Once on a time there was a king who had a garden, and in that garden stood an apple-tree, and on that apple-tree grew one golden apple every year. But when the time drew on for plucking it, away it went, and there was no one who could tell who took it or what became of it. It was gone, and that was all they knew.
This king had three sons, and so he said to them one day that he of them who could get him his apple again or lay hold of the thief should have the kingdom after him, were he the eldest, or the youngest, or the midmost.
So the eldest set out first on this quest, and sat him down under the tree, and was to watch for the thief; and when night drew near a golden bird came flying, and his feathers gleamed a long way off; but when the king's son saw the bird and his beams he got so afraid he daren't stay his watch out, but flew back into the palace as fast as ever he could.
Next morning the apple was gone. By that time the king's son had got back his heart into his body, and so he fell to filling his scrip with food, and was all for setting out to try if lie could find the bird. So the king fitted him out well, and spared neither money nor clothes, and when the king's son had gone a bit he got hungry and took out his scrip, and sat him down to eat his dinner by the wayside. Then out came a fox from a spruce clump and sat by him and looked on.
'Do, dear friend, give me a morsel of food,' said the fox.
'I'll give you burnt horn, that I will,' said the king's son. 'I'm like to need food myself, for no one knows how far and how long I may have to travel.'
'Oh! that's your game, is it?' said the fox, and back he went into the wood.
So when the king's son had eaten and rested awhile he set off on his way again. After a long, long time he came to a great town, and in that town was an inn, where there was always mirth and never sorrow; there he thought it would be good to be, and so he turned in there. But there was so much dancing and drinking, and fun and jollity, that he forgot the bird and its feathers, and his father, and his quest, and the whole kingdom. Away he was and away he stayed.
The year after the midmost king's son was to watch for the apple thief in the garden. Yes, he too sat him down under the tree when it began to ripen. So all at once one night the golden bird came shining like the sun, and the lad got so afraid he put his tail between his legs and ran indoors as fast as ever he could.
Next morning the apple was gone; but by that time the king's son had taken heart again, and was all for setting off to see if he could find the bird. Yes, he began to put up his travelling fare, and the king fitted him out well, and spared neither clothes nor money. But just the same befell him as had befallen his brother. When he had travelled a bit he got hungry, and opened his scrip, and sat him down to eat his dinner by the wayside. So out came a fox from a spruce clump and sat up and looked on.
'Dear friend, give me a morsel of food, do?' said the fox.
'I'll give you burnt horn, that I will,' said the king's son. 'I may come to need food myself, for no one knows how far and how long I may have to go.'
'Oh! that's your game, is it?' said the fox, and away he went into the wood again.
So when the king's son had eaten and rested himself awhile he set off on his way again. And after a long, long time he came to the same town and the same inn where there was always mirth and never sorrow, and he too thought it would be good to turn in there, and the very first man he met was his brother, and so he too stayed there. His brother had feasted and drunk till he had scarce any clothes to his back; but now they both began anew, and there was such drinking and dancing, and fun and jollity, that the second brother also forgot the bird and its feathers, and his father, the quest, and the whole kingdom. Away he was and away he stayed, he too.
So when the time drew on that the apple was getting ripe again the youngest king's son was to go out into the garden and watch for the apple thief. Now he took with him a comrade, who was to help him up into the tree, and they took with them a keg of ale and a pack of cards to while away the time, so that they should not fall asleep. All at once came a blaze as of the sun, and just as the golden bird pounced down and snapped up the apple the king's son tried to seize it, but he only got a feather out of his tail. So he went into the king's bedroom and when he came in with the feather the room was as bright as broad day.
So he too would go out into the wide world to try if he could hear any tidings of his brothers and catch the bird, for after all he had been so near it that he had put his mark on it and got a feather out of his tail. Well, the king was long in making up his mind if he should let him go, for he thought it would not be better with him who was the youngest than with the eldest, who ought to have had more knowledge of the ways of the world, and he was afraid he might lose him too. But the king's son begged so prettily, that he had to give him leave at last.
