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De Larrabeiti, Michael - The Golden Goat

By Rick Ward,2015-04-16 05:02
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De Larrabeiti, Michael - The Golden Goat

     Scanned by gojukai From Tales of Fantasy, Elsewhere Vol. II Edited by Terri Windling & Mark Alan Arnold

    The Golden Goat

    Michael de Larrabeiti

    One cold night more than a hundred years ago, on a

    dark hillside in the country of Provence, an old

    shepherd knelt by a wood fire and shook his

    sleeping son awake. As the boy opened his eyes the

    shepherd prodded the fire

    with his staff and a bright flame leapt upwards,

    making

    yellow shapes out of the black trees and revealing crooked twigs which clutched like witches' fingers at the shepherd's silver hair.

    "Pacorro," said the shepherd, "three of our sheep have wandered up the valley. I can hear their bells and you must go after them."

    The boy rubbed his eyes and stood, pulling his cloak up with him to settle it on his shoulders; then, with only one word of farewell, he left the firelight and stepped into the forest darkness.

    Since early childhood Pacorro had run with his father's flock and he was as sure-footed as the nimblest goat alive and never had he slept under a roof or in a bed, for his father owned no pastures but grazed his sheep on the common land by the roadside and on Ac rocky hills by the sea. So Pacorro the shepherd boy was not afraid of the forest; he passed through The first of the trees, touching their uneven bark with his finger-tips, and followed a nar- row valley that led away from the sea and towards the mountains. Above him in the sky was half a moon but it was prowling behind low clouds and gave no light. Every now and men the boy stopped to listen for the sound of sheep-bells but he heard only the trees around him as they scraped their branches together, sounding for all the world like rough voices whispering in the forest.

    "May God protect me," said Pacorro, "but there are Saracens abroad in the woods tonight," and he drew his cloak more tightly about his neck and walked on.

    For nearly an hour he searched, sometimes hearing the faint sound of a bell in the distance, sometimes not, but however far he walked the sound came no nearer and he

    began to despair of ever finding his father's sheep. It was then, almost on the point of giving up his task, that he saw a light shining. It flickered through the trees and out along the sides of a dry river-bed like sunlight on the sea, Pacorro heard a strange noise too, not the ordinary harshness of his own sheep-bells but a clear and simple ringing, like silver touching silver. The shepherd boy quickened his step; this light could only come from a shepherd's fire, he thought, and the ringing would be their sheep-bells. He would talk with them and they would help him to find his missing sheep.

    Suddenly the river-bed turned one last turn and Pacorro fell, throwing his arms up in fear, blinded by what seemed to be a golden flame. Never had he seen a light so golden, not the heart of a fire, nor the centre of the sun. Pacorro waited, wondering if his sight was truly lost. Minutes went by and when at last the shepherd boy lowered his hands from his face he saw that he could still see.

He had come to a gully whose rocky walls almost

    touched overhead, a gully made impenetrable by growths of sturdy thorn, strong and matted. It was one of these. bushes that gave out the mysterious light and the sound of the silver-bell, a pathetic jangling noise as some animal vainly struggled to free itself from the powerful grip of some unseen thing- Against his will Pacorro was drawn forward. He gazed into the light and, deep in the thorn bush, in the centre of a cloud of diffused gold, was a graceful and elegant goat, caught by her long ebony horns in a deadly trap. Slowly she turned her face to look at the shepherd boy, contemplating him with eyes of incredible sadness. She was beautiful and Pacorro stared, holding his breath with the wonder of it.

    The goats fleece was long and touched her feet, it was combed and groomed but it was the colour of the coat that made Pacorro gasp. The colour was the light that filled the gully and the light was golden; it gleamed and shone in a magical way, flaming with a fire mat was not a fire and burning with a flame that could entice men to their deaths. Fear struck at the boy's heart and he knew that he was in great danger. He had found the Golden Goat of Abd-al- Rhaman, trapped by its horns in a hunter's noose. On its head it wore the Caliph's seven-pointed coronet of gold, a crown made of metal so soft and pure that a man might draw his name across it with the slightest touch of his finger-nail.

