Today’s challenge was to write a story in which I’m mean to the protagonist. I went for a fairy tale without a happy ending, written in the style of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’.
The Noble Heart
There was once a young girl and her name was Nousha. When Nousha was born, her mother breathed her last, and so it was that Nousha grew up with only her father for company. He was a humble shepherd and they lived the two of them in a small hut on the edge of the forest, taking their sheep every morning to graze in the lush, green fields of the surrounding countryside. All day, they would sit and talk as their flock wandered about in the grass, content with each other’s company and enjoying the simple life with which they had been blessed.
As time went on, Nousha grew into a beautiful young woman and she was the delight of her father’s heart for he had nurtured her from her babyhood and surrounded her with flowers and birdsong that she might never know sadness and thus become a comfort to him in his old age. And the two of them were happy indeed, for she loved her father with all her heart and longed only to make him happy.
Now the sultan who ruled over their province was an old man and fat, and he had forty wives and four hundred concubines and his sons were many and his daughters plentiful. And although his sons were all strong and handsome, his eldest son, Firuz was the one he loved best for Firuz was the son of the sultan’s first wife and the heir to everything his father owned, yet he was also arrogant and proud and so when, one morning, he rode past Nousha and her father as they sat tending their flock, he did not greet them courteously but instead bade them move their sheep that his fine Arab stallion might pass by unimpeded.
Nousha looked at the handsome man before her, and though his hair curled about his neck and his eyes were the colour of chestnuts, she saw too that his heart was as black as the steed on which he sat and that his lip curved cruelly. Nevertheless, she was as kind and considerate as Prince Firuz was selfish, and so she rose to her feet and curtsied very prettily to the sultan’s son, saying that she and her father would gladly move but that her father was an old man and his limbs were weak and so it would take some time for them to grant the prince’s request.
Then Firuz looked at the girl and he noticed that her eyes were large and almond shaped, and that her hair cascaded down her back in a perfect waterfall, and he was moved to lust after this innocent young creature, so he struck her father with his whip in one hand and then, using the other, he scooped up Nousha and placed her on his horse in front of him and they galloped back to the palace where he intended to make her part of his harem. And Nousha wept bitterly for her poor, injured father for she feared that she would never see him again.
But as they galloped towards the sultan’s palace, a band of brigands appeared, their horses circling that of Prince Firuz. His stallion reared and kicked but the bandits were not alarmed and took Firuz and Nousha captive and led them to a cave some leagues hence where they dwelt in secret.
Nousha wept once more as she was led into the robbers’ cave for she felt sure that she and the prince would be killed. Firuz had grown pale of face and weak of knee, yet he tried to frighten the brigands, promising all manner of punishment from the sultan if he were not immediately restored to his father, but their captors merely laughed in his face and led their two prisoners into the middle of the cave where their chieftain sat on silken pillows, surrounded by all the gold and jewels he had stolen.
Abu ben Sabr – for that was the robber chief’s name – looked long and hard at the two who had been brought before him and he saw straight away that Prince Firuz was a coward but that Nousha was made of sterner stuff, despite her tears, and he tied the prince’s hands with rope but Nousha’s hands were bound lightly with a silken scarf, and he addressed them both, saying, “I am Abu ben Sabr, ruler of these men, and it is our custom to execute all our prisoners, but I see that you, sir, are of noble birth and so I will grant you the opportunity to free yourself and this maiden before you. I challenge you now to the Ordeal of a Thousand Cuts: if you will stand before me and let each of my men in turn slash your skin with his sword, and if at the end of such a ceremony you are standing still, then you will have proved your worth and you may leave in peace.” (He said this knowing that the first cut would most likely kill the prince, but he wanted Nousha to think that he was a fair man for he had already lost his heart to her beauty.)
Prince Firuz trembled at these words, knowing that the pain would be terrible if he were not lucky enough to die immediately from the first sword thrust. “Let me die now,” he begged, falling to his knees before the robber prince. “Let you or one of your men remove my head with your sword that I may die swiftly and without suffering.”
But Nousha spoke up, surprising the men and saying, “If I undertake this ordeal, will you release us both?”
Abu ben Sabr’s heart swelled as the gentle maiden made her offer and indeed he would have loved nothing more than to release her immediately and make her his bride, but he could not afford to lose face in front of his men, so he answered her gravely, saying, “If you withstand the ordeal, then you and your companion will go free.”
So Nousha stood before the company of robbers whose men numbered one thousand and each man stepped forward in turn to slash her with his sword. Nousha closed her eyes and prayed for strength to survive this ordeal, for though Prince Firuz was selfish and a coward, yet still, thought she, he is one of God’s creation and if it is within my power to save him, then save him I must. And each man was moved by her bravery and so not one of them used all his strength and might when he cut her, but he only nicked the skin; yet even so, every one of the thousand cuts stung and smarted until Nousha thought she would pass out with the pain.
At last, after several hours, every man had taken his turn and blood dripped from the thousand scratches on Nousha’s skin. By now, the girl was feeling weak and faint, yet though she wobbled, she did not allow herself to fall.
“If you please, sir,” she said, addressing Abu ben Sabr, “I have completed the task you set and I now claim my reward.”
