Once upon a time there was an old king who had twelve sons, each quite handsome and talented in many areas. Although the castle was large and spacious, the twelve princes shared one long room with twelve stately beds in a row, and every evening all would retire, and the outside door was locked by the king. But when the sun rose each morning, the king was astonished to find that the hunting boots of his sons were worn completely through, yet still stored at the foot of each bed as they had been the night before.
The king wondered how this happened each night and so sent out a declaration to all the kingdom proclaiming that any young lady who could solve the mystery within three nights would inherit much in the way of gold and jewels, and would receive the royal seat of Queen next to one of his handsome sons. However, if the lady should not succeed in finding the answer, she would be banished forever from the kingdom, never again to enjoy its golden autumns or charming springs.
Several young ladies came to the castle, many in pomp and circumstance, followed by long processions of servants and Lords, to see if they could claim the throne, for they wanted the riches and title. The first lady to come was greeted politely by the king and shown to her room, which was attached to the long room of the princes. She haughtily told the princes, “Your royal highnesses, I will discover your secret and inherit the throne you hope to sit on!” And turning hotly on her heel, she flounced to her adjoining room and retired to the comfortable bed.
When she woke the next morning, she found each prince asleep in his bed, each exhausted, and each pair of boots worn to pieces. Astonished, she vowed to keep closer watch the following evenings. But she had the same results the next night, and the final night as well, until when she was asked by the king if she had discovered the secret, she had to admit that every morning she was as baffled as when first she came. Consequently, she was banished from the kingdom, leaving even what wealth she originally had.
Other ladies also tried their luck thereafter, and each had the same fate. Every time, when the three nights ended, the lady was banished for failing her task, and the royal shoemaker was kept hard at work repairing twelve sets of hunting boots daily.
One day in the Village Square a common maid heard about the mystery concerning the twelve princes of the Royal Hall as she drew water from the well. While she read the king’s proclamation on the waving banner, a lame man hobbled passed her, nearly falling as his good foot caught on a stone. The lady dropped the bucket she was holding and ran to help him, easing him down to sit near the well and saying with a smile, “Sir, let me fetch you a drink of water. The sun is hot today.” And hastily she drew a bucket of clear cold water, offering the man a dipper full. He drank deeply.
When he had had his fill, he looked steadily at her. His blue eyes looked young, despite the limp in his walk and the ancient condition of his clothing. “I thank you,” he said. “I am traveling through the village today, and was very thirsty. Your kindness is much appreciated.”
The young lady smiled. “You are kindly welcome, sir,” she replied.
The man nodded to the grand banner floating in the wind. “You are thinking of accepting the king’s challenge?”
“I had thought of it,” the maid said seriously, and then with a twinkle in her eye, “Do you not think me dressed for the occasion?” she teased. She displayed her patched and ragged skirt, and the man laughed merrily, for there was humor as well as sincerity in the lady’s face and gesture.
Then the man became serious and looked at her fixedly, for a moment considering a secret matter in his mind. Quietly he drew forth a cloak of deep blue that twinkled like starlight even in the day.
“Take this cloak,” he said. “Go to the palace, and ask to solve the king’s mystery. When you are shown to your bedchamber, the room adjoining the princes’ quarters, beware of the bed you are offered, for it has long been a bed of enchantment and those who rest there are granted sound sleep with no memory by morning. Even should you wake to discover the secret of the princes, you will not remember it by sunrise.”
The man also produced a small ring the color of moonlight, slight and hardly visible. “When you retire to bed, put on this ring. It will preserve your memories and protect you from ill enchantment. And take this cloak – it will render you invisible, if you should find the need.”
Amazed, the lady thanked the man heartfeltly and humbly took the gifts. As she watched him limp away through the bright streets, she resolved to try her luck at the kingdom’s riddle.
The next day as she entered the large royal gates, she was shown in hospitably and greeted by the king. That evening, each prince kissed her hand goodnight as they retired to their beds, speaking proudly and quietly with each other as they observed her. She remembered the village man’s warning and did not touch the bed until she had put the tiny moonlit ring securely on her finger. Confident in the lame man’s kindness, she covered herself with the fluffy comforter, closed her eyes, and pretended to sleep.
Within minutes she suddenly heard the princes stir in the next room. As there was no door to block her vision, she carefully peeked around the large blanket and saw the princes, up and out of their beds, dressing themselves in all the royal regalia of a stately hunt.
The youngest prince spoke to his brother, “Do you suppose she is sleeping soundly? We have not been abed for even thirty minutes.”
“We have never been betrayed before,” the other prince replied. Going to the edge of the room, he looked in on the maiden, who appeared to be deep in sleep. “I do not think even hunting horns will wake her. Come.”
Going to the fifth bed in the long row, the older prince carefully pried a slight beam from its frame, and with no delay the entire bed sunk deep into the stone floor and gave way to a hidden staircase which descended well below the earth.
“Gentleman!” exclaimed one of the eldest of the princes, raising a bow and quiver high. “The game’s afoot!”
