Once on a time there was a poor man who had three sons. When he died the two eldest were to go out into the world to try their luck; but as for the youngest they would not have him at any price.
'As for you,' they said, 'you are fit for nothing but to sit and hold fir tapers, and grub in the ashes and blow up the embers. That's what you are fit for.'
'Well, well,' said Boots, 'then I must e'en go alone by myself: at any rate I shan't fall out with my company.'
So the two went their way, and when they had travelled some days they came to a great wood. There they sat down to rest, and were just going to take out a meal from their knapsack, for they were both tired and hungry. So as they sat there up came an old hag out of a hillock, and begged for a morsel of meat. She was so old and feeble that her nose and mouth met, and she nodded with her head, and could only walk with a stick. As for meat she had not had, she said, a morsel in her mouth these hundred years. But the lads only laughed at her, and ate on and told her as she had lived so long on nothing, she might very well hold out the rest of her life, even though she did not eat up their scanty fare, for they had little to eat and nothing to spare.
So when they had eaten their fill and could eat no more, and were quite rested, they went on their way again, and, sooner or later, they came to the King's Grange, and there they each of them got a place.
A while after they had started from home, Boots gathered together the crumbs which his brothers had thrown on one side, and put them into his little scrip, and he took with him the old gun which had no lock, for he thought it might be some good on the way; and so he set off. So when he had wandered some days, he too came into the big wood, through which his brothers had passed, and as he got tired and hungry, he sat down under a tree that he might rest and eat; but he had his eyes about him for all that, and as he opened his scrip he saw a picture hanging on a tree, and on it was painted the likeness of a young girl or princess, whom he thought so lovely he couldn't keep his eyes off her. So he forgot both food and scrip, and took down the painting and lay and stared at it. Just then came up the old hag out of the hillock, who hobbled along with her stick, whose nose and mouth met, and whose head nodded. Then she begged for a little food, for she hadn't had a morsel of bread in her mouth for a hundred years. That was what she said.
'Then it's high time you had a little to live on, granny,' said the lad; and with that he gave her some of the crumbs he had. The old hag said no one had ever called her 'granny' these hundred years, and she would be as a mother to him in her turn. Then she gave him a grey ball of wool, which he had only to roll on before him and he would come to whatever place he wished; but as for the painting she said he mustn't bother himself about that, he would only fall into ill luck if he did. As for Boots, he thought it was very kind of her to say that, but he could not bear to be without the painting, so he took it under his arm and rolled the ball of wool before him, and it was not long before he came to the King's Grange, where his brothers served. There he too begged for a place, but all the answer he got was they had nothing to put him to, for they had just got two new serving men. But as he begged so prettily, at last he got leave to be with the coachman, and learn how to groom and handle horses. That he was right glad to do, for he was fond of horses, and he was both quick and ready, so that he soon learnt how to bed and rub them down, and it was not long before every one in the King's Grange was fond of him; but every hour he had to himself he was up in the loft looking at the picture, for he had hung it up in a corner of the hay-loft.
As for his brothers, they were dull and lazy, and so they often got scolding and stripes, and when they saw that Boots fared better than they, they got jealous of him, and told the coachman he was a worshipper of false gods, for he prayed to a picture and not to Our Lord. Now, even though the coachman thought well of the lad, still he wasn't long before he told the king what he had heard. But the king only swore and snapped at him, for he had grown very sad and sorrowful since his daughters had been carried off by trolls. But they so dinned it into the king's ears, that at last he must and would know what it was that the lad did. But when he went up into the hay-loft and set his eyes on the picture, he saw it was his youngest daughter who was painted on it. But when the brothers of Boots heard that, they were ready with an answer, and said to the coachman,
'If our brother only would, he has said he was good to get the king's daughter back.'
You may fancy it was not long before the coachman went to the king with this story, and when the king heard it, he called for Boots, and said,
'Your brothers say you can bring back my daughter again, and now you must do it.'
Boots answered, he had never known it was the king's daughter till the king said so himself, and if he could free her and fetch her he would be sure to do his best; but two days he must have to think over it and fit himself out. Yes, he might have two days.