    Pacorro drew his knife; it was broad-bladed and sharp- The old legends said that the Golden Goat was evil and dangerous. He who was unlucky enough to find her should slay her and seize the crown she wore on her head. The boy's thoughts went to his father and the fields the old man dreamt of buying for his flock, and a hut too where the shepherd might live in comfort when he was too weary to follow the sheep. Pacorro raised his knife to strike but, to his astonishment, the Golden Goat turned her lovely head and spoke to him, speaking in a voice that was as beautiful as she was and that men found impossible to resist.

    "Do not slay me, shepherd," she said. "Cut me free and I will show you all the treasure of the Caliph, Abd-al- Rhaman, and you may choose from it three times and take from it all that you can carry. One ruby alone would make you and your father rich, and your son and your son's son rich also."

    Pacorro wound his hand into the goat's long hair. It was spun gold and yet softer to his touch than the wool of a rainwashed lamb. The goat still looked at him with her brown eyes and seemed as human as he. Pacorro did not answer; he stood still and remembered the old story as his father had told it to him, many times.

    Several hundreds of years before Pacorro's birth the Saracens had appeared over the edge of the sea in their war-galleys and had conquered Provence and taken it for their very own. Under the orders of their leader, Abd-al- Rhaman, they had built a castle on the steepest of the hills and called it Fraxinetta. For years it had remained im- pregnable and the Saracens were ready to rule the land for ever, taking whatever they wanted, raiding and killing wherever they wished.

    At long last the Princes and Abbotts of Provence de- cided to win back the country they had tost and so they raised a great army and fought the Saracens in many long and savage wars and after ten years of cruel and bloody fighting they forced the Caliph to take refuge in his castle.

    The seige was long and bitter and Abd-al-Rhaman, looking down from his battlements, came to realise mat he could not win this last campaign and he begged his enemies to let him go in peace, promising never to return and, rather than see their soldiers slain in war the Abbotts and the Princes granted the Caliph's request, but only on condition that the Saracens did not take their plunder away with them.

    But Abd-al-Rhaman was subtle and double-tongued and under cover of darkness he had his slaves carry his treasure into a deep cavern where they threw it down in haste and the entrance to the cave was shut fast by the spell of an Arabian sorcerer, the most powerful wizard that ever lived. The. next day the Saracens slipped aboard their galleys and in less than an hour their ships had disap- peared over the horizon.

    Of course the Caliph's promise had been a false prom- ise. He had secretly sworn to revenge himself on his enemies, to recover his vast riches and in order to prove to his followers that he meant to return the Caliph left behind a priceless possession: his only daughter, the Princess Suhar.

    The Princess wept to be left alone but her father was cruel and ignored her tears. He commanded his sorcerer to change Suhar into a superb mountain goat, sure-footed and speedier than the finest horse that ran- She was to guard the treasure and, should searchers ever come near the cavern, she was to entice them to their deaths or bring

    them to the brink of madness. In return the sorcerer vowed that the Princess should live forever, just as long as she was not captured by hunters. To protect herself, should she be captured, she was given the power of gentle and persua- sive speech. On the other hand, if she left the cavern to live the life of an ordinary mortal she would regain her former shape but she would become subject to age and decay as she had been before.

    But the Caliph never returned to claim his riches and for centuries men had sought to capture the Golden Goat, believing that under the threat of death she could be forced to reveal the whereabouts of the cave of treasure. The goat had been seen often enough over the years, glimpsed between the dusk and the dawn, but no one had come near her and lived unscathed to tell the tale. Once or twice in a generation a poor witless shepherd had been found, wandering far from his sheep, muttering crazily that he had met and talked with me Princess Suhar and seen her treasure.

    Pacorro stirred himself, wound his hand deeper into the goat's long hair and thought of one other thing that his father had told him. The Golden Goat would lie, cheat and deceive, would murder and betray, would do anything to escape from he who found her. He who wished to take her treasure would have to become as cunning and as evil as she. "If you find her, kill her," the old shepherd had said, "before she drives you mad."

    Pacorro pushed his knife between the goat's horns and cut the noose that held her.

"There," he said, "you are free."