So he began to pack up his travelling fare, and the king fitted him out well both with clothes and money, and so he set off. So when he had travelled a bit he got hungry and opened his scrip, and sat him down to eat his dinner, and just as he put the first bit into his mouth a fox came out of a spruce clump, and sat down by him and looked on.
'Oh! dear friend! give me a morsel of food, do,' said the fox.
'I might very well come to need food for myself,' said the king's son; 'for, I'm sure, I can't tell how long I shall have to go; but so much I know, that I can just give you a little bit.'
So when the fox had got a bit of meat to bite at, he asked the king's son whither he was bound. Well, he told him what he was trying to do.
'If you will listen to me,' said the fox, 'I will help you, so that you shall take luck along with you.'
Then the king's son gave his word to listen to him, and so they set off in company, and when they had travelled awhile they came to the self-same town and the self-same inn where there was always mirth and never sorrow.
'Now I may just as well stay outside the town,' said the fox. 'Those dogs are such a bore.'
And then he told him what his brothers had done, and what they were still doing, and he went on.
'If you go in there you'll get no farther either. Do you hear?'
So the king's son gave his word, and his hand into the bargain, that he wouldn't go in there, and they each went his way. But when the prince got to the inn and heard what music and jollity there was inside he could not help going in, there were not two words about that, and when he met his brothers, there was such a to-do, that he forgot both the fox and his quest, and the bird and his father. But when he had been there awhile the fox came--for he had ventured into the town after all--and peeped through the door, and winked at the king's son, and said now they must set off: So the prince came to his senses again, and away they started for the house.
And when they had gone awhile they saw a big fell far far off. Then the fox said:
'Three hundred miles behind yon fell there grows a gilded linden tree with golden leaves, and in that linden roosts the golden bird whose feather that is.'
So they travelled thither together, and when the king's son was going off to catch the bird, the fox gave him some fine feathers, which he was to wave with his hand to lure the bird down, and then it would come flying and perch on his hand. But the fox told him to mind and not touch the linden, for there was a big Troll who owned it, and if the king's son but touched the tiniest twig the Troll would come and slay him on the spot.
Nay! the king's son would be sure not to touch it, he said; but when he had got the bird on his fist, he thought he just would have a twig of the linden, that was past praying against, it was so bright and lovely. So, he took one, just one very tiny little one. But in a trice out came the Troll.
'WHO IS IT THAT STEALS MY LINDEN AND MY BIRD?' he roared, and was so angry that sparks of fire flashed from him.
'Thieves think every man a thief,' said the king's son; 'but none are hanged but those who don't steal right.'
But the Troll said it was all one, and was just going to smite him; but the lad said he must spare his life.
'Well! well!' said the Troll, 'if you can get me again the horse which my nearest neighbour has stolen from me, you shall get off with your life.'
'But where shall I find him?' asked the king's son.
'Oh! he lives three hundred miles beyond yon big fell that looks blue in the sky.'
So the king's son gave his word to do his best. But when he met the fox, Reynard was not altogether in a soft temper.
'Now you have behaved badly,' he said. 'Had you done as I bade you, we should have been on our way home by this time.'
So they had to make a fresh start, as life was at stake, and the prince had given his word, and after a long, long time they got to the spot. And when the prince was to go and take the horse, the fox said:
'When you come into the stable, you will see many bits hanging on the stalls, both of silver and gold; them you shall not touch, for then the Troll will come out and slay you on the spot; but the ugliest and poorest, that you shall take.'
Yes! the king's son gave his word to do that; but when he got into the stable he thought it was all stuff, for there was enough and to spare of fine bits; and so he took the brightest he could find, and it shone like gold; but in a trice out came the Troll, so cross that sparks of fire flashed from him.
'WHO IS IT WHO TRIES TO STEAL MY HORSE AND MY BIT?' he roared out.
'Thieves think every man a thief,' said the kings son; 'but none are hanged but those who don't steal right.'
'Well! all the same,' said the Troll, 'I'll kill you on the spot.'
But the king's son said he must spare his life.
'Well! well!' said the Troll, 'if you can get me back the lovely maiden my nearest neighbour has stolen from me I'll spare your life.'
'Where does he live, then?' said the king's son.
'Oh! he lives three hundred miles behind that big fell that is blue, yonder in the sky,' said the Troll.
