The Flying Horses
"In the reign of the Emperor Wu, in the dynasty of Han, barbarian horsemen swept like flood-water over the land. A river of men and horses poured down from the northern hills and spread across China. The sturdy, shaggy horses of the invaders trampled the fields of growing rice; the men set fire to the peasants' huts as they galloped along. The barbarians seized jewels and silk which they crammed into their saddle-bags, they drove herds of stolen cattle before them, they even carried off the beautiful wives and daughters of Chinese noblemen. The flying hoofs of the enemy sounded like thunder over the plains.
"That was a time of mourning. But the Emperor Wu, a name which means 'warlike,' sent for Chang, his wise counselor. 'Shall the cities of Han lie bruised under the hoof of the barbarian? Shall the wailing of Tartar flutes be heard in our land?' said Wu. Chang bowed his head before the Dragon Throne, and awaited the Emperor's command.
"'Take a hundred followers and cross the great desert,' said Wu. 'Explore the unknown region beyond the bitter lakes, and find allies there, among the people of the West, who will come to the aid of China.'"
Chang bowed his head again, in token of submission. He said farewell to his sons and set out from the Western Gate of the city. Months passed, year followed year, but there was no news of him or his company. Then, one day, ten years after his departure, the narrow streets around the palace were alive with whispers. 'Chang is here! Chang the Counselor has returned! Only one of his followers is with him. The others have all perished in the desert. But Chang is alive! Chang is here!'"
In the throne-room, Chang bowed before the Dragon Throne. 'Son of Heaven, I have traveled far to the West, beyond the hills and the desert and the bitter lakes, farther than ever our countrymen have traveled before. I have seen Indians as dark as the night, in robes of flowing white linen. I have seen men whose skin is a pale as milk ...'
"'Truly these are marvels,' said the Emperor Wu, impatiently. 'But allies ... have you found allies for China?' 'No man will fight for us, Son of Heaven,' answered Chang. 'Yet I have found allies in the West. Beyond the hills on our borders stretches a great desert, where for hundreds of miles one journeys through parched rocks and naked earth. But all at once one comes to a green valley, full of the sound of running waters; and soon, as one journeys on, one sees the towers and roofs of a city among the trees. This is the city of Ta Yuan.'
"'But the allies -- the allies?' cried the Emperor.
"'In the emerald-green grass of the meadows around this city graze the most wonderful horses in the world,' answered Chang. 'When they gallop one would almost think they fly; their long manes float in the air like wings. Their hearts are noble; for hours they will race across the plain and never pause, until the sweat stands dark upon their chestnut flanks like drops of their own blood. If our Chinese cavalry were mounted on Ta Yuan horses, it would sweep over the barbarians as the wind sweeps over a field of barley. O Son of Heaven, those horses would be better than any other allies in the world!'
"The Emperor Wu sent ambassadors to Ta Yuan bearing a priceless gift, a horse made of pure gold. But when the king of Ta Yuan saw it, he leaned back in his throne and laughed.
"'What use to me is a horse of gold? Can it gallop and swerve and rear and turn, like our own Ta Yuan horses? If I were riding this horse in battle, I should soon be taken prisoner!'
"His haughty nobles echoed his laughter. 'We shall not sell our horses! Let the Emperor of China ride his own horse of gold!'
"The ambassador was afraid to carry this scornful message to the great Emperor Wu, nor dared he return to China without the horses. That night he crept out of the city with his followers and went to the meadows where the chestnut horses were grazing. Each Chinese horseman carried a spare bridle which he slipped over the head of a Ta Yuan horse. The well-schooled creatures picked their way delicately after the Chinese baggage horses, and the ambassador rejoiced, for he hoped to be out in the trackless desert by dawn.
"When dawn broke they found themselves in a rocky valley, at the gate of the desert. The Ta Yuan horses were straining at the bit, longing to gallop, yet held back by the slowness of the baggage animals. They advanced a few more paces, and a distant sound began to beat on the ambassador's ears. First it sounded like hailstones, then like the voice of a waterfall, then like the roaring of a mighty river behind them. It was the cavalry of the King of Ta Yuan in pursuit. In vain the Chinese tore the baggage from their own slow-moving beasts, in vain they climbed on the backs of the Ta Yuan horses; it was too late. Round the bend of the valley, swerving and swift as an arrow of lightning, whirling like a flood, came the horsemen of Ta Yuan.
"Only one man returned to China to tell what had happened. The bones of his comrades were picked clean by the buzzards in the far-distant valley.
"Terrible was the anger of the Emperor Wu when he heard what had become of his embassy. Soon, by his decree, a great army wound its way out of the land of Han and across the desert. Sunlight glittered on the silver armor of the Chinese knights; the long plumes of their helmets floated scarlet and blue in the desert wind. Peasants stood by the roadside to see them pass, and watched till they vanished into the distance. Yet months passed, and of all that noble army only one man returned.
"'Is there a dragon in this western land, which devours my men?' cried the Emperor, and he sent a fresh army, fifty-thousand strong, across the desert to Ta Yuan. For many months again there was no news, until one evening a weary, foam-flecked messenger rode in at the Western Gate. 'The army of Han has won a great victory, and the people of Ta Yuan have made peace. They have given three thousand horses to the Emperor.'
"People crowded out of the city gates shouting, 'The horses are coming! The Ta Yuan horses are coming at last!' Far away on the horizon appeared a speck of dust. It moved; it grew; it swelled to a vast yellow cloud, hanging like a canopy over the swiftly racing army as it drew nearer, nearer to the town. In almost an instant it seemed, so fast did the Ta Yuan horses gallop, they swept in at the city gate. The Chinese horsemen laughed with joy; the plumes of their helmets streamed out behind them like the tail of a comet, and as they galloped they shouted, 'Make way! Make way! Make way for the wonderful horses of the Emperor Wu!'
"The Emperor rejoiced when he saw the swift horses which had cost so many lives. 'Now the barbarians will be driven from our land. Honor, glory and long life to the wise Counselor Chang!' he cried.
"But Chang the Counselor was nowhere to be found, though courtiers and chamberlains scurried through all the rooms of the palace, calling his name. They found him at last in the Imperial stables, watching the horses being rubbed down after their long journey. Their delicate nostrils quivered, they trembled, and the dark sweat stood like blood on their shining flanks. They were even more noble than he remembered them in the emerald-green meadows of Ta Yuan, and as he watched them Counselor Chang murmured a poem:First Century B.C.
Gallop, gallop, gallop, horses,
Like a storm of autumn leaves,
Chestnut fetlock, nostril, ear.
Gallop, gallop, horses, gallop,
Safe from danger snatch your man;
Stride a thousand miles of desert;
With the sweat of blood upon you,
Stand at last within your stall."