The robber chief caught her in his arms before her legs gave way and he laid her gently upon the silken cushions and bathed her wounds with water and applied a foul smelling salve which, he assured her, would help the cuts to heal.
“You have done well, little one,” he told her tenderly, “and now I will grant your request. Your companion may leave as promised and so may you – unless I can persuade you to remain here with me and be my queen?”
Nousha looked at Abu ben Sabr and saw that his heart was honest even though he was a robber and she answered very prettily, saying, “Good sir, you do me an honour, but I am simple country maid with an aged father who would die from grief if I did not return to him.”
Then Prince Firuz spoke up and said, “The girl speaks true. Release us both now and I will return her to her father and we will say no more of the kidnapping that has taken place today.” Yet even as he said these words, he was already planning in his heart how he could carry Nousha away with him to the palace.
Abu ben Sabr sighed, but he was a man of his word and he was known for keeping his promises, and so he and his men led Prince Firuz and Nousha back to the black stallion, and first the robbers swung Nousha up onto the mount and then Firuz climbed up himself, and Abu ben Sabr and all his brigands watched their former captives gallop away until only a cloud of dust could be seen in the distance.
Once he knew that they were out of sight, Prince Firuz brought his horse to a halt and told Nousha to dismount. “Do you think I want that foul smell in my nostrils!” he demanded, wrinkling his nose with displeasure at the salve on her skin. And taking a leather cord from round his neck, he bound her hands once more, then forced her to walk behind his horse – and not a word of thanks did he give her though she had been the one to spare his life.
The day was hot and the sun beat down on Nousha as she trudged along behind the proud stallion, and after a mile, her feet were cut and bruised for it was her custom to run barefoot amidst the sheep when they grazed in their field and Firuz had carried her away with nary a thought for her comfort.
At last, Nousha sank to her knees for she was exhausted and could walk no further. “On your feet!” said Firuz in a voice of grim displeasure; and when she did not obey his command, he made his horse walk forwards so that the girl’s prostrate form was dragged through the dust and the skin was flayed from her flesh, and when they arrived at the palace, she was more dead than alive.
Prince Firuz looked at the battered and bruised creature and no longer saw the beautiful girl he had stolen from her father that morning. “Throw her onto the rubbish heap!” he commanded, dismounting from his horse and striding into the palace without even a backward glance at the woman who had saved his life.
Nousha was aware of her body being dumped unceremoniously on the dung heap. It felt blissfully soft after the sharp stones of the road. As she lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness, beady eyed rats scurried out from their hiding places and stared at her; then one, a little bolder than the rest, approached her cautiously and sniffed. It began tasting the sole of her foot, and then another joined it and another, until dozens of the creatures were running over her, licking her cuts and wounds and gnawing through the cords that still bound her wrists.
Their work was almost done when a shadowy figure appeared, followed by a thousand others. Abu ben Sabr stepped out of the night, his face frowning as he saw Nousha’s almost lifeless body. “Find the worthless cur who treated her thus,” he told his men, “and cut his throat!”
The brigands sped off to do his bidding and Abu ben Sabr picked up the girl and carried her to a waiting litter. Within minutes, Nousha had been transported to a physician who examined her and shook his head. “There is but a slight breath of life left within her,” he said. “If she has any family, they should come and pay their last respects to her now.”
Abu ben Sabr bent close to Nousha and whispered in her ear. “Where does your father reside, little one? I will bring him to you that you may say goodbye.”
“A hut … on the edge of the forest.” Her words were so faint he could hardly hear them.
The robber chief placed a gold coin in the physician’s hand. “Keep her alive until I return,” he said, “and you will have ten more.”
Setting off on a horse as pure white as Nousha’s soul, he quickly reached the humble dwelling where the girl and her father lived. He knocked gently on the door, not wanting to alarm the old man for it was already late.
“Your daughter is close to death,” he said bluntly when the door was opened. “Come with me now and you might yet see her before she breathes her last.”
He helped the old man onto the horse then climbed up behind him and they galloped like the wind until the physician’s house came in sight.
Upon entering the house, the old man fell on his knees when he saw his daughter’s body. “Who has done this to her?” he wept brokenly.
Abu ben Sabr found that tears were streaming down his own cheeks as he answered, “May God forgive me! Your daughter received those cuts at my command; yet even so, my men were gentle with their swords for they could see her noble heart. She sacrificed her own life to protect another.”
“Father?” Nousha’s voice was now only a whisper. “I’m sorry, Father. I wanted to take care of you for the rest of your days.”
“Do not grieve, Daughter,” the old man said. “Truly, you have made me a proud father,” and he clasped her hand in his and held it tightly until the life ebbed out of her – at which his own heart burst with sorrow for he could not live without his pride and joy.
And then the King of Brigands mourned the deaths of these two good people and he said, “Would that my men had never found this sweet maiden and her captor, or that I had killed that dog outright instead of letting her intercede for him!” And from that day forth, he became an honest man and lived in the hut that had once been Nousha’s and her father’s. And his men killed Prince Firuz while he slept and then stole away silently so that no one knew they had ever been in the palace, and in this way, Nousha’s death was avenged, but Abu ben Sabr lived out the rest of his days in sorrow, thinking of how he had caused the death of an innocent girl.