The Water of Life
Adapted from the original Brother Grimms tale
A long time ago a King was very unwell as he laid on his bed, his voice was raspy, and he had difficulty in breathing. He had not very long to live and beside him were his three sons. They were incapable of helping him. All the hopes of medicine failed them.
In the palace gardens they sat near a fountain and wept.
As they were sitting there, an old man, carrying a crooked walking stick, walked towards them. There was an occasional “kraak!” from a nearby raven. He looked at the three boys and asked what the matter was. They told him about their sick father.
The old man responded and said: “There is one thing that can help your father regain his health and his joy and that is the water of life, but to find the water of life takes courage.”
When the old man left, all three boys were thinking about what he had just said. The older brother in his heart thought that if he can find the water of life maybe then he could inherit the whole kingdom. He would be famous and he would be given much wealth. He decided to go and find the water of life and went up to his father and told him about his quest. His father did what all fathers tell their sons, he said it was much too dangerous to go to seek this water as many have tried but very few can ever find it or even return from such a quest. The older son pleaded until his father consented.
He saddled his horse, the drawbridge went down from the castle and away he galloped over valleys, mountains and forests. Then he arrived at an old bridge and there stood a dwarf, who asked: where are you going in such haste? The elder brother responded: “that is none of your business, move away you little dwarf before or I will ride you down!”
The dwarf heard those words and whispered runes and spells. The brother kept galloping across the land when suddenly the mountains themselves, although he could see them in the horizon at first, seemed to come closer and closer to him. Over time, they towered over him and he rode into a valley where could neither go backwards nor forwards, he could not even dismount his horse, he was imprisoned.
As the oldest brother never returned, the second brother thought to himself: “maybe if I go I will inherit the kingdom, I will gain lots of wealth? He asked his father if he could try and find the water of life. After much pleading again the father consented. His horse rode over the drawbridge and galloped over the nine lands as his oldest brother. He arrived at the bridge, where the dwarf asked again why he was in such a haste? The second brother looked at a dwarf and said: “you little shrimp! It’s none of your business where I'm going and what I'm doing.” The second brother almost rode the dwarf down.
Again, the dwarf whispered curses to the second brother. As the second brother was riding along, the mountains closed in, and he too was trapped.
Time passed without any tidings of the two brothers, the third brother thought about his own journey and quietly in his heart he thought about how this quest could help his father to regain his health and to regain his joy of living. He pleaded to his father.
His horse slowly made the way across the land looking for the water of life everywhere. He looked in the sky, under rocks, he swam, crawled and climbed. He asked villages where the water was, nobody could help him. But he persevered.
Finally, he also arrived face to face with the dwarf before the bridge: “where are you going?” Said the dwarf.
The third brother dismounted from his horse and bowed his head to the dwarf, “I am looking for the water of life to save my father from a terrible illness and if I don't find the water of life he may not survive, the Kingdom may not survive: do you know where it is?”
The dwarf answered: “Yes I do. The water of life is in a fountain within an enchanted Castle to the east from here. The door to this castle is closed for the outside world, to open the doors you need this black wand,” and the dwarf took out a iron rod to show him, “strike the door three times for it to open, behind the door are two large lions, and for them you will need a special bread,” he took at a warm banqueter from this inner coat pocket. This one has been baked with lots of honey, the lions will love that. Now, go towards the lion's roar, do not turn back but continue onwards and when they see you, give them your bread and try to go between them. If you are lucky, they will eat the bread, but they won’t eat you. “
He rode to the east and there in the distance stood the castle. The words of the dwarf were true, because soon enough he stood acting two large iron doors.
He knocked three times and the doors screamed from their hinges as they opened slowly. There were no guards to meet him. Then as he had taken a small step inside, a terrible loud roar was heard in the gloom in front of him, the lions had noticed him. But he kept going forward, he didn’t turn back. He walked towards the roar.
All the lions jumped at him to tear him to pieces, he threw the golden bread up in the air and their fanged mouths devoured the bread as they haven’t been eating for a thousand years. He had been lucky. He had time to find an open door that led into great halls inside the castle. There were torches lit on the walls. He arrived at the main hall where there was a table which held ever-fresh dishes of food, oil lamps were burning, and there were goblets of the finest gold. Sitting around this long table were a dozen Princes, dressed up with royal garments with bejewelled swords, and rings on all their fingers, all their eyes were wide open, but none of them spoke and there as no clunking of cutlery or movement, they were all completely still as if stuck in a deep trance.
The only movement was the light that flickered from the walls. The youngest brother went to each Prince and pulled the rings from their fingers, he also took more bread.
There was a sword hanging within reach on the wall, on its blade were runes of power, he took the sword and slid it through his waist sash. He left the banquet hall to have a better look around, to see if there was anyone awake in this castle. He came upon a door which had the colour of a dark sapphire. He opened the door.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw.
In front of him stood a woman with such beauty that his heart trembled from the sparkle of her soulful eyes. The light in the room was between light and the dark. Mysterious lamps shone from the ceiling, making wavelets of shadows on the walls.
She was wide awake.
The young brother was trying to hold himself steady, his own Kingdom in his heart had received a sovereign queen.
He took a deep breath and said “I am here looking for the Water of Life; do you know where I can find it?”
