There once lived a king and a queen in a beautiful country that stretched far and wide. The king was powerful like no other, and his rule strict. His queen, however, possessed grace and beauty that was rivaled by none.
The country held a large army, their harvest was always bountiful, and their wealth vast. The only thing that king might love as much as his wife, was an ass that lived inside the castle. It was an exceptional animal that once was enchanted by a powerful sorcerer whose life was indebted to the king. Every morning, instead of dung, the animal shat pure gold.
One day, the queen bore a child – a boy with golden hair and eyes as blue as the sky. But the queen became ill soon after her son took his first breath, and no physician was able to help her. As she lay dying, she called for her husband, and said: “My love, you see what is happening to me. You will grieve me and miss me terribly, but one day your sorrow will lessen, and you might find yourself willing to take another spouse.”
The king vehemently denied that he would ever love another the way he loved her. The queen smiled as much as she was able in her weakened state.
“You will, and I want you to promise me that you will only wed someone more beautiful, and wiser than me.”
Again the king denied ever wanting another once his dear wife has passed, but she made him promise. She died holding his hand a smile on her lips, and with the knowledge that through the oath her husband swore, they would forever be bound together.
The king grieved for a long time. Days turned into months, and months turned into years. He saw no beauty, no joy in anything he did. The only solace he could find was in tending to his precious ass that ensured the strength and safety of his country and its people.
Without his notice, his son grew up into a handsome prince, who, on waking every morning, was more beautiful than the last. His hair shone like spun gold, and his face was so handsome that even the stars looked at it with jealousy. He had grown tall and strong, and showed kindness to the people around him where his father only showed indifference.
It was not long after the prince’s eighteenth birthday that the king found that his sorrow had lifted, and that, for the first time, he felt light and happy – almost joyful. Since the day his wife had passed, the king, for the first time, thought that he might want to marry again.
Remembering the promise he had made his queen, he sent out heralds to find a suitable candidate. The king required only two conditions: They ought to be more beautiful, and wiser than the queen he’s lost.
Weeks passed and all the heralds returned empty handed. None could find any such person.
The king almost lost all hope – but then he saw a sight that made his heart leap. In the courtyard, the prince was practising with the knights. At once the king realised that he had grown into a handsome man, more beautiful than his wife. Asking his royal advisors, the king learned that the prince was also kind and just towards the people, showing great wisdom when mediating petty conflicts.
His mind made up, the king summoned his son to him and told him that they would marry before the summer was over.
The prince was horrified that his father would propose such a thing. He asked the king to reconsider, to think of what the people would say.
“A father cannot marry his child!” the prince argued, but the king waved the concern away as if it were nothing.
“I’m the king, what I say shall be.”
The prince fled from the throne room and sought the counsel of his oldest friend – the great dragon that lived beneath the castle. The dragon was a prisoner of the king whom the king has long since forgotten. The prince had discovered this great secret when he was a mere boy, and it was the friendship that formed between the child and the creature that had helped the prince grow into the man he was.
“I know why you sought me out,” the dragon spoke. “And you are right. Never should a father marry his child. However, your father will not see reason, so this is what you must do. Pretend to agree to his proposal on one condition. Request a cloak as beautiful and intricate as time itself. Not even he will be able to find such a thing in all the world, and thus you will be released from your promise.”
The prince thanked his friend and did as he advised. The king didn’t hesitate and called for the best seamstresses in all the land to start work. It took less than three days until a cloak of the same blue as the sky and the prince’s eyes was crafted, with such delicate and complicated silver stitches that no one could hope to unravel all of it even if they spent all their life studying nothing but the fabric of the garment.
Despite his dread, the prince couldn’t help but gasp at the beautiful piece of work. It was truly magnificent.
That same night, he went back under the castle and again sought help from his friend the dragon.
“I know,” the dragon said as soon as Arthur approached. “The plan failed. Fear not, my boy. Ask of him a cloak as dazzling as the light of the moon on a clear winter’s night. He will not be able to find such a thing in all the world.”
Again the prince set his condition, and again the king called for the best weavers in all the land to fulfill the request. In less than four days, the cloak was finished and it was of such impeccable silver and white that the prince had to avert his eyes from the dazzling light.
For the third time he sought out the dragon beneath the castle, growing more restless and worried by the day.
“I know,” the dragon said. “Your father is far more powerful than I anticipated. But here’s what you must do. Ask for a cloak as golden and rich as the sun. He cannot possibly find such a thing in all the world.”
