The Lasso of Hair

Once there was a very rich king, who had everything his heart could desire. He had a silver nutmeg tree, a beautiful daughter called Princess Carmen, a magic flying carpet, and the handsomest unicorn anyone had ever seen. But one day the unicorn, who was known across the whole of the kingdom as Runcible the Magnificent, went missing. The gate to his golden stables was open and his fur-lined bed was empty

“Thieves! Robbers! Kidnappers!” yelled the king. “Get me the Royal Police and the Royal Detectives, right now! My unicorn must be found!”

The Royal Police came, and they questioned everyone in the palace and everyone in the town, but they found nothing. The Royal Detectives searched every millimetre of the stables and the palace with their magnifying glasses and their infra-red fingerprint detectors, but they couldn’t find anything either.

The king was beside himself. He decided to offer a huge reward for anyone who could find the unicorn. “Whoever brings back Runcible the Magnificent will be rewarded with ten bags of gold, and the hand of my daughter, the Princess Carmen.”

Everyone in the town and the countryside around started hunting high and low for the unicorn, even men who were already married and boys who were much too young to be married, like Rustum. Rustum was good at finding things. He had once found a lost tooth, which helped him to save his grandmother’s life. He liked the idea of ten bags of gold. He didn’t care much for the idea of marrying Princess Carmen but he decided to cross that bridge when he came to it.

The first thing he did was go to the stables to see if there was a clue to what had happened to the unicorn. The first clue that he found was that the handle of the stable door was on the inside, so it must have been opened by Runcible himself. Perhaps he had not been stolen, but had run away? Rustum wondered what would make a unicorn who was brushed every morning by five stable hands with silver brushes and could choose between seven different flavours of oats for breakfast, run away.

It could mean only one thing. Runcible the unicorn was unhappy. And where would an unhappy unicorn go, but to an enchanted forest?

Rustum went to see the king. You or I would have to make an appointment and wait three weeks before you could see the king, but the king was very worried, and besides, he knew Rustum from of old, so he opened the door to Rustum himself without even saying, “Do you have an appointment?”

Rustum bowed low to the king, and said, “Your Majesty, may I borrow the royal flying carpet?”

“My flying carpet?” said the king. He almost said no at once, but then he knew Rustum from of old, so he said, “What for?” instead.

“I suspect that the unicorn may be hidden in the enchanted forest,” Rustum said. “As your Majesty knows, no-one can enter the forest, but they may fly over it on a magic carpet.”

“Hmmm,” the king said. He had lost his magic carpet once before, and he didn’t want to lose it again, but he rolled it up and gave it to Rustum, and told him the magic words to make it fly.

Rustum stood in the centre of the carpet and said loudly, “Rise, O Rug of Renown!” which weren’t the magic words at all, but seemed to work. The flying carpet trembled, then rose majestically into the air. They flew over the enchanted forest, back and forth, until deep in the deepest heart of the forest, Rustum spied the unicorn.

Rustum had seen unicorns before, but Runcible was truly the most magnificent unicorn he had ever seen. He was covered in silky white hair and his golden horn struck rainbows out of the air every time he lifted his head. His eyes were a soft, melting brown, and his eyelashes were long and thick and as soft as feathers.

Now that Rustum had found the unicorn, he considered how he was going to capture him, for there would be no bags of gold until the unicorn was returned to the king. He knew, as every boy knows, that only a lasso made from the hair of a princess can capture a unicorn, so he flew straight back to the palace.

Princess Carmen was playing her harp. Her ladies-in-waiting sat all around her, admiring her playing, and the way her hair which was long enough for her to sit on, hung gracefully over her shoulder as she played. “Your Highness,” Rustum said, bowing as low as he could without falling off the flying carpet on which he had flown through the open window, “I come to beg a favour from you. I need enough of your hair to spin a lasso to capture the unicorn.”

“My hair!” exclaimed the princess. “Impossible! My hair is long enough for me to sit on, but to make such a rope as you ask for would take every hair on my head!”

“Ah no, princess,” said Rustum, “for do your ladies-in-waiting not brush your hair one hundred strokes morning and night, so that it will grow long and lustrous? There must be plenty of strands caught in your hairbrush.”

“True,” said the princess, thoughtfully. She looked closely at Rustum, who was tall for his age, and strong and sturdy. “Are you old enough to be married?” she asked him.

“Not for many years yet,” Rustum said, blushing.

The ladies-in-waiting collected dozens of hairs from the princess’s hairbrush, and Rustum set to work spinning and twining them to make a slender golden rope that was as strong as silk. He mounted the carpet and few back to the enchanted forest. There he lay in wait on the flying carpet until the unicorn trotted past. He threw the lasso with a firm hand and it fell unerringly around Runcible’s neck.

Runcible cried out, and then slow tears began to fall from his melting eyes. “Why are you so unhappy?” Rustum asked. In a few words, Runcible told him. Rustum stood for a moment, deep in thought. Then he said, “Come, we must go to the princess.”

He rolled up the magic carpet, and holding on firmly to the lasso, he climbed onto the unicorn’s back and rode back to the palace. When they reached Princess Carmen’s room, Rustum stepped down from the unicorn’s back. He handed the lasso to the princess, murmuring a few words to her. She looked at the unicorn’s soft, melting eyes and at once with a cry she took the silken rope off his neck. In a moment the shape of the unicorn had gone and a handsome prince with soft brown eyes and long, silky eyelashes, stood his place.

“My lady,” he said, dropping to one knee, “I am Prince Runcible of the second kingdom. I have been held under an enchantment for seven years, made to take the shape of a unicorn until I could be set free by the one whom I love above all else. I have loved none but you, princess, for seven long years. Can it be that one day you might return my love, and consent to become my wife?”

The princess said yes, of course, and it only remained to persuade the king that a handsome, loving husband for his daughter was better than even the most magnificent of unicorns.

The king agreed to their marriage, especially since he remembered that since Rustum had not brought his unicorn back, he didn’t have to give him ten bags of gold. As it was, he gave Rustum a small bag of gold anyway, because he recognised a certain look in Rustum’s eye that he remembered from of old. But he made sure to get the flying carpet back first.

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