Bertie and the Merchant of Palmyra

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Proofread by Claire Deakin.

This is Natasha, and while I’ve been away doing a bit of globe trotting, I didn’t forget about my old friends. I sent Prince Bertie the Frog a postcard from Mount Everest, but unfortunately it didn’t arrive because the postman couldn’t find the letter box by the pond. Anyway, as soon as I had unpacked my rucksack, I went out for a walk in search of pond life. I couldn’t see Bertie, but as I was wandering along the water’s edge I heard, “EEEEEEK!”

I knew that squeak. It belonged to a tadpole called Tim. He had spotted a shadow on the bottom of the pond that looked just like a shark opening its jaws, full of jagged teeth. In fact, the scary shadow belonged to a grumpy old carp, Colin, and he wasn’t trying to frighten anyone, he was just having a good old yawn.

Bertie must have heard Tim’s high pitched voice too, because he came hopping out from a hole in the river bank and swam over to his little friend, who was panting for breath and just getting over the fright of his life.

When Tim had recovered from his shock, he asked his royal green friend, , “Bertie, haven’t you ever been really, really frightened?”

“Pa!" Exclaimed Bertie. “Princes are never frightened.”

“Truthfully? Are they never ever at all, just a teeny-weeny bit scared?”

Bertie’s face turned from green to red because he could see that Colin was about to mock him for having pants on fire.

"Well there was just one time - when I met a talking statue," admitted Bertie. "I think anyone would have been frightened by that." And as the Pond Life loved to hear stories about Bertie when was still a human prince; all the fishes, fowls, amphibians, and insects gathered around to listen.

It was the time of year when the days are short and dark, and it seems like winter will never end. One morning, as the king, who was Bertie’s father, sat frowning into his cornflakes, the queen said to him, “Oh buck yourself up man! I’m sick and tired of looking at your miserable old face. Why don’t you do something useful for once, like fix a holiday?”

Her words took a few moments to work through the king’s foggy thoughts, before he replied, “Where would you like to go my dear?”

“Oh anywhere - so long as it’s hot and sunny.”

The king took the queen right at her word. He booked a holiday in the desert. This was not at all what she had in mind, but it cheered up the king no end, because the terrace of their hotel overlooked a wonderful site that he had always wanted to see.

The sun was setting over the Syrian sands. In the distance, an old Arabic fort guarded the oasis of Palmyra. As the king and queen sipped their evening cocktails, the top of a Corinthian column, at least 2000 years old, formed their table. Only a few yards in front of them began the ruins of an ancient city, that stretched out between the fringes of the palm trees, and the site of the fort. Rows of columns marked the lines of once busy streets. Arched porticos and the roofless walls of temples and palaces indicated the magnificence of the city’s past. These days, however, its only inhabitants are the ghosts of the merchants who once made Palmyra a rich and splendid city.

Now if the king has a gift, it’s for telling stories. No doubt that’s where Prince Bertie gets his yarning talents from; and when it comes to ancient history, the king is a bit of a buff. He began to tell his queen a story:

"Two thousand years ago, the merchants of Palmyra grew fabulously wealthy from trade in silks and spices. The ruler of this desert city was Queen Zenobia, who claimed Cleopatra for an ancestor, and who equalled both the beauty and the reckless courage of the Egyptian queen. They say she had large black eyes that sparkled with uncommon fire. She spoke many languages, she studied the Greek and Roman philosophers, and she made strong, but just laws. As her wealth and power grew, so did her pride and ambition, however. She decided to conquer all of Asia Minor, and take from the Romans who were then its rulers. But her armies were defeated. When she tried to escape on the back of a speeding camel, she was taken captive. The Romans led her back to their capital. Their emperor celebrated his victory over Zenobia with a triumphal parade of tigers, elephants, and gladiators. More exotic and magnificent than any of these, was the sight of the proud and beautiful queen, walking behind her chariot, weighed down by chains of gold."

