Once on a time there was a country mouse and a town mouse. They met on the outskirts of a wood, where the country mouse sat in a hazel thicket and plucked nuts.
"God help you, sister," said the town mouse. "Do I meet my kinsfolk here so far out in the country?"
"Just so," said the country mouse.
"You gather these nuts and carry them to your house?" said the town mouse.
"Yes, I have to," said the country mouse, "if we are to have anything to live on during the winter."
"The husk is big and the nut full this year," said the town mouse, "so I dare say they will help to fill out a starveling body."
"You are quite right," said the country mouse; and then she told her how well and happily she lived. But the town mouse thought she was better off; and the country mouse would not give in, but said there was no place as good as in the woods and hills, and as for herself, she had far the best of it.
Still the town mouse said she was sure she had the best of it, and they could not agree at all. So at last they promised to pay one another a visit at Christmas, that they might taste and see which lived best.
The town mouse was the one that had to pay the first visit, and she went through woods and deep dales; for though the country mouse had come down to the lowlands for the winter, the road was both long and tiring. It was uphill work, and the snow was both deep and soft, so that she was both weary and hungry by the time she got to her journey's end.
"Now I shall be glad to get some food," she said when she got there. As for the country mouse, she had scraped together all sorts of good things. There were kernels of nuts, and polypody and other roots, and much else that grows in wood and field. All this she had in a hole deep underground where it would not freeze, and close by was a spring which was open all the winter so that she could drink as much water as she chose. There was plenty of what was to be had, and they fed both well and good; but the town mouse thought it was not more than sorry fare.
"One can keep body and soul together with this," she said; "but it isn't choice, not at all. But now you must be so kind as come to me, and taste what we have in town."
Well, the country mouse was willing, and it was not long before she came. Then the town mouse had gathered together something of all the Christmas fare which the mistress of the house had dropped as she went about, when she had taken a drop too much at Yule. There were bits of cheese, and odds and ends of butter and tallow, and cheese-cakes and tipsy-cake, and much else that was nice. In the jar under the ale-tap she had drink enough, and the whole room was full of all kinds of dainties.
They fed and lived well, and the country mouse seemed never to have had enough. She had never tasted such delicacies. At last she got thirsty, for the food was both strong and rich, and now she wanted something to drink.
"It is not far off to the beer," said the town mouse; "that's the drink for us;" and with that she jumped up on the edge of the jar and drank her thirst out; but she drank no more than she could carry, for she knew the Christmas beer was strong. The country mouse thought the beer a splendid drink, however: She had never tasted anything but water, and now she took sip after sip; but she was no judge of strong drink, and so the end was she got tipsy before she left the dish.
The drink got into her head and down into her toes and she began running and jumping about from one beer barrel to the other, and to dance and tumble about on the shelves among the cups and mugs, and to whistle and whine just as though she were tipsy and silly; and tipsy she was, there was no gainsaying it.
"You mustn't behave as though you had just come from the hills," said the town mouse. "Don't make such a noise, and don't lead us such a life; we have a hard master here."
But the country mouse said she cared not a pin for man or master.
But all this while the cat sat up at the top of the cellar steps, lying in wait, and heard all their talk and pranks. Just then the woman of the house came down to draw a mug of beer. As she lifted the trap-door, the cat stole into the cellar and struck her claws into the country mouse. Then there was another dance. The town mouse crept into her hole, and sat safe looking on; but the country mouse got sober all at once, as soon as she felt the cat's claws in her back.
"Oh, my dear master, my dear master! Be merciful and spare my life, and I'll tell you a story." That was what she said.
"Out with it, then," said the cat.
"Once on a time there were two small mice," said the country mouse; and she squeaked so pitifully and slowly, for she wanted to drag the story out as long as she could.
"Then they were not alone," said the cat, both curtly and dryly.
"And so we had a steak we were going to cook."
"Then you were not starved," said the cat.
"So we put it up on the roof that it might cool itself well," said the country mouse.
"Then you didn't burn your tongues," said the cat.
"So then the fox and the crow came and ate it all up," said the country mouse.
"And so I'll gobble you up," said the cat.
