There were once a king and queen who had lived happily together for many years. They had twelve children, but it so happened that all these children were boys. One day the king said to the queen, "If our next child should be a girl, all the boys must die, for I should like my daughter to be very rich and to inherit the whole of my kingdom." Hereupon he ordered twelve coffins to be made, and after a little pillow had been placed in each and they had all been filled with shavings, they were locked up in a room in the castle. Then the king gave the key to his wife, and told her on no account to say a word of this matter to anyone.
But the poor mother could do nothing but sit and grieve the whole day long, and seeing her so sorrowful, her youngest boy, whom she had named Benjamin after the little son in the Bible, and who always liked to be near his mother, went to her and said, " Dear mother, why are you so sad?"
" I may not tell you, dearest child," she answered.
The boy, however, gave her no peace with his questionings, until at last she rose and led him to the room in which the coffins were kept.
"Dearest Benjamin," she said, "your father had these coffins prepared for you and your brothers, for, if ever I have a little daughter, you are all to be killed and buried in them." She wept so bitterly as she told him this, that her son tried to comfort her, and said: " Do not weep, dear mother; we will go away from here, and I am sure we shall be able to look after ourselves." Then his mother bade him go with his brothers into the wood, and there find the highest tree ; " and let one of you," she continued, "be always at the top watching, for you must keep your eyes on the castle-tower. If I have a little son, I will put up a white flag, and then you will know that it is safe for you to return home; if 1 have a little daughter, I will put up a red flag, and then you must flee for your lives, and may God help and protect you. Every night 1 shall rise and pray for you; in winter, that you may not be without a fire to warm yourselves by; in summer, that you may be sheltered from the heat."
She then blessed them, and the boys went off to the wood, and kept watch in turn on the top of the highest oak-tree. The day came when it was Benjamin's turn to watch, and as he was looking towards the tower, he saw a flag put up. But, alas! it was no white flag, but a blood-red flag, warning them that the hour had come when their father's cruel sentence was to be carried out.
When the others heard this, they flew into a great rage, and exclaimed in their anger: "Are we to be put to death, just for the sake of a girl! but we will have our revenge! " So they swore one and all, that they would take the life of any girl who should cross their path.
They now thought it safer to go farther into the wood, and when they had made their way to where the trees were thickest and the shade deepest, they suddenly came upon a little empty house, that had been raised by the magic of some good or evil fairy.
"Oh!" they cried, "this is just the place for us to live in; you, Benjamin, as you are the youngest and weakest, must stay at home and keep house, while we go and look for provisions."
So the elder brothers went into the wood, and there they found plenty of game to shoot: wild deer, hares, pigeons and other birds, as well as many other things that were good for food. When they had finished their day's sport, they went home, and then it was Benjamin's turn to busy himself with preparing and cooking the food, and glad enough they were of a meal, for by this time they were all very hungry. In this way they lived on in the little house for ten years, and the time passed so quickly that the brothers never found it long.
Meanwhile, the little daughter who had been born at the castle, was growing up. She was good at heart and beautiful in face, and had a gold star on her forehead.
One day about this time, she happened to catch sight of twelve little shirts which were lying among some of her mother's things.
" Mother," she said, " to whom do those shirts belong? for they are too small for my father to wear."
It was with a heavy heart that the poor mother answered. " Those shirts, dear child, belong to your twelve brothers."
" My twelve brothers," cried the girl, " why I never even heard of them. Where are thev now ?"
" God alone knows," replied her mother, "but they are wandering somewhere about the world."
Then she took her little daughter to the room where the coffins were hidden, and unlocking the door, shewed them to her, and said, "These were meant for your brothers, but they ran away and escaped," and she related to her all that had happened before she was born.
"Dear mother," said the girl, "do not weep; I will go and try to find my brothers."
So she took the twelve shirts and started through the wood in search of them. On and on she went all through the day, and as the evening fell she came to the little house. She stepped in, and there she found a young boy, who looked with astonishment at this beautiful girl, who was dressed like a princess and had a gold star on her forehead. "Whence come you?" he asked, "and what are you seeking?"
"I am a king's daughter," she answered, "and I am seeking my twelve brothers ; and as far as the blue sky reaches overhead, will I wander till I find them," and she shewed him the twelve shirts. Then Benjamin knew that it was his sister. "I am Benjamin," he cried, " your youngest brother," and at this, they were both so overcome with delight, that they began to cry for joy, and kissed and embraced one another.
At last Benjamin said: "There is one thing that troubles me; my brothers and I were so angry at being driven out of our kingdom on account of a girl, that we made a vow to kill every girl whom we met."