“Can you lead me out of the forest?” asked the king. “I shall pay you handsomely.”
“I’d go with you gladly,” the miner replied, “but, as you can see, my wife is heavy with child and is expecting the baby tonight. I cannot leave her. But, how far do you think you would get in the dark? Why don’t you bed for the night on the soft hay in our loft, then in the morning, I’ll show you the way.”
Soon afterwards, the miner’s baby son was born. The king, above in the loft, was unable to seep. At midnight, he noticed a strange glow in the room below him. He peeped through a crack in the floorboards and saw the miner in a deep sleep, and the wife lying there deathly pale and lifeless. Beside the baby’s cradle stood three old women, all in white, each with a candle in her hand. They were the Three Fates.
The first said, “My gift to this boy is that he shall face many perils.”
The second said, “My gift to this boy is that he shall come safely through them and will live to a ripe old age.”
The youngest and third said, “My gift is that of a bride born this night to the wife of the king who sleeps in the loft above.” The Three Fates blew out their candles and all was dark and still.
The king felt as if a sword had been plunged into his breast. He did not close an eye the whole night long and racked his brains how to prevent what had been prophesied from coming to pass.
When the morning came, the baby began to cry. The miner rose and saw that during the night, his wife had fallen into an eternal sleep.
“Oh, my poor little orphan," he lamented, “what shall I do with you now?”
“Give the child to me,” said the king, seizing his chance. “I shall care for him well and I will give you so much money that you will never need work again to your dying day.”
The miner was delighted and the king left, promising to send for the baby very soon. When he returned to the palace, he was told the joyful news that on that very night, his wife had given birth to a beautiful daughter.
The king, his face like thunder, summoned a servant and said, “Go into the forest to the miner’s cottage, hand over this money and take away his baby. You are to drown that child on your way back. If you fail to do so, you yourself shall drink the water until you die.”
The servant did as he was bid. He carried the baby in a basket and when he came to a foot bridge over a deep, wide river, he threw the baby and basket into the water.
“Good riddance, my unwelcome son-in-law!” said the king, when the servant returned and reported that his task had been accomplished.
The king was now content, thinking that he infant had drowned. But the basket had floated safely with the current and the baby had slept soundly, rocked by the waves, until it came near a fisherman’s hut.
The fisherman was sitting on the bank mending his net, when he saw a strange object bobbing up and down in the water. He jumped into his boat, rowed after the baby and pulled it out of the water.
He took the infant to his wife and said, ‘"You always wanted a baby son, and here he is. The river has brought him to us, so let us call him Waterboy.”
The wife was overjoyed and they brought the boy up as if he was their very own. Time passes as the river flows, and the boy grew into a handsome youth, who had no equal far and wide. It so happened that one hot summer’s day, the king chanced to pass by. He was very thirsty, so he stopped and asked the fisherman for a drink of water. When Waterboy handed it to him, the king looked him over and was quite impressed.
“A fine lad you have here, Fisherman,” he remarked. “Is he your son?”
“He is and he isn’t,” answered the man. “It is twenty years to the day since I found him floating down the river as a tiny baby, and we have raised him as our own.”
The king turned as white as a sheet and his head began to spin. He realized then that this handsome, young man was the baby he had ordered to be drowned. He recovered his composure at once, dismounted and said, “I need to send a message to my palace and there is no one with me. Can your son take it?”
“Your wish is our command,” the fisherman replied. “The boy shall go.”
The king asked for writing materials and wrote to the queen, “The youth who is the bearer of this letter must die at once. He is an evil enemy of mine. Let it be done before my return. Such is my will.” Then, he folded the letter and sealed it with his ring.
Waterboy set off at once. His journey took him through a huge forest and he, too, lost his way. The forest was getting wilder and thicker, and darkness was falling rapidly, so he was relieved when he met an old woman.
“Where are you going, Waterboy?” she asked.
“I am taking a messages to the king’s palace, but I have lost my way. Can you direct me to the path, dear lady?”
“You won’t get there tonight in the dark,” said the old woman. “Stay the night with me. You won’t be under a stranger’s roof, for I am your godmother.”
The youth let himself be persuaded and a few steps further on, they came upon a pretty, little house, which seemed to have sprung out of the ground. That night, while Waterboy slept, the old woman took the letter from his pocket and replaced it with another, which read, “The young man who brings you this letter is to marry our daughter without delay. He is my chosen son-in-law. Let this be done before my return. Such is my will.”
