THERE was once an aged king who had an only son. One day he called the prince to him and said: "My dear son, you know that ripe fruit falls in order to make room for other fruit. This my old head is like ripe fruit and soon the sun will no longer shine upon it. Now before I die I should like to see you happily married. Get you a wife, my son."
"I would, my father, that I could please you in this," the prince answered, "but I know of no one who would make you a worthy daughter-in-law."
The old king reached into his pocket, drew out a golden key, and handed it to the prince. He said:
"Go up into the tower to the very top. There look about you and when you have decided what you like best of all you see, come back and tell me."
The prince took the key and at once mounted the tower. He had never before gone to the very top and he had never heard what was there. He went up and up until at last he saw a small iron door in the ceiling. He opened this with the golden key, pushed it back, and entered a large circular hall. The ceiling was blue and silver like the heavens on a bright night when the stars shine, and the floor was covered with a green silken carpet. There were twelve tall windows set in gold frames, and on the crystal glass of each window a beautiful young girl was pictured in glowing colors. Every one of them was a princess with a royal crown upon her head. As the prince looked at them it seemed to him that each was more lovely than the last, and for the life of him he knew not which was the loveliest. Then they began to move as if alive, and they smiled at the prince and nodded, and looked as if they were about to speak.
Suddenly the prince noticed that one of the twelve windows was covered with a white curtain. He pulled the curtain aside and there without any question was the most beautiful princess of them all, clothed in pure white, with a silver girdle and a crown of pearls. Her face was deathly pale and sad as the grave.
For a long time the prince stood before this picture in utter amazement and as he looked at it a pain seemed to enter his heart.
"This one I want for my bride," he said aloud, "this one and no other."
At these words the maiden bowed, flushed like a rose, and then instantly all the pictures disappeared.
When the prince told his father what he had seen and which maiden he had chosen, the old king was greatly troubled.
"My son," he said, "you did ill to uncover what was covered and in declaring this, your choice, you have exposed yourself to a great danger. This maiden is in the power of a black magician who holds her captive in an iron castle. Of all who have gone to rescue her not one has ever returned. However, what's done is done and you have given your word. Go, then, try what fortune has in store for you, and may Heaven bring you back safe and sound."
So the prince bade his father farewell, mounted his horse, and rode forth to find his bride. His first adventure was to lose his way in a deep forest. He wandered about some time not knowing where to turn when suddenly he was hailed from behind with these words:
"Hey, there, master, wait a minute!"
He looked around and saw a tall man running toward him.
"Take me into your service, master," the tall man said. "If you do you won't regret it."
"What is your name," the prince asked, "and what can you do?"
"People call me Longshanks because I can stretch myself out. I'll show you. Do you see a bird's nest in the top of that tall fir? I'll get it down for you and not by climbing the tree either."
So saying he began to stretch out and his body shot up and up until he was as tall as the fir tree. He reached over and got the nest and then, in a shorter time than it had taken him to stretch out, he reduced himself to his natural size.
"You do your trick very well," the prince said, "but just now a bird's nest isn't of much use to me. What I need is some one to show me the way out of this forest."
"H'm," Longshanks said, "that's an easy enough matter."
Again he began to stretch himself up and up and up until he was three times as tall as the highest pine in the forest. He looked around and said: "Over there, in that direction, is the nearest way out."
Then he made himself small again, took the horse by the bridle, walked ahead, and in a short time they emerged from the forest.
A broad plain stretched out before them and beyond it they could see tall gray rocks that looked like the walls of a great city and mountains overgrown with forests.
Longshanks pointed off across the plain and said: "There, master, goes a comrade of mine who would be very useful to you. You ought to take him into your service too."
"Very well," said the prince, "call him here that I may find out what sort of a fellow he is."
"He is too far away to call," Longshanks said. "He wouldn't hear my voice and if he did he would be a long time in reaching us, for he has much to carry. I had better step over and get him myself."