But just then the woman shut the trap-door with a slam, so that the cat got startled and let go her hold, and pop! the country mouse was away in the town mouse's hole, and from it there was a way out into the snow, and the country mouse was not slow in setting off home.
"This you call living well, and you say that you live best?" she said to the town mouse. "Heaven gladden me with something less, then, rather than having such a big house and such a hawk for a master. Why, I only just got away with my life!"
Once on a time there was a farmer's son who dreamt that he was to marry a princess far, far out in the world. She was as red and white as milk and blood, and so rich there was no end to her riches. When he awoke he seemed to see her still standing bright and living before him, and he thought her so sweet and lovely that his life was not worth having unless he had her too. So he sold all he had, and set off into the world to find her out.
He went far, and farther than far, and about winter he came to a land where all the highroads lay right straight on end; there wasn't a bend in any of them. When he wandered on and on for a quarter of a year he came to a town, and outside the church door lay a big block of ice, in which there stood a dead body, and the whole parish spat on it as they passed by to church. The lad wondered at this, and when the priest came out of church he asked him what it all meant.
"It is a great wrong-doer," said the priest. "He has been executed for his ungodliness and set up there to be mocked and spat on."
"But what was his wrong-doing?" asked the lad.
"When he was alive here he was a vintner," said the priest, "and he mixed water with his wine."
The lad thought that no such dreadful sin.
"Well," he said, "after he had atoned for it with his life, you might as well have let him have Christian burial and peace after death."
But the priest said that could not be in any wise, for there must be folk to break him out of the ice, and money to buy a grave from the church. Then the gravedigger must be paid for digging the grave, and the sexton for tolling the bell, and the clerk for singing the hymns, and the priest for sprinkling dust over him.
"Do you think now there would be anyone who would be willing to pay all this for an executed sinner?"
Yes," said the lad. "If he could only get him buried in Christian earth, he would be sure to pay for his funeral ale out of his scanty means."
Even after that the priest hemmed and hawed; but when the lad came with two witnesses, and asked him right out in their hearing if he could refuse to sprinkle dust over the corpse, he was forced to answer that he could not.
So they broke the vintner out of the block of ice, and laid him in Christian earth, and they tolled the bell and sang hymns over him, and the priest sprinkled dust over him, and they drank his funeral ale till they wept and laughed by turns. But when the lad had paid for the ale he hadn't many pence left in his pocket.
He set off on his way again, but he hadn't got far before a man overtook him and asked if he didn't think it dull work walking on all alone.
No, the lad did not think it dull. "I have always something to think about," he said.
Then the man asked if he wouldn't like to have a servant.
"No," said the lad; "I am wont to be my own servant; therefore I have need of none. And even if I wanted one ever so much, I have no means to get one, for I have no money to pay for his food and wages."
"You do need a servant, that I know better than you," said the man, "and you have need of one whom you can trust in life and death. If you won't have me as a servant, you may take me as your companion. I give you my word I will stand you in good stead, and it shan't cost you a penny. I will pay my own fare, and as for food and clothing, you shall have no trouble about them."
Well, on those terms he was willing enough to have him as his companion. After that they travelled together, and the man for the most part went on ahead and showed the lad the way.
After they had travelled on and on from land to land, over hill and wood, they came to a steep mountain spur. There the companion went up and knocked, and bade them open the door; and the rock opened sure enough, and when they got inside the hill, up came an old witch with a chair and asked them, "Be so good as to sit down. No doubt you are weary."
"Sit on it yourself," said the man. So she was forced to take her seat, and as soon as she sat down she stuck fast, for the chair was such that it let no one loose that came near it. Meanwhile they went about inside the hill, and the companion looked round till he saw a sword hanging over the door. That he would have, and if he got it he told the old witch that he might let her loose out of the chair.
"Nay, nay," she screeched out; "ask me anything else. Anything else you may have, but not that, for it is my Three-Sister Sword; we are three sisters who own it together."
"Very well; then you may sit there till the end of the world," said the man. But when she heard that, she said he might have it. He took the sword and went off with it, and after a while the stool set her free.
