Once upon a time there was a king who had twelve daughters, each one more beautiful than the others. Their beds were all together in one room, and when they went to bed, their doors were all locked and barred, but the next morning their shoes were always danced to pieces, and no one knew where they had been or how it had happened. Then the king proclaimed that whoever could discover where they went dancing each night could chose one of them for his wife and become king after his death. However, anyone who attempted this, but failed to make the discovery after three days and nights, would forfeit his life.
A prince soon presented himself. He was well received, and escorted to the anteroom to the twelve daughters’ bedroom. He was given a bed there, and told to watch where they went and danced. So they would not be able to do anything in secret, or go out to some other place, the door to their room was left open. But the prince fell asleep, and when he awoke the next morning, the twelve had been dancing, for their shoes all had holes in their soles. The same thing happened the second and the third evening, and his head was chopped off. Many others came to try this risky venture, but they too all lost their lives.
Now it happened that a poor soldier, who because of his wounds could no longer serve in the army, was making his way to the city where the king lived. He met an old woman who asked him where he was going. “I’m not sure myself,” he said. “But I would like to become king and discover where the princesses are dancing their shoes to pieces.”
“Oh,” said the old woman, “that isn’t so difficult. Just do not drink the wine that one of them will bring you in the evening.” Then she gave him a cloak and said, “Put this on, and you will be invisible, and you can follow the twelve.”
Having receiving this good advice, the soldier became serious, took heart, went to the king, and announced himself as a suitor. He, like the others, was well received, and was given royal clothes to wear. That evening at bedtime he was escorted to the anteroom. Just as he was going to bed, the oldest princess brought him a goblet of wine, but he secretly poured it out. He lay down, and after a little while began to snore as if he were in the deepest sleep. The twelve princesses heard him and laughed. The oldest one said, “He could have spared his life as well!”
Then they got up, opened their wardrobes, chests, and closets, took out their best clothes, and made themselves beautiful in front of their mirrors, all the time jumping about in anticipation of the dance. However, the youngest one said, “I’m not sure. You are all very happy, but I’m afraid that something bad is going to happen!”
“You snow goose,” said the oldest one. “You are always afraid! Have you forgotten how many princes have been here for nothing. I wouldn’t even have had to give this soldier a sleeping potion. He would never have woken up.”
When they were ready, they first approached the soldier, but he did not move at all, and as soon as they thought it was safe, the oldest one went to her bed and knocked on it. It immediately sank beneath the floor, revealing a trapdoor. The soldier saw how they all climbed down, one after the other, the oldest one leading the way. He jumped up, put on the cloak, and followed immediately after the youngest one. Halfway down the stairs he stepped on her dress. Frightened, she called out, “It’s not right! Something is holding my dress.”
“Don’t be so simple,” said the oldest one. “You just caught yourself on a hook.”
They continued until they came to a magnificent walkway between rows of trees. Their leaves were all made of silver, and they shone and glistened. The soldier broke off a twig in order to prove where he had been, and a loud cracking sound came from the tree. The youngest one called out again, “It’s not right. Didn’t you hear that sound? That has never happened before.”
The oldest one said, “That is just a joyful salute that they are firing because soon we will have disenchanted our princes.” Then they came to a walkway where the tress were all made of gold, and finally to a third one, where they were made of clear diamonds. He broke a twig from each of these. The cracking sound frightened the youngest one each time, but the oldest one insisted that it was only the sounds of joyful salutes. They continued on until they came to a large body of water. Twelve boats were there, and in each boat there was a handsome prince waiting for them. Each prince took a princess into his boat. The soldier sat next to the youngest princess, and her prince said, “I am as strong as ever, but the boat seems to be much heavier. I am rowing as hard as I can.”
“It must be the warm weather,” said the youngest princess. “It’s too hot for me as well.”
On the other side of the water there was a beautiful, brightly illuminated castle. Joyful music, kettle drums, and trumpets sounded forth. They rowed over and went inside. Each prince danced with his princess. The invisible soldier danced along as well, and when a princess held up a goblet of wine, he drank it empty as she lifted it to her mouth. This always frightened the youngest one, but the oldest one silenced her every time.
They danced there until three o’clock the next morning when their shoes were danced to pieces and they had to stop. The princes rowed them back across the water. This time the soldier took a seat next to the oldest princess in the lead boat. They took leave from their princes on the bank and promised to come back the next night.
When they were on the steps the soldier ran ahead and got into bed. When the twelve tired princesses came in slowly, he was again snoring loudly. “He will be no risk to us,” they said. Then they took off their beautiful clothes and put them away, placed their worn out shoes under their beds, and went to bed.
The next morning the soldier said nothing, for he wanted to see the amazing thing once again. He went along the second and third nights, and everything happened as before. Each time they danced until their shoes were in pieces. The third time he also took along a goblet as a piece of evidence.
The hour came when he was to give his answer, and he brought the three twigs and the goblet before the king. The twelve princesses stood behind the door and listened to what he had to say. The king asked, “Where did my daughters dance their shoes to pieces?”
He answered, “in an underground castle with twelve princes.” Then he told the whole story and brought forth the pieces of evidence. When they saw that they had been betrayed, and that their denials did no good, they admitted everything.
Then the king asked him which one he wanted for a wife. He answered, “I myself am no longer young, so give me the oldest one.”
Their wedding was held the same day, and the kingdom was promised to him following the king’s death. But the princes had as many days added to their curse as they had spent nights dancing with the twelve princesses.