So Boots took the grey ball of wool and threw it down on the road, and it rolled and rolled before him, and he followed it till he came to the old hag, from whom he had got it. Her he asked what he must do, and she said he must take with him that old gun of his and three hundred chests of nails and horseshoe brads, and three hundred barrels of barley, and three hundred barrels of grits, and three hundred carcases of pigs, and three hundred beeves, and then he was to roll the ball of wool before him till he met a raven and a baby troll, and then he would be all right, for they were both of her stock. Yes, the lad did as she bade him; he went right on to the King's Grange, and took his old gun with him, and he asked the king for the nails and the brads, and meat and flesh, and grain, and for horses and men, and carts to carry them in. The king thought it was a good deal to ask, but if he could only get his daughter back, he might have whatever he chose, even to the half of his kingdom.
So when the lad had fitted himself out, he rolled the ball of wool before him again, and he hadn't gone many days before he came to a high hill, and there sat a raven, up in a fir tree. So Boots went on till he came close under the tree, and then he began to aim and point at the raven with his gun.
'No, no,' cried the raven, 'don't shoot me, don't shoot me, and I'll help you.'
'Well,' said Boots, 'I never heard of anyone who boasted he had eaten roast raven, and since you are so eager to save your life, I may just as well spare it.'
So he threw down his gun, and the raven came flying down to him, and said,
'Here, up on this fell there is a baby troll walking up and down, for he has lost his way and can't get down again. I will help you up, and then you can lead him home, and ask a boon which will stand you in good stead. When you get to the troll's house he will offer you all the grandest things he has, but you should not heed them a pin. Mind you take nothing else but the little grey ass which stands behind the stable door.'
Then the raven took Boots on his back and flew up on the hill with him, and put him off there. When he had gone about on it a bit, he heard the baby troll howling and whining, because it couldn't get down again. So the lad talked kindly to it, and they got the best friends in the world, and he said he would help it down and guide it to the old troll's house, that it mightn't lose itself on the way back. Then they went to the raven, and he took them both on his back, and carried them off the hill troll's house.
And when the old troll saw his baby, he was so glad he was beside himself, and told Boots he might come indoors and take whatever he chose, because he had freed his child. Then they offered him both gold and silver, and all that was rare and costly; but the lad said he would rather have a horse than anything else. Yes, he should have a horse, the troll said, and off they went to the stable. It was full of the grandest horses, whose coats shone like the sun and moon; but Boots thought they were all too big for him. So he peeped behind the stable door, and when he set eyes on the little grey ass that stood there, he said,
'I'll take this one. It will suit me to a T, and if I fall off I shall be no farther from the ground than that ---- high.'
The old troll did not at all like to part with his ass, but as he had given his word he had to stand by it. So Boots got the ass, and saddle, and bridle, and all that belonged to it, and then he set off. They travelled through wood and field, and over fells and wide wastes. So when they had gone farther than far, the ass asked Boots if he saw anything.
'No, I see naught else than a hill, which looks blue in the distance,' said Boots.
'Oh,' said the ass, 'that hill we have to pass through.'
'All very fine, I daresay,' said Boots, for he didn't believe a word of it.
So when they got close to the hill, an unicorn came tearing along at them, just as if he were going to eat them up all alive.
'I almost think now I'm afraid,' said Boots.
'Oh,' said the ass, 'don't say so; just throw it a score or so of beeves, and beg it to bore a hole, and break a way for us through the hill.'
So Boots did as he was told, and when the unicorn had eaten his fill, they said they would give him a score or two of pigs' carcasses, if he would go before them and bore a hole in the hill, so that they might get through it. So when he heard that he set to work and bored the hole, and broke a way so fast that they had hard work to keep up with him, and when he had done his work they threw him two score of pigs.
So when they had got well out of that they travelled far away, until they passed again through woods and fields and across fells and wide wastes.
'Do you see anything now?' asked the ass.
'Now I see naught but the bare sky and wild fells,' said Boots.
So they travelled on far and farther than far, and the higher up they came the fell got smoother and flatter, so that they could see farther about them.
'Do you see anything now?' said the ass.
'Yes, I see something far, far away,' said Boots, 'and it gleams and twinkles like a little star.'
'It's not so very little for all that,' said the ass.
So when they had gone on farther and farther than far again, the ass asked again,
'Do you see anything now?'
'Yes,' said Boots, 'I see something a long way off, that shines like a moon.'
'It is no moon,' said the ass, 'but the silver castle we are bound for. Now, when we get there you will see three dragons lying on the watch before the gate. They have not been awakened for hundreds of years, and so the moss has grown over their eyes.'
