The Twelve Brothers, Twelve Black Ravens

A Lithuanian fairy tale, this version is from Tales of The Amber Sea, compiled and translated by Irina Zheleznova in 1974.

There was once a lord whose wife died and left him twelve sons and one daughter.

A little time passed by and the lord decided to marry again. His choice fell on a woman who was a witch. Said she to him:

“If you want me to marry you you must kill your sons, burn their bodies, wrap the ashes in paper and send them to me. But you can spare your daughter.”

The lord thought this over but as he could not think what to do he told his servant all about it. Said the servant:

“Do not be grieved. You have many large dogs, so what you must do is burn twelve of them and send their ashes to your future wife. She’ll never know. And after you are married, even if she learns the truth nothing will happen to your sons.”

And that was just what the lord did. He killed and burnt twelve dogs, put their ashes in a packet, sealed it, and sent. it off to the witch.

The witch looked at the ashes, sniffed them and said that she would marry the lord.

After the wedding she came to the lord’s house and began to sniff and pry and snoop about. This she did for a long time and then she said:

“Where is this evil smell coming from? Let all who don’t belong in the house turn into black ravens and go flying out of here!”

Now, the twelve brothers were hiding in the cellar at the time and at her words they turned into black ravens and flew out of the window.

Only his daughter was left to the lord and she knew nothing about her brothers, for her father forbade his servants to so much as mention them.

One day when she was already twelve years old the servants got to talking among themselves in her presence.

“Did the late mistress have only one child?” asked one.

“Oh, no!” another replied. “She had twelve sons besides, but when the master married again, his wife, witch that she is, put a spell on them and turned them into black ravens.”

Hearing about it, the girl at once made ready to set out and seek her brothers. She made twelve shirts and twelve pairs of pants, twelve sheets and twelve pillow-cases, and, tying them into a bundle, set off on her way.

She crossed a field and she passed through a forest and she asked everyone she met if he or she had seen her brothers, the twelve black ravens.

Once, in a dense forest thicket, she came across a hermit.

“Have you seen my brothers, the twelve black ravens?” asked she.

“No,” the hermit replied. “But I rule over the heavens, so spend the night in my cabin and in the morning I will command the clouds to come down and ask them about it. They are sure to have seen them!”

On the following morning the hermit ordered all the clouds, white, grey and black, to come down to him, and when they did and had cloaked his cabin it became as dark inside as on the darkest night.

The hermit stepped out on to the threshold.

“Have you seen the Twelve Brothers, Twelve Black Ravens?” asked he.

“No, we haven’t,” the clouds, white, grey and black, replied, and, rising into the air, they went flying off in different directions.

Said the hermit to the girl:

“If you follow the forest path all day, by evening you will come across my brother. He is lord of all the winds and can ask them if they have seen your brothers.”

The girl did as he told her. All day long she followed the path that led through the thickest part of the forest and by evening came across the second hermit.

Walking up to him, she asked him if he had seen or heard of the Twelve Brothers, Twelve Black Ravens.

“I know nothing about them,” the hermit replied. “Spend the night in my cabin and in the morning I will summon all the winds, and if ever they have seen them they will tell you so.”

In the morning the hermit began calling the winds together, and lo! – they came flying up, blowing and howling and roaring as they flew. The hermit asked them about the twelve ravens but the winds replied that they had never seen or heard of them.

Said the hermit to the girl:

“If you follow the forest path all day, by evening you will come across my eldest brother. He is lord of all the birds and perhaps one of them has seen your brothers.”

The girl went on.

She followed the forest path all day, and by evening came across the third hermit who said to her just as had the other two before him:

“Spend the night in my cabin, and in the morning I will summon all the birds. If ever they have seen your brothers they will tell you so.”

In the morning the hermit began calling all the birds together, and lo! – there was a great flutter and beating of wings and the birds, big and small, came flying up to him.

The hermit came out to them and asked them about the twelve ravens but the birds replied that they had neither seen nor heard of them.

The hermit did not try to keep them there, so they soon took wing and flew away again.

All of a sudden as if out of thin air a lame eagle came flying up.

