ONCE on a time there was a king who had many hundred sheep and many hundred goats and kine, and many hundred horses he had too, and silver and gold in great heaps. But for all that he was so given to grief that he seldom or ever saw folk, much less said a word to them. Such he had been ever since his youngest daughter was lost; and if he had never lost her, it would still have been bad enough, for there was a troll who was forever making such waste and worry there, that folk could hardly pass to the king's grange in peace. Now the troll let all the horses loose, and they trampled down mead and cornfield, and ate up the crops. Now he tore the heads off the king's ducks and geese; sometimes he killed the king's kine in the barn. Sometimes he drove the king's sheep and goats down the rocks, and broke their necks. And every time they went to fish in the mill-dam, he had hunted all the fish to land, and left them lying there dead.
Well, there was a couple of old folk who had three sons; the first was called Peter, the second Paul, and the third Espen Ashlad, for he always lay and grubbed about in the ashes.
They were capable youths; but Peter, who was the eldest, was said to be the most capable, and so he asked his father if he might have leave to go out into the world and try his luck.
"Yes, you shall have it," said the old fellow. "Better late than never, my boy."
So he got brandy in a flask, and food in his wallet, and then he threw his fare on his back and toddled down the hill. And when he had walked a while, he fell on an old wife who lay by the roadside.
"Ah, my dear boy, give me a morsel of food today," said the old wife.
But Peter hardly so much as looked on one side, and then he held his head straight and went on his way.
"Ay, ay!" said the old wife, "go along, and you shall see what you shall see."
So Peter went far, and farther than far, till he came at last to the king's grange. There stood the king in the gallery, feeding the cocks and hens.
"Good evening, and God bless your majesty," said Peter.
"Chick-a-biddy! Chick-a-biddy!" said the king, and scattered corn both east and west, and took no heed of Peter.
"Well," said Peter to himself, "you may just stand there and scatter corn and cackle chicken-tongue till you turn into a bear;" and so he went into the kitchen and sat down on the bench as though he were a great man.
"What sort of a stripling are you?" said the cook, for Peter had not yet got his beard. That he thought jibes and mocking, and so he fell to beating and banging the kitchen-maid. But while he was hard at it, in came the king, and made them cut three red stripes out of his back; and then they rubbed salt into the wound and sent him home again the same way he came.
Now as soon as Peter was well home, Paul must set off in his turn. Well, well! He too got brandy in his flask, and food in his wallet, and he threw his fare on his back and toddled down the hill. When he had got on his way, he too met the old wife who begged for food; but he strode past her and made no answer; and at the king's grange he did not fare a pin better than Peter. The king called "chick-a-biddy!" and the kitchen-maid called him a clumsy boy; and when he was going to bang and beat her for that, in came the king with a butcher's knife and cut three red stripes out of him and rubbed hot embers in, and sent him home again with a sore back.
Then the Ashlad crept out the cinders and fell to shaking himself. The first day he shook all the ashes off him, the second he washed and combed himself, and the third he dressed himself in his Sunday best.
"Nay, nay, just look at him," said Peter. "Now we have got a new sun shining here. I suppose you are off to the king's grange to win his daughter and half the kingdom. Better stay in the ashes and lie in the ashes."
But the Ashlad was deaf in that ear, and he went in to his father, and asked leave to go out a little into the world.
"What are you to do out in the world?" said the greybeard. "It did not fare so well either with Peter or Paul, and what do you think will become of you?"
But the Ashlad would not give way, and so at last he had leave to go.
His brothers were not for letting him have a morsel of food with him; but his mother gave him a cheese rind and a bone with very little meat on it, and with them he toddled away from the cottage. As he went he took his time. "You'll be there soon enough," he said to himself. "You have all the day before you, and afterwards the moon will rise, if you have any luck." So he put his best foot foremost, and puffed up the hills, and all the while looked about him on the road.
After a long, long way he met the old wife who lay by the roadside.
"The poor old cripple," said the Ashlad; "I guess you are starving."
"Yes, she was," said the old wife. "Are you? Then I'll share with you," said Espen Ashlad, and as he said that he gave her the rind of cheese.
"You're freezing, too," he said, as he saw how her teeth chattered. "You must take this old jacket of mine. It's not good in the arms, and thin in the back, but once on a time, when it was new, it was a good wrap."
"Bide a bit," said the old wife, as she fumbled down in her big pocket. "Here you have an old key. I have nothing better or worse to give you but when you look through the ring at the top, you can see whatever you choose to see."
