The Boys with the Golden Stars
Once on a time what happened did happen: and if it had not happened, you would never
have heard this story.
Well, once on a time there lived an emperor who had half a world all to himself to rule
over, and in this world dwelt an old herd and his wife and their three daughters, Annie,
Ursula, and Lara.
Annie, the eldest, was so beautiful that when she took the sheep to pasture they forgot to
eat as long as she was walking with them. Ursula, the second, was so beautiful that when
she was driving the flock the wolves protected the sheep. But Lara, the youngest, with a
skin as white as the foam on the milk, and with hair as soft as the finest lamb's wool,
was as beautiful as both her sisters put together - as beautiful as she alone could be.
One summer day, when the rays of the sun were pouring down on the earth, the three sisters
went to the wood on the outskirts of the mountain to pick strawberries. As they were
looking about to find where the largest berries grew they heard the tramp of horses
approaching, so loud that you would have thought a whole army was riding by. But it was
only the emperor going to hunt with his friends and attendants.
They were all fine handsome young men, who sat their horses as if they were part of them,
but the finest and handsomest of all was the young emperor himself.
As they drew near the three sisters, and marked their beauty, they checked their horses
and rode slowly by.
"Listen, sisters!" said Annie, as they passed on. "If one of those young
men should make me his wife, I would bake him a loaf of bread which should keep him young
and brave for ever."
"And if I," said Ursula, "should be the one chosen, I would weave my
husband a shirt which will keep him unscathed when he fights with dragons; when he goes
through water he'll never even be wet; or if through fire, it won't scorch him."
"And I," said Lara, "will give the man who chooses me two boys, twins, each
with a golden star on his forehead, as bright as those in the sky."
And though they spoke low the young men heard, and turned their horses" heads.
"I take you at your word, and mine shall you be, most lovely of empresses!"
cried the emperor, and swung Lara and her strawberries on the horse before him.
"And I'll have you," "And I you," exclaimed two of his friends, and
they all rode back to the castle together.
The following morning the marriage ceremony took place, and for three days and three
nights there was nothing but feasting over the whole kingdom. And when the rejoicings were
over the news was in everybody's mouth that Annie had sent for corn, and had made the loaf
of which she had spoken at the strawberry beds. And then more days and nights passed, and
this rumour was succeeded by another one - that Ursula had procured some flax, and had
dried it, and combed it, and spun it into linen, and sewed it herself into the shirt of
which she had spoken over the strawberry beds.
Now the emperor had a stepmother, and she had a daughter by her first husband, who lived
with her in the castle. The girl's mother had always believed that her daughter would be
empress, and not the "Milkwhite Maiden," the child of a mere shepherd. So she
hated the girl with all her heart, and only bided her time to do her ill.
But she could do nothing as long as the emperor remained with his wife night and day, and
she began to wonder what she could do to get him away from her.
At last, when everything else had failed, she managed to make her brother, who was king of
the neighbouring country, declare war against the emperor, and besiege some of the
frontier towns with a large army. This time her scheme was successful. The young emperor
sprang up in wrath the moment he heard the news, and vowed that nothing, not even his
wife, should hinder his giving them battle. And hastily assembling whatever soldiers
happened to be at hand he set off at once to meet the enemy. The other king had not
reckoned on the swiftness of his movements, and was not ready to receive him. The emperor
fell on him when he was off his guard, and routed his army completely. Then when victory
was won, and the terms of peace hastily drawn up, he rode home as fast as his horse would
carry him, and reached the castle on the third day.
But early that morning, when the stars were growing pale in the sky, two little boys with
golden hair and stars on their foreheads were born to Lara. And the stepmother, who was
watching, took them away, and dug a hole in the corner of the castle, under the windows of
the emperor, and put them in it, while in their stead she placed two little puppies.
The emperor came into the castle, and when they told him the news he went straight to
Lara's room. No words were needed; he saw with his own eyes that Lara had not kept the
promise she had made at the strawberry beds, and, though it nearly broke his heart, he
must give orders for her punishment.
