On a winter’s day in the long long ago, in a land between the forest and the sea, a yellow-haired Queen went driving over the new-fallen snow of Yule. Her sleigh was rosy as the setting sun, with yellow birchen runners, and her horses black, with scarlet steamy nostrils. As they rushed headlong past the fir-trees she felt like a great white swan, feather-bright, wing-borne, piercing the glassy air. ‘Oh, joy!’ she cried. ‘Oh, wonder of life! Was anyone ever so happy as I?’ Twice she uttered these words. The first time they rang full and warm as golden bells, the second time they tinkled thin and cold as breaking icicles.
Then a strange thing happened. Her nose began to bleed. Soft molten drops plopped heavily upon the white bearskin which enwrapped her, so that she must rein in those fiery horses and bring the sleigh to a stand. Throwing back the bearskin, she alighted, and at once the horses were as still as though they had been carved in jet and ebony. Two great blood-drops fell upon the snow, and suddenly it seemed to the Queen as though all her happiness was lost in longing, and what she longed for was this: a daughter whose hair’s blackness should be as the blackness of those horses, and the whiteness of whose flesh should be as the whiteness of the snow, and in whose cheeks there should be two red spots as red as the blood-drops glowing before her.
‘To have a daughter like that,’ she cried, ‘I would give my twelve fine sons!’
‘Your word is your word,’ called a voice from the forest, and when the Queen looked up, frightened, it was to see a tall, tall woman standing there, with ice-blue eyes, and maned with thick white hair. ‘You shall have your daughter, Queen, so black and red and white; but your sons shall be mine, and beat the air for ever.’
‘No,’ wept the Queen; ‘my words were pride and folly. I spoke but did not mean them. Leave me my sons, I beg you, or take me in their stead.’
But what shall be, will be: her word was her word, and a troll’s word now; and the only mercy she won from the troll-woman before she disappeared into the forest was that she might keep her sons till the day of her daughter’s christening. Slowly and sorrowfully she turned the sleigh for home, and true enough, when the time came, the Queen gave birth to a baby daughter, of whom it might be seen from the very first that she would be as black and red and white as the Queen’s rash wish and the troll- woman’s promise would have her. Never was there a Court more joyful, and never were there louder thanks to heaven that the kingdom had been blessed with so lovely a Princess; and what cut the Queen’s heart most cruelly of all was that her twelve fine sons rejoiced and were thankful as any. As the day of her christening came near the Queen sent for a silversmith and had him make twelve silver spoons, one for each Prince, and when these were finished she had him make one more, which should be for her daughter. Just in time they were ready, and then the child was christened and called Asa; and that very same moment, in sight of them all, the twelve Princes were changed into wild swans. Where their arms had been they sprouted wings, their soft white skins turned to a coat of white feathers, the loud clanging call of the wild swan came sadly from their yellow bills; then they were rising high into the air on outstretched pinions, circling the palace once, twice, thrice, and as the courtiers stood dumb with amazement and the Queen wept softly, they turned with outstretched necks to the setting sun, and all too soon grew small and faint and vanished, no one could tell where.
Yet time, which films the scar on every wound, healed this wound too, and the Queen, who at first wished only to die, lived to see her daughter grow up into the most beautiful Princess that ever graced the kingdom between the forest and the sea. Yet often she was sorrowful, and her daughter was sorrowful too, though no one knew why this should be. One evening in spring when they were seated alone in the palace, while the westering sun sent long shafts of rosy light along the waxen floor between them, and high overhead there was the strong trumpeting of the great swans flying to the loosed waters of the lakes, she could keep silent no longer.
‘Daughter,’ she asked, ‘why are you unhappy? If there is anything in the whole wide world you want, name it, and if it exists and can be found in air, on land, in water, it shall be yours, my child, and all my love with it.’
‘It is so dull and lonely here,’ said Asa. ‘Everyone has brothers and sisters, but I am all alone. If only I had brothers, lady mother, I could be so happy.’
‘Alas,’ said the Queen, ‘you had brothers, till my folly and rashness destroyed them. I had twelve fine sons, and I lost them all for you.’ And she did not stop until she had told her the whole story.
From that same moment the Princess knew no rest: for all the tears of the kingdom, and for all her mother’s prayers, she must set out to find them; for she thought it no one’s fault but her own that her brothers were lost. She set aside her fine raiment, her jewels and gold, and clothed and shod like a peasant’s daughter, walked out into the wide world, so far and so long that you would not have thought the strongest man would have strength for it. One thing only she took with her from home, and that was the silver spoon by which she might hope to be recognized of her brothers.