    No sooner did the rope fall from her than the goat leapt twenty paces along the river-bed, clearing bushes and trees in a gigantic bound. Pacorro was wrenched from his feet, dragged through the thorns and his legs were made bloody and his body was bruised, but he did not relax his grip on the goat's long hair. When he regained his feet, angry with pain and surprise, he raised his knife to the goat's neck and pressed the blade close up against the vein that throbbed there and only a thought kept the knife from the blood.

    "My father needs a house," said Pacorro, "so show me your treasure as you promised or I will slaughter you as I have slaughtered many other goats, and skinned them too.."

    "I only leapt for joy," said the goat "I rejoice that I am free and will see my treasure again.'' She nuzzled the boy's shoulder and said, "Come, we have far to go."

    And so the goat led the shepherd boy across the slanting darkness of the hillsides, hoping to exhaust him, hoping that his grip on her fleece would weaken. As she ran she spoke to him, trying to deceive his senses with her soft voice but Pacorro only tightened his fist in the golden hair and ran pace for pace with the goat and as nimbly, gritting

    his teeth and thinking of the land he would buy for his father.

    At last the goat rested in a deep ravine and Pacorro felt the full weight of her brown eyes upon him as she told of the great battles of the past, how many men the Caliph had tortured and slain for his pleasure. She told of the slaves he had captured too and the shepherd boy shivered as he heard the sounds of death and the clashing of weapons and the cries of the wounded. He saw the ghosts of dead warriors and he felt the touch of their breath on his cheek and fear crept under his skin like a maggot, but he was brave and again tightened his hold on the fleece and said, "I swear I will slay you and steal your crown if you do not keep your promise."

    "I tell you stories of the Caliph." said the goat, "so that the road we travel may seem less wearisome," and she led Pacorro into a cleft that was narrow and full of stubborn bushes carrying thorns of sharp iron-wood. As the goat advanced the thorns swayed back from her though they clutched at Pacorro and brought blood to his arms and face. The noise of battle and the screams of the injured were louder here and tile boy wanted to turn and run to his father but now he did not dare.

Suddenly the clamour stopped. The Golden Goat

    halted before a blank rock wall in which there was no fissure or crack. She lowered her head and spoke in Sara- cen words more than a thousand years old and the granite wall rolled aside and the goat stepped into a cavern whose roof was so high that it could not be seen. Pacorro was drawn in with her and the cavern door closed behind him. He was deep under the hillside, shut in with the Golden Goat of Abd-al-Rhaman.

    Now Pacorro released his hold on the fleece and stum- bled forward. There was treasure all about him and the light from it dulled even the sheen of the goafs golden coat. Here in the cavern was everything that a man, even in his greatest greed, could desire. Everything that the Saracens had torn from the conquered land. stolen at the price of blood, death and slavery. The floor was ankle deep in precious stones, they overflowed from deep seachests, carelessly filled. There were ivory statues draped with gowns of silk and cloth of gold; there were orbs and sceptres, thrones and crowns, tapestries and gem-woven vestments, still stained with the blood of dying priests. It was all thrown down in disorder and it had lain there for hundreds of years, waiting for the Caliph to return.

    The goat stalked proudly into the cavern and Pacorro followed, his eyes unequal to the task of looking at so much splendour. The goat went on and everywhere she walked there was treasure. At last she stopped by a huge throne of gold thickly decorated with diamonds; across its arms rested a great jewelled sword in a scabbard of silver. The goat looked in disdain at the trembling shepherd boy and her eyes blazed up with pride and greed. "What a mighty fellowship," she said, "was the fellowship of my

    father the Caliph- Stronger than all your Princes, bolder than your kings and more daring than your knights. How they feared us."

    She touched the throne with a horn, "This we took from an Archbishop, those tapestries we took from his cathedral . . . those caskets of jewels we had in ransom for your most powerful king, and all you see is mine until my father returns ... Then I shall be a princess once more and I shall live with my own people."

    The goat moved on and Pacorro walked with her, his scarred and filthy feet stepping over rich silks and precious stones, but' the boy did not forget his father and he thought of the little he had. Once more he showed his knife, "And where is my reward?" he asked. "Three choices from amongst your riches you promised me. I want them; remember that I saved you from the hunter's noose."