When they had gone far, far away over naked mountains and wide wastes, they came to another steep mountain spur. There, too, the companion knocked and bade them open the door, and the same thing happened as happened before; the rock opened, and when they had got a good way into the hill another old witch came up to them with a chair and begged them to sit down. "You may well be weary," she said.
"Sit down yourself," said the companion. And so she fared as her sister had fared; she did not dare to say nay, and as soon as she sat down on the chair she stuck fast. Meanwhile the lad and his companion went about in the hill, and the man broke open all the chests and drawers till he found what he sought, and that was a golden ball of yarn. That he set his heart on, and he promised the old witch to set her free if she would give him the golden ball. She said he might take all she had, but that she could not part with; it was her Three-Sister Ball. But when she heard that she should sit there till doomsday unless he got it, she said he might take it all the same if he would only set her free. So the companion took the golden ball, and left her sitting where she sat till the stool suddenly let her go.
So on they went for many days, over waste and wood, till they came to a third steep mountain spur. There all went as it had gone twice before. The companion knocked, the rock opened, and inside the hill an old witch came up, and asked them to sit on her chair, they must be tired. But the companion said again, "Sit on it yourself," and there she sat. They had not gone through many rooms before they saw an old hat which hung on a peg behind the door. That the companion must and would have; but the old witch couldn't part with it. It was her Three-Sister Hat, and if she gave it away, all her luck would be lost. But when she heard that she would have to sit there till the end of the world unless he got it, she said he might take it if he would only let her loose. When the companion had got well hold of the hat, he went off, and bade her sit there for some time more, like the rest of her sisters, and so she did till the stool set her free after some time.
After a long, long time, they came to a sound; then the companion took the ball of yarn and threw it so hard against the rock on the other side of the stream, that it bounded back, and after he had thrown it backwards and forwards a few times it became a bridge. On that bridge they went over the sound, and when they reached the other side, the man bade the lad to be quick and wind up the yarn again as soon as he could, for, said he
"If we don't wind it up quick, all those witches will come after us, and tear us to bits."
So the lad wound and wound with all his might and main, and when there was no more to wind than the very last thread, up came the old witches on the wings of the wind. They flew to the water so that the spray rose before them, and snatched at the end of the thread. But they could not quite get hold of it, and so they were drowned in the sound.
When they had gone on a few days farther, the companion said, "Now we are soon coming to the castle where she is, the princess that you dreamt of. When we get there, you must go in and tell the king what you dreamt, and what it is you are seeking."
So when they reached it he did what the man told him, and was very heartily welcomed. He had a room for himself and another for his companion. They were to live in them, and when dinner-time drew near, he was bidden to dine at the king's own table. As soon as ever he set eyes on the princess he knew her at once, and saw it was the one he had dreamt to be his bride. Then he told her his business, and she answered that she liked him well enough, and would gladly have him, but first he must undergo three trials. So when they had dined she gave him a pair of golden scissors, and said
"The first test is that you must take these scissors and keep them, and give them to me at midday tomorrow. It is not so very great a trial, I fancy," she said, and made a face, "but if you can't stand it you lose your life; that is the law, and so you will be drawn and quartered, and your body will be stuck on stakes, and your head over the gate, just like those lovers of mine, whose skulls and skeletons you see outside the king's castle."
"That is no such great art," thought the lad.
But the princess was so merry and mad, and flirted so much with him that he forgot all about the scissors and himself, and while they played and sported, she stole the scissors away from him without his knowing it.
When he went up to his room at night, and told how he had fared, and what she had said to him, and about the scissors she gave him to keep, the companion said, "Of course you have the scissors safe and sure?"
Then he searched in all his pockets, but there were no scissors, and the lad was in a sad way when he found them wanting.
"Well, well!" said the companion; "I'll see if I can't get you the scissors again."
With that he went down into the stable, and there stood a big, fat billy goat that belonged to the princess, and it was of that breed that it could fly many times faster through the air than it could run on land. He took the Three-Sister Sword and gave it a stroke between the horns, and said, "When rides the princess to see her lover tonight?"
The billy goat baaed and said it dared not say, but when it had another stroke, it said the princess was coming at eleven o'clock. Then the companion put on the Three-Sister Hat, and all at once he became invisible, and so he waited for her. When she came, she took and rubbed the billy goat with an ointment that she had in a great horn, and said, "Away, away, over roof-tree and steeple, over land, over sea, over hill, over dale, to my true love who waits for me in the mountain tonight."
