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In a high, grassy pasture, well concealed in the remote mountains of eastern Arabia, two herders tended their horses.
"It is a dying breed," the old herder said in a deep, guttural voice. "Our chieftain knows this as well as I do. His only hope rests with the black one." He waved his gnarled hands in the direction of the small band of young horses grazing in the light of the setting sun.
The young herder, tall and thin, lowered his body to sit on the ground beside the old man. His kufiyya, a white headdress made of fine cloth, was drawn back, revealing a look of childish eagerness and anticipation on his face. He had heard this talk many times before. Still, he asked his questions and listened eagerly for the old one's replies.
"O Great Father," he said, "thou who knowest everything, is it not true that our leader is the richest of all sheikhs in the Rub' al Khali? Is it not his wealth that enables him to breed and maintain horses of such power and dazzling beauty as we see before us? Look at them, Great Father. Their coats have the gleam of raw silk and although they are still young, little more than a year old, their shoulders are muscular and their chests deep. Truly they are horses of inexhaustible strength, endurance and spirit, all worthy of the great tribe of Abu Ja Kub ben Ishak."
"It is true our leader is one of great wealth, but that does not make him the wisest breeder of all," the old man proclaimed, his small, sharp eyes never leaving the horses. Reaching for his walking stick, he tried to get his old legs beneath him. After a brief struggle, he gave a weary sigh and sank down again.
The young man drew back before the harshness of the ancient one's words. He wanted no confrontation. His only recourse was to humor the old man. Slowly, a soft smile came to his hard, flat face.
"O Great Father, I do not mean any disrespect," he said, waving his long, powerful arms in the cold mountain air. "I know there is no other horseman as wise as you, who have spent your long life in the same saddle as your forefathers. It is only my bewilderment at your words. We are living with the birds of the mountaintops when our feet as well as those of our horses prefer the soft, hot sands of the desert. Why are we here if not to breed and raise the fastest horses in all the Rub' al Khali?"
The wind blew in great gusts. Despite a glaring sun, the day had been icy cold. Winter seemed unwilling to leave the highlands, where the barren peaks of gray limestone were now painted blue and yellow by the softening light. Setting his turbaned head against the wind, the young man waited for the old man's answer. Receiving no reply and growing impatient, he persisted. "Tell me, Great Father, pray tell me, what other reason would we have for coming to this mountain stronghold of our leader?"
Finally, the old man turned his head toward the youth, his bones showing prominently beneath taut, aged skin. To the young man he appeared to be a hundred years old or more, his body frail and withered beneath the folds of his great aba, a shapeless black cloak. How could such an old man stand this cold, coming as he did from the gleaming sands of Arabia, where the burning desert scorched the soles of one's feet?
No one in their tribe knew how many years it had been since the old man had first traveled the paths from the desert to the Kharj district of the high eastern mountains in order to serve the forebears of Abu Ja Kub ben Ishak. There was no other horseman like him in all Arabia. He was the oldest and wisest--yet he kept traveling back and forth, tending each crop of young horses, searching for what? What dream led him on and on over such tortuous trails? The young man wanted to know. It had to do with horses, of that he was certain. Horses were the ancient one's life. Their blood was his blood, his blood theirs. It was the only thing that had kept him alive.
Others might scoff at the old herder's crazy stories and his wild talk about a stallion of the night sky, but the young man felt privileged to share his watch with the legendary one. He had learned a great deal over the winter and hoped someday to breed horses himself. For now he would help the old man back and forth from their tents in the valley up to the different pastures, a job that was becoming more and more difficult as the old herder weakened with age.
The blasts grew colder still, and the young man drew his wool-lined garment closer about him. His black, gleaming eyes remained on the old man while he waited for him to speak. The silence continued except for the sound of the wind blowing from the mountaintops. Out in the pasture the yearlings continued to feast on the first green shoots of spring grass. Soon it would be time to find fresh grazing, and they would move elsewhere.
At last the young herder decided to break the silence again. His tone was good natured and soft as he said, "The Prophet is with you always, Great Father, but I do not understand when you say that our mounts are a dying breed. Abu Ishak would have your head, old and wise as it is, for proclaiming such a thing, if only to me. Rest your mind, Great Father, I will never repeat what you have said. But, pray, tell me about the horses we see beyond. You have seen their like many times before?"
The old man's piercing eyes were clear and untroubled. His thin shoulders heaved beneath his cloak, as if he were gathering breath. From somewhere he found the strength to speak, if only in a loud whisper.