When he got to the king's grange, the cook was hard at work drawing water, and that was great toil to her.
"It's too heavy for you," said the Ashlad, "but it's just what I am fit to do."
The one that was glad then, you may fancy, was the kitchen-maid, and from that day she always let the Ashlad scrape the porridge-pot; but it was not long before he got so many enemies by that, that they told lies of him to the king, and said he had told them he was man enough to do this and that.
One day the king came and asked the Ashlad if it were true that he was man enough to keep the fish in the mill-dam so that the troll could not harm them, "For that's what they tell me you have said," spoke the king.
"I have not said so," said the Ashlad; "but if I had said it, I would have been as good as my word."
Well, however it was, whether he had said it or not, he must try if he wished to keep a whole skin on his back; that was what the king said.
"Well, if he must, he must," said the Ashlad, for he said he had no need to go about with red stripes under his jacket.
In the evening the Ashlad peeped through his key-ring, and then he saw that the troll was afraid of thyme. So he fell to plucking all the thyme he could find, and some of it he strewed in the water, and some on land, and the rest he spread over the brink of the dam. So the troll had to leave the fish in peace, but now the sheep had to pay for it, for the troll was chasing them over all the cliffs and crags the whole night.
Then one of the other servants came and said again that the Ashlad knew a cure for the stock as well if he only chose, for that he had said he was man enough to do it was the very truth.
Well, the king went out to him and spoke to him as he had spoken the first time, and threatened that he would cut three broad stripes out of his back if he did not do what he had said.
There was no help for it, the Ashlad thought. It would be very fine to go about in the king's livery and a red jacket, but he thought he would rather be without it, if he himself had to find the cloth for it out of the skin of his back. That was what he thought and said.
So he betook himself to his thyme again; but there was no end to his work, for as soon as he bound thyme on the sheep they ate it off one another's backs, and as he went on binding they went on eating, and they ate faster than he could bind. But at last he made an ointment of thyme and tar and rubbed it well into them, and then they left off eating it. Then the kine and the horses got the same ointment, and so they had peace from the troll.
But one day when the king was out hunting he trod on wild grass and got bewildered and lost his way in the wood. He rode round and round for many days, and had nothing either to eat or drink, and his clothing fared so ill in the thorns and thickets that at last he had scarce a rag to his back. Then the troll came to him and said if he might have the first thing the king set eyes on when he got on his own land, he would let him go home to his grange. Yes, he should have that, for the king thought it would be sure to be his little dog, which always came frisking and fawning to meet him. But just as he got near his grange so that they could see him, out came his eldest daughter at the head of all the court to meet the king and to welcome him back safe and sound.
So when he saw that she was the first to meet him, he was so cut to the heart that he fell to the ground on the spot, and since that time had been almost half-witted.
One evening the troll was to come and fetch the princess. She was dressed out in her best and sat in a field out by the tarn, and wept and bewailed. There was a man called Redfoks who was to go with her, but he was so afraid that he climbed up into a tall spruce fir, and there he stuck. Just then up came the Ashlad and sat down on the ground by the side of the princess. And she was so glad, as you may fancy, when she saw there were still Christian folk who dared to stay by her after all.
"Lay your head on my lap," she said, "and I'll pick off lice from your hair." Espen Ashlad did as she bade him, and while she deloused him he fell asleep. Then she took a gold ring off her finger and knitted it into his hair. Just then up came the troll, puffing and blowing. He was so heavy-footed that all the wood groaned and cracked a whole mile round.
And when the troll saw Redfoks sitting up in the tree-top like a little blackcock, he spat at him.
"Pish!" he said, that was all, and down toppled Redfoks and the spruce fir to the ground, and there he lay sprawling like a fish out of water.
"Hu! Hu!" said the troll; "are you sitting here picking lice off Christian folk's hair? Now I'll gobble you up."
"Stuff!" said the Ashlad, as soon as he woke up, and then he fell to peering at the troll through the ring on his key.
"Hu! Hu!" said the troll; "what are you staring at? Hu! Hu!"
And as he said that he hurled his iron club at him, so that it stood fifteen ells deep in the rock; but the Ashlad was so quick and ready on his feet that he got on one side of the club just as the troll hurled it.
"Stuff, for such old wives' tricks," said the Ashlad; "out with your toothpick, and you shall see something like a throw."
