Once long ago there was a high mountain whose rocks were veined with gold and silver and seamed with iron. At times, from a huge rent in the mountain-side, there shot out roaring, red flames, and clouds of black smoke. And when the village folk in the valley below saw this, they would say: "Look! the Metal King is at his forge." For they knew that in the gloomy heart of the mountain, the Metal King and his Spirits of the Mines wrought in gold and iron.
When the storm raged over the valley, the Metal King left his cavern and riding on the wings of the wind, with thundering shouts, hurled his red-hot bolts into the valley, now killing the peasants and their cattle, now burning houses and barns.
But when the weather was soft and mild, and the breezes blew gently about the mouth of his cavern, the Metal King returned to his forge in the depths of the mountain, and there shaped ploughshares and many other implements of iron. These he placed outside his cavern door, as gifts to the poor peasants.
It happened, on a time, there lived in that valley a lazy lad, who would neither till his fields nor ply a trade. He was avaricious, but he longed to win gold without mining, and wealth and fame without labor. So it came to pass that he set out one day to find the mountain treasure of the Metal King.
Taking a lighted lantern in one hand, a hatchet in the other, and a bundle of twigs under his arm, he entered the dark cavern. The dampness smote his cheek, bats flapped their wings in his face. Shivering with fear and cold, he pressed on through a long passage under an arched and blackened roof. As he passed along he dropped his twigs, one after another, so that they might guide him aright when he returned.
He came at last to a place where the passage branched off in two directions,—to the right and to the left. Choosing the right-hand path, he walked on and at length came to an iron door. He struck it twice with his hammer. It flew open, and a strong current of air rushing forth put out his light.
"Come in! Come in!" shouted a voice like the rolling of thunder, and the cavern echoes gave back the sounds.
Almost overcome by terror and shivering in every limb, the lad entered. As he stepped forward a dazzling light shone from the vaulted roof upheld by massive columns, and across the crystal side-walls flittered curious, shadowy figures.
The Metal King, huge and fierce-eyed, surrounded by the misshapen Spirits of the Mines, sat upon a block of pure silver, with a pile of shining gold lying before him.
"Come in, my friend!" he shouted again, and again the echoes rolled through the cavern. "Come near, and sit beside me."
The lad advanced, pale and trembling, and took his seat upon the silver block.
"Bring out more treasure," cried the Metal King, and at his command the Mountain Spirits fluttered away like dreams, only to return in a moment and pile high before the wondering lad bars of red gold, mounds of silver coin, and stacks of precious jewels.
And when the lad saw all that wealth he felt his heart burst with longing to grasp it, but when he tried to put out his hand, he found that he could not move his arm, nor could he lift his feet, nor turn his head.
"Thou seest these riches," said the Metal King; "they are but a handful compared with those thou mayest gain if thou wilt work with us in the mines. Hard is the service but rich the reward! Only say the word, and for a year and a day thou shalt be a Mountain Spirit."
"Nay," stammered the lad, in great terror, "nay, I came not to work. All I beg of thee is one bar of gold and a handful of the jewels that lie here. If they are mine I can dress better than the village lads, and ride in my own coach!"
"Lazy, ungrateful wretch!" cried the Metal King, rising from his seat, while his figure seemed to tower until his head touched the cavern roof, "wouldst thou seize without pay the treasures gained through the hard labor of my Mountain Spirits! Hence! Get thee gone to thy place! Seek not here for unearned riches! Cast away thy discontented disposition and thou shalt turn stones into gold. Dig well thy garden and thy fields, sow them and tend them diligently, search the mountain-sides; and thou shalt gain through thine industry mines of gold and silver!"
Scarcely had the Metal King spoken when there was heard a screeching as of ravens, a crying as of night owls, and a mighty storm wind came rushing against the lad; and catching him up it drove him forth along the dark passage, and down the mountain-side, so that in a minute he found himself on the steps of his own house.
And from that time on a strange change came over the lad. He no longer idled and dreamed of sudden wealth, but morning, noon, and evening he labored diligently, sowing his fields, cultivating his garden, and mining on the mountain-side. Years came and went; all he touched prospered, and he grew to be the richest man in that country; but never again did he see the Metal King or the Spirits of the Mines.