WE CELEBRATE NEW YEAR’S at the beginning of January but in many lands this event happened at the beginning of Spring. That’s a time of new life after all, when plants grow and flowers bloom. In ancient Persia, there was a traditional New Year’s feast at the beginning of spring. At the royal palace, artists, craftsmen and strangers would present their finest skills or treasures to the king. If the king was pleased, he would grant them a fine gift.
Near the end of one of these New Year’s Day celebrations in Persia, a traveler came before the king. He presented an artificial horse that was richly decorated.
“I flatter myself, sir,” said the stranger, addressing himself to the king, “that Your Majesty has never seen anything as wonderful as this.”
“Any capable artist can create a horse such as this one,” frowned the king.
“Sir,” replied the traveler, “it is not its decoration, but its use that makes this horse so exceptional. On his back I can ride through the air to the most distant part of the earth in a very short time. I can even teach anyone else how to ride the magic horse.”
This interested the king. “Well, then, on that mountaintop over there,” and the king pointed to a mountain over ten miles away, “there is a palm-tree. The branches have a particular quality I happen to like. Go, if your horse is as fast as you claim, and fetch me a branch of it.”
The stranger mounted his horse. Turning a peg in the neck, away he and the horse flew. In 15 minutes he returned with a palm branch in his hand, and laid it at the king’s feet.
The king was impressed. At once, he asked to purchase the horse. “Your Majesty,” said the traveler, “the artist who sold me this horse made me swear that I would never part with it for money.”
“What would it take then?” demanded the king. The stranger replied that he would gladly give the horse away if His Majesty would only bestow on him the hand of the princess, his daughter, in marriage.
When the royal courtiers heard this extravagant request, they burst out laughing. The King’s son, Prince Darius, was astonished, even more so when he saw his father, the king, looking thoughtful, as if he were seriously considering the offer.
Stepping up to the king, Prince Darius said, “Forgive me, father. But is it possible you would consider for a moment marrying off your daughter, my sister, to gain little more than a toy horse?”
In truth, the king was worried that if he refused the marriage request, then another king might get the magic horse. He asked his son to examine the horse carefully, and report his opinion of it. At least this would give him more time to consider the matter.
Prince Darius approached the horse. The traveler came forward to show the prince how to manage it. But the young prince was in no mood to take instructions from a stranger who had the nerve to try to trick his royal family. In too great a fury to listen, he leapt upon the saddle and turned the peg. In an instant the horse rose into the air, and with the Prince on it.
The stranger was most alarmed when he saw the prince fly away on the magic horse before he had learned how to manage it. He threw himself at the king’s feet, and begged the king not to blame him for any accident which might happen to befall the prince, since it was the prince’s own carelessness that had exposed him to the danger. At once, the king realized the danger of his son’s situation. He cursed the stranger and his fatal horse, and ordered his officers to seize the traveler and carry him to prison.
“If my son does not return safely in a very short time,” he thundered,”at least I’ll have the satisfaction of taking your paltry life!”
In the meantime, Prince Darius was carried through the air with breathtaking speed. Soon he could scarcely even see the earth anymore. He tried turning the peg this way and that, but it seemed to have no effect. If anything, the horse only rose further into the air. He was greatly alarmed and began to regret his pride and hasty action. He turned the peg every which he could think of, but nothing worked. On examining the horse closely, he at last discovered another peg, one behind the ear. On turning that peg he soon found the horse started to descend.
By the time the prince drew near to the ground, it had become dark. Spotting a rooftop higher than all the others, he landed the horse upon it and dismounted. Hungry and tired, he searched about and found that he was on the roof of some large building. At last he came to some steps. Climbing down the steps, he found a door and through the door he saw a light. A number of guards were asleep on pallets with their swords lying beside them. This, along with the fact that this was the highest rooftop in the land, convinced the Prince that he must be in the palace of the land. He knew that if any of the guards awakened he would be in great danger. So he quietly climbed the steps back to the roof, and decided to sleep for the night in a dark corner. Before dawn, he would leave on his magic horse before anyone awoke.
But a princess had already been awakened by the sounds she heard on the roof. She instructed her guards to find out what had alighted and to bring the trespasser to her at once. The guards roughly brought the prince before her, and he fell on his knees.
“Forgive me, princess, for awakening you,” he said. “I am the son of a king, and one who has taken an entirely unexpected adventure, the particulars of which I would be happy to relate to you, if you would allow me.”
The lady was none other than Princess Nadia, the daughter of the King of Bengal, a region in northern India of today. Many of her attendants by this time were also awakened. The princess told Darius she would be glad to hear all about his adventure in the morning, but for the present asked him to withdraw. She ordered her attendants to conduct him to a bedchamber, and to supply him with food and refreshments.
The next day, Prince Darius remained a guest of Princess Nadia. Over the next few days the two of them got to know each other, and before long before they fell in love.
One afternoon the prince said to her, “Ah, my princess, everything seems different now. I was thinking about that scoundrel who tried to trick his way into my royal family. He was a no-good louse to be sure, but he may be in prison or even executed on my account, when I know that I was the one who jumped on that horse before he had a chance to show me how it works.”
The princess said, “Are you thinking of going back now?”
“Will you come?” he asked. She was glad to agree.
The next morning, the princess left a note so none would worry. And at daybreak they went to the roof where the horse still remained. Prince Darius helped Princess Nadia to alight. Turning the peg, they were out of sight before any attendants in the palace were stirring. In thirty minutes the prince had arrived at the capital of Persia.
He steered the magic horse to land at the prison. As the prince had thought, the stranger was imprisoned there. And he was nearly beside himself since his execution was scheduled to take place the very next morning. Determined to see his father at once about the matter, the prince first took the princess on his magic horse to a cottage in the woods not far from the palace.