Yes, the troll plucked out the club at one pull, and it was as big as three weaver's beams. Meanwhile the Ashlad stared up at the sky, both south and north.
"Hu! Hu!" said the troll; "what are you gazing at now?"
"I'm looking out for a star at which to throw," said the Ashlad. "Do you see that tiny little one due north? That's the one I choose."
"Nay, nay," said the troll, "let it be as it is. You mustn't throw away my iron club."
"Well, well," said the Ashlad, "you may have it again then, but perhaps you wouldn't mind if I tossed you up to the moon just for once."
No, the troll would have nothing to say to that either.
"Oh, but blind man's buff," said the Ashlad; "haven't you a mind to play blindman's buff?"
Yes, that would be fine fun, the troll thought; "but you shall be blindfolded first," said the troll to the Ashlad.
"Oh yes, with all my heart," said the lad; "but the fairest way is that we draw lots, and then we shan't have anything to quarrel about."
Yes, yes, that was best, and then you may fancy the Ashlad took care the troll should be the first to have the handkerchief over his eyes, and was the first "buff."
But that just was a game. My! How they went in and out of the wood, and how the troll ran and stumbled over the stumps, so that the dust flew and the wood rang.
"Haw! Haw!" bawled the troll at last, "the devil take me if I'll be buff any longer," for he was in a great rage.
"Bide a bit," said the Ashlad, "and I'll stand still and call till you come and catch me."
Meanwhile he took a hemp-comb and ran round to the other side of the tarn, which was so deep it seemed bottomless.
"Now come; here I stand," bawled out the Ashlad.
"I dare say there are logs and stumps in the way," said the troll.
"Your ears can tell you there is no wood here," said the Ashlad, and then he assured him that there were no stumps or stocks. "Now come along."
So the troll set off again, but "squash" he went, and there lay the troll in the tarn, and the Ashlad hacked at his eyes with the hemp-comb every time he got his head above water.
Now the troll begged so prettily for his life that the Ashlad thought it was a shame to take it; but first the troll had to give up the princess and to bring back the other whom he had stolen before. And besides, he had to promise that folk and flock should have peace. Then he let the troll out, and he took himself off home to his hill.
But now Redfoks became a man again, and came down out of the felled tree-top and carried off the princess to the grange as though he had set her free. And then he stole down and gave his arm to the other also, when the Ashlad had brought her as far as the garden. And now there was such joy in the king's grange that it was heard and talked of over land and realm, and Redfoks was to be married to the youngest daughter.
Well, it was all good and right, but after all it was not so well; for just as they were to have the feast, the old troll had gone down under earth and stopped all the springs of water.
"If I can't do them any other harm," he said, "they shan't have water to boil their bridal brose."
There was no help for it but to send for the Ashlad again. Then he got him an iron bar which was to be sixteen meters long, and six smiths were to make it red-hot. Then he peeped through his key-ring and saw where the troll was just as well underground as above it. Then he drove the bar down through the ground and into the troll's back-bone; and all I can say is that there was a smell of burnt horn fifteen miles around.
"Haw! Haw!" bellowed out the troll, "let me out!" And in a trice he came tearing up through the hole, and all his back was burnt and singed up to the nape of his neck.
But the Ashlad was not slow, for he caught the troll and laid him on a stake that had thyme twisted round it, and there he had to lie till he told him where he had got eyes from after those had been hacked out with the hemp-comb.
"If you must know," said the troll, "I stole a turnip, and rubbed it well over with ointment, and then I cut it to the sizes I needed, and nailed them in tight with ten-penny nails, and better eyes I hope no Christian man will ever have."
Then the king came with the two princesses and wanted to see the troll, and Redfoks walked so bent and bowed, his coat-tails were higher than his neck. But then the king caught sight of something glistening in the hair of the Ashlad.
"What have you got there?" he said.
"Oh," said the Ashlad, "nothing but the ring your daughter gave me when I freed her from the troll."
And now it came out how it had all happened. Redfoks begged and prayed for himself; but for all his trying and all his crying there was no help for it; down he had to go into a pit full of snakes, and there he lay till he burst.
Then they put an end to the troll, and then they began to be noisy and merry and to drink and dance at the bridal of the Ashlad, for now he was king of that company, and he got the youngest princess and half the kingdom.
And here I lay my tale on a sledge,
And send it you whose tongue has sharper edge;
But if your tongue in wit is not so fine,
Then shame on you if you throw blame on mine.