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This is the story of an adventure that happened in Narnia and Calormen and the lands between, in the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and his two sisters were King and Queens under him.
In those days, far south in Calormen on a little creek of the sea, there lived a poor fisherman called Arsheesh, and with him there lived a boy who called him Father. The boy’s name was Shasta. On most days Arsheesh went out in his boat to fish in the morning, and in the afternoon he harnessed his donkey to a cart and loaded the cart with fish and went a mile or so southward to the village to sell it. If it had sold well he would come home in a moderately good temper and say nothing to Shasta, but if it had sold badly he would find fault with him and perhaps beat him. There was always something to find fault with for Shasta had plenty of work to do, mending and washing the nets, cooking the supper, and cleaning the cottage in which they both lived.
Shasta was not at all interested in anything that lay south of his home because he had once or twice been to the village with Arsheesh and he knew that there was nothing very interesting there. In the village he only met other men who were just like his father – men with long, dirty robes, and wooden shoes turned up at the toe, and turbans on their heads, and beards, talking to one another very slowly
about things that sounded dull. But he was very interested in everything that lay to the North because no one ever went that way and he was never allowed to go there himself. When he was sitting out of doors mending the nets, and all alone, he would often look eagerly to the North. One could see nothing but a grassy slope running up to a level ridge and beyond that the sky with perhaps a few birds in it.
Sometimes if Arsheesh was there Shasta would say, ‘O my Father, what is there beyond that hill?’ And then if the fisherman was in a bad temper he would box Shasta’s ears and tell him to attend to his work. Or if he was in a peaceable mood he would say, ‘O my son, do not allow your mind to be distracted by idle questions. For one of the poets has said, “Application to business is the root of prosperity, but those who ask questions that do not concern them are steering the ship of folly towards the rock of indigence.”
Shasta thought that beyond the hill there must be some delightful secret which his father wished to hide from him. In reality, however, the fisherman talked like this because he didn’t know what lay to the North. Neither did he care. He had a very practical mind.
One day there came from the south a stranger who was unlike any man that Shasta had seen before. He rode upon a strong dappled horse with flowing mane and tail and his stirrups and bridle were inlaid with silver. The spike of a helmet projected from the middle of his silken turban and he wore a shirt of chain mail. By his side hung a curving scimitar, a round shield studded with bosses of brass hung at his back, and his right hand grasped a lance. His face was dark, but this did not surprise Shasta because all the people of Calormen are like that; what did surprise him was the man’s beard which was dyed crimson, and curled and gleaming with scented oil. But Arsheesh knew by the gold ring on the stranger’s bare arm that he was a Tarkaan or great lord, and he bowed kneeling before him till his beard touched the earth and made signs to Shasta to kneel also.
The stranger demanded hospitality for the night which of course the fisherman dared not refuse. All the best they had was set before the Tarkaan for supper (and he didn’t think much of it) and Shasta, as always happened when the fisherman had company, was given a hunk of bread and turned out of the cottage. On these occasions he usually slept with the donkey in its little thatched stable. But it was much too early to go to sleep yet, and Shasta, who had never learned that it is wrong to listen behind doors, sat down with his ear to a crack in the wooden wall of the cottage to hear what the grown-ups· were talking about. And this is what he heard.
‘And now, O my host,’ said the Tarkaan, ‘I have a mind to buy that boy of yours.’
‘O my master,’ replied the fisherman (and Shasta knew by the wheedling tone the greedy look that was probably coming into his face as he said it), ‘what price could induce your servant, poor though he is, to sell into slavery his only child and his own flesh? Has not one of the poets said, “Natural affection is stronger than soup and offspring more precious than carbuncles?” ’
‘It is even so,’ replied the guest dryly. ‘But another poet has likewise said, “He who attempts to deceive the judicious is already baring his own back for the scourge.” Do not load your aged mouth with falsehoods. This boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote North.’
