Jewish Fairy Book (Gerald Friedlander)/The Castle in the Air

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XIII

THE CASTLE IN THE AIR

LONG, long ago there lived two famous kings. One was Pharaoh, king of Egypt. The other was Sennacherib, king of Assyria. Pharaoh was a very warlike ruler. He had an enormous army. His soldiers were very brave and most skillful with their bows and battle-axes. Their King delighted to see them daily on parade in the sandy desert near the royal palace. He watched them in summer and in winter. His object in having his fine men constantly drilled was to have them ready for battle, which he would have gladly welcomed should occasion arise to wage war. He often wished, as he rode home to his palace after drill, that he had a palace or castle in the desert. But he knew that the sand of the desert would never do for a foundation and therefore it was useless to build his residence there.

One day a rumor reached him that the King of Assyria had caused his wise Minister of State, named Achikar, to be killed. Pharaoh had always been afraid of having a quarrel with this man, who knew so well how to advise his master King Sennacherib. Now that he was supposed to be dead there was nothing to fear. Therefore Pharaoh wrote a very rude letter to the king of Assyria as follows: "Health be to thee. It is good for kings to pay tribute to those who are wiser and stronger than they are. Thou must either pay tribute to me or I must give thee tribute. Be it known to thee that I desire to have a castle built in the air over the desert of Egypt. I know that it is not a very easy thing to have a castle between heaven and earth. It is very good for kings to learn how to do difficult tasks. I therefore order thee to send me within six months a clever man who is a skilled architect, that is to say, a man who can draw the plans of the castle and guide the workmen. He must also bring with him builders for the work. When thou hast sent me such men I will collect and send thee the taxes of Egypt for three years. If, however, thou shouldst neglect this my request and fail to send me such men of whom I have written above, then shalt thou collect and send me as tribute the taxes of Assyria for three years. Failing this, I will gather my mighty army and come to fight thee. I will lay waste thy land and take away thy kingdom. From thy overlord, Pharaoh, King of Egypt."

As soon as this letter reached Sennacherib, he read it and handed it to his Ministers of State. They advised him to summon all his nobles and to ask their advice, saying, "What shall we do?" He followed this plan. When the nobles had heard the letter read, they held their peace. Their silence distressed Sennacherib, who did not know what was to be done. He then called together all the old and learned men, including the stargazers and magicians. As soon as they were all seated in the royal council room the King told them what the King of Egypt had dared to write. "How shall I act, what advice do ye give?"

"O Lord, great King!" said one of the stargazers, "know that there is none in thy kingdom who could deal with King Pharaoh except the wise Achikar, the royal secretary. Alas! he was put to death at thy command. Why ask us to advise thee? Who is able to build a castle in the air between heaven and earth? We cannot help thee."

Now as a matter of fact it was unknown to the King Sennacherib that Achikar was not dead at all. He had been condemned to death on a false charge of betraying his king and country. On the day when he was supposed to suffer death, he had recognized in the public executioner a friend, whose life he had once saved. In return the kind-hearted friend spared his life and a condemned criminal took Achikar's place at the public execution.

When King Sennacherib found that there was no one in his kingdom to help him, he began to lament over Achikar's death. In the hearing of all his courtiers he said: "Alas for thee, noble and wise Achikar! How well didst thou manage the affairs of our kingdom! All the secrets and thoughts of men didst thou know. Woe is me for thee! how did I destroy thee. I listened to the tittle-tattle of evil men and in consequence thou art no more. Ah! who can give thee to me just for once, or bring me word that thou art alive? I would give him half of my kingdom. Moreover, I would also give him thy weight in gold."

With tears in his sad eyes the King sat on his throne of gold after he had spoken these words. Then one of the courtiers present came near to the king and said: "O king! live forever. I was the public executioner when Achikar was sentenced to death. Now command thy servants to cut off my head."

"Why should I do this?"

"O my lord! every one that doeth not the order of the king is worthy of death.

"That is right. What hast thou failed to do?"

"I have disobeyed the king's command."

"When and how?"

"Thou didst command me to put Achikar to death. I knew that one day thou wouldst repent thee concerning him. I was also aware that he had been very greatly wronged. He was, indeed, not guilty of any crime. I therefore saved his precious life and I hid him."

"Stay! I command thee. If it really be as thou sayest and them wilt show me Achikar alive, then will I give thee great wealth and make thy rank above that of all thy friends. Thou shalt not die, but thou shalt live as the king's friend in honor and happiness. Fetch Achikar quickly and my heart will rejoice."

After a brief interval Achikar came before the astonished king and all his courtiers. When Sennacherib saw him he wept and was mightily ashamed to look him in the face. He knew that he had wronged him. He cried aloud: "Praise be to God Who hath brought thee back!"

Achikar turned to the King and said: "Because I have seen thy face, my lord, no evil is in my heart."

"Hast thou heard of the letter which I have received from Pharaoh, King of Egypt?"

