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Round and mellow,
Fame and glory
Long as an arrow,
Will never fail
To weave a tale.
The Sea Horses
Based on A folk tale from Northern Greece,
of Byzantium in the sixth century A.D. as told to us by our forefathers.
Sketches by Tanagra’s parents in 1930, digitally revived by Vion
The Apple tree
The brothers were shepherds. Every morning they took their flocks of sheep and goats down from the mountains, past wooded lakes and streams, to the hills. A bell was fastened around each animal's neck, and as the flocks descended to the fresh green grass, the music of many-toned rhythms flowed with them.
The three brothers lived with their old Aunt Penelope in a whitewashed stone house on the side of a mountain, built under huge, spreading walnut trees beside a rushing river.
The eldest brother was named Kosmas. He was tall and strong and had a black beard. He played the flute beautifully. All day long he would sit on a rock among the grazing flocks and play his pipe. The fierce shepherd dogs were always with him.
The second brother's name was Manolis. He was short and a little bit fat, and liked to laugh. He took care of the vegetable garden. In the evening, after he had led the flocks back from the grassy hills to the sheepfold, he milked the goats.
Petros was the youngest brother. He helped Manolis tend the vegetable plants in the sheltered plot below the house, and he milked some of the goats. He helped Kosmas and Aunt Penelope make the cheese and yogurt. When he had time, he made strong nets to snare the wolves that roamed the mountains in winter and menaced the sheep. He tied ropes for his nets whenever he had a chance. Sometimes he caught rabbits for dinner, which their old aunt would cook for them. Then she would say, “This boy makes the best nets in all of Macedonia!”
Kosmas, Manolis and Petros had received a gift from their father when he died. The gift was an apple tree. Years before, their father had found a large and shining seed on the banks of their river and had planted it. The seed had grown into a magic tree that bore only one apple each year. But that one apple was of solid gold. It took a whole year for each golden apple to grow.
The brothers were very unlucky. They were never able to pick a single apple. Every year, when the apple was at last round and golden, they would say, “Tomorrow we will pick it,” but in the night someone, or something, would come and steal it. In the morning it would be gone.
If only they could possess a golden apple! Then they could sell it and not have to work. They would have enough money to live like noblemen all the year through, until the tree made another apple of gold.
Now the winter was over. The mountain snows began to melt and another spring came. In the warm sunshine the buds on the magic tree opened into flowers and a sweet fragrance filled the air. Slowly, slowly, gentle winds blew the white blossoms from the branches and the petals floated to the ground. Then one tiny green apple could be seen, forming on the tree. The brothers went to look at it.
“This year, I must guard it," said Kosmas, the oldest brother, "and I will catch the thief.”
They watched the apple grow bigger and bigger. They patted the trunk of their tree and stroked the rough bark. Petros, the youngest brother, watered it and loved it and sang to it. One day, the green of the apple began to show tiny streaks of gold.
"It is time," said Kosmas. "Tonight I will watch.”
As soon as the light began to leave the sky and it grew dark, Kosmas went to guard the tree. He took his big bow and his quiver filled with arrows, and the fierce shepherd dogs followed him. He would either catch the thief or shoot him. Every night he watched, as the apple got riper and riper. At last he said to his brothers, “Tomorrow I will pick it.”
But that night, at midnight, as Kosmas sat near the tree, it began to rain. A great wind blew down from the mountain peaks. Thunder rumbled, and flashes of lightning zigzagged through the black sky. It was a terrible storm! It grew worse and worse as the winds blew against each other and whirled around the apple tree. The dogs cowered, their tails between their legs. What was that? Were those giant footsteps treading the earth? Kosmas was so frightened; he clutched his bow and arrows and trembled. He dared not stay any longer - he was not brave enough. He ran home through the rain as fast as he could, his face twisted with fear, and was thankful to be indoors and safe.
"What happened?" his brothers asked him.
"It was terrible," whispered Kosmas. "We cannot save our golden apple. A band of giants comes down from the mountains to steal it, and a dreadful storm comes with them. I could not stay there in that howling wind!”
The next morning the brothers went to look at the tree. The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue. But the golden apple was gone. Kosmas was so angry that he hit the trunk of the tree with his shepherd’s staff. Petros bit his lips to keep from crying.
"How could you let our apple be stolen?" shouted Manolis, the second brother, "Why did you leave the tree unguarded? You were afraid of your own shadow!”
“All right!" cried Kosmas. “Next year you watch the tree. You can show us how brave you are!” And he stamped off angrily, whistling sharply for his dogs.
So the year passed. The leaves withered and dropped from the apple tree. Its bare branches pointed at the sky, and snow piled up around its roots. All winter the magic tree stood in the freezing cold.
Once again spring came to the mountains of Macedonia. Again leaves and buds appeared on the tree. When the earth around it was white with scattered petals, the brothers went to look. They saw another tiny green apple growing on its stem.
“Pick it now!" ordered Kosmas. "Before anything can happen!”
“No! It's not gold yet!” cried Manolis. “I will watch it! I will guard it!”
Night after night Manolis watched the tree. Day after day the apple grew bigger and bigger, and more golden.
“Pick it now!” shouted Kosmas.
“No!” cried Manolis. “It's not big enough! I want it heavy with gold. Tomorrow I will pick it.”
But he had waited too long. That night, as Manolis guarded the tree, the storm came again - worse than before. It seemed as if the whole world would be torn to pieces. The apple tree was bent almost double in the winds. Manolis was very frightened. Rain poured down and thunder roared in his ears.
Then a bolt of lightning struck a pine tree behind him. The huge trunk split down the middle, and a branch crashed to the ground at Manolis’s feet. With a cry and a great leap he jumped back. He turned around and ran as fast as he could back home to his brothers. He bolted the door against the night and fell trembling onto the hearth before the fire. He lay there gasping for breath, unable to speak.
Manolis did not catch the thief. He did not even see him. In the morning the apple was gone. Seeing the empty space where the gold had been, Manolis sat down on the ground and put his head in his hands. "Why can’t we pick a single apple?" he groaned. “Why, why?”
Kosmas looked at the tree through narrowed eyes. "This tree is cursed,” he decided. "Someone has cast an evil spell upon those apples. I want no part of it. Besides,” he said, turning away, "I have enough to do without watching that tree all summer!”
Petros put his hand on Kosmas' arm. "Please, Kosmas," he said, "May I guard the tree? Let me watch next year.”
"What?” shouted Manolis, jumping to his feet. “You watch the tree? You must be joking!”
“Please,” said Petros.
“Little one,” explained Kosmas in a patient tone of voice, “We are older and wiser than you - and stronger. We have failed to get an apple. How could you succeed? Besides, there is a curse on this tree.”
“Please, Kosmas,” begged Petros, “let me try - I'm not afraid.”
“Listen to the brave one!” laughed Manolis. “Look at this strongman!” And in a loud and mocking voice he began to sing:
Raised his great sword high.
With one blow and one shout
He killed the monster dragon...”
“All right, all right,” sighed Kosmas finally. “Next year you can watch, if that's what you want.” Behind Petros’s back, he winked at Manolis and motioned to him to stop his singing.
Petros Guards the Tree
As they worked, the brothers sang together. They sang the old stories of adventure their father had sung:
Far to the West
I met a witch's child.
She charms the ships
And they cannot sail.
She charms me too,
And I cannot go home.”
And he called up the horses from the sea
To pull the cloud chariots through the sky,
And bring all the stars to the wedding feast...”
