There was once a prince who married a most beautiful princess, but he had not yet had time to feast his eyes on her to his heart's content or to have enough of talking to and listening to her when the time came for them to part, for he had to go on a far journey. What was to be done! You cannot spend your whole life with your arms round your beloved! The princess wept and sobbed, and the prince, who kept begging her not to, bade her, since he was leaving her with strangers, never to leave her chambers, to avoid the company of wicked people and to close her ears to wicked talk. This the princess promised to do, and as soon as the prince had gone, she locked herself in her chamber and refused to leave it. Whether a short or a long time passed nobody knows, but one day a woman, who seemed a simple and kindly soul enough, came to see the princess. "Why should you eat your heart out!" said she. "Why don't you at least go out for a walk in the garden and have a breath of fresh air? It might help you drive your sorrow away." At first the princess would not hear of it, but then, telling herself that a walk in the garden could do her no harm, she went outside. Now, in the garden was a stream with the freshest, clearest spring water ever seen. "It's very hot today," the woman said, "and the water is nice and cool. So why don't you take a dip?" "No, no, I can't do that!" the princess said, but then, telling herself that a bathe could do her no harm, she took off her gown and stepped into the water. And the woman at once struck her on the back, and saying "Be a white duck and swim in the water!", turned her into a white duck. After that the witch, for that was what the woman was, took the princess's shape, put on the princess's gown, combed her hair, painted her cheeks and brows and sat down to wait for the prince. By and by a pup yelped, a bell tinkled, and there was the prince at the gate! The witch rushed out to meet him, she embraced and kissed him, and the prince, who was overcome with joy, pressed her to his heart and never knew her for what she was.
And as for the white duck, she laid three eggs, and out of them three babies were hatched, three boys, two of them fine, sturdy little lads, and the third, a tiny little thing. Their mother took good care of them and they grew quickly and were soon splashing about and catching fish, which now became their favourite dish, jumping out on the bank for a look at the lea, a place which they found very pleasant to see, and were nothing loath to make shirts of cloth. "Don't go far, children!" the mother said. But the three boys would not listen to her and with each
passing day went farther away. One day they wandered even farther away than usual and found themselves in the prince's courtyard. The witch knew at once who they were and gnashed her teeth in anger. She got them to come inside, gave them food and drink and put them to bed, and then ordered fires to be kindled, kettles to be hung and knives sharpened. The two bigger lads lay down and fell fast asleep, but the third, the tiny one, whom one or the other of them kept always in his bosom lest he catch cold, did not sleep and saw and heard everything. In the middle of the night the witch came to the door of their chamber and called: "Are you asleep, my little ones?" And Tiny called back:
"We cannot sleep for the thoughts that chill us; We dare not sleep, for they mean to kill us— Fires are being kindled,
Kettles are being hung,
Knives are being sharpened!"
"They're not asleep!" the witch told herself. She went away, took a walk and then came back to the door of their chamber again. "Are you asleep, my little ones?" she called. But Tiny called back again:
"We cannot sleep for the thoughts that chill us;
We dare not sleep, for they mean to kill us;
Fires are being kindled,
Kettles are being hung, Knives are being sharpened!"
"Why is it that one and the same voice answers me?" thought the witch. She opened the door quietly, and, seeing that the two brothers were sound asleep, passed a dead man's hand cut off at the wirst over them so that they might never wake.
In the morning the white duck called to her children, but they did not reply, and her heart told her that evil had befallen them. She flew to the prince's courtyard, and there were her sons, their faces white as snow and their bodies cold as ice, lying side by side. She rushed to them, her wings outspread, and called out in a human voice:
"Quack-quack, my sons, "Quack-quack, my beloved ones, In want I reared you,
With tears I suckled you,
You slept—I lay sleepless,
You ate—I went hungry."
"Did you ever hear the like, Wife?" the prince asked. "The duck is speaking in a human voice." "It only seems so to you," the witch told him. "Ho there, all! Drive the duck out of the yard!" The servants chased the duck away, but it flew round and round and dropped down beside her children again.
"Quack-quack, my sons, Quack-quack, my beloved ones!"
she called again.
"The witch it was that put you to sleep, The witch it was with her wicked ways, For a snake is she and a deadly one... From you she took your father own,
Your father own and my own dear spouse; She drowned us all in the river swift,
She turned us all into white-winged ducks, And herself she lives like a princess true!"
"Ah, so that is the truth of it!" said the prince, and he called to his servants telling them to catch the duck. They rushed to do his bidding, but the duck flew round and round and would not be caught. But when the prince went after her himself she came down of her own free will and dropped into his hands. He took her by the wing and said: "Rise behind me, a white birch! Stand before me, a fair maid!"
And lo!—a white birch rose behind him and a fair maid stood in front of him, and she was none other but his own dear wife.
They then caught a magpie, and, tying two phials to its wings, bade it fill one with living water and the other with talking water.
Away flew the magpie and was soon back with the living and the talking water. They sprinkled their sons with the living water, and the lads started and came back to life; they sprinkled them with the talking water, and they began talking and laughing.
And so now the prince had his whole family with him, and they never had cause to shed a tear and prospered the more from year to year. Never more to return was the evil past, and they could be happy together at last.
And as for the witch, she was tied to a horse's tail and the horse sent across a field. Where the witch's leg came off, there a poker appeared; where her arm was severed, there lay a rake; where her head rolled down, there a burdock grew up. The birds came flying up, and they pecked the flesh; the winds swept up, and they bore off the bones. And nothing was left of the wicked witch, neither trace nor word nor memory.