Mystery on a White Horse
A Story by Ed Burton
Once upon a time, a Mother, Father and their Daughter were sitting around a campfire telling stories to each other.
The Daughter’s name was Mystery. Mystery was bright and imaginative, tall for her age with long blond hair and clear blue eyes. She lived in a little beach house looking West across the endless sea towards the setting sun. Her Mother and Father had built the house out of the abundance of driftwood that washed up on the beach. The Island was long and curved and covered in a thick forest. Every year birds flew ever so high over the island following the sun from who knows where in the East to who knows where in the West. If the birds looked down it was as if the island was a giant letter C painted in a beautiful dark green on the glittering blue sea.
Mystery and her parents lived all alone on the island. She would spend the mornings helping her father sort through the driftwood he had collected earlier before she woke up. He’d never ask her to help collect the driftwood, they were never short of it, and not old rotting wood, it was always fresh, strong timber fit for building, and other useful things like ropes and sails. In the afternoons, she’d help her mother tend the garden at the edge of the Forrest where the sand turned into soil which was good for growing all the vegetables they needed to eat. And in that way, they lived simply, comfortably and happily.
Although Mystery had no brothers, sisters or neighbours to make friends with she was never bored as in her free time she created a world of startling stories in her imagination.
So, on the evening of our story, as they often did, Mystery and her parents were sitting around a campfire telling stories to each other. And as she would most often of all Mystery asked: “please, please, please tell me my favourite story, the story I never grow tired of hearing, the story of how you met.”
Mystery’s mother and father smiled warmly at each other and nodded. Her mother started “Years ago when I was a young lady I lived in a land far far away. I set out in a sailing boat seeking adventure in far off places. But it was misadventure that found me. A great storm blew me off course and smashed my boat into a thousand pieces on the barren rocks to the north of this Island. I walked for three days and three nights, west towards the setting sun. And when I could walk no further I sat down and cried thinking what ever would become of me.”
Mystery’s Father continued “When I was young I lived in a land far far away. I was a fisherman sailing farther out to sea than anyone else seeking my fortune. But it was misfortune that found me. A great blue whale took offence to my fishing and with one flap of his tail split my fishing boat in two. I clung to one-half of the boat helplessly adrift on the ocean until a great storm blew me onto the barren rocks to the south of this Island. I walked for three days and three nights West towards the setting sun. And just when I thought I could walk no further I saw the most beautiful young woman I had ever seen looking out to the sunset with tears streaming down her face.”
“When I looked up it was love at first sight” Her mother continued “our meeting seemed so charmed that we vowed to build our life together right here on this beach and promised never to go further afield looking for risk or rescue.”
Mystery smiled “that must be the best story in the world. Can I stay up and watch for shooting stars tonight?” Her mother and father nodded, and holding hands returned to the beach house. Mystery laid on her back looking up at the stars, listening to the crackling fire, the soft swish-swoosh of the sea shore and farther off the gentle claps of thunder from the unseen storms she heard nearly every night but that thankfully never came ashore.
That night however as she pressed her head into the sand, she felt the strangest sensation, thumpity-thump, thumpity-thump, it felt as if the beach itself had a pulse. Thumpety-thump, thumpity-thump, it was getting louder. Thumpety-thump, thumpity-thump, she could feel the sand trembling around her. Louder and louder the sound was soon overwhelming. She sat up fully expecting to be waking from a dream, and suddenly, silence, it was as if time slowed almost to a stop as, shining in the moonlight against the black sky, the most amazing White Horse sailed through the air in a long high arc over her head. For that long moment she thought she must be dreaming, but then with a great thump time started again with a face full of salty sand.
As Mystery rubbed the sand from her face and opened her eyes, the great White Horse came into view slowly walking towards her. It lowered its head close to Mystery’s, and she could feel the hot moist air ruffling her hair. And then, it spoke, in a quiet deep whisper “This Island is in great danger, we must act quickly. I cannot do this alone for nobody else can know that I speak, will you be my companion and my voice?”