The prince nodded and went back to the king to make his request. Yet, the king was blind to reason, and had the weavers make a finely spun fabric from pure gold, and then tasked the best jewellers of the land to create just the thing that the prince requested.
It only took a few days and the cloak was ready. It was resplendent in its beauty, and shone brighter even than the real sun, light reflecting off a thousand diamonds worked into the fabric. The prince’s hair alone was of finer a golden colour than the cloak made for him.
The prince turned away and fled beneath the castle.
“My boy,” the dragon said with much regret and sorrow in his voice. “Your father truly is the richest and most powerful man in this world. Yet, all his wealth only comes from that ass that lives in the heart of the castle. I am telling you, ask your father for its coat in return for your hand in marriage. Your father will not give up the source of his riches, and thus you will be released from your promise.
Bravely the prince stood in front of his father and demanded the coat of the ass that the king loved so much, sure that this time his father would refuse and finally see reason.
Without hesitation, though, the king ordered the valuable ass to be killed. When the animal’s coat was presented to the prince, he fled from the room and ran straight back to his friend, the dragon.
“Dear friend,” the dragon said with pity in his voice. “I must admit now that nothing will make your father see reason. There is but one thing left for you to do. You must go from here as far as you can. Wear the ass’ coat to hide your hair and face so that no one will recognise the handsome prince that you are. Take this ring with you and whenever you touch it to the ground beneath, a chest will appear with your precious cloaks, your armour and your sword. Go now, and do not forget about your old friend.”
The prince took the ring that lay at his feet and put it on his finger, then he turned and went to collect the coat of the ass. He packed a small bundle of cheese and bread, and before the morning dawned, he crept out of the castle and into the great forest.
The king, meanwhile, didn’t know of his son’s escape. The last preparations for the wedding were made, guests from all around the world arrived, and finally the day came that he was to marry the prince.
When his spouse-to-be didn’t appear at the appointed time, the king became impatient and sent servants to fetch his son. With great difficulty and stuttering the servants reported upon their return that the prince was not in his chambers, and nowhere else in the castle.
Riders were sent out to find the prince, and the castle was searched from roof to cellar, but no one found the prince.
Months passed, and the prince still walked on dusty roads and forest paths. Wherever he went he asked to be allowed to work for food and lodging, but everywhere he turned he was chased away because of how repulsive he looked and smelled in the coat.
Finally, one day he reached a small village with just a few houses, and there a woman whose son was away to see the world, took him in to help her around the house because she had hurt her leg and could no longer work on the field or even chop some wood for a fire in her small cottage.
She let the prince sleep in a small chamber off the pigsty, and so it came that the prince spent his days doing chores that before only servants had done for him. He was soon called Noble Ass in the village by everyone except the woman he served. The first time someone called him this, the prince was worried that his secret had been discovered, but when he asked the woman for whom he worked, she told him that the villagers thought him to be arrogant like a prince because he never spoke to them.
“They don’t understand that you carry a great sadness with you and that’s why you don’t speak much,” she said with a kind smile.
The prince swallowed thickly, and thanked her. He didn’t mind that they called him names in the village, as long as none of them found out who he was and sent a message to his father.
He went to his small room and locked the door, then touched his ring to the ground. A great chest appeared and when he opened it he found his armour and the cloaks that he’d been gifted.
Carefully he took off the ass’ coat and set it down. Then he washed himself in the small bowl of water as best he could, before he carefully put on one of the cloaks and pulled out the mirror that lay at the bottom of the chest.
The prince was not a vain man, but it felt good to wear fine clothes that had been made for him, and to feel like the prince he once was. In those moments he dreamt of the future when he would be able to return home to his castle and his people.
On one of these occasions, when the prince was indulging his nostalgia for carefree days of swordplay and responsibilities beyond feeding the pigs, the woman’s son returned home and wandered around the farm to check if nothing had gone amiss during his long absence.
He had travelled the whole world and had seen many things. The first place he had gone was a beautiful castle where, while sitting in front of a tavern in the lower town, he had seen the prince of the country and instantly fallen in love with him.
The prince had been handsome even at the age of sixteen, the same age as the traveller was himself at the time. He appeared confident and strong, and yet, when a peasant woman jostled him, he did not slap or shout at her. He apologised and picked up the basket of flowers she had dropped, handing it back to her with a bow and another apology.
The traveller had fallen even deeper in love with the prince and wished nothing more than to be worthy of his notice.
