It was a time of war and the King needed many soldiers. However, those soldiers who came to fight were treated poorly - given only a small amount of pay for their sacrifice. One day, three of the soldiers decided to desert. While the troops waited, they hid in a nearby corn field. They thought the other soldiers would simply rest and then move on. But something detained them. The three soldiers knew if they moved that they would be hung for desertion. And so, they continued to wait until they finally feared starvation. Suddenly a dragon appeared in their midst. The dragon offered them a safe transport if they would only serve it for seven years. In desperation they agreed, and the dragon transported them away from the battle. To their surprise, the dragon was none other than the devil. The devil gave them a whip that created gold whenever it was struck. He told them he would return in seven years with a riddle. If they could answer the riddle, they were free; if not, they were his property. For seven years, the three soldiers lived a charmed life and wanted for nothing. Yet even with all their wealth, they did nothing wrong.
When the seven years were almost over, the men began to worry and fret. One day in an open field, the soldiers were discussing their fate, when an old woman approached. She asked them to share their troubles with her. At first, they refused, believing she could be of no help. But finally, they acquiesced and told her they were the devil’s servants, who could only be freed by answering a riddle. She told them that if they wanted to be saved one would need to go into the woods and search for a rock house. “Enter it and you will find help,” she said. One soldier did as he was told. He walked into the woods, found the rock house and entered it. Inside the house he found the devil’s grandmother. He told her his story and she had pity on him. “Hide yourself and listen,” she said, “when the devil comes home, I’ll uncover his secret.”
Before long, the devil dragon came home for dinner. The two ate and drank and then began to talk. The old woman asked which riddle the devil planned to use to ensnare the soldiers. The Dragon gave her the answer. The soldier escaped and ran back to the other soldiers with a key to their freedom. Later when the dragon arrived, the soldiers were ready. They outwitted the devil and were freed. The whip was still theirs to keep and with it they were able to create all the gold they needed to live the happiest and wealthiest of lives.
In this story, we are surprised by an unlikely crone (or crones) helping a questionable crew. The crone in this story is not afraid or subservient to the devil. She has the magical ability to know when people are in need and appears before them. Like the crone in the tale “East of the Wind, West of the Moon” she offers her help. This is the first test, for if her help continues to be refused, their fate is sealed. The second test is to discover if a single soldier is able to follow her instructions. Can he find the rock house? Will he tell their story? The crone must now determine his worth. Today, desertion in battle would be considered a significant crime, but throughout history there have been situations of unjust conscription. Other men were paid to fight. It was their only chance for a better life. The history of these soldiers is unknown but does not appear to tip the moral balance. When the soldier tells his tale, he is found worthy. The wise crone frees him going against her grandson’s plans for she knows that the soldiers “even with all their wealth, did nothing wrong.”