At the very moment that the goat set off, the companion threw himself on behind, and away they went like a blast through the air. They were not long on the way, and in a trice they came to a cross-mountain. There she knocked, and so the goat passed through the mountain to the troll, her lover.
"Now, my dear," she said, "a new lover is come, whose heart is set on having me. He is young and handsome, but I will have no other than you," and so she coaxed and petted the troll.
"So I set him a trial, and here are the scissors he was to watch and keep; now you keep them," she said.
So the two laughed heartily, just as though they had the lad already on wheel and stake.
"Yes, yes!" said the troll; "I'll keep them safe enough."
"And I shall sleep on the bride's white arm, while ravens round his skeleton swarm."
And so he laid the scissors in an iron chest with three locks. But just as he dropped them into the chest, the companion snapped them up. Neither of them could see him, for he had on the Three-Sister Hat. And so the troll locked up the chest for nothing, and he hid the keys he had in the hollow eye-tooth in which he had the toothache. There it would be hard work for anyone to find them, the troll thought.
When midnight was passed, she set off home again. The companion got up behind the goat, and they lost no time on the way back.
Next day, about noon, the lad was asked down to the king's board; but then the princess gave herself such airs, and was so high and mighty that she would scarce look towards the side where the lad sat. After they had dined, she dressed her face in holiday garb and said as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth,
"Maybe you have those scissors which I begged you to keep yesterday?"
"Oh, yes, I have," said the lad, "and here they are," and with that he pulled them out, and drove them into the board till it jumped again. The princess could not have been more vexed had he driven the scissors into her face. But for all that she made herself soft and gentle, and said,
"Since you have kept the scissors so well, it won't be any trouble to you to keep my golden ball of yarn. Take care you give it me tomorrow at noon. But if you have lost it, you shall lose your life on the scaffold. That is the law."
The lad thought that an easy thing, so he took and put the golden ball into his pocket. But she started to play and flirt with him again, so that he forgot both himself and the golden ball, and while they were at the height of their games and pranks, she stole it from him, and sent him off to bed.
Then when he came up to his bedroom and told what they had said and done, his companion asked,
"Of course you have the golden ball she gave you?"
"Yes, yes," said the lad, and felt in his pocket where he had put it. But no, there was no ball to be found, and he fell again into such an ill mood, and knew not which way to turn.
"Well, well! Bear up a bit," said the companion. "I'll see if I can lay hands on it;" and with that he took the sword and hat and strode off to a smith and got twelve pounds of iron welded on to the back of the sword-blade. Then he went down to the stable and gave the billy goat a stroke between his horns so that the brute went head over heels, and he asked,
"When does the princess ride to see her lover tonight?"
"At twelve o'clock," baaed the billy goat.
So the companion put on the Three-Sister Hat again, and waited till she came, tearing along with her horn of ointment, and greased the billy goat. Then she said, as she had said the first time,
"Away, away, over roof-tree and steeple, over land, over sea, over hill, over dale, to my true love who waits for me in the mountain tonight."
In a trice they were off, and the companion threw himself on behind the billy goat, and away they went like a blast through the air. In the twinkling of an eye they came to the troll's hill, and, when she had knocked three times, they passed through the rock to the troll who was her lover.
"Where did you hide the golden scissors I gave you yesterday, my darling?" cried out the princess. "My wooer had it and gave it back to me."
"That was quite impossible," said the troll, for he had locked it up in a chest with three locks and hidden the keys in the hollow of his eye-tooth. But when they unlocked the chest and looked for it, the troll had no scissors in his chest.
So the princess told him how she had given her suitor her golden ball.
"And here it is," she said; "for I took it from him again without his knowing it. But what shall we hit on now, since he is master of such craft?"
Well, the troll hardly knew; but after they had thought a bit, they made up their minds to light a large fire and burn the golden ball; and so they would be cocksure that he could not get at it. But, just as she tossed it into the fire, the companion stood ready and caught it, and neither of them saw him, for he wore the Three-Sister Hat.