So he went from the castle even though it took all his effort to leave the beautiful prince behind, and went out further into the world to find his luck and to become the prince’s equal as much as was possible.
It so came to pass that on his travels, the man found those who possessed the power of magic, and it was they who showed him that he, too, held vast power in the palms of his hands. He learned from them all he could, and then went back out to seek more knowledge.
One day it even so happened that he found the man who was his father, and from him he learned that he was a lord of dragons – a man capable of commanding these strong, majestic creatures, with a duty to protect them from all those who would seek to kill them in their greed for power.
His father had died as they travelled back to the man’s home and mother, and while he mourned the loss deeply, he was glad that he has had that much time to get to know his father after all these years.
Now the traveller was home, richer than before, and garbed in finer clothes. He has come to see his mother and tell her of his travels, and then return to the castle to seek the beautiful prince whom he had never forgotten in all these years.
He was just finishing off his inspection of the farm at the pigsty, when he heard a low voice from the small chamber beyond it. Curious as to who was occupying it, the traveller crouched down to peer through one of the cracks in the door.
What he saw almost made his heart stop.
In the small chamber was the handsome prince he has loved so deeply for all this time! He wore fine clothes and a cloak that was more dazzling than the moonshine on a clear winter’s night. He was speaking in a quiet voice as if to an audience that he alone could see. They were words of encouragement for those who were without faith, promises of food and clothes for those who were poor, and light-hearted insults and playful words to anyone whom the prince might call friend.
The traveller pressed closer to the door, not wanting to miss a single moment of this illusion – for what else could it be. What would this gorgeous man do on his mother’s farm when he was a prince? No, the traveller was sure that he was dreaming – and he never wanted to wake up.
It was his mother who found him and only then did he step away from the door and into her embrace.
“Why are you watching my servant?” she asked him with a soft smile, and the traveller didn’t know what to say, so he just asked her to look through the gap in the boards to see for herself.
She did as he asked, but then turned back to him after just a moment. “What am I supposed to see? It’s only my servant in that chamber.”
The traveller rushed forward to check for himself, and indeed, all he could see was a figure huddled in an ass’ coat with dirt on his face.
He sighed and stepped away. “It must have been a dream.”
His mother took his hand and led him back to the cottage where she served him cake and water and listened to all his stories about his travels.
More time passed and the traveller never spoke to his mother’s servant, nor did he go to look through the crack in his door again. But he became restless at home. He longed to see the prince again and so it came that one day he left his mother’s cottage once more to travel back to the castle where his love awaited him.
It took him many weeks to reach the castle and when he did, it was not the bustling, lively place he remembered. Gone was his prince, so he learned, because the king had gone mad and had tried to marry him.
The traveller was aghast, and he vowed to go back into the world and find the prince and bring him home. He would start the very next morning once he got a proper night’s rest.
That night, however, he heard a deep voice call his name. It would not stop until he got up and followed it deep beneath the castle where he found himself in a high cavern, and there he met a dragon.
“You are my lord,” the creature told him, and the traveller replied: “You are under my protection,” just like his father has taught him.
“You seek the young prince,” the dragon said, and the traveller nodded.
“Do you know where to find him?” the traveller asked.
“I do,” the dragon replied. “But first you must prove that you are worthy.”
“I will do anything in my power,” the traveller promised, and it made the dragon laugh. Not with malice, but joy at his earnestness. Secretly, the dragon already knew this sorcerer to be worthy, but he also knew that the sorcerer did not yet believe it himself.
“Then go and find a sword that will defeat all evil,” the dragon said. And so the traveller went and searched for the answer with all the most skilled blacksmiths in the land, and when they could not give him an answer, he turned to books. Finally he knew what he had to do and he commissioned the castle’s smith to forge him a sword that was powerful and beautiful both. With that he went back to the dragon and threw it up into the air. “Breathe your fire on it,” the traveller commanded, “and the prince will have his sword that can defeat all evil.”
The dragon did as he was told by the lord of dragons, and once he was done he bowed to the traveller.
“You have proven your wisdom,” he told him. “Now prove that your heart sees true. Go and find the prince. Only he will be able to read the inscription on the blade. But be warned that you may not recognise him unless your love for him is sincere.”
The traveller left the castle the very next morning, the sword carefully wrapped in fine cloth, then hidden inside an old blanket, strapped across his back. For months he searched, thinking that he saw his prince’s kindness or his wit in one man or another. He let several of them look at the blade but none could read the runes inscribed on it.
