Once upon a time, there was a king whose queen had died after giving birth to their seventh child. While the king mourned his wife, he was full of love for his children, especially his only daughter. So strong was his love that he could never bear to be without all of them at once. One sibling had to stay with their father at all times.
The six princes cared deeply for their father and did not want to cause him distress. When the time came that the eldest was old enough to go see the world and find a wife, he said to the brother closest to him in age, “Our father does not like it when one of us leaves. I will wait another year. Then, if we ride out together, he will only have to feel the pain of our absence for a short time.”
A year went by, and the second brother came of age. He was eager to explore the world, but he also loved his father deeply. After a sleepless night, he sought out the eldest brother and told him, “You have waited for a year already, and I long to see the world, but maybe we should wait until the third prince in line is ready.”
Two years went by, and the third brother came of age. Like his brothers before him, he felt ready to take on the world, but while he knew it would become necessary one day, he was not ready to cause his father pain. He also knew of the arrangement that his elder brothers had made, and he thought of the decision his younger brother might make after him. The third prince gathered all his brothers and suggested to them, “Brothers, waiting will be hard on us, but not as hard as it will be on the king our father to see us go. Let us make a pact to wait until our youngest brother is ready. If we all set out together then, we will sure be quick to find our future queens. The king will hardly know we’re gone, and our sister will be here to stay with him.” And so it was agreed.
Meanwhile, the king’s only daughter had come of age, for she, not her brother the third prince, was the third child in line. However, there had been no talk about her braving the world in search of a husband, for princesses had suitors coming to them.
Many suitors came. Princes from neighboring lands and lands far, far away came to speak their case in front of the king. The king listened to them kindly, for he was a good king and did not want to affront neighboring kings and their sons. Yet whenever a man asked for the princess’ hand, he was firmly, but perfectly politely, sent away again. It did not matter how much the king liked any of the potential suitors, he could not picture them with his daughter. Simply, none was good enough.
The young princess was glad of it. She had spoken to each of the foreign princes vying for her heart at length. Some of them had been perfectly likeable, and she’d encouraged those to become friends with her brothers. Yet the feeling of deep affection that her brothers dreamed about inspiring in the princesses they would one day bring home never came. “I would not want to be a lesser wife to my future king than my sisters-in-law to my brothers,” she said, and felt deep affection of a different kind when her brothers agreed.
Eventually, the time came that the sixth prince came of age. With guilty but determined expressions on their faces, the brothers stood before their father the king and said, “Father, it is time. We have waited for seven years to make this easier on you, but we must now go out into the world to find six princesses who will be our wives.”
The king, conscious of the sacrifice his older sons had made for his sake, steeled himself and gave them his blessing. As he watched them mount their horses and ride away from the castle, he held onto his daughter’s hand. When he could no longer see them, he sent the servants away and collapsed in her arms, weeping.
In the following weeks, the princess did her best to be happy and distract her father until such a time that her brothers would return. They had promised her that they would not stay away for long. But the months went by, and the king’s wane smile faded. When seven months had passed and there had been no word in all that time, the princess’ laughter could no longer be heard.
The princess wrote to her rejected suitors and asked if they knew what had happened to her brothers, their friends. Feeling friendly toward her even though she had rejected them, they wrote that the brothers had visited and left their kingdoms, sometimes with one of the princes taking with him a cousin, a sister – or, in one case, a miller’s daughter – as his young wife. “Father, they have done what they set out to do, soon they will return to us!” the princess told her father. But however long they stood on the highest tower and looked out over their land, there was no sign of the princes’ return.
Finally, the princess came to a difficult conclusion. “None of the search parties have found any trace of my brothers after the sixth princes’ wedding and departure,” she said to herself. “My father the king will never be happy again without knowing what has happened to them, and neither will I. If no one else can find them, I shall have to go and search for them myself.”
