There was once a young man who had wandered out into the world to seek his fortune. As he went his way he met an old man who asked him for alms. The lad told him that he had no money; but that he would gladly share with him what food he had, and this the old man gratefully accepted. They seated themselves beneath a tree, and the young man divided the food into two equal parts.
When they had eaten he rose to go on his way; but the old man said: "You shared what you had with me, and in return I will give you this stick and this ball, for they will make your fortune. If you raise the stick in the air in front of you, you will become invisible; and if you strike the ball with the stick, it will roll in front of you, and show you the road you should take."
The young man thanked him for his gifts, cast the ball to the ground and struck it with the stick. The ball rolled swiftly in advance of him, and kept on rolling, until they came to a large city. Here he saw that the chopped-off heads of human beings had been planted all around the city walls. He asked the first person whom he met why this was, and learned that the whole country grieved because of the princess, who wore out twelve pair of golden shoes every night without anyone knowing how she did so.
The old king was weary of it, and had vowed whoever could solve the mystery should receive the princess and half the kingdom beside; but whoever tried and could not solve it would have to lose his life. Now many princes and great lords had come and made the attempt, because the princess was surpassingly lovely; but all of them had had to yield their lives, and the old king was in deep sorrow because of it.
When the young man heard of this he had a great mind to undertake the adventure. He at once went to the castle and said he would make the attempt the following night. When the old king saw him, he felt sorry for him, and he advised him to give up the undertaking, since he was certain to have no better luck than his predecessors. But he held to his resolve, and the king said that he should sleep for three nights in the princess' room, and see whether he could discover anything; and if he had not discovered anything by the third day, he would have to take his way to the scaffold.
The young man was satisfied to have it so, and in the evening he was led into the princess's room, where a bed had been prepared for him. He leaned his stick against the bed, hung his knapsack on it, and lay down resolved not to close an eye the whole night. He stayed awake for a long time and did not notice anything; but suddenly he fell asleep, and when he woke up it was bright daylight. Then he was very angry with himself, and resolved firmly that he would keep a better watch the following night. But the next night passed just as the first had, and now the young man had but a single night left.
When he lay down the third night, he pretended to fall asleep at once; and before long he heard a voice asking the princess whether he were sleeping. The princess answered, ''Yes," and thereupon a maiden clad in white came to his bed and said: ''I will test him, at any rate, to see whether he is really asleep," and she took a golden needle and thrust it into his heel.
But he did not move, and she went away and left the needle behind her. Then he saw her, together with the princess, move aside the latter's bed, so that a flight of stairs came to view, and they went down the flight of stairs. He rose quickly, took the needle and put it in his knapsack on his back, and held his stick before him so that he was invisible.
Then he followed them down the stairs, and they went on until they reached a forest that was all of silver -- trees, flowers and grass. When they came to the end of the silver forest, he broke a branch from a tree, and put it in his knapsack. The princess heard the trees rustle and turned around; but she could see no one.
"Oh, that is only the wind!" said the maiden with her.
Then they came to another forest, where all was of gold -- trees, flowers and grass; and when they reached the end of the golden forest, he broke a branch and put it in his knapsack. The princess turned around, and said it seemed as though some one were behind them; but the girl replied again that it was only the wind.
Then they came to a forest whose trees, flowers and grass were all of diamond, and when they reached the end of the diamond forest, he broke a branch from a tree and put it in his knapsack.
Finally they reached a lake, and there lay a little boat, and the princess and the girl got in. But as they were about to push off, he leaped into the boat, and it rocked so strongly that the princess grew afraid, and cried out that now surely some one was behind them. But the girl replied it was only the wind. They crossed to the opposite shore, and there lay a great castle.
An ugly troll came up, received the princess, led her in and asked her why she was so late. Then she told him she had suffered a great fright, and that someone had followed them, though she had seen no one. Then they seated themselves at the table, and the young man stood behind the princess's chair. When she had eaten he took away her golden plate, her golden knife and her golden fork, and put them all in his knapsack.
The troll and the princess could not imagine what had become of them; but the troll wasted no more thought on them, for now he wanted to dance. So they began to dance, and the princess danced twelve times with the troll, and each time she danced with him she completely wore out a pair of golden shoes. But when she had danced the last dance and thrown the shoes in the corner, the young man picked them up, and put them in his knapsack. When the dancing was over the troll led her back to the boat, and the young man crossed with them, and was the first to jump ashore and run home swiftly, so that he got there before they did, and could lie down in bed and pretend to be asleep when the princess arrived.
In the morning the old king came, and asked whether he had discovered anything; but he said he had fallen asleep, as he had the two nights preceding, and had not noticed anything. This made the old king very sad; but the princess was all the happier, and wished to see him beheaded herself. So the young man was led to the scaffold, and the king and the princess and the whole court went along.
And as he stood on the scaffold, he begged permission of the king to tell him a wonderful dream he had dreamt during the night just passed, and the king granted his request. So he told how he had dreamed that a girl clad in white had come to the princess and asked her whether he was asleep; and in order to make certain, the girl in white had thrust a golden needle into his heel.
"And I think this is the very needle," he said and drew it forth from his knapsack.
"And then I dreamed that they pushed the princess's bed aside, and went down a flight of steps, hidden beneath the bed, and I went after them; and then I dreamed that we came to a forest where the trees, flowers and grass were all of silver, and I broke a branch from one of the trees. Here it is. Then we came to a forest where the trees, flowers and grass were of gold, and I broke a branch from one of those trees. Here it is. Then I dreamed we came to a forest where the trees, flowers and grass were of diamond, and I broke a branch from one of those trees. Here it is. Then I dreamed that we went on and came to a lake, where lay a boat, and the princess and the girl got into the boat. But when I leaped in the princess was frightened, and said that there was some one behind her, though she could not see me. We crossed the lake to a great castle, and there an ugly troll received the princess and led her into the castle, and sat down to dine with, her; and I dreamed that I stood behind her chair, and that after she had eaten, I took her plate, her knife and her fork and put them in my knapsack. Here they are. And then I dreamed that the troll asked the princess to dance with him, and that she danced twelve times, and each time she danced she wore out a pair of golden shoes. But when she had danced the last dance, and flung the shoes aside, I picked them up, put them in my knapsack, and here they are. Then I dreamed the princess came home again; but I reached the castle before she did, and lay down in bed before she arrived."
When the old king had heard all this his happiness was beyond bounds; but the princess was half dead with fright, and could not imagine how it had all happened. The king now wished the young man to marry the princess; but he decided to pay the troll a visit first, and asked the princess to lend him her golden thimble.
She gave it to him, and the young man descended the stairs, passed through the silver forest, the golden forest and the diamond forest by the lake, and rowed across to the troll's castle. When he found the troll he thrust him through the heart with the golden needle that he had drawn from his heel, and held the princess's thimble beneath it. Three drops of blood fell into it, and the troll died.
Then he rowed back, and when he came to the diamond forest, he let one drop of blood fall to the ground, and at once all the trees, flowers and grasses turned into as many men, women and children, who were so happy to be released from their enchantment they begged him to be their king, for they were a whole nation. They followed him to the golden forest, and there he let another drop of blood fall to the ground; and there, too, all the trees, flowers and grasses turned into human beings, enough to people a kingdom. They went with him to the silver forest, and here he let the third drop of blood fall to the ground and all the trees, flowers and grasses likewise became human beings, praised him as their deliverer, and wished to make him their king.
They went with him to the old king and told him of their deliverance, and he and the princess were also happy, now that she, too, had been released from her enchantment. Then the wedding was celebrated with great splendor, and he became king over all three kingdoms.