When the queen read the letter, she at once made preparations for the wedding. Neither she nor the princess could take their eyes off the bridegroom, so greatly was he to their liking. Waterboy, too, was more than pleased with his bride.
A few days later, the king returned. When he realized what had happened, he was furious.
“But you yourself commanded me to hold the wedding before your return!” the queen said, defending herself. She presented him with the letter.
The king examined the paper, the writing, the seal – they were truly those he had sent. Then, he went to his son-in-law and questioned him about the journey. Waterboy told him about how he had lost his way in the forest and that he had spent the night with his godmother.
“What does she look like?” asked the king.
As soon as the youth described her, the king knew that she was the same old woman who had promised his daughter to the miner’s son twenty years ago.
He thought and thought, and then he said, “What is done cannot be undone. But you cannot be my son-in-law just like that! If you wish to keep my daughter as your wife, you must bring her a dowry of three golden hairs from Old Man Knowall.” The king was sure such an impossible task would get rid of his unwanted son-in-law forever.
Waterboy bade his bride goodbye, and set off. He easily found his way, for one of the Fates was his godmother. He traveled on and on, crossing mountains and rivers, until he came to the Black Sea. There he saw a ferryman aboard his boat.
“God be with you, old man!” Waterboy said in greeting.
“May the Lord grant it be so,” said the ferryman. “Where are you going, young traveler?”
“To Old Man Knowall for three golden hairs.”
“Ho, ho! I have waited so long for such a man as you! For twenty years now I have ferried folks across, and there is no one to free me from my task. If you promise to ask Old Man Knowall when my labor will end, I will take you across.”
Waterboy agreed and the ferryman ferried him across.
Next, he came to a large city, which looked shabby and sad. At the city gate, he met an old man leaning on a stick and dragging himself painfully along.
“Lord give you good morrow, Greybeard!”
“May the Lord grant it be so, fair youth! Where are you going?”
“To Old Man Knowall for three golden hairs.”
“Ay, ay! We have waited long for such a man as you! I must take you to our king at once.”
When they were before him, the king said, “I hear you are going as a messenger to Old Man Knowall. We have an apple tree here, which used to bear apples of youth. Whoever ate one, even if he were at death’s door, grew young again. But, for twenty years now, that tree has borne no fruit. Promise me you will ask Old Man Knowall what can be done, and I shall reward you royally.”
Waterboy promised and the king dismissed him graciously.
Later on, the youth came to another large city, but it lay almost in ruins. Near the city walls a son was digging a grave for his deceased father, and tears as big as peas rolled down his face.
“Lord give you good morrow, grief-stricken grave digger!” said Waterboy.
“Lord grant it be so, fair youth! Where are you going?”
“To Old Man Knowall for three golden hairs.”
“To Old Man Knowall? What a pity you didn’t come sooner! Our king has waited a long time for such a man. I must take you to him.”
When they were before him, the king said, “I hear you are going as a messenger to Old Man Knowall. We have a well here from which we used to draw the water of life. Whoever drank it, even if he were dying, was cured at once. And, if already dead, when sprinkled with this water, he would rise to his feet alive and well. But, twenty years ago, the well dried up. Promise me you will ask Old Man Knowall what can be done, and I shall reward you handsomely.”
Waterboy promised and the king dismissed him with his blessing.
His journey took him through a long, dark forest, in the middle of which he found a big, green meadow full of flowers. In this meadow, stood the golden palace of Old Man Knowall, and it glistened like fire. Waterboy entered, but found no one inside except an old woman sitting in the corner, spinning.
“Welcome, Waterboy,” she said. “I am happy to see you again.” She was the godmother who had sheltered him the night he was carrying the king’s letter. “What brings you here?”
“The king refuses to let me be his son-in-law just like that, so he has sent me for three golden hairs of Old Man Knowall.”
The old woman laughed and said, “Old Man Knowall happens to be my son, the bright Sun. Each morning he is just an infant, by noon a grown man, and by nightfall an old man. I will get you the three golden hairs from his head, so that I too shall prove myself worthy of being your godmother. But, godson, you cannot stay here openly. My son may be a good soul, but when he returns ravenous at night, he could quite easily roast and eat you for his supper. Jump into this empty tub, I’ll close the lid on top of you.”
Waterboy begged the old woman to ask Old Man Knowall the three questions he needed answering.
“I’ll ask,” she said, “and you pay attention to what he replies.”
Suddenly, the wind howled outside, the western window of the palace burst open and the Sun flew in – an old man with a golden head.
“I smell, I smell a human worm!” he growled. “Have you someone here, Mother?”
