There was once, in very old times, a king who had an only daughter. The young princess was of a very kind disposition and beautiful in person, so that she won the heart of every one who saw her. When she was grown up, there were many princes and noble youths that sought her hand and affection, and among them was the son of a powerful king from a distant kingdom. He often conversed with the fair maiden, and the youthful pair mutually agreed to possess each other.
In the meanwhile it happened that a war broke out, and the enemy invaded the country with a large army. Finding himself unable to withstand so great a force, the king caused a cavern to be excavated in the middle of an extensive forest, in which he might place his daughter, remote from the perils of warfare. He provided her abundantly with the necessaries of life, and gave her for company a female attendant, also a dog, and a cock, to enable them to distinguish one day from another. The king then prepared for the contest, and the young prince made himself ready to accompany him.
But when the hour of separation came, the prince and princess were sorely afflicted, and conversed long with each other. The princess said: "My mind tells me that we shall not soon meet again; I will therefore make one request which thou must not refuse. Thou shalt promise never to marry anyone who cannot wash the spots out of this handkerchief, and finish the weaving of this gold-web." With these words she handed the prince a handkerchief, and a web that was curiously worked in gold and silk. The prince received them, saying that he never would forget her request. They then parted from each other, and the princess was consigned to the cavern; but the prince and the king went forth to defend the country against the foe.
The armies met and a desperate conflict ensued; but fortune was unfavourable to the king, who fell gloriously in defense of his kingdom; and the young prince returned to his own country. The enemy then overran the whole land with plunder and slaughter, burnt the royal palace, and harried around it both far and near. The foe at length departed, leaving the land little better than a desert. But no one knew what has become of the king's daughter, whether she were dead or had fallen into the hands of the enemy. In the meanwhile the princess and her servant still remained in the cavern, and employed their time in gold embroidery, expecting the king's return. But one day went and another came, and yet he did not come to release them from their prison. And thus passed seven long years. Their provisions were now at an end, so that they had no longer wherewith to sustain life, and were compelled to kill the cock; but from that day they no longer had the means of knowing how the time passed, and their lot appeared harder than ever. Shortly after, the servant died of grief and hunger, and the king's daughter was left alone in the dark cave.
In her distress she knew not what course to adopt. At last she took a knife, and began scraping and chipping the roof without intermission, and to such good purpose that at length she made an opening in the top, and on the third day emerged from the cave in which she had been confined so long. The princess then attired herself in her attendant's clothes, called her dog, and set out to wander in the desert. After long journeying, without meeting with a human being, she perceived a smoke rising among the trees, and at length came to where an aged man was burning charcoal in the forest. The princess approached the coal-burner, and begged of him a little food, saying that she would gladly assist him in his labour. The man gave her a morsel of bread, and she helped him to burn coal. While talking together, the young damsel inquired what had taken place in the country, and the old man informed her of the death of the king, and of all that had occurred during the last seven years. At this narrative the princess was sadly afflicted, and it entered her thoughts "they have few friends who reckon many green graves." When a short time had elapsed, and the coal was burnt, the old man told her that he required no further help, and advised her to seek for service up at the king's palace, especially as he could well see that she was not accustomed to hard labour. Thus the princess again commenced her wanderings; but nothing is recorded of her course before she came to a great water; not knowing how to pass it, she sat down on the margin and wept.
While she thus sat a large wolf came running out of the forest, and said: "Give me thy hound, Then them shalt cross over wave and ground." The king's daughter, much as it grieved her, yet durst not deny the wolf's demand, but gave him the dog. When he had satisfied his hunger, he said:
"On my back set thee,
The waves shall not wet thee."
The princess instantly placed herself on his back, and he conveyed her across the lake to the opposite shore. By the water's edge there stood a fair royal palace, of which the king's son, who in former days had plighted his faith to the princess, was lord and master. We must now relate that, while the princess was shut up in the cavern, the king had died, and the prince had succeeded to the throne after his father. When some years had passed the king's councillors besought him to choose himself a queen; but he was deaf to their entreaties, for he thought unceasingly on the fair maiden whom he had betrothed in his youth. Thus seven long years passed on, and not the slightest intelligence could be obtained of the princess. The prince then concluded that she could be no longer living, and therefore, after a consultation with his chief men, he issued a proclamation that she should be his queen who could finish the princess's gold web, and wash the stains from her handkerchief. When this was known in various countries, there came maidens from the east and west, all eager to win the youthful king; but there was no one so skillful as to be able to fulfil the conditions.
