Long ago, in a land overrun with peasants and knights and maidens fair and brave and foolish knaves, a lonely king and queen traveled far and wide in search of a magician whom could help them conjure the only treasure they did not possess, a child.
King Kleibold and Queen Eugenia carried with them sacks of jeweled goblets, gold coins, and the finest furs. These they offered to anyone able to fulfill their fondest wish. Scoundrels and scalawags passed the word and greeted the royal couple eagerly along the way, promising not the moon and stars, but the joyous sound of a baby’s bellow.
The king and queen willfully submitted to all forms of indignity during their quest. They drank bitter potions, bathed in perfumed oils, recited strange incantations, and ate stews cooked of unusual roots and exotic berries, all to no avail.
Eventually, hope withered in the souls of the barren couple and the king refused to continue shelling out shillings to charlatans.
Queen Eugenia retreated into the darkness of her heart and began to paint stormy and dangerous landscapes that puzzled the lords and ladies of the court. When she asked their opinion of her art work, they lavished praise on her, then whispered to one another behind their hands that Her Majesty was not right in her mind.
King Kleibold took an interest in the horses his knights rode into battle and began training them to perform all manner of tricks. A blacksmith was brought in to fashion for each of the horses a set of fine gold shoes and a befuddled tailor was summoned and ordered to adorn the beasts with bright, colorful drapes and splendid, sparkling saddles.
An equestrian tournament was arranged and pages delivered invitations throughout the kingdom. On the day of the event, throngs of merchants, innkeepers, physicians, dukes, earls, lords and ladies flocked to the castle. Minstrels strolled among them singing while jesters juggled and joked for their amusement. As the waning sun tinted the sky various shades of rose, the king called for silence.
All mouths closed and all eyes turned his way, while King Kleibold took his place in the center of the festivities and called for his horses. Stable boys led each beast out and ringed the king before bowing and retreating. The minstrels took up a merry melody and the horses began to dance.
Whirling flashes of color against the twilight sky, the horses performed beautifully for their master. They bowed and turned and skipped in perfect unison, just as Kleibold had taught them. After many songs and many dances, the stable boys returned and led the horses away, while the crowd took up a great cheering over the king’s accomplishment.
“Thank you, my children,” Kleibold whispered, as he watched the last horse, head held high and tail twitching with pride, trot off.
That was merely the first of many such displays the king arranged. As he continued to train the horses in ever more intricate dances, his affection for them filled his heart with the love that he would have otherwise bestowed upon the son or daughter of his dreams. Kleibold’s children were fed the finest grains, groomed with the best brushes, and treated with a respect which no other horses in the land had ever known.
It was after one especially successful tournament that the king and queen were approached by a man in ragged clothing. His hands were dirty, his breath rank with spoiled wine, and his eyes alight with strange knowledge. Kleibold began to call for his guards to remove the beggar, when Eugenia placed her hand on her husband’s arm.
“Let him speak,” the queen entreated.
The beggar claimed to be a great magician and gave the couple a small vial of powder, instructed them in its use and held out a grimy hand for payment. Kleibold had him removed from the castle grounds, unwilling to pay for yet another false cure, yet kept the powder and followed the instructions.
Nine months later, after Princess Calliope was born to the joyful king and queen, a knight was sent to summon the beggar to the castle. Marcel was named royal magician by the king in a great ceremony and given gifts beyond his wildest dreams. A spacious and exquisitely furnished room was provided for him in the castle, where he lived among the royals as a nobleman.
As Princess Calliope grew, Queen Eugenia’s paintings became ever more optimistic. Sunlit meadows exploding with wildflowers flowed from her brush and she had a servant move the dangerous and stormy landscapes of her dark period to a deserted room in the castle. The lords and ladies of the court no longer whispered behind their hands and their appreciation of her art was genuine and enthusiastic.
King Kleibold, meanwhile, began spending less time training the horses as he devoted more and more time to his daughter. When he did attempt to teach the beasts new dances, he did so with Calliope’s amusement in mind. If the child grew bored, Kleibold would immediately call a halt to the dance and send the stable boys to put away the animals.
