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.
BEFORE times long past there reigned a king somewhere, and he had three sons. When they had grown up, and were trained as befits princes, they came one day to their father and said: "Our kingly father, permit us to visit strange lands, since we know our own country well".
"Yes, it is proper," answered the king, wisely, "for royal princes to know more than any of my subjects; and I permit what ye ask, but on one condition. Ye are all of an age in which almost every man seeks the partner of his life; and as far as I know, ye also will do the same. I have no wish to tell you what princesses to fall in love with, but I ask this: Return before a year and a day, and bring me some gift - not costly, but valued - from your chosen ones".
The princes were astonished that their father had guessed their thoughts so well, and agreed without thinking. Then they took their crossbows and went to the open field. The eldest son let the bow-string go, and the arrow flew to the east. The second let the string go, and the arrow flew to the west.
"And where am I to aim?" cried the youngest, whose name was Yarmil. That moment a mouse ran near him to its hole; he let the string go, and the arrow flew after the mouse.
"Oh, thoughtless fellow!" said the eldest prince in rebuke; "now thou must go to the mouse-hole".
"It is settled," answered Yarmil, and shrugged his shoulders.
They went home, prepared for the road, and next day started; the eldest to the east, the second to the west, and Yarmil to the mouse-hole. Up to that moment he had held it merely a jest; but how was he astonished when on nearing the place the earth opened so that he rode in conveniently, and sooner than he could think was in an open country, in the middle of which stood a white marble castle. Nowhere did he see a living soul; and he felt sure then that he would find no one in the castle; but scarcely had he entered the gate when a lady came forth to meet him who had not only garments, but face, hair, eyes, in short everything, white as newly fallen snow. She held by the bridle a mettlesome white steed, and without saying a word, indicated to Yarmil to descend from his own horse and sit on the white one; but he had barely mounted the white steed when it rose with him through the air, and without heeding the bit, went on till it brought him to the earth before a splendid castle. Yarmil marvelled, for the castle was so brilliant that he could not look at it, such was the glitter of gold and precious stones. Around about, wherever the eye could sec, was a beautiful garden, in which the most luxuriant trees were growing, the most beautiful flowers were in bloom, and birds of every color were singing.
When he had recovered from the first surprise, Yarmil dismounted and wished to lead the steed to the castle; but it tore away, rose through the air, and vanished like a white dove in the clouds.
Full of expectation Yarmil entered the castle. He struck on the gate; no answer, but it opened of itself. He went in on broad marble steps to the door of the first chamber. Again he knocked; no answer, but the door opened. He entered, but how did he wonder again! There was such splendor that he exclaimed, "My father is by far the richest king, but this chamber alone is worth more than his kingdom".
But if the first chamber was rich, the second was richer; and that splendor increased till he came to the eleventh, where there was a great crystal tub with golden hoops, into which, through a golden pipe, water still clearer than crystal was flowing. In the twelfth chamber were only four naked walls, an ordinary ceiling, and a common floor, but in the middle of the floor a diamond pan. When Yarmil examined more carefully, he saw written on it: "Whoever wishes to liberate me must carry me next to his body, and bathe me each day".
Urged by curiosity Yarmil removed a diamond, then a golden, and finally, with great effort, a silver, cover. But how was he frightened when under it appeared a great ugly toad! He wished to escape, but at that moment such terror seized him that in spite of himself he took the toad out of the pan and put it in his bosom. The toad chilled him, but in a moment he was as happy as if he had liberated some one from death. Straightway he went to the eleventh chamber, took the toad from his bosom, and washed it carefully; but to his great affliction he saw that it was a toad, and the more he washed the uglier it grew. When he had grown tired he put it in his bosom again and went to the garden to cheer himself.
A sight of the trees and the flowers hitherto unnoticed, the odor of them, and the singing of the birds entertained him so that midday came before he knew it. He went back to the castle, and there, to his great surprise, saw in the first chamber a table covered with the most delicate dishes. He sat down with appetite, and when he had eaten to his content, and drunk of the wine which an unseen hand had placed before him in a golden goblet, he confessed that he had never tasted at his father's table, or at the greatest festivals, such delicate dishes and such good wine.
Now he looked the room through with more care; the splendor did not charm him so much as at first, but the many musical instruments, writing implements, and beautiful books pleased him beyond measure, for he was skilled in every good art.
After the supper, which was as good as the dinner, he lay on a soft bed and slept soundly till morning; then he ate a good meal, which was on the table, and spent the time as he had the day before. He was annoyed at his lonely life, but he soon drove away trouble. He was grieved because the more the toad was washed the uglier it grew; still he washed it with care, and carried it in his bosom.
Now the year was nearing its end, when he had to return to his father with a gift from his bride. He walked like one deprived of reason through the castle and the garden; nothing could comfort him, but still he did not forget to bathe the toad each day, and with greater care. When the last day of the year had come, he knew not what to begin; but while walking through the room he saw on his writing-table a sheet of paper not there before. He seized it quickly; and on it was written in black letters: