A long time ago there was a king who was famous for his wisdom. He knew everybody’s secrets. It seemed as if news of everything was brought to him through the air. But he had a strange custom. Every day after dinner, when the table was cleared, he asked a trusty servant to bring him one more dish. The dish was covered with a lid and even the servant did not know what was in it. In fact, nobody knew what was in the dish because the king never took off the cover until he was completely alone.
This continued for a long time, until one day when the servant was so curious to see what was in the dish that he took it into his own room before taking it to the king. When he had carefully locked the door, he lifted up the cover, and saw a white snake lying on the dish. It was cooked, so he cut off a little bit and put it into his mouth. As soon as he tasted the snake, he heard a strange whispering of little voices outside his window. He went and listened, and then noticed that it was the sparrows who were chattering together and telling one another about all the things that they had seen in the fields and woods. Eating the snake had given him the power of understanding the language of animals.
Now, it so happened that on the very next day the queen lost her most beautiful ring. The king suspected the young servant of stealing it, because he was allowed to go anywhere inside the royal palace. The king ordered told him: “If you don’t find out by tomorrow who stole the ring, I will have no choice but to think that you are the thief and execute you!” The young man said, “I didn’t steal it! I’m innocent.” But the king didn’t listen to him.
The young man was troubled and scared. He went down into the courtyard and thought long and hard. Some ducks were sitting together quietly by a stream and and while they were making their feathers smooth with their beaks, they were having a secret conversation together. The servant stood by and listened. They were telling each other about the places they had been and what good food they had found, when one said sadly, “Something lies heavy on my stomach. As I was hurrying to eat, I swallowed a ring which lay under the queen’s window.”
Immediately, the servant grabbed the duck, carried it to the kitchen, and said to the cook, “Here is a fine duck. Please roast it for dinner.”
“Yes,” said the cook, and weighed it in his hand. “It is quite fat, so it is a good time to roast it.” As he prepared the duck for dinner, he found the ring inside.
The servant could now prove his innocence. The king felt guilty about what he had said, so he promised the young man the best job that he could wish for. The servant refused everything, and only asked for a horse and some money for travelling – as he had ambitions to see the world.
When his request was granted the young man left and started his adventures. One day he came to a pond, where he saw three fish caught in the reeds. They were trapped and couldn’t get back into the water and he heard them complaining that they would die so miserably. As he had a kind heart, the young man got off his horse and put the three fish back into the water. They shook with delight, stuck out their heads, and cried to him, “We will remember you and repay you for saving us!”
He rode on, and after a while it seemed to him that he heard a voice in the sand at his feet. He listened, and heard an ant king complain, “Why cannot people and their clumsy horses not take care? They step on my people and kill them all the time!” So, the servant turned on to a side path and the ant king cried out to him, “We will remember you — one good turn deserves another!”
The path led him into a wood, and here he saw two old crows standing by their nest. They were throwing out their young baby crows. “Out with you, you lazy things! We cannot find food for you any longer. Now you are big enough to find your own food.” But the poor young chicks lay upon the ground, flapping their wings, and crying, “Oh, we are just helpless chicks! We have to feed ourselves, but we cannot fly yet! What can we do? We can only lie here and starve!”
So, the good young man climbed down, and gave the young crows his own food which he had been carrying for his lunch. The young crows gladly ate it and cried, “We will remember you – one good turn deserves another!”
When the young man had gone on a long way further, he came to a large city. There was so much noise and it was crowded in the streets. A man rode up on horseback and shouted to everyone to be quiet. Then he delivered a message: “The king’s daughter wants a husband. Any man who wants to marry her must perform a hard task, but if he does not succeed, he will lose his life.” Many young men had already tried – but they had failed. However, when the young servant saw the princess, he was so overcome by her great beauty that he forgot all danger. He went to the king’s palace and told the king that he wanted to marry his daughter.
Then the young man was taken out to sea, and a gold ring was thrown into the ocean. Then the king said: “Fetch this ring from the bottom of the sea! If you come back without it, we will throw you back into the water again and again until you die.” All the people watching felt sorry for the handsome young servant; then they went away, leaving him alone by the sea.
He stood on the shore and thought about what he should do, when suddenly he saw three fish come swimming towards him, and they were the same fish whose lives he had saved. The one in the middle held a clam in its mouth, which it laid on the shore at the young man’s feet. He picked it up and opened it and there lay the gold ring inside the shell. Full of joy, he took it to the king, and expected that he would receive the promised reward.
But when the proud princess saw that he was just a servant, not a prince, she laughed at him and made him perform another task. She went down into the garden and scattered ten sacks of seeds on the grass with her own hands. Then she said, “Tomorrow morning before sunrise these must be picked up, and you cannot miss a single grain.”
The young man sat down in the garden and wondered how it might be possible to perform this task, but he could think of nothing. Sadly, he sat there waiting for sunrise, when he would be taken to his death. But as soon as the first rays of the sun shone into the garden, he saw all the ten sacks standing side by side. They were quite full and not a single grain was missing. The ant king had come in the night with thousands and thousands of ants, and the grateful creatures had picked up all the seeds and gathered them into the sacks.
When the princess came down into the garden, she was amazed to see that the young man had done the task she had given him. But her heart was still too proud, so she said: “Although he has performed both the tasks, he shall not be my husband until he has brought me an apple from the Tree of Life.”
The young man did not know where the Tree of Life was, but he decided to look for it. He knew it would be impossible, but he thought he must try anyway. After wandering through three kingdoms, he came one evening to a wood, and lay down under a tree to sleep. He heard a rustling in the branches, and a golden apple fell into his hand. At the same time three crows flew down to him, landed on his knee, and said, “We are the three young crows that you saved from starving. When we grew big, we heard that you were seeking The Golden Apple, so we flew over the sea to the end of the world, where the Tree of Life stands, and have brought you the apple.”
The young man, full of joy, returned to the royal palace, and gave The Golden Apple to the king’s beautiful daughter, who had no more excuses left to make. They cut the Apple of Life in two and ate it together. Immediately, her heart became full of love for him, and they lived in great happiness to a very old age.