Of the City of Light
Spread out from the east
And give hope to my days...”
After the almond trees had blossomed, and the new spring lambs had been born, Petros examined the magic tree. One tiny green apple was already peeking through the leaves. He went to find Kosmas on the foothills.
Kosmas and Manolis were sitting on a boulder, talking about a new shed they wanted to build. The sheep spread out around them like waves of white wool in a green sea of grass, and the goats and kids frolicked in the sun.
Petros took a deep breath. “Kosmas,” he said, “it's time for me to guard the tree. I want to ask you something. If I manage to pick this apple, can we keep it, and not sell it?”
“Not sell it?” exploded Manolis. “Why not? If you manage to pick it, we can sell that gold for a lot of money in the city. Kosmas can take it to Thessaloniki.”
“I don't want to sell it,” pleaded Petros. “The apple is precious, not because it's gold, but because our father planted the tree. It was a gift to us. We ought to keep the first apple to remember him by. We can hang it over the fireplace.”
“What good is a gold apple over the fireplace?” laughed Manolis. “We can't eat it!”
“We don't have the apple yet,” said Kosmas. Leaning close to Manolis, he whispered, “He'll never be able to pick it.”
Then he smiled down at Petros. “Get the apple and you can keep it. But not under my roof. I don't want a cursed apple in my house!” And he picked up his flute and began to play.
As Petros ran happily up the hill, Manolis said quietly, “You're right. Of course he can't pick it.”
“Go ahead, Petros!” called Kosmas. “Go and guard the tree!” And the laughter of the older brothers echoed across the mountains.
That evening, when the sheep and lambs had been collected and put into the sheepfold for the night, and the goats had been milked, Petros started out to watch the tree. He took long pieces of strong rope with him, and began to make nets all around the tree. He was going to trap the thief!
He worked on the nets every night. He tied the ropes first one way, then untied the knots and tied them a different way. Over and over he made the nets, until he found the best way to tie them. He tested the trap. At last he was sure that if a thief went near the tree he would be caught in the loops of rope.
The day came when the apple hung heavy and golden on the magic tree. It was ready to pick. That night Petros took his bow and arrows with him when he went to guard the tree. He tested the nets again. They were strong. He tied another long piece of rope to the nets, took the end of the rope in his hand, walked away from the tree and sat down on a rock to wait. He held the end of the rope tightly, his eyes on the dark shape of the tree before him.
Suddenly a strong current of wind sent Petros's cloak up over his head. Rain blew into his face. Wet leaves whistled around him. The winds whistled and howled and then, with a burst, hailstones came down from the sky. Strange noises and deep rumblings sounded between loud crashes of thunder, and lightning flashed in the darkness. Petros was frightened and he shivered as the storm lashed at him, but he did not move. Now everything seemed to be turned upside down, and the winds grew even stronger. Petros struggled to his feet and pulled the rope as hard as ho could. The nets closed.
The rain stopped. The stars calmed down, and a white mist crept along the ground. The clouds parted and let the moon shine on the apple tree. And there, around the tree, Petros saw three horses - kicking and jumping and tossing their heads. They were caught in the nets. One horse was nipping at the golden apple, trying to pick it!
Keeping the rope stretched tight, Petros went a few steps closer. One horse was white. One horse was red. One horse was black. A strong smell of the sea clung to the air around them. Their flanks glistened with sea foam and salt, and strands of seaweed hung in their manes and long tails. When the horses saw Petros they began to neigh and whinny and shriek.
“Let me go!” cried the white horse. “Free me from your trap!” “The sea! Back to the sea!” whinnied the red horse, struggling against the ropes.
Petros was too surprised to move. He stared at the strange sight before him. “Horses from the sea,” he whispered. “There really are such things.” The horses reared into the air, plunging their hooves into the ground. Mud flew in all directions.
“Pluck a hair from my tail!” called the black sea horse. “When you have a need - whenever you want anything, I will come to you.”
“Free us!” cried the white sea horse. “Come! Take one hair from each of our tails. When you make a fire and scorch the hair, we will come to help you. We will do anything you ask!”
Very slowly, Petros went closer. The sea horses stood still, quietly waiting. Taking a deep breath, he went up to the white horse, and very carefully, plucked one shining hair from the long tail. Nothing happened, so he took one hair from the tail of the red horse, and then one hair from the tail of the black horse. Stepping back, he cut the ropes with his knife. He set the horses free.
The sea creatures at once stood up on their hind legs, arching their backs, flinging their front hooves high into the sky. They neighed loudly. Then, plunging away, they galloped off, disappearing into the blackness. Petros listened to the pounding of their feet grow fainter and fainter in the distance.
Now it was quiet. Not a sound disturbed the night. Petros looked down at the three hairs hanging from his hand. Very gently, he wound them around his fingers and hid them inside his shirt against his heart.
At last, Petros turned to the magic tree. Through the leaves, the stars shone brightly overhead. He climbed up and picked the golden apple. It was really gold metal, glinting and glowing in the light of the moon as he turned it and felt its smoothness. Holding the apple under his cloak, he started off for home - back to his brothers.
Kosmas and Manolis and Aunt Penelope were waiting for him. “Well, where is the thief?” smiled Kosmas. “And where is the apple?”
"What took you so long?” sneered Manolis. “Did you catch a giant?”
“Soaking wet! Just look at you!” scolded Aunt Penelope.
“I stayed behind the rocks for a long time,” said Petros, "and I was afraid, but I waited. When the storm was over, I picked the apple. Here it is.” And Petros held it up for all to see. In the firelight the apple gleamed like a rare jewel.
A hush fell over the room. The only sound was the crackling and hissing of the fire on the hearth. No one moved and no one spoke. They all stared at the apple. Manolis’s eyes bulged. His mouth was hanging open. “At last,” whispered Kosmas.
Then everyone began talking at once, crowding close to the apple, touching it, stroking it, passing it from one hand to another. “See how it shines!” cried Kosmas.
"It's so heavy!" shouted Manolis. “Heavy with gold!” “You did it, you smart boy!” screeched old Aunt Penelope. “You did it!”
Manolis brought the candle flame close, suddenly scowling. “How did you pick this apple, Little one? How did you do it?”
“Well,” answered Petros, “the stem was very strong. I had to pull hard.” He had decided not to tell anyone about the sea horses. They were his secret.
Manolis slammed the candlestick down and stared at Petros with jealous eyes. “That's a smart answer!” he snapped. “Anyway, this gold is worth lots of money,” he said, seizing the apple from Aunt Penelope. “We're rich!”
“Kosmas!” cried Petros. “You said that if I managed to pick it I could keep it!” Kosmas reached for the apple and looked it over carefully “Tomorrow,” he said at last, “I will take it to Thessaloniki.”
“You promised!” gasped Petros. “It's my apple! I was brave - I stayed in the storm. I picked it. Don't sell it!”
Suddenly, from the apple, there flashed a streak of stabbing white light. For a split second it lit up the whole room. Aunt Penelope screamed and covered her eyes. Kosmas dropped the gold. It fell to the floor with a loud thud. Manolis jumped back as though he had been burned.
“I was right!” cried Kosmas. “This apple is cursed!”
Aunt Penelope screamed again and cowered into a corner. She spit three times - to drive away the evil spell. Petros watched the apple roll along the hearth. Then he picked it up, rubbed his sleeve over it, and tenderly put it inside his shirt. “Get that apple out of this house!” shouted Kosmas, shaking with fright. “It will bring ruin to us all! Take it and get out!”