Mystery looked into the horses deep black eyes and saw nothing but kindness and concern, and so she said - “yes, but there’s nobody on this Island but my parents, we’re all alone here.” The Horse Whispered in her ear “I wish that were so. You’re a wise girl, listen closely, it is time that I told you about…The War.” The horse whispered in Mysteries ear. She had many questions, and together they talked through the night hatching a plan, a daring plan of deception and disguise.
The next morning, before dawn, Mystery went to the garden shed to get her mother’s gardening shears. Mystery hoped that her mother was still asleep, but as she turned to leave her mother was standing in the doorway of the shed watching her “Mystery, I’ve been worried sick, your bed wasn’t slept in last night, and where on earth are you going with my shears?” Mystery looked her mother in the eye and said sternly “All I can tell you is that I know we’re not alone on this Island, I know all about…The War.”
Her mother broke down: “Oh my Mystery, I hoped this day would never come. Come sit with me in the shed and I’ll tell you another story, a true story. You see I wasn’t shipwrecked on this Island, I was born here. To the North, there is a walled city called Knuckle-Sandwich on Sea. It is a city constantly at war, building battleships and putting sailors in great peril defending their city from invasion by sea. Though the war is bloody, they remain undefeated by having mastered the Dark Arts of Alchemy. They can transform all inert matter like rocks and sand into all manner of seemingly magical materials. They are led by King Knuckle, who wears a suit of armour like no other. It extends his limbs, so he stands as tall as a tree and magnifies his strength a hundredfold. When he goes to battle at sea, he can break a ship in two with a single chop from his mighty metal arm. I ran away from Knuckle-Sandwich on Sea as soon as I was old enough to be forced to fight in the war. I did walk towards the setting sun for three days, and when I could walk no further, your father did appear, like a miracle. Please Mystery, you must promise never to tell your father, he must know nothing of war and believe that the North of this Island is nothing but inhospitable rock.”
Mystery promised to keep her mother’s secret so long as she didn’t ask where she was going that day. They hugged each other and parted in a solemn silence. Now mystery crept into the beach house and took her father’s cloak, which was large and white made from a sail that washed up on the beach. But just as she was rolling the cloak into a tight bundle around the shears her father came in. “Where are you going with my cloak? It’s much too big for you.” Mystery locked eyes with her father and said sternly “All I can tell you is that I know we’re not alone on this Island, I know all about…The War.”
Her father sat down with his head in his hands. “Oh my Mystery, I wished this day would never come when I had to tell you the truth about how I came to be here. Sit down with me and I’ll tell you another story, a true story. You see I was never really a fisherman. In fact, I was born on this Island. To the South, there is a walled city called Argy-Bargy on the Beach. It is a city constantly at war, building battleships and putting sailors in great peril fighting invading forces from overseas. Though the war is bloody, they remain undefeated by having mastered the Dark Arts of Apothecary. They can control all living things, extending their strength, growth or intelligence to their will. They are led by Baron Bargy, a colossal fat brawny giant bred over generations to be as tall as a tree with the strength of a hundred men. When he goes to battle at sea, he can capsize a ship as easily as a child capsizes a paper boat. I ran away from Argy-Bargy on the Beach as soon as I was old enough to be forced to fight in the war. I did walk towards the setting sun for three days, and just when I thought I could walk no further, I did find your mother, like a miracle, sitting crying on the beach. Please Mystery, you must promise never to tell your mother, she must know nothing of war and believe that the South of this Island is nothing but inhospitable rock.”
Mystery promised to keep her father’s secret so long as he didn’t ask where she was going that day, and with a tear in her eye, she walked to the shore where the White Horse was waiting patiently for her. She climbed onto the horse’s back, clung onto his long white mane, and in an instant they were travelling faster than the wind, heading north.
