Rustum and the King

The village where Rustum lived was poor, and getting poorer. Rustum’s grandmother made enough money by spinning and weaving for them both to eat twice a day, but many in the village were not so lucky. For two years there had been little rain, and the river was choked with weeds. The crops were beginning to fail, and even the gardens where people grew their vegetables were dry and barren. The goats and cattle were dying of hunger and thirst.

One morning Rustum was taking some scraps of food out to feed his grandmother’s two goats when he heard a woman call, “Please, can you spare just a scrap of food for my baby?” The woman was pale and very thin, and her baby was wailing with hunger. Rustum called his grandmother, and they gave the woman the food they would have had for their supper, and the very last of the goats’ milk.

Rustum said to himself, “It is the king’s job to care for his people. I will go and see the king,” and he set off for the king’s palace.

“I would like to see the king,” he said loudly to the guards at the gate, but they hardly looked at him. Their uniforms were untidy, and neither their boots nor their buttons shone.

Rustum passed from room to room with no-one paying the least bit of attention to him. Finally he came to the audience chamber, where the king sat slumped on his throne.

“Your majesty,” he said, with a low bow, “Your people are starving.”

“Are they?” said the king, as if it was the last thing in the world that he cared about. “There is food here, if you’re hungry. Help yourself.” He lifted a cover half-heartedly from a plate on the table beside him, then he turned his face away and rested his head on his hands again. Rustum’s eyes opened wide. There were peaches and cheese, bread and even meat on the plate.

Filled with anger, Rustum strode over to the windows and threw back the curtains. “Look, your Majesty,” he said. “The fields are empty, the crops are failing and your people have no food. The river is clogged and choked so that it cannot flow. Our animals are starving, and dying of thirst.”

The king looked at what Rustum was showing him. “I didn’t know,” he said. “I have been afflicted with a great sorrow. I have had no thought for anything else.”

Rustum said indignant, “These are your people! They have no-one to care for them but you!”

“Yes, of course,” said the king, listlessly. Making a great effort, he clapped his hands. Dozens of servants appeared. “Take food from the royal kitchens to the village and give it to those who are hungry. Take grain and seeds from the royal storehouses and help the villagers to plant them in the fields. And set a battalion of soldiers with carts and rakes and spades to clean out the river so that it flows properly again.” The servants disappeared. “There, now leave me in peace,” he said to Rustum.

Rustum was amazed that so much could be done with such little effort. He said, “Your great sorrow, your Majesty – is there anything I can do?”

The king shook his head. His face was turned away but Rustum could tell that his eyes were full of tears. “The queen, my beloved wife, is wrapped in an enchantment of snow and ice. She is closer to death with every passing moment.” He closed his eyes, lost to sorrow.

Rustum quietly made his way to the queen’s chambers. There were guards at the door, their faces stony with sadness, but when Rustum told them that the king had sent him, they let him pass. The queen lay pale and unmoving, on a bed covered in blankets and quilts. Her old nurse sat beside the bed, counting the queen’s breaths and wringing her hands anxiously.

“Can nothing be done for her?” Rustum asked softly.

“We’ve tried everything there is to try,” the nurse said. “Her heart beats slower with every hour that passes. Before long it will stop altogether.”

Rustum cried, “If I only had a hare’s foot, or a magician’s cloak!” A thought occurred to him. He may not have a hare’s foot, or a magician’s cloak, but he could ask his grandmother.

He rushed home as quickly as he could. His grandmother, who was wiser than she looked, stopped kneading the bread for a moment and said, “This is very bad, for the queen is the beating heart of this kingdom.”

“Is there nothing that can be done?” Rustum said.

“Nothing, unless some fool can be found who is willing to risk his life to save her,” said his grandmother.

Rustum drew himself up. “I will,” he said. “What must I do?”

His grandmother said. “Go to the black beech forest and find the largest and oldest tree. Knock on its side, like this,” and she showed him a certain knock. “To whoever opens it, say that you have come for a firebrand of burning heartwood. No matter what they offer you, insist on a firebrand of heartwood and nothing else. They will lead you down below the roots of the tree, through a labyrinth of tunnels to a fire at the very heart of the forest.