Yes! the king's son gave his word to fetch the maiden, and then he had leave to go, and got off with his life. But when he came out of doors the fox was not in the very best temper, you may fancy.
'Now you have behaved badly again. Had you done as I bade you, we might have been on our way home long ago. Do you know, I almost think now I won't stay with you any longer.'
But the king's son begged and prayed so prettily from the bottom of his heart, and gave his word never to do anything but what the fox said, if he would only be his companion. At last the fox yielded, and they became fast friends again, and so they set off afresh, and after a long, long time they came to the spot where the lovely maiden was.
'Yes!' said the fox, 'you have given your word like a man, but for all that, I dare not let you go in to the Troll's house this time. I must go myself.'
So he went in, and in a little while he came out with the maiden, and so they travelled back by the same way that they had come. And when they came back to the Troll who had the horse, they took both it and the grandest bit; and when they got to the Troll who owned the linden and the bird, they took both the linden and the bird, and set off with them.
So when they had travelled awhile, they came to a field of rye, and the fox said:
'I hear a noise; now you must ride on alone, and I will bide here awhile.'
So he platted himself a dress of rye-straw, and it looked just like some one who stood there and preached. And he had scarcely done that before all three Trolls came flying along, thinking they would overtake them.
'Have you seen any one riding by here with a lovely maiden, and a horse with a gold bit, and a golden bird and a gilded linden-tree?' they all roared out to him who stood there preaching.
'Yes! I heard that from my grandmother's grandmother, that such a train passed by here, but Lord bless us, that was in the good old time, when my grandmother's grandmother baked cakes for a penny, and gave the penny back again.'
Then all the three Trolls burst out into loud fits of laughter, 'HA! HA! HA! HA!' they cried, and took hold of one another.
'If we have slept so long, we may e'en just turn our noses home, and go to bed,' they said; and so they went back by the way they had come.
Then the fox started off after the king's son; but when they got to the town where the inn and his brothers were, he said:
'I dare not go through the town for the dogs. I must take my own way round about; but now you must take good care that your brothers don't lay hold of you.'
But when the king's son got into the town, he thought it very hard if he didn't look in on his brothers and have a word with them, and so he halted a little time. But as soon as his brothers set eyes on him, they came out and took from him both the maiden and the horse, and the bird and the linden, and everything; and himself they stuffed into a cask and cast him into the lake, and so they set off home to the king's palace, with the maiden and the horse, and the bird and linden, and everything. But the maiden wouldn't say a word; she got pale and wretched to look at. The horse got so thin and starved, all his bones scarce clung together. The bird moped and shone no more, and the linden withered away.
Meanwhile the fox walked about outside the town, where the inn was with all its jollity, and he listened and waited for the king's son and the lovely maiden, and wondered why they did not come back. So he went hither and thither, and waited and longed, and at last he went down to the strand, and there he saw the cask which lay on the lake drifting, and called out:
'Are you driven about there, you empty cask?'
'Oh! it is I,' said the king's son inside the cask.
Then the fox swam out into the lake as fast as he could, and got hold of the cask and drew it on shore. Then he began to gnaw at the hoops, and when he had got them off the cask, he called out to the king's son, 'Kick and stamp!'
So the king's son struck out and stamped and kicked, till every stave burst asunder, and out he jumped from the cask. Then they went together to the king's palace, and when they got there the maiden grew lovely, and began to speak; the horse got so fat and sleek that every hair beamed; the bird shone and sang; the linden began to bloom and glitter with its leaves, and at last the maiden said:
'Here he is who set us free!'
So they planted the linden in the garden and the youngest prince was to have the princess, for she was one of course; but as for the two elder brothers, they put them each into his own cask full of nails, and rolled them down a steep hill.
So they made ready for the bridal; but first the fox said to the prince he must lay him on the chopping-block, and cut his head off, and whether he thought it good or ill, there was no help for it, he must do it. But as he dealt the stroke, the fox became a lovely prince, and he was the princess's brother, whom they had set free from the Trolls.
So the bridal came on, and it was so great and grand, that the story of that feasting spread far and wide, till it reached all the way to this very spot.