By midday the White Horse slowed to a gentle stop. On the horizon, they could just make out the high stone walls of Knuckle-Sandwich on Sea. At the White Horse’s request, she took the garden shears and cut a fist-full of long white hair from his mane. She tied it into a thick knot which she wedged into the hood of the cloak. Then when she put the cloak on her face was shrouded in long white hair. The cloak draped over the horses flanks and suddenly she looked like a very old, and therefore presumably wise, Forrest hermit.
As they approached, the air became thick with acrid smoke which stung Mystery’s eyes. The Forrest had thinned into an oily wasteland busy with work-men chopping firewood and smelting vast vats of molten metal. The city too looked ravished, half of the city wall had collapsed, and fragments of crushed houses could be seen amongst the rubble of huge stone blocks.
The White Horse sighed and hung his head low. “How can humans not know that it is only the roots of the Forrest that keep this whole Island from washing away as easily as a footprint on the seashore? They must be afflicted by a painful madness, a madness which, though it pains me, we must entertain if we are to save them.”
As the imposing figure of a Forrest hermit all in white on a White Horse approached the opening in the wall everyone stopped working and looked expectantly at the unfamiliar visitor.
Mystery summoned all her courage, and doing her best to use the imitation of her father that would make her mother laugh, so she shouted: “I seek an audience with King Knuckle, I have urgent advice concerning…” She paused and looked over her shoulder at the trees before turning back “…concerning the Tree Titan that rules this forest!” There was a gasp followed by much whispering and in minutes there came a thunderous clanking as the huge mechanical body encasing King Knuckle approached, taking huge strides over the broken wall.
An amplified metallic voice boomed from the metal giant that towered over Mystery. “Hermit, we hoped that the Tree Titan was just a story. But now in our time of greatest need, it has grasped the opportunity to destroy us. Not a month goes by without an attack by ships from overseas, and we are well prepared to attack them with even greater force. But now, every month at night the Tree Titan comes and knocks down more of our city wall and crushes more houses. We are Masters of Alchemy, bending all inert matter to our will and making us invincible in war. But a Tree Titan is nothing but Terrifying living matter, the Forrest itself is attacking us, we have no way to master it. You look like a wise man who knows the Forrest well, how can we defeat this Terrifying Tree Titan?”
Mystery raised her voice “For years I have survived in the Forrest by observing the Tree Titan’s habits. In the centre of this Forest is a Fresh Water Lake. Whenever a full moon is directly over the lake, the Tree Titan rises from the moon’s reflection. It then paces clockwise around and around the lake while plotting its attack on your city. That is where you must set the trap. You must trap and then once and forever kill the Tree Titan before it returns to water with the setting moon.
I have heard that you are the greatest Masters of Alchemy, could you create a potion that turns the ground into a thick, sticky broth that hardens to form the hardest rock?” “Of Course” Boomed King Knuckle “That is easy Alchemy for us! In fact, my suit of armour could easily be modified to deploy such a potion.” “So, King Knuckle, there’s no time to lose, only you will be strong and fast enough to do this during tonight’s full moon. Go to the centre of the Forrest and when you hear the Tree Titan on the opposite side of the lake use your mighty metal arms to dig a deep hole close to the lake. Pour the potion into the hole and then carefully conceal the hole with branches and leaves. Next, walk clockwise to the other side of the lake and lie in wait.”
The King liked this plan. He was proud of the power of Alchemy and the strength it granted him. And so he seized the idea as his own and invited the hermit to choose a reward. “Thank you, King Knuckle. I desire to woo a woman and give her a gift fit for a queen. With your powers of Alchemy might you be able to spin a beautiful dress of gold and silver thread with a crown and a veil that I could give to her?” “That’s easy for Master Alchemists like us, my tailors will make it right away, rest for an hour and you’ll have my gratitude and your reward.”
And so within an hour Mystery and the White Horse where off again, at great speed, travelling south until they could see the walls of Argy-Bargy on the Beach rising on the horizon. As they got nearer the Forrest thinned into a muddy plain were ships at varying stages of construction stood unfinished by the waters edge. The air was thick with the foul stench of captive animals, and the walls of the city remained in only a few sections. The Island itself was dissolving into the sea while men busied themselves chopping trees and building battleships.
