The Six Swans
"My good woman," said he, "can you show me the way out of the wood?"
"Oh yes, my lord king," answered she, "certainly I can, but I must make a condition, and if you do not fulfil it, you will never get out of the wood again, but die there of hunger."
"What is the condition?" asked the king.
"I have a daughter," said the old woman, "who is as fair as any in the world, and if you will take her for your bride and make her queen, I will show you the way out of the wood."
The king consented because of the difficulty he was in, 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 step-mother might not behave well to them, and perhaps would do them some mischief, he took them to a lonely castle standing in the middle of a wood. There they remained hidden, for 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 possessing wonderful properties that a wise woman had given him; when he threw it down before him, it unrolled itself and showed him the way.
And the king went so often to see his dear children that the queen was displeased at his absence, and she became curious and wanted to know what he went out into the wood for so often alone. She bribed his servants with much money, and they showed her the secret, and told her of the clew of yarn, which alone could point out the way; then she gave herself no rest until she had found out where the king kept the clew, and then she made some little white silk shirts and sewed a charm in each, as she had learned witchcraft of her mother.
And once 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 children, seeing someone in the distance, thought it was their dear father coming to see them and came jumping for joy to meet him. Then the wicked queen threw over each child one of the little shirts, and as soon as the shirts touched their bodies, they were changed into swans and flew away through the wood.
So the queen went home, very pleased to think she had got rid of her step-children, 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.
"Where are thy brothers?" asked the king.
"Ah, dear father," answered she, "they are gone away and have left me behind," and then she told him how she had seen from her window her brothers in the guise of swans fly away through the wood, and she showed him the feathers which they had let fall in the courtyard and which she had picked up.
The king was grieved, but he never dreamt that it was the queen who had done this wicked deed, and as he feared lest the maiden also should be stolen away from him, he wished to take her away with him. But she was afraid of the step-mother and begged the king to let her remain one more night in the castle in the wood.
Then she said to herself, "I must stay here no longer, but go and seek for my brothers."
Next: The Six Swans (cont.)