Once upon a time, although not too long ago, three friends became lost in a forest. And there they found a castle, and mystery, and enchantment, as so often happens in this kind of tale. But wait a bit, my dears—I don’t wish to give away the ending before we arrive at the beginning.
Now then, these three friends were named Carl, Frederick, and Hans (you may have noticed that there is often a Hans in these stories). They had grown up together in a village outside of a city called Munich, and had joined the same army unit when war broke out. And now we come to the interesting part.
Their unit had been instructed to travel to the next army base on foot. This route used an old road that ran through a forest. It was here, between one tree and the next, that our three friends became lost.
“Where did the road go?” Hans asked.
“We must have wandered just off it,” Carol said. He raised his voice. “Hey, Kraus! Bähr!” But he heard only the rustling of leaves and the wingbeats of unseen birds. “Which direction are we facing, anyway?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Frederick said. He examined his compass. “The road was headed west. We just have to keep that direction and we’ll find the others soon enough.” The three of them walked on.
The road never reappeared. With each hour, they only passed deeper into the forest. Old roads rarely used by humans have ways of hiding themselves when they don’t wish to be found.
“Adler said last night he heard this forest was cursed,” Carl said.
Frederick rolled his eyes. “Adler wouldn’t know a curse from his ass. The compass says we’re headed in the right direction.”
“I think that compass is a piece of crap.”
Night fell in the already-dim forest and Carl halted. “Let’s just stop for the night. We won’t find anything until tomorrow.”
“Wait! I saw a building over there.” Hans pointed.
“Now you’re just hallucinating,” Carl said.
“No, there’s a light past those trees. Come on, anything’s better than spending the night lying on leaves and twigs.” He walked off.
Frederick and Carl exchanged a look, but followed. Ninety-nine days out of a hundred Hans was content to let others lead but when he got an idea firmly into his head it was best to keep out of his way.
Instead of the small hamlet or forester’s cottage they might have expected, they found a castle. A small one, with cracked windows and battered walls, but a castle nonetheless.
“I don’t think there are supposed to be any castles in this forest,” Frederick said but Hans had already pushed open the door.
“Do you smell that?” Carl asked, standing in the entranceway. “Somebody’s cooking supper.”
“Then they better be willing to share, because I’m starving,” Frederick said.
They followed the scent down a dark hallway and up an even darker staircase, arriving at a great room with a fire in its hearth, empty but for an old man dozing in a chair and a brown mutt stretched out before the fire.
“Evening, grandfather,” Hans said. “We’ve been separated from the rest of our unit. Might we share your supper and shelter for the night?”
The old man raised his head and examined the three friends from beneath bushy eyebrows. “I suppose so. Best you don’t be out in this forest at night.”
Frederick reached for the pot hanging over the fire. As he reached over the dog however, it roused itself and growled. The soldier snatched his hand back.
The old man laughed. “Don’t worry too much about Dog, he’s just worried you won’t leave any meaty bones for him. But the good thing about stone soup is there always seems to be enough.” He leaned forward and scratched the dog’s head until it subsided.
Now the old man looked at the three friends still standing with their heavy packs and guns. “You may as well set those down; there’s none but Dog and myself here. And just what are those contraptions?”
“Our guns, grandfather,” Carl said, raising an eyebrow to his friends. “You can’t be serious that you don’t recognize one.”
“So that’s what those are. Wilhelm and Jacob described them to us, but I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that they’ve changed since then.”
Now, the three soldiers did not know what sorts of things can happen when a person becomes lost in a forest, but you and I do. They set their packs and guns down, and the old man poured the soup into thick wooden bowls. There really was a stone in the pot, just as he had said. The men and the dog fell to eating, and said nothing more for some time.
After eating, the old man stretched in his chair. “You boys are the first visitors we’ve had in some time. I don’t suppose you know any good stories?”
“I don’t think so,” Hans said.
“How long have you been living here?” Frederick asked.
“Dog and I have been here for quite some time; I’m not sure how long exactly. We were on the road, you see—we often were, back then—and found this place. Somehow we’ve never gotten around to leaving.”
The dog barked. Hesitantly, Carl reached over and scratched behind its ears. He was one of those boys who’d always been followed around by a string of animals and always had at least one dog sleeping at the foot of his bed while growing up. This dog’s tail thumped against the stone floor and so Carl kept on scratching.
“But for how many years?” Frederick insisted.
“A fair number. The seasons blend into one another after a while, you know. How did you boys come to be lost here?”
“Our unit’s marching west and we wandered just off the road. We would have found it again but my compass is broken.”
The old man laughed. “I wouldn’t put too much faith in a compass, if I were you. I noticed that you were in an army. What’s your king fighting for? Not some princess or gryphon’s treasure, I hope. Those don’t tend to work out well.”
“There’s no king,” Hans said.
“There isn’t? Then why are you even bothering with the army if he isn’t making you?”
“Because the war is on and it needs doing,” Frederick told him.
The old man shook his head. “I’ve known a number of soldiers. When this war of your is over, come back and find me, and tell me if you still feel the same. Have you ever heard the story of the Soldier and Death?” The three friends shook their heads and the old man began: “A number of years past, I heard the tale of a soldier returning home from a war…”
Our old man had been a professional storyteller for most of his life and could spin a tale as well as a woman twisting thread from a spindle. Although the dog had heard this story before and had its own opinions, it kept silent. The lost soldiers listened, spellbound.
After that, one tale led into the next. Late at night as the fire weakened, the old man suggested that they go to bed. “I’m sure you’ll find your way tomorrow,” he said. “These kinds of things are always easier in the morning.” The soldiers spread out their bedrolls and fell asleep.
And just what do you think happened in the morning? Our three friends woke up and found that the castle had vanished! There they lay on the forest floor, still tucked safely into their bedrolls. Not a scrap nor stone of the castle was to be seen, nor the old man nor his dog. The sun had risen and the road they had lost lay within their sight.
“Where did they go?” Hans asked.
“I don’t know,” Carl said. “It was a very odd place.”
Frederick pulled out his compass. He examined it for a minute and then threw it away into the bushes. “Come on,” he said. “It’s time we were getting back.”
The three friends packed up their belongings and took to the road. They caught up with their fellow soldiers in less than an hour and received much teasing over becoming so easily lost. Carl, Frederick, and Hans just laughed this off and said nothing of the castle.
For the next several years the three soldiers were involved entirely in their war. When it had ended, one of them had died; one left everybody he had known; and the last one took to traveling, looking for the castle with the old man and the dog. I do not think he found it for many years, if he ever found it again, but he came to enjoy the traveling and learned many stories along the way.