As he said this, Longshanks stretched out and out until his head was lost in the clouds. He took two or three strides, reached his comrade, set him on his shoulder, and brought him to the prince.
The new man was heavily built and round as a barrel.
"Who are you?" the prince asked. "And what can you do?"
"I am called Girth," the man said. "I can widen myself."
"Let me see you do it," the prince said.
"Very well, master," said Girth, beginning to puff out, "I will. But take care! Ride off into the forest as fast as you can!"
The prince did not understand the warning, but he saw that Longshanks was in full flight, so he spurred his horse and galloped after him.
It was just as well he did, for in another moment Girth would have crushed both him and his horse, so fast did he spread out, so huge did he become. In a short time he filled the whole plain until it looked as though a mountain had fallen upon it.
When the plain was entirely covered, he stopped expanding, heaved a deep breath that shook the forest trees, and returned to his natural size.
"You made me run for my life!" the prince said. "I tell you I don't meet a fellow like you every day! By all means join me."
They went across the plain and as they neared the rocks they met a man whose eyes were bandaged with a handkerchief.
"Master," said Longshanks, "there is my other comrade. Take him into your service, too, and I can tell you you won't regret the bread he eats."
"Who are you?" the prince asked. "And why do you keep your eyes bandaged? You can't see where you're going."
"On the contrary, master, it is just because I see too well that I have to bandage my eyes. With bandaged eyes I see as well as other people whose eyes are uncovered. When I take the handkerchief off, my sight is so keen it goes straight through everything. When I look at anything intently it catches fire, and if it can't burn, it crumbles to pieces. On account of my sight I'm called Keen."
He untied the handkerchief, turned to one of the rocks opposite, and gazed at it with glowing eyes. Soon the rock began to crumble and fall to pieces. In a few moments it was reduced to a heap of sand. In the sand something gleamed like fire. Keen picked it up and handed it to the prince. It was a lump of pure gold.
"Ha, ha!" said the prince. "You are a fine fellow and worth more than wages! I should be a fool not to take you into my service. Since you have such keen eyes, look and tell me how much farther it is to the Iron Castle and what is happening there now."
"If you rode there alone," Keen answered, "you might get there within a year, but with us to help you, you will arrive this very day. Our coming is not unexpected, either, for at this very moment they are preparing supper for us."
"What is the captive princess doing?"
"She is sitting in a high tower behind an iron grating. The magician stands on guard."
"If you are real men," the prince cried, "you will all help me to free her."
The three comrades promised they would.
They led the prince straight through the gray rocks by a defile which Keen made with his eyes, and on and on through high mountains and deep forests. Whatever obstacle was in the way one or another of the three comrades was able to remove it.
By late afternoon they had crossed the last mountain, had left behind them the last stretch of dark forest, and they saw looming up ahead of them the Iron Castle.
Just as the sun sank the prince and his followers crossed the drawbridge and entered the courtyard gate. Instantly the drawbridge lifted and the gate clanged shut.
They went through the courtyard and the prince put his horse in the stable, where he found a place all in readiness. Then the four of them marched boldly into the castle.
Everywhere--in the courtyard, in the stables, and now in the various rooms of the castle--they saw great numbers of richly clad men all of whom, masters and servants alike, had been turned to stone.
They went on from one room to another until they reached the banquet hall. This was brilliantly lighted and the table, with food and drink in abundance, was set for four persons. They waited, expecting some one to appear, but no one came. At last, overpowered by hunger, they sat down and ate and drank most heartily.
After supper they began to look about for a place to sleep. It was then without warning that the doors burst open and the magician appeared. He was a bent old man with a bald head and a gray beard that reached to his knees. He was dressed in a long black robe and he had, instead of a belt, three iron bands about his waist.