“Why didn’t you make haste and come at my call? ” the hermit roared at him. “Where have you been dawdling?”

“A hunter shot and lamed me,” the eagle replied. “I couldn’t fly any faster.”

“Come, tell me this,” the hermit said, “have you seen the Twelve Brothers, Twelve Black Ravens anywhere? ”

Said the eagle in reply:

“I have indeed. By day they fly around in the guise of black ravens and toward evening turn into brave and handsome lads and spend the night in a cave on the top of High Mountain.”

The hermit went into his cabin and came out again at once, bringing twelve pegs which he gave to the girl. He told her that she was to climb High Mountain and said that as she did so she was to drive the pegs into the ground one by one.

“Take care not to let the pegs slip out of your hands,” he warned, “for if you drop even one you’ll never make it to the top.”

And to the eagle he said:

“See to it that she doesn’t fall and kill herself.”

Off flew the eagle with the girl on his back and after a time they came to High Mountain, and so high was it that its peak pierced the clouds.

The girl began climbing the mountain and driving the pegs into the ground one after another as she climbed. She had all but reached the top, not half a verst being left to go, when one of the pegs suddenly slipped out of her hands. Seeing it drop, she stumbled and would have fallen had not the eagle who had been waiting for her on the mountain top caught her up. With the claws of his good leg he seized her by the bundle she was clutching and carried her off beyond the clouds. Carrying her up to a large cave, he let her down by the entrance and said:

“Your brothers come to this cave every evening. Go inside and you will see twelve beds. Spread your sheets on the beds and slip your pillow-cases on the pillows and put a shirt and a pair of pants on each bed. There is a bedstand with a loaf of bread on it beside each bed and you must cut off a slice from each loaf and eat it. The bed closest to the door belongs to your youngest brother. Crawl under it and spend the night there.”

With this the eagle flew away and the girl came into the cave. Everything in it was just as the eagle had told her. So she spread her sheets on the beds, slipped her pillow-cases on the pillows and put a shirt and a pair of pants on each bed. After that she cut a slice from each of the loaves and ate it and then crawled under her youngest brother’s bed.

Evening had only just set in when she heard the ravens cawing. Down they dropped to the ground, turned into brave and handsome lads and came into the cave.

Seeing the beds made ready for the night and .the shirts and pants lying there, they were overjoyed. They hastened to put on the new clothes and were about to sit down to their evening meal when they saw that a slice had been cut from each loaf.

Said the oldest of the brothers:

“It’s good that the beds have been made and the clothes prepared for us but it is not so good that some of our bread is missing. Oh, well, there is nothing to be done, we have to make the best of it! ”

The brothers went to bed, and in the morning as soon as they awoke turned into black ravens and flew away, cawing loudly.

The girl crawled out from her hiding-place, made up the beds, swept the floor, tidied up the cave and sat down to wait for her brothers. When evening came she again cut a slice from each loaf, ate it and crawled under the youngest brother’s bed.

Soon she heard the ravens cawing and the next moment her brothers came into the cave.

Said the oldest of the brothers:

“Look, brothers, more of our bread has been eaten! Perhaps someone who means to harm us has found his way here. I am not going to do anything about it today but if the same thing happens again tomorrow, then I’ll turn the whole mountain inside out but find the maldoer.”

The girl was frightened and began thinking what she should do.

Her brothers had been snoring away for a long time, but, hard as she tried, she could not get to sleep. She fought with herself for a time, but at last, unable to bear it longer, tugged at her youngest brother’s shirt sleeve.

“Who is there? ” cried he, starting awake.

And the girl whispered back:

“I am your little sister, my brother. I have made my way here and found you, but our eldest brother is in such a terrible temper that I don’t know what to do.”

Said the youngest brother:

“Go to sleep, and well see what we must do tomorrow. Morning is wiser than evening.”

In the morning the brothers rose and were about to go out when the youngest brother said to the eldest:

“You said you would turn the mountain inside out to find the one who eats up our bread. But if he should turn out to be someone close to us, someone like our little sister – what then?”

Said the oldest brother:

“I see that you know who is hiding here. So out with it, brother, and tell us who it is!”

