There was a king who had twelve beautiful daughters. They slept in twelve beds all in one room; and when they went to bed, the doors were shut and locked up; but every morning their shoes were found to be quite worn through as if they had been danced in all night; and yet nobody could find out how it happened, or where they had been.
Then the king made it known to all the land, that if any person could discover the secret, and find out where it was that the princesses danced in the night, he should have the one he liked best for his wife, and should be king after his death; but whoever tried and did not succeed, after three days and nights, should be put to death.
A king’s son soon came. He was well entertained, and in the evening was taken to the chamber next to the one where the princesses lay in their twelve beds.
There he was to sit and watch where they went to dance; and, in order that nothing might pass without his hearing it, the door of his chamber was left open.
But the king’s son soon fell asleep; and when he awoke in the morning he found that the princesses had all been dancing, for the soles of their shoes were full of holes.
The same thing happened the second and third night: so the king ordered his head to be cut off. After him came several others; but they had all the same luck, and all lost their lives in the same manner.
Now it chanced that an old soldier, who had been wounded in battle and could fight no longer, passed through the country where this king reigned: and as he was travelling through a wood, he met an old woman, who asked him where he was going. ‘I hardly know where I am going, or what I had better do,’ said the soldier; ‘but I think I should like very well to find out where it is that the princesses dance, and then in time I might be a king.’
‘Well,’ said the old dame, ‘that is no very hard task: only take care not to drink any of the wine which one of the princesses will bring to you in the evening; and as soon as she leaves you pretend to be fast asleep.’
Then she gave him a cloak, and said, ‘As soon as you put that on you will become invisible, and you will then be able to follow the princesses wherever they go.’
When the soldier heard all this good counsel, he determined to try his luck: so he went to the king, and said he was willing to undertake the task.
He was as well received as the others had been, and the king ordered fine royal robes to be given him; and when the evening came he was led to the outer chamber. Just as he was going to lie down, the eldest of the princesses brought him a cup of wine; but the soldier threw it all away secretly, taking care not to drink a drop.
Then he laid himself down on his bed, and in a little while began to snore very loud as if he was fast asleep.
When the twelve princesses heard this they laughed heartily; and the eldest said, ‘This fellow too might have done a wiser thing than lose his life in this way!’
Then they rose up and opened their drawers and boxes, and took out all their fine clothes, and dressed themselves at the glass, and skipped about as if they were eager to begin dancing.
But the youngest said, ‘I don’t know how it is, while you are so happy I feel very uneasy; I am sure some mischance will befall us.’