This Danish story is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches, and opens unconventionally with a king and queen who are not pining away for an heir – they already have kids, two sons with no sense of self-preservation. One day the princes go to sea when a dangerously strong wind is blowing and pretty soon they are in bad trouble. Just as they reach the realisation that they are about to die, the boys see an old woman heading toward them in a kneading-trough for a boat, rowing with two big ladles. “Hey, my lads!” she calls to the princes. “What will you give me to send you safely home?”
They unwisely promise her anything, and she demands their brother. Only they don’t have a brother and as the elder of the boys points out with admirable principle, even if they did have one, their brother would not belong to them. “I think you mother would rather keep the two sons she has than the one she hasn’t yet got,” the witch retorts, and the storm whips up even wilder to add punctuation to her point.
The options are thus: drown in righteousness or hope like hell that they get a sister instead. The moment that the princes agree to give away their theoretical brother, the storm dies away to nothing. The queen is so desperately relieved to have her boys safe in her arms again that the young princes can bury their guilt under maybes and nevers – but a year later, a third prince is born. He adores his older brothers and they adore him, living with the constant fear of losing him to the witch, but time passes and the little boy grows up safe and sound in the middle of his loving family.
The youngest prince is an academic, often staying up late to read and think, and one such night the weather turns wild like it did on the day his brothers nearly drowned. The young prince is startled by three knocks on the door, and even more startled when the witch leaps inside without waiting for an answer, commanding the prince to come with her. She tells him of his brothers’ promise and he decides it is only fair to go with her. Bundled into her kneading-trough, he’s taken away across the lashing waves to the witch’s house.
“Now you are my servant,” the witch informs him. If he cannot do the tasks she asks of him, she’s going to throw him into the sea. “I will do my best,” the prince says bravely, which doesn’t do him much good when the witch kicks off his employment with the impossible. She takes him to a barn stuffed full of feathers and instructs him to organise the lot by colour and size. She also expects the job to be done by nightfall.
Well, the prince does what he can, and turns out his best is very good indeed, because the task is practically finished when all of a sudden a wind blows through the barn and sends the piled feathers everywhere. Though the prince sets to work again immediately, he knows he does not have time to complete the task before the witch returns. Then he hears a tap at the window. “Coo, coo, coo, please let me in,” whispers a white dove perched on the ledge. “If we work together, we’ll always win.” The prince does let her in, and between them – but mostly due to her exceptional speed – they get the feathers sorted out just in time.
Next morning, the witch takes the prince to chop firewood. A lot of firewood. However much the prince chops, the pile of logs behind him only grows bigger. Soaked in sweat and despairing, he throws down his axe, only for the white dove to make a reappearance. She advises he chop with the axe handle instead of the blade. This makes the wood fall to bits of its own accord and before long the job is done. The prince pets the dove gratefully and kisses it on the beak – and immediately the dove turns into a beautiful girl. The prince has accidentally broken the enchantment laid on her by the witch, and now the girl can move onto Phase 2: Escape the Witch. She has very clearly been planning her own rescue in detail and is ready for all sorts of trickery.
She tells the prince to tie a red thread around her finger, so that he can recognise her no matter what. He continues to follow her instructions when the witch returns – offered a reward for completing the tasks, he asks for a princess who takes the shape of a white dove, and sticks to his request even when the witch tries to laugh him off. Then she takes another tack, offering him first a shaggy grey donkey as his reward, then a blind and toothless old woman, assuming the prince will recoil. The red thread, however, does its work, and when the prince takes the old woman’s hand, she turns into his princess.
The witch throws an epic tantrum, smashing everything she can lay hands on to express how not happy she is about this situation, but she has to hold to her word. The prince will have his princess. Once he’s got her, the gloves can come off.
The princess is prepared for that as well. She warns the prince to drink neither water nor wine at their wedding feast, which is already frankly a bit of a shambles, attended as it is by a gang of other witches. The food is so terribly hot that the prince can’t resist the lure of a drink, but the princess knocks the cup from his hand and the witch’s enchantment of forgetfulness is thus foiled. The witch once again loses the plot, wrecking everything on the table. While her friends are cheerfully joining in the food fight, the princess leads her new husband away to the bridal chamber.
During her captivity, the princess learned some magic, and uses a spell now to enchant two pieces of wood to act as decoys. She orders the prince to pack a flower pot off the window ledge and a bottle of water from the table (presumably this water is safe?) and with that, they’re off. Having no boat, they start running along the shore of the great bay that separates them from the prince’s home.
The witch goes to their door at midnight and the pieces of wood call out to her, tricking her into believing that bride and groom are still within. She tries again before dawn and is turned away; but when the sun rises and she is sure that the prince and princess must be sleeping, she bursts into the room, only to find blocks of wood in the bed.
The witch sets off in pursuit, a dark cloud chasing after the lovers. The princess orders her husband to throw the flower pot behind them, and it becomes a range of hills that the witch cannot climb. That wins the lovers a little more time, but soon enough the witch has run around the hills and is back on their trail. Next the prince throws the bottle of water. It become a lake, and the witch has to go home for her kneading-trough in order to cross it. By the time she reaches the far side, the prince and princess are at his castle, about to climb in through an open window.
“Ah! Ah! Ah! I have you now!” the witch howls, but the princess is not beaten yet. She turns around and blows into the witch’s face. A flock of white doves pour from her mouth, surrounding the witch with a storm of white feathers, and when they fly away there is nothing left of the witch but a tall grey stone.
The royal family are overjoyed at their boy’s safe return. In penance for their long-ago promise, the older brothers give up their claims to the throne so that the youngest prince will rule as the next king. Unlike so many other fairy tale siblings, power does not corrupt – the entire family gets to live out their days in peace and harmony. Which is lucky for them, honestly, because after that stunt with the birds who knows what other spells the princess might have up her sleeve.