Once upon a time, in Istria near the sea, a young boy was tending some cows and some sheep and goats. It was afternoon, and the heat of the sun was burning. Suddenly, the boy saw three beautiful girls asleep on the soft grass. They were fairies. They were incredibly pretty, and looked very much like each other; in fact they looked almost the same.
The boy never thought they might be fairies. He thought they were just girls who had tired themselves in the sun and fallen asleep. »But the sun will burn them,« he thought to himself. »Such pretty faces. I must help them.« He climbed the nearby lime-tree, broke off some thick branches and made a shelter from the sun for the girls.
Soon the fairies awoke and got up. They were surprised and asked each other who could have been so merciful to shield them from the sun. (But they knew very well what had happened, as fairies never sleep but only pretend to be asleep. They asked questions only to see whether the boy would speak up or not.) But the shepherd didnâ€™t say a word; he even tried to run away for he couldnâ€™t stand looking at the fairies: their hair gleamed too much. It glittered like pure gold.
In an instant all three were by his side. He couldn’t run away. They asked him what he wanted for having sheltered them from the burning sun. But the boy dared ask for nothing. They offered him a miraculous purse, which would forever stay full of gold coins. But the shepherd didn’t want it for he didn’t know the value of money. He didn’t know what to make of it; to play with it he didn’t want, for money is a dead thing, and he had live cows and sheep which he loved more than anything. When the fairies saw he didn’t want the money, they said to him: »When you drive your herd home tonight, you’ll hear coming from the sea the jingling of bells; but don’t turn round until you reach home.« So they spoke and disappeared. Only then did the boy realise they weren’t just ordinary girls, but must have been fairies.
When the sun started sinking into the sea, the shepherd headed for home. The closer he was to home, the louder was the jingling of the bells behind his back. But he forgot what the fairies had told him. When he was half-way from home, he turned round in curiosity to see who was driving such a large number of livestock. And he saw a huge herd of sheep, cattle and goats emerging from the sea and following him. But at the moment he looked back the animals stopped coming from the sea. Only those that had been on shore already followed him home. Had he not looked back, he would have had a huge herd. But he was happy with what he had, and to his poor neighbours he gave some of the animals which had been miraculously presented to him by the fairies.
There once lived a poor man, who didn’t even have enough bread to feed his son. So he told him to go find happiness in the wide world. »Go, my son,« he said, »where you please. But don’t forget to pick up and keep the first three things you come across.« And they bid each other good-bye. The father stayed at home, and the son set off down the long dusty road with a bag over his shoulder. After walking for a while, he saw a pea on the road. He remembered his father’s advice, picked it up and put it in his bag. He walked on and came across another pea. He picked it up and put it in the bag. He walked some more and saw a third pea, picked it up and put it in the bag with the other two. Late in the evening he reached a huge castle and asked for lodging.
»You can stay one night,« said the mistress of the castle, after she had looked over the handsome young man from head to toe. She liked him, and her daughter standing by her side liked him even more. »This stranger we took under our roof for the night doesn’t look like a poor man,« the lady said to her husband over dinner. »He’s probably only dressed up as a beggar to see how we live. I think he wants to marry our daughter. But we’ll soon know the truth.« The lady asked her servant to put the stranger up in an uncomfortable bed and carefully watch his behaviour during the night. »If he really is a poor man, he’ll sleep well even in the most uncomfortable of beds. But if he’s from a good house he’ll have no rest all night,« the lady explained her ruse to her husband. The young man was indeed shown to his bed. He undressed and lay down to rest. But as he was afraid that someone might during the night steal his bag – his only
possession â€“ he put it under his head. But the bag couldnâ€™t be properly tied, and the three peas kept rolling out. The boy was picking them up and putting them back in: as soon as he put one into his bag, another slid out, and when he found it, the third rolled out. So it went all night, and the boy never slept a wink.
»Well, how was it during the night?« the curious lady in the morning asked of her servant, who had spent the night under the stranger’s bed. »He was twisting and turning in his bed all night long. I was afraid the bed might fall on me any moment.« »Aha! I knew right away he wasn’t a poor man,« the lady exclaimed happily, and rushed to tell her husband and daughter the good news. The three agreed to keep the stranger in the castle for another night. But they wanted to make sure he was in fact a nobleman in disguise, so they offered him a soft and comfortable bed. As everybody was so nice to him during the day, the boy accepted the invitation to spend another night. After a delicious dinner he was shown to a richly furnished room. »Well, this is getting better and better,« the boy thought to himself. »I can see I came to a good and honest house. Why put my bag under my head and catch the peas all night as I did last night? I’d better have a good sleep.«
And he hung the bag on the hook, undressed, lay in the soft bed and slept like a log all night. »How was it last night?« the lady in the morning asked of her servant who had again kept vigil under the bed. »He slept soundly all night,« the servant replied.
»I knew he wasn’t a poor man,« said the happy lady. »He must be a nobleman, perhaps even a prince.« And, of course, she took the news fresh to her husband and daughter. After breakfast, the stranger went to see the count to thank him for his hospitality. »And where are you headed now, my friend?« the count asked him kindly. »Down the long dusty road, I don’t know where.« »Well, if that’s so, we won’t let you go anywhere. You see, I have a daughter the same age as you. You saw her, and I hope you like her. If you want, I’ll give you her hand in marriage today. And then we’ll see what happens.« The boy was first astonished at the count’s open proposal, but he pulled himself together right away, and accepted the unusual offer. The ceremony took place the very same day. A large wedding was held, which went on for forty days and forty nights.
