The Twelve Huntsmen

★ The Twelve Huntsmen Story:

Hundreds of thousands of years ago a prince met a fair maiden as he traveled through the Enchanted Land. The prince loved the maiden dearly, and she loved him as much as he loved her.

“Will you marry me?” asked the prince one day.

“Indeed I will,” said the maiden, “for there is no one in all the world I love so well.”

Then all was as merry as merry could be. The maiden danced and sang, and the prince laughed aloud for joy.

But one day, as they were together, a messenger arrived hot and breathless. He came from the prince’s father, who was King of a neighboring kingdom.

“His Majesty is dying,” said the messenger, “and he would speak with you, my lord.”

“Alas,” said the prince to the maiden, “I must leave you, and remain with my father until his death. Then I shall be king and I will come for you and you shall be my queen. Till then, good-by. This ring I give you as a keepsake. Once more, farewell.”

The maiden drew the ring on her finger, and, with a sad heart, watched the prince ride off.

The King had but a short time to live when his son arrived at the palace. “Ah,” said the dying man, “how glad I am that you are come. There is one promise I wish you to make ere I die. Then I shall close my eyes in peace.”

“Surely, dear father, I will promise what you ask. There is nothing I would not do to let you rest at ease.”

Then said the dying King, “Promise that you will marry the bride whom I have chosen for you,” and he named a princess well known to the prince.

Without thinking of anything but to ease his father’s mind, the prince said, “I promise.” The King smiled gladly as he heard the words, and closed his eyes in peace.

The prince was now proclaimed King, and the time soon came when he must go to the bride his father had chosen for him, and ask, “Will you marry me?” This he did, and the princess answered, “Indeed I will.”

Now the maiden who had first promised to marry the prince heard of this, and it nearly broke her heart. Each day she grew paler and thinner, until her father at last said: “Wherefore, my child, do you look so sad? Ask what you will, and I shall do my utmost to give it you.”

For a moment his daughter thought. Then she said: “Dear father, find for me eleven maidens exactly like myself. Let them be fair, and tall, and slim, with curly golden hair.”

“I shall do my best,” said her father; and he had a search made far and wide throughout the Enchanted Land until the eleven maidens were found. Each was fair, and tall, and slim, and there was not one whose golden hair did not curl.

The maiden was pleased indeed, and she next ordered twelve huntsmen’s dresses to be made of green cloth, trimmed with beaver fur; also twelve green caps each with a pheasant’s feather. Then to each of the maidens she gave a dress and hat, commanding her to wear them, while the twelfth she wore herself.

The twelve huntsmen then set out on horseback to the court of the King, who, when a prince, had promised to marry their leader. So well was the maiden disguised by the hunting-dress, that the King did not recognize her. She asked if he were in need of huntsmen, and if he would take her and her companions into his service.

Never had a finer troop been seen, and the King said he would gladly engage them. So they entered his service, and lived at the palace, and were treated with all kindness and respect.

Now among the King’s favorites at court was a lion. To possess this lion was as good as to have a magician, for he knew all secret things.

One evening the lion said to the King: “You imagine you engaged twelve young huntsmen not long ago, do you not?”

“I did,” said the King.

“Pray excuse me, if I contradict you,” said the lion, “but I assure you, you are mistaken. They were not huntsmen whom you engaged, but twelve maidens.”

“Nonsense,” said the King, “absurd, ridiculous!”

“Again I would crave forgiveness if I offend,” said the lion, “but those whom you believe to be huntsmen are, in truth, twelve fair maidens.”

“Prove what you say, if you would have me believe it,” said the King.

“To-morrow, then, summon the twelve to the royal chamber. On the floor let peas be scattered. Then, as the huntsmen advance toward you, you will see them trip and slide as maidens. If they are men they will walk with a firm tread.”

“Most wise Lion!” said the King, and he ordered it to be done as the royal beast had said.

But in the palace was a servant who already loved the fair young huntsmen, and when he heard of the trap that was to be laid, he went straight to them and said, “The lion is going to prove to the King that you are maidens.” Then he told them how he would seek to do this, and said, “Do your best to walk with a firm tread.”

Next morning the King ordered the twelve huntsmen to be called, and as they walked across the royal chamber, it was with so firm a tread that not a single pea moved.

After they had left, the King turned to the lion and said, “You have spoken falsely. They walked as other men.”

But the lion said: “They must have been warned, or they would have tripped and slidden as maidens. I will yet prove to you that I speak the truth. To-morrow, summon the twelve to the royal chamber. Let twelve spinning-wheels be placed there. Then, as the huntsmen advance toward you, you will see each cast longing looks at the spinning-wheels, which, if they were men, you must grant they would not do.”

The King was pleased that the huntsmen should again be put to the test, for the lion was a wise beast and had never before been proved wrong.

But again the kind servant warned the disguised maidens, and they resolved not even to glance in the direction of the spinning-wheels.

Next morning the King ordered the twelve huntsmen to be called, and as they walked across the royal chamber there was not one of them but looked straight into the eyes of the King. It seemed as though they had not known that the spinning-wheels were there.

After they had gone the King turned to the lion, and again he said, “You have spoken falsely.” Then he told the royal beast that the twelve huntsmen had not even glanced in the direction of the spinning-wheels.

“They must have been warned,” repeated the lion, but the King believed him no longer.

So the huntsmen stayed with the King and went out a-hunting with him, and the more he saw of them the more he liked them.

One day, while they were in the forest, news was brought that the princess whom the King was to marry was on her way to meet the hunting-party.

When the true bride heard it, she grew white as a lily, and, staggering, fell backward. Fortunately, the trunk of a tree supported her until the King, wondering what had happened to his dear huntsman, ran to the spot and pulled off her glove.

Looking at the white hand, what was his surprise to see upon the middle finger the ring he had given to the maiden he loved. Then he looked into her face and recognized her, and in a flash he understood that she had come to court as a huntsman, only to be near him. The King was so touched that he kissed her white cheeks till they grew rosy, and her blue eyes opened in wonder. “You shall be my queen,” he said, “and none in all the wide world shall separate us.”

Then he sent a messenger to the princess who was coming to meet him, saying he was sorry he must ask her to return home, as the maiden that he loved and was going to marry was with him in the forest.

And the next day the bells pealed loud and far, and at the royal wedding the lion was an honored guest, because it had at last been proved that he spoke the truth.

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