The White Horse sighed and hung his head low. “How can an Island people not understand that there is no invading force? This is just one sorry Island attacking itself. Their madness may be incurable, but by entertaining it, we may save their lives if not their sanity. I can go no further now; I escaped from a life of captivity here. My family and I were given the power of speech by their Dark Arts of Apothecary so we could be better war horses to serve their ambition. From here on, our fate is in your hands, Mystery”
Mystery swapped the heavy old robe for the dress of gold and silver thread. Though it was made of precious metals, its many layers were spun so thinly that it rippled like the finest silk in the gentle breeze. The crown glinted rays of rainbow colours, and the veil made her face a shimmer of light. Before she left, she asked the White Horse: “Are your family still held captive here?” “Sadly yes, my wife and four children were not able to escape as I did when the wall collapsed. I fear I might never see them again.”
Mystery kissed the White Horse on his cheek. She kicked her old shoes off and ran, barefoot, through the muddy plain shouting: “Help! Help! Please save me!” The workmen, entranced by her beauty, let her pass the building site until she was standing on the remains of the city wall. Mystery summoned all her courage, and doing her best to assume the confidence of royalty she chirped: “I seek an audience with Baron Bargy, I have urgent advice concerning…” She paused and looked over her shoulder at the trees before turning back “…concerning the Rock Titan that defends this Forrest!”
There was a gasp followed by much whispering and in minutes, there was an almighty thudding as the huge bulk of Baron Bargy lumbered towards the broken wall. Baron Bargy had never seen anything as delicate as the fluttering gold and silver dress, the light bouncing about her seemed supernatural.
He lent closer, and Mystery spoke: “Please help me, I am the Queen of an Island far away, we are a peaceful people but like you have been besieged by a Heartless Rock Titan who rises from beneath. We had no defence against such an enemy and when our walls were entirely breached the ground beneath my feet opened like a great mouth and swallowed me whole. After what seemed like days of being churned in a hot dark interior I was spat out! I found myself in this Forrest, a prisoner of the Heartless Rock Titan. I survived by learning its habits so I could slip away while it was attacking your city.”
Baron Bargy stood up and boomed: “Curse that Rock Titan, we hoped it was just a story, but now when we are in more danger than ever from invading forces it has come to consume the very ground beneath us. We are Masters of Apothecary, we can shape all life to our will, but a Rock Titan has no heart, it is not alive, the very ground itself is attacking us, and we have no way to master it. You have escaped the Rock Titan’s captivity, can you tell us how we can defeat it?”
Mystery tried to put all doubt out of her mind and speaking with regal confidence said: “In the centre of this Forest is a Fresh Water Lake. Whenever a full moon is directly over the lake, the Rock Titan rises from the moon’s reflection. It then paces clockwise around and around the lake while plotting its attack on your city. That is where you must set the trap. You must trap and then once and forever kill the Rock Titan before it returns to water with the setting moon. You are Masters of Apothecary, who can bend all life to your will, could you change a vine, so it grows as fast as fire?” “Accelerating the growth of plants is child’s play for us. In fact, for generations, I myself have been so accelerated and extended that even my own bodily fluids should be sufficient for the task.”
“So Baron Bargy, there’s no time to lose, only you will be strong and fast enough to enact this plan in time for tonight’s full moon. Go to the centre of the Forrest and use your mighty strength to dig a deep hole by the Lake. Fill the hole with vines that you do, well, whatever you need to do to, and then carefully conceal the hole with branches and leaves. Walk clockwise to the other side of the lake and lie in wait.” Baron Bargy liked this plan; he was proud of the great strength and power the Dark Arts of Apothecary granted him, and so he seized the idea as his own. He agreed and offered the Queen a reward of her own choosing.
“This may be too fantastic a request even for a Queen to make, but I see that you have an amazing ability to shape life to your will so I will ask my heart’s desire. I’ve always dreamed of owning a whole stable full of White Horses that are so intelligent I can talk with them as friends. It’s silly I know, but that’s what I’d like most of all.” Baron Bargy grinned from ear to ear “if five fine fit talking horses will be sufficient you can have them right away!”
