Long ago there lived a king who had twelve beautiful and clever daughters. The princesses all slept in the same huge room, with their twelve pretty beds in a row.
The king loved his daughters, but he was becoming concerned about what they did each night. Even though the king carefully locked the door of the princesses’ room every night, the next morning he found the princesses tired and out of sorts. More puzzling still, their tiny silk dancing slippers were worn to shreds. Every day, the king had to order twelve new pairs of silk shoes for his daughters.
The next morning, when the king begged his daughters to explain why they were so tired and pale, and why their dancing shoes were in shreds, the princesses merely murmured, “Beloved Papa, we have been sleeping peacefully in our beds all night.”
The king thought of a way to find out the truth. He issued a proclamation declaring that the first man to solve the mystery of where the twelve princesses went to dance every night would choose a wife from among them. However, anyone who tried to discover the princesses’ secret had only three days and three nights to succeed. It was not long before a prince arrived at the palace to try his luck. The king made the young prince feel welcome. The prince was led to a small chamber next to the princesses’ bedroom. The door between the two rooms was left open. The princesses could not leave without being seen by the prince.
When the princesses filed into their room, the prince gladly accepted a cup of wine offered to him by the eldest princess. In no time, he was sound asleep in his bed.
When the prince awoke the next morning, the princesses were asleep in their beds. The prince was dismayed to see twelve pairs of worn-out shoes!
The next two nights, the same thing happened. The king was angry and banished the prince from the kingdom.
Many other princes met the same fate. The king began to despair of ever finding out where his daughters danced at night. Then one day a poor soldier came limping along the road. He had been wounded and could no longer serve in battle. He had no sooner sat down by the side of the road to eat some bread and cheese when an old woman appeared all dressed in rags.
“Won’t you have a bite to eat with me?” said the kind soldier to the woman. He offered her half of his simple meal.
“Where are you going?” asked the woman.
“I am going to the city to find work,” replied the soldier. “Perhaps I can find out how the princesses wear out their shoes!”
The old woman surprised the soldier by saying, “Heed my words! Do not drink the wine that the princesses offer you. Pretend to fall asleep. And take this cloak, which will make you invisible. You can follow the princesses and discover their secret!”
The soldier didn’t know what to think. He thanked the old woman and continued on his way. The soldier put on the cloak and discovered that it did indeed make him invisible. He headed at once to the king’s palace, where he was made welcome. In the evening, the soldier was led to the little room next to the princesses’ bedroom. Soon the eldest princess brought the soldier a cup of wine. He pretended to drink the wine, letting it trickle down into his scarf. Then he pretended to fall asleep.
When the eldest princess heard the soldier’s snores, she quietly said to her sisters, “He is as foolish as the others. Make haste. We must get ready for the ball!” The twelve princesses chattered and laughed as they dressed in their best ball gowns and jewels and arranged each other’s hair. Only the youngest princess felt uneasy. “Something just doesn’t feel right tonight,” she said.
“Don’t be such a little goose,” said the eldest princess fondly. “That soldier is sound asleep. He won’t wake up until morning!”When the princesses were ready, they put on their dancing shoes. Then the eldest princess tapped on her bedpost three times. The bed sank into the floor and became a long staircase.
The eldest princess stepped down into the opening in the floor. One by one, her sisters followed her.
The soldier sprang out of bed and threw on the cloak. Then he followed the youngest princess down the stairway.
Because his leg was lame, the soldier stumbled and stepped on the hem of the youngest princess’ gown. She shrieked with alarm.
The princesses and the soldier continued down many flights of stairs until at last they came to a forest of marvelous silver trees. Then they came across trees of gold and trees of diamonds. As they passed each forest, the soldier reached up and broke off a branch from each kind of tree. Every time a branch cracked, the youngest princess cried out. And every time, the eldest princess reassured her that there was nothing to worry about.
The twelve princesses hurried to the edge of a beautiful lake. There, twelve princes awaited them in twelve little painted boats. Each princess took the hand of a handsome prince. The soldier quickly hopped into the boat with the youngest princess and her companion.
On the other side of the lake stood a splendid castle. As the beautiful little boats approached the castle, a fanfare of trumpets announced the arrival of the twelve dancing princesses, and fireworks lit up the sky.
The princes and the princesses stepped into the castle, where beautiful music welcomed them to the ballroom. The princesses danced with their princes for half the night.Soon the princesses’ slippers were worn out. The princes rowed the twelve princesses back across the lake, and this time the soldier rode with the eldest sister. The princesses bade their princes good-bye and promised to return the next night. Then the princesses hurried back the way they had come.
The princesses were so tired that they slowed down at the top of the last set of stairs. The soldier was able to dash ahead of them, throw off his cloak, and jump into his bed.
The princesses dragged themselves into their room and put their worn and tattered shoes in a row. The eldest princess checked on the soldier to be sure he was asleep and said to her sisters, “We are safe!” With that, all twelve sisters fell fast asleep.
The soldier wanted to see the forests and the castle again, so he followed the princesses the next night and the next. The third night, the soldier took a golden cup from the castle to show the king as proof.
The next morning the king sent for the soldier and asked him, “Good soldier, have you discovered where my daughters dance their shoes to shreds every night?”
“Your Highness, I have,” said the soldier. “They sneak down a hidden staircase. Then they walk through three enchanted forests to a beautiful lake. Twelve princes take them across the lake to a castle where they dance the night away.” The king couldn’t believe the soldier’s story until the soldier showed him the golden cup and the branches of silver, gold, and diamonds. The king called his daughters, who admitted the truth.
The king told the soldier to choose one of the princesses to be his wife. The soldier had already decided that he liked the eldest princess best. She was clever and spirited as well as beautiful. For her part, the princess thought the soldier was clever and kind.
The soldier was given royal garments to wear. He and the eldest princess were married, and the wedding guests happily danced the night away.