There was once a maiden who had neither father nor mother, for the Vilas had formed her out of snow, brought at midsummer, on St. Elias’s day, from a bottomless cleft in the rock. The wind had fanned her into life, the dew had nourished her, the forest had clothed her with its leaves, and the meadows adorned her with their flowers. She was whiter than the snow, rosier than the rose, brighter than the sun, and more beautiful than any maiden who had ever been upon the earth, or ever will be again.
This virgin let it be known throughout the wide world that on a certain day, in a certain place, a race would be run; and that whatever youth, riding on horseback, should overtake her, would win her. This news spread in a few days throughout the whole world, and thousands of suitors came together, all mounted on such splendid steeds that you would not know how to say which one was handsomer or better than the other. Even the son of the czar came to the race. The suitors drew themselves up in a line, all on horseback, side by side, but the virgin took her place on foot in the middle of them. Then she spoke,—
“There, at the winning-post, I have set up a golden apple. If any one among you can reach it before me and take it, I will be his; but should I be first at the goal and take the apple, know ye that all who run against me will sink dead on the earth. Think well, therefore, what ye do.”
But the riders were as if enchanted; each one hoped to win the maiden, and they said one to the other,—
“It is clear at the outset that this maiden, on foot, will never be able to outrun any of us, but that that one among us whom God and good fortune shall bless, will bear her home.”
Then, as the maiden clapped her hands together, they all sprang forward on the course. By the time they had run half the distance the maiden had already outstripped them by a long way, for she had unfolded small wings from below her shoulders. Then the riders shouted to each other, and spurred and whipped their horses until they overtook her.
When the maiden saw this she plucked a hair out of her head and threw it from her. In an instant a dense wood arose, in which the riders lost themselves for a time, not knowing which way to turn. At last they came again upon her track and rushed after her at full speed. Meanwhile the maiden had greatly gained upon them; but they whipped and spurred their horses, and overtook her once more. And when the maiden saw that she was so closely pressed, a tear fell from her eye which soon became a rapid stream, in which the riders were nearly drowned. Of them all the son of the czar alone, by swimming his horse across the flood, was able to follow her footsteps.
As he saw that the maiden was far on before him, he invoked her three times, in the name of God, to stop, and she stood still on the place where she was. Then he seized her, and drew her on to the saddle behind, and swimming back on dry land, turned his horse through the mountain-pass towards home. But when he reached the highest point, and turned round to look at her, lo! the maiden had vanished!