Yet, when he trusted someone with the secret of whom he was searching, and how much he admired the prince, some of the men decided to join him on his quest. They were all errant knights from far away kingdoms. One of them was so tall and broad, he could have been two men. One of them had hair that was as long as his shoulders and as brown as a fresh chestnut. Another had skin like the night sky, and another had the kindest eyes the traveller had ever seen with the exception of his prince. The fifth knight had a face as sweet as an angels and was the youngest of them. It was the sixth and last one who was tall, with hair the colour of copper, that said that he had been the prince’s friend once.
They searched for months and found nothing. Then came the day when they were close to his mother’s village, and the traveller said that they should take shelter there for the night.
It was then that he saw his mother’s servant again. Noble Ass, they called him in the village, and the traveller remembered that he had thought he’d seen his prince in this man all that time ago. The servant wore an ass’ coat as he had done before, and his face was dark with grime.
Suddenly, Merlin could see right through the disguise and he strode to the servant, sword in hand. He thrust it at him, and the servant evaded it skillfully like only one trained in combat could.
“Read the inscription,” the traveller demanded from the servant. For long moments neither man did anything, but the knights gathered behind the traveller and waited for what would happen. None of them thought that the traveller was in his right mind to ask a dirty servant to look at the sword, but they had learned not to question him.
The servant looked down at the blade, then carefully took the sword from the traveller’s hands and turned it over.
“Pick me up,” he read off of it, then turned it back around. “Cast me away,” he finished.
The traveller smiled with joy and with the flick of his hand and a flash of gold in his eyes, the ass’ coat flew away, and all the dirt and stench melted away. Before him stood the prince he has been searching for so long. The knights behind him gasped and he heard his mother drop a pot, but the traveller cared about none of it.
He knelt in front of the prince.
“I have searched far and wide for you, and I hope that you will allow me to stay at your side,” he said. “My life and my heart are yours, and all I wish for is to be near you. I lay my magic at your feet.”
The prince knelt in front of him, dirtying his breeches anew, and clasped his hands around the traveller’s shoulders.
“Thank your for your generous gifts,” he said kindly. “But I cannot go home as long as my father’s mind is ill. He seeks to marry me, and that I cannot do.”
The traveller nods. “My magic is more powerful than you can imagine, my lord. I can cure your father from his illness.”
The prince’s eyes widened and he looked at him with hope. “Are you certain about this? I don’t think I shall ever be able to flee again once I return.”
“I am certain,” the sorcerer promises. “I can cure him, and you will be able to return to your country and your people.”
“Then we must go,” the prince said.
All he took was his ring and the sword he had been gifted. To the woman he left a promise to send gold and a new servant in exchange for her hospitality, and the son he was taking with him.
The way back to the castle seemed shorter than when he first walked it in the other direction, and yet they couldn’t reach it fast enough. Once they were close, the prince stopped, touched his ring to the ground, and the chest appeared. The sorcerer helped him put on his gleaming armour, and he sheathed the sword in his belt. Finally, he fastened the gold cloak around his shoulders. Armoured like this, he walked into the castle and straight to the throne room; the sorcerer, whom the prince had given the blue cloak to wear, was at his side.
The king’s face lit up the moment he saw his son, and he was about to call for the servants to prepare the wedding, when the sorcerer stepped forward and began to weave his magic.
It took many hours to heal the king’s mind. His senses had been clouded for so long, it was difficult to free him from his illness.
Already the first light of a new day spilled into the throne room, when, finally, the king looked up at his son with tears in his eyes and a plea for forgiveness on his lips. The prince granted it gladly, and embraced his father.
The sorcerer, exhausted from the powerful magic he had been working for a day and a night, slumped to the floor.
Once the king had left for his chambers, the prince came to kneel in front of the sorcerer who, even as his coal dark hair lay sweaty against his forehead, and his pale skin was almost ghostly white, had lost none of his fey like beauty. “I and my country owe you a debt of gratitude. What will be your reward?” the prince requested.
“To stay at your side,” the sorcerer answered without hesitation.
The prince smiled. They had become friends on the journey, and as the prince had watched the sorcerer heal his father for all those hours, he had fallen deeply in love with him. Granting this request was no hardship.
“Then will you accept my hand in marriage?” the prince asked.
The smile he received was even more dazzling, more incandescent and more beautiful than the prince could have ever imagined. It was only surpassed by the melodious sound of the sorcerer’s voice when he said: “Yes.”