flying after them till at last they overtook them. The dragon snapped away the princess, saying to the lad: “There’s your life spared for the second glass. But if you come again, I’ll tear you to pieces.”
The lad was sorrowful, and wept and bewailed his fate because he had lost his wife for ever. But the horse said:
“I will give you one more counsel. I know a place where there are some young ravens. We will go there, and you must take the young ravens from their nest on the tree. The old ones will fly at you and peck you—they won’t want to let you have their young chicks; but tell them that you won’t give them back their chicks unless they bring you the healing water and the water of life.
“When they bring the water, take one of the young ravens and pull its head off; then dip it in the healing water and put the head to the body again. That’s how you will be certain that they have brought you the real water of life. If the wound grows together again, you may be sure it is the real water of life. As soon as the wound has grown together, take the water of life and pour some of it into the raven’s bill, and when the bird revives, you will know quite certainly that it is the water of life.”
The lad did all this. The old ravens brought him the water in leather bottles. He took one of the chicks, pulled its head off, dipped it into the healing water, and the wound grew together again. Then he poured some of the water of life into its bill, and it came alive again. Then he put the young ravens back into the nest again, took the water, and went home.
When he got there, the horse said to him: “The dragon is away from home to-day. Let us go and see if we can get the princess.”
So off they went and carried away the princess. They ran off as fast as they could.
The dragon came home and asked the horse: “Where is my princess?”
The horse replied: “She’s gone from us. They’ve carried her off again, and this time we shall never catch up with them.”
The dragon said in a rage: “What should prevent us from getting her back? Let’s go at once.”
So they flew after them, and they reached the castle just as the fugitives were going in through the gate.
The dragon snapped the princess away, saying to the lad: “You rascal! I told you I would tear you to pieces if you came a third time for her.”
So he caught hold of him, and took a foot in each claw, and tore him in two. Then he went off with the princess and the horse.
The lad’s horse took the healing water, dipped the two halves into it, put the one against the other, and they grew together. Then he took the water of life and poured it into the lad’s mouth, and he was alive again. Then they went into the castle.
The lad was weeping bitterly and crying out that all was over, that now he would be separated from his wife for ever. But the horse gave him comfort, saying:
“Well, I really don’t know what advice I ought to give you now. We have been three times, and he caught up with us every time. And the last time you were torn in pieces. I don’t know how things will turn out. But I have another brother across the Red Sea, and he is stronger than I or the dragon. If we could only get him, we should be sure to kill the dragon. But it’s a hard thing to do, for he is in service with the Devil’s grandmother. We will try it together, if only we can manage to cross the Red Sea. And, if you follow the advice I give you, you will get the horse.
“You must serve the Devil’s grandmother for three days, and, when you have served the three days, you must ask for that lean horse as wages. You will have to herd twelve horses for three days. Nobody has ever managed to do it yet. When the first day’s service is done, on the next day the Devil’s grandmother always cuts off the servant’s head and hangs it on a hook. Now, listen carefully. While you are herding the horses, anything the hag gives you to eat at home, eat your fill of it. But, if she gives you anything to eat in the field, do not eat it, but throw it away. If you were to eat it, sleep would come down on you, your horses would stray, and the Devil’s grandmother would cut off your head and hang it upon a hook.”
So off they went together till they came to the Red Sea. As they were drawing near to the sea, they saw a huge fly entangled in a cobweb and struggling to free itself. So the lad went up to it and said: “Poor fly! You can’t get out of that cobweb; wait a bit, and I will help you.”
The cobweb was as big as a sheet, but he tore it in two and the fly crept out.
The fly said: “Thank you for helping me out of the cobweb. Tear one of my feet from under my belly, and, whenever you are in need, think of me, and I will help you.”
The lad thought: “Poor fly! how could you help me?” Nevertheless, he tore off one of her feet and kept it.
Then he went on his way, and he saw a wolf with his tail trapped under a heavy log, and he was unable to help himself, for wolves have stiff backs, and no wolf has ever been able to turn. The lad rolled the log away and released the wolf.
The wolf said: “Thank you for helping me. Take one of my claws, and, whenever you are in sore need, think of me, and I will help you.” So the lad took one of his claws and kept it.
When he got quite close to the sea, he saw a crab as big as a barrel. The crab was lying on the sand with his belly upwards, and he couldn’t manage to turn himself over again. So the lad went and turned the crab over again. The crab asked him where he was going. He said he was going to the Devil’s grandmother across the Red Sea.
The crab said: “My dear lad, I’ll make a bridge for you across the sea, so that you will be able to get across. But, besides that, you must pluck off one of my claws from under my belly, and when you are in sore need, think of me, and I will help you.”
So he plucked off one of the claws and kept it. The crab sidled into the sea, and immediately all the crabs of the sea came together, and they closed in on one another so that they made a bridge across the sea. The lad crossed the bridge and came to the Devil’s grandmother. She was standing waiting for him in the doorway of her house, and welcomed him. He’d just come at the right time; she wanted him to herd her horses. She gave him plenty of good food to eat, and sent him out to the fields. She put twelve horses in his charge, and said to him:
“Look to it that you herd them well, for if you lose one of them you will lose your head. Just look here at these twenty-four posts, with a hook on each one of them. There are heads on twenty-three of them. The last hook is waiting for your head. If you herd my horses badly, that hook is waiting for your head.”
Then she fitted him out for herding the horses. She gave him a piece of bread, so that he might have enough to eat and not starve. He meant to follow the horse’s advice, and threw the bread away. But a fierce hunger came upon him, and he had to go and look for the bread and eat it up.
