The Unlooked for Prince by Andrew Lang
A long time ago there lived a king and queen who had no children,
although they both wished very much for a little son. They tried not to
let each other see how unhappy they were, and pretended to take
pleasure in hunting and hawking and all sorts of other sports; but at
length the king could bear it no longer, and declared that he must go
and visit the furthest corners of his kingdom, and that it would be
many months before he should return to his capital.
By that time he hoped he would have so many things to think about
that he would have forgotten to trouble about the little son who never
The country the king reigned over was very large, and full of high,
stony mountains and sandy deserts, so that it was not at all easy to go
from one place to another. One day the king had wandered out alone,
meaning to go only a little distance, but everything looked so alike he
could not make out the path by which he had come. He walked on and on
for hours, the sun beating hotly on his head, and his legs trembling
under him, and he might have died of thirst if he had not suddenly
stumbled on a little well, which looked as if it had been newly dug. On
the surface floated a silver cup with a golden handle, but as it bobbed
about whenever the king tried to seize it, he was too thirsty to wait
any longer and knelt down and drank his fill.
When he had finished he began to rise from his knees, but somehow
his beard seemed to have stuck fast in the water, and with all his
efforts he could not pull it out. After two or three jerks to his head,
which only hurt him without doing any good, he called out angrily, 'Let
go at once! Who is holding me?'
'It is I, the King Kostiei,' said a voice from the well, and looking
up through the water was a little man with green eyes and a big head.
'You have drunk from my spring, and I shall not let you go until you
promise to give me the most precious thing your palace contains, which
was not there when you left it.'
Now the only thing that the king much cared for in his palace was
the queen herself, and as she was weeping bitterly on a pile of
cushions in the great hall when he had ridden away, he knew that
Kostiei's words could not apply to her. So he cheerfully gave the
promise asked for by the ugly little man, and in the twinkling of an
eye, man, spring, and cup had disappeared, and the king was left
kneeling on the dry sand, wondering if it was all a dream. But as he
felt much stronger and better he made up his mind that this strange
adventure must really have happened, and he sprang on his horse and
rode off with a light heart to look for his companions.
In a few weeks they began to set out on their return home, which
they reached one hot day, eight months after they had all left. The
king was greatly beloved by his people, and crowds lined the roads,
shouting and waving their hats as the procession passed along. On the
steps of the palace stood the queen, with a splendid golden cushion in
her arms, and on the cushion the most beautiful boy that ever was seen,
wrapped about in a cloud of lace. In a moment Kostiei's words rushed
into the king's mind, and he began to weep bitterly, to the surprise of
everybody, who had expected him nearly to die of joy at the sight of
his son. But try as he would and work as hard as he might he could
never forget his promise, and every time he let the baby out of his
sight he thought that he had seen it for the last time.
However, years passed on and the prince grew first into a big boy,
and then into a fine young man. Kostiei made no sign, and gradually
even the anxious king thought less and less about him, and in the end
forgot him altogether.
There was no family in the whole kingdom happier than the king and
queen and prince, until one day when the youth met a little old man as
he was hunting in a lonely part of the woods. 'How are you my
unlooked-for Prince?' he said. 'You kept them waiting a good long
'And who are you?' asked the prince.
'You will know soon enough. When you go home give my compliments to
your father and tell him that I wish he would square accounts with me.
If he neglects to pay his debts he will bitterly repent it.'
So saying the old man disappeared, and the prince returned to the
palace and told his father what had happened.
The king turned pale and explained to his son the terrible story.
'Do not grieve over it, father,' answered the prince. 'It is nothing
so dreadful after all! I will find some way to force Kostiei to give up
his rights over me. But if I do not come back in a year's time, you
must give up all hopes of ever seeing me.'
Then the prince began to prepare for his journey. His father gave
him a complete suit of steel armour, a sword, and a horse, while his
mother hung round his neck a cross of gold. So, kissing him tenderly,
with many tears they let him go.