And so Mystery returned to the White Horse not on foot or alone. She rode on a Beautiful White Mare with two young horses to her left and two young horses to her right. The White Horse reared on his hind legs and literally jumped for joy. He galloped to meet the family he feared he’d lost, and there was a great nuzzling of noses wet with tears of happiness.
And so, as the shadows lengthened and a full moon rose on the horizon, Mystery and the family of White Horses trotted happily towards the setting sun.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the Island, King Knuckle’s suit of armour was already prepared to enact the plan as soon as it was dark. The belly of his metal suit had been extended to carry two barrels of the potion that would turn the ground into liquid rock. As the Island sank into a gloom he charged quickly and stealthily towards the Forrest’s centre, his huge metal body extended on all fours like a giant black cat stalking its prey. Soon the bank of the fresh water lake came into view reflecting the full moon which was directly above by now. What’s more, he could hear something so big that it could only be the Tree Titan moving about on the far side of the lake. And so he was reassured that the Hermit’s story must be true. Knowing that there was no time to lose, he quickly scooped a huge hole in the ground with his mechanical arms. From a nozzle in the base of the suit, he emptied the barrels of potion from his belly into the bottom of the pit. The ground fizzed and steamed. When the steam subsided where the bottom of the pit had been there was now a pool of thick, bubbling, liquid rock. King Knuckle could hear the Tree Titan approaching now so he quickly covered the pit with branches and leaves and crept away, clockwise around the lake, confident that the Tree Titan would soon fall into his trap.
As King Knuckle rounded the other side of the lake, suddenly there was a loud snap. The ground beneath his massive frame gave way and with an earsplitting crunch, he fell into a deep pit. Being so huge and powerful it was not hard for him to haul himself out of the pit. But as he did so he heard a slithering, rustling, creaking sound follow him. He looked down with horror to see vines spiralling around his legs with supernatural speed. This is Tree Titan trickery he thought as he tried to rip them off with his metal hands, but the more he tugged them, the faster they grew. As his suit of armour became encased in the writhing vines, he felt more afraid than any King ever should. He panicked and started to run as best he could back to the safety of his city. Each huge stride became more difficult as the vines grew thicker and thicker consuming his metal suit as if it were burning cloth. Soon he could barely see as the vines wrapped around his head and no part of his suit remained to be seen.
The inhabitants of Knuckle-Sandwich on Sea were waiting expectantly to welcome their undefeated King Knuckle back from his greatest victory. Imagine their horror as what came crashing out of the Forrest was a vast mass of knotted vines, each limb the size of a tree. “The Tree Titan!” they screamed as they ran for their lives. “King Knuckle must be dead! The Tree Titan is invincible!”
King Knuckle was now blind, terrified and in great pain as the vines worked their way inside his armour. Summoning all of his remaining strength he kicked and flailed his limbs wildly in a last attempt to escape. He ran, and he fell and rolled like a gigantic tumble weed. He smashed through the rebuilt city walls. He crushed houses, shops and factories as he rolled.
Just as he barrelled into the far City Wall, the first rays of sunlight shot a path of golden sparkles from the horizon. The Huge Ball of vines that was once King Knuckle demolished the remains of the city walls. It rolled through the harbour capsizing every battleship in its path, and with an almighty wave disappeared under the surface of the ocean, never to be seen again.
Meanwhile, earlier that night as the sun set on the other side of the Island Baron Bargy was busy preparing the plan. He drank two barrels of steaming broth his apothecaries had prepared to accelerate his growth even more. On his back bundles of vines were stuffed into a hunch. Then he ran into the Forrest in giant bounds travelling at great speed. Soon the bank of the fresh water lake came into view reflecting the full moon which was directly above by now. What’s more, he could hear something so big that it could only be the Rock Titan moving about on the far side of the lake. And so he was reassured that the Queen’s story must be true. With his giant hardened hands, he dug like a dog, quickly making a deep pit. He emptied the bundle of vines from his hunch into the pit. Then he stood back and with greedy satisfaction peed into the pit onto the vines which steamed like broth and squirmed like snakes.
