In a very old kingdom ruled by a very old king, an apple tree stood amid a lush garden inside the castle walls. This tree, the pride of the kingdom, produced seven solid gold apples every day, until one day there were none. The king posted guards outside the garden, but the following day, there were still no apples. There were, however, footprints leading from the tree to the garden’s back wall.
The king called for his sons, James, William, and John. He ordered them to track and capture the thief and return the missing apples. To whom ever accomplished this task, the king would give half the kingdom.
James, the oldest, set out at once. The kingdom would be his upon his father’s death, and he did not want to lose any of it to his younger brothers. He followed the tracks out of the courtyard and across fields, until he came to the edge of a forest, where the path branched into three. A sign posed a warning:
He who takes the left path shall live, yet his horse shall perish.
He who takes the right path shall perish, yet his horse shall live.
All who take the center path shall live, though they shall know cold and hunger.
“I am not interested in cold and hunger and I cannot rule my father’s kingdom from the grave, so I shall take the left path.”
James urged his horse to the left. No sooner had the shadows of the forest swallowed the pair than an enormous wolf leaped from behind the trees and took James’ horse in its claws. It growled at James, who had fallen from his mount. He stood with his sword pointed at the wolf, which dragged the horse through the trees and out of James’ sight.
Unharmed, James continued along the forest path, keen to find the apple thief.
Meanwhile, James’ brothers worked together, intending to share the reward of the half-kingdom, since James would inherit half, anyway. They followed in James’s footsteps, pursuing the garden tracks to the forest with its three paths.
Here, they couldn’t agree on the best route. They decided against the left path, but while John felt the best course was to tolerate cold and hunger to arrive safely at their destination, William chose not to suffer. Confident in his fighting skills, regardless of what he may encounter, he would fight it off and survive the journey.
The brothers parted ways, William traveling the right path and John traveling the center path. They promised each other that whoever reached the convergence of the paths on the other side first would wait for the other.
John set forth, following his path up a mountain where the air grew thin and cold. There were no plants or animals for food. When they reached the summit, the sun was setting.
“There is a town just beyond this mountain,” John said to his horse. “Surely the thief will be there. Tomorrow, we will continue, meet William, who must be waiting for us already, and apprehend the thief for Father.”
They settled for the night, the horse curled up on the ground and John curled up along its side for warmth. They both had trouble sleeping with empty stomachs, but eventually they dozed.
While John climbed the mountain, William set off along his chosen path at a trot, sword raised, ready to ward off attackers. He was deep in the forest before he encountered the side of the mountain, too steep for his horse to climb. William reined the horse around, thinking he’d skirt the mountain and see if he could find the path beyond it, when a troll lumbered along. When it saw William, it roared.
William’s horse reared, knocking him from the saddle, and ran past the troll, who did not even look as it passed. It converged on William, whose sword shook in the troll’s shadow.
The sun rose the next day, and John was eager to continue on. He and his horse descended the mountain and the moment there was vegetation, they stopped and filled up on anything they could find to eat while they warmed.
“A temporary discomfort. William will feel silly for having taken the more dangerous route when I tell him.”
When they reached the convergence of the three paths, it surprised John to see William was not yet there.
“We shall wait, as I promised,” John said, dismounting and letting his horse graze.
The day wore on, yet no sign of William. John wondered if he should follow the path to find him, but he could not risk his life without knowing what had befallen either brother. Perhaps he was the only son left. He waited overnight, hopeful William would soon join him. But another day dawned and still there was no sign of William.
“We shall find and apprehend the thief,” John said as he gathered his horse. “We are certain to cross paths with William on our return.” He knew this was unlikely but, loving his brother, John did not want to give up on him.
Horse and rider continued to the town beyond the mountain, where the townfolk greeted him well, recognizing him as one of the princes. No one had seen his brothers, but after asking about thieves and golden apples, he soon located the man who had stolen his father’s treasures.
With the thief bound and trailing John atop his horse, they set out toward the castle. When they reached the fork in the path, they found James, not William, waiting.
“Brother!” John called. “I am glad to see you haven’t perished. Have you seen William?”
“I have seen no one since the wolf took my horse. What has become of him?”
“He took the right-hand path, and I fear he has perished!”
“Is this the thief?” James asked.
“It is, and the golden apples are in my saddlebag. Little consolation for losing a son, though.”
“I daresay our father will recover. Now get off your horse and let me ride. I am exhausted from walking for two days.”
“But I cannot climb the mountain by foot. I should want to ride my horse.”
“Take the path I have traveled,” James said as he pulled his brother to the ground. “You have no horse, so you will come to no harm.”
“But I found the thief. I should be the one to present him to Father.”
“Then I shall wait for you when the three paths converge again.”
With this promise, James set out along the center path on John’s horse, dragging the thief behind him. John set off down the other path.
It was a long way to walk, but John was grateful for the wild berries along the path and the pleasant temperature. He came to the wolf, who watched him from a short distance, and slowed.
“I will not harm you, young prince,” the wolf told him. “You should hurry along.”
“Thank you, wolf.” John continued, quickening his pace. When he looked over his shoulder, the wolf was gone.
John reached the edge of the forest and the main path back to the castle, which shone bright in the sunlight. Along the path, near the castle gates, he could make out a horse and rider, with a figure trailing behind.
“He promised he’d wait!” John gathered all the strength he could and trotted down the path, hoping to catch his brother before James presented the thief to their father. He knew James wouldn’t hesitate to claim the success as his own.
John arrived, out of breath, in the throne room. James was just concluding his tale to their father.
“John, you have returned,” the king said. “Your brother has brought me the thief and the stolen apples, so the kingdom is his.”
“But Father, I was the one who found the thief!” John related his tale before challenging his brother’s. “Did James not ride into the courtyard on my horse?”
“I lost my horse to a wolf,” James said. “John let me borrow his. I am the one who brought the thief to you, my king.”
“If I may,” the thief spoke. “It is your youngest son, James, who found me and retrieved the apples I stole from your garden, your majesty. Whatever deal you made with your sons, it is James who has earned it.”
“Why should I believe a common thief?” the king asked.
“I am not a common thief. I am a sorceress who takes many forms.” The sorceress shed her disguise to reveal herself. “The wolf who took your eldest son’s horse, which is peacefully grazing in the fields outside the courtyard. The troll who took your middle son, who is also unharmed and will return in his own time. And the thief that your youngest son apprehended and sought to present to you before his brother tricked him.”
“Why would a sorceress steal from my apple tree?” the king asked.
“I did not. The true thief stole the apples and sold them to feed his family. I took his place so you could not punish him.”
The king, embarrassed at being tricked by the sorceress and upset with his oldest son for deceiving him, gave the whole kingdom to his youngest son. James, generous as he was, split the kingdom with his two brothers, but shared the golden apples, multiplied by a spell from the sorceress, with their loyal subjects so no one would go hungry again.