After that there was nothing more to be said, so the youngest brother called:

“Come, little sister, let whatever is to be be. Climb out from under the bed and show yourself!”

The girl did as he told her and climbed out from under the bed.

Said the oldest of the brothers:

“Had you waited for us at home for another year, sister, we’d have come back to you. But now we will be parted for twelve years more and will only meet again if you chain your tongue and don’t utter a word in all the twelve years.”

And telling her to get on his back, he turned into a black raven, and his brothers with him, and off they flew!

They took the girl to a dense forest, put her on the top of a tall spruce-tree and bade her goodbye.

A long time passed, the clothes the girl had on tore to shreds and fell about her, and still she sat there and never stirred.

One day a prince and a group of huntsmen came to the forest on horseback. One of the dogs they had with them stopped by the tree in which sat the girl and began barking loudly. The prince and the huntsmen came galloping up and at once saw that someone was hiding in the tree. But though they called to him and asked who he was, he made no answer and stayed very still..

Said the prince to his servant:

“Climb the tree and get him down here and then we’ll see who it is!”

The servant began climbing the tree, but, seeing him, the girl glanced out and showed with a gesture that she had no clothes on. The servant then jumped down to the ground and told the prince that a pretty lass was sitting in the top of the tree but that she was quite naked.

The prince gave the servant some clothes and these the servant passed on to the girl who dressed herself and then climbed down from the tree. The prince was smitten at sight of her. He brought the girl home and told his parents that he wanted to marry her. The king and queen were loath to let the prince marry a mute, but the prince pleaded so hard that they finally gave their consent. And so it came about that the prince and the sister of the Twelve Brothers, Twelve Black Ravens were married.

Several years went by and a son was born to them, On that day the prince was away from home and his young wife was put in the care of her stepmother the witch. The witch threw the newborn baby away, put a pup in its place, and, showing it to all the courtiers, said:

“Just see what her child is like! ”

The king and queen were horrified and wrote to their son, telling him to come back at once and drive out his wife.

The prince came back, he looked at his wife and so sweet and beautiful did he think her that he refused to punish her.

On the following year a second son was born to them, and the prince being away again, his wife’s stepmother the witch threw out this baby, too, put a kitten in its place, and, showing it to all the courtiers, said:

“Just see what she has given birth to! ”

The king and queen were very angry and they wrote to their son who wrote back telling them to do nothing until his return.

The prince came back, and, seeing his wife, said:

“Mine is a good and a kind wife and I will not part with her. Let us wait and see what happens.”

Another year went by, and the prince was away again when his wife gave birth to their third son. The witch threw him away, too, and showed everyone a pup, saying that that was what the princess had given birth to. The king and queen wrote to their son asking him to return in all haste and decide what to do.

The prince came back and he was sorry for his wife but could think of no way of saving her.

“Do as you think fit!” said he to his parents.

The princess was tried and the judges said that she was a witch and condemned her to the stake.

A big fire was made up and the princess was led to it but all of a sudden it began to rain and the fire went out.

The king then ordered dry brushwood to be brought that the fire might be started anew.

Now, it was at that very moment that the twelve years since the girl had parted from her brothers the twelve black ravens were up. The fire had just been started when lo! – they came flying up and dropping to the ground one after another. The oldest of them turned into a brave and handsome man, and he came towards the people gathered near the stake, leading a three-year-old boy by the hand. The second turned into a brave and handsome man, and he came up leading a two-year-old boy by the hand. And behind them came the third brother carrying in his arms a newborn infant swathed in swaddling clothes.

All three came up to the fire and cried:

“What are you doing? Why would you put to death our own dear sister who has done nothing to deserve it? Better burn our stepmother the witch!”

And they explained that the witch had thrown out the newborn babies and that they had taken them away and brought them up. The princess, too, spoke up, saying that it was because of the love she bore her brothers that she had been silent for so many years.

At this all who were there rushed at the witch and cast her in the flames.

The king held a sumptuous feast to which he invited great numbers of people from far and near. I was there, too, and there was much that I saw and much that I had to eat and drink, but it all ran down my beard and not a drop got in my mouth.

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