Our story concerns a kingdom deep in the Middle Easy, long ago, ruled by an old sultan whose wise and compassionate rule had won the respect and love of all the people of his land.
But no one rules a country alone. Be they a Chinese emperor or the president of the United States, every leader depends on his advisors to make decisions. No one can be expected to know everything, after all. In the case of the old sultan he counted on his counselor, a tall and bony man called Salim, to advise him in the day to day running of his kingdom.
And that was the problem.
“Salim, do this, Salim, do that. Salim, should we raise the taxes? Salim, is the army in good condition? Salim, should I have boiled eggs for breakfast or fried? The old fool can’t do a thing without me. I do all the work running the country and he gets all the credit.”
In short, the sweet smell of ambition had soured the advisor’s taste for playing number two and he eyed the sultan’s throne much as a cat that has spied an unattended bowl of cream. But while the sultan was so beloved of the people and had the support of the army, there was little chance of overthrowing him unless he could come up with a particularly cunning plan. And, fortunately for our story, Salim was a man of exceptional cunning and treachery.
The idea came to him one night as he threw scraps of meat for the crows to fight over and his eyes narrowed in deliberation. He spent the whole of the next month buried deep inside the royal library, bent over old manuscripts deep in the underground archives, poring over ancient texts by candlelight, his angular, bony features casting sinister shadows on the walls. At last, after deciphering old metaphors in forgotten languages and solving old riddles buried in time, Salim found what he was looking for.
The following day Salim presented himself before the sultan. “Your majesty – may the light of wisdom shine always in your eyes – I should like to take a month to tour the kingdom to ensure those most distant from your throne that they are as close to your heart as any.”
“An excellent suggestion, my dear Salim! What would I do without you?”
And so Salim took the fastest camel the palace stables had to offer and set out off for the corners of the land to execute his plan; from the swampy marshes of the south east to the salt desert of the west to the lonely mountain peaks to the north, Salim traveled to the most remote parts of the country that scarcely featured on any but the most obscure maps and which were thought to be almost entirely uninhabited.
But it was not the people Salim had come to find but rather the birds. He employed hunters and trappers to ride with him and hunt the 1001 species of birds listed in the faded manuscripts he had taken from the library. From each dead specimen brought to him he extracted a single feather and then cast the body aside. And if, in the course of his work a servant drowned in quicksand or tumbled to his death down a crumbling cliff, well, “You can’t expect to make an omlette without breaking a few eggs.” Salim chuckled.
At last, Salim had gathered the 1001 feathers he needed; from the purple ostrich of the salt flats to the giant condors of the barren northern peaks to the desert swifts who spent their entire lives in flight – until an arrow brought them down…
He took his bag of feathers out to a gypsy caravan never stayed anywhere for more than three days at a time. Guardians of lost secrets, Salim wasn’t entirely surprised when one of them, an old, blind woman wondered out of her tent and hailed him:
“Greetings, Salim! May your ambition carry you as far as you deserve!”
“If you know who I am then I expect you also know why I have come?” Salim queried, remaining mounted on his camel.
“It was destined to happen and the Book of Destiny is open for all to read.” the old woman replied with a wide, toothless grin.
“Then take this,” Salim said, tossing her the bag of feathers and another of gold coins, “When will it be ready?”
“By the morning.”
“And then I shall ride forth to my glory!” Salim muttered to himself.
“To your destiny.’ the old woman whispered as she turned around to start her work.
The next day was the Sultan’s birthday and though he was a little surprised his most important advisor hadn’t returned to supervise the celebrations, he rode out anyway through the city in his carriage, throwing handfuls of coins to the crowds who cheered him on. He had just arrived in the grand public square overlooking the famous blue mosque when a shadow fell over the sultan and a horrified cry went up from the crowd as they Salim hovering 10 meters above him on a flying carpet, made from the feathers of 1001 birds.
“Salim, what is the meaning of this?” the Sultan asked.
“The meaning is that your time is over. With this flying carpet I am invincible. Look!” Salim cried, addressing the astonished crowds, “I have already taken the flags from the palaces of the neighbouring kingdoms as a warning of our new strength – if they do not send us great treasures I shall fly in and slit the throats of their rulers before they can so much as sneeze. The time has come for a new sultan: Sultan Salim!”
The crowd watched in breathless silence, quite overcome by the show of sorcery and treachery. The sultan, however, broke the quiet with a low chuckle that turned into an uncontrollable giggle. “Ah, Salim, Salim, that it should come to this!” and he pulled out from a hidden pocket a long bone whistle the length of his arm.
“And what is that?” Salim said suspiciously.
“Well it’s a funny story. While you were gone this old blind gypsy woman hobbled into the palace insisting that she give me a present. It’s a whistle made the bones of 1001 birds – she seemed to think it might come in useful.”
The sultan set the whistle to his lips and blew with all his might but no sound was heard to come out. Salim glanced around guardedly and then relaxed and was about to speak when he heard a distant squawk. The square was suddenly cast into shadow as the sky filled with birds of every size and description, swooping down with piercing angry cries. They dived at Salim, their sharp beaks outstretched and then each departed as quickly as quickly it had come, bearing away with it a single feather.
Salim crashed down from the sky and was impaled on the spears of the sultan’s bodyguards. As the life ebbed out of him, he gazed up at the impassive blue sky and above the din of the cheering crowd, he swore he could hear an old gypsy woman, laughing.