Petros quickly ran to his room, took his blanket and pillow from the bed and, fighting back his tears, went out of the house and down to the sheepfold. In the dark, he could hear the sheep and lambs getting to their feet, their bells tinkling and clanging. They bleated and nuzzled his hands and legs as he went inside. After the storm, the smell of damp wool was mixed with the warm smell of the animals.
Pushing the lambs back, Petros spread his blanket on the ground and lay down. He hid the golden apple under his pillow.
“I will never sell this apple,” he whispered to the sheep as they settled around him. “There can be no curse upon a tree my father planted. Kosmas is wrong.”
He put his arm around one of the lambs and closed his eyes, but before he went to sleep he murmured to himself, “I wonder why those sea horses stole our apple every year… will they come to the tree again? The sea is so far away...”
When the first light of morning woke him, Petros walked slowly back to the house. It was empty. There was no one there. He quickly packed his few belongings in a sack, and went to look for his brothers.
He found Kosmas, Manolis and old Aunt Penelope gathered around the tree, scowling up into its branches. Kosmas was leaning on an axe. Petros's heart sank. “Another gold apple will grow next year,” he said to them. “You can…”
“We don't want an apple!” interrupted Kosmas angrily. “And we don't want this tree!”
Petros shifted his sack from one hand to another. “Kosmas,” he said, looking at the ground, “I'm going away… I… I’m going to look for work.”
Manolis turned around with a roar of laughter. “What work could you find? What can you do?”
“I don't know yet,” said Petros, “but I'm going to try.”
“Do you have the apple?” asked Kosmas.
“Yes, here in my sack,” answered Petros. “I'm going to keep it.”
“It will bring you bad luck. Get rid of it!”
Old Aunt Penelope shook her head sadly. “There may be a curse upon you too, my boy. You picked it.”
Petros put his arms around his aunt and kissed both of her dry and wrinkled cheeks. “Don't worry about me,” he whispered “I'll be all right.” Then he said goodbye to his brothers, and turned away quickly to hide the tears that sprang to his eyes.
Petros started down the mountain path toward the high-road in the direction of the rising sun. Behind him sounded the dull thudding of the axe, as Kosmas chopped down the magic apple tree.
The Little Gardener
Petros walked along the road to the east, under the blazing sun. He had the golden apple with him, in the sack with his other things. In the little leather purse hanging from his belt were the three hairs from the sea horses' tails. But he had no money, and he knew that his journey would be long and hard.
As he walked along the dusty road, he thought about all that had happened. He thought about the horses from the sea. Would they really keep their promise and come to him? "Well,” he said suddenly to himself, “let's find out!”
So Petros sat down on a rock under a tree, in the shade. He opened his sack and took out his tinderbox and gray flint stone and the tiny piece of steel. He struck the flint stone with the metal and it made a spark. He lighted the tinder and built a small fire with some dry leaves and twigs. Then he took the gleaming hair from the red sea horse’s tail out of his purse. He held the hair over the fire and burned it.
At once the red sea horse appeared, shimmering in the sunlight. Petros gasped to see the sharp hooves suddenly so close to him. He was just a little bit frightened. “What do you wish?” asked the horse.
“Please,” whispered Petros, “could you take me far away to another land? East to the sea?”
“I shall take you to the sea, and beyond,” exclaimed the red sea horse with a toss of his head.
"Take me then, beyond the sea, to the City of Light," said Petros. "Climb onto my back” replied the horse.
Petros mounted the red sea horse. At once a storm came up. Thunder rumbled and crashed. Off they went in a cloud of dust and wind. Soon cold rain began to strike Petro’s face and the rushing wind whipped at his breath. Up went his cloak over his head. He could see nothing, but his eyes were tightly shut anyway. He held fast to the red mane and gripped as hard as he could with his knees. The horse flew over the earth.
After a long time, the rain and wind stopped. The storm subsided and the sun came out. There was a strange humming sound. The horse slowed to a walk. Petros opened his eyes.
A high, heavy stone wall stood before them, stretching up and off to the left as far as Petros could see. Straight ahead, set into the wall, was a huge double gate of gleaming metal. It was closed. To the right, the wall ran on down to the sea. Far out on the water a ship with red sails sped to the west.
"Go up and knock on the gates," said the red sea horse.
Petros was very excited. He climbed down. Before him the gates loomed, cold and forbidding. He turned back to the horse for help, but the sea creature was already disappearing in the distance in a swirl of dust. He was alone.
Once again he faced the gates. His heart began to pound. Bracing himself, he walked slowly up to the stone walls, to the shining gate. He put out his hand. Taking a deep breath, he knocked. Nothing happened. He knocked again. Now the gates slowly began to move. Suddenly, through a narrow opening, two sharp spear-heads shot out, pointing at his chest. Petros jumped back. Then the gates opened wide, and two immense men in full armour appeared. “What is your business here?”
“I... I have come to find work,” stammered Petros, trembling with fright.
“What work? What can you do?”
“Anything,” breathed Petros. "I can take care of sheep. I can make nets to trap wolves...”
The guards laughed so hard their helmets trembled. “This is the City of Light. There are no wolves here!”
“I can run errands. I can carry things. Anything... anything that's needed. Please let me in.”
“What can he carry?” laughed the first guard. “He's only a boy.”
“Please let me in,” begged Petros. “There’s much I can do. I can find some kind of work."
“Well, at least he can't hurt anyone,” said the second guard. “He's only a boy, and a scrawny one at that!”
Still, the guards looked Petros over carefully. They felt him for hidden weapons. Then, banging their spear-shafts on the ground, “Enter!” they called out. “Enter!”
And so it happened that Petros, the shepherd boy who had never seen a city in his life, passed through the Golden Gate into the City of Light.
Petros stared with curious eyes at the strange throngs inside the gates. People were hurrying down the streets. Others stood in groups talking. A beggar clutched at Petros's sleeve, whining for a coin. Three men wearing turbans on their heads lounged against the wall, arguing in a language Petros could not understand. Street vendors loudly called their wares, dogs barked, and children shouted.
Petros made his way timidly through the confusion. A huge man with red hair, carrying a sword, bumped into him, and without a word or a glance, disappeared into a wine shop where men stood about drinking from bowls. The women in beautiful robes smiled at Petros as they passed, leaving a sweet fragrance of perfume behind him.
Ahead, through the crowds, he saw a carriage drawn by white mules coming toward him. Men on horseback rode on either side of it. Petros stepped out of the way to let them pass. As he moved back, he knocked over a vendor’s basket piled high with fruit. The fruit spilled out and rolled in all directions… under the horses’ hooves… under the carriage wheels… between people’s legs. Children snatched up figs, pomegranates, oranges and grapes.
The old vendor, who had been sitting next to his basket on the curbing, struggled to his feet shouting strange words at Petros and waving his arms. Petros did not have to understand him – he ran as fast as he could!
Out of breath, he found himself on a broad street lined with cypress trees. Now it was not so crowded. He passed beautiful domed buildings that looked like homes, set in gardens. Through the trees he saw the spray of a fountain catching the sunlight. He walked on until he came to a high statue of a man holding a ball topped by a jewelled cross.
Here, many roads met and crossed, and the buildings were closer together. Petros wandered through the busy streets. The smell of spices and herbs was everywhere, and strange sounds and noises filled the air.
On the street of the silversmiths, men hammered silver into bowls and plates and cups and ornaments of all kinds. All along the next street, glass blowers shaped vases and bottles of ruby red and emerald green. Petros watched the men at work for a long time. He had never seen glass before.