The king would never let her go, lest he lose his one remaining child. With a heavy heart, the princess waited until nightfall before she went into her youngest brother’s room, for his clothes were better suited for travel than her own wavy gowns. Then she snuck into the kitchen and ate the hearty meal that the king had not touched that day. She packed as much of the rest as would fit into her bag, for she did not know for how long she would be away. Crying in despair over the pain her father would feel when he discovered her gone, she took her horse’s reins and led it out of the stable. One of the lads woke and saw her, but he dared not breathe a word.
When she had ridden for a day, she came upon a raven that lay on the wayside. It flapped its wings but could not fly, for it was too hungry.
“Lovely maiden, I beg you, give me some food! If you only share with me a little, I, too, shall help you in your hour of need!”
“I must ration what I have with me for myself,” said the princess, “and you do not look as if you could be of much help to me. But my search for my brothers is no reason for you to die.” And she fed the raven some of the bread she had with her.
When she had ridden another day, she stopped at a little stream to refresh herself. A large salmon lay there who had gotten all the way up to dry land. It turned and tossed, but it could not reach the water.
“Lovely maiden, I beg you, help me back into the stream! If only you return me to the water, I, too, shall help you in your hour of need!”
“I cannot see what help you could give me,” said the princess. “But it would be cruel of me to leave you to dry out.” And she pushed the salmon back into the stream.
When she had ridden for three days, she met a wolf. It was so hungry that it lay and writhed by the wayside.
“Lovely maiden, I beg you, please to let me have your horse!” croaked the wolf. “I am so hungry that my guts are wheezing, for I haven’t had an ounce of food in two years.”
“I doubt that, and anyway, I can’t,” said the princess. “You see, I met a raven with whom I shared my food. Then I met a salmon who I helped into the water. And now you want my horse – the two that came before you I could help, but if you eat my horse, I’ll have no beast to ride on!”
“You must help me, lovely maiden,” pleaded the wolf. “You can ride on my back, and I shall help you in your hour of need.”
“You will not be of much help to me,” predicted the princess darkly, “but take the horse, then, if you’re that badly off.”
When the wolf had eaten the horse, the princess put saddle and bridle on it. The wolf had become so strong from eating the whole horse that it took off on a run with the princess on its back as if she weighed nothing at all. Never in her life had the princess ridden as fast as she was riding now.
“There is something I must show you, once we have travelled a little longer,” said the wolf. True to its word, they came across twelve statues, and the wolf stopped in front of them and told the princess, “Behold your brothers and their six brides.”
The princess slipped off the wolf’s back and looked upon the figures of stone, so like her brothers that it could be none but them, and the women who must be their future queens. “What happened to them?” she asked.
“Inside this mountain is a troll’s castle,” said the wolf. “The troll living there must have turned them into stone. If you wish to help them, you must go through that door.”
The princess wanted nothing more than help her brothers, but she had always thought of herself as reasonable, so she asked, “Of what use will I be to my brothers if I just get turned into stone myself, or killed?”
“Don’t worry,” said the wolf. “Inside the castle dwells the lost daughter of this land's late king. She has no love for the troll, I can tell you. Surely together you’ll find a way to end the troll instead. Go inside, and listen to what she has to say.” Her heart in her throat, the princess followed his advice.
Gaining entrance was not difficult at all. The princess tread softly as she slipped through the gate, wary both of discovery and of traps. No troll came upon her, no traps opened the ground under her, but when she had searched half the castle, the princess she was looking for discovered her.
“Lovely maiden,” an enchanting voice called out to her. When the princess turned around, the voice was matched by a young woman of such beauty that the princess could not think of any creature or flower that would compare. “I beg you, run out of here as fast as you can. This castle belongs to a troll, and if he sees you, he will kill you, turn you into stone, or make you live with him like he has me. He cannot be defeated, for he carries not his heart in his chest.”
“It’s a risk I must take,” said the princess, though her own heart was hammering wildly with dread. “He has turned my brothers and their brides into statues of stones outside the mountain. I must free them, and you, if I can.”
“The princes tried to rescue me,” warned the captive princess desperately, “they found me in here and together with their brides sought to take me away; the troll came upon us just as we made it outside, he was so angry, and his rage grew only greater when he sensed that the princesses were spoken for. If you have not found a prince of your own, you will almost certainly share my fate.”