“Choose a branch from the hearth that is burning well. Once you have it in your hand, flee as quickly as you can and do not look back, for they will pursue you as hounds pursue a hare. Few people take a burning firebrand from the hearth of the forest and survive.”

“How will I find my way back to the surface?” Rustum asked. He had listened closely and saw at once where the greatest danger lay.

“Take this,” his grandmother said, giving him a bobbin of yarn. “Flax for strength, wool for resilience, silk for length and fineness, and saffron for the sheen of shining gold. Unwind it as you enter the labyrinth, and when you need to find your way back, follow it, winding it up again as you go.”

She tied the end of the yarn around her little finger, and Rustum set off. He travelled to the forest, and searched until he found the oldest and largest beech tree. He knocked loudly on its side, the kind of knock that must be heard. The side of the tree opened, and a small creature stood before him, whether human or animal, Rustum couldn’t tell.

“In the name of the king, I seek a burning firebrand of heartwood,” he said loudly and clearly, although he could not stop his voice squeaking a little.

“No, no, no, by no means!” the creature said. “You don’t want some old piece of half-burned wood. What about some magic seeds like these? Throw them on the ground wherever you like, and a fine house will spring up at once. If you want to move house, say, ‘Up sticks!’ and the house will get up and walk to wherever you want it to.”

“No,” said Rustum, “I want a firebrand of heartwood.”

The creature offered him gold, and silver, and ivory and pearls, but each time Rustum refused. Finally the creature said, “Take this magic hare’s foot. Whatever you wish for, it will grant.”

Rustum was tempted, thinking that once he had the hare’s foot, he could wish the queen well again, but he remembered what his grandmother had said, and he held firm. It was as well that he did, for if he had touched the hare’s foot it would have turned to sticky tar in his hand and bound him to the spot forever.

“No, I want nothing but the branch of heartwood,” he said.

The creature’s face blackened with anger, but it said only, “Come,” and it set off into the darkness.

Rustum followed him through a maze of twisting roots, until up ahead he could make out a faint glow. “The hearth of the forest!” he exclaimed.

At that moment, the yarn on the bobbin in Rustum’s pocket ran out. If he went forward, he might never find its end again. If he stayed where he was, he would never reach the heartwood.

He hesitated no longer than a heart-beat, then he followed the creature.

Far away, his grandmother felt the yarn on her finger stop pulling, and she knew the bobbin had run out. She closed her eyes and prayed fervently.

Rustum reached the hearth of the forest where blue and yellow flames burned over a bed of glowing coals. Its warmth invaded his whole body and hope begin to burn, fierce and bright inside him. He picked up a burning branch of heartwood, bowed low to the creature and said, “In the name of the king, I thank you.” Then he turned to go.

Immediately hundreds of creatures poured out of the passages of the labyrinth, catching at his hair and his clothes, dragging him down the way wet clothes pull down a drowning man. Rustum struggled against them, fighting with one hand while the other held the firebrand. There seemed no escape, but then he lifted the burning branch as high as he could and its light caught a distant glint of gold. With a mighty leap, Rustum pushed off the swarming mass of creatures and seized the end of the yarn.

His grandmother felt his tug, and immediately began reeling in the yarn, pulling as hard as she dared without breaking the yarn. Rustum held tight to its other end, and in no time at all, the creatures were left behind and he was at the door in the tree. He touched it with the firebrand and it opened, then slammed shut behind him.

Wasting no time, he hurried off to the castle and into the king’s presence.

“Your Majesty,” he panted, “here is a burning branch of heartwood that will melt the enchantment from the queen and stir her heart to life again!”

The king leapt to his feet and taking the firebrand from Rustum he ran to the queen’s room.

Rustum waited, counting the seconds and the minutes until he saw the old nurse come out, weeping. His heart sank, and then he saw the king emerge and holding his arm, the queen, warm and alive once more.

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