The moment he had eaten it he fell asleep and all the horses were lost. When he awoke there wasn’t a single horse there. Sorrowfully he said: “The Devil’s grandmother was right; my head will hang from that hook.” In his grief he thought of the fly, and it came flying up and called out: “Why are you weeping and wailing?”
He said that he had been hungry, and had been forced to eat the bread, so that he fell asleep and all the horses were lost.
The fly tried to comfort him, saying: “Don’t be troubled, dear lad; I will help you.”
So she called together all the flies, and they flew everywhere looking for the horses, and when they found them, they buzzed round them and plagued them till they drove them up to the herdsman. He drove them joyfully home.
The Devil’s grandmother welcomed them, and when she saw that all the horses were there, she said: “You’ve herded them well enough, for you have brought them all back.” Then she seized a hatchet and began to beat the horses with it, and most of all the lean one, till the flesh hung in strips from its body. The lad was sorry for the horse, for the hag was beating it hardest and it was the leanest of them all. But the Devil’s grandmother took a salve and anointed the horses’ wounds, and they were healed by morning.
The next day she fitted him out again for herding the horses, and gave him some more of the bread, telling him to eat it all. But when he came to the pasture he crumbled the bread and trampled the crumbs into the ground, so that it should be uneatable. But it was no good. He was forced to dig it up and eat it, earth and all, so great was the hunger that the Devil’s grandmother had sent against him. In a moment he fell asleep and all the horses were lost.
When he woke he saw that there were no horses there. He wept and wailed. But he thought of the wolf, and the wolf came running up and asked him: “Why are you weeping and wailing? Don’t be troubled; I will help you.”
He went and summoned all the wolves. A great flock of wolves ran up, and they scattered everywhere, looking for the horses. When they found them, they drove them to the herdsman, each horse with a wolf at its side leading it by the ear. The herdsman was overjoyed, and took the horses and drove them home.
The Devil’s grandmother was waiting for him in front of the house. She said: “Indeed you have herded them well; this is the second day that you have brought them all home.” But she beat the horses with the hatchet far worse than the day before; then she anointed their wounds with the salve, so that they should be healed by morning.
On the third day she sent him out again to herd the horses, and gave him some more of the bread, telling him to eat it and not to throw it away. But when he came to the pasture he threw the bread down on the sand and trampled it in, so that it should be uneatable. But he had to search it out again, so great was the hunger the Devil’s grandmother sent against him. The moment he had finished it he fell asleep and the horses were lost. When he woke he burst into tears. This time it was all up with him; the fly and the wolf had helped him before, but the crab had already made a bridge for him, so there was nobody to help him. The horses didn’t know where to hide themselves to save themselves from being beaten by the Devil’s grandmother, so they leapt into the sea, where nobody could find them.
The herdsman was in agony, and he kept on wailing that now his head must hang upon that hook. At last he thought of the crab. The crab turned round in the sea, and instantly all the crabs collected and began searching the sea for the horses, and they pinched them until they drove them out of the sea. But the lean one, since he couldn’t think of a better hiding-place, crouched under the crab’s belly. The other crabs set to work to look for him, and at last they found him. The big crab had to turn over, and then they drove the lean horse out. The herdsman took the horses and drove them home joyfully, because his three days of service were now over.
The Devil’s grandmother was waiting for him, and she beat the horses with the hatchet so fiercely that their flesh hung in strips from their bodies. Then she anointed them with the salve, and the wounds healed by morning. In the morning she asked the herdsman what wages he wanted. He answered: “I want nothing but that lean old horse.”
She said: “It would be a sorry thing to give you such a wretched horse in return for such good service; I will give you the best horse.”
He answered: “I won’t take any horse but the lean one.”
She asked him why he wanted the leanest one. He replied: “Because I am sorry for him, for he always gets the worst beating. I will have that one, and no other.”
So she said: “Well, I will give him to you, if you must have him, but I will give you this fat one too. You can ride on his back home and lead the lean one with you.”
He mounted the fat horse and rode off. But when they were drawing near to the gate, the lean horse said: “Get down from that horse and mount me, or you will be the worse for it.”
So he jumped down from the fat horse and mounted the lean one.
The fat horse growled: “It’s the Devil gave you that advice.”
And the lean horse said: “If you had gone under the gate on that horse’s back, he would have dashed you against the vault of the gate, so that your head would have been knocked off, and you would have been killed.”
So they came safely home. When the princesses saw him come back they were delighted.
The other horse said: “Now, brother, let us go. The dragon is away from home, and the princess will be ours.” So they went and carried off the princess.
When the dragon came home, he asked his horse: “Where is my princess?”
The horse replied: “She has gone, and this time we shan’t get her back. The horse from the Red Sea has come, and he will get the better of us all.”
The dragon took no heed of that, but flew after them and caught them up just by the gate. He was going to snap the princess away, but this time he could not do it. For the horse from over the Red Sea kicked his nose with his hoof, so that the dragon fell down from his horse, and the other two horses fell upon him, and between them they killed the dragon.
They came to the castle with the princess, and they were congratulating one another on their victory over their enemy. Then the horse which had been giving good advice to his rider all the time said: “Now, dear brother-in-law, take my sword there hanging from the ceiling and cut my head off.”
He was sad and said: “How could I do that, after all the acts of kindness you have done for me?”
The horse said: “My good friend, I cannot tell you why you must behead me, but you would do me a great wrong if you did not do it.”
So he hesitated no longer, but cut his head off. The blood spurted up twelve feet high, and instantly the horse became a beautiful youth. Seeing that, the lad was quick to behead the other horses, and they all turned into handsome princes like the first one.
They all thanked him for delivering them, and they made him king of that castle, and there he lived with his wife and her two sisters in all happiness and harmony till they died. The three brothers took possession of the dragon’s castle.