A weary way she had of it, by lake and forest, bog and rocky hill; the brambles tore at her, and sometimes branches would whip her white face; but always she found the will to go on. And when her heart was tiredest there was always a bird that sang to her, or some small furry creature that ran with her for a mile or two, with a bark, a chirp, or a whistle. But one day, as she was walking through an endless wood, she felt so worn and weary that she must find some mossy tuft to rest on. No sooner had she lain down than she fell asleep, and while she slept she dreamed, and in her dream she saw how she walked deeper and deeper into the wood until she came to a little wooden but by a pond’s side, and in that but she found her brothers, not swans, but princes, just as they had been before their doom came upon them. And what was most wonderful of all, although she had never set eyes on them to know them, each face and voice and name was as familiar to her as if she had lived with them all their lives. With the pain and joy of that dream she awoke, and there before her she could espy a narrow worn path in the green moss, leading deeper and deeper into the wood. Rising to her feet, she followed it, and when she was near the end of her strength came to the little wooden but by the pond’s side, exactly as she had seen it in her dream.
She went inside the hut. There was no one at home, but about the hut stood twelve wooden beds and twelve wooden chairs, and there was a table of pine laid with twelve wooden dishes and twelve silver spoons, and each spoon so like her own that she could not tell them apart, except that these spoons were scratched and worn with long service. At the sight of them her heart sang in her breast for joy, and quickly she began to kindle the fire, and sweep the room, and make the beds, and cook the dinner, and in every way prepare for her brothers’ arrival. Then she ate her own dinner, and when she had finished she crept in under the youngest brother’s bed (she knew it was his because it was the shortest), and lay there waiting and hiding.
Hardly had she drawn back against the wall when there was a drumming and hammering in the air, and then the swish of great wings closing as the twelve wild swans came to rest at the threshold. And as each crossed the threshold and entered the hut, his swan shape fell from him, and he was a prince again.
‘Oh, how cosy and warm it is in here!’ they said. ‘God’s blessing on whoever kindled this good fire and cooked us this noble dinner.’
Without more words each Prince took up his silver spoon and was about to eat. But it was now that they noticed how, although each had taken his own, there was one other silver spoon lying on the table, so like their own that they could not tell it apart, except that this spoon was less scratched nor worn with long service.
‘Why,’ they exclaimed, ‘this must be our sister’s spoon. And if her spoon is so near, can she be far away?’
‘If it is her spoon, and she is here,’ said the eldest of them fiercely, ‘she deserves to die, and quickly, for all our sorrows sprang from her.’
‘Not so,’ the youngest brother reproved him. ‘Can she be blamed for what was doomed before she was born? No, if anyone is to blame, except the troll-woman, it is our own mother—and who among us would ever harm her?’
Well, one said one thing, and another another, and all the time the Princess was listening from under the bed, with her heart jumping now up, and it must be confessed, now down. Then they began to hunt for her both high and low; they combed the eaves and opened the cupboards, and when they had looked under eleven beds and were about to look under the twelfth, she thought it time to squeeze herself out and put all to the test.
‘It is certainly she!’ they cried. ‘For where is there hair of a blackness like hers, or flesh so white? While the two red spots in her cheeks are redder than blood-drops on snow.’ And while some, like the eldest brother, who was fierce and fair, vowed that she should die quickly, others, like the youngest brother, who was gentle and dark, swore that they should all lie dead themselves before harm came to a hair of her head.
‘Please, dear brothers,’ she managed to interrupt them at last, ‘don’t fight over me. I have been seeking you three whole years, and a weary way I’ve had of it, with boughs and nettles and brambles, to say nothing of spiders and bears. But as for taking my life, I would willingly give that twice over to make you free.’
These words of hers silenced their wrangling. When he looked closer and saw her bruises and weals, great shame entered the eldest brother’s heart, so that two red spots glowed in his cheeks, and though he was fair as his sister was dark, they looked so alike at that moment that all the rest of the brothers cried out for joy of it. ‘And if you will,’ they told her, ‘you are the one to set us free again.’
‘Only tell me,’ said the Princess, ‘and if it exists and can be found in air, on land, in water, freedom shall be yours, and all my love with it.’
‘This is the way of it,’ they instructed her. ‘You must pick thistledown in the place we will show you, and card it and spin it and weave it; and once it is ready you must make for us twelve suits of thistledown raiment; and all the while these suits are in the making you shall neither talk, nor laugh, nor weep. Do that, and we shall be freed. But fail, and we shall never enter mortal shape again.’