‘How well it was said,’ answered the fisherman, ‘that Swords can be kept off with shields but the Eye of Wisdom pierces through every defence! Know then, O my formidable guest, that because of my extreme poverty I have never married and have no child. But in that same year in which the Tisroc (may he live for ever) began his august and beneficent reign, on a night when the moon was at her full, it pleased the gods to deprive me of my sleep. Therefore I arose from my bed in this hovel and went forth to the beach to refresh myself with looking upon the water and the moon and breathing the cool air. And presently I heard a noise as of oars coming to me across the water and then, as it were, a weak cry. And shortly after, the tide brought to the land a little boat in which there was nothing but a man lean with extreme hunger and thirst who seemed to have died but a few moments before (for he was still warm), and an empty water-skin, and a child, still living. “Doubtless,” said I, “these unfortunates have escaped from the wreck of a great ship, but by the admirable designs of the gods, the elder has starved himself to keep the child alive and has perished in sight of land.” Accordingly, remembering how the gods never fail to reward those who befriend the destitute, and being moved by compassion (for your servant is a man of tender heart) – ’
‘Leave out all these idle words in your own praise,’ interrupted the Tarkaan. ‘It is enough to know that you took the child – and have had ten times the worth of his daily bread out of him in labour, as anyone can see. And now tell me at once what price you put on him, for I am wearied with your loquacity.’
‘You yourself have wisely said,’ answered Arsheesh, ‘that the boy’s labour has been to me of inestimable value. This must be taken into account in fixing the price. For if I sell the boy I must undoubtedly either buy or hire another to do his work.’
‘I’ll give you fifteen crescents for him,’ said the Tarkaan.
‘Fifteen!’ cried Arsheesh in a voice that was something between a whine and a scream. ‘Fifteen! For the prop of my old age and the delight of my eyes! Do not mock my grey beard, Tarkaan though you be. My price is seventy.’
At this point Shasta got up and tiptoed away. He had heard all he wanted, for he had often listened when men were bargaining in the village and knew how it was done. He was quite certain that Arsheesh would sell him in the end for something much more than fifteen crescents and much less than seventy, but that he and the Tarkaan would take hours in getting to an agreement.
You must not imagine that Shasta felt at all as you and I would feel if we had just overheard our parents talking about selling us for slaves. For one thing, his life was already little better than slavery; for all he knew, the lordly stranger on the great horse might be kinder to him than Arsheesh. For another, the story about his own discovery in the boat had filled him with excitement and with a sense of relief. He had often been uneasy because, try as he might, he had never been able to love the fisherman, and he knew that a boy ought to love his father. And now, apparently, he was no relation to Arsheesh at all. That took a great weight off his mind. ‘Why, I might be anyone! ‘ he thought. ‘I might be the son of a Tarkaan myself - or the son of the Tisroc (may he live for ever) – or of a god!’
He was standing out in the grassy place before the cottage while he thought these things. Twilight was coming on apace and a star or two was already out, but the remains of the sunset could still be seen in the west. Not far away the stranger’s horse, loosely tied to an iron ring in the wall of the donkey’s stable, was grazing. Shasta strolled over to it and patted its neck. It went on tearing up the grass and took no notice of him.
Then another thought came into Shasta’s mind. ‘I wonder what sort of a man that Tarkaan is,’ he said out loud. ‘It would be splendid if he was kind. Some of the slaves in a great lord’s house have next to nothing to do. They wear lovely clothes and eat meat every day. Perhaps he’d take me to the wars and I’d save his life in a battle and then he’d set me free and adopt me as his son and give me a palace and a chariot and a suit of armour. But then he might be a horrid, cruel man. He might send me to work on the fields in chains. I wish I knew. How can I know? I bet this horse knows, if only he could tell me.’
The Horse had lifted its head. Shasta stroked its smooth-as-satin nose and said, ‘I wish you could talk, old fellow.’ And then for a second he thought he was dreaming, for quite distinctly, though in a low voice, the Horse said, ‘But I can.’
Shasta stared into its great eyes and his own grew almost as big, with astonishment.
‘However did you learn to talk?’ he asked.
‘Hush! Not so loud,’ replied the Horse. ‘Where I come from, nearly all the animals talk.’
‘Wherever is that?’ asked Shasta.
‘Narnia,’ answered the Horse. ‘The happy land of Narnia - Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests ringing with the hammers of the Dwarfs. Oh the sweet air of Narnia! An hour’s life there is better than a thousand years in Calormen.’ It ended with a whinny that sounded very like a sigh.