He led in a beautiful lady dressed in white with a silver girdle and a crown of pearls. Her face was deathly pale and as sad as the grave. The prince recognized her instantly and sprang forward to meet her. Before he could speak, the magician raised his hand and said:
"I know why you have come. It is to carry off this princess. Very well, take her. If you can guard her for three nights so that she won't escape you, she is yours. But if she escapes you, then you and your men will suffer the fate of all those who have come before you and be turned into stone."
Then when he had motioned the princess to a seat, he turned and left the hall.
The prince could not take his eyes from the princess, she was so beautiful. He tried to talk to her, asking her many questions, but she made him no answer. She might have been marble the way she never smiled and never looked at any of them.
He seated himself beside her, determined to stay all night on guard in order to prevent her escape. For greater security Longshanks stretched himself out on the floor like a strap and wound himself around the room the whole length of the wall. Girth sat in the doorway and puffed himself out until he filled that space so completely that not even a mouse could slip through. Keen took his place by a pillar in the middle of the hall.
But, alas, in a few moments they all grew heavy with drowsiness and in the end slept soundly all night long.
In the morning in the early dawn the prince awoke and with a pain in his heart that was like a blow from a dagger, he saw that the princess was gone. Instantly he aroused his men and asked them what was to be done.
"It's all right, master, don't worry," said Keen as he took a long look through the window. "I see her now. A hundred miles from here is a forest, in the midst of the forest an ancient oak, on the top of the oak an acorn. The princess is that acorn. Let Longshanks take me on his shoulders and we'll go get her."
Longshanks picked Keen up, stretched himself out, and set forth. He took ten miles at a stride and in the time it would take you or me to run around a cottage, here he was back again with the acorn in his hand. He gave it to the prince.
"Drop it, master, on the floor."
The prince dropped the acorn and instantly the princess appeared.
As the sun came over the mountain tops the doors slammed open and the magician entered. A crafty smile was on his face. But when he saw the princess the smile changed to a scowl, he growled in rage, and bang! one of the iron bands about his waist burst asunder. Then he took the princess by the hand and dragged her off.
That whole day the prince had nothing to do but wander about the castle and look at all the strange and curious things it contained. It seemed as if at some one instant all life had been arrested. In one hall he saw a prince who had been turned into stone while he was brandishing his sword. The sword was still uplifted. In another room there was a stone knight who was taken in the act of flight. He had stumbled on the threshold but he had not yet fallen. A serving man sat under the chimney eating his supper. With one hand he was reaching a piece of roast meat to his mouth. Days, months, perhaps years had gone by, but the meat had not yet touched his lips. There were many others, all of them still in whatever position they happened to be when the magician had cried: "Be ye turned into stone!"
In the courtyard and the stables the prince found many fine horses overtaken by the same fate.
Outside the castle everything was equally dead and silent. There were trees but they had no leaves, there was a river but it didn't flow, and no fish could live in its waters. There wasn't a singing bird anywhere, and there wasn't even one tiny flower.
In the morning, at noon, and at supper-time the prince and his companions found a rich feast prepared for them. Unseen hands served them food and poured them wine.
Then after supper, as on the preceding night, the doors burst open and the magician led in the princess, whom he handed over to the prince to guard for the second night.
Of course the prince and his men determined to fight off drowsiness this time with all their strength. But in spite of this determination again they fell asleep. At dawn the prince awoke and saw that the princess was gone.
He jumped up and shook Keen by the shoulder.
"Wake up, Keen, wake up! Where is the princess?"
Keen rubbed his eyes, took one look out of the window, and said:
"There, I see her. Two hundred miles from here is a mountain, in the mountain is a rock, in the rock a precious stone. That stone is the princess. If Longshanks will carry me over there we'll get her."
Longshanks put Keen on his shoulder, stretched himself out until he was able to go twenty miles at a stride, and off he went. Keen fixed his glowing eyes on the mountain and the mountain crumbled. Then the rock that was inside the mountain broke into a thousand pieces and there was the precious stone glittering among the pieces.
They picked it up and carried it back to the prince. As soon as he dropped it on the floor the princess reappeared.
