A king promises his dying wife that their three sons will never be under the power of another woman. When he remarries, he hides the sons from the stepmother, but she discovers them and, with a pack of cards she got from a henwife, wins a game with the two older ones that puts them in her power. She does not succeed in defeating the youngest, but when she orders the older ones to return with the Knight of the Glen's wild Steed of Bells, or else lose their heads, he goes with them.
They meet up with the Black Thief, who decides to go with them. When they try to steal the horse, it neighs and rings its bells, so they are caught. The knight decides to boil them all, the three princes in order of age, and then the thief. The thief tells him that he had once been nearer to death than the oldest prince, and escaped; the knight tells him that if that's true, he'll spare the oldest one.
The thief recounts the time that he stole gold from witches and they chased him in animal form. He climbed up a tree to get away, whereupon one witch became iron, another an anvil, the third a hatchet and began cutting down the tree; but the cock crowed, forcing them to flee, and he survived.
The knight pardoned the eldest, and stirred up the fire for the next. The thief recounted a time when he had been in even greater danger, having tried to rob a bishop's grave, only to find another thief there and kill him. The guards came and he escaped only by holding up the body to take the bullet and because the guards pushed by to see if there were confederates.
So the knight pardoned the next prince and offered to spare the third if the thief had another tale with even more danger. The thief recounted how he had come upon a woman with a baby in the forest and the woman had told him how a giant had kidnapped them both, then ordered her to make a meal of the baby. The thief had killed a wild piglet and she used it instead, cutting off the baby's fingers and stewing them with it to convince the giant. The giant had returned while he was there and the thief had had to hide in the giant's larder of dead bodies, but the giant cut off part of his leg to eat. When the giant had eaten, the thief put a red-hot spit through his only eye, which blinded but did not kill him. The thief fled. The giant threw an enchanted ring at him and it leapt onto his toe and alerted the giant to him, so he cut the toe off and threw it in a pond. The giant followed the ring and drowned.
An old woman by the fire tells the knight that it was all true - she had been the woman in that tale, and he had been the baby, which is why his little finger is missing. The knight gratefully pardons the thief as well and gives them the horse. When they return to their father's kingdom, the stepmother is so enraged that she throws herself from a tower and dies.
Full text here.
- Cock-a-Doodle Dawn: A rooster's crowing saves the thief from the witches.
- Dark Is Not Evil: The thief, though he obviously steals, has many other virtues.
- Framing Device: The thief's three tales are the center of it.
- Grave Robbing: His second tale revolves about it.
- Impossible Task: The knight is at first convinced that the tales are one.
- Last Request: Before dying, the queen makes her husband promise he will protect their sons.
- Our Giants Are Bigger: The giant who is set to cannibalize the baby.
- The Pardon: The knight lets them all off, the princes for the stories, and the thief for saving his life.
- The Promise: The knight gives them the horse when they explain they are bound by one.
- Rule of Three: Three brothers, three tales.
- The Storyteller: The thief.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: The witches turn into animals to chase the thief, and tools to force him out of his shelter.
- Wicked Stepmother: The three brothers' stepmother forces them to steal a horse.
- Youngest Child Wins: Subverted; his original success does not affect the rest of the tale.