'I almost think I shall be afraid of them,' said Boots.
'Oh, don't say that,' said the ass, 'you've only got to wake up the youngest, and throw it a score or so of beeves and swine, and then it will talk to the others, and so you'll come into the castle.'
So on they travelled far and farther than far again before they came up to the castle, but when they reached it it was both grand and great, and everything they saw was cast in silver, and outside the gate lay the dragons, and blocked up the way so that no one could get in; but they had a nice easy time of it, and had not been much troubled in their watch; for they were so overgrown with moss that no one could tell what they were made of, and at their sides underwood was springing up between the tufts of moss. So Boots woke up the youngest of them, and it began to rub its eyes and clear the moss out of them. But when the dragon saw there was folk there, he came at them with his maw wide a-gape; but then the lad stood ready, and tossed into it the carcasses of beeves, and swung after them salted swine, till the dragon had got his fill, and grew a little more sensible to talk to. Then the lad begged he would wake up his fellows, and ask them to be so good as to get out of the way, so that he might get into the castle; but the dragon neither would nor dared to do that at first, for he said, as they had not been awake or tasted anything for hundreds of years, he was afraid lest they should get raving mad, and swallow up everything alive or dead.
But Boots thought there was no need to fear that, for they could leave behind them a hundred carcasses of beeves, and a hundred salt swine, and go a little way off and then the dragons would have time to eat their fill, and to come to themselves before the others came back to the castle.
Yes, the dragon was ready to do that, and so they did it; but before the dragons were well awake, and got the moss rubbed off their eyes; they went about roaring and raving, and riving and rending at everything alive or dead, so that the youngest dragon had enough to do to shield himself from them till they had snuffed up the smell of flesh. Then they swallowed down whole oxen and swine, and ate and ate till they were full. And after that they were just as tame and buxom as the youngest, and let Boots pass between them into the castle.
When he got inside it was all so grand he never could have thought anything could be so good anywhere; but there was not a soul in it, for he went from room to room, and opened all the doors, but he could see no one. Well, at last he peeped through a door that led to a bedroom, which he had not seen before, and in there sat a princess, spinning, and she was so glad and happy when she saw him.
'No, no,' she cried, 'can it be that Christian folk dare to come hither? but it will be best for you to be off again, else the troll might kill you, for you must know a troll lives with three heads.'
But Boots said he would not fly even if he had seven heads. When the princess heard that, she said she wished him to try if he could brandish the great rusty sword that hung behind the door. No, he could not brandish it, he could not so much as even lift it.
'Ah,' said the princess, 'if you can't do that you must take a drink of that flask yonder, that hangs by the side of the sword, for that's what the troll does when he goes out to use it.'
So Boots took two or three drinks, and then he could brandish the sword as though it were a rolling pin.
Just then came the troll, so that the wind sung after him.
'Hu!' he screeched out, 'what a smell of Christian blood there is in here.'
'I know there is,' said Boots, 'but you needn't blow and snort so at it; you shan't suffer long from that smell,' and in a trice he cut off all his heads.
The princess was so glad, just as if she had got something so good; but in a little while she got heavy-hearted, for she pined for her sister, who had been stolen by a troll with six heads, and lived in a golden castle three hundred miles on this side of the world's end. Boots thought that was not so very bad, for he could go and fetch both the princess and the castle; and so he took the sword and the flask, and got on the ass, and bade the dragons follow him, and carry the meat, and grain, and nails which he had.
So when they had been a while on the way, and had travelled far, far away over land and strand, the ass said one day,
'Do you see anything?'
'I see naught,' said Boots, 'but land and water and bare sky and high crags.'
So they went on far and farther than far, and then the ass said again,
'Do you see anything now?'
'Yes,' when he had looked well before him, he saw something a long, long way off, that shone like a little star.
'It will be big enough by-and-by,' said the ass.
When they had gone a good bit still, the ass asked,
'Do you see anything now?'
'Now I see it shining like a moon,' said the lad.
'Ay, ay,' said the ass, and on they went.
So when they had gone far, and farther than far away, over land and strand, and hill and heath, the ass asked,
'Do you see anything now?'
'Now, methinks,' said Boots, 'it shines most like the sun.'
'Ay,' said the ass, 'that's the golden castle for which we are bound; but outside it lives a worm, which stops the way and keeps watch and ward.'
'I think I shall be afraid of it,' said Boots.