When the magician came in and found her there, his eyes sparkled with anger, and bang! the second of his iron bands cracked and burst asunder. Rumbling and growling he led the princess away.
That day passed as the day before. After supper the magician brought back the princess and, looking fiercely at the prince, he sneered and said: "Now we'll see who wins, you or I."
This night the prince and his men tried harder than ever to stay awake. They didn't even allow themselves to sit down but kept walking. All in vain. One after another they fell asleep on their feet and again the princess escaped.
In the morning the prince, as usual, was the first to awake. When he saw the princess was gone, he aroused Keen.
"Wake up, Keen!" he cried. "Look out and tell me where the princess is."
This time Keen had to look long before he saw her.
"Master, she is far away. Three hundred miles from here there is a black sea. At the bottom of that sea is a shell. In that shell is a golden ring. That ring is the princess. But don't be worried, master, we'll get her. This time let Longshanks take Girth as well as me, for we may need him."
So Longshanks put Keen on one shoulder and Girth on the other. Then he stretched himself out until he was able to cover thirty miles at a stride. When they reached the black sea Keen showed Longshanks where to reach down in the water for the shell. Longshanks reached down as far as he could but not far enough to touch bottom.
"Wait, comrades, wait a bit," said Girth. "Now it's my turn to help."
With that he puffed himself out and out as far as he could. Then he lay down on the beach and began drinking up the sea. He drank it in such great gulps that soon Longshanks was able to reach bottom and to get the shell. Longshanks took out the ring and then, putting his comrades on his shoulders, started back for the castle. He was not able to go fast, for Girth, with half the sea in his stomach, was very heavy. At last in desperation Longshanks turned Girth upside down and shook him and instantly the great plain upon which he emptied him turned into a huge lake. It was all poor Girth could do to scramble out of the water and back to Longshanks' shoulder.
Meanwhile at the castle the prince was awaiting his men in great anxiety. Morning was breaking and still they did not come. As the first rays of the sun shot over the mountain tops the doors slammed open and the magician stood on the threshold. He glanced around and when he saw that the princess was not there he gave a mocking laugh and entered.
But at that very instant there was the crash of a breaking window, a golden ring struck the floor, and lo! the princess! Keen had seen in time the danger that was threatening the prince and Longshanks had hurled the ring through the window.
The magician bellowed with rage until the castle shook and then, bang! the third iron band burst asunder and from what had once been the magician a black crow arose and flew out of the broken window and was never seen again.
Instantly the beautiful princess blushed like a rose and was able to speak and to thank the prince for delivering her.
Everything in the castle came to life. The prince with the uplifted sword finished his stroke and put the sword into its scabbard. The knight who was stumbling fell and jumped up holding his nose to see whether he still had it. The serving man under the chimney put the meat into his mouth and kept on eating. And so every one finished what he had been doing at the moment of enchantment. The horses, too, came to life and stamped and neighed.
Around the castle the trees burst into leaf. Flowers covered the meadows. High in the heavens the lark sang, and in the flowing river there were shoals of tiny fish. Everything was alive again, everything happy.
The knights who had been restored to life gathered in the hall to thank the prince for their deliverance. But the prince said to them:
"You have nothing to thank me for. If it had not been for these, my three trusty servants, Longshanks, Girth, and Keen, I should have met the same fate as you."
The prince set out at once on his journey home with his bride and his three serving men. When he reached home the old king, who had given him up for lost, wept for joy at his unexpected return.
All the knights whom the prince had rescued were invited to the wedding which took place at once and lasted for three weeks.
When it was over, Longshanks, Girth, and Keen presented themselves to the young king and told him that they were again going out into the world to look for work. The young king urged them to stay.
"I will give you everything you need as long as you live," he promised them, "and you won't have to exert yourselves at all."
But such an idle life was not to their liking. So they took their leave and started out again and to this day they are still knocking around somewhere.