Once on a time there was a Queen who had twelve sons but no daughter.
One day she was out driving in the woods and met the prettiest little lassie one ever did see, and so the Queen stopped her horses, lifted the child up in her arms, kissed her on both cheeks, all the while thinking:
“I wish I had a little girl of my own, oh, how long I’ve waited and wished for one.”
Just then an old witch of the trolls came up to her, but you wouldn’t have known it was a witch at all, she looked so kind and good.
“A daughter you shall have,” she said, “and she shall be the prettiest child in twelve kingdoms, if you will give to me what ever comes to meet you at the bridge.”
Now the Queen had a little snow white dog of which she was very fond, and it always ran to meet her when she had been away. She thought, of course, it was the dog the old dame wanted, so the Queen said, “Yes, you may have what comes to meet me on the bridge.” With that she hurried home as fast as she could.
But, who should come to meet her on the bridge but her twelve sons; and before the mother could cry out to them the wicked witch threw her spell upon them and turned them into twelve ducks which flapped their wings and flew away. Away they went and away they stayed.
But the Queen had a daughter, and she was the loveliest child one ever set eyes upon. The Princess grew up, and she was both tall and fair, but she was often quiet and sorrowful, and no one could understand what it was that ailed her. The Queen, too, was often sorrowful, as you may believe, for she had many strange fears when she thought of her sons. And one day she said to her daughter, “Why are you so sorrowful, lassie mine? Is there anything you want? If so, only say the word, and you shall have it.”
“Oh, it seems so dull and lonely here,” said the daughter, “every one else has brothers and sisters, but I am all alone; I have none. That’s why I’m so sorrowful.”
“But you had brothers, my daughter,” said the Queen; “I had twelve sons, stout, brave lads, but I lost them all when you came;” and so she told her the whole story.
When the Princess heard that she had no rest; for she thought it was all her fault, and in spite of all the Queen could say or do, though she wept and prayed, the lassie would set off to seek her brothers. On and on she walked into the wide world, so far you would never have thought her small feet could have had strength to carry her so far.
Finally, one day, when she was walking through a great, great wood, she felt tired, and sat down on a mossy tuft and fell asleep. Then she dreamt that she went deeper and deeper into the wood, till she came to a little wooden hut, and there she found her brothers. Just then she awoke, and straight before her she saw a worn path in the green moss. This path went deeper into the wood, so she followed it, and after a long time she came to just such a little wooden house as that she had seen in her dream.
Now, when she went into the room there was no one at home, but there were twelve beds, and twelve chairs, and twelve spoons,—in short, a dozen of everything. When she saw that she was very glad; she had not been so glad for many a long year, for she could guess at once that her brothers lived there, and that they owned the beds and chairs and spoons. So she began to make up the fire, and sweep the room and make the beds and cook the dinner, and to make the house as tidy as she could.
And when she had done all the work and the dinner was on the table she suddenly heard something flapping and whirling in the air, and she slipped behind the door. Then all the twelve ducks came sweeping in; but as soon as ever they crossed the threshold they became Princes.
“Oh, how nice and warm it is here,” they said, “Heaven bless him who made up the fire and cooked such a nice dinner for us.”
“But who can it be?” said the youngest Prince, and they all hunted both high and low until they found the lassie behind the door. And she threw her arms around their necks and said, “I’m your sister; I’ve gone about seeking you these three years, and if I could set you free, I’d willingly give my life.”
Then all the brothers looked sorrowfully, one at the other, and they shook their heads.
“No, it’s too hard,” said the eldest Prince, looking at the pretty young Princess, “it’s too hard,” and again they sighed and shook their heads.
“Oh, tell me, only tell me,” said the Princess, “how can it be done, and I’ll do it, whatever it be.” And as she begged and pleaded for them to tell her, the youngest brother said at last, “You must pick thistledown, and you must card it, and spin it, and weave it. After you have done that, you must cut out and make twelve shirts, one for each of us, and while you do that, you must neither talk, nor laugh, nor weep. If you can do that we are free.”
“But where shall I ever get thistledown enough for so many shirts?” asked the sister.
“Well, that is the hardest thing of all,” said the eldest brother. “You must go to the witches’ moor at midnight and gather it there,” and big tears stood in his eyes, “and you must go alone, all alone.”