He rode steadily on for three days, and at sunset on the fourth day
he found himself on the seashore. On the sand before him lay twelve
white dresses, dazzling as the snow, yet as far as his eyes could reach
there was no one in sight to whom they could belong. Curious to see
what would happen, he took up one of the garments, and leaving his
horse loose, to wander about the adjoining fields, he hid himself among
some willows and waited. In a few minutes a flock of geese which had
been paddling about in the sea approached the shore, and put on the
dresses, struck the sand with their feet and were transformed in the
twinkling of an eye into eleven beautiful young girls, who flew away as
fast as they could. The twelfth and youngest remained in the water,
stretching out her long white neck and looking about her anxiously.
Suddenly, among the willows, she perceived the king's son, and called
out to him with a human voice:
'Oh Prince, give me back my dress, and I shall be for ever grateful
The prince hastened to lay the dress on the sand, and walked away.
When the maiden had thrown off the goose-skin and quickly put on her
proper clothes, she came towards him and he saw that none had ever seen
or told of such beauty as hers. She blushed and held out her hand,
saying to him in a soft voice:
'I thank you, noble Prince, for having granted my request. I am the
youngest daughter of Kostiei the immortal, who has twelve daughters and
rules over the kingdoms under the earth. Long time my father has waited
for you, and great is his anger. But trouble not yourself and fear
nothing, only do as I bid you. When you see the King Kostiei, fall
straightway upon your knees and heed neither his threats nor his cry,
but draw near to him boldly. That which will happen after, you will
know in time. Now let us go.'
At these words she struck the ground with her foot and a gulf
opened, down which they went right into the heart of the earth. In a
short time they reached Kostiei's palace, which gives light, with a
light brighter than the sun, to the dark kingdoms below. And the
prince, as he had been bidden, entered boldly into the hall.
Kostiei, with a shining crown upon his head, sat in the centre upon
a golden throne. His green eyes glittered like glass, his hands were as
the claws of a crab. When he caught sight of the prince he uttered
piercing yells, which shook the walls of the palace. The prince took no
notice, but continued his advance on his knees towards the throne. When
he had almost reached it, the king broke out into a laugh and said:
'It has been very lucky for you that you have been able to make me
laugh. Stay with us in our underground empire, only first you will have
to do three things. To-night it is late. Go to sleep; to-morrow I will
Early the following morning the prince received a message that
Kostiei was ready to see him. He got up and dressed, and hastened to
the presence chamber, where the little king was seated on his throne.
When the prince appeared, bowing low before him, Kostiei began:
'Now, Prince, this is what you have to do. By to-night you must
build me a marble palace, with windows of crystal and a roof of gold.
It is to stand in the middle of a great park, full of streams and
lakes. If you are able to build it you shall be my friend. If not, off
with your head.'
The prince listened in silence to this startling speech, and then
returning to his room set himself to think about the certain death that
awaited him. He was quite absorbed in these thoughts, when suddenly a
bee flew against the window and tapped, saying, 'Let me come in.' He
rose and opened the window, and there stood before him the youngest
'What are you dreaming about, Prince?'
'I was dreaming of your father, who has planned my death.'
'Fear nothing. You may sleep in peace, and to-morrow morning when
you awake you will find the palace all ready.'
What she said, she did. The next morning when the prince left his
room he saw before him a palace more beautiful than his fancy had ever
pictured. Kostiei for his part could hardly believe his eyes, and
pondered deeply how it had got there.
'Well, this time you have certainly won; but you are not going to be
let off so easily. To-morrow all my twelve daughters shall stand in a
row before you, and if you cannot tell me which of them is the
youngest, off goes your head.'
'What! Not recognise the youngest princess!' said the Prince to
himself, as he entered his room, 'a likely story!'
'It is such a difficult matter that you will never be able to do it
without my help,' replied the bee, who was buzzing about the ceiling.
'We are all so exactly alike, that even our father scarcely knows the
difference between us.'
'Then what must I do?'
'This. The youngest is she who will have a ladybird on her eyelid.
Be very careful. Now good-bye.'
Next morning King Kostiei again sent for the prince. The young
princesses were all drawn up in a row, dressed precisely in the same
manner, and with their eyes all cast down. As the prince looked at
them, he was amazed at their likeness. Twice he walked along the line,
without being able to detect the sign agreed upon. The third time his
heart beat fast at the sight of a tiny speck upon the eyelid of one of
'This one is the youngest,' he said.
