long time ago, a king and queen had a son. The young prince grew into a strong, generous fellow who was a regular visitor to the markets, the stables, and the homes of the needy. Wherever he went, people smiled and reveled in their good fortune. For it’s not every day that the gods blessed a kingdom with a prince as benevolent as he.
His sister, equally as kind and twice as clever, was not as fortunate as the prince.
You see, despite the princess’s sweet nature, she was constantly ill. Even on her best days, she had no energy to venture outside. She spent each waking hour sitting in a chair by the window, arranging wildflowers that her brother gathered during his adventures.
Although the girl ate the freshest foods, slept well, and was visited by the best healers from three kingdoms over, the king, queen, and prince were heartbroken to see her light fade a little more each day. One evening, as the prince walked his sister to her bed chambers, he couldn’t help but notice that she was skin and bones—a shadow of the princess he believed she was destined to be.
Fearing death was near, the entire family gathered at her bedside to watch over her spirit while she slept. But as the moon rose high in the sky, the king and queen, exhausted from worry, fell asleep. But the prince was wide awake. As the hours ticked by, he watched his shadow shift and grow until it was long and thin. He looked over at his mother’s, father’s, and sister’s shadows, all varied in size and shape.
But as he was admiring the dance of light and dark, the prince noticed that there was a man dressed in a hooded, grey cloak watching from the corner.
The prince sighed and greeted the visitor. He feared that Death had finally arrived to take his sister.
But the man in the grey cloak assured the prince that he was not Death, but the man who gathers shadows. If the young man were willing to give him his shadow, in return, he would transform the sickly girl into a vibrant young maiden. The only catch—the prince must never tell anyone about this exchange, for if he told a single person that he traded his shadow for light, the spell would be reversed, and his sister would die instantly.
The prince was elated at the idea that his sister could be cured and not the least bit concerned about losing his shadow. After all, what good had his shadow ever done for him?
The prince and the mysterious man shook hands. He waved his hand over the young girl’s face three times until it flushed a soft pink. Just as her eyes fluttered open, the man bent over, tucked the boy’s shadow into his pocket, and hopped out the window.
The next morning, the kingdom celebrated the good princess’s recovery. She spent the day running through the gardens, laughing with her schoolmates, and for the first time, gathering her own bouquet of wildflowers.
The prince had almost forgotten about his missing piece, but when the sun drooped low on the horizon, and the villagers’ shadows grew in response, someone noticed that the prince no longer cast a shadow of his own. Whispers began, then rumors. In a time when anyone different was viewed as a threat, even the king and began to wonder what evil their son had partaken in to have lost his shadow.
When they asked him if he had met with any sorcerers, faeries, or demons, the boy said no. This was true, for the Prince did not believe the man in the grey cloak to be any of these things. But when his parents asked him to explain, he refused to tell them anything more. The young prince remembered well what the mysterious man had said about breaking his promise.
Eventually, the prince knew he was no longer welcome amongst his parents or the villagers in the kingdom. But his sister still adored her older brother, and she wept for days after he packed his bags, saddled up his horse, and rode off into the moonlight. He rode three kingdoms over until he reached a forest of oak trees. With the blessing of the wild creatures, the prince made a small hut out of fallen branches and a bed from moss. He planned to live there in the dark, where nobody would notice the young man without a shadow.
His parents soon felt the pangs of regret. After all, what good does a shadow do anyways? They sent out skilled trackers to find their son, but after three years and no sighting of the boy, they called off the search.
In the meantime, the princess grew into a lovely young woman. She was the spitting image of her older brother, and often dreamt about gathering wildflowers with him in the fields.
One morning, the girl awoke and rushed to tell her parents about her strange dream. In the dream, she saw herself as she appeared in her younger years; small, weak, and with skin as pale as the moon. She also saw her brother and a mysterious man in a grey cloak. The two men shook hands, and then to her despair, she saw the man in the hooded cloak tuck the prince’s shadow into his pocket and hop out the window.
The king and queen realized that their son didn’t lose his shadow—he gave it away in exchange for their daughter’s health.
The maiden, determined to bring her brother home and clear his name, changed into common clothes and readied her horse for whatever perils lie ahead. A pearl necklace was the only thing that gave a hint of royalty.
The girl left at dawn and rode until she reached a hut in the forest. There she met a 100-year-old woman and asked her if she knew of the boy without a shadow.
