There was a poor couple who lived in a wretched hut far away in the wood. How they lived I can’t tell, but I’m sure it was from hand to mouth, and hard work even then. They had three sons, and the youngest of them was the Ashlad. He did little else than lie there and poke about in the ashes.
One day the eldest lad said he would go out to earn his bread, and he soon got leave, and wandered out into the world. There he walked and walked the whole day, and when evening drew in, he came to a king’s palace, and there stood the king out on the steps, and asked where he was bound.
“Will you serve me and watch my seven foals?” asked the king. “If you can watch them one whole day, and tell me at night what they eat and what they drink, you shall have the princess to wife, and half my kingdom. But on the other hand, if you can’t, I’ll cut three red stripes out of your back. Do you hear?”
So next morning as soon as the first peep of dawn came, the king’s coachman let out the seven foals. Away they went, and the boy after them. You can fancy how they tore over hill and dale, through bush and bog. When the boy had run so a long time, he began to get weary, and when he had held on a while longer, he had more than enough of his watching, and just there, he came to a cleft in a rock, where an old hag sat and spun with a distaff. As soon as she saw the boy, who was running after the foals till the sweat ran down his brow, this old hag bawled out, “Come hither, come hither, my pretty son, and let me comb your hair.”
Yes, the boy was willing enough; so he sat down in the cleft of the rock with the old hag, and laid his head on her lap, and she combed his hair all day whilst he lay there, and stretched his lazy bones.
So, when evening drew on, the boy wanted to go away.
“Stop a bit till it’s dark,” said the old hag, “and then the king’s foals will pass by here again, and then you can run home with them, and then no one will know that you have lain here all day long, instead of watching the foals.”
But then the king saw plain enough how he had watched, and he got so wroth, he ordered his men to chase him away home on the spot; but first they were to cut three red stripes out of his back, and rub salt into them. So when the boy got home again, you can fancy what a temper he was in. He’d gone out once to get a place, he said, but he’d never do so again.
Next day the second son said he would go out into the world to try his luck. His father and mother said “No,” and bade him look at his brother’s back; but the boy wouldn’t give in; he held to his own, and at last he got leave to go, and set off. So when he had walked the whole day, he, too, came to the king’s palace. There stood the king out on the steps, and asked where he was bound; and when the boy said he was looking about for a place, the king said he might have a place there, and watch his seven foals. But the king laid down the same punishment and the same reward as he had settled for his brother. The boy was willing enough; he took the place at once with the king, for he thought he’d soon watch the foals, and tell the king what they ate and drank.
So, in the grey of the morning, the coachman let out the seven foals, and off they went again over hill and dale, and the boy after them. But the same thing happened to him as had befallen his brother. When he had run after the foals a long time, till he was both warm and weary, he passed by the cleft in a rock, where an old hag sat and spun with a distaff, and she bawled out to the boy, “Come hither, come hither, my pretty son, and let me comb your hair.”
That the boy thought a good offer, so he let the foals run on their way, and sat down in the cleft with the old hag. There he sat, and there he lay, taking his ease, and stretching his lazy bones the whole day.
When the foals came back at nightfall, he too got a flask of water and clod of turf from the old hag to show to the king. But when the king asked the boy, “Can you tell me now what my seven foals eat and drink?” and the boy pulled out the flask and the clod, and said, “Here you see their meat, and here you see their drink.”
Then the king got red-hot angry again, and ordered them to cut three red stripes out of the boy’s back, and rub salt in, and chase him home that very minute. When the boy got home, he too told how he had fared, and said he had gone out once to get a place, but he’d never do so any more.
The third day he Ashlad wanted to set out; he had a great mind to try and watch the seven foals, he said. The others laughed at him, and made game of him, saying, “When we fared so ill, you’ll do it better – a fine joke; you look like it – you, who have never done anything but lie there and poke about in the ashes.”
“Oh,” said the Ashlad, “I’m going about seeing if I can hear of a place.”
So next morning the coachman let out the seven foals again, and away they went over hill and dale, through bush and bog, and the Ashlad behind them. And so, when he too had run a long while, he came to the cleft in the rock where the old hag sat spinning at her distait. So she bawled out to the Ashlad, “Come hither, come hither, my pretty son, and let me comb your hair.”
So the Ashlad jumped up on his back. They went on, and on, a long, long way.
“Do you see anything now?” said the foal.
“No,” said the Ashlad.
So they went on a good bit farther.
“Do you see anything now?” asked the foal.
“Should I?” said the boy.
When they got to the trunk, the eldest foal took and pushed it on one side, and then they saw a door where it had stood, and inside the door was a little room, and in the room there was barely anything but a little fireplace and one or two benches; but behind the door hung a great rusty sword and a little pitcher.
“Can you brandish the sword?” said the foals; “try.”
“Yes,” said the foals, “now you may take the sword with you, and with it you must cut off all our seven heads on your wedding day, and then we’ll be princes again as we were before. For we are brothers of that princess whom you are to have when you can tell the king what we eat and drink; but an ugly troll has thrown this shape over us. Now mind, when you have hewn off our heads, to take care to lay each head at the tail of the trunk which it belonged to before, and then the spell will have no more demon power over us.”
The boy promised all that, and then on they went. And when they had travelled a long way, the foal asked, “Do you see anything?”
“No,” said the Ashlad.
So they traveled a good bit still.
“And now?” asked the foal.
“No, I see nothing,” said the Ashlad.
So they travelled many miles again, over hill and dale.
“Now then,” said the foal, “do you see anything now?”
“Yes,” said the foal, “that’s a river we’ve got to cross.”
“If the Ashlad didn’t see anything?”
“Yes,” said the foal, “that’s where we’re going to turn in.”
When the foals got into the church yard, they became men again, and looked like firm princes, with such fine clothes that it glistened from them; and so they went into the church, and took the bread and wine from the good priest who stood at the counter. And the Ashlad went in too; but when the good priest had laid his hands on the goods, and kept the change, they went out of the church again, and the Ashlad went out too, but he took with him a flask of wine and a wafer.
As soon as ever the seven princes came out into the church yard, they were turned into foals again. The Ashlad got up on the back of the youngest, and they all went back the same way that they had come; only they went a lot faster. First they crossed the Gjallar bridge, next they passed the trunk, and then they passed the old, used and worn woman who sat at the cleft and span. They went by her so fast that the Ashlad couldn’t hear what the she screeched after him; but he heard so much as to know she was in an awful rage.
“I’ve done my best, sir.”
“Here you see their meat, and here you see their drink,” he proudly said.
But when they sat down to the bridal feast, the bridegroom got up and went down to the stable, for he said he had forgotten something, and must go to fetch it. And when he got down there, he did as the foals had said, and hewed their heads off, all seven, the eldest first, and the others after him; and at the same time he took care to lay each head at the tail of the foal to which it belonged; and as he did this, lo! They all became princes again.
So when he went into the bridal hall with the seven princes, the king was so glad he both kissed the Ashlad and patted him on the back, and his bride was still more glad of him than she had been before.