In the meantime the sons had been working each in a different part of the world. When, however, they had been away from their home nine years, they all, as if by common consent, conceived an ardent desire to go back once more to their father's house. So they took the whole of the savings which they had laid up in their nine years' service, and commenced their journeys homewards.
On his travels the eldest brother met with three gipsies, who were teaching a young bear to dance by putting him on a red-hot plate of iron. He felt compassion for the creature in its sufferings, and asked the gipsies why they were thus tormenting the animal. "Better," he said, "let me have it, and I will give you three pieces of silver for it!" The gipsies accepted the offer eagerly, took the three pieces of silver, and gave him the bear. Travelling farther on he met with some huntsmen who had caught a young wolf, which they were about to kill. He offered them, also three pieces of silver for the animal, and they, pleased to get so much, readily sold it. A little further still he met some shepherds, who were about to hang a little dog. He was sorry for the poor brute, and offered to give them two pieces of silver if they would give the dog to him, and this they very gladly agreed to.
So he travelled on homeward, attended by the young bear, the wolf-cub, and the little dog. As all his nine years' savings had amounted only to nine pieces of silver, he had now but a single piece left.
Before he reached his father's house he met some boys who were about to drown a cat. He offered them his last piece of money if they would give him the cat, and they were content with the bargain and gave it up to him. So, at last he arrived at his home without any money, but with a bear, a wolf, a dog, and a cat.
Just so, it had happened with the other two brothers. By their nine years' work they had only saved nine pieces of silver, and on their way home they had spent them in ransoming animals, exactly as the eldest brother had done.
Soon after they had returned, the old father died. Then the three brothers consulted together, and decided to invest part of the money, which their father and mother had got from the robbers, in the purchase of four horses and one grass-field.
A few days later they all went into the fields to bring in the hay which the two elder ones had mown. They found, however, hardly the third part of the hay which they had left. At this they wondered greatly, and looked about to see who had stolen it; but, finding no one, after a little while they took up what was left and returned home.
At length the year, on which all this had happened, passed away. The next year, however, they dared not leave their mown grass unwatched. So they discussed which of them should first keep guard. Each of them offered to do it; but, at last, they agreed that the youngest brother should begin to watch. So he prepared himself, and, at night, went out into the field. Having come there, he climbed up into a tree and resolved to remain there until daybreak. About midnight he heard a great noise and shouting, which frightened him so much that he dared not stir at all. Some creatures came into the field and ate up most of the hay, and what they did not eat they tossed about and spoiled, so that it was fit for nothing. When daylight came, the youngest brother came down from the tree and went home, to tell what he had seen.
"Three winged horses came into the field".
So that year they had no hay.
Next year, when hay harvest came, the three brothers took counsel together how to preserve their hay. The second brother now volunteered to watch in the field, and seemed quite sure he would be able to save the hay. Accordingly he went, and climbed into the tree, just as his brother had done the previous year. About midnight three winged horses came into the field with a company of fairies. The winged horses began to eat the newly mown hay, and the fairies danced over it. After the greater part of the hay had been eaten by the horses, and all the rest had been spoiled by the dancing of the fairies, the whole company left the field, just as day began to dawn. The watcher in the tree had witnessed all this; he was, however, too frightened to do anything - indeed, he hardly dared to move. When he went home, he told his brothers all that he had seen; at which they were sad, since this year again they would have no hay.
However, the time passed, and the third summer came on. Again the three brothers cut the grass in their meadow, and consulted together anxiously how they should manage to keep their new hay.
At length it was settled that it was now the turn of the eldest brother to keep watch. If he, also, failed to save the hay, it was agreed that they should divide amongst them the little property which they had left, and go out again, separately, to seek their fortunes in the world, seeing they had no luck in their own country.
As had been agreed upon, the eldest brother now went out into the field at night; but, instead of going up into the tree as his brothers had done, he lay quietly down on a heap of hay, and waited to see what would happen. About midnight he heard a great noise, afar off, and, by-and-by, a troop of fairies, with three winged horses, came straight towards the place where he lay. Having got there, the fairies began to dance, and the horses to eat the hay, and canter about. The eldest brother looked on, and, at first, felt much afraid, and wished heartily the whole company would go away without seeing him. As, however, they seemed in no hurry to do this, he considered what he should do, and, at length, decided that it would be worth while to try to catch one of the three horses. So, when they came near him, he jumped on the back of one of them, and clung fast to it. The other two horses instantly ran away, and the fairies with them.
The horse which the eldest brother had caught tried all sorts of tricks to throw off his unwelcome rider, but he could not succeed. Finding all his attempts to free himself quite useless, at last he said, "Let me go, my good man, and I will be of use to you some other time." The man answered, "I will set you free on one condition; that is, you must promise never more to come in this field; and you must give me some pledge that you will keep your promise".
The horse gladly agreed to this condition, and gave the man a hair from his tail, saying, "Whenever you happen to be in need, hold this hair to a fire, and I will instantly be at your service".
Thereupon the horse went off, and the eldest brother returned home. His brothers had waited impatiently for his return, and, when they saw him, pressed him immediately to tell them all that had happened. So he told everything, except that he had got a hair from the horse's tail, because he did not believe that the horse would keep his promise and come to him in his need. The two younger brothers, however, had no confidence that the fairies and winged horses would fulfil their promise and never come again to ruin their hay-field, so they proposed that the property should be at once divided, and that they should separate. The eldest brother tried to persuade them to remain at least one other year longer, to see what would happen; he was not able, however, to succeed in this. Accordingly they divided the remnant of their property, took each their animals, that is, each his bear, his wolf, his dog, and his cat, and left their home, for the second time, to seek their fortunes in the world.
The first day they travelled together, but the second day they were obliged to separate, because having come to a crossway, and trying to keep on the same path, they found they could not take a step forward so long as they were together. They therefore left that path and tried another; it was, however, of no use, for they could not move a step forward as long as they were together; and when they tried the third path, the same happened there also. So they tried if two of them could go on in one road if one of them went before and the other behind. But this also they were unable to do; they could not get on one step, try as hard as they would, so nothing was left them but to separate and each of them to go alone by a different road. They were exceedingly sorry to part, but could not help themselves.
Before the brothers separated, the eldest brother said, "Now, brothers, before we part, let us stick our knives in this oak-tree; as long as we live our knives will remain where we stick them; when one of us dies, his knife will fall out. Let us, then, come here every third year to see if the knives are still in their places. Thus we shall know something, at least, about each other." The other two agreed to this, and, having stuck their knives in the oak-tree, and kissed each other, went, each one his own way, taking his animals with him.