'Oh, don't say so,' said the ass, 'we must spread over it heaps of boughs, and lay between them layers of horseshoe brads and nails, and set fire to them all, and so we shall be rid of it.'
So after a long, long time they came up to where the castle hung in the air, but the worm lay underneath it and stopped the way. So the lad gave the dragons a good meal of beeves and salted swine, that they might help him, and they spread over the worm heaps of boughs and wood, and laid between them layers of nails and brads, till they had used up the three hundred chests, and when it was all done they set fire to the pile and burned up the worm alive, in a fire at white heat.
So when they had done with him one dragon flew under the castle and lifted it up, and the two others went up high, high into the air, and unloosed the links and hooks by which it hung, and so they lowered it down and set it on the ground. When that was done Boots went inside, and there it was grander far than in the silvern castle, but he could see no folk till he came to the innermost room, and there lay a princess on a bed of gold. She slept so sound, as though she were dead, but she was not, though he was not able to wake her up, for her face was as red and white as milk and blood. And just as Boots stood there gazing at her, back came the troll tearing along. As soon as he put his first head through the door he screamed out,
'Hu! what a smell of Christian blood there is in here.'
'Maybe,' said Boots, 'but you've no need to smell and snort about that; you shan't suffer long from it.'
And with that he cut off all his heads, as though they stood on a kail stalk.
So the dragons took the golden castle on their backs and went home with it--I fancy they were not long on the way--and set it down side by side with the silvern castle, so that it shone both far and wide.
Now when the princess of the silvern castle came to her window in the morning, and caught sight of it, she was so glad that she sprang over to the golden castle at once; but when she saw her sister lying there and sleeping as though she were dead, she said to Boots that they would never get life into her before they found the water of life and death, and that stood in two wells on either side of a golden castle which hung in the air, nine hundred miles beyond the world's end, and where the third sister dwelt.
Well, Boots thought there was no help for it; he must go and fetch it, and it was not long before he was on his way. So he travelled far and farther than far, through many realms, across wood and field, over fell and firth, along hill and heath, and at last he got to the world's end, and after that he travelled far, far over crags and wastes and high rocks.
'Do you see anything?' asked the ass one day.
'I see naught but heaven and earth,' said the lad.
'Do you see anything now?' asked the ass again, when some days were past.
'Yes,' said Boots, 'now I see something that glimmers very high up, far, far away, like a little star.'
'It's not so little for all that,' said the ass.
So when they had travelled on a while, the ass asked,
'Do you see anything now?'
'Yes,' said Boots, 'now it shines like the sun.'
'That's whither we are bound,' said the ass; 'it's the golden castle that hangs in the air, and there lives a princess who has been stolen by a troll with nine heads; but all the wild beasts there are in the world lie on watch, and stop the way thither.'
'Uf,' said Boots, 'I almost think I'm afraid of them.'
'Don't say so,' said the ass; and then he told him there was no danger, if he would only make up his mind not to linger there, but to set off on his way back as soon as ever he had filled his flasks with the water, for there was no going thither but during one hour in the day, and that began at high noon; but if he were not man enough to be ready in time and to get away, the beasts would tear him into a thousand pieces.
Well, Boots said he would be sure to do that, he would not think of staying too long.
At the stroke of twelve they reached the castle, and there lay all the wild and savage beasts that ever were, as it were a fence before the gate, and on either side of the way. But they all slumbered like stocks and stones, and there wasn't one of them that so much as lifted a paw. So Boots passed between them, and took good heed not to tread on their toes or the tips of their tails, and he filled his flasks with the waters of life and death, and while he did that he looked up at the castle, which was as though it were cast in pure gold. It was the grandest he had ever seen, and he thought it would be grander still inside than out.
'Stuff,' thought Boots, 'I have time enough, I can always look about me in half an hour,' and so he opened the door and went in. Well, inside it was grander than grand itself, and as he went out of one gorgeous room into another, it was as if it was all made of gold and pearls, and everything that was costliest in the world. Folk there were none; but at last he came into a bedroom where there lay another princess on a bed of gold, just as though she were dead too, but she was as grand as the grandest queen, and as red and white as blood on snow, and so lovely he had never seen anything so lovely but her picture; for she it was that was painted on it.
Then Boots forgot both the water he was to fetch, and the wild beasts, and the castle and everything, and could only gaze at the princess; and he thought he could never have his fill of looking at her; but all the while she slept as though she were dead, and he was not able to wake her up.