“Stay here while I go to see my father,” he said to her. “I’ll show him that I’m well, and urge him to hold the execution of the fellow who brought the magic horse. Most of all, I want to tell my father about you. I’m sure he’ll prepare a suitable reception at the palace to welcome a princess.”
He explained to her how to operate the magic horse, in case she might need to flee for safety while he was away.
Indeed, danger was lurking even as they spoke. A thief behind the bushes had overheard their conversation, all of it. “What luck!” he thought with glee, “a princess alone ANDa magic horse! I’ll take her to the Sultan of Cashmere. He’s made it known far and wide he is seeking a bride. What a fine reward I’ll get for her!”
The thief waited for the Prince to disappear into the woods. Then he sprang on the princess, mounted the magic horse, and held her securely in front of him. Overjoyed at how easy it all was, he turned the peg exactly how he had seen the prince show the princess to do it, and the horse immediately rose into the air. Astonished was the prince on the ground to hear the alarmed cries of his lady love, circling overhead, as the magic horse dipped and dove from inexperienced hands, and he could do nothing about it. He cursed the kidnapper with a thousand curses.
While the king was overjoyed to see his son, and at his request ordered a stay of execution for the seller of the horse, he understood why his son must leave again so quickly. The prince put on the clothing of a beggar and determined never to return till he had found his princess again.
The Sultan of Cashmere, in the meantime, was very impressed with the Princess of Bengal. Her distress at her kidnapping only added to her natural beauty, or so his evil mind thought. The Sultan delivered the promised reward and then escorted the princess to his palace. He directed his attendants to bring the magic horse on which they had arrived to the royal treasure for safe-keeping.
The princess hoped the Sultan of Cashmere would prove honorable and reasonable, and would return her to her beloved prince of Persia, but she was much disappointed. In fact, the next morning she was awakened early by the sound of trumpets and the beating of drums, which echoed through the palace and city. When she asked the cause of this rejoicing, she was told it was to celebrate her marriage with their Sultan, which was to take place later that day.
Desperate, there was only one thing she felt she could do. She rose and dressed herself carelessly, and in her whole behavior appeared to be disordered and wild. The Sultan was soon told of this strange development. When he came to visit her, she put on the appearance of frenzy, flew at him in a rage, and this she did every time he came into the room. The Sultan was much disturbed, and offered large rewards to any doctor who could cure her. But whenever any doctors approached, the princess would fly at them too and beat her fists, so that all began to lose hope for her recovery.
During this time, Prince Darius, disguised as a wandering beggar, had been traveling through many provinces, full of grief, and uncertain which way to go to find his beloved princess. With nearly all hope gone, he rested on a rock. Then who should happen to pass before him but the very stranger who had brought the magical horse to the New Year’s feast, more tattered looking than ever, yet glad indeed to have been released from prison.
“And where, may I ask, is the magic horse?” he said to the prince. “Has it proved as unpredictable an item for you as it did to me?”
The two sat and shared their troubles. In the way of telling tales, the scruffy man related a story of a princess from Bengal who had become mad on the day of her wedding to the Sultan of Cashmere. As he described the circumstances, a flicker of hope lit the prince’s heart. Could this princess of Bengal be the same lost love he sought? He was determined to find out.
Arriving at the capital city of Cashmere, he put on the clothes of a doctor. Presenting himself before the Sultan, he claimed that he could cure the princess.
“First,” said the pretend doctor, “I must see her where she cannot see me.” So he was led into a closet, where he could watch her through a hole in the door. She was carelessly singing a song, in which she wailed of her unhappy fate.
“Yes!” he thought, trying to contain his excitement. “It is my bride!”
Prince Darius as the doctor told the Sultan that indeed the princess could be cured, but he would need to speak with her alone.
The Sultan agreed. As soon as the prince entered her room, she began to rave at him in her usual furious manner, at which point he held her wrists and whispered urgently, “I am Darius, your beloved.”
The princess stopped raving at once. The attendants withdrew, delighted at this proof of the doctor’s abilities. In more whispers, the prince shared a plan with her. Then he returned to the Sultan. The pretend doctor shook his head and said, “All depends upon a mere chance. You see, the princess, a few hours before she was taken ill, must have touched something enchanted. Unless I can obtain that something, whatever it was, I cannot cure her.”
The Sultan of Cashmere remembered the magic horse, which was still kept in his treasury. He called for it to be brought to him and showed it to the imaginary doctor. On seeing the horse, the young man said, very gravely, “I congratulate Your Majesty. This indeed is the very magic object that enchanted the princess. Let this horse be brought out into the great square before the palace, and let the princess be there. I promise that in a few minutes she will be perfectly cured.”
Accordingly, the following morning the magic horse was placed in the middle of the square. The supposed doctor drew a large circle around it. He placed around the circle chafing dishes, with a little fire in each. The sultan, with all his nobles and ministers of state, watched with great interest.
The princess was brought out with her head covered in veils, and led to the middle of the circle. The pretend doctor placed her upon the enchanted horse. He then went round to each chafing dish and threw in a certain powder, which soon raised such a cloud of smoke that neither the physician, the princess, nor the magic horse could be seen through it. At that instant the prince of Persia mounted the horse himself. Turning the peg, the magic horse rose into the air.
The princess called down, “Sultan of Cashmere, you cannot lose what you never owned!”
And the prince called down: “A bride’s heart must be earned, it cannot be purchased!”
That same day the Prince of Persia and his beloved Princess arrived safely at the Persian court. The father rejoiced at the son’s return, and immediately ordered a wedding celebration with the greatest splendor that had ever been seen in that land. And so the Prince and Princess lived together, happily ever after.