A King was once hunting in a large wood, and pursued his game so hotly that none of his companions could follow him. But when evening approached he stopped, and looking around him saw that he had lost himself. He sought a path out of the forest but could not find one, and presently he saw an old woman, with a nodding head, who came up to him. “My good woman,” he said to her, “can you show me the way out of the forest?” “Oh, yes, my lord King,” she replied; “I can do that very well, but upon one condition, which if you do not fulfil, you will never again get out of the wood, but will die of hunger.”
“What, then, is this condition?” asked the King.
“I have a daughter,” said the old woman, “who is as beautiful as any one you can find in the whole world, and well deserves to be your bride. Now, if you will make her your Queen, I will show you your way out of the wood.” In the anxiety of his heart, the King consented, and the old woman led him to her cottage, where the daughter was sitting by the fire. She received the King as if she had expected him, and he saw at once that she was very beautiful, but yet there was something just not quite right, for he could not look at her without shaking. However, he took the maiden upon his horse, and the old woman showed him the way, and the King arrived safely at his palace, where the wedding was to be celebrated.
The King had been married once before but his wife had tragically died of an illness. He had seven children by his first wife, six boys and a girl, whom he loved above everything else in the world. He became afraid, soon, that the step-mother might not treat his children very well, and might even do them some great injury, so he took them away to a lonely castle which stood in the midst of a forest. The castle was so entirely hidden, and the way to it was so difficult to discover, that he himself could not have found it if a wise woman had not given him a ball of cotton which had the wonderful property, when he threw it before him, of unrolling itself and showing him the right path.
The King went, however, so often to see his dear children, that the Queen, noticing his absence, became curious, and wished to know what he went to fetch out of the forest. So she gave his servants a great quantity of money, and they told her the secret, and also told her of the ball of cotton which alone could show her the way. She had now no peace until she discovered where this ball was concealed, and then she made some fine silken shirts, and, as she had learnt of her mother, she sewed within each a charm.
One day soon after, when the King was gone out hunting, she took the little shirts and went into the forest, and the cotton showed her the path. The children, seeing some one coming in the distance, thought it was their dear father, and ran out full of joy. Then she threw over each of them a shirt, that, as it touched their bodies, changed them into Swans, which flew away over the forest. The Queen then went home quite contented, and thought she was free of her step-children; but the little girl had not met her with the brothers, and the Queen did not know of her.
The following day the King went to visit his children, but he found only the Maiden. “Where are your brothers?” asked he. “Ah, dear father,” she replied, “they are gone away and have left me alone”; and she told him how she had looked out of the window and seen them changed into Swans, which had flown over the forest; and then she showed him the feathers which they had dropped in the courtyard, and which she had collected together. The King was much saddened, but he did not think that his wife could have done this wicked deed, and, as he feared the girl might also be stolen away, he took her with him. She was, however, so much afraid of the step-mother, that she begged him not to stay more than one night in the castle.
The poor Maiden thought to herself, “This is no longer my place; I will go and seek my brothers”; and when night came she escaped and went quite deep into the wood. She walked all night long, and a great part of the next day, until she could go no further from weariness. Just then she saw a rough-looking hut, and going in, she found a room with six little beds, but she dared not get into one, so crept under, and laying herself upon the hard earth, prepared to pass the night there.
Just as the sun was setting, she heard a rustling, and saw six white Swans come flying in at the window. They settled on the ground and began blowing one another until they had blown all their feathers off, and their swan’s down slipped from them like a shirt. Then the Maiden knew them at once for her brothers, and gladly crept out from under the bed, and the brothers were not less glad to see their sister, but their joy was of short duration. “Here you must not stay,” said they to her; “this is a robbers’ hiding-place; if they return and find you here, they will treat you very badly.”
“Can you not protect me, then?” inquired the sister.
“No,” they replied; “for we can only take off our swan’s feathers for a quarter of an hour each evening, and for that time we regain our human form, but afterwards we resume our changed appearance.”
Their sister then asked them, with tears, “Can you not be restored again?”
“Oh, no,” replied they; “the conditions are too difficult. For six long years you must neither speak nor laugh, and during that time you must sew together for us six little shirts of star-flowers, and should there fall a single word from your lips, then all your labor will be in vain.” Just as the brothers finished speaking, the quarter of an hour elapsed, and they all flew out of the window again like Swans.
The little sister, however, made a solemn resolution to rescue her brothers, or die in the attempt; and she left the cottage, and, going deep into the forest, passed the night amid the branches of a tree. The next morning she went out and collected the star-flowers to sew together. She had no one to talk with and for laughing she had no spirits, so there up in the tree she sat, intent upon her work.
After she had passed some time there, it happened that the King of that country was hunting in the forest, and his huntsmen came beneath the tree on which the Maiden sat. They called to her and asked, “Who are you?” But she gave no answer. “Come down to us,” continued they; “we will do you no harm.”
She simply shook her head, and when they pressed her further with questions, she threw down to them her gold necklace, hoping therewith to satisfy them. They did not, however, leave her, and she threw down her girdle, but in vain! and even her rich dress did not make them stop. At last the huntsman himself climbed the tree and brought down the Maiden, and took her before the King.
The King asked her, “Who are you? What are you doing upon that tree?” But she did not answer; and then he questioned her in all the languages that he knew, but she remained dumb to all, as a fish. Since, however, she was so beautiful, the King’s heart was touched, and he started to have feelings for her. Then he put around her his cloak, and, placing her before him on his horse, took her to his castle. There he ordered rich clothing to be made for her, and, although her beauty shone as the sunbeams, not a word escaped her. The King placed her by his side at table, and there her dignified manners so impressed him, that he said, “This Maiden will I marry, and no other in the world;” and after some days he wedded her.
Now, the King had a wicked step-mother, who was not happy with his marriage, and spoke evil of the young Queen. “Who knows where the girl comes from?” she said. “She who cannot speak is not worthy of a King.” A year after, when the Queen brought her first-born into the world, the old woman took him away. Then she went to the King and complained that the Queen was a murderess. The King, however, would not believe it, and ordered no-one to harm his wife, who sat composedly sewing at her shirts and paying attention to nothing else. When a second child was born, the false stepmother used the same trick, but the King again would not listen to her words, saying, “She is too good and kind to act so; could she but speak and defend herself, her innocence would come to light.” But when again, the old woman stole away the third child, and then accused the Queen, who answered not a word to the accusation, the King felt he had to give her up to tried, where she was found guilty and sentenced pay with her life.
When the time had elapsed, and the sentence was to be carried out, it happened that the very day had come round when her dear brothers should be set free; the six shirts were also ready, all but the last, which yet needed the left sleeve. As she was led to the scaffold, she placed the shirts upon her arm, and just as she had mounted it, and the fire was about to be kindled, she looked around, and saw six Swans come flying through the air. Her heart leaped for joy as she saw her deliverers approaching, and soon the Swans, flying towards her, landed so near that she was able to throw over them the shirts, and as soon as she had done so, their feathers fell off and the brothers stood up alive and well; but the youngest was without his left arm, instead of which he had a swan’s wing.
They embraced and kissed each other, and the Queen, going to the King, who was thunderstruck, began to say, “Now may I speak, my dear husband, and prove to you that I am innocent and falsely accused;” and then she told him how the wicked woman had stolen away and hidden her three children. When she had concluded, the King was overcome with joy, and the wicked stepmother was taken away, where she confessed to where she was keeping the children. The King and Queen were reunited with their children and for ever after lived in peace and prosperity.