Once upon a time...
Three brothers and one sister lived together in a small cottage, and they loved one another dearly. One day the eldest brother, who had never done anything but amuse himself from sunrise to sunset, said to the rest, 'Let us all work hard, and perhaps we shall grow rich, and be able to build ourselves a palace.'
And his brothers and sister answered joyfully, 'Yes, we will all work!'
So they fell to working with all their might, till at last they became rich, and were able to build themselves a beautiful palace; and everyone came from miles round to see its wonders, and to say how splendid it was. No one thought of finding any faults, till at length an old woman, who had been walking through the rooms with a crowd of people, suddenly exclaimed, 'Yes, it is a splendid palace, but there is still something it needs!'
'And what may that be?'
When they heard this the brothers set to work again to earn some more money, and when they had got enough they set about building a church, which should be as large and beautiful as the palace itself.
And after the church was finished greater numbers of people than ever flocked to see the palace and the church and vast gardens and magnificent halls.
But one day, as the brothers were as usual doing the honours to their guests, an old man turned to them and said, 'Yes, it is all most beautiful, but there is still something it needs!'
'And what may that be?'
'A pitcher of the water of life, a branch of the tree the smell of whose flowers gives eternal beauty, and the talking bird.'
'And where am I to find all those?'
'Go to the mountain that is far off yonder, and you will find what you seek.'
After the old man had bowed politely and taken farewell of them the eldest brother said to the rest, 'I will go in search of the water of life, and the talking bird, and the tree of beauty.'
'But suppose some evil thing befalls you?' asked his sister. 'How shall we know?'
'You are right,' he replied; ' I had not thought of that!'
Then they followed the old man, and said to him, 'My eldest brother wishes to seek for the water of life, and the tree of beauty, and the talking bird, that you tell him are needful to make our palace perfect. But how shall we know if any evil thing befall him?'
So the old man took them a knife, and gave it to them, saying, 'Keep this carefully, and as long as the blade is bright all is well; but if the blade is bloody, then know that evil has befallen him.'
The brothers thanked him, and departed, and went straight to the palace, where they found the young man making ready to set out for the mountain where the treasures he longed for lay hid.
And he walked, and he walked, and he walked, till he had gone a great way, and there he met a giant.
'Can you tell me how much further I have still to go before I reach that mountain yonder?'
'And why do you wish to go there?'
'I am seeking the water of life, the talking bird, and a branch of the tree of beauty.'
'Many have passed by seeking those treasures, but none have ever come back; and you will never come back either, unless you mark my words. Follow this path, and when you reach the mountain you will find it covered with stones. Do not stop to look at them, but keep on your way. As you go you will hear scoffs and laughs behind you; it will be the stones that mock. Do not heed them; above all, do not turn round. If you do you will become as one of them. Walk straight on till you get to the top, and then take all you wish for.'
The young man thanked him for his counsel, and walked, and walked, and walked, till he reached the mountain. And as he climbed he heard behind him scoffs and jeers, but he kept his ears steadily closed to them. At last the noise grew so loud that he lost patience, and he stooped to pick up a stone to hurl into the midst of the clamour, when suddenly his arm seemed to stiffen, and the next moment he was a stone himself!
That day his sister, who thought her brother's steps were long in returning, took out the knife and found the blade was red as blood. Then she cried out to her brothers that something terrible had come to pass.
'I will go and find him,' said the second. And he went. And he walked, and he walked, and he walked, till he met the giant, and asked him if he had seen a young man travelling towards the mountain.
And the giant answered, 'Yes, I have seen him pass, but I have not seen him come back. The spell must have worked upon him.'
'Then what can I do to disenchant him, and find the water of life, the talking bird, and a branch of the tree of beauty?'
'Follow this path, and when you reach the mountain you will find it covered with stones. Do not stop to look at them, but climb steadily on. Above all, heed not the laughs and scoffs that will arise on all sides, and never turn round. And when you reach the top you can then take all you desire.'
The young man thanked him for his counsel, and set out for the mountain. But no sooner did he reach it than loud jests and gibes broke out on every side, and almost deafened him. For some time he let them rail, and pushed boldly on, till he had passed the place which his brother had gained; then suddenly he thought that among the scoffing sounds he heard his brother's voice. He stopped and looked back; and another stone was added to the number.