Baron Bargy could hear the Rock Titan approaching now so he quickly covered the pit with branches and leaves and crept away, clockwise around the lake, confident that the Rock Titan would soon fall into his trap. As Baron Bargy rounded the other side of the lake, suddenly there was a loud crunch, and the ground beneath his colossal body gave way. With a deafening squelch, he fell into a deep pit and was submerged in viscous liquid rock. Gasping for air, he struggled free. With his enormous size and strength, it was not hard for him to haul himself out of the pit. However, the gloopy liquid rock was congealing around him in a massive blob. This is Rock Titan trickery he thought as he tried to smear the rock from his eyes and face. The Rock was hot and constricting. He could barely see, hear or breathe. As he felt the rock hardening, he became more afraid than any Baron ever should. Panicking he tried to run back to the safety of his city. Each step was more difficult as the rock formed a hard crust.
The inhabitants of Argy-Bargy on the Beach were waiting expectantly to welcome their undefeated Baron Bargy back from his greatest victory. Imagine their horror as what came crashing out of the Forrest was a vast staggering mass of rock. “The Rock Titan!” they screamed as they ran for their lives. “Baron Bargy must be dead! The Rock Titan is invincible!”
Baron Bargy was now blind, death, terrified and in great pain as the rock crushed his ribs. Summoning all of his remaining strength he kicked and flailed his limbs wildly in a last attempt to escape. He ran, and he fell and rolled like a gigantic boulder. He smashed through the rebuilt city walls. He crushed houses, shops and factories as he rolled. Just as he barrelled into the far City Wall, the first rays of sunlight shot a path of golden sparkles from the horizon. The Huge Ball of Rock that was once Baron Bargy demolished the remains of the city walls. It rolled through the harbour capsizing every Battle Ship in its path, and with an almighty wave disappeared under the surface of the ocean, never to be seen again.
And so the plan of Mystery and the White Horse worked like a charm. King Knuckle and Baron Bargy were nothing but a memory. All the battleships were destroyed. What’s more all the inhabitants were so in awe of the Titans’ ferocity that they never dared to chop down another tree. From then on they were free from war and lived simply within their means. They had a lot of rebuilding to do but after getting used to peace they had to admit that all in all they were all happier and content.
By the time the sun was setting again Mystery was nearing the beach house on the White Horse accompanied by his mate and children. She dismounted and changed into her old clothes. Her mother and father had lit a fire already. When she approached her Father looked concerned. “Mystery my dear, we’ve been worried sick, where ever have you been all day?” Mystery smiled innocently: “Don’t be silly father, I was helping you sort the driftwood, as usual, wasn’t I?” She gave her Father a conspiratorial wink. He blushed realising the risk of revealing his secret. “Oh yes, silly me, I remember now, I must be getting old!”
Her mother butted in: “But what about all afternoon Mystery?” She stayed as cool as a cucumber and said: “Whatever is the matter with you two today; I was helping you in the garden as usual this afternoon, wasn’t I Mother?” She winked at her mother, who blushed, realising the risk of revealing her secret. “Oh yes, so you were; I was so rushed off my feet, I’d forget my own head if it weren’t screwed on!” She laughed nervously.
“Thank you for lighting a fire,” Mystery said. “That means it must be high time for a story!” Her father rolled his eyes. “Not the story of how we met yet again already?” Mystery smiled thinking warmly of her new best friend the White Horse and his fabulous family. She was confident the war would end, and the Island would be safe. She leaned back and said: “Not tonight, thank you. Tonight I’ve got a new story to tell. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…”
“Once upon a time, a Mother, Father, and their Daughter were sitting around a campfire telling stories to each other…”
…And so this is how Mystery starts the story, and this is how our story ends.