‘How did you get here?’ said Shasta.
‘Kidnapped,’ said the Horse. ‘Or stolen, or captured – whichever you like to call it. I was only a foal at the time. My mother warned me not to range the southern slopes, into Archenland and beyond, but I wouldn’t heed her. And by the Lion’s Mane I have paid for my folly. All these years I have been a slave to humans, hiding my true nature and pretending to be dumb and witless like their horses.’
‘Why didn’t you tell them who you were?’
‘Not such a fool, that’s why. If they’d once found out I could talk they would have made a show of me at fairs and guarded me more carefully than ever. My last chance of escape would have been gone.’
‘And why – ’ began Shasta, but the Horse interrupted him.
‘Now look,’ it said, ‘we mustn’t waste time on idle questions. You want to know about my master the Tarkaan Anradin. Well, he’s bad. Not too bad to me, for a war horse costs too much to be treated very badly. But you’d better be lying dead tonight than go to be a human slave in his house tomorrow.’
‘Then I’d better run away,’ said Shasta, turning very pale.
‘Yes, you had,’ said the Horse. ‘But why not run away with me?’
‘Are you going to run away too?’ said Shasta.
‘Yes, if you’ll come with me,’ answered the Horse. ‘This is the chance for both of us. You see if I run away without a rider, everyone who sees me will say “Stray horse” and be after me as quick as he can. With a rider I’ve a chance to get through. That’s where you can help me. On the other hand, you can’t get very far on those two silly legs of yours (what absurd legs humans have!) without being overtaken. But on me you can outdistance any other horse in this country. That’s where I can help you. By the way, I suppose you know how to ride?’
‘Oh yes, of course,’ said Shasta. ‘At least, I’ve ridden the donkey.’
‘Ridden the what?’ retorted the Horse with extreme contempt. (At least, that is what he meant. Actually it came out in a sort of neigh – ‘Ridden the wha-ha-ha-ha-ha.’ Talking horses always become more horsy in accent when they are angry.)
‘In other words,’ it continued, ‘you can’t ride. That’s a drawback. I’ll have to teach you as we go along. If you can’t ride, can you fall? ‘
‘I suppose anyone can fall,’ said Shasta.
‘I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?’
‘I – I’ll try,” said Shasta.
‘Poor little beast,’ said the Horse in a gentler tone. ‘I forget you’re only a foal. We’ll make a fine rider of you in time. And now – we mustn’t start until those two in the hut are asleep. Meantime we can make our plans. My Tarkaan is on his way North to the great city, to Tashbaan itself and the court of the Tisroc – ’
‘I say,’ put in Shasta in rather a shocked voice, ‘oughtn’t you to say “May he live for ever?” ’
‘Why?’ asked the Horse. ‘I’m a free Narnian. And why should I talk slaves’ and fools’ talk? I don’t want him to live for ever, and I know that he’s not going to live for ever whether I want him to or not. And I can see you’re from the free North too. No more of this Southern jargon between you and me! And now, back to our plans. As I said, my human was on his way North to Tashbaan.’
‘Does that mean we’d better go to the South?’
‘I think not,’ said the Horse. ‘You see, he thinks I’m dumb and witless like his other horses. Now if I really were, the moment I got loose I’d go back home to my stable and paddock; back to his palace which is two days’ journey South. That’s where he’ll look for me. He’d never dream of my going on North on my own. And anyway he will probably think that someone in the last village who saw him ride through has followed us to here and stolen me.’
‘Oh hurrah!’ said Shasta. ‘Then we’ll go North. I’ve been longing to go to the North all my life.’
‘Of course you have,’ said the Horse. ‘That’s because of the blood that’s in you. I’m sure you’re true Northern stock. But not too loud. I should think they’d be asleep soon now.’
‘I’d better creep back and see,’ suggested Shasta.
‘That’s a good idea,’ said the Horse. ‘But take care you’re not caught.’
