The Golden Horse
Once upon a time, when the land was a little brighter and softer than it is today, there was a beautiful wild horse and it was golden and free.
Fast like a summer breeze, it would race across the soft green hills sloping gently to sunsparkly lakes and to the blue hills in the distance, and in the sweet summer nights, it would sleep beneath the silver moon in a sky of darkest blue whilst the stars were smiling from above.
But there were people, and amongst them one, a dark man of grim countenance, who envied the horse its golden beauty and its riches, and his heart grew ever darker even as the children would point and laugh in delight and run and skip like horses do, their long curls and straight locks bouncing like the horse’s tail in the wind.
So the dark man drew a dark plan, and one night, he set a devious trap for the golden horse made of flowers and the sweetest grass, and when the golden horse went to the offering he had prepared in the clearing by the fairy’s brook, he entrapped it and ensnared it with ropes and with chains.
Oh, how the golden horse shrieked and fought! Oh, how the golden horse struggled against the chains and the ropes that were cutting deep into its silken flanks, and how it reared and kicked but all the time, the dark man just laughed for he had tied his end of the ropes and chains to a tree which grew straight into the earth and was stronger than the golden horse could ever be.
All through the night, the golden horse fought for its freedom. All through the night, the stars watched with sadness and deepening compassion from high above as the golden horse grew weaker, and weaker still, yet it would keep fighting and struggling and would not lay down. Neither could the golden horse rest not even for a moment, for if it tried to stand and catch a breath, the dark man would whip the horse with a coarse and knotted whip, drawing bloody lines across its face and body, and forcing the golden horse to rear again and spend ever more of its precious power.
All through the day which dawned so sad and grey, and where the sun never showed her face behind the clouds, the golden horse fought and reared and struggled against the chain and whip and rope, and the children from the village came and saw, drawn by its cries they came and they cried too and begged the dark man to stop, but he just laughed and hit the horse the harder still and so the children fell silent and watched their hearts tearing with pain and there was nothing they could do and so they silently stole home and prayed so that they may be able to forget what they had seen and what they heard and what they had felt.
As the grey and weary day drew to a bloody dusk, the horse could no longer stand, and as the grey shadows merged into the mist of night, it sank to its knees and touched the beautiful golden face to the ground, and the dark man laughed and laughed and he rained blows upon it such as the world had never seen, but the horse neither cried nor moved nor struggled any more.
The dark man then went in the last of that terrible days light and knelt before the horses face. Its eyes were closed yet it well knew him there, but it neither cried nor moved nor struggled any more as the dark man’s hand fell heavily on it’s face and his voice fell heavily on its heart – “Now you are mine, to do with as I please. And don’t forget, that I will be your master hereon in, and you will do my bidding in all ways.”
The dark man rose and tied the horses legs with stout rope, and into the horses gentle mouth he placed a horror of rusty steel and tied it tight, and then he laughed again and walked off into the night with not a backward glance.
The horse lay by the fairies brook amidst the cold damp mist of the heartless night and neither cried nor moved nor struggled. In its heart and in its mind there was a pressure and a pain that was so great that all the hurts and cuts and bruises of its weary body were nothing, and the pressure and the pain was so great that the horse’s heart would explode if it beat just one more time.
And at that moment, from the horse there rose a ghostly form, a white form of pure light, of pure radiant light and beauty, and it was a unicorn being born and released and rising fully from the fallen horse, it straightened and stretched, so pure and white if you but could have seen it, a mane of flowing silver and a flowing silver tail, shimmering in the darkness.
The unicorn rose and moved away from the dark shape of the beaten horse, unsure and wondering, pure in it’s new birth and not understanding, and then it raised its beautiful head towards where moon was hiding still behind the darkest nighly clouds and leapt and like a flash, was gone.
The beaten horse remained alone in darkness and though the pain was great, it slept and never dreamed, not even once.