    The goat lowered her head and her eyes went dull.

"Shepherd boy," she said. "choose."

    Pacorro pointed to the jewelled sword on the magnifi- cent throne. "The sword," he said, thinking that he could strap it to his body, leaving his arms free to carry something more.

    "Oh choose some other thing," answered the goat, "for that was the Caliph's favourite sword. I would be disgraced if he were to return and find it gone."

    Pacorro pointed next to a caftan made of gold and silver thread, heavy with rubies and saphires and opals and pearls of matching beauty. "That," he thought, *'I shall be able to slip over my shoulder and leave my hands free to carry something more."

    The goat stamped a foot and her voice was angry. "Fool, you cannot take the caftan of the Caliph; when he returns he will look for this caftan before any other thing."

    Pacorro felt pity for the goat in her trouble and cast his eyes all round the cavern for another treasure to bear away with him. "I will have that turban," he said at length, thinking mat he could place it upon his head leaving his hands free to carry away something more. The turban bore a rich diamond at its front, a diamond as big as the boy's clenched fist.

    The goat placed her head on Pacorro's shoulder and her brown eyes filled with tears as she looked at him. "My father wore this turban on his wedding day, I dare not let you take it ... he would punish me sorely if I let it go."

    Still Pacorro had pity and chose again but the goat made yet another excuse and bade him choose elsewhere. But whatever it was that the boy chose the Golden Goat refused and hours went by In this way and Pacorro grew

    weary and fell silent, realising that me goat would allow nothing to be taken from her hoard, not the smallest diamond nor the meanest silver pin, and he began to fear that he would die amongst all that treasure. He felt a madness beginning to stir in his brain and he forgot about a field in the mountain and a field in the valley with a hut for his father. He longed to be out in the night air but at the same time a wave of pity rose in his heart and he wept, weeping for the Princess Suhar, abandoned, alone, love- less for so long. He knew, as every shepherd knew, that the Caliph and his sorcerer had been dead for hundreds of years and would never return to seek the treasure and to change the Golden Goat back into the form of a young princess.

    Pacorro took the goafs lovely head in his arms. "Prin- cess," he said, "leave this horrible place. Better to be a shepherdess in the sun than live a thousand years alone, Come away and you will sleep under me stars and listen to the sheep bells at dawn."

The goat shook her head. "How could I leave my

    father's treasure? The Caliph might return tomorrow."

    "Princess," said Pacorro, "your father will never return. He and his sorcerer are dead."

The goat wandered a step from Pacorro and gazed

    steadily over all her possessions. "I know," she said, "but the Caliph was not the man to let death defeat him. Be- sides, how could I leave? I am used to the feel of silk, the sight of gold and the glint of rubies. If I went with you I would become a woman again but I would lose the power of opening the cave. I could never live as you livepoor,

    dirty, a barefoot shepherd."

    Pacorro was angered. "Living as we live is better man living as you live," he cried.

    "And dying as you die," said the goat softly,' 'and how is that?"

    "Dying a shepherd is better than living a goat," sobbed Pacorro and the tears ran down his face.

    The goat came close to Pacorro and put her soft mouth into the place where his neck met his shoulder. "Your tears are kind.'' she said, "and you are right, I will come with you but you must help. It will not be easy for me."

    "Yes," said Pacorro and he brushed away his tears with the back of his hand. He put an arm round the goat's neck and he half-led, half-dragged her, to the doorway of the cavern and the goat spoke the word and the rock wall opened and Pacorro saw the pale starlight outside. The goat trembled and the shepherd boy held her tightly but, as they were about to cross the threshold, Pacorro thought of all the wealth he was leaving behind and he thought once more of his father and how one pearl only would shelter him from the cold nights of his advancing age- So Pacorro, hoping that the goat would not see him, squeezed

    the toes of his right foot around a small ruby that lay in his path, meaning to hobble with it into the outside air.

    But the goat knew at once what he had done, feeling it in , his touch, and she reared from his embrace. "Oh, do not take that ruby," she cried, "my father would search for it in the very moment of his return."

