A king was once hunting in a large wood. He pursued his game so hotly that none of his courtiers could follow him. But when evening approached he stopped and looking around him perceived 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”, said he to her, “can you not 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 fulfill, you will again get out of the wood, but will die of hunger.”
“What then is the condition?” asked the King.
“I have a daughter”, said the old woman who is as beautiful as anyone 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-place. She received the king as if she had expected him and he saw at once that she was very beautiful. But yet she did not quite please him for he would not look at her without a secret shudder. However, after he took the maiden upon his horse, 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 and 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 stepmother might not treat them very well and might even do them some great harm. So he took them away to a lonely castle which stood in the midst of a forest. This castle was so hidden and the way to it 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 a wonderful property. When he threw it before him, it unrolled itself and showed him the right path. The king however went so often to see his dear children that the queen noticed his absence became inquisitive 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 disclosed to her the secret and also told her of the ball of cotton which alone could show her the way. She would now have no peace until she discovered where this ball was concealed and then she made some fine silken shirts and as she learnt from her mother, she sewed within each one a charm. One day soon after the king had gone out hunting, she took little shirts and went into the forest and the cotton ball showed her the path. The children seeing someone coming in the distance thought it was their dear father and ran out towards her full of joy.
Then she threw over each of them a shirt which as it touched their bodies changed them to swans and they flew over the forest. The Queen then went home quite contented and thought she was free of her stepchildren 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 little girl.
“Where are your brothers?” he asked.
“Ah, dear father,” she replied, “they have gone away and 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 leathers which they had dropped in the courtyard and which she had collected together.
The king was much grieved. But he did not think that his wife could have done this wicked deed and as he feared his only daughter might also be stolen away, he took her with him. She was however so much afraid of the stepmother that she begged him not to stop more than one night in the castle. However, the king comforted her and made her stay with him since he did not want to part her again. In spite of the king’s presence and without his knowledge, her stepmother did not spare any opportunity to torment her. Years passed and the little girl grew into a beautiful maiden but still her pains continued.
The poor maiden thought, to herself, “This is no longer my place. I will go and seek my brothers.” And one night 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 due to weariness. Just then she saw a rude hut and walking in she found a room with six little beds. But she dared not got into one but crept under and lying 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 stripped off like a shirt. Then the girl knew them at once for her brothers and gladly crept out from under the bed and the brothers were no 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 murder you.”
“Can you not protect me, then?” inquired the sister.
“No”, they replied…”for we can only lay aside our swan’s feathers for a quarter of an hour each evening and in that time we regain our human form. But afterwards we regain our changed appearance.’
Their sister then asked them with tears, “Can you not be restored again?”
“Oh, no,’ they replied, “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 labour 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 penetrating 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 converse with and for laughing she had no spirits, so there, up on the tree she sat, intent upon her work. After she had passed some time there, it happened that the king of another country was hunting and his huntsmen came beneath the tree on which the girl sat.
They called to her and asked, “Who are you?” But she gave no answer.
“Come down to us”, they continued,”We will not do you any 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 throw down her girdle, but in vain and even her rich dress did not make them desist. At last one hunter climbed the tree and brought down the girl and took her before the king.
The king asked her, “Who are you? Why were you sitting on top of the tree?”
But she did not answer and then he asked her in all the languages that he knew. But she remained dumb to all as a fish. However, since she was so beautiful, the king’s heart was touched and he conceived for her a strong affection. 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 came off her mouth. The king placed her by his side at table. There her dignified mien and manners so won upon him that he said, “This girl will I marry and no other in the world” and after some days he was united in her.
Now, the king had a wicked stepmother who was discontented with his marriage. She spoke ill of the young queen.
“Who knows when this girl would bring ill luck?” said she, “She who cannot speak is not worthy to be a queen.”
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 and that she had killed the baby born to her. The king, however, would not believe it and allowed no one to do any injury to his wife who sat composedly sewing shirts and paying attention to nothing else. When the second child was born, the false stepmother used the same deceit, but the king again would not listen to her words, but said, “She is too pious and good to act so. Could she but speak and defend herself. Her innocence would come to light.” But again, the third time, the old woman stole away the child and then accused the queen that she had killed all the three babies born to her. The queen answered not a word to the accusation. Hence the king was obliged to give her up to be tried and she was condemned to suffer death by fire.
When the time had elapsed and the sentence was to be carried out, it so happened that the very day had come round when her dear brothers should be made free. The six shirts were also ready all but the last, which yet wanted 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 tflying throughhe air. Her heart leapt for joy as she perceived her deliverers approaching and soon the swans flying towards her alighted so near that she was enabled 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 wanted 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.”
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 led to the scaffold and bound to the stake and burnt to ashes.
The king and the queen forever after lived in peace and prosperity with the six brothers.
MORAL : God will reward the good ones and punish the wicked people.