In the morning, the dark man came with other men and other horses and they pushed and pulled and whipped until the golden horse would stand, then stumble on the road. And the golden horse which was no longer golden and not beautiful, all covered in mud and dirt and blood, was put into a grim stable where the stones were grey and lichen grew in the cracks and the hard ground was barely covered with mouldy straw and dreary dead things that once were grass was all there was to eat, and stale cold water hard and barely living was all there was to drink, and nothing to be seen of silken hills or sky or of the blue mountains or the stars.
In time, the wounds on the skin of the once golden horse healed, and in time, there were just scars on its legs and flank, and in time, the once golden horse no longer sighed when walking because its feet were so heavy with the iron they had nailed to them.
In time, the golden horse would drag its heavy loads to market, or the weary iron plough, or whatever the dark man decided, and in time, no-one seemed to remember what had been lost, and it was only the children in the village who would avert their eyes and never look at the horse that was just brown not golden, that was just plain not beautiful, and as time went by even they started to forget that they had ever known a different time at all.
There was one, though, who remembered. It gave the dark man never ending pleasure to see what once had been the golden horse in front of heavy ploughs and carts and weights too much for its slim feet and slender neck, and he would often order the stable master to use what once had been the golden horse for tasks much better suited to another of the tired horses, and the stable master although old and not a one to give a thought or care, began to wonder why it was that the dark man rejoiced so in that horses sufferings.
Twenty years or more went by – who is to say? In all that time, the horse that once had been the golden horse never sighed anymore, never wept and when it slept, it never dreamed, not even once.
Far, far away from the village, in another space and time altogether, there lived a being of magic. This being was neither a man nor a woman, but something altogether different. It was neither child nor old, for it lived by a time which is altogether not like the one we know. It was neither dark nor light, but altogether of the colours that we only know when we are fast asleep and dreaming.
This being of magic lived in ways we cannot understand, and one day it was in it’s garden, thinking thoughts the like we have never known, and doing things the like of which we wouldn’t understand, when it noticed a unicorn grazing amongst the flowers that grew there (flowers the likes of which you never saw nor even could imagine).
“Who are you?” asked the being, for it had been many a starfall and starbirth since a visitor had found their way to this place.
The unicorn looked up, surprised yet unafraid, for it sensed that the being of magic was an understanding one, and so it thought to find an expression that would serve to answer in a polite way, thus addressed.
“I do not know”, the unicorn said at length.
“Why are you here?” asked the being.
“I do not know”, the unicorn replied and shook its head so that silver bright mane flew like banners.
“What is your purpose?” asked the being of magic.
“I can’t remember”, said the unicorn, and sighed and then it started to cry softly, for a sadness had befallen it yet what it was it did not know or understand.
The being of magic understood that this unicorn was a lost soul, a one that wanders amidst the planes, never at home, never at rest, blowing like a leaf on the breeze.
The being of magic understood that this unicorn was very sad, and it wove compassion in the way that only beings of magic can, a rainbow curtain of blue and green, like a soft and silken blanket it would lay across the unicorn, and the unicorn stood and let the blue and green soothe its sadness and its lonliness and it didn’t feel quite so lost and sad deep down below.
The being of magic understood that the unicorn would need to find its purpose to truly heal the sadness within, and it called forth resolution as only a being of magic can, a whirlpool of whispering sounds that spun around and around and swept up the unicorn and took it to
It was a bright summers day, and a young boy and a young girl were sitting by the fairy brook. They were very sad because their mother and father had died, leaving them alone in the world and at the mercy of an old aunt, who neither cared to feed them nor to listen to their voices.
They were much alike, for they were twins and in spite of their sadness, they were glad of each other’s comfort and company, and being here by the fairy brook where all was quite and peaceful together soothed their hearts, so they came here often and they would talk about their mother and their father and their loss.
This day, they had come and they had done their talking, and their holding of hands, and just sat and listened to the sounds of the brook, and the rustling of the wind in the trees beyond, and the buzzing of the small flying things, and the warmth of the sun on their heads and shoulders, and the cool wet of the grass beneath, and letting their thoughts drift with the fluffy white clouds above, when they heard a whirlpool of whispering, a strange sound like they had never heard before.