When the princess had been with the troll a little while and it began to grow towards dawn, she set off home again. The companion got up behind her on the goat, and they got back fast and safe.
Next day, when the lad was bidden down to dinner, the companion gave him the ball. The princess was even more high and haughty than the day before, and after they had dined, she perked up her mouth, and said in a dainty voice,
"Perhaps it is too much to look for that you should give me back my golden ball, which I gave you to keep yesterday?"
"Is it?" said the lad. "You shall soon have it. Here it is, safe enough;" and as he said that he threw it down on the table so hard that it shook again. And as for the king, he gave a jump high up into the air.
The princess got as pale as a corpse, but she soon came to herself again, and said in a sweet, small voice,
"Well done, well done!" Now he had only one more trial left, and it was this:
"If you are so clever as to bring me what I am now thinking of by dinner-time tomorrow, you shall win me, and have me to wife."
That was what she said.
The lad felt like one doomed to death, for he thought it quite impossible to know what she was thinking about, and still harder to bring it to her. And so, when he went up to his bedroom, it was hard work to comfort him at all. His companion told him to be easy; he would see if he could get the right end of the stick this time too, as he had done twice before. So the lad at last took heart, and lay down to sleep.
Meanwhile, the companion went to the smith and got twenty-four pounds of iron welded on to his sword. When that was done, he went down to the stable and let fly at the billy goat between the horns with such a blow that he went right head over heels against the wall.
"When does the princess ride to her lover tonight?" he asked.
"At one o'clock," baaed the billy goat.
So when the hour drew near, the companion stood in the stable with his Three-Sister Hat on; and, when she had greased the goat and uttered the same words that they were to fly through the air to her true love who was waiting for her in the mountain, off they went again on the wings of the wind. And all the while the companion sat behind.
But he was not light-handed this time; for every now and then he gave the princess a slap so that he almost beat the breath out of her body.
And when they came to the wall of rock, she knocked at the door. It opened, and they passed on into the mountain to her lover.
As soon as she got there, she fell to bewailing and was very cross, and said she never knew the air could deal such buffets; she almost thought that someone sat behind, someone who beat both the billy goat and herself. She was sure she was black and blue all over her body, such a hard flight had she had through the air.
Then she went on to tell how her lover had brought her the golden ball too. How it happened, neither she nor the troll could tell.
"But now do you know what I have hit on?"
No, the troll did not.
"Well," she went on, "I have told him to bring me what I was then thinking of by dinner-time tomorrow, and what I thought of was your head. Do you think he can get that, my darling?" said the princess, and began to fondle the troll.
"No, I don't think he can," said the troll. He would take his oath he couldn't; and then the troll burst out laughing and roared worse than any wild sailor, and both the princess and the troll thought the lad would be drawn and quartered, and that the crows would peck out his eyes before he could get the troll's head.
When it turned towards dawn, she had to set off home again; but she was afraid, she said, for she thought there was someone behind her, and so she was afraid to ride home alone. The troll must go with her on the way. Yes, the troll would go with her, and he led out his billy goat (for he had one that matched the one of the princess), and smeared it and greased it between the horns. And when the troll got up, the companion crept on behind, and so off they set through the air to the king's grange. But all the way the companion thrashed the troll and his billy goat, and gave them cut and thrust and thrust and cut with his sword till they got weaker and weaker, and at last were well on the way to sink down into the sea that they passed over. Now the troll thought it was the weather that was wild, and went right home with the princess up to the king's grange and stood outside to see that she got home safe and well. But just as she shut the door behind her, the companion struck off the troll's head and ran up with it to the lad's bedroom.
"Here is what the princess thought of," said he.
Well, they were merry and joyful, one may think, and when the lad was bidden down to dinner and they had dined, the princess was as lively as a lark.
"No doubt you have got what I thought of?" said she.
"Aye, aye; I have it," said the lad, and he tore it out from under his coat and threw it down on the table with such a thump that the table, trestles and all, was upset. As for the princess, she was as though she had been dead and buried. But she could not say that this was not what she was thinking of, and so now he was to have her to wife, as she had given her word. So they made a bridal feast, and there was drinking and gladness all over the kingdom.