    Pacorro allowed the ruby to drop to the floor and went towards the goat, his arms outstretched but the goat re- treated, back into the cavern,

    "I cannot go," she said, "1 cannot betray my father." "It is not your father that keeps you here,' said Pacorro, "it is the treasure," and he leapt forward, seized the goat by the head and by the horns and he dragged her, stiff- legged, through the doorway.

    Suddenly Pacorro fell backwards and rolled into a thicket of briar and bramble; he pulled himself free with bloody hands- The goat had disappeared from his grasp and there in its place stood the slender form of the Princess Suhar, regal and beautiful. Her long dark hair was black and where it was darkest it was blue, like the midnight sky, but her face was sombre and sad with centuries of waiting. The gown she wore was the colour of sapphires and it was patterned over with the finest diamonds from the Caliph's store, each diamond purer than the last and carrying in its heart a flickering candle flame. Across the princess's forehead glittered the Caliph's coronet of gold with the seven points.

    The princess looked about her. She raised her hands and looked closely at them, moving her fingers. She stared at her feet, she touched her face, her arms, her hair, and then she screamed.

    "No," she cried, a dreadful moaning in her voice. "How strange I feel, how horrible this shape, this cannot be beautiful. How long would 1 live in this body? I would grow old like you, die like you, unable to run, forever, sure- footed across the hills." And with these words she stepped back over the threshold of the cave and as the Princess Suhar disappeared the Golden Goat wheeled on its four fine feet in the doorway and spoke the word and me rock door of the cavern began to rumble and roll forward.

    Pacorro, his blood still wet on his hands, leapt into me entrance and grabbed the goat's horns and fought with her. But me goat was decided now and she lowered her head and shook it hard and me shepherd boy was flung from me cave and his breath was knocked from him. The door rolled on and shut fast

    In a little while Pacorro recovered and crawled to me door and stood before it. He felt carefully with his hands but no opening could he find. It was dark again. The golden splendour had vanished with the goat and her treasure, only cold dawn light shone above the cleft now and that too weak to reach the ground.

    Pacorro began to grope his way along the gully, his eyes uncertain after the sights they had seen. He felt before him and in those first doubtful steps his foot struck something which rang out with an ancient sound as it moved against a stone.

    Pacorro knelt and his wounded hands searched in the dust until he touched the thing- He could not see what it was and so he raised it above his head and held it against the stars. It was round and smooth with seven points, it was the golden coronet, fallen from the goafs head during her last struggle with the shepherd boy. Pacorro smiled to himself in the darkness; the dream of his father would come true after all; as much pasture as he wanted now.

    As the boy smiled there came a terrible sobbing from the depths of the hillside; the great door began to open and there came the sound of that voice which no man could resist.

    "And what will the Caliph say?" it called. "What will the

    Caliph say when he finds his crown stolen by a shepherd? Return it to me and you may choose what else you will from this treasure - . ."

    The great door of rock opened completely now and Pacorro saw the Golden Goat again, shining brighter than the brightness of the treasure behind her. And as the light grew stronger the goat stepped across the threshold once more and took the form of the Princess Suhar, holding out her arms and speaking in tones of great sadness.

    "Will you leave me here like this for ever, without my father's crown? Return it to me, shepherd boy, and I will teach you the secret word that opens this cave and you and your fattier will be as rich as Abd-al-Rhaman once was."

    Still clasping the coronet Pacorro raised his hands to his head and tried to close his ears but the voice of the princess was like the voice of reason itself and the light from the cavern burned into his eyes and blinded him and he moved towards the door and felt soft lips whispering to him of wealth and power beyond belief and gentle hands led him back into the cavern to choose what he would and slowly the great rock door closed behind him.

And three days later Pacorro’s father found his son lying

    on his back in a gully whose rocky walk almost touched overhead, a gully made impenetrable by growths of sturdy thorn, strong and matted. The old shepherd cut his way to his son's side and knelt beside him but Pacorro did not recognise his father and the man wept. The boy's mind had gone. He said nothing and stared at the sky out of unseeing golden eyes.

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