'How in the world did you guess?' cried Kostiei in a fury. 'There is
some jugglery about it! But you are not going to escape me so easily.
In three hours you shall come here and give me another proof of your
cleverness. I shall set alight a handful of straw, and before it is
burnt up you will have turned it into a pair of boots. If not, off goes
So the prince returned sadly into his room, but the bee was there
'Why do you look so melancholy, my handsome Prince?'
'How can I help looking melancholy when your father has ordered me
to make him a pair of boots? Does he take me for a shoemaker?'
'What do you think of doing?'
'Not of making boots, at any rate! I am not afraid of death. One can
only die once after all.'
'No, Prince, you shall not die. I will try to save you. And we will
fly together or die together.'
As she spoke she spat upon the ground, and then drawing the prince
after her out of the room, she locked the door behind her and threw
away the key. Holding each other tight by the hand, they made their way
up into the sunlight, and found themselves by the side of the same sea,
while the prince's horse was still quietly feeding in the neighbouring
meadow. The moment he saw his master, the horse whinnied and galloped
towards him. Without losing an instant the prince sprang into the
saddle, swung the princess behind him, and away they went like an arrow
from a bow.
When the hour arrived which Kostiei had fixed for the prince's last
trial, and there were no signs of him, the king sent to his room to ask
why he delayed so long. The servants, finding the door locked, knocked
loudly and received for answer, 'In one moment.' It was the spittle,
which was imitating the voice of the prince.
The answer was taken back to Kostiei. He waited; still no prince. He
sent the servants back again, and the same voice replied,
'He is making fun of me!' shrieked Kostiei in a rage. 'Break in the
door, and bring him to me!'
The servants hurried to do his bidding. The door was broken open.
Nobody inside; but just the spittle in fits of laughter! Kostiei was
beside himself with rage, and commanded his guards to ride after the
fugitives. If the guards returned without the fugitives, their heads
should pay for it.
By this time the prince and princess had got a good start, and were
feeling quite happy, when suddenly they heard the sound of a gallop far
behind them. The prince sprang from the saddle, and laid his ear to the
'They are pursuing us,' he said.
'Then there is no time to be lost,' answered the princess; and as
she spoke she changed herself into a river, the prince into a bridge,
the horse into a crow, and divided the wide road beyond the bridge into
three little ones. When the soldiers came up to the bridge, they paused
uncertainly. How were they to know which of the three roads the
fugitives had taken? They gave it up in despair and returned in
trembling to Kostiei.
'Idiots!' he exclaimed, in a passion. 'They were the bridge and the
river, of course! Do you mean to say you never thought of that? Go back
at once!' and off they galloped like lightning.
But time had been lost, and the prince and princess were far on
'I hear a horse,' cried the princess.
The prince jumped down and laid his ear to the ground.
'Yes,' he said, 'they are not far off now.'
In an instant prince, princess, and horse had all disappeared, and
instead was a dense forest, crossed and recrossed by countless paths.
Kostiei's soldiers dashed hastily into the forest, believing they saw
before them the flying horse with its double burden. They seemed close
upon them, when suddenly horse, wood, everything disappeared, and they
found themselves at the place where they started. There was nothing for
it but to return to Kostiei, and tell him of this fresh disaster.
'A horse! a horse!' cried the king. 'I will go after them myself.
This time they shall not escape.' And he galloped off, foaming with
'I think I hear someone pursuing us,' said the princess
'Yes, so do I.'
'And this time it is Kostiei himself. But his power only reaches as
far as the first church, and he can go no farther. Give me your golden
cross.' So the prince unfastened the cross which was his mother's gift,
and the princess hastily changed herself into a church, the prince into
a priest, and the horse into a belfry.
It was hardly done when Kostiei came up.
'Greeting, monk. Have you seen some travellers on horseback pass
'Yes, the prince and Kostiei's daughter have just gone by. They have
entered the church, and told me to give you their greetings if I met
Then Kostiei knew that he had been hopelessly beaten, and the prince
and princess continued their journey without any more adventures.
[Contes Populaires Slaves. Traduits par Louis Léger. Paris: Leroux,