The other’s fear for her shook the princess to the core. “If it comes to that, it comes to that,” she said, swallowing hard. “If I leave without trying, I will never be able to live with myself.”
The captive princess was crestfallen that the intruder would not be swayed. Before she could try once more, they were interrupted by the heavy sound of the troll’s footsteps. The travelling princess just barely managed to hide under the bed.
“Ho, it smells like maiden in here!” exclaimed the troll.
“It was I,” said the captive princess valiantly, “While you were out in the woods, I remembered how you turned those villains into stone because you could not bear to part from me.”
The troll grunted and, accepting her story, stole a kiss.
When they parted, the captive princess said: “There is something I would ask you about, beloved, if only I dared.”
“What would that be,” asked the troll.
“The heart that beats for me with such force that our enemies stand cursed – where is it, since it is not in your chest?” Under the bed, the travelling princess held her breath. Never had she met a creature so brave.
“That is none of your concern, but I keep it in a gold casket under the threshold,” answered the troll.
Now, that sounded like a reasonable place for a troll to keep its heart if not in its chest, but the hidden princess had grown up with six brothers. Seeing that the troll had its back to the bed, she cautiously stuck out a finger so that the other might be aware.
“I cannot believe that, beloved, for the door sill seems hardly good enough for a heart such as yours. To think, our feet would be constantly walking over it!” cried the captive princess. Under the bed, the hidden princess smiled.
“You flatter me,” said the troll, “and rightly so, for I have long kept my heart in that wardrobe over there.”
The hidden princess’ finger appeared from under the bed once more.
“Oh,” gasped the captive princess , “I saw one of the villains pick the lock in search for treasure! What relief, beloved, that he did not find it!”
This image appeared too much for the troll. “Nobody will find my heart!” it roared.
“Are you completely, absolutely certain,” asked the captive princess. “You must know that you are my world, I could not bear it if someone were to find it.”
Hearing that, the troll could not keep the secret any longer. “In a lake far, far away, there is an isle,” it said. “On that isle there is a church, in that church there is a well, in that well, there swims a duck, inside that duck is an egg, and in that egg – that is the place where I keep my heart.”
The captive princess professed her joy at finally knowing where her beloved’s heart was. Under the bed, the travelling princess started to wonder just where this isle might be and how she might get there. She mulled over this the whole evening and most of the night, long after the troll had taken the captive princess to his bed.
Before dawn broke on the morrow, the troll went back out into the woods. “I should go then,” said the travelling princess to the captive princess, as they talked over what the troll had revealed and agreed that inquiring where the isle might be be found would be far too perilous.
“May luck smile on your journey,” said the captive princess, gave her some food for the journey and embraced her.
When the travelling princess crept out of the mountain, the wolf stood there waiting. She related to him all that had happened inside the troll’s castle, and that she would now endeavor to find the well inside the church, though she did not know where the isle might be.
“I brought you to this castle, I will find the place for you,” promised the wolf. “Sit on my back, lovely maiden.” And off they went quick as the wind, over hills and valleys, over creeks and mountains
When they had searched for three days, they finally came upon the right lake. It was very deep and so wide that even though her father the king had taught all his children to swim, the princess wondered how she could possibly cross it. “Be not afraid,” said the wolf, and set out and swam to the isle with the princess astride its back.
Once there, it was not difficult to find the church. But the key hung high, high up in the tower, and even though she had taught her youngest brother to climb the castle walls, she did not know how she could possibly reach it. “You must call for the raven,” said the wolf, and the princess did so. Soon the raven came and fetched the key.
Inside the church, the princess found the well. There the duck paddled back and forth, just like the troll had foretold. The princess took out a loaf of bread her friend had given her. The duck swiftly swam over to beg for a bite, but when the princess grabbed it, it startled so badly that it laid the egg. The egg quickly sank deep into the well.
“Would the salmon hear me if I called, do you think?” the princess asked the wolf, already thinking where she might find enough rope to go down into the well herself.
