Many centuries ago, in the time when science still mingled with magic, Shah Sabur was Lord and Master of Persia. This wise ruler delighted in every new and ingenious invention of the times. One festival day, three ingenious men, skilled and cunning in the art of invention, came to his court. Were they magicians or scientists? It is hard to say my Lord, because they worked in secret. What I can tell you, is that they came from three countries, India, Greece and Persia. The king’s throne was set up in the gardens before the palace. The whole court gathered around and looked on. First stepped forth the Indian. He knelt down and kissed the ground before the king’s feet. A slave unveiled his work – a golden statue of a solider blowing a trumpet.
“And what is the point of this?” asked the king.
“Its point, My Lord, is that it will keep you safe,” replied the Indian Inventor.
“Safety is indeed a great blessing,” replied the king, “but how will it achieve that?”
“My Lord, place this statue by the gate to your palace, and if an enemy approaches, the golden guard will sound his trumpet and the evil one who means you harm shall fall down dead.”
The king suppressed a yawn. “I have something like that already,” he replied. “Next!”
And then stepped forth the inventor from Greece. He prostrated himself on the ground, before presenting a diamond studded cockerel.
“And the point is…?” enquired the king.
“My Lord, you will always know the time. This golden bird shall cock-a-doodle-do on the hour every hour. Furthermore, at the end of each month, it will do a little dance.”
The king was unimpressed. “And why should I care what the time is?” he asked. “A king does exactly what he wants when he wants. It is for others to hang around and await my pleasure. Next!”
Third and last, the Persian inventor took his turn. He too kissed the ground. The king looked down from his throne. “I hope for the sake of your neck that you have something novel to show me.”
The Persian held his palms to the sky, swivelled his eyes, and said: “You shall, my Lord, shortly behold the greatest marvel of our age…. If God be willing.” He snapped his fingers and six slaves shoved and heaved a large object into the royal courtyard. It was covered by a cloth, but one could see that it had the shape of something like a horse. Noticing its form, the Greek inventor slipped quietly away, for he feared that trouble would follow shortly.
“Well, what is it? Show me!” commanded the king impatiently. The inventor whisked away the cover and revealed a black statue of a horse. No gold glistened. No diamond sparkled. It was made of that dark, solid, and extremely heavy African wood known as ebony.
“And what is the point of this ugly object?” asked the king somewhat impatiently.
“Allow me to demonstrate,” replied the inventor. And with surpassing agility, for he was not in the first flush of youth, he jumped onto an upturned box and then onto the horse’s back. His finger twiddled a knob in the back of its neck, and the horse immediately took off into the air. It climbed steeply up above the heads of the gasping spectators and completed three airy circles in the sky before descending gently back to the lawn. The Persian Inventor jumped off the horse and again threw himself onto the ground before the throne. This time, King Sabur, Shah of Persia, could not help but marvel and be amazed. He clapped his hands in congratulation and exclaimed:
“By Allah the omnipotent, our Lord and benefactor, who created all living things and who feeds them with meat and drink – you spoke the truth when you said that you had a wonder worthy of our gaze. I must have that horse. Name your price oh inventor. Whatever you lust after, speak its name, and it shall be yours.”
The inventor replied: ‘Truly, or Lord, this horse shall take its rider wheresoever he commands. It shall cover the journey of a year in a single day.”
“Yes, yes yes, I believe your words, for I have seen this marvel with my own eyes,” said the king. “What is your price?”
“My invention is worthy of the highest price,” went on the inventor, somewhat nervously, “I crave, Oh munificent Lord, nothing less than the hand of your daughter, the princess, in marriage.”