So he went out sadly and told his guards that the empress was to be buried in the earth up
to her neck, so that everyone might know what would happen to those who dared to deceive
Not many days after, the stepmother's wish was fulfilled. The emperor took her daughter to
wife, and again the rejoicings lasted for three days and three nights.
Let's now see what happened to the two little boys. The poor little babies had found no
rest even in their graves. In the place where they had been buried there sprang up two
beautiful young aspens, and the stepmother, who hated the sight of the trees, which
reminded her of her crime, gave orders that they should be uprooted. But the emperor heard
of it, and forbade the trees to be touched, saying, "Let them alone; I like to see
them there! They are the finest aspens I've ever beheld!"
And the aspens grew as no aspens had ever grown before. In each day they added a year's
growth, and each night they added a year's growth, and at dawn, when the stars faded out
of the sky, they grew three years" growth in the twinkling of an eye, and their
boughs swept across the castle windows. And when the wind moved them softly, the emperor
would sit and listen to them all the day long.
The stepmother knew what it all meant, and her mind never ceased from trying to invent
some way of destroying the trees. It was not an easy thing, but a woman's will can press
milk out of a stone, and her cunning will overcome heroes. What craft won't do soft words
may attain, and if these don't succeed there still remains the resource of tears.
One morning the empress sat on the edge of her husband's bed, and began to coax him with
all sorts of pretty ways.
It was some time before the bait took, but at length - even emperors are only men!
"Well, well," he said at last, "have your way and cut down the trees; but
out of one they shall make a bed for me, and out of the other, one for you!"
And with this the empress was forced to be content. The aspens were cut down next morning,
and before night the new bed had been placed in the emperor's room.
Now when the emperor lay down in it he seemed as if he had grown a hundred times heavier
than usual, yet he felt a kind of calm that was quite new to him. But the empress felt as
if she was lying on thorns and nettles, and couldn't close her eyes.
When the emperor was fast asleep, the bed began to crack loudly, and to the empress each
crack had a meaning. She felt as if she were listening to a language which no one but
herself could understand.
"Is it too heavy for you, little brother?" asked one of the beds.
"Oh, no, it's not heavy at all," answered the bed in which the emperor was
sleeping. "I feel nothing but joy now that my beloved father rests over me."
"It's very heavy for me!" said the other bed, "for on me lies an evil
And so they talked on till the morning, the empress listening all the while.
By daybreak the empress had determined how to get rid of the beds. She would have two
others made exactly like them, and when the emperor had gone hunting they should be placed
in his room. This was done and the aspen beds were burnt in a large fire, till only a
little heap of ashes was left.
Yet while they were burning the empress seemed to hear the same words, which she alone
Then she stooped and gathered up the ashes, and scattered them to the four winds, so that
they might blow over fresh lands and fresh seas, and nothing remain of them.
But she had not seen that where the fire burnt brightest two sparks flew up, and, after
floating in the air for a few moments, fell down into the great river that flows through
the heart of the country. Here the sparks had turned into two little fishes with golden
scales, and one was so exactly like the other that everyone could tell at the first glance
that they must be twins. Early one morning the emperor's fishermen went down to the river
to get some fish for their master's breakfast, and cast their nets into the stream. As the
last star twinkled out of the sky they drew them in, and among the multitude of fishes lay
two with scales of gold, such as no man had ever looked on.
They all gathered round and wondered, and after some talk they decided that they would
take the little fishes alive as they were, and give them as a present to the emperor.
"Don't take us there, for that's whence we came, and yonder lies our
destruction," said one of the fishes.
"But what are we to do with you?" asked the fisherman.
"Go and collect all the dew that lies on the leaves, and let's swim in it. Then lay
us in the sun, and don't come near us till the sun's rays shall have dried off the
dew," answered the other fish.
The fisherman did as they told him - gathered the dew from the leaves and let them swim in
it, then put them to lie in the sun till the dew should be all dried up.