The old woman said that she did know of such a person, but the only way the maiden could find him was by following his shadow. His shadow lived with the man in the grey cloak in his castle at the end of the world.
The maiden told the crone that she would give her whatever she wished if she would point her in the right direction. The old woman agreed and requested the girl’s beauty in exchange for the information. She passed her hand over the girl’s face three times and handed her a ball of wool. The old woman told the girl to throw the ball in front of her and keep following it until it stopped.
The girl thanked the old woman and set off once again to find her brother. The ball of yarn took her deeper into the forest, where she met a troll. He snatched up the precious ball and said he would only return it if the girl gave him her youth.
The troll passed his hand over her face three times and then returned the wool ball.
Now that the maiden was old and her body less agile, she could no longer ride her horse. She left the horse with the troll and continued walking after the ball of wool.
The girl walked and walked, and eventually, the ball stopped in front of a great castle that looked out over the sea. The maiden knew that she had reached the end of the world, the home of her brother’s shadow. But before she could knock or call out in greeting, a man in a grey, hooded cloak appeared by her side.
He snorted when he saw the ugly, old princess, assuming that she’d planned to take the missing shadow without leaving something in its place.
But the princess assured the man that she knew one does not receive anything without giving something in return.
Since the old woman had taken her beauty and the troll her youth, she offered the man her health.
He passed his hands over her face three times, and the girl felt her body grow cold. The shadow of her brother appeared next to her, took her hand, and led her away from the edge of the world. The girl had forgotten how much harder life was when you’re ill. Sharp bones jutted out from her thin frame, her body felt heavy, and each step sent painful shivers up her spine. Her eyes were hot, lazy, and felt too large for her face. Tears threatened to spill down her cheeks at any moment.
As the girl walked on, she spotted a small shack in the woods, surrounded by an array of wild creatures. She knew this was the home of her brother, and so she made the shadow promise that he would not give away her true identity. Despite everything her brother had sacrificed for her well-being, she could not bear the thought of him seeing her ill once more.
The prince was suspicious of the old woman who came with news from his former kingdom, but when the prince was reunited with his shadow, he forgot his concerns and readied himself for their return trip.
He asked the strongest stag in the forest if he would mind accompanying them, for he knew the woman was not well enough to walk back to the kingdom. The stag agreed, and when the prince lifted the woman onto the creature’s back, he caught a glimpse of her pearl necklace.
He instantly recognized it as his sister’s and asked the old woman what had become of the princess.
Hoping to change the subject, the old woman said that the princess had been dead for many years.
The prince broke down crying and claimed that it was just as he suspected. He finally understood why his shadow had returned. Between sobs, he said that he would live the rest of his life without a shadow if that meant his sister was alive and well.
And this time, he would do it happily. He would not hide in the forest out of shame.
No sooner had the words tumbled from the prince’s mouth did the old woman feel the ground shift. The air buzzed with electricity, and her skin tingled with knowing.
She imagined the man in the hooded cloak, who was likely fuming within the great palace at the end of the world. Now that his spell was broken, what was taken with ill intentions would be returned to the rightful owners.
This gave the princess an idea…
As the prince expertly navigated the dense forests, they crossed the path where the troll had stolen the maiden’s ball of wool and then tricked her into trading her youth for it. She told the prince that she needed to stop for a rest, but as soon as he helped her off the stag, she disappeared into a thicket. She reappeared moments later, moving quicker and looking stronger than she had at the start of their journey. She’d also acquired a stallion and offered it to the prince who’d been walking all day.
The prince was surprised but grateful for a chance to rest his feet. When they came upon a small hut in the woods, the princess asked to stretch her legs. This time, she walked right up to the front door of the hut, where the 100-year-old woman invited her in.
When the prince’s companion reappeared once more, she was no longer a sickly (albeit familiar) crone, but a maiden. The prince rubbed his eyes in disbelief, and only when she spoke did he understand that the heroine was his sister, now older, wiser, but just as clever as she’d been in her youth.
The prince and princess returned home to their parents, where the entire kingdom celebrated their long-awaited return. The parties went on for weeks, each one bigger than the last. After two full months of rejoicing, nobody could even remember how this conundrum began in the first place.
Because when you think about it, why would anyone be so quick to judge another?
Especially a person who trades a piece of their soul so someone else can feel whole.
This story was adapted from the Swedish folktale, ‘Prinsen utan Skugga’ or ‘Prince Without a Shadow’ by Jeanna Oterdahl.
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