This section is from the book "Myths And Folk-Tales Of The Russians, Western Slavs, And Magyars", by Jeremiah Curtin. Also available from Amazon: Myths and Folk-Tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and the Magyars.
IN a certain town were encamped a regiment of cuirassiers, and they had a very unpleasant life. Twelve men of them agreed to desert, - three sergeants and nine from the ranks. They carried out their plan; and when they had gone a good distance, one said to the rest: "Let us look, brothers, and see if we are not pursued." Another dismounted, and climbed a high tree, - "Oh! they are searching; but they will not overtake us, for we are far in advance of them." Then he came down, mounted his horse, and all rode rapidly on, - rode till dusk. Then the chief man said: "Where shall we go for the night, brothers? Around here we see nothing but mountains and forests".
One of them climbed a tree again to look for a light. He saw one, and called to his comrades, "Look out! We will ride in the direction in which I throw this sword, for I see a light there".
All rode toward the light, and came to a very large building in the wild mountains. At the first glance they saw it was an enormous castle, which was open. They entered the court, led their horses to the stable, - where oats were ready for twelve horses, - and then went themselves into a hall where a table was laid for twelve persons, so that all might sit down and eat; but there was not a living soul to be seen.
"Brothers," said one of them, "may we touch this food and drink?"
"Why not?" said the chief. "What if we have to pay a few ducats for the entertainment?"
They sat down, and ate with good relish. After they had eaten and drunk, an old sorceress slipped in and saluted them, saying: "Good evening, gentlemen. I greet you in this our famous castle. Did the supper taste well?"
"We ate with pleasure," answered one in the name of all, "only we were a little afraid how it would end".
"Fear not, fear not, I am glad ye are strengthened after the long ride," said the sorceress; and then she said further: "Now of course ye will need good beds, so as to refresh yourselves with grateful sleep. In the next chamber are twelve beds and twelve caskets. Lie on the beds prepared for you, but let no man dare, on pain of great punishment, to look at the caskets, which are unlocked".
All went to the next chamber; the sorceress gave them good-night and went out through the opposite door. In the morning when they rose everything was well prepared for them, - basins with water and towels, and food for each man. After breakfast they spoke of the good cheer which they had not expected to find in the castle. They spoke of various subjects till they came to the caskets, and the splendid things that must be therein. Some expressed great curiosity; some were heard to say that they could not refrain till evening from looking in the caskets; others warned their comrades not to do that which they might regret.
They had a pleasant time all day at the castle, an excellent dinner, a good lunch, a splendid supper. After supper they went to bed. The sun was shining brightly through the windows next morning, but no man was stirring.
The chief rose and called the others, saying, "It is time to be up." Only two gave answer; the rest did not move. These three went to the beds and found their comrades lifeless. All were terrified, and went to the stable to look at their horses. In the stable they found the nine dead horses, of the nine dead men.
"What shall we do?" asked one of them. "We must leave this place where our comrades have perished; nothing can comfort us again".
They returned to the hall where breakfast was ready for only three. They sat down and ate. After eating, the sorceress came again, and said: "Ye see, my friends, that sinful curiosity has cost those nine men their lives. They could withstand it no longer, rose at midnight, opened the caskets, and looked at the contents; scarcely had they lain down again when sudden death overtook them. Had they followed my advice, as ye have, all might have had a pleasant time, and lived joyously here a whole year. Now I see by your faces that nothing can comfort you here, and that ye would gladly go away".
"Yes," answered one, "we fear to remain longer in this place, where our comrades died a sudden death".
"There is nothing to fear," said the sorceress; "but since it is unpleasant for you, I will not keep you. Go where ye like, but before going each may look without fear or danger in his casket, and take the things inside to remember me by; they may be useful".
The men were afraid at first to open the caskets, having before their eyes the sad example of their comrades; but when the sorceress assured them again and again that they might open them without fear and take out the contents, they grew bold and opened them. The first took from his casket a cap, which the sorceress said had such power that whoever put it on his head no man could see him. The second drew from his casket a mantle, and whoever put it on, the sorceress said, could fly through the air as high as he wished. The third took a purse which had the power that whenever it was shaken ten ducats were in it.
The sorceress bade them good-by. They thanked her for the hospitality and useful presents, and saddling their horses, rode away from that castle with the Lord God.
They travelled long, and on the road kept telling what a good time they would have with their gifts. At last they came to a large town, took up their lodging at an inn, and asked what there was strange in the place. The innkeeper answered: "Nothing, unless it be that we have a princess immeasurably fond of playing cards, and who says that no one is able to play with her. She vanquishes every comer, and then has him flogged out of the castle".
The man who had the purse thought, "Wait a while, I 'll settle thy play." He made ready straightway, and went to the castle. He had himself announced, and declared that he wished to play with the princess. Meanwhile the other two ate and drank well in the inn.