And on the other side of the brook, as the sounds began to fade away, a ghostlike shape appeared, and it looked like something their mother had shown them in the old leather bound book she had kept high up on the kitchen shelf and as one, they remembered and they said its designation, “Unicorn” in hushed tones as not to frighten the creature that had appeared before them.
The unicorn looked directly at them, and saw them, and it spoke, with a voice like gentle bells, “You can see me.”
And the children nodded carefully, as not to frighten it away and the little girl said, “You are a unicorn”.
The unicorn lowered its beautiful head with a shell shiny horn that shone like newest silver in the sun.
“I am lost, “ said the unicorn. “I need to find my way home but I cannot. Will you help me?”
The boy and the girl looked at each other, and the boy said, “We are lost also, and we have no home also. How can such as us be of help to one like you?”
The unicorn sighed deeply and made as if to turn and walk away, and the little girl sprang to her feet. “Please don’t go!” she cried, and the unicorn stopped and turned its head towards her questioningly.
“It is true we are lost and have no home, but perhaps together we can find a way? Perhaps we can do something if we just think, and talk, and share amongs us? For me and my brother, we have talked long and often, and there’s nothing new in what we say, yet here you are, a real life unicorn, you must be magic, sent to help us too!”
The boy and the unicorn both nodded for the speech was fair and it made sense. And so they talked and it was decided that for now, the unicorn should come with them and live in the empty stable at the bottom of the field behind the aunt’s house, and that they would find a way to make things right for everyone.
The sun was low now, and the children knew it was time to return for fear of spending a night not being able to go to sleep for hunger rumbling in their bellies, and so the boy and the girl and the unicorn set off behind the hedgerows to the aunt’s house in the village.
But they did not need to fear, for when a labourer came amongst them by incident, he never saw the unicorn; and when another child crossed their path, hurried and as anxious to be home for supper as they were, the child never saw the unicorn either and they took to the road, and no-one but them could see the unicorn.
And so it was that as the last rays of the dying sun cast long black shadows across a road flooded with orange a cart came towards them, and the cart was drawn by a horse so feeble and so tired that it dragged its feet and would stumble every other step.
And the cart was loaded high, and even higher with heavy barrels and with heavy loads, and a tired workman cursed and flicked his switch without much anger every time the horse faltered and stumbled on its weary way.
And the children stood to one side, and the unicorn stood still in the middle of the road, but the coachman did not see it there, and neither did the tired horse who had been a golden horse a long time ago and now was close to dying of the hard treatment and the work which was far too much and far too hard.
The children gripped each others hands and held their breath as the horse and cart touched the unicorn, then went clear through it, clattering and rumbling dusty on its way into the twilight, fading sound and sight as the unicorn stood, shaken and trembling, in the middle of the road and could not move for terror in its heart.
For, you see, the unicorn had remembered something, had recognised something, but it was too dire and to strange and unicorns don’t understand the ways of heartache and of pain, of cruely and of neglect.
The children went to the unicorn and stood at either side, gently reaching out and touching it’s neck which was cold with fear and trembling hard.
The little girl asked with much concern, “What is it, dear unicorn? What has frightened you so? We have passed a number of people and a number of carts on our journey so far but here you are, quite trembling all over?”
And the unicorn dropped its pretty silver head and the children could see a tear so shining and beautiful from its great dark eyes, and try as it might, the unicorn could not remain and had to turn and follow the cart that was already a way down the road, and it began to walk slowly and hesitantly at first, then faster into a trot and faster still into a gallop, and then faster still so it was flying across the darkening road and the children ran behind.
The cart had drawn into a lane and up the lane to the ill kept yard of an ill kept house that sat in the shadows of foreboding. The unicorn streaked up the lane, a silver spark in the gloom and the children hesitated at the sharpened fence that bordered what was the dark man’s house.