“Star of the Day, how could I have someone here without you seeing him? I know what it is. You fly the whole day long over the world and your nostrils are filled with human scent. No wonder it still lingers on when you get home!”
The old man made no comment, but sat down to eat his supper. When he had eaten, he laid his golden head on his mother’s knee and began to doze. When the old woman saw he was asleep, she pulled out one of his golden hairs and threw it on the floor. It rang out like the peal of a bell.
“What do you want of me, Mother?” the Sun grumbled.
“Nothing, my son, nothing. I was dozing and had a strange dream.”
“What did you dream?”
“I dreamed about a city which had a well with the water of life. Whoever was sick and drank from it was cured, and whoever had died and was sprinkled with it, came back to life again. But the well has been dry for the past twenty years. Is there any way it can be made to flow again?”
“Easily! Down in that well sits a frog blocking the spring. If the frog is killed, and the well is cleaned, then the water will flow as before.”
When Old Man Knowall had fallen asleep again, the old woman plucked out a second golden hair and threw it to the ground.
“What is the matter this time, Mother?”
“Oh, nothing, my dear son, nothing. I was dozing and had another strange dream. I dreamed of a city where they had an apple tree which bore the apple of youth. Whoever was old and ate one, became young again. But, for twenty years now the tree has borne no fruit. Can anything be done?”
“Quite easily. Under the tree lies a serpent, devouring its strength. If the serpent is killed and the tree transplanted, it will bear the fruit of youth again.”
Once again, the Sun dropped off to sleep and his mother plucked out the third golden hair.
“Are you never going to let me go to sleep?” Old Man Knowall cried crossly and was about to rise.
“Lie still, my son, lie still! Do not be angry with me, I didn’t mean to wake you. But, I had yet another strange dream. I saw a ferryman on the Black Sea. For the past twenty years, he has been ferrying folks across, and no one comes to release him. Will his labor ever end?”
“He must be the son of fools! Let him thrust the oar into another’s hand and jump ashore, then that other will be the ferryman. But, now, let me rest. I must be off early to dry the tears which the king of Bohemia’s daughter sheds for her husband, the son of a miner, whom the king has sent for three hairs of mine.”
Just before dawn, a great wind rose outside, and instead of the old Sun, a lovely golden-haired infant awoke on the old woman’s lap. This was the morning Sun, and he bade his mother goodbye and flew out through the eastern window.
The old woman now uncovered the tub and said, “Here are the three golden hairs of Old Man Knowall. You already have the answers to your questions. Go, and may God go with you. You will not see me again, for there will be no need.”
Waterboy thanked the old woman and left. When he reached the first city, the king asked him, “What news?”
“Good news!” Waterboy replied. “Clean out your well and kill the frog which sits on the spring, and the water will flow as before.”
At once, the king gave orders for this to be done, and when he saw water gushing forth again, he gave the youth twelve horses as white as snow which he loaded with as much gold, silver, and precious stones as they could carry.
When Waterboy reached the second city, the king asked, “What news?”
“Good news!” Waterboy replied. “Dig up the apple tree and kill the serpent you will find eating its roots. Replant the tree and it will bear fruit as before.”
At once, the king gave orders for this to be done, and just in a single night the apple tree was full of the most beautiful blossom. The king was overjoyed, and gave Waterboy twelve horses as black as ravens, loaded with as many riches as they could carry.
Waterboy road on until he came to the Black Sea where the ferryman asked if he had discovered how the would be freed.
“Most certainly,” said the youth, “but first ferry me over. Then, I will tell you.”
The ferryman objected to this, but when he saw there was no other way, he ferried Waterboy across the sea with all his riches and four and twenty horses.
Waterboy said to him then, “Thrust the oar into the hand of the next man you are about to ferry across. Jump ashore and he will be the ferryman instead of you.”
The king could hardly believe his eyes when Waterboy returned with the three golden hairs of Old Man Knowall, and the princess wept, not with grief, but for joy at her husband’s safe return.
“Where did you get these fine horses and all the riches?” marveled the king.
“I earned them,” Waterboy said. He went on to relate how he had helped one king to obtain youth-giving apples, and another king life-giving water.
“Apples of youth! Water of life!” the king murmured under his breath, “if I ate such an apple, I would grow young, and if I died, the water would bring me to life again!”
Without delay, the king left to find the apples of youth and the water of life, and he has not returned to this day.
So, Waterboy ruled instead of the king, just as his godmother predicted. As for the king, perhaps he is still ferrying folk across the Black Sea!