There was once a royal prince who felt an urge to explore the world, and took no one with him but just the one faithful servant. One day he ended up in a forest, and when evening came, he was unable to find an inn and didn’t know where he might spend the night. Then he caught sight of a girl on her way to a small cottage, and when he drew closer, he saw that the girl was young and beautiful. He spoke to her, and said: ‘Dear child, can I and my servant find shelter for the night in the cottage?’ – ‘Oh yes,’ the girl replied sadly, ‘you could of course, but I wouldn’t advise it – don’t go in.’ ‘Why shouldn’t I do that?’ the prince asked. The girl sighed and said ‘my stepmother practises evil arts – and she means strangers no good.’
Then he realised he had come to the house of a witch, but since it was growing dark, he could not journey on and was unafraid, he went in. The old woman was sitting in an armchair by the fire and she looked at the strangers with bloodshot eyes. ‘Good evening,’ she rasped, pretending to be friendly, ‘sit yourselves down and take a rest.’ She fanned the coals, beside which something was being heated in a small cooking pot. The daughter warned both of them to be cautious, to eat and drink nothing, for the old women brewed evil potions.
They slept soundly until the early morning. When they were getting ready to leave and the prince had already mounted his horse, the old woman said ‘Wait a moment, let me just offer you a farewell drink.’ While she was fetching it, the prince rode off, and the servant, who still had to tighten his saddle, was the only one left when the wicked witch came with the drink. ‘Take this to your master,’ she said, but at that very moment the glass broke, and the poison spattered over the horse, and it was so potent that the animal immediately dropped to the ground, dead. The servant ran after his master and told him what had happened, but he didn’t want to leave the saddle behind and returned to fetch it. When he reached the dead horse, however, a raven was already sitting on the corpse, eating from it. ‘Who knows it we’ll find anything better today,’ the servant said, killed the raven and took it with him.
They spent all the next day travelling through the forest, but we unable to get out of it. When night came, they found an inn and went inside. The servant gave the innkeeper the raven, which he was to prepare for the evening meal. However, they had fallen into a murderers’ den, and in the dead of night twelve murderers came to kill and rob the strangers. But before they started their foul deed, they sat down at the table, and the innkeeper and the witch joined them, and they devoured a tureen of soup together that also contained the chopped flesh of the raven.
But hardly had they swallowed a spoonful or two before they all fell down dead, for the raven had passed on the poison from the horse’s flesh. So now there was no one left in the house but the innkeeper’s daughter, who was an honest person and had not taken any part in any of their wicked deeds. She opened all the doors to the strangers and showed them all the hoarded treasure. The prince, however, said she could keep all of it, he wanted none of it, and he rode off once more with his servant.
After they had travelled around for some while they came to a city where a beautiful but presumptuous king’s daughter lived – she had announced that whoever could present her with a riddle she was unable to solve could claim her as his husband: but should she guess the riddle, he was to be beheaded. She was to have three days to think of the answer, but was so clever that she always managed to guess the riddle by the stipulated time. Nine young men had already lost their lives in this way when the royal prince arrived and, dazzled by her great beauty, was prepared to risk his life to win her.
Then he appeared before her and gave her this riddle to solve: ‘What is it,’ he said’ that killed none yet killed twelve?’ She didn’t know what it was, she racked her brains but couldn’t work it out: she looked it up in her books of riddles, but there was nothing about it in them: in short, her cleverness was exhausted. Since she was unable to solve it herself, she ordered her maid to slip into the prince’s bedchamber where she was to listen to his dreams, for she thought he might talk in his sleep and betray the answer to the riddle. But the wise servant had placed himself in the bed instead of his master, and when the maid drew near, he pulled off the cloak in which she had concealed herself and chased her out with a bundle of switches.
During the second night, the king’s daughter sent her lady-in-waiting, she was so see if was any more successful at listening, but the servant pulled off her cloak as well and chased her away with a bundle of switches. Now the master felt he would be safe during the third night and lay down in his own bed, but then the king’s daughter herself came, had wrapped a mist-grey cloak around her and sat down close to him. And once she thought he was asleep and dreaming, she spoke to him, hoping he would answer her in his dream, as many people do.
But he was awake and heard and understood everything perfectly well. Then she asked ‘One killed none, what is that?’ He answered ‘a raven that has eaten from the poisoned corpse of a horse and then died.’ ‘She also asked ‘and yet killed twelve, what is that?’ – ‘That is twelve murderers who devoured the raven and died of it.’
When she knew the answer to the riddle, she wished to slip away, but he held onto her cloak, so she had to leave it behind. The next morning the king’s daughter announced that she had guessed the riddle and had the twelve judges summoned and solved it for them. But the young man asked to be heard and said ‘she has slid up close to me at night and interrogated me, otherwise she would not have been able to guess it.’ The judges said ‘Bring us proof of this.’ Then the three cloaks were brought in by the servant, and when the judges caught sight of the one that was mist-grey, which the king’s daughter was in the habit of wearing, they said ‘have it embroidered with gold and silver, and it will serve as your wedding cloak.’