For a moment, they exchanged a glance, but either had to know and find out and be there and neither wanted to lose sight of the unicorn, the first wondrous thing that had appeared to them for all the asking and the praying they had ever done.
So keeping close together and their shoulders drawn in tight, the two children scuttled up the lane like little mice, listening all ears and fearful eyes and pounding hearts for the sounds they might hear and the sights they might see.
The yard was lit by a single tired lantern of yellow light hung from a crooked post. The sound of drinking and men laughing came from the servants quarter, and all alone amidst the cobblestones and the weeds that sprang between them stood the cart, and chained to it still, the worn out horse, its head so low, its back bent deep and no-one there to bring it food or water or release it from its harness.
Beside it danced the unicorn light on nervous feet, big eyes of black ringed white with fear, drawn to what had once had been the golden horse yet not knowing why.
The children crept closer by the stable walls and looked nervously towards the servant quarters, but there was laughing from within and singing too and the door was firmly shut for now.
The children looked at the the unicorn and the broken horse and there was something familiar about them both although one was white and light as light would be, and one was merging with the shadows and heavy as heavy could be, yet there was something there that caught the children’s eyes and their minds and hearts as well.
It was then that the dark man sitting in his dark rooms felt something that he had not felt in years, and disturbed, he got up and went to the window and looked into the yard below.
And it was then, that the dark man felt a fear he had not felt in years, and he swiftly took his knotted whip and ran down the stairs and out into the yard.
The unicorn and the children startled much at his approach and backed away from him into a corner, backed away from his flashing whip and crunching steps and hoarse voice that filled them with dread as he shouted and threatened them.
“Now I have got you where I want you!” the dark man snarled and laughed as well as he encroached further and further still on the two children and the unicorn all huddled together in a corner and he raised his whip high and with one voice, they called for help to everyone and anyone but there was no-one there to hear them and respond – but was there?
The broken horse had raised its weary head and watched and listened and it saw, and as it saw, deep deep within itself it found an ember of a long forgotten memory of suffering, and with that long forgotten memory another ember, burning more brightly, of a time before when there was silken grass and wind and glorious racing in the freedom of the hills so blue and green.
And deep within, the ember flared and flared and finally caught fire, caught to life and the horse reared mightily within it’s harness and with flaying hooves, it struck the dark man from behind who never thought to give the horse another glance so sure was he that there was nothing left within to fight.
It’s heavy iron shod feet struck the dark man from behind and he fell senseless to the cobblestones, and as he did, the horse reared up again and screamed such screams as you have never heard, and as it screamed its screams turned into song and this was a song that would fell fortresses and raze the mountains to the ground, and as it sang, the bindings fell from it’s mouth and shoulders, and as it reared and danced, the iron shoes fell from its feet and sparked lightning againgst the stony walls, and as it reared and sang and danced, the unicorn leapt forward and it joined the dance and it too began to sing and as it did, their voices blended into one of beauty and of wisdom, and as they danced together, faster and faster still, their forms began to blend and meld and then there was just one horse, golden and beautiful, so much more than either had been, dancing in the yard.
The children stood in awe and looked upon the great golden horse and when the dance was done and all fell silent once again, they ventured forth and both reached out a hand of friendship, and its great eyes, shining with wisdom and understanding and a light they never knew before fell on them with love and true compassion and they knew that it was grateful to them, and that they had been designed to come and start the magic that would set it free from the dark man’s spell.
And that was that. What of the dark man, you might ask? He was broken, vanquished and a shadow of his former self, and when the sun rose high and clear the morning after that, he just dissolved like shadows do, leaving never a trace or a sign he had ever breathed at all.
And what of the horse, and of the children?
They went away together and they lived in the blue mountains, far away. In time, they would have founded a great city, where you would see statues celebrating the little boy, and the little girl, and the golden horse; and the great city would be known across the land for a place where you would go to stay if you would need to be reminded that there is more to life than toil, and if you look to find your magic.
© Silvia Hartmann 2001
From The Golden Horse & Other Stories - 15 Original Fairy Tales by StarFields