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The Boy Who Apprenticed to an Enchanter
THE HORSES OF KING MANUS
As for the youth who had tried to steal the white horse that the King owned, he was bound hand and foot and taken into the castle of the King. There he was thrown down beside the trestles of the great table, and the hot wax from the candles that lighted the supper board dripped down upon him. And it was told to him that at the morrow's sunrise he would be slain with the sword.
Then the King called upon one to finish the story that was being told when the neigh of the white horse was heard in the stable. The story could not be finished for him, however, because the one who had been telling it was now outside, guarding the iron door of the stable with a sword in his hand. And King Manus, sitting at the supper board, could not eat nor refresh himself because there was no one at hand to finish the story for him. And that is the way that the story of The Boy Apprenticed to an Enchanter used to begin.
But first I shall have to tell you about King Manus and his three horses.
King Manus ruled over the Western Island, and he had a castle that was neither higher nor wider than any other King's castle. But he had a stable that was more strongly built than any other King's stable. It had double walls of stone; it had oak beams; it had an iron door with four locks to it. And before this door two soldiers with drawn swords in their hands stayed night and day.
In those days, if one went before a King and asked him for a gift the King might not refuse to give what was asked of him. But King Manus was hard to come to by those with requests. For before the chamber where he sat or slept there stood a servant to take the request, and if it were one that might not be brought to him, to make an excuse for the King.
It was all because of the King's three horses — a white horse, a red horse, and a black horse. The white horse was as swift as the plunging wave of the sea, the red horse was as swift as fire in the heather, and the speed of the black horse was such that he could overtake the wind of March that was before him, and the wind of March that was behind could not overtake him.
Many had tried to get one of the King's horses by request or by robbery. But those who would ask for a gift were kept away from the King, while the stone walls, double thick, with the door of iron with four locks to it, kept robbers outside. Besides there were the two soldiers with drawn swords in their hands to prevent the horses being taken out of the stable by any one except their own grooms. And so it was thought very certain that King Manus would never-lose his famous horses.
But this very night, when the King and his lords were at supper, the neigh of a horse in the stable was heard. Then it was that the story-teller stopped in his story. The trampling of a horse was heard. Straight out King Manus ran, and his harper and his story-teller and his lords ran with him. When they came to the stable they saw that the two soldiers were sitting before the iron door fast asleep, with the swords on the ground before them. And the locks were off the door of iron.
Just as they came there the iron door of the stable opened and the King's white horse was led out. He who had the rein was a strange youth dressed in a foreign dress. The youth was about to spring on the horse's back when those who were with the King sprang upon him and held him and held the bridle of the horse.
And having secured the youth they went into the stable, and they found the red horse and the black horse eating at their mangers. They led the white horse back and put him in his own stall. The watchers who had been before the stable door could not be wakened, so those who were with the King carried them to another place, and left two others, the harper and the story-teller, to keep watch, with the soldiers' swords in their hands. As for the youth who had tried to steal the white horse, he was placed as has been told you, and every one there knew what doom would befall him.
It was then that the King called upon one to finish the story that was being told him when the white horse neighed. It was then that he sat at the supper board, not able to take rest nor refreshment on account of his not having heard the story to its end. And it was then that one of the lords said to the King, "Let the youth who is lying bound beside the trestles of the table tell us what it was that made him go into such danger to steal one of the horses of King Manus."
The King liked that saying, and he said, "Since my story-teller abides outside guarding the door of the stable, I will have this youth tell us the story of why he entered into such danger to steal one of my horses. And more than that. I declare that if he shows us that he was ever in greater danger than he is in this night I shall give him his life. But if it is not so shown the story he tells will avail him nothing, and he shall perish by the sword at the morrow's sunrise."
Then the youth was taken from where he lay by the trestles of the table, and the cords that bound him were loosened. He was put in the story-teller's place and fresh candles were lighted and set upon the table.
"Your danger is great," said the King, "and it will be hard for you to show us that you were ever in such danger before. Begin your story. And if it is not a story of a narrow and a close escape there will be little time left for you to prepare for your death by the sword."
Thereupon the youth in the foreign dress looked long into the wine cup that was handed him, and he drank a draught of the wine, and he saluted the King and the lords who sat by the King, and he said:
"Once I was in greater danger, for its mouth was close to me, and no hope whatever was given me of my saving my life. I will tell the story, and you shall judge whether my danger then was greater than is my danger now."
And thereupon the youth in the foreign dress, who had tried to steal the white horse that King Manus owned, began the story which is set down here in the very words in which he told it.