A delicious smell drew him to the bread shops. He wished he had some money. He was very hungry and he was tired. If only he could be home for just one hour, and lie down with the dear woolly, smelly sheep and take a nap. But he went on, past the fish markets, and up stone stops past stores filled with cakes and sweet-smelling cookies, up past barred jewel-shop windows, until he stood on top of a hill.
Petros counted six more hills in the city spread out around him. Behind the distant walls, he could see the glint of water on three sides. Long ago, his father had told him that all the waters of the earth came together here. “Somehow, somewhere in this great city,” thought Petros, “I must find food and a place to sleep.”
Going slowly down the hill, Petros wished that Kosmas were with him. Kosmas would know what to do. If only he could hear Manoli's laughter, and feel old Aunt Penelope’s thin and bony hand on his shoulder! Oh, how he wished he were home again!
He sat down on the steps and rested his head on his knees. He was tired, hungry and thirsty, and he was covered with dust and dirt. How could he find work in this condition? What should he do? Ought he to call the horses? But how could he build a fire right here in the middle of a crowded city?
“What’s the matter, boy? Are you lost?” called a booming voice.
Petros raised his head. There, below him on the street, stood the fattest woman he had over seen. Under her long green dress, rolls and rolls of fat bulged and quivered. She seemed even wider than she really was, for on each hip rested a tray, suspended from a pole held across her shoulders. The trays were filled with small round cookies covered with white sugar. Petros's stomach gave a great lurch.
“Are you lost?” repeated the woman, peering at him with sharp black eyes. Above her puffy, round face her hair was hidden by an orange-coloured veil that was wrapped around her head many times, at last falling in two streamers onto her immense chest. A red rose was stuck behind her ear.
“No,” answered Petros weakly. "My home is in Macedonia. I’m not lost. I came here to find work." He could not help staring at the sugar-cookies. His mouth watered.
“Macedonia!” shouted the woman. “How did you get so far from home?”
Petros licked his lips and swallowed hard, still staring at the trays.
“Ah, you're hungry! Why didn't you say so? Here, have some cookies!” And the woman sat down with her trays on the steps, completely blocking the street. “I'll have one too,” she laughed. “I eat most of them myself. I don't sell very many - too many shops around.”
Petros closed his eyes with pleasure as he munched the delicious cookies.
“I should go out near the city gates,” said the fat woman with her mouth full.
”Too far to walk, and no mule can carry me!” She suddenly burst into a loud laugh that made her whole body shake and tremble. “Here, help yourself - have all you want.”
“What is that singing I hear?” asked Petros, feeling much better already. “Where is it coming from?”
“That's the sailors down on the docks,” said the woman. “They're unloading the ships - wheat from Egypt, or maybe silk from China. They sing all the time. Want to go to China?”
"No," answered Petros. “I want to stay here. I'm going to find work.”
"Well!” shouted the woman. “Then you'd better clean yourself up! You're not a very pretty picture, you know!” With another bellowing laugh, she lurched to her feet, the trays swinging.
“How do you keep them balanced?” asked Petros. “I mean, how do you keep the cookies from falling off?”
“Practice, my boy, practice!” roared the woman. “Now, you go down there to the corner, turn to your left, and you'll come to a fountain. Wash yourself! And good luck and health to you. Off I go!”
“Thank you for the cookies!” called Petros. “Thank you!” He watched the woman move her huge body and the swinging trays around the opposite corner, and then went to find the fountain.
A white marble lion sat with his paws encircling a basin. From his open mouth water gushed, making a refreshing, splashing sound. Petros put his sack down on the paving stones and washed himself as best he could. Then he cupped his hands and drank deeply of the crystal-clear water. He felt very much better, and set out once again to explore the city. He passed more statues, great domed structures, and more stores and work-shops.
At last he came to some buildings that looked like a palace. All around was a high wall. Petros followed the wall until he came to an open gate. He looked in and saw a garden so lovely that it made him hold his breath. Strange trees and shrubs grew in it. Flowers Petros had never seen before stood in bright rows and circles of colour. Peacocks spread their tails to the sun. There were statues of purple stone, and marble benches. A pool was in the centre, where ducks swam and preened themselves. Bright stones were set in patterns on the walks. In one corner a gardener knelt on the earth, planting some shrubs.
Petros went inside and spoke to the gardener. “Please, Sir, I know how to take care of plants,” he said. “Let me work for you.”
By chance the gardener, who was the chief gardener, needed a boy to help him. So then and there, Petros became an apprentice to the master gardener of the Emperor! He was given a good meal and a place to sleep in the servants' quarters of the palace.
The next day, as he worked in the large garden, Petros looked for a place to hide his golden apple. At last he found it. Late that night, he crept out of the palace and buried the apple in the earth under one of the marble benches. There it would be safe. Under the bench no sun fell, and nothing would ever be planted there. The ground would not be touched.
From the master gardener Petros learned to care for the rare and special plants in the garden. He weeded the flower beds and turned the earth to make it soft. When the Emperor or the Empress came into the garden to admire the flowers, Petros ran ahead of them, picking stray leaves from the walks and polishing the marble benches. He helped the other workers set new trees and shrubs into the ground. He watered the plants and fed the peacocks and ducks. So the days passed.
All week Petros worked. Each Sunday the master gardener went to church, and it was one of Petros's duties to watch the garden while he was gone.
One Sunday the gardener said to Petros, “I'm going now. You watch the garden carefully. Remember, this is the Emperor's garden – the most important garden in the world. Be sure no one touches the flowers. Do not let anyone in.”
“Don't worry, Master," said Petros. “I will take care of the garden.”
So the gardener went away, and Petros sat down on a marble bench under a little tree. He loved working in the garden, but he was tired of being a poor boy in this city of riches. He was tired of wearing ragged, dirty clothes. He began to think about the sea horses. “I know the horses could have escaped from my nets,” he mused, “if they had really tried. Did they let themselves be caught? Perhaps they like me.” And then he thought how much fun it would be to ride one of those splendid horses through the streets. The garden was safe - no one would bother it.
Petros went and got his tinder-box and flint stone and steel. He built a tiny fire in a corner of the garden. From his leather purse he took the hair from the white sea horse's tail. As soon as he scorched it over the flames, the white sea horse stood before him.
“What do you wish?" asked the horse. “Bring me some beautiful clothes,” said Petros. “The most beautiful clothes in the world.”
There was a flash of light, and then, on the marble bench, Petros saw a gleaming white tunic and a white cloak. He put on the fine clothes. He looked very handsome, all shining and white in the sunlight as he climbed onto the back of the white horse.
“Now take me for a ride around the city,” he said, “so that everyone can see me and think me a nobleman from far away.”
But Petros made a mistake - he had forgotten the power of the sea horses. They were not meant for play or showing off. At once a great wind came up and thunder sounded. Rain began to fall and the peacocks shrieked. A thick mist covered the garden as the white horse raised his hooves high and ran faster than the wind, ready to jump the wall.
“Stop!” cried Petros. “Stop! You will spoil the garden!”
The horse stopped and the storm stopped, but it was too late. Through the mist Petros could see the broken plants. Flowers had fallen from their stems and lay on the wet ground. Some of the shrubs were trampled by the horse’s hooves. The branch of a small tree had been broken off, and the pool was covered with leaves.
“The Emperor’s garden is ruined” wailed Petros. “Make it the way it was,” he begged the horse. “Fix the garden!”
