The Seven Foals
Once upon a time, in a wretched hut, far in the woods, lived a poor couple. They had three sons, the youngest of which was called Boots. He did little but lie in the ashes all day. One day, the eldest son said he would go and earn his bread, and set forth.
He walked the whole day, and as evening drew in, he came to a palace. Standing on the steps was the king, and he asked the boy where he was going. The boy answered that he was in search of a way to earn his bread.
“Will you serve me?” asked the King. “I require someone to watch my seven foals. If you can watch them one whole day, and tell me at night what they eat and drink, you shall have my daughter, the princess, to wife, and half my kingdom also. But if you fail, I will cut three stripes off your back.”
Believing this to be the easiest task he had ever been told to do, the boy agreed.
The next morning, the king’s coachman let the seven foals out, and away they ran, with the boy after them. They raced over the hills, and through bushes. It wasn’t long before the boy grew weary, but still he tried to keep the foals in sight. Stopping a while, he came to a cleft in a rock where sat an old hag, spinning with a distaff. The moment she spied the boy she cried out, “Come, come hither, my pretty son. Let me comb your pretty hair.”
Tired out from running after the foals, the boy was happy enough to oblige. He sat down beside the hag, laid his head on her lap, and stretched out while she combed his hair.
When evening approached, the boy said, “I may as well go on my way now for its no use returning to the palace.”
“No, no,” said the hag. “Stop a while. The king’s foals will pass by here again. Then you can run home with them, and no one will know that you have been lying here all day instead of watching the foals.”
When the foals trotted past, the hag gave the boy a flask of water and clod of turf, telling him to show that to the king, and say that was what his seven foals ate and drank.
The king met the boy at the palace steps, like before. “Have you watched well and true the whole day?” asked the king.
“Yes,” said the boy.
“Tell me then, what did my seven foals eat and drink?”
The boy pulled out the flask of water and the clod of turf, and said, “Here you see their meat, and their drink.”
In an instant, the king turned wrathful and ordered his men to chase the boy home. But first, as the king had promised, the boy had three stripes cut out of his back. When the boy returned home, he was in a fine temper, resolving never to leave to find a place to earn his bread ever again.
Next day, the second son decided he would go out into the world and try his luck. His father and mother pleaded with him not to go, after what had befallen his brother. But the boy would not be dissuaded, and set off.
Like his brother before him, he too walked the whole day before he came to the king’s palace. Like his brother before him, he saw the king on the palace steps.
The king asked him where he was bound, and the boy said he was after trying his luck in the world, to earn his bread. The king asked the boy for his service, to watch his seven foals. But, like before, the king laid down the same reward and the same punishment. Like his brother, the boy also believed this to be the easiest task he had ever been given, and readily agreed.
In the grey of the morning, the coachman let out the seven foals, and they raced away over the hills and through the bushes, with the boy running after them. But the same thing happened to him as had befallen his brother. After growing weary from running after the foals, he passed by the cleft in the rock, where the same old hag sat, spinning with a distaff. She called out to the boy, “Come, come hither, my pretty son. Let me comb your pretty hair.”
Thinking no harm could come from sitting a while, the boy laid his head on the hag’s lap while she combed his hair. When the foals passed by them at nightfall, the hag gave him a flask of water and clod of turf to show the king.
At the palace, the king asked the boy, “Can you tell me what my seven foals had to eat and drink?”
In reply, the boy showed him the flask and the clod. “Here you see their meat, and their drink.”
Like before, the king turned wrathful and ordered his men to cut three stripes out of the boy’s back and chase him home. And when the boy returned home, he lamented his fate and swore never to go out into the world again.
The next day, Boots decided he wanted to try his luck watching the foals. His brothers laughed at him. “We fared so ill, but you think you can do better. A fine joke. You, who have never done anything but lie in the ashes.”
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t go,” said Boots. “The more I think on it, the more I have to do it.”
In spite of his brothers’ taunts, and the pleadings of his parents, Boots set out. He walked the whole day, and come the evening, he arrived at the palace, where he found the king standing on the steps.
When the king asked him where he was bound, Boots said he was after trying to earn his bread.
This time, the king thought to question more. “Whence do you come?”