‘Gladly,’ promised Asa. ‘But is there a place in the world with thistledown enough for all those suits of raiment?’
‘There is,’ they assured her, ‘and it is nearer than you think.’
In the green dawn they took her with them to a great wide moor, the widest in the world, and from the length and breadth of this moor tall thistle-spears thrust upwards to the breeze, and from their heads floated such plenitude of down as Asa had never seen. It drifted like glistening gossamers, or rested on the air in shining silver clouds. Sometimes, where it lay on the rough ground, its tiny spines had pierced the dewdrops, and sometimes, high aloft, it hung shimmering shields of light athwart the sun‑ beams. Thus enclosed in light and haze they left her, and all day long, till the sun flung rosy streamers on the sky, she plucked and gathered thistledown as fast and hard as she could. And when she reached home, she at once set to work carding and spinning yarn from the down, and all the while in silence. Soon the great wings were throbbing overhead, and she heard the swish of their closing at the threshold, and there were her twelve fine brothers talking and laughing round about her, and eating from their silver spoons. And that was the way of it, till the days became months, and the seasons followed in their courses, and three years climbed to the present, then fell steeply into the past.
Then, one morning—and it was the very last morning she would need to pick down—who should come riding past but the young King who ruled that country, with foam-flecked horses and hounds and huntsmen gallant and gay, and from a distance he espied a black-haired Princess in an ivory gown imprisoned as it were in a trembling silver mesh. Or was she some lovely dragonfly thrusting her milky wings from a cocoon of crystal? Calling on his men, he rode towards her, and what with the sunshine, the bright air, and the thistledown, it was like riding through the shimmering waves of a tideless, silken sea.
‘Maiden,’ he cried, ‘I am the King of this country. Will you tell me your name?’ And when she stayed silent, with her eyes downcast, ‘Maiden,’ he said, ‘have no fear, I pray you. There is none here will do you harm.’
Still she was silent, but already such love of her had entered into the young King’s heart that he felt if she did not become his Queen he had rather die than live. Gently he went up to her, and gently he had his attendants set her on his own gay palfrey. At this Asa wrung her hands, pointing to the twelve bags in which she kept her work, and when the King saw how she wished to have them with her, he ordered his men to fetch them all back to the palace. Then he mounted behind her, and there was no more hunting that day. They turned the horses’ heads for the palace, and as they rode the King was so kind and wise and so handsome that the Princess lost all fear of him, though her love for her brothers and her determination neither to talk, to laugh, nor to weep, until their thistledown suits were completed and they were men among men again, remained constant as ever.
At the palace everyone was delighted when the King brought home so lovely a Princess, and when he announced that she should become his wife and their Queen their joy knew no bounds—everyone, that is, except the jealous old Queen his step-mother, who hated all things that were lovely and thought only of power.
‘This thing,’ she called her, ‘this thing you picked up on the moor—can’t you see that she is either a witch or a schemer? Why, she can neither talk, nor laugh, nor weep!’
‘There is a reason for everything,’ replied the King, ‘and one day it will be made known to us. Meantime I love her so well that my life depends on her loving me too.’
So marry her he did, despite all his step-mother’s warnings and curses, and for a year they lived in joy and glory, though Asa still kept silence and went on sewing at her thistledown suits. When the year was almost out Asa brought a son into the world, which made the old Queen more fiercely spiteful then ever. She sought for a plan, and the plan she found was this: at the blackest minute after midnight she sang a sleep-sleepy song for the household, and when the guards had yawned and drowsed and tumbled into slumber, she stole on her fox-feet into Asa’s bedroom, and snatched away her babe, and threw it into a pitful of snakes. Then she returned, and having cut the young Queen’s finger and smeared the blood over her mouth, she bustled off to the King. Soon the walls rang with her threats and accusations.
‘Wake up,’ she cried, ‘all men wake up and see what thing we have taken for Queen! She neither talks nor laughs nor weeps, and now she has eaten her own sweet child. Hang her, drown her, burn her, I say, and kill her for the witch that she is!’
‘Not so,’ said the young King. ‘There is a meaning here which will yet be made known to us.’ But his heart almost broke in two all the same.