“I cannot do that,” answered the white horse. “I cannot give life to plant that has died.”
Now in the palace, the Emperor’s daughter, the little Princess Anastassia, looked out of her window to admire the flowers. She saw Petros dressed in shining white, sitting on the splendid white horse. She leaned against the window sill and watched with big, round eyes. She saw Petros climb off the horse. She saw him take off the white garments and put on his ragged clothes. She watched the white garments vanish – and the white horse disappear. She could not believe her eyes.
Just then the master gardener returned from church. He looked at the garden… at the broken flowers… at the earth that was scattered over the walks. He was very, very angry. He was frightened too. He was afraid of the Emperor’s anger at the loss of his flowers.
“What kind of wild things came over the garden wall?” he shouted at Petros. “What ruined the garden? Didn’t you watch it?” He was so angry his face had turned dark red.
Petros did not know what to say. The master gardener was waiting, so he said he first thing that came into his head. “Well, a man dressed all in white came in riding on a horse. He went racing through the garden. I begged him to stop, but it was too late. He spoiled it.”
“With the gate closed?” shouted the gardener. “Who opened the gate? You rascal, I don’t believe you!” And he picked up the broken branch, raised it over his head, and brought it down with a crash across Petros’s back.
All this time the Princess Anastassia had been watching and listening. Now she called from her window: “Stop! Don’t hit the little gardener! I saw the whole thing. Don’t hit him!”
The master gardener looked up and saw the Princess. He dropped the branch at once.
“It was not his fault,” called Anastassia. “Send him to me. Send him to the palace!”
In the Palace
The guards led Petros through the ivory doors into the great palace. He had never been inside before, only in the servants' quarters. He stood in the high entrance hall, staring. Above him the arched ceiling was covered with designs and faces made with little coloured pieces of enamel, glass and precious stones. The walls were purple marble. On the side of the room toward the sea, the glow of sunlight filtered in through alabaster window screens.
What would Kosmas and Manolis say if they could see this magnificent sight, he wondered. Would old Aunt Penelope dare to walk on the pictures of warriors killing strange beasts that were set into the floor with tiny squares of stone?
As a guard in armour led him up green marble stairs, Petros could hear the hidden music of harps. Another guard opened the door to a room where birds sang sweetly in gilded cages. Princess Anastasia sat there in a carved chair, her long golden hair falling over her shoulders, her silk dress shimmering.
“Come in, little gardener,” she said. “Come, sit beside me.”
Petros sat down on a cushion at Anastasia's feet. “How beautiful she is,” he thought. “I have never seen anyone like her.” As he gazed into her large green eyes, he could not say a word.
“Tell me your name,” said Anastassia. “What are you called besides 'little gardener'?”
Petros took a deep breath and finally managed to answer, “My name is Petros. I came to your city from Macedonia, in Greece. I used to be a shepherd.”
“Can shepherds work magic, Petros?” she asked, “I saw you wearing beautiful clothes, sitting on that marvellous white horse in the garden. Then I saw them all disappear, and there you were in rags. How did you do that?”
Petros looked at the floor. What could he say?
“I know it was you who rode through the garden,” she whispered, “but I will keep your secret. It's our secret now.”
Petros smiled at Princess Anastassia. His heart was glad -he had found a friend. And Anastassia smiled down at Petros. “I will tell my father, the Emperor, and my mother, the Empress,” she said, “that a stranger came riding into the garden and that it was he who ruined it,”
At that moment the tinkle of silver bells sounded in the distance, and Anastassia got up, moving toward the hallway. “The water clock shows the sixth hour,” she said. “You must go now, Petros.”
Petros bowed to the girl and went out of the palace, back to his work with the plants. But as he helped repair the damaged garden, he could not stop thinking about her. The faces of the flowers turned into the flower face of Anastassia before his eyes.
In the palace, the Princess thought about Petros. She went to the window and watched him as he worked. And so it happened that Anastassia’s heart came to be filled with love for Petros, the ragged little gardener who had once been a shepherd boy in the mountains.
Four days later, two messengers from the Vandal King of the far west arrived at the palace. They knelt before the Emperor as he sat upon his throne with his feet on a crimson pillow.
“We have come here to speak for the Vandal King,” said the first messenger. “He asks for your daughter, the Princess Anastassia.”
The second messenger continued, “The Vandal King wants the Princess Anastassia to be the wife of his son, the Prince. He asks that we be allowed to take her back to the west with us tomorrow.”
The Emperor turned to the Empress. “Go to our daughter and tell her what has happened,” he said.
So the Empress went to Anastassia in her room. “My daughter,” she said, “the time has come for your wedding. The Vandal King wants you to go to his kingdom, far to the West, to marry his son, the Prince. What do you say?”
Anastassia had listened to her mother's words with growing dismay. Now she lowered her head and began to weep.
“Why are you crying, my daughter?” asked the Empress.
“Oh, mother,” sobbed Anastassia, “I cannot marry the Vandal Prince! There is someone else I love - someone here in our own city. Let me marry the only one my heart wants. Please! Don't send me away, mother!”
The Empress stepped back in surprise. “Who is it?” she asked. “Whom do you love?” “The apprentice to the master gardener,” whispered Anastassia. “He works in the garden. His name is Petros,”
“What did you say?” gasped the Empress. “The apprentice to the master gardener? That ragged boy? How on earth did you fall in love with him? Why, he is lower than a servant! What will your father say?” And with a little cry she gathered up her long skirts and train and went quickly to the Emperor.
“Well, what does our daughter think?” asked the Emperor.
“Anastassia,” the Empress told him, “does not want to marry the Vandal Prince. She loves another. She wants to marry the apprentice to the master gardener!”
“What?” shouted the Emperor. “That ragged boy in the garden? She loves him? But how could she know him? Did he dare to speak to her?” The Emperor was very angry indeed. His voice was a terrible roar as he ordered his guards to go to the garden and bring Petros to him at once.
Petros trembled with fear as he knelt before the Emperor. What had he done? Was it the ruined garden?
“How does it happen that my daughter loves you?” roared the Emperor.
Petros looked up in surprise. Could he believe his ears? How was it possible that Anastassia loved him? His heart beat fast with happiness as he murmured, “I don't know how the Princess happens to love me - if she does. Please, Your Clemency... I'm a poor boy. I try not to bother anyone. I hope I do my work well - that's all I ask. I want nothing more.”
Now the Emperor was a kind and good man. He did not order Petros put into prison, or make him leave the city, as other rulers might have done. But he told Petros that he would be allowed to continue working in the garden only if he never spoke to Anastassia. “My daughter cannot marry a servant,” he said. “Do not even look at the Princess, ever! Now go back to your work.” Petros bowed low and walked backwards out of the throne room.
The Emperor sat silent, deep in thought. He loved his daughter very much. He could not bear to see her unhappy, and he would never force her to marry the Vandal Prince. So he sent for the messengers from the Vandal King and said to them: “I have decided that my daughter, the Princess Anastassia, shall remain here and, one day, marry someone from our own land. It is best for her. She is very young. You must go back without her. Take my apologies and my greetings to the Vandal King of the West.”
When the messengers had gone, the Emperor got up and went to his daughter. “Anastassia,” he said, “you will stay here, as is your wish. I have sent the messengers away. But I forbid you to speak to the gardener’s apprentice. Don't even look- at him. And stop loving him!” With that, the Emperor went off to his private rooms. He knew he had said something silly, but he had had an exhausting morning.
