A King once went out hunting in the forest. He was soon so intent on the chase that none of his companions could keep up with him. When evening came, he stopped and looked around and soon realized that he had lost his way. He searched for the way back, but could not find it. After some time he saw an old woman approaching him with a wobbly head. She was really a witch. “Dear woman,” the king said to her “Could you not show me the way out of this forest?”
“O yes, my king,” she replied. “that I can do, but there is one condition and if you do not fulfill it you will never leave the forest and shall die of hunger.”
“What is the condition?” the king asked. “
“I have a daughter,” the old woman said, “She is beautiful, you will not find her equal in all the world and most deserving to become your wife. If you make her your queen, I shall show you the way out of the forest.”
The king in his terror agreed and the old woman led him to her cottage where her daughter sat by the fire. She received the king as if she had been waiting for him and he saw that she was quite pretty. But still, there was something he did not like about her and he could not lay eyes on her without feeling a secret pang of terror. After he lifted the maid up onto his horse, the old woman showed him the way and the king was able to find the royal palace where the wedding was soon celebrated.
Now the king had been married once before and had seven children with his previous wife -- six boys and a girl. He loved them more than anything in the whole world. Because he now feared the step-mother would not treat them well and perhaps do them harm, he brought them to a lonely castle in the middle of the forest. It was so concealed and the path was so difficult to find, that even he could not find it without the help of a wise woman. She gave him a ball of yarn that had the strange quality: when he threw it in front of him, it unwound itself and showed the way. The king went to his dear children so often that the queen soon noticed his absence. She was curious and wanted to know what he did outside alone in the woods. She gave his servants a lot of money until they finally gave away his secret. They told her about the ball of yarn, which alone could show the way. Now she could find no rest until she could determine where the king kept the ball of yarn. Then she made small white-silk shirts and because she had learned the art of witchery from her mother, she sewed a magic charm into the garments. When the king rode out to hunt, she took the little shirts and went into the forest and the ball of yarn showed her the way. When the children saw someone approaching from the distance, they thought it was their dear father and raced forth to meet him full of joy. But she threw a shirt over each one of them and as the garment touched their bodies, they were transformed into swans and flew away over the forest. The queen went home pleased with her work and believed she was now done with her step children. But the little girl had not run out with her brothers and the witch did not know about her. The next day the when the king came to visit his children, he found no one except the girl. “Where are your brothers?” the King asked. “Oh dear father,” she replied, “They are gone and have left me here alone.” She told him what she had seen from the small window and how her brothers had flown away as swans over the forest. She showed him the feathers they had dropped in the courtyard and which the girl had collected. The king was sad but he didn’t know the queen was behind the evil deed. And because he feared the girl would also vanish, he decided to take her with him. But the girl was frightened of the step mother and asked the king if she could stay one more night in the forest castle.
The poor girl thought to herself: “I shall stay here no longer for I want to go and find my brothers.” And when evening came, she fled into the forest. She spent the entire night and next day walking until she could no longer continue. In utter exhaustion, she saw a hut used by hunters, entered it and found six small beds. But she was afraid to lie down in one. Instead she crawled underneath a bed and lay on the hard floor, determined to spend the night there. When the sun went down she heard a noise and saw six swans come flying through the window. They sat down on the floor and blew and cackled at each other. They preened each other’s feathers with their bills and their swan skin fell away like a shirt. Then they looked at the girl and she saw her brothers, rejoiced and crawled out from under the bed. The brothers were also overjoyed to see their sister. But their joy was of short duration. “You cannot stay here,” they said to her, “This is a hostel for robbers. When they come home and find you they will murder you.”
“Can’t you protect me?” the sister asked.
“No,” they replied. “For we can only remove our swan shirt for a quarter hour every evening and take on our human form. But after this we are turned back into swans.”
The little sister cried and said: “Can nothing save you?”
“Oh, no,” they replied, “the conditions would be too harsh for you. You cannot speak or laugh for six years and must sew six shirts for us made from star flowers. If you utter a single word, all your work will be for naught.” And when the brothers had said this, the quarter-hour was over and they flew out of the window as swans.
The girl made the firm decision to save her brothers, even if it cost her own life. She left the hunting hut and went to the middle of the woods. She sat in a tree and spent the night there. The next morning she went out, gathered star flowers and began to sew. She could not talk to anyone and she had no desire to laugh. She sat there and only looked at her work. When she had spent a long time doing this, it happened that the king of the land was hunting in the forest and his hunters came to the tree where the girl sat. They called to her and said “Who are you?” But she gave no answer. “Come down to us,” they said, “We won’t do you any harm.” She shook her head. When they continued questioning her she threw down her golden necklace and thought they would be satisfied. But they would not stop. Then she threw down her belt and when that didn’t help, she threw down her garters, and gave one piece after another until she had nothing left but her shirt. The huntsmen would not be put off, they climbed the tree, and brought the girl down. They led her before the king. The king asked “Who are you?” What were you doing in the tree?” But she did not answer. He asked her in every language he knew, but she remained silent like a fish. Because she was so beautiful, the king’s heart was moved by a great love for her. He wrapped her in his cloak, took her on his horse and brought her to his castle. He had rich clothes made for her and she radiated beauty like a bright sunlit day. But no words came out of her mouth. Se sat at his side at his table and her modest demeanor and demure countenance pleased the king so much that he said “This is the one I desire to marry and no other in all the world.” So after several days he married her.
But the king had an evil mother who was not pleased with the marriage and spoke poorly of the young queen. “Who knows where the girl came from,” she said, “She can’t even speak, she is not worthy of a king.” A year later when the queen bore her first child, the old woman took it away and smeared the queen’s mouth in blood as she lay sleeping. She went to the king and accused her of being a child eater. But the king would not believe it and would not let anyone harm her. She was steadfast and continued sewing the little shirts and paid no attention to anything else. Soon she bore a beautiful boy, the false step-mother committed the same deception but the king would not believe her words. He said “She is too pious and good, she could never do a thing like that. If she could speak she could defend herself and her innocence would be known.” But the third time the old woman stole the newborn and accused the queen, no word was spoken in her defense. The king could do nothing else but deliver his wife to the court, which condemned her to death by fire.
When the day of the execution came, it happened that it was also the last day of the six years she could not speak or laugh. She had finally saved her dear brothers from the power of the magic spell. The six shirts were finished, only a bit was missing on the left arm of the last shirt. When she approached the pyre, she placed the shirts on her arm and when she stood above and the fire was to be lit, she looked up and six swans came flying through the air. She saw their pending redemption and her heart beat in joy. The swans flew down to her so that she could throw a shirt over each one. As they were touched by the shirt, their swan skins fell off and the brothers stood before her. They were fresh and handsome; only the youngest one was missing his left arm and instead, he bore a swan wing on his back. They rejoiced and embraced each other. The queen went to the king who was quite dismayed and began to speak. She said “Dearest husband, now I may speak and reveal to you that I am innocent and wrongly accused,” and she told him of the deception of the old woman who had taken away her three children and hidden them. They were found to the great relief of the king and the evil step mother was bound on the pyre instead and burned to ashes. But the king and the queen with her six brothers lived many years in happiness and peace.