“Beware,” she said, “you can take the Water of Life, but there is one condition: you must take the water before the clock bells strikes twelve. If you don’t, you will sleep for two thousand years and the sun-wheel is pointing to quarter to twelve.
“I am the Princess of this enchanted castle. I can see my own heart in your eyes. In a year's time, on the same day, I will be here waiting for you to return if you are willing.”
He made a pledge to return in a year's time.
He had to hurry. As he went further down the halls, again he saw another door. He opened it and found a wonderful bed full of warm downs; there he laid and fell asleep.
He woke up from the memory of what the Princess had told him about needing to leave before midday. He rushed towards the courtyard and towards the fountain, dipped his flask into the clear water and then charged as fast as he could towards the black door. When the bells started to ring in the towers, the black door was closing, he ran and managed to get out, but as it closed behind him, he lost part of his heel. He now would limp for the rest of his life.
But he had found the water of life, he could save his father.
He travelled homewards and again he arrived at the same bridge where the dwarf met him.
The dwarf could see that he had been successful and he was happy for him.
The dwarf told him that the sword he carried can conquer any army and his bread can feed all the Kingdoms in the world.
“There is just one thing, have you seen my brothers, do you know where they are?
“Yes, I do, but they are false brothers, be careful, they do not wish you well.”
Please, tell me where they are, I want to see them again.”
The dwarf whispered another spell, and the brothers were freed from their traps.
When they were reunited, the youngest brother told them about everything, about his journey, about the sword and about the Princess he had met. How he could one day inherit a Kingdom of his own.
Together all three brothers travelled back home. But the journey was long. When they arrived in Kingdoms that needed help the youngest brother brought out his sword of victory and he helped all the Kings that he encountered against their foes, he distributed the bread which was always replenished to those in need of food. Then all three embarked on the great ship. That’s where the two oldest brothers spoke amongst themselves: “Our youngest brother is going to get all the Kingdom and all the wealth and we will gain nothing! He has gone through all the pain, but we will take all the gain.”
In the middle of the night the two brothers stepped into the cabin of the youngest brother and poured the Water of Life into their flask and replaced it with sea water in the goblet.
As soon as they arrived safely in the harbour the youngest brother ran to the bedside of his father and poured seawater into his mouth.
“What are you doing! Are you trying to kill him?” Shouted the other brothers.
Then the two older brothers poured the Water of Life into his mouth and their father drank deep from the flask. It was not long before his eyes shone with health, and he stood up with vitality in his body. The older brothers gained all the praises for what they had done.
A court was gathered, and people demanded the King put an end to his youngest son who had committed treason.
The King decided that the youngest brother would be executed in silence by the old huntsman.
The huntsman had known the young brother all his life and he felt remorse and guilt having to carry out these orders.
He put an arrow to the bow and pulled the bowstring back, he felt a sense of injustice as he was about to release the string, instead he shot the arrow right up into the sky. The youngest brother turned around and said: “what’s the matter?” The huntsman told him everything, he told the youngest brother that his father had ordered him to do the killing.
The youngest brother looked at the old huntsman and said, “why don't we do this, you take my royal garments and I take your simple cloth? You can go back to the castle, and I will live for the rest of my life out here alone in the forest? The huntsman agreed and the younger brother went to live alone in that great forest whilst his two older brothers feasted and took part of all the wealth and all the joy that the kingdom had to offer, and they had gained all the glory.
During this time, he lived in the forest. Wagons filled with treasures and gifts arriving for the King. All these wagons were gifts from the young Prince that had saved them.
When the King received this, he marvelled at the amount of wealth and asked himself, could it be that my youngest son is innocent?
Meanwhile, the Princess had laid out a road paved with gold for her suitor to come to her door. To her guardsmen she gave strict instructions: “if my suitor comes up towards the castle and rides to the right of the golden road then he's not the right one, turn him away. If another suitor rides to the left of the road, turn him away. If a suitor rides right through the middle of the golden pavement, the gates shall be open for him.
The first brother remembered the story about the Princess in the Kingdom. He took to his horse, and he rode towards the castle. When he saw the castle in the distance, the golden road shone and all the wealth in the world was laid out for him. He could not stop thinking about the pavement. He did not want his horse to touch the gold and instead he put his horse to the right of the road. The guard yelled out: “you are not the right suitor please turn away the Princess will not meet with you.”
Then the same thing happened with the second brother, who also remembered what the youngest brother had said. He rode out towards the castle. When he saw the gold in front of him, he gasped and did not stop looking, all the wealth almost blinded him. He commanded his horse to stay on the left of the golden pavement. As he rode up to the gate, the guards yelled: “please turn around the Princess will not have you through the gates.”
The heart of the third brother had been beating every day with the memory of looking into the soul-seeing eyes. When the day arrived, exactly one year later, he took his slow horse, which was not that slow anymore, and they rode towards the castle. His mind was flooded with the sheer possibility of seeing his beloved. He did not even look or see the gold that was laid out in front of him, all he could think about was to get to the Princess.
He rode right through the middle of that golden pavements all the way to the gate, the gates were flung open and he was received as a returning King.
As the wedding preparations were underway large, heralded flags were seen from a distance. There was his father, who was riding to be one of the honoured guests. He had learnt about the injustice and came for reconciliation.
A King and Queen were wed.
What happened to the two older brothers?
They went out to sea and never returned.
(artwork are prompts from the text in the story using midjourney)