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.
THERE was once a king, and he had two sons. The king sent his eldest son to marry. He went, and chose the elder sister of the Reed Maiden. When he brought home his wife the king was satisfied with the choice. After that the king sent his younger son to marry, and he answered that he would not take any poor skeleton of a thing, but that his wife must be the most beautiful flower on the whole round of the earth, - the most lovely, world-beautiful maiden.
Once the king's two sons went to hunt; on the way home the younger said to the elder: "My dear elder brother, I would beg of thee a favor".
"And what may it be, younger brother?"
"In truth, no other than this: When we come home, ask thy wife if there is any one more beautiful than she".
"If that's thy trouble, it is no great matter, for my wife is just coming to meet us. - Well, my heart's gold-enclosed ruby, wilt thou answer one question? Thou art for me the most beautiful, but is there one still more beautiful in the world?"
Now the princess all at once acted like one hard of hearing; she answered nothing, but stopped them with a nod, and commanded with her eye, "Silence! not a word more".
It stopped there. The younger brother, whatever he did not do, he stole into his brother's bed-chamber quietly. In the evening, when the elder brother and his wife came in, the husband said: "Tell me, my heart's heart, why didst thou not answer my question a little while ago?"
"I did not answer, dear husband, because thou didst ask me before thy brother. It would not have been well for him to know that I have a younger sister who is the most beautiful maiden on the whole round of the earth, but she is hidden in the middle one of three reeds; for this reason she is known as the world beautiful Reed Maiden. The other two reeds are her waiting-maids".
"But thou hast not told me, my dear, in what corner of the world she is hidden".
"Oh, my dear husband, it is far from here, - as far as from here there and from there back; but as thou hast asked I will tell thee. Hast thou heard of the fame of the Black Sea?"
"I have not, indeed".
"Well, if thou hast not, then hear now. In the seventy-seventh island of the Black Sea, right in the middle, are hidden three reeds, but no mortal could go to them unless by some magic power or infernal art; but if by a miracle he should get there, he would not be able to bring away anything, - First, because there is such darkness on the islands of the Black Sea that a spoon might stand up in it; second, because the world-beautiful Reed Maiden is guarded by a witch whose life will end when the reeds are cut down; therefore she guards them as the light of her two eyes, or still more carefully. But if any man could bring the maiden away, he would be the happiest person in the wide world; for the islands would be lighted up, and he would gain a wife whom the starry heavens would gaze upon with smiles".
When the king's younger son had heard all this from root to branch, he went out of the room by the same way he had entered. Then saddling his best and favorite steed, he put provisions in his bag and moved out into the wide world in search of the beautiful Reed Maiden. He journeyed and travelled over forty-nine kingdoms and beyond the Operentsia Sea till he came to a hut; in the hut an old woman was living: "God give thee good-day, dear old mother".
"If thou hadst not called me old mother, I should have eaten thee on the spot. But whither art thou journeying in this strange land, where even a bird does not go?"
"I am looking for the world-beautiful Reed Maiden, who is blooming in the seventy-seventh island of the Black Sea. Hast thou not heard of her, dear old mother?"
"What's the use in denying, my son? I have not heard. Why should I evade, since it can neither harm nor profit me? But here in the neighboring valley, over the mountain, straight ahead, near a round forest on the top of a hill, lives my elder sister; if she knows nothing about it, then no one in the world knows. Here, Mitsi, come out! Conduct the kind's son to my elder sister".
The king's son followed Mitsi, who was no other than a large-whiskered little mouse. When they came to a cross-road Mitsi squeaked once, showed the middle of the road, and ran home. The king's son went along the right road, and arrived at the hut in which the second sister lived. She received him in like manner as the first, and sent her servant, Pitsi, to show him the road to her eldest sister. Pitsi was no other than a dove-white squirrel, with a long bushy tail. When the king's son came to the third hut, where the eldest sister lived, he said: "God give thee a good-day, dear old mother".
"If thou hadst not called me old mother, I should have eaten thee on the spot. Whither art thou wandering in this strange land, where even a bird does not go?"
"I am in search of the world-beautiful Reed Maiden, who is blooming in the seventv-seventh island of the Black Sea. Hast thou not heard of her, dear old mother?"
"Oh, king's son, thou wouldst wear off thy horse's legs to the knees, and wear out twelve pairs of iron boots on thy own feet, before thou couldst reach that place, for it is only possible to go there on a steed that has sucked dragon's milk, eaten glowing coals, and drunk the fiery flame; but thou hast in thy head three golden hairs, grown from one root, of which thou hast known nothing to this moment. Come hither; let me cut them out".
The kind's son bent down his head. The old woman cut out the three golden hairs. "See, my son, these three hairs have wondrous power. A fairy gave them to thy father, with whom, as he was a beautiful man, she fell in love, and thou hast inherited them. Here they are; I give them to thee with this latch-string. Go up on this terribly high mountain, which in front of my hut supports the heavens. When thou shalt come to the top, strike the three golden hairs with the latch-string three times; at once will stand before thee a magic steed that has grown up on the silken meadow, sucked dragon's milk, eaten glowing coals, and drunk fiery flames".