Those who stood near by and heard these words were astonished – for it was brazen of this inventor – a nobody of no noble blood – getting on in years – and far from pleasant on the eyes – to make such a request. It seemed likely that his ugly head would soon be separated from his neck – but perhaps the king was under some spell – for he replied:
Now the king’s son was among those who overheard this. His young heart was furious that the king should dishonour his family by giving away the princess to such a scoundrel – better marry her to a snake charmer or a rope trickster! he thought. He rushed off to the chamber of his sister. From her window, she looked down into the garden and saw her husband-to-be. Immediately she tore at her lovely face and sobbed and cried:
“Oh fee oh fie – Am I to marry this creature? His hair is frosted, his eyebrows are mangy, his beard and mustaches are stained, his eyes are red and goggling, his nose is like an eggplant, his lower lip is drooping, his teeth are knocked out – in short he is a brute, a monster, the ugliest ogre of our age.”
Then she went back into her room, lay down on the floor, rubbed dust into her hair, tore her clothes, and kicked and wailed. Her brother was filled with pity and fury. He ran down to find the king.
“Oh Father,” he pleaded. “I fear you have been greatly deceived. This trickster’s flying horse is nothing more than an illusion – the sort you can see in the market place any day. His art is not invention but hypnotism. He has made fools of our eyes.”
“What say you?” said the king turning to the inventor.
“Magnificent Lord and Master,” he replied. “I invite the prince to mount the horse and see for himself what power it holds, for to experience for oneself is to believe.”
The king agreed, and he commanded his slaves to bring out the horse of wonder. The prince, who was a splendid rider, mounted it with ease and struck its ebony sides with his stirrups – but it made no move.
“Ha! It’s useless!” he cried.
But the inventor looked up and said: “My Lord, feel under the horse’s main. There is a little screw there. Turn it to the right and behold the wonder of the horse.”
The prince wore a look of scorn on his face, but he did as the inventor bade him. Immediately the horse began to climb into the sky and head for the sun. The king was perplexed and cried out:
“By he who rules the universe bring him back, for he is my one and only son.”
But the inventor put on a mournful face and replied: “My Lord, the arrogance of youth has done for the prince. I told him how to make the horse climb, but he did not wait for my further instructions on how to bring it back to land. He is flown away and you shall not see him again until the end of time.”
When the king heard these words he was overcome with sore rage. He took off his crown and threw it on the ground. He called for the guards to take the inventor down to the dungeons and clap him in irons. While the trickster languished there, the king shut the doors of his palace and gave way to mourning and grief. The news soon spread around the town that the king’s son was gone forever, and all the people wept and cried, for he was a popular prince, and besides, it was risky if you were not seen to join in the general grieving.
So much for the people who were left behind on the ground. But the prince soared on through the sky, the wind rushing through the air. At first he felt the damp cold of the clouds, but as he drew closer to the sun, he began to feel its heat.
“Surely the sage set me on a course to burn me up!” he said to himself. “He wished to destroy me because I opposed his marriage to my sister and I openly questioned his wisdom. But I am not dead yet. There is no majesty and there is no might greater than Allah the glorious. If He is willing, I shall discover how to bring this machine to land.”
And he felt under the main and found another pin. He could not be quite sure what would happen if he turned it. Perhaps the horse would turn a somersault and tip him to his death. There was trepidation in his heart as he tried it. But lo! the flying horse ceased its ascent and began to level off. For the next hour the prince experimented with the controls, making his horse climb and descend, and turn this way and that. Soon he was master of the machine. On he flew through the sky, now able to enjoy the scenery below – the lakes and the mountains, the cities, and the dark forests, the fields and the dusty plains. He did not know where he was going, but in fact, he was over the kingdom of Bengal. Eventually he saw a thriving town and a magnificent palace with lofty towers and battlements. He thought to himself: “That is where I shall come down to land, for it is plain for all to see that I am of royal birth, and this is the place where I shall receive a royal reception.”
