The Six Swans
King marries daughter of witch who turns sons into swans. Daughter redeems her, marries king. Witch is burned.
Once upon a time a king was hunting in a large forest and was chasing a game so eagerly that none of his people could follow him. As evening approached, he stopped and looked around, seeing that he had lost his way. He looked for an exit, but could not find one. Then he saw an old woman with a shaking head coming towards him, but she was a witch. "Dear woman," he said to her, "can you not show me the way through the forest?" "O yes, Lord King," she answered, "I can do that, but there is a condition, if you do not fulfill it, you will never get out of the forest, and you will die of hunger in it." "What is that condition?" asked the king. "I have a daughter," said the old woman, "who is as beautiful as you can find in the world, and well deserves to be your wife; if you want to make her your queen, I will show you the way out of the forest." The king, in the anguish of his heart, agreed, and the old woman led him to her cottage, where her daughter was sitting by the fire. She received the king as if she had been expecting him, and he saw that she was very beautiful, but he did not like her, and he could not look at her without secret horror. After he had lifted the girl onto his horse, the old woman showed him the way, and the king returned to his royal castle, where the wedding was celebrated.
The king had been married once before and had seven children by his first wife, six boys and one girl, whom he loved more than anything in the world. Because he feared that the stepmother would not treat them well and might even harm them, he took them to a lonely castle in the middle of a forest. It was so hidden, and the way was so difficult to find, that he would not have found it himself if a wise woman had not given him a ball of yarn of wonderful quality; when he threw it in front of him, it unwound itself and showed him the way. But the king went out so often to his dear children that the queen noticed his absence; she became curious and wanted to know what he was doing all alone in the forest. She gave his servants a lot of money, and they told her the secret, and also told her about the ball of twine which alone could show the way. She did not rest until she found out where the king kept the ball, and then she made little white silk shirts, and since she had learned the witchcraft from her mother, she sewed a spell into them. And once when the king had ridden off to hunt, she took the little shirts and went into the forest, and the ball of twine showed her the way. The children, seeing someone coming from afar, thought their dear father was coming to them and jumped to meet him full of joy. Then she threw one of the little shirts over each of them, and as soon as it touched her body, they turned into swans and flew away over the forest. The queen went home quite happy and thought she had got rid of her stepchildren, but the girl had not run to meet her with her brothers, and she knew nothing about him. The next day the king came to visit his children, but he found no one but the girl. "Where are your brothers?" asked the king. "Oh, my dear father," she answered, "they have gone away and left me alone." She told him that she had watched from her little window as her brothers flew away as swans over the forest, and she showed him the feathers which they had dropped in the yard and which she had picked up. The king grieved, but he did not think that the queen had done the evil deed, and because he feared that the girl would also be stolen from him, he wanted to take her away with him. But she was afraid of the stepmother and asked the king to let her stay in the forest castle only for this night.
The poor girl thought, "I can't stay here any longer, I want to go and look for my brothers. And when night came, she escaped and went straight into the forest. She walked all night and all day long, until she was so tired that she could go no further. There it saw a game hut, climbed up, and found a room with six small beds, but it did not dare to lie down in one, but crawled under one, lay down on the hard ground and wanted to spend the night there. But when the sun was about to set, he heard a rustling noise and saw six swans come flying in at the window. They sat down on the ground and blew at each other and blew off all their feathers, and their swan skin came off like a shirt. Then she looked at the girl and recognized her brothers, rejoiced and crawled out from under the bed. The brothers were no less delighted when they saw their little sister, but their joy was short-lived. "You cannot stay here," they said to him, "this is an inn for robbers, if they come home and find you, they will murder you." "Can you not protect me?" asked the little sister. "No," they answered, "for we can only take off our swan-skin for a quarter of an hour every evening, and have our human form during that time, but then we are turned into swans again." The little sister cried and said "can you not be redeemed?" "Oh no," they answered, "the conditions are too hard. You must not speak or laugh for six years, and in that time you must sew six little shirts for us out of starflowers. If a single word comes out of your mouth, all work is lost." And when the brothers had spoken this, the quarter of an hour was over, and they flew out of the window again as swans.
But the girl made a firm decision to save her brothers, even if it cost her her life. She left the hut, went into the middle of the forest, sat down on a tree and spent the night there. The next morning he went out, collected starflowers and began to sew. He couldn't talk to anyone, and he didn't feel like laughing: he just sat there and looked at his work. When she had already spent a long time there, it happened that the king of the country was hunting in the forest and his hunters came to the tree on which the girl was sitting. They called her and said, "Who are you?" But there was no answer. "Come down to us," they said, "we don't want to harm you." It merely shook its head. When they continued to pester him with questions, he threw down his golden necklace, thinking to satisfy them. But they did not let up, so he threw down his belt, and when that did not help either, his garters, and little by little everything he had on and could spare, so that he kept nothing but his shirt. The hunters, however, did not let themselves be turned away with this, climbed the tree, lifted the girl down and brought her before the king. The king asked "who are you? what are you doing on the tree?" But it did not answer. He asked her in all the languages he knew, but she remained as mute as a fish. But because it was so beautiful, the king's heart was touched, and he took a great love for it. He put his cloak around him, took him on his horse and brought him to his castle. There he had rich clothes put on it, and it shone in its beauty like the bright day, but not a word could be brought out of it. He seated it at his side at table, and its modest mien and modesty pleased him so much that he said, "This is the one I desire to marry, and no other in the world," and after a few days he married her.
But the king had a wicked mother, who was displeased with this marriage and spoke ill of the young queen. "Who knows where the strumpet came from," she said, "who cannot speak: she is not worthy of a king." More than a year after the queen gave birth to the first child, the old woman took it away from her and smeared her mouth with blood while she slept. Then she went to the king and accused her of being a man-eater. The king did not want to believe it and did not want her to be harmed. But she sat steadily sewing the shirts, and paid no attention to anything else. The next time she gave birth to another beautiful boy, the false mother-in-law practiced the same deception, but the king could not decide to believe her speeches. He said "she is too pious and good to do such a thing, if she were not dumb and could defend herself, her innocence would come to light." But the third time the old woman stole the newborn child and accused the queen, who did not say a word in her defense, so the king could not help it, he had to hand her over to the court, which sentenced her to death by fire.
When the day approached when the sentence was to be carried out, it was also the last day of the six years in which she was not allowed to speak or laugh, and she had freed her dear brothers from the power of the spell. The six shirts were finished, except that the left sleeve of the last one was still missing. When she was led to the pyre, she put the shirts on her arm, and when she stood at the top and the fire was about to be lit, she looked around and saw six swans coming through the air. Then she saw that her salvation was near and her heart stirred with joy. The swans rushed up to her and lowered themselves so that she could throw their shirts over them: and as they were touched by them, the swans' skins fell off, and her brothers stood before her in the flesh, fresh and beautiful; only the youngest was missing his left arm, and instead had a swan's wing on his back. They kissed and kissed each other, and the queen went to the king, who was quite upset, and began to speak, saying, "Dearest husband, now I may speak and reveal to you that I am innocent and falsely accused," and told him of the old woman's deceit, who had taken away her three children and hidden them. Then, to the king's great joy, they were brought in, and the wicked mother-in-law was bound on the funeral pyre as punishment and burned to ashes. But the king and the queen with their six brothers lived in happiness and peace for many years.