At this juncture there came also a young female of rank, who was in like manner desirous of trying her luck. To this lady the princess went, and begged to be taken into her service, calling herself Asa. She was taken accordingly as a waiting-maid to the stranger damsel; but there was no one in all the king's court that rightly knew who she was. The princess's mistress had now to complete the king's web; but it was with her as with the others, she was incapable of proceeding with the curious texture. At this the damsel was severely mortified, and knew not well how to act. It happened, however, one day, while she was absent, that the disguised princess sat down at the loom and wove a long piece. At her return the damsel, perceiving that the work was progressing, was well pleased, and wondered who had been helping her. The king's daughter would not at first confess what she had done, but was at last obliged to acknowledge the truth. At this the damsel was highly delighted, and she set the princess to work at the web; but no one knew that it was the servant who worked in the place of her mistress. The rumour was now current throughout the palace that the stranger damsel was completing the curious web. There was, consequently, much talk about the king's marriage, and he himself went to the damsel's apartment to see how the trial proceeded. But whenever the king entered the weaving was always at a stand, and no one was sitting at the loom. This seemed to the king somewhat singular, and he one day asked the stranger damsel why she never wove while he was present. She excused herself, and cunningly said: "Sir, I am too bashful to be able to work while you are looking on." The king let himself be satisfied with this answer, and in a short time the web was completed.
The stranger damsel was now to wash the stains from the princess's handkerchief, but in the second task was as unsuccessful as in the first, for the more she washed the darker were the spots. The work was, however, performed by the princess under circumstances precisely similar to those already related in the case of the web. On the king's inquiry why the washing was always at a stand while he was present, the damsel answered with deceit: "Sir king, I cannot wash linen while I must have red gold rings on my fingers." The king, as before, let himself be contented with this answer, and in a short time the spots were all washed out of the handkerchief. Thus the stranger damsel fulfilled both conditions.
When all this became known, great joy prevailed through-out the land, and preparations on a grand scale were made for the king's marriage. But on the very day fixed for the ceremony the bride fell suddenly ill, so that she was unable to ride to church with the company. As she would not let it be known to any one that she was sick, she spoke secretly with her waiting-maid, and besought her to ride as bride in her stead. The young princess consented, and was accordingly clad in a bridal dress and adorned with red gold rings; but no one knew that it was the waiting-maid that rode in her mistress's stead. The wedding guests then set out in great state with music and other rejoicings, as was the usage in days of yore.
But the princess mourned in secret, and her heart was heavy, when she had to ride as bride with him in whom in earlier days was centered her confidence and love. The bridal company now proceeded on their way. The bride rode on her palfrey, with a red gold crown but pallid cheek, and the bridegroom rode next to her, little suspecting the sorrow of her heart. When they had ridden awhile they came to a bridge, of which it was foretold that it would break down if crossed by a bride who was not of royal lineage. The princess thereupon said:
"Stand firm, thou bridge wide! Two noble king's children over thee ride."
"What sayest thou, my bride?" inquired the king. "Oh, nothing of consequence," answered the bride; "I was talking to Asa, my waiting-maid." They rode on till they came to the spot where the palace that had been the abode of the princess's father had stood. But the dwelling had been burnt, and weeds sprang up from the heap of ruins. Thereupon said the princess:
"Here only thorns and thistles grow,
Where whilom gold was wont to glow.
Here litter now the neat and swine,
Where once I serv'd both mead and wine."
“What sayest thou, my bride?" again inquired the king. “Oh, nothing of consequence," answered the bride; "I was speaking to Asa, my waiting-maid." Proceeding further they came to a noble lime-tree, and the princess said:
"Here art thou still, thou aged tree!
Beneath thy shade my love once pledged his faith to me."
The king again asked: " What sayest thou, my bride?" But the bride answered as before, "Oh, nothing of consequence; I was only talking to Asa, my waiting-maid." Proceeding still further the princess noticed a pair of doves flying, and said:
"Here with thy mate thou shap'st thy flight,
While I my true love lose to-night."
"What sayest thou, my bride?" asked the bridegroom, listening to her words. "Oh, nothing of consequence," answered the bride; "I was only talking to Asa, my waiting- maid." When they had again ridden for some time, they came to the cavern in the gloomy forest. While riding along, the king requested his young bride to relate to him some story. The princess, sighing deeply, said:
"Seven tedious years in the dark cave I pin'd,
Stories and riddles there pass'd from my mind.