“It promised to help you in times of need, it had better,” said the wolf. Before it had finished speaking, the salmon appeared in the well and dove down to retrieve the egg.
Now that she had the egg in her hand, the princess was in two minds what she should do. She had tried to forget what she had seen and heard inside the castle as she had lain under the bed, but now that she held the troll’s heart in her palm, she felt such rage that she wanted to stand there and squeeze the life out of it for days. The more quickly she killed the troll, however, the more quickly her brothers and their brides and the captive princess would be free.
As soon as she tightened her grip around the egg, the troll screamed a scream that could be heard throughout the kingdoms.
“Again,” said the wolf. When the princess complied, the troll whimpered and begged for its life. It would do anything the princess wanted if only she did not squeeze its heart in two.
“You might keep your life, if you release my six brothers that you have turned into stone. My sisters-in-law as well,” said the princess.
These were terms the troll eagerly agreed to. Had its captive princess not all but said she wanted to stay in its castle? It turned the twelve statues into six princes and six queens-to-be. But when it had done so, it realized that the travelling princess still held its heart in her hand. “Lovely maiden, will you not let me live, now that I have done as you asked?”
“If the princess you hold captive speaks for you,” the princess conceded.
But the captive princess’ face was as hard as her prison’s stone. It dawned on the troll that she had no reason to love it at all. It could not think of a worthy plea, and she kept silent.
When no words of absolution were spoken, the princess squeezed the heart inside the egg with all her might, and the troll burst into pieces.
The return to the troll’s castle took little time at all. By the time the wolf delivered the well-travelled princess to the mountain, the freed princess had led the six princes and their brides to the troll’s silver vault and distributed the wealth to the villages the troll had long held in terror.
One of the queens-to-be had gifted the freed princess a gown, for she wanted nothing that the troll had given her. There were tears of grief and hope in her eyes as she watched her rescuer reunite with her brothers.
Back in the kingdom the king no longer climbed the highest tower, for he no longer believed he would ever see his children again. But the lad who had watched the princess sneak out of the stable had faith, and so it was that he saw the party of six princes and six queens-to be on horseback and two princesses riding a wolf. The king had thought he no longer had any tears. When the lad called out, he wept with joy.
“What a gift you have brought me,” he said to his daughter; “my sons, what lovely wives you have brought!” He greeted them all in turn and welcomed them to his kingdom. When he came to the princess that had been held captive by the troll, he promised her eternal safety for as long as she wished to stay. He professed his sorrow that he had no seventh son to marry her to. “I would offer you my own hand if I believed such an offer would be welcomed,” he said.
When the well-travelled princess heard her father’s words, she felt surprise by the wish welling up inside her that the freed princess never marry anyone. She could not explain this wish to herself. The freed princess was free, free to set out to find a prince among those she herself had rejected or, if not a prince, another good man.
The freed princess, meanwhile, knelt in front of the king. “I thank you for your kindness, and for all that your family has done for me. Now that I am free of the troll, I only have one wish, and strange though it may be, I hope your Highness will fulfill it. I wish for the hand of the lovely maiden that rescued me.”
The king and the princes and the queens-to-be and the stable lad and all the court were amazed. The travelling princess gripped the fur of her faithful wolf with the strength that had splintered the troll’s heart.
When the king had had a few moments to think it over, he found that he was very pleased with the freed princess’ proposition. For seven years he had sought a prince or even a worthy commoner for his daughter and deemed none good enough. “It will kill several birds with one stone,” spoke the king, and the princes, who knew their sister as she knew them, whooped with joy.
The queens-to-be had already married the princes in their fathers’ kingdoms and in one case, in the kingdom that held her father’s mill. Upon the freed princess’ wish, the two princesses were given to each other in private. But there was a feast where the princes presented their brides to the kingdom, and the well-travelled princess and the freed princess stood alongside them.
And they lived happily ever after.
In time, the six queens gave the princesses so many nieces and nephews they could hardly count them. The old king was never alone again.