The dancing horses came to resent Princess Calliope with a wild passion. She had stolen their master’s affection. They longed for his proud praise and all the fine things they had come to expect as Kleibold’s children.
In the fifth summer of Princess Calliope’s life, the king decided to teach her to ride the dancing horses. His head was filled with visions of the splendid spectacle he would arrange for the next equestrian tournament. While he prepared for it, Queen Eugenia sat in the shade of a great oak tree, painting a portrait of their daughter mounted atop a particularly magnificent steed. It was the happiest time the king and queen had ever known.
Princess Calliope had grown quite good at riding by the day her adoring father fell ill from a bit a bad mutton he had consumed at dinner the previous night and left the girl in the care of Queen Eugenia to take to his bed for a nap. Eugenia was brushing out the final strokes of her masterpiece and delighting in the lilting trill of her daughter’s laughter as the princess trotted the horse upon which she rode in a wide circle.
Suddenly, Calliope’s laughter became a shriek and the Queen dropped her brush as she looked up to see the dancing horses racing away toward the sea. The princess held the reins tightly and screamed for her mother. Lifting her skirts and ordering one the stable boys to fetch her husband, Eugenia pursued them, with the other stable boy close behind.
Over the meadow they ran, screaming after the horses. Queen Eugenia ignored the bite of sharp stones that dug through the soles of the soft and fine shoes she wore, but tired quickly. The stable boy continued after the beasts. As they neared the great cliff overlooking the boiling ocean, he paused and picked up a flat, goodish sized rock.
With a practiced hand and aim born out of boredom with his stable duties, for this stable boy was often found skipping stones in the pond behind the castle, he flung the rock. Sunlight glinted off the small flecks metal embedded in it as it sailed across the field and found its mark. The stone struck one of the hooves of the horse carrying the princess and the beast stumbled.
Princess Calliope wailed as she was flung off. The stable boy and the queen watched in horror as she tumbled to the edge of the cliff and slipped over. Racing to her, the stable boy found the child clinging to a knotty branch which protruded from the cliff face and pulled her up and over into the safety of his arms.
When Kleibold arrived at the edge of the great cliff overlooking the ocean, he found the queen sitting on the ground, consoling their daughter. The horses, eager to be the focus of the King’s attention once again, ringed their master and began to dance. Princess Calliope sobbed and clung to her mother.
Battling his own rage, while attempting to console his hysterical wife, the king sent the stable boy to fetch Marcel, the magician. When the wizard arrived, the king spoke to him briefly, then pushed himself out of Eugenia’s arms and took up a spot some distance away. As he knew they would, Kleibold’s children once more ringed him and began to dance.
“Dance, my children,” Kleibold whispered through his tears. “Dance for Princess Calliope. Dance forever.”
At that, Marcel raised a hand and cast the spell Kleibold had requested. The dancing horses froze in place, some leaping, some skipping, some rearing up. Their tails and
manes, blown by the warm breath of the sea, stopped in time. Eyes wide, nostrils flaring, and teeth gnashing, Kleibold’s children were rendered as still and lifeless as marble statues.
That winter, King Kleibold sold the motionless dancing horses to a merchant, ordering the man to take them as far from the kingdom as he could. Queen Eugenia instructed a maid to place another item in the merchant’s cart before he rode off; a painting of a young princess riding a magnificent steed. Throughout the kingdom, word was passed that the king had forbidden anyone to speak of the horses ever again.
Kleibold’s children were sold many times through the centuries. Eventually, a circus showman bought them, mounted them on poles, and attached them to a rotating platform. He called the device a carousel, in honor of the equestrian tournaments held in the days of peasants and knights and kings and queens and brave and foolish knaves.
To this day, children of all ages take delight in riding the dancing horses at carnivals and county fairs. As the pipe organ, known as a calliope, plays its merry melody, sensitive young ears can sometimes hear between the notes, the lilting trill of a laughing princess.