But the companion took the lad aside and told him that he must just shut his eyes and sham sleep on the bridal night; but if he held his life dear and would listen to him, he wouldn't let a wink come over them till he had stripped her of her troll-skin, which had been thrown over her. But he must flog it off her with a rod made of nine new birch twigs, and he must tear it off her in three tubs of milk: First he was to scrub her in a tub of year-old whey, and then he was to scour her in the tub of buttermilk, and lastly he was to rub her in a tub of new milk. The birch twigs lay under the bed, and the tubs he had set in the corner of the room. Everything was ready to his hand.
The lad gave his word to do as he was bid, and to listen to him. So when they got into the bridal bed at even, the lad shammed as though he had given himself up to sleep. Then the princess raised herself up on her elbow and looked at him to see if he slept, and tickled him under the nose; but the lad slept on still. Then she tugged his hair and his beard; but he lay like a log, as she thought. After that she drew out a big butcher's knife from under the bolster, and was just going to hack off his head when the lad jumped up, dashed the knife out of her hand, and caught her by the hair. Then he flogged her with the birch rods, and wore them out on her till there was not a twig left. When that was over he tumbled her into the tub of whey, and then he got to see what sort of beast she was: she was black as a raven all over her body. But when he scrubbed her well in the whey, and scoured her with buttermilk, and rubbed her well in new milk, her troll-skin dropped off her, and she was fair and lovely and gentle; so lovely she had never looked before.
Next day the companion said they must set off home. The lad was ready enough, and the princess too, for her dower had been long waiting. In the night the companion fetched to the king's grange all the gold and silver and precious things which the troll had left behind him in the fell, and when they were ready to start in the morning the whole grange was so full of silver, and gold, and jewels, there was no walking without treading on them. That dower was worth more than all the king's land and realm, and they were at their wits' end to know how to carry it with them.
But the companion knew a way out of every strait. The troll left behind him six billy goats who could all fly through the air. Those he so laded with silver and gold that they were forced to walk along the ground, and had no strength to mount aloft and fly, and what the billy goats could not carry had to stay behind in the king's grange. So they travelled far and farther than far, but at last the billy goats got so footsore and tired they could not go another step. The lad and the princess knew not what to do; but when the companion saw they could not get on, he took the whole dower on his back and the billy goats a-top of it, and bore it all so far on that there was only half a mile left to the lad's home.
Then the companion said, "Now we must part. I can't stay with you any longer."
But the lad would not part from him; he would not lose him for much or little. Well, he went with them a quarter of a mile more, but farther he could not go. And when the lad begged and prayed him to go home and stay with him altogether, or at least as long as they had drunk his home-coming ale in his father's house, the companion said no, he could not do that.
Then the boy asked how to repay him for keeping him company and helping him.
If it was to be anything, it would be half of everything he got during the next five years, said the companion.
Yes, he should have it.
When the companion was gone, the lad laid together all his wealth in a safe place and went home without any baggage. Then they drank his home-coming ale till the news spread far and wide over seven kingdoms, and when they had got to the end of the feast, they had carting and carrying all the winter both with the billy goats and the twelve horses which his father had, before they got all that gold and silver safely carted home.
Five years later the companion returned for his share. By then the man had divided everything into two equal parts.
"But there is one thing you have not divided," said the companion.
"What is that?" said the man. "I thought I had divided everything."
You have got a child," said the companion. "You must divide that also in two."
That was true enough, so the man grasped his sword, but just as he lifted it to cleave the child in two, the companion seized the point of the sword from behind, so that he could not strike.
"Are you not glad that I stopped you from striking that blow?" he said.
"Yes, I have never been so glad in my life," said the man.
"Well, I was just as glad when you set me free from the block of ice," said the companion. "Keep everything you have! I don't need anything of it, for I am a soaring spirit," he said.
He was the vintner who had stood in the block of ice outside the church door, the one all spat on; and he had been his companion and helped him because he had given all he had to get him peace and rest in Christian earth.
"I had leave," he said, "to follow you a year," and that year was out when they parted the last time. Then he was allowed to see him one more time. But now he must part for good, for he heard the bells of heaven ringing for him.