Left alone, Anastassia picked up her doll and cradled it in her arms. It was a large lady doll, decorated with jewels and wrapped in a purple veil. “Sophia,” she said to the doll, “how can I stop loving him? How does one do that?” Sophia's unblinking stone eyes stared into the green eyes of Anastassia. “Come,” said Anastassia, “let us rest in the sun. Don't cry.” She put Sophia down on the wide window sill and sat beside her. Leaning into the sunshine, she began to sing to the doll in a clear, sweet voice:
Close your onyx eyes,
And all the tiny Persian nightingales
Will sing you lullabies.
If you sleep my lady,
Lay your head to rest,
You shall be dressed in gowns of Chinese silk,
With pearls across your chest.
Go to sleep my lady,
Dry your diamond tears.
You shall be Empress of Byzantium
For three enchanted years.”
But all the while she sang, the Princess Anastassia was really watching Petros as he worked in the garden.
Now the Vandal King of the West had made up his mind that Anastassia would be the wife of his son, the Prince. When he saw that his two messengers had returned without the Princess, he was very angry. When he received the Emperor's message, he was even angrier.
“Is not my son good enough for the Princess Anastassia?” he shouted. “I have been insulted by the Emperor of Byzantium!” At once he declared a war. He sent another messenger back to the Emperor, and the message was this: “We are coming to destroy you. Prepare for war!”
When the Emperor heard these words in the City of Light, he called for his general. “Prepare your armies for battle,” he said, “The Vandal King of the West is coming to attack us. We must keep his armies from approaching the city. Send your cavalry to the great plain and have the foot soldiers follow them. We will meet the enemy in the plain and fight them there.” And all through the city there was the sound of trumpets and horns, alerting the people to war.
Petros heard the news in the garden. He could hardly believe his ears, but he knew all about the Vandal King from the palace servants. “If it were not for me,” he thought, “perhaps there would be no war. Is it my fault? I must help.”
He ran to the Emperor where he stood before the palace doors watching his guards line up. “Thrice August,” he said, “Let me go too. I'll fight the enemy and help you win the war!”
The Emperor laughed loudly. “Bring a horse,” he ordered. “The little gardener is going to war!”
Two guards led up a horse. But it was an old horse and lame in one foot. The Emperor watched Petros climb onto the horse's thin and sagging back. “Don't forget your rake and shovel, gardener boy,” he laughed. “Go on! Go out and win the war!”
The Emperor's laughter followed Petros as he started off along the road. He rode slowly out of the city, through the Golden Gate, and toward the great plain to the west. Soldiers on horseback kept passing him, their helmets and shields and spears and swords gleaming in the sun. Two men in armour galloped past, raising the dust. One held the flag of Byzantium, the standard of the double eagles. The other held the great jewelled cross of the Emperor.
As the old horse limped along, he came to a large mud hole. Petros tried to lead him around it, but the horse slipped and sank down into the slime. He struggled to get out, kicking weakly and lunging forward, but this only made him sink in deeper and deeper. Petros got down and pulled at the horse. He pulled and pulled, but he could not move him. Soon both Petros and the horse were covered with mud.
The soldiers passing on their fine horses roared with laughter when they saw Petros stuck in the mud hole with his old lame horse. His hands, his feet, his face and clothes were all splashed and muddy. The soldiers waved and whistled and called out jokes: “See the brave warrior in the mud” “Let’s go home! Let him fight the war!” “There’s a sight will send the enemy running!” And they laughed and laughed.
The foot soldiers were approaching, and Petros asked two men to help him. All together, they managed to pull and push the old lame horse out of the mud. Petros led him to a roadside fountain. He scraped off the mud and scrubbed and washed the horse, and took him to a meadow to graze in the green grass. Then he went back and washed himself.
The last of the soldiers had disappeared over the hill. Petros took out his flint stone and steel and tinder-box, and made a fire. Very carefully, he took the hair from the black sea horse’s tail out of his leather purse. He scorched the hair over the fire. The black sea horse appeared at once, descending from a cloud of black smoke. He tossed his head and stamped his hooves, making the earth tremble underfoot. Petros blinked his eyes. He stood up and faced the horse from the sea. But he really felt like running away.
“What do you wish?” asked the horse.
“The Emperor is fighting a war,” said Petros. “I want to help him win.”
Petros felt a shiver run through his body. He looked down. He saw that he was dressed in black silk garments banded with gold. In his hand was a shining spear. Over his left arm hung a huge shield inlaid with ebony in the design of a thunderbolt. A sword was on his hip and on his hand, a helmet with a high black crest. He took a deep breath and mounted the black horse.
At once a storm arose. Wind and thunder and lightning and mist crashed and swirled together over the hills and hid the road. Straight to the wide plain flew the black horse, passing all the Emperor’s armies. Across the wide field no Vandal soldiers were yet in sight, but soon they would be coming from the west.
“Here,” said the horse, “we will wait for the enemy.” And suddenly, there on the edge of the plain, up rose a black silk tent with golden poles. It shone like a clear and starry night. Petros went inside.
Finally, behind Petros’s tent, the armies of the Emperor that he had passed began arriving. They saw the black tent on their side of the plain. The general got off his horse and called his men together. “Whose tent is that?” he asked. Of course no one knew. Just then, hearing voices, Petros came out.
The general stepped back when he saw the fearful warrior dressed in black, in the high-crested helmet. “Who are you?” he exclaimed. “Why here?”
“I have come from far away to help you,” said Petros. “Let me fight your enemy alone. If you see I am having trouble, only then come up to field of the battle.”
“If you so wish, Sire,” replied the general, “but I fear you will be killed at once.” Shaking their heads, the general and his men went off to make camp and pitch their own tents.
Then far away in the distance, across the plain, Petros saw the armies of the Vandal King of the West. They were massing and lining up for attack. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists to give himself courage. Now he really had to be brave.
Petros took up his spear and shield and mounted the horse. The splendid black animal stepped forward with arched neck, neighing loudly. As they started across the empty stretch of plain, Petros was a fearful sight. The point of his spear flashed like fire. His shield threw off sparks of light. The horse neighed again, twice, three times. The loud, sharp sound echoed the plain.
The Vandal soldiers watched in amazement and fear. Why did only one warrior come riding out to fight? Who was this man coming toward them so boldly? They were already caught in the web of panic when the fierce storm began. Darkness descended over all. Hurricane winds raced across the field. Heavy rain swept down and a thick fog whirled round and round with the circling winds.
Petros and the sea horse sped straight through the first line of soldiers. The horse plunged and kicked and bit and shrieked. He scattered the enemy with his sharp hooves and Petros's spear was like a shooting flame, striking everywhere - to the right - to the left - and back again.
Now bolts of lightning darted down from the sky and thunder bellowed and boomed. On and on, right through the ranks of soldiers the black horse plunged, until all was wild disorder and the armies of the Vandal King were destroyed. In the raging blackness and screaming wind, those who were still able turned and ran, fleeing to the west. The storm stopped and light came into the sky once more. So ended the war, in one day of wonder.
Petros’s arm was cut above the elbow, and blood flowed from the wound, dripping down onto the horse. He rode wearily back to his tent and lay down on the ground to rest.
The general and his men, who had been watching the unbelievable battle along with their armies, now came crowding into Petros’s tent. They saw that he was wounded. At once the general took out his gold-embroidered white handkerchief and tied it around Petros's arm to stop the blood.
