There was once a king who loved hunting, and therefore every day would go hunting from dawn to noon. There were but two things he loved more than hunting: his dear children, and the memory of his beloved wife, who had died long ago.
One day he went farther and deeper into the forest than he ever had before, and when he lost track of the wild boar he was chasing and raised his head he realized that he was utterly lost. He wandered for hours in the woods but found neither path nor feature of the land that he recognized. Soon, the sun was setting, and he resigned himself to die in the green maze.
When suddenly he saw a crone walking towards him. He had no knowledge of anyone living so deep in the forest, and therefore knew her as a witch.
"Are you lost, little King?" asked the old woman. "Did you stray too far from your path?"
"I am lost, and I fear that I will not see my kingdom again if you do not help me."
"I will help you, but there is one condition, and if you do not accept it you will never see your castle again."
"What is your condition?"
"I have a daughter. I want you to take her on your horse and marry her as soon as you reach your castle. You need not worry, she is very beautiful and will give you every satisfaction."
"Would you stop falling asleep on my shoulder? It was hard enough finding a decent carriage at this time of year, I'd like to enjoy the ride and not have you drool all over my magnificent fur coat!"
There was an awkward silence, only broken by the whistling of the harsh wind.
"Dorothea, is something wrong?"
"Then why aren't you groveling at my feet begging me to insult you some more?"
Dorothea, gazing outside, didn't even answer.
"Why are you looking outside? It's just snow, snow, and then more snow! Surely I'm more interesting than frozen rain?"
"Of course you are, Ludwig."
But she didn't look his way. Which was driving Ludwig mad. Not that he cared if she looked at him or not, of course he didn't! But not being the centre of attention when he had put so much effort into his appearance was outrageous.
He didn't push the matter further, though. She really seemed lost in thought, and it was rare enough for her to be quiet. Instead he started drawing hypotheses to explain her silence. She certainly wasn't in love. First, she was in love with him, and second, he really couldn't picture a lovelorn Dorothea. The idea was just terrifying. The only other option was reminiscing. But why now and not before? The past few days, it had already been snowing, the landscape was the same, and she had been her clingy self well enough.
"All right, would you stop looking like that?"
She raised her head and stared at him apathetically.
"Looking like what?"
"Like you're going to die in the next hour? It's worrying."
She didn't react much (which was even more disturbing), barely raising an eyebrow.
"By worrying, I mean that you look like you've caught some kind of illness. Did you get the plague from the rats when we met that piper? I don't want to catch it from you."
"Hm. No. I'm not ill. Just... thinking."
"Well, you should think more often. At least you're being quiet."
Neither of them said anything for a while, until Ludwig grew bored of admiring his own nails and drawing a list of everything that was wrong with the carriage.
"Have you been here before, then?"
Dorothea startled out of her reverie.
"No! Of course not!"
She smiled, but uneasily, and she was not convincing in the least.
"You have, haven't you?"
"It was a long time ago."
"What's it to you?"
"Nothing, I just like bothering you. How long?"
After a long time spent pestering her, he finally obtained his answer.
"I left here about six years ago."
Ludwig was about to bother her for some more information about her past when the carriage came to a halt. A few minutes afterwards, Wilhelm, frozen to the core, announced them through chattering teeth that a tree was blocking the road, and that it wouldn't be moved before the next day.
"Well, you'd better find us some place to stay," Ludwig said after much grumbling. "And make that quick."
The witch's daughter was very beautiful indeed, so beatiful that no other could compare, but the King was weary of her. As he feared for his children's lives, he hid them deep into the forest, through a way he knew only thanks to an enchanted reel of thread that magically unwound before him to show him the path.
But he went to his children so often that the Queen started suspecting something. She paid the King's servant, who told her everything she wanted to know. When the King went off in the morning to see his children, she would sew shirts, one for each child, and into the seams she would put an enchantment. And in the afternoon, when the King was in his castle, tending to the kingdom, she would search everywhere for the reel.
The only house Wilhelm found in the vincinity that matched Ludwig's demands (i.e: somewhere warm, with edible food and one or several pretty girls) was a small house on the edge of the forest. Inside lived a beautiful young woman, lonely and silent. She didn't speak, although Wilhelm wasn't sure whether she was dumb or just disliked talking.
"Good enough" was the only comment the prince made.
As Wilhelm led them to the house, Dorothea's frown deepened, until she came to a halt on the threshold.
"If it's not safe to go inside," sighed Ludwig, "you'd better tell me now, don't you think?"
"It's safe for you, but I won't go inside. I'll sleep in the carriage."
"So you have been here before. What did you do this time?"
Dorothea frowned some more, but didn't answer, fading into the shadows instead. He shrugged and went inside.
Not only did the young woman who welcomed him not speak, but nor did she smile or frown. She didn't even stay with him and Wilhelm while they were eating, instead she went back to sewing. She had five shirts done, and a sixth one missing only the sleeves. The fabric had something strange to it, a shimmering that suggested that those were no ordinary clothes, although they looked plain enough. Ludwig looked at her sewing attentively.
"Who are you sewing those for? Not for yourself, they're men's shirts. And what is so important about them that you can't stop even to welcome your guests properly?"
She looked at him wearily and simply shook her head.
When finally the Queen found the reel, she headed to the hidden place in the woods, her figure wrapped in a dark cape. And when she arrived there, the children saw a figure and believed it to be their father. Overjoyed, the sons went out one by one, and every time one would go out, the Queen would throw a shirt at them, and each of them turned into swans who flew off in the sky.
