THERE was once upon a time a couple of poor folks who lived in a wretched hut, far away from everyone else, in a wood. They only just managed to live from hand to mouth, and had great difficulty in doing even so much as that, but they had three sons, and the youngest of them was called Cinderlad, for he did nothing else but lie and poke about among the ashes.
One day the eldest lad said that he would go out to earn his living; he soon got leave to do that, and set out on his way into the world. He walked on and on for the whole day, and when night was beginning to fall he came to a royal palace. The King was standing outside on the steps, and asked where he was going.
‘Oh, I am going about seeking a place, my father,’ said the youth.
‘Wilt thou serve me, and watch my seven foals?’ asked the King. ‘If thou canst watch them for a whole day and tell me at night what they eat and drink, thou shalt have the Princess and half my kingdom, but if thou canst not, I will cut three red stripes on thy back.’
The youth thought that it was very easy work to watch the foals, and that he could do it well enough.
Next morning, when day was beginning to dawn, the King’s Master of the Horse let out the seven foals; and they ran away, and the youth after them just as it chanced, over hill and dale, through woods end bogs. When the youth had run thus for a long time he began to be tired, and when he had held on a little longer he was heartily weary of watching at all, and at the same moment he came to a cleft in a rock where an old woman was sitting spinning with her distaff in her hand.
As soon as she caught sight of the youth, who was running after the foals till the perspiration streamed down his face, she cried:
‘Come hither, come hither, my handsome son, and let me comb your hair for you.’
The lad was willing enough, so he sat down in the cleft of the rock beside the old hag, and laid his head on her knees, and she combed his hair all day while he lay there and gave himself up to idleness.
When evening was drawing near, the youth wanted to go.
‘I may just as well go straight home again,’ said he, ‘for it is no use to go to the King’s palace.’
‘Wait till it is dusk,’ said the old hag, ‘and then the King’s foals will pass by this place again, and you can run home with them; no one will ever know that you have been lying here all day instead of watching the foals.’
So when they came she gave the lad a bottle of water and a bit of moss, and told him to show these to the King and say that this was what his seven foals ate and drank.
‘Hast thou watched faithfully and well the whole day long?’ said the King, when the lad came into his presence in the evening.
‘Yes, that I have!’ said the youth.
‘Then you are able to tell me what it is that my seven foals eat and drink,’ said the King.
So the youth produced the bottle of water and the bit of moss which he had got from the old woman, saying:
‘Here you see their meat, and here you see their drink.’
Then the King knew how his watching had been done, and fell into such a rage that he ordered his people to chase the youth back to his own home at once; but first they were to cut three red stripes in his back, and rub salt into them.
When the youth reached home again, anyone can imagine what a state of mind he was in. He had gone out once to seek a place, he said, but never would he do such a thing again.