So when it drew towards evening, the troll came tearing along so that the wind sung after him, and he rattled and slammed the gates and doors till the whole castle rang again.
'Huf,' he cried; 'what a strong smell of Christian blood there is in here;' and then he stuck his first head inside the door and snuffed up the air.
'I daresay there is,' said Boots, 'but you've no need to puff and blow as though you were about to burst, for it shan't vex you long;' and as he said that he cut off all his nine heads. But when he had done that he got so weary he couldn't keep his eyes open. So he laid him down on the bed by the side of the princess, and all the while she slept both night and day, as though she would never wake again; only at midnight she just woke up for the twinkling of an eye, and then she told him that he had set her free, but she must bide there three years still, and if she didn't come home to him then he must just come and fetch her.
When the clock began to go towards one next day, Boots woke for the first time, and the first thing he heard was the ass braying and screaming and making a stir, and so he thought he would get up and set off home, but before he went he cut a breadth out of the princess's skirt, and took it away with him. And however it was, he had loitered so long there that the beasts began to wake and stir, and by the time he had mounted his ass they stood in a ring round him, so that he thought it had rather a ghastly look. But the ass said he must sprinkle on them a few drops of the water of death, and he did so, and in a trice they all fell headlong on the spot, and never stirred a limb more.
As they were on their way home, the ass said to Boots,--
'Now when you come to honour and glory, see if you don't forget me and all I have done for you, so that I shall be broken-kneed for hunger.'
'Nay, nay! that should never be,' said the lad.
So when he got home to the princess with the water of life, she sprinkled a few drops over her sister, and woke her up, and then there was such great joy and they were so happy. Then they travelled home to the king, and he too was glad and joyful, because he had got those two back; but still he went about longing and longing that the three years might pass away, and his youngest daughter come home.
As for Boots, who had brought them back, the king made him a mighty man, so that he was the first in the land after the king himself. But there were many who were jealous that he should have grown to be such a man of mark, and one of them was Ritter Red, who they did say wished to have the eldest princess, and he got her to sprinkle over Boots a little of the water of death, so that he swooned off and lay as dead.
So when the three years were over, and a bit of the fourth was gone, there came sailing up a strange ship of war, and on board was the third sister, and with her she had a boy three years old. She sent word up to the King's Grange, and said she would not set her foot on land till they had sent him who had been in the golden castle and set her free. So they sent down to her one of the highest men about the court, the master of the ceremonies himself; and when he came on board the princess' ship, he took off his hat and bowed and scraped, and bent himself before her.
'Can that be your father? my son,' said the princess to her boy, who was playing with a golden apple.
'No,' said the child, 'my father doesn't crawl about like a cheesemite.'
So they sent another of the same stamp, and this time it was Ritter Red. But it fared no better with him than with the first one, and the princess sent word by him, if they didn't make haste and send the right one, it should go ill with them. When they heard that they were forced to wake up Boots with the water of life; and so he went down to the ship to the princess, but he didn't make too low a bow, I should think; he only nodded his head and brought out the breadth he had cut out of the skirt of the princess in the golden castle.
'That's my father! that's my father!' bawled out the boy, and gave him the golden apple he was playing with.
Then there was great joy and mirth all over the realm, and the old king was the gladdest of all of them, because he had got his darling back again. But when what Ritter Red and the eldest princess had done to Boots came out, the king asked to have them both rolled down a hill, each in a cask full of spikes and nails; but Boots and the youngest princess begged hard for them, and so they got off with life.
Now it happened one day, as they were about to begin the bridal feast, that they stood looking out of window,--it was towards spring, just when they were turning out the horses and cows after the winter--and the last that came out of the stable was the ass; but it was so starved that it came out of the stable-door on its knees.
Then Boots was cut to the heart because he had forgotten it, and he went down and did not know how to make it up to the poor beast. But the ass said the best thing he could do was to cut his head off. That he was very loath to do, but the ass begged so prettily that he had to yield, and did it at last; and as soon as ever his head fell in the yard, it was all over with the shape which had been thrown over him by witchcraft, and there stood the handsomest prince any one cared to see. He got the second princess to wife, and they fell to keeping the bridal feast, so that it was heard and talked of over seven kingdoms.
'Then they built themselves houses,
And stitched themselves shoon,
And had so many bairns
They reached up to the moon.'