Once on a time there was a man who had an only son, but he lived in need and wretchedness, and when he lay on his deathbed, he told his son he had nothing in the world but a sword, a bit of coarse linen, and a few crusts of bread. That was all he had to leave him.
Well, when the man was dead, the lad made up his mind to go out into the world to try his luck; so he girded the sword about him, and took the crusts and laid them in the bit of linen for his travelling fare; for you must know they lived far away up on a hillside in the wood, far from folk. Now the way he went took him over a high moor, and when he had got up so high that he could look over the country, he set his eyes on a lion, a falcon, and an ant who stood there quarrelling over a dead horse. The lad was sore afraid when he saw the lion, but the lion called out to him and said he must come and settle the strife between them and share the horse so that each should get what he ought to have.
So the lad took his sword and shared the horse as well as he could. To the lion he gave the carcass and the greater portion; the falcon got some of the entrails and other tit-bits; and the ant got the head.
When he had done, he said, "Now I think it is fairly shared. The lion shall have most, because he is biggest and strongest; the falcon shall have the best, because he is nice and dainty; and the ant shall have the skull, because he loves to creep about in holes and crannies."
Yes, they were all well pleased with his sharing; and so they asked him what he would like to have for sharing the horse so well.
"Oh," he said, "if I have done you a service, and you are pleased with it, I am also pleased; but I won't be paid."
Yes; but he must have something, they said.
"If you won't have anything else," said the lion, "you shall have three wishes."
But the lad knew not what to wish for; and so the lion asked him if he wouldn't wish that he might be able to turn himself into a lion; and the two others asked him if he wouldn't wish to be able to turn himself into a falcon and an ant. Yes, all that seemed to him good and right; and so he wished these three wishes.
Then he threw aside his sword and wallet, turned himself into a falcon, and began to fly. So he flew on and on, till he came over a great lake. But when he had almost flown across it he got so tired and sore on the wing he couldn't fly any longer; and as he saw a steep rock that rose out of the water, he perched on it and rested himself. He thought it a wondrous strong rock, and walked about it for a while; but when he had taken a good rest, he turned himself again into a little falcon and flew away till he came to the king's grange. There he perched on a tree, just outside the princess's windows. When she saw the falcon, she set her heart on catching it. So she lured it to her; and as soon as the falcon came under the casement she was ready, and, pop! she shut-to the window, and caught the bird, and put him into a cage.
In the night the lad turned himself into an ant and crept out of the cage, and then he turned himself into his own shape and went up and sat down by the princess's bed. Then she got so afraid that she fell to screeching out and awoke the king, who made into her room and asked whatever was the matter.
"Oh!" said the princess, "there is someone here."
But in a trice the lad became an ant, crept into the cage, and turned himself into a falcon. The king could see nothing for her to be afraid of; so he said to the princess it must have been the nightmare riding her. But he was hardly out of the door before it was the same story over again. The lad crept out of the cage as an ant, and then became his own self, and sat down by the bedside of the princess.
Then she screamed loud, and the king came again to see what was the matter.
"There is someone here," screamed the princess. But the lad crept into the cage again, and sat perched up there like a falcon. The king looked and hunted high and low; and when he could see nothing, he got cross that his rest was broken, and said it was all a trick of the princess.
"If you scream like that again," he said, "you shall soon know that your father is the king."
But for all that, the king's back was scarcely turned before the lad was by the princess's side again. This time she did not scream, although she was so afraid she did not know which way to turn.
So the lad asked why she was so afraid.
Didn't he know? She was promised to a hill-ogre, and the very first time she came under bare sky he was to come and take her. So when the lad came she thought it was the hill-ogre. And besides, every Thursday morning came a messenger from the hill-ogre, and that was a dragon, to whom the king had to give nine fat pigs every time he came. That was why the king had given it out that the man who could free him from the dragon should have the princess and half the kingdom.