But the sister smiled and nodded her head, and when midnight came, and the moon was high in the sky she said good-bye to her brothers, and went to the great, wide moor, where the witches lived. There stood a great crop of thistles, all nodding and nodding in the breeze, while the down floated and glistened like gossamer through the air in the moonbeams. The Princess began to pluck and gather it as fast as she could, but she saw long skinny arms outstretched toward her, and, among the thistles, she saw a host of wicked faces all looking at her. Her heart stood still then and she grew icy cold, but never a sound did she utter, only plucked and gathered until her bag was full; and when she got home at break of day she set to work carding and spinning yarn from the down.
So she went on a long, long time picking down on the witches’ moor, carding and spinning, and all the while keeping the house of the Princes, cooking, and making their beds. But she never talked, nor laughed, nor wept.
At evening home the brothers came, flapping and whirring like wild ducks, and all night they were Princes, but in the morning off they flew again, and were wild ducks the whole day.
But, it happened one night when she was out on the moor picking thistledown, that the young King who ruled that land was out hunting, and had lost his way. He had become separated from his companions, and now, as he came riding across the moor, he saw her. He stopped and wondered who the lovely lady could be that walked alone on the moor picking thistledown in the dead of the night; and he asked her name. Getting no answer, he was still more astonished, but he liked her so much, that at last nothing would do but he must take her home to his castle and marry her. So he took her and put her upon his horse. The Princess wrung her hands, and made signs to him, and pointed to the bags in which her work was, and when the King saw she wished to have them with her he took the bags and placed them behind them.
When that was done the Princess, little by little, came to herself, for the King was both a wise man and a handsome man, and he was as gentle and kind to her as a mother. But when they reached the palace an old woman met them. She was the King’s guardian, and when she set eyes on the Princess she became so cross and jealous of her, because she was so lovely, that she said to the King:
“Can’t you see now, that this thing whom you have picked up, and whom you are going to marry, is a witch? Why, she can neither talk nor laugh nor weep!”
But the King did not care a straw for what she said. He held to the wedding and married the Princess, and they lived in great joy and glory. But the Princess didn’t forget to go on working on her shirts, and she neither talked nor laughed nor wept. However, when she had spun and woven and cut, she found that she still had not enough cloth for the twelve shirts, and she needs must go to the witches’ moor again.
So that night while all the palace slept she quietly slipped out and walked off to pick her thistledown, but the old woman who was the King’s guardian saw her, and she knew well where the young Queen was going, for I must tell you she was the same wicked witch who had changed the twelve Princes into wild ducks. She hurried to the King’s chamber, woke him and said, “Now, come with me and I’ll prove to you that your lovely Queen is a witch, who joins the wicked company on the moor at midnight.” The King would not listen to her at first, but when he saw that the Queen’s bed was empty, he got up and went with the old woman.
And there upon the edge of the moor they stopped, but in the clear moonlight they could see the Queen among the horrid hags and trolls. The King turned away sadly and said not a word, for he loved his quiet Queen very much.
But the wicked old woman began to whisper and tell abroad about the Queen’s nightly visit to the moor, and at last the King’s best men came to him and said, “We will not have a Queen who is a witch; the people demand of you that she be burnt alive.”
Then the King was so sad that there was no end to his sadness, for now he saw that he could not save her. He was obliged to order her to be burnt alive on a pile of wood. When the pile was all ablaze, and they were about to put her on it, she made signs to them to take twelve boards and lay them around the pile.
On these she laid the shirts for her brothers all completed but that for the youngest, which lacked its left sleeve; she had not had time to finish it. And as soon as ever she had done that, they heard a flapping and whirring in the air, and down came twelve wild ducks from over the forest, and each snapped up his shirt in his bill and flew off with it.
“See now!” said the old woman to the King, “wasn’t I right when I told you she was a witch! Make haste and burn her before the pile burns low.”
“Oh!” said the King, “we’ve wood enough and to spare, and so I’ll wait a bit, for I have a mind to see what the end of this will be.”
As he spoke up came the twelve Princes riding along, as handsome well-grown lads as you’d wish to see; but the youngest Prince had a wild duck’s wing instead of his left arm. “What’s all this about?” asked the Princes.
“My Queen is to be burnt,” said the King, “because she is a witch, so the people say, and I can’t save her.”
“Speak now, sister,” said the Princes, “you have set us free and saved us, now save yourself.”
Then the young Queen spoke and told the whole story, and the King and all the people listened with wonder and joy. Only the wicked old woman stood trembling with fear. And when the Queen had finished her story, the people took the old witch and bound her and burned her on the pile.
But the King took his wife and the twelve Princes and went home with them to their father and mother, and told all that had befallen them. Then there was joy and gladness over the whole kingdom, because the wicked witch was dead and the Princes saved and set free, and because the lovely Princess had set free her twelve brothers.