Once, long ago, a woodcutter and his wife lived in a cottage by the edge of the wood with two young children, a daughter and a son. The couple was very poor, and there was barely enough food to keep body and soul together from year to year. One winter, a fierce snowstorm came up, cutting the woodcutter's cottage off from the road that led to the town. The woodcutter could no longer sell his wood, and so the couple's meager store of food dwindled.
One day, the woodcutter said to his wife:
"Wife, I am hungry and sick to death of porridge. Go and kill the chickens and we will feast."
"But husband," the wife protested, "if we kill the chickens, we will feast tonight and fast tomorrow, for there will be no eggs for ourselves and our little babes."
"Enough!" roared the woodcutter. "Do as I say, or I will cut off your feet with my axe!"
So the woodcutter's wife, fearing for her life, did as she was told, and wrung the chickens' necks and cooked them, and placed them on the table before her husband. But when she went to take a piece of chicken for herself, the woodcutter threw her a chicken bone, saying, "Faithless wife! This is all you deserve for your disobedience!"
In seven days, the woodcutter had eaten all of the chickens. But the woodcutter's wife had saved the pot liquor for herself and her babies, and so they did not starve.
When the chickens were gone, the woodcutter said to his wife:
"Wife, I am hungry and sick to death of chicken. Go and kill the cow and we will feast."
"But husband," the wife answered, "if we kill the cow we will feast tonight and fast tomorrow, for there will be no milk or cheese for ourselves and our little babes."
"Silence!" roared the woodcutter. "Do as I say, or I will cut off your hands with my axe!"
So the woodcutter's wife, with fear in her heart, did as she was told, and struck the cow dead, and butchered it, and served it to her husband. But when she went to take a piece for herself, he struck her and threw her a hoof instead, saying, "Faithless wife! This is all you deserve for your disobedience!"
In a fortnight, the woodcutter had eaten all of the cow. But the woodcutter's wife had saved the blood for herself and her babies, and so they did not starve.
When the last of the cow was gone, the woodcutter said to his wife:
"Wife, I am hungry, as hungry as a man has ever been. Bring me some meat that I might eat."
"But husband," she answered, "we have killed the chickens and the cow, and there is no more meat to eat."
"Be still!" he roared. "Then go and kill our two young babes and we will feast!"
"I would rather die myself than kill our two young babes," she answered.
"Do as I say, or I will cut your head off with my axe!" cried the woodcutter.
But the woodcutter's wife would not kill her children. Fearing for their lives, she put them in a basket made of rushes, and took them out into the wood, and left them under a great oak tree. "Perhaps the spirits of the wood will take pity on you, and find you here," she said, "for I can do no more."
And when she came back, she carved an image of the children out of a log, and served it to her husband. But when he bit into the wooden children, he got splinters in his mouth, and flew into a rage, and struck off her head with his axe. And where the poor woman's blood flowed into the snow, roses bloomed there the next spring. Soon thereafter, the woodcutter starved to death, for there was no one to care for him, and the rats gnawed on his bones.
Now in the depths of the wood there lived an old wolf bitch whose cubs had died in the storm. One day, as she was coming back from a fruitless day of hunting, she smelled the two children in the basket under the tree.
"What is this?" she asked. "Is it meat or mate?" And because her eyesight was poor, she thought she saw two wolf cubs lying in the basket.
"The poor darlings!" she cried. "I will take them home with me." So she took the basket in her mouth, and brought them home to her den. Soon after, the wolf bitch realized her mistake, but because they were small and helpless, she decided to raise the children as her own. The girl she named Thistle, for her hair was like thistledown, and the boy she named Thorn, for he had once pulled a thorn from her coat.
A fortnight later, her mate came home from many days hunting. And when he smelled the two babies, his mouth began to water. "I smell sweet young meat!" he growled. "Give it to me!" But the old bitch quickly wrapped the babies in the skins of her dead cubs, and passed them under the wolf's nose.
"You old fool!" she cried. "Don't you know your own cubs? See the fine ears and long tails? How could cubs as handsome as these be anything but your own?"
The wolf, flattered by her words and confused by the smells, turned aside and let them stay. And the wolf bitch spoke to Thistle and Thorn in the language of wolves, saying:
"From this day forth you must always wear these skins when my mate is at home. For if he finds you without them, he will surely devour you whole!" And the children, frightened of the great wolf, did as they were told.
When they were old enough, the wolf bitch took Thistle and Thorn out hunting with her, clad in the skins of her dead cubs. They learned to kill without mercy and take what they needed, and they grew up as wolves are raised, fast and fierce, and cunning and strong.
One day, Thistle and Thorn came home from hunting to find the wolf bitch lying on the ground, with an arrow through the heart.
"A hunter has killed me," she cried. And Thorn began to cry, and Thistle to weep. But the wolf bitch told them sternly: "Listen to me! When I am dead, you must skin me, and share my skin between you, and wear it so that my mate will not know you are human children." For the children had long since outgrown the skins of the wolf cubs.
And when she died, the two children cried loud and long, and then did as she bid them with her dying wish, and dressed themselves in her skin.
For a long time, they were able to fool the wolf. But one fine spring day, he returned home from many days of hunting to find Thistle and Thorn playing naked in the sun, without the wolf–skin on.
"I smell sweet young meat!" he cried, and sprang upon Thorn, who was nearest. But Thistle threw herself between the wolf and her brother, calling out:
"Run, Thorn! Run away! I will keep the wolf at bay!"
And the wolf turned upon Thistle, and Thorn was able to escape. But the wolf was too fast, and Thistle was unable to outrun the wolf. Thorn wanted to save his sister, but his heart was filled with fear of the great wolf, and so he ran away instead. And the wolf swallowed Thistle whole, and then ran after Thorn.