It was a good deal darker now and very silent except for the sound of the waves on the beach, which Shasta hardly noticed because he had been hearing it day and night as long as he could remember. The cottage, as he approached it, showed no light. When he listened at the front there was no noise. When he went round to the only window, he could hear, after a second or two, the familiar noise of the old fisherman’s squeaky snore. It was funny to think that if all went well he would never hear it again. Holding his breath and feeling a little bit sorry, but much less sorry than he was glad, Shasta glided away over the grass and went to the donkey’s stable, groped along to a place he knew where the key was hidden, opened the door and found the Horse’s saddle and bridle which had been locked up there for the night. He bent forward and kissed the donkey’s nose. ‘I’m sorry we can’t take you,’ he said.
‘There you are at last,’ said the Horse when he got back to it. ‘I was beginning to wonder what had become of you.’
‘I was getting your things out of the stable,’ replied Shasta. ‘And now, can you tell me how to put them on?’
For the next few minutes Shasta was at work, very cautiously to avoid jingling, while the Horse said things like, ‘Get that girth a bit tighter,’ or ‘ You’ll find a buckle lower down,’ or ‘You’ll need to shorten those stirrups a good bit.’ When all was finished it said:
‘Now; we’ve got to have reins for the look of the thing, but you won’t be using them. Tie them to the saddle-bow: very slack so that I can do what I like with my head. And, remember – you are not to touch them.’
‘What are they for, then?’ asked Shasta.
‘Ordinarily they are for directing me,’ replied the Horse. ‘But as I intend to do all the directing on this journey, you’ll please keep your hands to yourself. And there’s another thing. I’m not going to have you grabbing my mane.’
‘But I say,’ pleaded Shasta. ‘If I’m not to hold on by the reins or by your mane, what am I to hold on by?’
‘You hold on with your knees,’ said the Horse. ‘That’s the secret of good riding. Grip my body between your knees as hard as you like; sit straight up, straight as a poker; keep your elbows in. And by the way, what did you do with the spurs?’
‘Put them on my heels, of course,’ said Shasta. ‘I do know that much.’
‘Then you can take them off and put them in the saddle-bag. We may be able to sell them when we get to Tashbaan. Ready? And now I think you can get up.’
‘Ooh! You’re a dreadful height,’ gasped Shasta after his first, and unsuccessful, attempt.
‘I’m a horse, that’s all,’ was the reply. ‘Anyone would think I was a haystack from the way you’re trying to climb up me! There, that’s better. Now sit up and remember what I told you about your knees. Funny to think of me who has led cavalry charges and won races having a potato-sack like you in the saddle! However, off we go.’ It chuckled, not unkindly.
And it certainly began their night journey with great caution. First of all it went just south of the fisherman’s cottage to the little river which there ran into the sea, and took care to leave in the mud some very plain hoof-marks pointing South. But as soon as they were in the middle of the ford it turned upstream and waded till they were about a hundred yards farther inland than the cottage. Then it selected a nice gravelly bit of bank which would take no footprints and came out on the Northern side. Then, still at a walking pace, it went Northward till the cottage, the one tree, the donkey’s stable, and the creek – everything, in fact, that Shasta had ever known – had sunk out of sight in the grey summer-night darkness. They had been going uphill and now were at the top of the ridge – that ridge which had always been the boundary of Shasta’s known world. He could not see what was ahead except that it was all open and grassy. It looked endless: wild and lonely and free.
‘I say!’ observed the Horse. ‘What a place for a gallop, eh?’
‘Oh don’t let’s,’ said Shasta. ‘Not yet. I don’t know how to – please, Horse. I don’t know your name.’
‘Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah,’ said the Horse. ‘I’ll never be able to say that,’ said Shasta. ‘Can I call you Bree?’
‘Well, if it’s the best you can do, I suppose you must,’ said the Horse. ‘And what shall I call you?’
‘I’m called Shasta.’
‘H’m,’ said Bree. ‘Well, now, there’s a name that’s really hard to pronounce. But now about this gallop. It’s a good deal easier than trotting if you only knew, because you don’t have to rise and fall. Grip with your knees and keep your eyes straight ahead between my ears. Don’t look at the ground. If you think you’re going to fall just grip harder and sit up straighter. Ready? Now: for Narnia and the North.’
This delightful account is the first chapter of The Horse and his Boy, by C. S. Lewis, which forms part of the Narnia series.
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