The girl, who had stayed inside, saw only the shirts and her brothers turned into swans, but not who had done it. She went outside, but saw no one there, only a few scattered feathers.
When her father the King came to see her as he did every day, he was distressed by what his daughter told him, but did not even think to suspect the Queen. Afraid that the same would happen to his last remaining child, the King decided to take her to his castle, but because she was scared of the Queen, she insisted to remain there one more night in the hidden place in the forest.
And as soon as the sun set, the girl left to look for her lost brothers.
"I've decided to take you away to my kingdom and make you my bride," Ludwig announced the following morning at breakfast. "You're intriguing, you're quiet, and you're pretty. It's good enough for me."
"Prince!" Wilhelm exclaimed. "Don't you think you should ask her, before you make such a decision?"
But when he turned to the silent girl, she simply shrugged and looked indifferent.
"I think that's settled, don't you, Wilhelm?"
"Shut up and help her pack, will you?"
Packing was fast: she only took with her the six shirts, and nothing else. But she clung to those shirts as though her life depended on it, as though they were children and not just a bundle of fabric and stitches.
And so they left, now that the road was cleared. But as they were leaving, a bird's cry rang out in the sky above them. The girl grabbed the shirts, opened the carriage window and poked her head out. In the sky were six swans circling, whiter than snow. As they were going down as if they were landing, the girl threw at each of them a shirt, and as each shirt touched each swan, they turned into men. One of the shirts had its left sleeve missing, and so when the swan turned to a man, his left arm remained a swan's wing.
The carriage stopped, and she got out as soon as she could. Tears welled up in the girl's eyes, but she was smiling, and so were the six men now standing on the side of the road. She flung herself into their arms.
"Oh, my brothers, I'm so happy to see you again! I never thought I would!"
They were all laughing and embracing each other, when suddenly the six brothers froze and all joy died on their faces.
"You!" cried the eldest brother, pointing with his swan's wing at Dorothea who had just appeared out of the carriage. "Witch! You did this to us! What will you do, curse us again, now that we can speak freely of what you did to us?"
"Shut up, you hypocrite," said Dorothea, glaring at him. "You know perfectly well I didn't do anything you didn't force me to do."
"Liar!" the man said as he drew his sword.
"I'm not lying, and you know it. You and your brothers attacked me, out of jealousy no less!"
She turned to the girl.
"Your brothers were convinced I'd cast a spell on your father, so they decided to kill me. They left you there and followed their father when he was going back to the palace. Then they sneaked into my rooms and attacked me. They were idiots, but they were six against me, I had to defend myself. I didn't think they were worth killing, it's always so much trouble, so instead I cursed them."
"Liar!" said the girl's brother again.
"You call me a liar? Let me see you look at your sister in the eye and tell her your version of the story is the truth, then. Why else did you have a sword when you changed back from swan to man, if you didn't have it six years ago?"
"I'll kill you, witch!"
Ludwig interrupted them in the most surprising way possible. He went close to Dorothea, and put an arm around her waist, pulling her closer. The witch blushed at an astonishing speed.
"You're princes, the six of you, aren't you?"
"We are, but this is none of your business. Step aside, or I'll kill you too!"
"I'm a prince too, you see. I live in a kingdom southeast of here, it's not far away. My name's Ludwig. Perhaps you've heard of my mother, Queen Almaberga?"
Ludwig smirked as a heavy silence fell in the assembly.
"You see, Dorothea is my witch," he purred. "She's annoying, clingy, and flat as a board, I'll grant you that, but she's mine. I'm sure you wouldn't want to trigger a diplomatic incident by killing her. There's no doubt that my mother would retaliate..."
The prince with a swan's wing stood silent for a few seconds, sighed, and sheathed his sword again.
"Get out of my sight before I change my mind," he growled.
"Until we meet again, then, prince."
As he was saying this, Ludwig bowed. He then climbed into the carriage, followed by Dorothea, who was still flustered, but didn't forget to turn around to stick out her tongue to the princes. The carriage started up again, and soon disappeared from the siblings' sight.
Dorothea gazed at the window one last time as they were entering the forest.
"Don't start being melancholic again," grumbled Ludwig half-heartedly, "you're even more boring than usual. So, did they really try to kill you?"
"Yes, they were convinced I'd bewitched their father! The truth is, I didn't even have to."
Ludwig raised dubious eyebrows.
"Apparently, I reminded him of his previous wife. He was nice, though. Of course, he was a complete idiot to think I'd even care that he already had children... I didn't even care about him that much. I didn't plan to stay longer than a few weeks, really, but..."
"But he gave you gold?" Ludwig offered.
"Heaps and heaps of gold. Even you wouldn't believe it. It was a nice change, getting money without having to do anything..."
"As opposed to getting money for botched witchcraft experiments?"
"You're always so harsh, Ludwig..." Dorothea whispered ecstatically.
There was a moment's silence between the two of them.
"What is it?"
"Why did you put your life at risk for me? I don't think he'd have spared you if you'd been in his way. I would have done just fine by myself."
"I told you, you're my witch. Maybe someday you'll come in handy, instead of getting us into trouble. Plus, now you're indebted to me again, that's always useful, and..."
She smiled as Ludwig was spouting more of his excuses to keep her around. Maybe it wasn't exactly what whe was wishing for, but it was close enough, she decided.