Much ill, too, befell me, I 've help'd to burn coal,
Much ill have I suffer'd,
On a wolf I have ridden.
To-day as a bride I go,
In my mistress's stead."
"What is that thou art saying, my bride?" asked the king, again in a tone of surprise. The bride answered, "Oh nothing of consequence; I was only talking to Asa, my waiting-maid." They had now reached the church, in which the marriage was to be solemnized, when the princess said:
"Here Mary was I named, the Rose and Star,
Now I am Asa call'd, my waiting-maid."
The wedding party then entered the church in procession and in great state, according to ancient custom. First walked pipers, and fiddlers, and kettle-drummers, and other musicians; then came the bridemen and the knights of the court, and last of all the bride with her young attendants. The bridal couple were now seated on the "sponsal seat," and the marriage ceremony was performed with great solemnity, as was fitting a royal pair; but no one' thought otherwise than that it was the stranger maiden who was united to the king.
When the bridal mass was read, and the king had ex- changed rings with the princess, he drew forth a silver girdle and put it round her waist; but the girdle had a lock so artificial and intricate that no one could open it except the king himself. The company then returned to the palace, and the health of the married pair was drunk amid mirth, and dancing and revelry, and all kinds of pastime.
But the princess hastened to the female apartments, and exchanged clothes with her mistress, so that no one could know that it was the waiting-maid who had ridden in the place of the stranger damsel. When it verged towards evening, and the king sat chatting with his young bride, as new married folks are in the habit of doing, he said: "Tell me, my love, what didst thou say when we were riding over the bridge? I should much like to know." At this the face of the damsel grew blood-red, for she knew not what answer to make; but recovering herself she said, "I have entirely forgotten what it was, but I will ask Asa, my waiting-maid." She then went away to the waiting-maid, and inquired of her what she had said on the bridge. She then returned to the bridegroom and said: "Well, now I remember: I said: " Stand firm, thou bridge wide! Two noble king's children over thee ride." "Why didst thou say so?" asked the king; but the bride returned no answer. A little while after, the king again said: "Tell me, my love, what didst thou say when we came to the old king's palace ? I long much to know." The damsel felt a second time greatly embarrassed; but recovering herself she said: "That too I have entirely forgotten, but I will ask Asa, my waiting-maid." So saying she went to the waiting-maid and asked what she had said at the old king's palace. She then returned to the bridegroom, and said: "Yes, now I remember what I said: "Here only thorns and thistles grow, Where whilom gold was wont to glow. Here litter now the neat and swine, Where once I serv'd both mead and wine." "Why didst thou say so?" asked the king; but the bride returned no answer. Another while passed, when the king again said: "Tell me, my love, what didst thou say as we rode past the linden tree? I am very desirous of knowing." But the bride was unable to answer until she had inquired of Asa, her waiting-maid. When she came back she said: "My words were: "Here art thou still, thou aged tree! Beneath thy shade my love once pledged his faith to me." "Why didst thou say so?" asked the bridegroom; but the bride answered not. All this appeared to the king very singular, yet he desisted not from asking what it was she had said on various occasions during their ride; though not one of his inquiries could she answer, but must go and ask Asa, her waiting-maid.
It was now waxing late, and the new-married couple were about to retire, when the king said: "Tell me, my love, what thou hast done with the girdle that I gave thee when we were leaving church?" "What girdle?" asked the bride, growing deadly pale, "I must have given it to Asa, my waiting-maid." The waiting-maid was sent for, and on her appearing, lo! she had the girdle round her body, the lock of which was so intricate that no one save the king could open it. The stranger damsel now seeing that her falsehood was exposed, went out, and full of anger left the palace. But the king recognised his genuine bride, and the princess recounted to him all that had befallen her during the long period of their separation.
Great was now the delight of the guests, and the king thought himself well recompensed for all his sorrows. The pair were then conducted to the nuptial chamber, preceded by youths and young maidens bearing wax-lights, according to the ancient custom of our forefathers. When the king and his fair consort retired for the night, tin assembled company began singing the old ballad:
"The lights all extinguish,
Clasp thy bride to thy breast."
And there was joy over both town and country, that they were now united who had so long loved each other.