Boots said whence he came, and that he was brother to the two who had watched the king’s seven foals, and that he wished to watch the foals.
“Pah!” said the king, the very mention of Boots’ brothers making him cross. “If you are brother to those two, I’ll wager you’re not worth much.”
“Perhaps,” said Boots, “but I have come so far already, may I not try?”
“Oh, very well,” said the king. “If you wish to have your back flayed, you are quite welcome.”
“I’d rather have the princess,” said Boots.
The next morning, at dawn, the coachman let the seven foals out again, and away they raced, as they always did, this time with Boots behind them. Like his brothers before, he too passed by the cleft in the rock where the hag sat, spinning, and, again, she cried out, “Come, come hither, my pretty son. Let me comb your pretty hair.”
But Boots didn’t stop. He continued to run after the foals, and managed to grab the tail of one, the youngest foal, which turned to him and said, “Jump on my back, boy. We still have a long way to go.”
Boots jumped on the foal’s back. And they raced on and on.
“Do you see anything?” said the foal.
“No,” said Boots.
And they raced on for many miles before the foal asked again, “Do you see anything now?”
“Yes,” said Boots. “I see something white, like a tall trunk of a birch.”
“That is where we are going,” said the foal.
When they got to the trunk, the eldest foal pushed it to one side to reveal a door. Inside the door was a little room, with barely anything but a little fireplace, and a bench. But behind the door, hung a great, rusty sword, and a pitcher.
“Can you brandish the sword?” asked the foals.
Boots tried, but couldn’t. They urged him to drink from the pitcher, and when he’d taken three gulps, he could wield the sword with barely any effort.
“You may take the sword with you now,” said the foals. “With it, you must cut off all our heads on your wedding day, and we will be princes once again. An ugly troll changed our shapes. We are the sons of the king, and brothers of the princess whom you are to marry when you can tell our father what we eat and drink. Remember, when you have hewn off our heads, to take care to lay each head at the tail of the body which it belonged to before, and the spell will cease to have power over us.
Boots solemnly promised to do so. Then they continued on their way.
They travelled for a long way, for many miles, before Boots finally said, “I see something like a blue stripe, far away.”
“That is a river we must cross,” said the foal.
They crossed the river, and still their journey continued. Boots said he could see something black, which he thought looked like a church steeple.
“That is where we are going,” said the foal.
When the foals stepped into the churchyard, they turned into young men, and, indeed, looked like princes, with their fine clothes. They went into the church, and took the bread and wine from the priest. Boots watched as the priest blessed the princes, after which they went out. Boots followed them, but first took with him a flask of wine and a wafer. By the time he stepped out of the church, the princes were foals again.
Boots got on the back of the youngest, and they went back the way they had come, only this time they went much, much faster. They crossed the river, and raced past the birch trunk. When they passed the old hag, they went by so fast, Boots couldn’t hear what the old hag screamed after him, but he could tell she was in a terrible rage.
Night had almost fallen when they got to the palace, where the king waited on the steps. “Have you watched well and true the whole day?” he said to Boots.
“I have done my best,” replied Boots.
“Then tell me what my seven foals eat and drink.”
Boots pulled out the flask of wine and the wafer. “Here is their meat, and their drink.”
“You have indeed watched true and well. You shall have the princess, and half the kingdom.”
So the wedding feast was made ready, for the king said it should be a grand one.
When they sat down to the feast, the groom got to his feet, saying he had forgotten something in the stables and had to go and fetch it. In the stables, he went to the foals, and did as he’d promised. He hewed off their heads, the oldest first, and the others after him, taking care to lay each head at the tail of the foal to which it belonged. As he did this, they became princes again.
Boots went back to the hall with the seven princes, and the king was so overcome with happiness, he kissed Boots on both cheeks, and patted him on the back. The bride, reunited with her beloved brothers, was now happier with her husband than she had been before.
I like the simplicity of this one, in that there is no backstory; we don’t know why the princes were cursed – had they done something, or was it to punish the king? Who was the ‘old hag’? Did she have something to do with the ‘ugly troll’ who had cursed the princes? Who knows? I wonder, though, if Boots had invited his family to his wedding ;)