"No, my lord King!"

"Read it, noble Achikar! Give me advice how to answer it."

Achikar took it from the king's hand and read it. He then said to the king: "My lord! concerning this matter which Pharaoh demands, be not anxious. I will go to Egypt and build thee a castle in the air. I will then bring back with me the three years tribute of Egypt."

When the King Sennacherib heard Achikar's words he rejoiced very heartily. Then Achikar said: "Grant me, I beseech thee, a delay of forty days. I need time to consider this matter so as to arrange it successfully. "

The King most readily agreed to this. Achikar went to his home in the country and told his huntsmen to capture two young eagles for him. When this had been done, he ordered the workers in flax to weave two strong ropes, each to be two thousand cubits long and one ell in thickness. He also caused his carpenters to make two large cages for the eagles. He then took two little lads, making them sit every day on the backs of the eagles. The feet of the birds were bound by the long ropes to prevent them flying away. After a while the lads were quite accustomed to their morning ride on the eagles. By means of the ropes the birds could be drawn down to the ground when necessary. Achikar also taught the boys to shout when high up in the air: “Bring bricks, bring clay, that we may build the king's castle up here, for we are sitting still doing nothing." After many days training everything was in order just as Achikar desired. He went to the King's palace to tell him that he was ready to go to Pharaoh and to say "Farewell." Sennacherib embraced him and wished him a happy and prosperous journey. He then set out for Egypt, taking with him a company of soldiers, the eagles in their cages, the long ropes and the two boys.

At last he came to the land of Egypt. He went at once to visit Pharaoh in his palace. When he was brought before the king he bowed his face to the ground and said: "O my lord, O king! My master Sennacherib sends thee greetings of peace. He has read the letter written by thy Majesty and thanks thee mightily for the honor thou dost confer upon him by promising to give him three years tribute if thy castle in the air is built. I have therefore come to Egypt, thy land, to build thee here a castle between the heavens and the earth. By the help of the Most High God and thy noble favor I will build it for thee as thou desirest. Please provide lime, stone, clay and workmen. I have brought with me from the land of Assyria skilled builders to complete thy castle."

The words of Achikar were heard by Pharaoh and his courtiers with great surprise. In fact, they could hardly believe their ears. The King gave orders to have all that Achikar demanded at once prepared and taken to that part of the desert where the royal soldiers were accustomed to drill. Thither came Achikar with his lads, the eagles and the ropes. The King and his courtiers also went there to see how the wonderful castle would be built.

Achikar let the eagles out of their cages. He tied the lads on their backs and also tied the ropes to the feet of the eagles and let them go in the air. They soared upwards, till they remained between heaven and earth. Then the boys began to shout, saying: "Bring bricks, bring clay, that we may build the King's castle in the air. We are sitting up here doing nothing."

The crowd below around the King were mightily astonished at all that they saw. They wondered what it all meant and what was going to happen. Achikar took a rod in his hand and began to beat the King's workmen who were standing still with gaping mouths, surprised beyond measure at seeing the boys on the eagles high up in the air. He shouted for Pharaoh's soldiers, saying to them: "Bring up to my skilled workmen what they require, bricks and clay. Do not hinder them from their work."

Pharaoh turned to him and said: "Tell me thy name."

"I am Achikar, the secretary of State to the King of Assyria."

"Did I not certainly hear that thy lord and king had caused thee to be slain?"

"Be that as it may. I am yet alive, for God saved me to build thy castle in the air."

"Thou art indeed mad, Achikar. Who can bring up sand, bricks and clay to thy builders up there between heaven and earth?" said the King in a temper.

"How then, my lord King! shall we build a castle in the air? I have prepared all the plans and yonder in the air are the special builders. All they need is the material. I can also tell thee this—if my lord Sennacherib, the mighty King of the Assyrian Empire, were here, he would have built several castles in the air in a single day."

"Have done with the castle, Achikar. Get thee to thy King and I will send with thee three years' tribute. Would that I had never written my foolish letter to thy lord. Give him my greetings and tell him I shall never again ask for such an impossible thing as a castle in the air. We must learn to be satisfied with such things as are possible and right. Farewell, wise Achikar."

Straightway he returned to his lord, King Sennacherib. When the news reached the King of Assyria that the trusty Achikar was returning, he went out to meet him and rejoiced over him exceedingly. When they met the King cried: "Welcome home, dear Achikar, the strength of my kingdom, the prince of my realm." Achikar told him how he had fared in Egypt, and with pride showed him the three years' tribute sent by Pharaoh. King Sennacherib was delighted and said: "Take of this tribute as much as thou dost desire."

"I desire naught but the safety of my lord the King. I am happy to know that I have been able to serve thee. Continue to trust me and I will do all I can to help thee to increase in honor and greatness."

Achikar lived to be a very old man. To his last day Sennacherib honored and loved him as the wisest man in his kingdom.

Achikar, v-vii.