THE SIX SWANS
nce upon a time a king was hunting in a great wood, and he pursued a wild animal so eagerly that none of this people could follow him. When evening came he found that he had lost his way.
Then all at once he saw an old woman with a nodding head coming up to him; and it was a witch.
"My good woman," said he, "can you show me the way out of the wood?"
"Oh, yes. Certainly I can; if you will take my daughter for your bride, and make her queen, I will show you the way out of the wood."
The king consented, and the old woman led him into her little house, and there her daughter was sitting by the fire. She received the king just as if she had been expecting him, and though he saw that she was very beautiful, she did not please him, and he could not look at her without an inward shudder. Nevertheless, he took the maiden before him on his horse, and the old woman showed him the way, and soon he was in his royal castle again, where the wedding was held.
The king had been married before, and his first wife had left seven children, six boys and one girl, whom he loved better than all the world, and as he was afraid the stepmother might not behave well to them, he took them to a lonely castle standing in a wood. The road to it was so hard to find that the king himself could not have found it, had it not been for a clew of yarn, which when he threw it down before him, unrolled itself and showed him the way. And the king went so often to see his dear children, that the queen became curious and wanted to know what the went out into the wood for so often. She bribed his servants and they told her of the clew of yarn. Then she made some little white silk shirts, and sewed a charm in each. When the king had ridden to the hunt, she took the little shirts and went into the wood, and the clew of yarn showed her the way. The boys thought it was their dear father coming to see them. and came with joy to meet him. Then the wicked queen threw over each one of the little shirts, and they were changed into swans, and flew away through the wood. So the queen went home very pleased to think she had gotten rid of her stepchildren; but the maiden had not run out with her brothers, and so the queen knew nothing about her. The next day the king went to see his children, but he found nobody but his daughter.
Then she told him how she had seen her brothers in the guise of swans fly away through the wood. The king was grieved, but he never dreamt that it was the queen who had done this, and as he feared lest the maiden should also be stolen away, he wished to take her away with him. But she was afraid of the stepmother, and begged the king to let her remain one more night. Then she said to herself,
"I must go and seek for my brothers."
And when the night came, she fled away into the wood. She went on until she could go no longer for weariness. At last she saw a rude hut, and she went in. When it was near the time of sun setting she heard a rustling sound, and saw six swans come flying in at the window. They blew at one another until they had blown all their feathers off, and then they stripped off their swan skin as if it had been a shirt. And the maiden knew them for her brothers.
"You must not stay here," said they to her: "this is a robbers' haunt, and if they were to come and find you here, they would kill you."
"And cannot you defend me?" asked the little sister.
"No, answered they, "for we can only get rid of our swan skins every evening for a quarter of an hour, and then we must be changed again into swans."
Their sister wept and said: "Can nothing be done to set you free?"
"Oh no, they answered, "the work would be too hard for you. For six whole years you would be obliged never to speak or laugh, and make during that time six little shirts out of aster flowers. If you were to let fall a single word before the work is ended, all would be of no good."
And then the quarter of an hour came to an end, and they changed into swans and flew out of the window.
But the maiden made up her mind to se her brothers free. She went into the middle of the wood, and climbed a tree, and there passed the night. The next morning she gathered asters and began sewing them together; as for speaking, there was no one to speak to, and as for laughing she had no mind to it; so she looked at nothing but her work. It happened that the king of that country went a hunting in the wood, and some of the his huntsmen came up to the tree in which the maiden sat. They called out to her, but she gave no answer.
"Come down," they cried, "we will do you no harm." But she only shook her head. And when they tormented her with questions she threw down to them her gold necklace, hoping they would be content with that. But they would not leave off, so she threw down to them her girdle, her garters, and one after another everything she had on but her smock. But all was no good, the huntsmen would not be put off any longer, and they climbed the tree, carried the maiden off and brought her to the king. The king asked,
"Who are you? What were you doing in the tree?" But she answered nothing. He spoke to her in all the languages he knew, but she remained silent: but, being very beautiful, he felt a great love rise up in his heart towards her and casting his mantle round her, he brought her to this castle. Then he caused rich clothing to be put upon her and he said:
"This maiden I choose for my wife, and no other in all the world," and accordingly after a few days, they were married.
But the king had a wicked mother, who was displeased with the marriage. "Who knows where the maid has come from? she said "and not able to speak a word!" She is not worthy of a king!"
After a year had passed and the queen brought her first child into the world, the old woman carried it away and marked the queen's mouth with blood as she lay sleeping. Then she went to the king and declared that his wife was an eater of human flesh, but the king would not believe such a thing. And the queen went on quietly sewing the shirts and caring for nothing else. The next time that a fine boy was born, the wicked stepmother used the same deceit, but the king would give no credence to her words.
When for the third time the old woman stole away the newborn child and accused the queen, the king could do no other but give her up to justice, and she was sentenced to suffer death by fire. The day on which her sentence was to be carried out was the very last one of the sixth year during which she had neither spoken nor laughed. The six shirts were ready, all except one which wanted the left sleeve. And when she was led out, she carried the six shirts on her arm, and when the fire was about to be kindled, all at once she cried out loud, for there were six swans flying through the air. The swans came close up to her, so that she could throw the shirts over them, and when that had been done the swan skins fell off, and her brothers stood before her safe and sound; but one shirt wanted the left sleeve, so the youngest brother had a swan's wing instead of a left arm. They kissed each other and the queen went up to the king and said:
"Dear husband, now I may dare to speak and tell you that I am innocent." And she told him how his mother had taken away the three children and hidden them. The wicked woman was burnt to ashes. And the king and queen lived happily many years with the six brothers.