The brothers cheered, and each tucked a sleek and shining bow about his cape as they descended into the secret passage. As soon as the last had disappeared, the young lady in the enchanted bed rose quickly, and throwing over her slender shoulders the deep blue cape that gleamed like starlight, hastily followed the line of princes down the stair.
Bright torches lit the passage, held in polished clasps against the wall. At the bottom the lady found herself entering a forest of remarkable origin. The leaves on every tree were starry silver and the sound of elf music floated gently like a ghost, as if it could not disentangle itself with the very air. In front of her the lady saw the princes’ soft footsteps crossing the green landscape, and she followed, bending down to gather a small silver leaf as she said to herself, “This will be my evidence.”
At last, near the center of the glade, a tall elf maiden appeared in the clearing, greeting the princes in a low, calm voice. Each bowed low to her as if she were a higher deity than themselves. She spoke.
“The hunt lies beyond,” the elf maiden said gently, motioning to a shadowy path close by, beyond which different forests waited.
The elf vanished as the princes, taking arrows from their quivers, turned suddenly and shot. Invisible in her cloak, the lady watched the arrows fly swiftly and hit their marks on gleaming targets near the end of the glade. All night the princes practiced in the silvery light, laughing together and accepting refreshment from the trays brought by graceful, merry elf maidens. The brothers raced the forest, back and forth in their sport, until their boots were quite worn.
Just before dawn they collected their arrows and made their way back through the forest of moonlight, up the stone stairs, and into the long bedchamber. Quietly the young lady hurried ahead and took her place beneath the comforter of the enchanted bed.
“See, she still sleeps,” the older prince said to his younger brother as the two looked in on the lady. He turned away. The youngest stood a moment longer, gazing at the lady’s face.
“She seems different than the others,” he said thoughtfully.
“Some do,” replied the elder. “We shall see.” And he turned to join his brothers as each placed his ragged hunting boots near the foot of the bed, and all slept.
The next day, as evening drew near, the princes once again bade the lady goodnight. In return she respectfully wished them sound slumber. But as they turned away, she noticed blood on the hand of one of the princes.
“My Lord,” she said stepping forward compassionately. “Your hand is bleeding. Will you allow me to bandage it for you?”
The brothers looked at each other, and than back at the lady before them.
The prince with the injured hand spoke. “I will allow it, if you please. And I thank you for your kindness.” The quiet lady smiled.
When she was finished all retired to their beds.
Just like the night before, when the princes suppose the maiden to be sleeping they rose and dressed themselves finely, and just like the night before, she rose and followed them down the stone stairs and into the silvery forest. Once more the elf queen appeared in the silver glen, saying, “The hunt lies beyond. Be permitted to enter, if you will.” But instead of stopping to practice their aim in the moonshine, the princes turned to follow the continuing shadowy path through the wood until the silver leaves turned to the gold of another forest where all things took on the light of the sun. Deeply the leaves glittered and shown as if they had captured the glow of sunset itself. Here in this second wood a vast blue pool of water glistened and a small boat rested on the shore, ready to set sail at a command. Tiny gnome-like beings with large ears and long tails emerged, pointing to the continuing path and telling the princes with a bow, “That way lies the hunt.”
Targets bright and golden stood nearby, and all night the princes roamed in the enchanted yellow light, joking good-naturedly with one another as they practiced their aim until nearly dawn, when they gathered their things and again returned to their bedchamber. As the lady slipped in front of the troupe of princes, she hastily plucked a golden leaf from among the bright pink roses on a flowering bush. Once up the stairs, she hurried to her bed, and watched as the princes removed their tattered hunting boots.
The next day marked the final night allotted for the lady’s observation. Everything went the same as before. Down the stairs and through the silver wood the quiet lady followed the princes, but they did not stop there or in the glen of sunset as on the previous night. Instead they followed the path further through the magical forest and found themselves in the greenest of glades. Diamonds shimmered from every leaf until the whole forest shone like the heavens. The lady stood in wonder of it all when the princes suddenly stood still and silent, the diamond forest glittering about them. A bird high above them, magical and sparkling like its surroundings, flew from one tree to the other, quickly and with much energy, until it looked almost like a flash of light. The lady marveled at its beauty for never before in her life had she seen a creature of such splendor and pride. It was pure white and glittered like jewels, and its eyes were deepest blue, intelligent, merry, and yet sad. Suddenly one of the princes raised his bow toward the beautiful bird, took deliberate aim, and shot. The arrow stuck and the bird fell immediately to the green ground. All the princes gathered to it. Horrified, the lady followed, but to her amazement and confusion the bird did not seem injured. No sooner had she drawn near the princes then they all sank to one knee and bowed deeply before the regal creature on the forest floor.
Nobly the star-like bird spoke. “You have found the realm of the hunt. Glad I am to see you in this glen.”
“It is only of late we have been permitted,” explained one of the elder princes, still on one knee. “The silver realm has been our grounds for many years, yet on yesterday’s eve we were able to travel to the golden land, and this night have seen the stars on earth here in this glade.”
“Do you ask the question?” the bird inquired.
The youngest prince raised his head. “We do ask, Sire. For long have we practiced our art in the enchanted wood, and my Lord, we wish to know our brother’s return.”
