Today's classic tale is from the Green Fairy Book, a collection of tales assembled and translated by Andrew Lang, published in 1892.
A King’s son once had a great desire to travel through the world, so he started off, taking no one with him but one trusty servant. One day he came to a great forest, and as evening drew on he could find no shelter, and could not think where to spend the night. All of a sudden he saw a girl going towards a little house, and as he drew nearer he remarked that she was both young and pretty. He spoke to her, and said, ‘Dear child, could I and my servant spend the night in this house?’
‘Oh yes,’ said the girl in a sad tone, ‘you can if you like, but I should not advise you to do so. Better not go in.’
‘Why not?’ asked the King’s son.
The girl sighed and answered, ‘My stepmother deals in black arts, and she is not very friendly to strangers.’
The Prince guessed easily that he had fallen on a witch’s house, but as by this time it was quite dark and he could go no further, and as moreover he was not at all afraid, he stepped in.
An old woman sat in an armchair near the fire, and as the strangers entered she turned her red eyes on them. ‘Good evening,’ she muttered, and pretending to be quite friendly. ‘Won’t you sit down?’
She blew up the fire on which she was cooking something in a little pot, and her daughter secretly warned the travellers to be very careful not to eat or drink anything, as the old woman’s brews were apt to be dangerous.
They went to bed, and slept soundly till morning. When they were ready to start and the King’s son had already mounted his horse the old woman said: ‘Wait a minute, I must give you a stirrup cup.’ Whilst she went to fetch it the King’s son rode off, and the servant who had waited to tighten his saddle-girths was alone when the witch returned.
‘Take that to your master,’ she said; but as she spoke the glass cracked and the poison spurted over the horse, and it was so powerful that the poor creature sank down dead. The servant ran after his master and told him what had happened, and then, not wishing to lose the saddle as well as the horse, he went back to fetch it. When he got to the spot he saw that a raven had perched on the carcase and was pecking at it. ‘Who knows whether we shall get anything better to eat to-day!’ said the servant, and he shot the raven and carried it off.
Then they rode on all day through the forest without coming to the end. At nightfall they reached an inn, which they entered, and the servant gave the landlord the raven to dress for their supper. Now, as it happened, this inn was a regular resort of a band of murderers, and the old witch too was in the habit of frequenting it.
As soon as it was dark twelve murderers arrived, with the full intention of killing and robbing the strangers. Before they set to work, however, they sat down to table, and the landlord and the old witch joined them, and they all ate some broth in which the flesh of the raven had been stewed down. They had hardly taken a couple of spoonfuls when they all fell down dead, for the poison had passed from the horse to the raven and so into the broth. So there was no one left belonging to the house but the landlord’s daughter, who was a good, well-meaning girl, and had taken no part in all the evil doings.
She opened all the doors, and showed the strangers the treasures the robbers had gathered together; but the Prince bade her keep them all for herself, as he wanted none of them, and so he rode further with his servant.
After travelling about for some length of time they reached a town where lived a lovely but most arrogant Princess. She had given out that anyone who asked her a riddle which she found herself unable to guess should be her husband, but should she guess it he must forfeit his head. She claimed three days in which to think over the riddles, but she was so very clever that she invariably guessed them in a much shorter time. Nine suitors had already lost their lives when the King’s son arrived, and, dazzled by her beauty, determined to risk his life in hopes of winning her.
So he came before her and propounded his riddle. ‘What is this?’ he asked. ‘One slew none and yet killed twelve.’
She could not think what it was! She thought, and thought, and looked through all her books of riddles and puzzles, but she found nothing to help her, and could not guess; in fact, she was at her wits’ end. As she could think of no way to guess the riddle, she ordered her maid to steal at night into the Prince’s bedroom and to listen, for she thought that he might perhaps talk aloud in his dreams and so betray the secret. But the clever servant had taken his master’s place, and when the maid came he tore off the cloak she had wrapped herself in and hunted her off with a whip.
On the second night the Princess sent her lady-in-waiting, hoping that she might succeed better, but the servant took away her mantle and chased her away also.
On the third night the King’s son thought he really might feel safe, so he went to bed. But in the middle of the night the Princess came herself, all huddled up in a misty grey mantle, and sat down near him. When she thought he was fast asleep, she spoke to him, hoping he would answer in the midst of his dreams, as many people do; but he was wide awake all the time, and heard and understood everything very well.
Then she asked: ‘One slew none—what is that?’ and he answered: ‘A raven which fed on the carcase of a poisoned horse.’
She went on: ‘And yet killed twelve—what is that?’ ‘Those are twelve murderers who ate the raven and died of it.’
As soon as she knew the riddle she tried to slip away, but he held her mantle so tightly that she was obliged to leave it behind.
Next morning the Princess announced that she had guessed the riddle, and sent for the twelve judges, before whom she declared it. But the young man begged to be heard, too, and said: ‘She came by night to question me, otherwise she never could have guessed it.’
The judges said: ‘Bring us some proof.’ So the servant brought out the three cloaks, and when the judges saw the grey one, which the Princess was in the habit of wearing, they said: ‘Let it be embroidered with gold and silver; it shall be your wedding mantle.’