The lad said he would soon do that; and as soon as it was daybreak the princess went to the king and said there was a man in there who would free him from the dragon and the tax of pigs. As soon as the king heard that, he was very glad, for the dragon had eaten up so many pigs that there would soon have been no more left in the whole kingdom. It happened that day was just a Thursday morning, and so the lad strode off to the spot where the dragon used to come to eat the pigs, and the shoeblack in the king's grange showed him the way.
Yes, the dragon came, and he had nine heads, and he was so wild and wroth that fire and flame flared out of his nostrils when he did not see his feast of pigs. He flew on the lad as though he would gobble him up alive. But, pop! the boy turned himself into a lion, and fought with the dragon, and tore one head off him after another. The dragon was strong and spat fire and venom. But as the fight went on he hadn't more than one head left, though that was the toughest. At last the lad got that torn off too, and then it was all over with the dragon.
So the lad went to the king, and there was great joy all over the palace, and he was to have the princess. But once as they were walking in the garden, the hill ogre came flying at them himself, and caught up the princess and bore her off through the air.
As for the lad, he was for going after her at once. But the king said he mustn't do that, for he had no one else to lean on now he had lost his daughter. But for all that, neither prayers nor preaching were any good; the lad turned himself into a falcon and flew off. But when he could not see them anywhere, he called to mind that wonderful rock in the lake, where he had rested the first time he ever flew. So he settled there; and after he had done that, he turned himself into an ant and crept down through a crack in the rock. So when he had crept about awhile, he came to a door which was locked. But he knew a way how to get in, for he crept through the keyhole, and what do you think he saw there? Why, a strange princess combing the head of a hill ogre with three heads.
"I have come all right," said the lad to himself; for he had heard how the king had lost two daughters before, whom the trolls had taken.
"Maybe I shall find the second also," he said to himself as he crept through the keyhole of a second door. There sat a strange princess combing the hair of a hill ogre with six heads. He crept through a third keyhole still, and there sat the youngest princess combing the hair of a hill-ogre with nine heads. Then he crept up her leg and stung her, and so she knew it was the lad who wished to talk to her. Then she begged leave of the hill-ogre to go out.
When she came out the lad was himself again, and so he told her she must ask the hill-ogre whether she would never get away and go home to her father. Then he turned himself into an ant and sat on her foot, and so the princess went into the house again, and fell to combing the hill-ogre's hair.
So when she had done this awhile she fell a-thinking.
"You're forgetting to comb me," said the hill-ogre. "What is it you're thinking of?"
"Oh, I am doubting whether I shall ever get away from this place and home to my father's grange," said the princess.
"Nay, nay, that you'll never do," said the hill ogre; "not unless you can find the grain of sand which lies under the ninth tongue of the ninth head of the dragon to which your father paid tax; but no one will ever find that; for if that grain of sand came over the rock, all the hill-ogres would burst, and the rock itself would become a gilded palace, and the lake green meadows."
As soon as the lad heard that, he crept out through the keyholes and through the crack in the rock till he got outside. Then he turned himself into a falcon, and flew where the dragon lay. Then he hunted till he found the grain of sand under the ninth tongue of the ninth head, and flew off with it. But when he came to the lake he got tired, so tired that he had to sink down and perch on a stone by the strand. And just as he sat there he dozed and nodded for the twinkling of an eye; and meantime the grain of sand fell out of his bill down among the sand on the shore. He searched for it three days before he found it again. But as soon as he had found it he flew straight off to the steep rock with it, and dropped it down the crack. Then all the hill-ogres burst, and the rock was rent, and there stood a gilded castle, which was the grandest castle in all the world; and the lake became the loveliest fields and the greenest meads anyone ever saw.
They travelled back to the king's grange, and there arose, as you may fancy, joy and gladness. The lad and the youngest princess were to have one another; and they kept up the bridal feast over the whole kingdom for seven full weeks. And if they did not fare well, I only hope you may fare better still.