It was late in the morning when she awoke and heard the birds singing all around her.

Their song pleased her very much, and the fox, noticing this, remarked: 'Ah, if you could only understand what they are saying you would be much more pleased.'

'Oh, do tell me, dear fox,' pleaded the Princess; and, after he had made her ask him a sufficient number of times, the fox replied:

'Well, they are saying that the King's son, who was turned into a serpent by his godmother to spite his father, has met with an accident that now threatens his life. The spell lasted for seven years, and, on the very day it ended, he was about to marry the daughter of another king, when her father rashly burnt the skin and thus caused him to be turned into a dove. In flying from the palace he has cut his head against a window-pane, and is now at his father's palace lying so sadly hurt that none of the doctors can do anything for him.'

The Princess was greatly concerned at hearing this story.

'But listen, dear fox, and hear if the birds say whether there is any way of curing this poor Prince,' she said.

So the fox listened intently, and by and by he said to the Princess: 'The blackbirds are saying there is no way, but the wrens say there is one. Whoever would cure the Prince must obtain the blood from these very birds and pour it on the head of the Prince, when he will immediately recover and be as well as he ever was.'

The Princess began to grow hopeful, and begged of the fox to catch the birds for her so that she might obtain the remedy and restore the Prince to health. She added a promise of reward for his assistance, and the fox agreed to help her.

So they waited under the trees until the sun had gone in and the birds were all asleep in their nests, and then the fox climbed stealthily into the trees and gathered the birds one after the other, just like a naughty schoolboy stealing apples from a farmer's orchard.

Having obtained what she required, the Princess set forth eagerly to carry the remedy to the Prince's palace.

But the fox, who had taken care to keep well out of her reach, suddenly sat down and began to laugh.

'Why do you laugh, dear fox?' asked the Princess. 'Is it that you are overjoyed to think that the Prince who is to be my husband will soon be restored to health? But let us hurry: we may be too late!'

'No, it is not that,' said the fox, laughing again. 'It is to think that your remedy will be of no avail without the other ingredient, which is the blood of a fox, and as I am not minded to supply it, I will skip the reward you promised and be off.'

Thereupon he started away, pelting as hard as he could go.

The Princess saw that her only hope was to outwit the fox, and she immediately thought of a plan to gain her end.

'Dear fox, do not run,' she said; 'that would be a pity now that the remedy is in our own hands. The King is certain to reward us lavishly, and surely there are plenty of other foxes among whom we can find one willing to spare his blood to save the King's son. Let us go on, then, and trust to our fortune.'

The fox, proud of the fact of being the most artful animal alive, never thought for one moment that he could be exceeded in cunning by a simple maiden, so he came back to the Princess, and together they walked through the forest to the far end where the palace of the King showed in the near distance.

'That is the place,' said the fox; 'but we haven't got the other ingredient!'

'Oh yes, we have,' said the Princess, and, before the fox could be any more artful, she hit him on the head with a stout branch she had picked up, and with such force that he did not in the least object to the necessary addition to the Prince's medicine being drawn from his own veins.

Of course the Princess was sorry to have to do this. The fox had helped her a great deal; and besides, she was a tender-hearted little thing, and she wept like anything all the while she was compounding the remedy; but princes are of more importance than foxes, particularly when they are handsome princes who have been serpents and are wanted to make handsome husbands.

So the Princess took the phial containing the very strange cure for wounded heads, and proceeded straight to the King's palace.

They were all so disturbed, with the servants running about distractedly, and the doctors quarrelling with each other, and the courtiers standing about trying not to look bored, that no one took the least notice of the Princess; but she was a pushing young lady, and seeing the palace doors all open, she made her way from room to room until at last she found the King himself.

'And it please your Majesty,' she said, dropping him a curtsy, 'I have come to save the Prince.'

'But how can you save the Prince when all the great doctors in my kingdom cannot?' demanded the King.

'The birds told me, The fox helped me, And I can save your son. But, if I do, I ask of you To marry me to him when I've done' chanted the Princess.

The King was so overcome with grief and anxiety that he was ready to promise anything to anybody who could help him, so he gave the Princess the required promise, and, without more ado, she caused herself to be led into the chamber of the Prince, and poured the contents of the phial over his wound.

The Prince, who had been so nearly at the point of death that no one would have believed to see him that there was any life in him at all, immediately sat up, recovered and well.

He did not recognise the Princess, and when the King, his father, told him the terms on which she had saved his life, and presented the maiden to him, he refused.

'For the great service you have rendered me I am grateful indeed,' he said; 'but I cannot marry you. My heart is already given to another, and not even for my life will I be false to my word.'

When she heard this the Princess was secretly overjoyed; but she pretended to be greatly displeased, and she disdainfully rejected all other offers of reward that were made to her by the King and the Prince.

'Tell me who this other is, and I will go to her and get her to relinquish you in my favour,' she said at length. 'When she learns what I have done for you, I am sure she will agree that my claim is greater than hers.'

'It is the Princess Grannmia; but that I am sure she will never do,' said the Prince proudly. 'Even if she would, I will not. What is life without love? and I would rather be a serpent again, and live in the cottage of a poor forester all my days, than rule this kingdom without my beloved Princess.'

On hearing this the Princess could no longer keep her secret.

'You must love me indeed, dear Prince,' she said, 'if you do not recognise me when I come pleading to you to carry out your promise after saving your life, and marry me as you would have done when the King, my father, drove you away from me.'

Then the Prince recognised her, and he embraced her so heartily that the Princess wondered whether he was still a serpent or only just a strong young man who was very much in love with her, while the King went out and gave immediate orders to set the bells a-ringing, and have preparations made on the most lavish scale for the wedding feast.

The Serpent Prince An Italian Fairy Tale Part 4 12