Not one sad face was seen at the castle during that time. Even the happy groom didnâ€™t seem to worry.
At dawn on the fortieth day the countess summoned her new son-in-law and said to him: »My son! The party is over. Tomorrow you shall set off! Your wife wants to see your castle.« »My castle?« the poor groom almost screamed, and he nearly told the truth right away, namely that his father possessed only a modest hut, not a castle. But he changed his mind at the last moment, and agreed to take his bride to his castle the following day. But he was no longer happy, and deep sorrow and concern could be read on his face. »I can see it on your face that you find it hard to say good-bye to us,« said the benevolent countess. »Grieve not, though! We’ll soon see each other again. Stay there for a while, and come back again.« The following day the carriage was loaded with three bags of oats for the horses, and a bag of money; the newlyweds and two servants mounted the carriage and set off.
The young wife was sad, but her husband was even sadder. Everybody thought they were unhappy because they were leaving the castle. But the young man was so broken by sorrow that he couldnâ€™t utter a word, and his wife felt truly sorry for him, because she believed he had such a soft heart.
The poor fellow could think of nothing else but what would happen when they came to his father’s wretched hut. Towards nightfall the carriage was rolling through a dense forest. The young wife asked her dejected husband if they had long to travel to his castle. »Oh, long, very long,« he answered. »You can go to sleep, we won’t be there for quite a while.« And she dozed off. Her husband seized the opportunity and jumped off the carriage. »I’d rather die than tell her how poor I am,« he thought and ran into the forest. He had taken only a couple of steps, when a whitehaired man approached him. »Where are you headed, son, in this dark night?« the man spoke to the unhappy groom. »To a meeting with Death!« the boy replied, and openly told the old man the whole story. »Why worry, my friend!« said the white-haired man. »Get back on the carriage and ride with your wife a while
longer! You’ll soon reach my castle. I’m going away, and won’t be back for a year. All this time you can be master of the castle. But don’t forget one thing: When I’ll be coming home, the castle will be shaking heavily. You must make sure to flee the castle immediately!« The groom thanked the old man and returned to the carriage waiting for him on the road. »We almost got lost and I went to look for the right way,« he calmed his worried wife who had woken up. »I’m sure we’re on the right way now and will be home any moment.« Soon they reached a large castle festively lit. Before it stood a line of neatly dressed lackeys, bowing and greeting the newcomers as their new masters. »Oh! Your castle’s even more beautiful than ours!« sighed the young wife, and was very pleased to have obeyed her cunning mother and married the seemingly poor stranger.
A week went by, and a month; soon the year was drawing to a close. The castle began turning and shaking so hard that it almost collapsed. Only then did the poor master remember the words of the white-haired man.
He wanted to flee from the castle with his wife, but couldn’t find her anywhere. He ran from one room to another, from the cellar to the larder, from the larder to the attic and back to the cellar, but his wife was nowhere to be found. Finally, he saw in the cellar an ugly old woman looking at him fiercely. He didn’t notice her sharp glare as he was too worried about his wife. So he turned to the ugly woman and asked her politely: »Dear lady, do you happen to know where my wife is? I’ve looked everywhere, but can’t find her. She’s to die today if she doesn’t leave the castle before the master returns.« And the old woman replied: »Don’t be afraid, my son! Go to the cook and tell her to put into the mill the wheat sown seven times. From the flour she is to knead the bread seven times and bake it seven times. Place the bread so baked before the castle door, and don’t worry about anything else.«
»I’ve been lucky twice already, perhaps I’ll be lucky a third time,« thought the poor young man; he went to the cook and told her to do as he’d been instructed.
Just as he had returned from the cook, the castle shook a second time, so hard that the walls were cracking. ÂťThe castle will break down a hundred times before that bread is baked,ÂŤ thought the poor man to himself.
»But, there’s nothing to be done. I’d rather die than make my wife sad and ashamed for having married a beggar.«
In the meanwhile the cook baked the bread and placed it before the door as she had been told. That was lucky, for a huge dragon was already approaching the castle. The dragon had seven heads, and seven tongues in each of them, a fearful monster indeed! »I can smell people in the castle!« the dragon roared, and flames seven-feet long were coming from his seven heads. »Hey, Door! Iron Door of my castle! Don’t you know your Master any more? Why don’t you open?« the dragon roared at the door. At that moment the bread baked seven times spoke up: »Dragon! All your efforts are vain! Only if you let yourself be sown seven times, reaped seven times, ground seven times, kneaded seven times and baked seven times will I move away, otherwise you can’t come in!« The dragon was enraged that the door wouldn’t obey. He charged at the door with all his might so that the castle
turned three times. But the door still would not open. He charged once more, so hard that the castle turned six times. But the door stayed closed. He charged a third time, so hard that he himself shattered into tiny pieces and died at his very door. So the poor man remained master in the dragonâ€™s castle with his pretty wife. Theyâ€™re probably still living happily if they havenâ€™t yet died.