There was once a great war, and the King had a great many soldiers, but he gave them so little pay that they could not live upon it. Then three of them had a meeting together and decided to desert.
One of them said to the other, ‘If we are caught, we shall be thrown in the cells; how shall we set about it?’ The other said, ‘Do you see that large cornfield there? If we were to hide ourselves in that, no one could find us. The army cannot come into it, and to-morrow they are set to march on.’
They crept into the corn, but the army did not march on, but remained camped close around them. They sat for two days and two nights in the corn, and grew so hungry that they nearly passed out; but if they were to venture out of the corn field, they would certainly be caught.
They said at last, ‘What use was it for us to leave the army? We are suffering here miserably.’
While they were speaking a fiery dragon came flying through the air. It hovered near them, and asked why they were hidden there.
They answered, ‘We are three soldiers, and have left the army because our pay was so little. Now if we remain here we shall pass out from hunger, and if we move out we shall be thrown into the cells.’
‘If you will work for me for seven years,’ said the dragon, ‘ I will lead you through the middle of the army so that no one shall catch you.’ “We have no choice, and must take your offer,’ they said. Then the dragon picked them up in his claws, took them through the air over the army, and set them down on the earth a long way from it.
The dragon gave them a little whip, saying, ‘Whip and slash with this, and as much money as you want will jump up before you. You can then live as great lords, keep horses, and drive about in carriages. But after seven years you are mine.’ Then he put a book before them, which he made all three of them sign. ‘At the end of the seven years I will give you a riddle,’ he said; ‘if you can guess it, you shall be free and out of my power.’ The dragon then flew away, and the men journeyed on with their little whip. They had as much money as they wanted, wore grand clothes, and made their way into the world. Wherever they went they lived in merrymaking and splendour, drove about with horses and carriages, ate and laughed, but did nothing wrong.
The time passed quickly, and when the seven years were nearly over two of them grew terribly anxious and frightened, but the third made light of it, saying, ‘Don’t be afraid, brothers, I wasn’t born yesterday; I will guess the riddle.’
They went into a field, sat down, and the two pulled long faces. An old woman passed by, and asked them why they were so sad. ‘Alas! We feel that since you do not know you cannot help us.’ ‘Who knows?’ she answered. ‘Tell me all about your troubles.’
Then they told her that they had become the servants of the Dragon for seven long years, and how he had given them money as plentiful as blackberries; but as they had signed their names they were his, unless when the seven years had passed they could guess a riddle. The old woman said, ‘If you would help yourselves, one of you must go into the woods, and there he will come upon a tumble-down building of rocks which looks like a little house. He must go in, and there he will find help.’
The two sad ones thought, ‘That won’t save us!’ and they stayed where they were. But the third and merry one jumped up and went into the woods till he found the rock hut. In the hut sat a very old woman, who was the Dragon’s grandmother. She asked him how he came, and what his business was there. He told her all that happened, and because she was pleased with him she took pity on him, and said she would help him.
She lifted up a large stone which lay over the cellar, saying, ‘Hide yourself there; you can hear all that is said in this room. Only sit still and don’t stir. When the Dragon comes, I will ask him what the riddle is, for he tells me everything; then listen carefully to what he answers.’
At midnight the Dragon flew in, and asked for his supper. His grandmother set the table, and brought out food and drink till he was satisfied, and they ate and drank together. Then in the course of the conversation she asked him what he had done in the day, and how many souls he had conquered.
‘Oh, I haven’t had much luck to-day,’ he said, ‘but I have a tight hold on three soldiers.’
‘Indeed! three soldiers!’ said she. ‘Who cannot escape you?’
‘They are mine,’ answered the Dragon scornfully, ‘for I shall only give them one riddle which they will never be able to guess.’
‘What sort of a riddle is it?’ she asked.
‘I will tell you this. In the North Sea lies a sea-cat—that shall be their roast meat; and the rib of a whale—that shall be their silver spoon; and the hollow foot of a horse—that shall be their wine glass.’
When the Dragon had gone to bed, his old grandmother pulled up the stone and let out the soldier.
‘Did you pay attention to everything?’
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I know enough, and can help myself splendidly.’
Then he went by another way through the window secretly, and in all haste back to his friends. He told them how the Dragon had been outwitted by his grandmother, and how he had heard from his own lips the answer to the riddle.
Then they were all delighted and in high spirits, took out their whip, and cracked so much money that it came jumping up from the ground. When the seven years had quite gone, the Dragon came with his book, and, pointing at the signatures, said, ‘I will take you underground with me; you shall have a meal there. If you can tell me what you will get for your roast meat, you shall be free, and shall also keep the whip.’
Then the first soldier said, ‘In the North Sea lies a sea-cat; that shall be the roast meat.’
The Dragon was very annoyed, and hummed and hawed a good deal, and asked the second, ‘But what shall be your spoon?’
‘The rib of a whale shall be our silver spoon.’
The Dragon-made a face, and growled again three times, ‘Hum, hum, hum,’ and said to the third, ‘Do you know what your wine glass shall be?’
‘An old horse’s hoof shall be our wineglass.’
Then the Dragon flew away with a loud shriek, and had no more power over them. But the three soldiers took the little whip, whipped as much money as they wanted, and lived happily for the rest of their lives