After nightfall, like a weary bird, he gently landed on the flat roof of the palace. He dismounted saying: “Praise be to Allah!” He went around his horse examining it closely in the moonlight, and saying: “Whoever perfected this was a cunning craftsman, it shall yet return me home safely. But now my hunger is great. I shall explore the palace and see what can be found there.” He dropped down through a skylight, and crept through the sleeping palace. He wandered through corridors, until he found a staircase. At the bottom of the stairs he found himself in a white marble courtyard in which a fountain played its lovely music. He bathed his hot face and hands and quenched his thirst. Now feeling stronger, he looked around at the various entrances and picked one door at random. He crept silently through the entrance, stepping over the leg of a sleeping guard. A sword drooped down by the side of the slave. Ever so carefully, the prince drew it from its saber before fixing it in his belt at his own side. By the light of a candle, he could see that he had chanced upon the harem. The floor was strewn with the forms of sleeping women. In the midst of them all stood a wooden and intricately carved bed, in laid with pearls, with heavy curtains all around it. The prince drew the curtain and saw a sleeping face as beautiful as the light of the moon, with a flower white forehead, shining hair, cheeks like blood-red anemones, and dainty dimples. He was amazed by her loveliness and grace. He knew that he was in imminent danger, but he no longer feared death.
All his nerves were trembling as he kissed her lovely cheek. If she awoke in fright and screamed for the guards, he would surely be cut to pieces. He did not care. She opened her eyes and seeing the prince said:
“You must be the one who came yesterday and asked for my hand in marriage. My father rejected you and told me that you were ugly and uncouth. Now I see that he deceived me, for your face is as glorious as the morning sun.”
He did not deny what she said, and they fell into talking. There was an instant sympathy between their young hearts, and they knew that they were destined to love one another.
But one of the waiting women heard their talk in her sleep. She awoke and seeing a man in the room she ran out to wake the guard. He was confused to find himself without a sword – and filled with fright when he realised that he had allowed a strange man to slip into the chamber of the princess – seeing that the prince was armed and clearly of noble birth – he ran off to wake the king and beg for mercy.
The king awoke from his slumber, took a curved sword called a scimitar, and rushed with the guard to the chamber of the princess. He meant to cut the intruder to pieces but seeing that the prince was armed and looked not only noble, but clearly warlike and in the full strength of youth as opposed to his own flabbiness of middle age – the king put down his sword and said:
“Who are you, rogue, who dares to creep into the room of the princess!” And the prince replied:
“Who are you who dares call me rogue, when I am prince of a mighty kingdom that could crush yours as easily as an ant beneath the foot of an elephant. If I was not so careful for the honour and the feelings of your daughter, I would slice you up with this sword.”
And the king replied:
“Even if you are the prince of a mighty kingdom, as you claim, all I need do is call for my guards and you will be mince meat in an instant.”
“And where would the honour be in that?” replied the prince. “If you strike me down like a common criminal, Oh Lord, your kingdom shall be crushed beneath the boots of my father’s foot-soldiers. But hear my proposal, for there is a better way. In the morning, bring forth your finest soldiers and I will face them alone, and if the Lord Almighty is willing, I shall confound them. At least we shall provide a sporting spectacle for all the members of your household, and everyone shall see what manner of a man has entered your house – no thief or rogue – but the son of kings! Whatever the outcome, everyone’s honour shall be served.”
The king saw the wisdom in this plan. He could see that the young man was of high birth – and it would no doubt be wiser and more seemly to grant him a death with honour. He called for the slaves to show their guest to a room, and to prepare food and drink for him – no doubt his last meal on the face of this earth.
It was only a few short hours until the rays of the sun awoke the sleeping palace, and the king ordered his guards to get ready for battle against the prince. The prince arose early ready to meet his fate – but here, Scheherazade, ceased her story, for dawn’s light was also creeping into the chamber where she was telling it.
“Now my Lord,” she said. “If in your wisdom you will spare my life, I shall relate what happened next in the evening,” and the great Sultan, who was indeed eager to learn how the story continued, agreed that his beautiful narrator could live another day.”
And that was the first part of the story of the enchanted horse. I do hope that you are as keen as the Sultan to learn the fate of the young prince, his princess, and the flying horse. Do drop by soon at Storynory.com for the rest of the tale.
For now, from me Elizabeth, goodbye.
Adaptation by Bertie.
Read by Elizabeth.
Proofread by Jana Elizabeth.