‘Then let her deny it,’ said the cunning old Queen; but this, of course, was what she could not do, and a second year went by in just such silence as the first. The year was almost out when Asa had another son, which made the old Queen still more mad with spite and jealousy. Once more she sang a sleep-sleepy song and stole away the babe and threw it into the pitful of snakes; she smeared Asa’s mouth with blood from her finger, and once more the palace walls rang with her threats and imprecations. This time again the King’s heart almost broke in two with grief, but he would not have Asa put to death, though by now the people murmured against him, and there were many who thought he had married an evil witch. And all the while Asa kept silence and went on sewing at her thistledown suits, till at the end of the third year eleven were completed, and the twelfth almost so.
It was now when the year was almost out that she had a third child, this time a daughter as lovely as herself, of whom it might be seen from the very first that she would have hair as black, and flesh as white, and two spots in her cheeks as red as Asa her mother’s. But this child too the horrid old step-mother took and threw into a pitful of snakes, and smeared Asa’s mouth with blood from her cut finger, and raved and ranted in the name of justice that the mother should be put to death for eating her own sweet babe.
This time the King could not hold out against her, for the people were enraged, and Asa still kept silence and would not deny her guilt. But still she sewed at the twelfth thistledown suit, and even when she was cast into a black, wet dungeon, she wrung her hands so pitifully, and made such pleading gestures, that the suits of raiment were placed there beside her. A great pyre was built in the palace yard, and the cruel old step-mother saw to this herself, with many a pat and a stroke for the kindling and resin; and on this, in sight of all the kingdom, Asa should be burnt alive. Nor could the day be long delayed. Just before noon she was brought up out of the dungeon, and with her own fox-paw the step-mother set fire to the kindling. A dreadful blaze sprang up through the pyre, and in another minute they would have cast her upon it, when she made signs to them to take twelve boards and lay them round the fire, and on these she set down the thistledown suits, eleven complete, but one, the youngest brother’s, still wanting its left arm, where she had lacked time to finish it. The old Queen argued bitterly, but the King gave the order, and so it must be.
Then, high, high, high above them, they heard the beating of mighty wings, and when they looked up it was to see twelve white swans on glittering pinions piercing the smoky air. Their loud clanging call told of anger and triumph as with outstretched necks and bills more menacing than spears they drove downwards for the palace yard. The guards fell back in panic as they swooped upon the thistledown suits, and with a last fierce trumpeting carried them away in their sharp yellow beaks.
‘Quick, quick!’ cried the step-mother. ‘Burn her before the fire dies down. This proves she is more of a witch than ever!’
The guards moved towards Asa, but, ‘Not so,’ said the King. ‘There is more in this than we have yet seen.’ And he motioned his men back, and threw his arms about Asa, so that no one might hurt her. Hardly had he done so when there came a clatter of hoofs as twelve fine Princes rode into the palace yard, bright as bright in their thistledown suits, and handsome and shapely as mortal ever saw, except for the youngest, who had a wild swan’s wing where his left arm should be.
‘Speak, sister,’ they cried, from the eldest to the youngest. ‘You have saved your brothers; now save yourself.’
The cruel step-mother ran hurriedly away on her two fox-feet, and for the first time in all those silent years the Princess Asa spoke, and told the whole story of what had befallen: of the doom upon her brothers before she was born, and how they were changed into wild swans, and the weary way she had of it to find them, and of gathering the thistledown and making it into suits; and she told further how the cruel step-mother had stolen away her children by night, and smeared blood over her mouth that she might appear to have eaten them—and, plain to see, when she showed her little finger, there were the two faint scars and one little unhealed cut. Then the Princess took the King and led him to the snake-pit where his children had been thrown. Wondrous to relate, not a snake had so much as frothed at them, and when they were lifted out and given into their parents’ arms they were as good as new, or newer.
The next thing was for the King to speak with his step-mother. ‘Step-mother,’ he asked her, ‘what would be a good punishment for the woman who could find it in her black heart to betray an innocent young Queen and her three helpless babes?’
‘Why,’ said the step-mother, with a fine show of virtue, ‘if there were such a monster, she should be bound between twelve wild horses, and they be given a sharp lash, so that each might have his share of her.’
‘You have taken the words out of my mouth,’ vowed the King. And so it was, and that was the end of her.
But the King took Asa and their three children, and her twelve brothers too, and their joy and glory grew past all telling. Soon he escorted them home to their own country, where their mother the Queen was still alive and longing to see them. The Princes stayed there to keep her company, but Asa returned in triumph to her new kingdom, and you can be sure that all was joy and gladness, then and forever, because the Princess was saved and set free, and because her twelve fine brothers had been set free also.