“Sire,” said the general, “come with us to our Emperor. Let him thank you for all you have done, and reward you with rich gifts.” He had no idea that the stranger, this brave warrior was really a worker in the palace garden.
“I cannot come with you,” answered Petros. “I must be gone to the north. But I see, there on your belt, the drinking bowl of some king.”
“Yes,” replied the general, “this is our Emperor’s cup. He sent it with us to bring luck to the battle.”
“Give me that, if you wish,” said Petros. “That will be gift enough for me.” Then the general, with much pleasure, threw back his red cape, unhooked the silver drinking bowl from his belt, and gave it to Petros. "In the name of our Emperor," he announced, “Byzantium thanks you.”
As the men stepped back to give him room, Petros mounted the black sea horse. He lifted his arm in a salute, then rode quickly back to where the old lame horse still grazed in the meadow. He patted the sea horse on the neck and climbed down. The black horse vanished on the spot. Gone were the black garments, the shield and spear and sword and helmet. Petros was once again dressed in his own ragged clothes. But there, fastened to his belt, was the Emperor’s drinking cup. He drew his cloak over it so it could not be seen.
Petros led the old lame horse back to the fountain to drink. The soldiers were returning from the field of battle, riding back to the city. They saw Petros there, just as they had left him, struggling with his old lame horse.
“Are you still there?” they called. “Is that where you’ve been fighting? When are you going to battle?”
When the soldiers had passed, Petros climbed onto the poor old horse and very slowly, they limped back to the palace garden.
The general returned victorious to the city. The people came out into the streets to cheer him for winning the war. The music of flutes was everywhere, and children tossed flowers and myrtle branches at the feet of the soldiers.
That night the whole city was illuminated by hanging oil lamps, and there was a celebration in the palace. The Emperor gave a huge feast for the general and his men. All the palace lights were blazing. The master gardener and Petros were kept busy carrying armloads of flowers from the garden to the palace, to decorate the great dining hall. They passed back and forth between the kitchen servants who bore in platter after platter of meats and fish and sweets.
Then suddenly, in the crowded room, Petros saw the general standing before the Emperor. “Well, we won the battle, Your Majesty,” Petros heard him say. “The war is over. But I lost your drinking cup there on the plain during the fight.”
“Never mind about the cup,” smiled the Emperor. “You had a great victory. You won the war in one short day. I am glad.”
“Yes, we won!” replied the general, and took: his place at the long banquet table, where he began joking and laughing. Then in a loud voice he called out, “And every one of my men fought magnificently!”
Petros could not believe his ears. Not one word about the stranger in black who fought the battle all alone. All around him he could hear the general’s men boasting of their courage before the fierce Vandal soldiers. Why, not one man in the room had lifted a spear in the battle that won the war. How dare they claim credit for what the sea horse did! For the first time in his life Petros felt real anger. Blood rushed to his head. His hands holding the flowers trembled. His chest felt as though it would burst.
Petros continued placing the long-stemmed flowers around the room, but he kept his eyes and ears open. He watched everything and everyone. When the Emperor called for wine, he quickly followed the wine steward to the Emperor's side. Before the steward could even tip the pitcher to pour, Petros placed the silver cup on the table.
The Emperor drew back in surprise. He recognized his drinking bowl at once. “Where did you find this cup?" he asked in a loud voice. All the men in the dining hall stopped talking and eating to listen.
“It was given to me by your general,” answered Petros. “He gave it to me in my tent - on the field of battle. He gave it to me as a reward, because all alone I fought the enemy and won the war.”
With a shout the general rose from his seat, “What are you talking about, you ragamuffin! I gave nothing to you!”
The Emperor held up his hand for silence. “Was this cup lost? Or did you give it to someone… someone else, perhaps?”
The general was silent. Everyone waited. “Come,” ordered the Emperor, “I want to hear the truth.”
The general was ashamed. He knew he must speak. So at last he told about the glorious warrior in black who fought alone. He told about the terrible storm and how the battle was won. “I gave the warrior your cup as a reward,” he said.
The Emperor thought for a moment. Then he spoke: “Was this the cup you gave?”
“Yes,” answered the general. “That is the very one. The black warrior must have lost it. This little beggar found it and kept it. He ought to be punished!”
“Wait!” cried Petros. “That warrior was wounded in the right arm. Did you not tie the cut to stop the blood?”
“Yes!” exclaimed the general in surprise. “I bound it with my own handkerchief.”
“Would you recognize your handkerchief if you saw it?” asked Petros.
“Of course I would,” said the general. “It was white with gold embroidery.”
Then Petros called out, “I am that warrior! And I can prove it.” He pulled up his sleeve. “Look here!” There, still tied around his arm, caked with dried blood, was the general’s white handkerchief.
Everyone crouded to see. Through the babble of voices, the general was heard to exclaim, “Why, that is my handkerchief!”
The Emperor stood up. “We shall find out if you really are so brave and strong,” he said to Petros. “A gardener cannot change into a warrior. Powerful magic must have been at work. Let's see if you can do it again.”
Petros began to tremble with fright. What terrible contest lay before him? He was silent, waiting. What fate was in store for him?
The Emperor paced back and forth between his guards, thinking. At last he announced: “Tomorrow, at the third hour, we will have a chariot race. One horse, not the four-horse teams. Your best horse against my best horse. We shall see who wins!”
That night Petros could not sleep. He tossed and turned upon his bed. He was very worried. He had used all three hairs from the sea horses' tails. How could he call them? He was more frightened than he had ever been in his life.
In the morning he had to have a fine horse. A horse better than the Emperor's best horse.
He wished he could talk to his brother Kosmas about it, or better still, ask his father what to do. He tried hard to remember his father's face - the gentle eyes, the long straight nose, the big moustache that used to prick his cheek.
At last, when the dark began to melt from the sky, before the sun came up, Petros went out into the garden. He dug in the ground under the marble bench until he found the golden apple. It was all he had. He brushed the earth from it and polished it on his sleeve. Then he sat down on the bench to think.
When the first rays of the rising sun fell on the apple, Petros noticed a tiny hole in the bottom. He looked at it closely. Something in the earth must have eaten into the gold. “The hole doesn't matter,” thought Petros. “It's still my father's apple.” And he rubbed it softly across his cheek.
As he sat there pondering, Petros said to himself, “The sea horses stole an apple from our tree every year. They must want it very much...” Suddenly he jumped to his feet. “What would happen,” he shouted, “if I gave it to them?”
He quickly opened the gate and ran out of the garden. He ran down to the harbour - to the palace docks. The sea was calm and green in the early morning. The Emperor's ships were all lined up in rows, their sails closed and folded against the masts. They pulled gently at their anchors.
Petros walked to the end of the dock. The golden apple gleamed in his hand. He took a deep breath. Then he threw the apple as far as he could out over the water. He saw the apple arc through the air in a golden streak. He saw it fall and sink under the tiny, moving waves. His heart gave a sudden leap in his chest. His apple was gone!
As he watched, the sea began to swirl and churn into white foam. The rising water formed a rushing whirlpool -and then, with a splash of spray, up rose the sea horses! The red horse, the black horse, and the white horse, side by side. With hooves raised high above the whirling waters, they made one great jump and landed on the dock in a burst of salt spray. They sparkled in the sunlight. Water streamed from their nocks and flanks. The red horse held the golden apple in his mouth.
The horses stood quietly, their large dark eyes fixed on Petros's face. “I need you,” he whispered. “I'm in trouble. Somehow, I must win a chariot race. I need a swift horse, better than the Emperor's best horse.”