And when he came back, what do you think he saw? Why, two boys, two beautiful young
princes, with hair as golden as the stars on their foreheads, and each so like the other,
that at the first glance every one would have known them for twins.
The boys grew fast. In every day they grew a year's growth, and in every night another
year's growth, but at dawn, when the stars were fading, they grew three years" growth
in the twinkling of an eye. And they grew in other things besides height, too. Thrice in
age, and thrice in wisdom, and thrice in knowledge. And when three days and three nights
had passed they were twelve years in age, twenty-four in strength, and thirty-six in
"Now take us to our father," said they. So the fisherman gave them each a
lambskin cap which half covered their faces, and completely hid their golden hair and the
stars on their foreheads, and led them to the court.
By the time they arrived there it was midday, and the fisherman and his charges went up to
an official who was standing about. "We wish to speak with the emperor," said
one of the boys.
"You must wait till he has finished his dinner," replied the porter.
"No, while he is eating it," said the second boy, stepping across the threshold.
The attendants all ran forward to thrust such impudent youngsters outside the castle, but
the boys slipped through their fingers like quicksilver, and entered a large hall, where
the emperor was dining, surrounded by his whole court.
"We desire to enter," said one of the princes sharply to a servant who stood
near the door.
"That's quite impossible," replied the servant.
"Is it? Well, let's see!" said the second prince, pushing the servants to right
But the servants were many, and the princes only two. There was the noise of a struggle,
which reached the emperor's ears.
"What's the matter?" asked he angrily.
The princes stopped at the sound of their father's voice.
"Two boys who want to force their way in," replied one of the servants,
approaching the emperor.
"To force their way in? Who dares to use force in my castle? What boys are
they?" said the emperor all in one breath.
"We know not, mighty emperor," answered the servant, "but they must surely
be akin to you, for they have the strength of lions, and have scattered the guards at the
gate. And they are as proud as they are strong, for they won't take their caps from their
The emperor, as he listened, grew red with anger.
"Thrust them out," cried he. "Set the dogs after them."
"Leave us alone, and we will go quietly," said the princes, and stepped
backwards, weeping silently at the harsh words. They had almost reached the gates when a
servant ran up to them.
"The emperor commands you to return," panted he: "the empress wishes to see
The princes thought a moment: then they went back the way they had come, and walked
straight up to the emperor, their caps still on their heads.
He sat at the top of a long table covered with flowers and filled with guests. And beside
him sat the empress, supported by twelve cushions. When the princes entered one of the
cushions fell down, and there remained only eleven.
"Take off your caps," said one of the courtiers.
"A covered head is among men a sign of honour. We wish to seem what we are."
"Never mind," said the emperor, whose anger had dropped before the silvery tones
of the boy's voice. "Stay as you are, but tell me who you are! Where do you come
from, and what do you want?"
"We are twins, two shoots from one stem, which has been broken, and half lies in the
ground and half sits at the head of this table. We have travelled a long way, we have
spoken in the rustle of the wind, have whispered in the wood, we have sung in the waters,
but now we wish to tell you a story which you know without knowing it, in the speech of
And a second cushion fell down.
"Let them take their silliness home," said the empress.
"Oh, no, let them go on," said the emperor. "You wished to see them, but I
wish to hear them. Go on, boys, sing me the story."
The empress was silent, but the princes began to sing the story of their lives.
"There was once an emperor," began they, and the third cushion fell down.
When they reached the warlike expedition of the emperor three of the cushions fell down at
And when the tale was finished there were no more cushions under the empress, but the
moment that they lifted their caps, and showed their golden hair and the golden stars, the
eyes of the emperor and of all his guests were bent on them, and they could hardly bear
the power of so many glances.
And there happened in the end what should have happened in the beginning. Lara sat next
her husband at the top of the table. The stepmother's daughter became the meanest sewing
maid in the castle, the stepmother was tied to a wild horse, and every one knew and has
never forgotten that whoever has a mind turned to wickedness is sure to end badly.
Rumänisches Märchen. (AT 707, Rumänien)