Meanwhile the sister left at home was counting the days when her two brothers should return to her. The time seemed long, and it would be hard to say how often she took out the knife and looked at its polished blade to make sure that this one at least was still safe. The blade was always bright and clear; each time she looked she had the happiness of knowing that all was well, till one evening, tired and anxious, as she frequently was at the end of the day, she took it from its drawer, and behold! the blade was red with blood. Her cry of horror brought her youngest brother to her, and, unable to speak, she held out the knife!
'I will go,' he said.
So he walked, and he walked, and he walked, until he met the giant, and he asked, 'Have two young men, making for yonder mountain, passed this way?'
And the giant answered, 'Yes, they have passed by, but they never came back, and by this I know that the spell has fallen upon them.'
'Then what must I do to free them, and to get the water of life, and the talking bird, and the branch of the tree of beauty?'
'Go to the mountain, which you will find so thickly covered with stones that you will hardly be able to place your feet, and walk straight forward, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, and paying no heed to the laughs and scoffs which will follow you, till you reach the top, and then you may take all that you desire.'
The young man thanked the giant for his counsel, and set forth to the mountain. And when he began to climb there burst forth all around him a storm of scoffs and jeers; but he thought of the giant's words, and looked neither to the right hand nor to the left, till the mountain top lay straight before him. A moment now and he would have gained it, when, through the groans and yells, he heard his brothers' voices. He turned, and there was one stone the more.
And all this while his sister was pacing up and down the palace, hardly letting the knife out of her hand, and dreading what she knew she would see, and what she did see. The blade grew red before her eyes, and she said, 'Now it is my turn.'
So she walked, and she walked, and she walked till she came to the giant, and prayed him to tell her if he had seen three young men pass that way seeking the distant mountain.
'I have seen them pass, but they have never returned, and by this I know that the spell has fallen upon them.'
'And what must I do to set them free, and to find the water of life, and the talking bird, and a branch of the tree of beauty?'
'You must go to that mountain, which is so full of stones that your feet will hardly find a place to tread, and as you climb you will hear a noise as if all the stones in the world were mocking you; but pay no heed to anything you may hear, and, once you gain the top, you have gained everything.'
The girl thanked him for his counsel, and set out for the mountain; and scarcely had she gone a few steps upwards when cries and screams broke forth around her, and she felt as if each stone she trod on was a living thing. But she remembered the words of the giant, and knew not what had befallen her brothers, and kept her face steadily towards the mountain top, which grew nearer and nearer every moment. But as she mounted the clamour increased sevenfold: high above them all rang the voices of her three brothers. But the girl took no heed, and at last her feet stood upon the top.
Then she looked round, and saw, lying in a hollow, the pool of the water of life. And she took the brazen pitcher that she had brought with her, and filled it to the brim. By the side of the pool stood the tree of beauty, with the talking bird on one of its boughs; and she caught the bird, and placed it in a cage, and broke off one of the branches.
After that she turned, and went joyfully down the hill again, carrying her treasures, but her long climb had tired her out, and the brazen pitcher was very heavy, and as she walked a few drops of the water spilt on the stones, and as it touched them they changed into young men and maidens, crowding about her to give thanks for their deliverance.
So she learnt by this how the evil spell might be broken, and she carefully sprinkled every stone till there was not one left--only a great company of youths and girls who followed her down the mountain.
When they arrived at the palace she did not lose a moment in planting the branch of the tree of beauty and watering it with the water of life. And the branch shot up into a tree, and was heavy with flowers, and the talking bird nestled in its branches.
Now the fame of these wonders was noised abroad, and the people flocked in great numbers to see the three marvels, and the maiden who had won them; and among the sightseers came the king's son, who would not go till everything was shown him, and till he had heard how it had all happened. And the prince admired the strangeness and beauty of the treasures in the palace, but more than all he admired the beauty and courage of the maiden who had brought them there. So he went home and told his parents, and gained their consent to wed her for his wife.
Then the marriage was celebrated in the church adjoining the palace. Then the bridegroom took her to his own home, where they lived happy for ever after.
Water of Life
from the Pink Fairy Book
Story Edited by Andrew Lang