“We come to you for the last time,” said the black sea horse.
“You are growing up,” said the white horse. “Your limbs are strong and firm.”
“You are almost a man now,” said the black horse. “You must not need us again.”
“Go to place of racing,” said the white sea horse, “I will be waiting.”
“But you will not make a storm this time?” begged Petros. “The Emperor must see me win!”
Petros felt his body grow hot, and then cold. He glanced down. He was dressed all in white. Jewels and gold braid were sewn onto the cloth of his tunic.
“Remember,” said the white horse, “we cannot come again.” The three horses tossed their heads and whinnied. Turning, they plunged back into the sea with a splash and disappeared under the settling waters.
The sun was rising higher into the sky. It was almost time. Petros ran back to the garden, out onto the roadway, and around to the Hippodrome on the hill, where the chariots raced. As he passed behind the huge arena, he could hear the excited roar of thousands of people gathered inside, waiting.
He went around to the Hippodrome stables. The white sea horse was there. He was behaving just like an ordinary horse, pawing the ground and snorting, eager to run.
The grooms drew up a slender chariot and harnessed the sea horse to it. Petros got in and took up the reins in both hands. He waved away the whip a groom offered him, and drove out into the greet arena.
The ground had been swept and watered, ready for the chariots. Down the middle of the racing area Petros saw a strip of marble like an island, dividing the earthen, oval track. Rising in the centre of the strip were many statues of famous charioteers, and a bronze portrait of the Emperor.
Petros looked up at the mass of faces. Under the bright silk awnings, row after row of curving benches was crowded with people. And there was the Emperor himself, sitting in the royal box.
When the crowd saw Petros dressed in shining white, standing ready in his chariot drawn by the splendid white horse, they began to shout and cheer.
The Emperor's driver came out in his chariot and took his place beside Petros. The official announcer spoke in a sharp voice: "Twelve laps to this race! Twelve laps to this race!" The Emperor raised his arm. He gave the signal. The race began. Off they went down the long track.
The white sea horse ran so swiftly no one saw him touch the ground. Around and around the strip they flew. Petros passed the statue of the Emperor twice, three times, four times. He looked back. The wind whistled in his hair. The other chariot was well behind, but gaining ground. Petros held the reins loosely, giving the sea horse freedom, balancing himself on the racing chariot.
There was the Emperor’s statue again... seven times around, eight, and nine. The roar of the crowd came to him in high waves of sound. Petros rounded the track for the tenth time. Two more laps to go!
The Emperor’s statue flashed by - he was on the last lap. When he passed the statue again, he began to rein the horse gently. Then a great blast of shouting exploded in his ears. He had won the race.
All at once the ground around him was covered with flowers and rings and bracelets thrown to him by the cheering crowd. A crown of laurel leaves was placed upon his head. He stepped down from the chariot and saluted the Emperor in the royal box. If only his brothers could see him! How proud Aunt Penelope would be. Would Manolis laugh at him so quickly now?
The announcer's voice cut through the noise: “The winner goes at once to the Emperor! To the throne room of the palace!”
Petros led the white sea horse to the stables. There, the grooms unharnessed him and rubbed him down. When they had finished, Petros said, “I'll take him now.” He walked the horse out onto the roadway, and to a secluded place behind a wall.
“From this day,” said the white sea horse, “you must stand alone.”
Petros put his arms around the sea horse's neck and looked into the large dark eyes for the last time. “Thank you, White One,” he whispered. Petros turned away sadly, starting back to the palace. He heard a soft whinny, but he did not look back. He knew that the horse from the sea had already disappeared.
On his throne, the Emperor sat between two streams of incense smoke that rose in thin lines to the arched ceiling.
“You must indeed be that warrior who won our war,” he said to Petros. “How did you do it? Who are you?”
How could Petros explain the sea horses to him? Who would believe him? “I am a poor gardener, Your Clemency. My name is Petros. Long ago, I was a shepherd. I came here from Macedonia,” was all he said.
The Emperor was silent. “Fate sent this boy to my city,” he thought. “Single-handed, he sent the enemy running, and not one of ay soldiers was killed. For that I must be grateful.” So he decided to ask no more questions. Instead, he called for the imperial scribe. “Record what I am about to say,” he told him.
The scribe unrolled a long parchment scroll and carefully wrote as the Emperor spoke again: “Little gardener, I hereby make you a nobleman. From this moment on, you will be known as Count Petros.” And he placed a chain of gold around Petros's neck. The scribe finished writing and bowed himself out of the throne room.
“Now, Count Petros,” smiled the Emperor, “what gift do you wish as a reward for winning the war?”
Petros was so amazed he could not speak. Count Petros! He was a Count! He glanced up at the Emperor. Did he dare to ask for what he really wanted? “Your Clemency…” he began.
“Yes, yes,” said the Emperor, “speak out.”
“Well,” said Petros, “I wish to marry your daughter, the Princess Anastassia.” He held his breath.
The Emperor rose from his throne in surprise. Then he sat down again. He stared at Petros. At last he gave a great sigh and said, “Yes, you deserve to marry a Princess. You shall have my daughter for your wife. If she agrees, of course.” Then he smiled at Petros again and, slowly closing one eye he winked!
And so, Count Petros was married to Princess Anastassia in the great domed church. The Emperor himself set the wreaths of white flowers on both their heads. In the glowing candlelight he took Anastassia’s hand and placed it in the hand of Petros, so that forever afterwards, they would be united in happiness. Then the celebration began. Bells rang, flutes trilled, and the sounds of singing and rejoicing filled the City of Light.
But in all the excitement, Count Petros did not forget his home in the mountains of Macedonia. By special messenger, he sent old Aunt Penelope a shawl woven with threads of gold, fine clothing and money to his brothers, and an invitation for them to come to the City of Light.
In time, the Emperor put Petros in charge of the new silk industry. Eggs of the silkworm, hidden in a hollow cane, had been brought to the city from the Land of Silk. The Emperor had the precious eggs transported to the south, to the warm coast of Syria. There, in the constant heat, the eggs hatched into worms that fed on the leaves of white mulberry trees, and spun the thread. Thus, greatly-desired silk material was made for the first time in the Empire of the East. It was no longer necessary to buy silk from far-away China.
Petros arranged for Manolis to go to Syria to care for the silkworms, plant more mulberry trees, and oversee the weaving of the thread into shimmering cloth. The cloth was sold all across the empire and money poured into the royal treasury.
Kosmas stayed on their land in the mountains of Macedonia with the flocks, as was his wish, and Aunt Penelope said that she was too old to travel. But Petros sent them more gifts of gold and jewels, and a fine house was built for them there. Anastassia too sent them presents, along with a miniature painting of herself and Petros.
It was not until months later that Petros entered the palace garden again. As he strolled along the walks around the pool, thinking of the days when he had been a worker there, he noticed a plant growing under the marble bench where no sun fell. He quickly got to his knees and examined the leaves. Yes, it was a tiny apple tree!
He called for the master gardener and had the bench removed. He gave strict orders that the plant be tended carefully. Petros knew why the tree was growing there. He knew too that some day it would bear a golden apple. Perhaps, in the years to come, one of his sons would manage to pick it. Would the horses from the sea return?
Above, you see a gleam of light,
Stretch out your hand, reach up, be bold!
For if your nets are strong and hold,
If you are brave and quick, you might –
You too - might snare the fruit of gold
From some enchanted apple tree,
And capture horses from the sea!