ONCE a poor man had twelve sons, and, not having sufficient means to keep them at home, he sent them into the great world to earn their bread by work and to try their fortunes. The brothers wandered twelve days and nights over hills and dales till at last they came to a wealthy king, who engaged them as grooms, and promised them each three hundred florins a year for their wages. Among the king's horses there was a half-starved looking, decrepit little pony; the eleven eldest boys continually beat and ill-treated this animal on account of its ugliness, but the youngest always took great care of it, he even saved all the bread crumbs and other little dainties for his little invalid pony, for which his brothers very often chaffed him, and in course of time they treated him with silent contempt, believing him to be a lunatic; he bore their insults patiently, and their badgering without a murmur, in the same way as the little pony the bad treatment it received. The year of service having come to an end, the lads received their wages, and as a reward they were also each allowed to choose a horse from the king's stud. The eleven eldest chose the best-looking horses, but the youngest only begged leave to take the poor little decrepit pony with him. His brothers tried to persuade him to give up the foolish idea, but, all in vain, he would have no other horse.
The little pony now confessed to his keeper that it was a magic horse, and that whenever it wanted it could change into the finest charger and could gallop as fast as lightning. The twelve brothers then started homewards; the eleven eldest were proudly jumping and prancing about on their fine horses, whereas the youngest dragged his horse by its halter along the road: at one time they came to a boggy place and the poor little decrepit pony sank into it. The eleven brothers who had gone on before were very angry about it, as they were obliged to return and drag their brother's horse out of the mud: after a short journey the youngest's again stuck in the mud, and his brothers had to drag it out again, swearing at him all the time. When at last it stuck the third time they would not listen any more to their brother's cries for help. "Let them go," said the little pony, and after a short time inquired if they had gone far? "They have," answered the lad. Again, after a short time, the pony inquired whether he could still see them. "They look like flying crows or black spots in the distance," replied his master. "Can you see them now?" asked the pony in a few minutes. "No," was the reply; thereupon the pony jumped out of the mud and, taking the lad on its back, rushed forth like lightning, leaving the others far behind. Having arrived at home the pony became poor and decrepit as before, and crawled on to the dung heap, eating the straw it found there, the lad concealing himself behind the oven. The others having arrived showed their wages and horses to their father, and being asked about their brother they replied that he had become an idiot, and chosen as his reward an ugly pony, just such a one as the one on the dung heap, and that he stuck fast in a bog, and perhaps was now dead. "It is not true," called out the youngest from behind the oven, and stepped forth to the astonishment of all.
Having spent a few days in enjoying themselves at their father's house, the lads again started on a journey to find wives. They had already journeyed over seven countries and seven villages as well, and had not as yet been able to find twelve girls suitable for them, till at last, as the sun was setting, they came across an old woman with an iron nose, who was ploughing her field with twelve mares; she asked of them what they sought, and, having learned the object of their wanderings, she proposed that they should look at her twelve daughters: the lads having consented, the old woman drove her twelve mares home and took the lads into her house and introduced them to her daughters, who were none others than the twelve mares they saw before. In the evening she bade each lad go to bed with one of the girls; the eldest lad got into bed with the eldest girl and so on, her youngest, who was the favourite daughter and had golden hair, becoming the youngest lad's bedfellow.
This girl informed the lad that it was her mother's intention to kill his eleven brothers; and so, in order to save them, on their all falling asleep, the youngest lad got up and laid all his brothers next to the wall, making all the girls lie outside, and having done this, quietly crept back into his bed.
After a little while, the old woman with the iron nose got up and, with a huge sword, cut off the heads of the eleven sleepers who were lying outside, and then she went back to bed to sleep. Thereupon the youngest lad again got up, and, waking his brothers, told them how he had saved them, and urged them to flee as soon as possible. So they hurried off, their brother remaining there till daybreak. At dawn he noticed that the old woman was getting up, and that she was coming to examine the beds, so he, too, got up, and sat on his pony, taking the little girl with the golden hair with him. The old woman with the iron nose, as soon as she found out the fraud, picked up a poker, turned it into a horse, and flew after them; when she had nearly overtaken them, the little pony gave the lad a currycomb, a brush, and a piece of a horse-rug, and bade him throw first the currycomb behind him, and in case it did not answer, to throw the brush, and as a last resource the piece of horse-rug; the lad threw the currycomb, and in one moment it became a dense forest, with as many trees as there were teeth in the comb; by the time that the old woman had broken her way through the wood, the couple had travelled a long distance. When the old woman came very near again, the lad threw the brush behind him, and it at once became a dense forest, having as many trees as there were bristles in the brush. The old woman had the greatest difficulty in working her way through the wood; but again she drew close to their heels, and very nearly caught them, when the lad threw the horse-rug away, and it became such a dense forest between them and the old woman, that it looked like one immense tree; with all her perseverance, the old woman could not penetrate this wood, so she changed into a pigeon to enable her to fly over it; but as soon as the pony noticed this he turned into a vulture, swooped down on the pigeon, and tore it in pieces with his claws, thus saving both the lad and the pretty girl with the golden hair from the fury of the hateful old woman with the iron nose.
While the eleven elder brothers were still out looking after wives, the youngest married the pretty little girl with the golden hair, and they still live merrily together, out of all danger, if they have not died since.