All twelve princes seemed in agreement with this answer. Astonished, the lady watched as the bird’s mouth turned up into mysterious and pleased smile.
“Then know this,” it said. “The answer is starlight, for starlight may hide as well as illuminate. The end of the hunt, at last, is near.”
The lady was puzzled by this interaction and watched with great curiosity as each of the princes bowed their heads to the bird, which looked steadily with its clear blue eyes and then lifted into the air like a shooting star, darting back into the depths of the glittering trees from whence it came.
Again a hush came over the twinkling glen.
“How will we know the starlight?” the youngest prince asked the others.
“We must be watchful,” said one of the elder. “It will be shown, I think, when the time is present.”
“Come,” said another prince. “The night is ending soon.”
The band of princes turned back to the path toward the golden land and the lady followed, but suddenly she saw, in the glen where the enchanted bird had landed, a feather so white and shimmering that she could not believe that the royal brothers had missed it. Hurriedly she ran and picked it up, carefully placing it in the pocket of the cloak along side the silver and gold leaves she had gathered from the other forests. Quickly she turned to follow the princes, but in her haste stepped on a twig that was lying on the ground. A sharp crack split the silent air, and the youngest prince, at the end of the line, turned abruptly.
His brother, seeing the look of alarm, came back to him.
“What keeps you?”
“The sound. Did you not hear it?” the youngest prince said.
“The scurrying of a woodland creature?” the other suggested.
“In any wood but this I would believe you,” said the youngest, gazing into the seemingly empty glen of stars. “Perhaps our answer is nearer than we suspect.”
The princes turned back to the path and the lady, taking great care to preserve her secrecy, slipped carefully through the forest and up the stairs before them so that she might return to her bed first and feign sleep. In the bedchamber, the princes looked in to see that she slept, removed their worn boots, and retired to bed just as the twilight began to fade.
The next morning the king and his servants came to the princes’ door and, unlocking it, entered to find out if the lady had solved the mystery. In a group nearby, the princes listened.
“My Lord,” the lady began. “I have indeed discovered the princes’ whereabouts. Each night they travel to a land of enchanted forests – the first silver as moonshine, the second golden as the sun, the third bright and shimmering as diamonds of starlight – and there they practice archery, roaming up and down all the night long, until their boots are worn through.”
The king looked to his sons. Not one contradicted the lady.
“How can I believe such a fable?” the king asked.
“My Lord, I offer these tokens, one item from each forest.” The lady went to her room and returned with the glittering deep blue cloak. Gently she withdrew the articles she had collected, first the leaf of silver, then that of gold, and finally the shinning feather.
All the princes stared – not at the objects, but at the starry cloak.
“Starlight will tell the answer,” the youngest said softly to his brother, and they spoke quietly to themselves.
The king, too, looked in amazement at the extraordinary cape. Gently he spoke to the lady, “It seems you have discovered the mystery, and it seems you have retrieved something more precious. What of this feather?”
“It is a feather of a magical bird, my Lord, found in the starlight forest, a creature so beautiful that I could not dream its equal,” the lady said.
Suddenly overcome, the king turned quickly to the door, saying hastily, “I will rejoin you in one hour.” The princes exited after him, leaving the lady astonished and alone in the large room.
One hour later the king returned as he promised, followed by the twelve princes and one more man, also dressed as a royal.
“My dear,” said the king, kindly taking the lady’s hands and surprising her with a bow. “This day you have united the kingdom, not only with yourself, but for my oldest son.” And he turned to bring forward the man who had come in with himself and the princes. As the man stepped forward, the lady noticed his face, kind and wise, and his eyes deep blue, like those of the enchanted bird, and like those of the lame man in the village to whom she had offered water.
“This man,” the king said, “is my oldest son, and the heir to the throne. Many years ago he was caught under enchantment, confined by night to the form of the sparkling white bird you saw in the forest, and by day doomed to roam the streets as a crippled beggar. From these forms he could have no escape until a lady would discover the princes’ secret, not a vain woman only seeking the queen’s seat, but a kind and selfless woman with humor, humility, and intelligence. This starlight robe he could only give to one such as yourself, to break the spell and solve the mystery.”
The lady stared in awe and recognition, first at the glistening cape, and then at the handsome man before her. She remembered his kind laughter and gentle manners, the warmth from his personality, and how she had enjoyed his company.
Quietly the man stepped forward. “My Lady,” he addressed her gently with a bow. “You have freed me from enchantment, but what is more, you have shown me kindness when it was neither convenient nor profitable to yourself. Because of your character I knew that the starlight cloak belonged in your hands. You have earned the kingdom, and if you will have me, I offer you my hand in marriage.”
Overjoyed, the lady agreed. The wedding was conducted the very next day, adorned with many bright flowers and the enchanted leaves of the hidden forests. In time, each of the other princes married charming ladies, and all were very happy in the kingdom. The prince-king and his queen-lady loved each other and ruled happily for a long time to come, each year blossoming more beautifully than the last, like the progressing magical woods through which the lady had invisibly walked to free her prince.