When the king had finished relating this brief history, his wife yawned and said, “Well if it had been me, I wouldn’t have gotten myself caught like that.”

The king nodded and said, “I have no doubt about that, my dear, but now we should turn in for the night, because tomorrow we shall rise at dawn before the heat becomes unbearable.”

Very early the next morning, the queen sat somewhat disgruntled, on a camel which provided the best form of transport around the columns, the forums, the ancient tombs, and the temples. The king rode alongside her, radiating interest and enthusiasm.

“My dear, in ancient times, the statues of wealthy merchants were placed on every column along this street, but where are they now? Their magnificence has been swept away like a brief sand storm in the desert. Doesn’t that make you think?”

To which the queen replied, "What souvenirs do they sell in this dump?"

At the end of the tour, their guide whispered to her that he knew of some very special souvenirs, that were kept back for only the most important guests.

“Sounds interesting,” said the queen, and while the king was taking an afternoon nap, she visited the secret souvenir shop.

“You see this statue,” said the guide, pointing to a handsome stone face with large eyes, a fine mouth, and a neatly trimmed beard, “It is almost as if he is alive. He was a wealthy merchant, and he commissioned the finest statues of himself and his family so that their likenesses would live forever.”

“A wealthy merchant you say?" Repeated the queen softly, and she thought how the statue could prove useful to her for magic spells to turn something like a metal spoon into gold. “I’ll have him!” She declared, and she arranged for it to be taken out of the country by her diplomats, who are never stopped or searched by customs.

A few weeks after the king and queen returned home from their holiday, the statue of the merchant of Palmyra was delivered to the palace. The queen was already working on another wicked plan, and she half forgot about her souvenir, which she stored in a crate in the cellar next to the dungeons.

It was not often that Prince Bertie went down to the dungeons, but the wicked queen had locked up his friend’s dad for not paying his parking fines. Bertie thought it was all a bit unfair, and so when the guard was taking a nap, he released the poor man from his cell.

As he was leaving the gaol, Bertie saw the door to the storage cellar. He thought it would be nice to look through some of his old toys and books to see if they brought back fond memories. He found his old bicycle with stabilisers on the back, and some roller blades which are now several sizes too small. Then he noticed the crate that was marked in Arabic writing. It was almost as tall as he was.

“Looks like a coffin,” he thought to himself. While he was pondering at the crate, a banging noise started to emerge from it, as if somebody was trying to get out.

“Ha Ha, funny joke. You don’t scare me,whoever you are,” said Bertie. Bertie wasn’t really sure if he was scared or not, until the crate started to move towards him as if by magic. Then he knew... He was terrified, and he ran out of the cellar and flew up the stairs and back to his room as fast as he could.

“But, but…” he said to himself, as he gasped for breath with the door firmly bolted behind him. “Things like that don’t happen in real life. It must have been my pesky little brother, Harry, playing tricks. Silly me. It’s all a bit embarrassing. I won’t say anything about this to anybody.”

The following morning, the royal family sat around the breakfast table. The queen was reading the newspaper and the king was saying, “My dear, there’s a Syrian fellow standing in the hallway. He says you kidnapped him from Palmyra and now he’s going to put a curse on you. We had a jolly interesting chat. He’s awfully knowledgeable about ancient history."

The queen didn’t hear her husband because she was engrossed in the forecast for floods, plague and pestilence.

“Just been talking to a Syrian fellow in the hallway,” insisted the king, only louder. “Says you kidnapped him…”

“He says that does he?” Replied the ueen. “Have the scoundrel thrown into the dungeon for slander,” and she returned to the newspaper.

Bertie was just finishing his third piece of toast and marmalade when the king said, “Here’s the chappy.”

Bertie looked up and saw the statue walking into the room. Princess Beatrice screamed, even louder than the time when she found a spider in her lunch box. She ran into the kitchen and shut herself in the pantry. Prince Harry hid behind the curtains. The wicked queen jumped out of the window. Only Bertie and the king were left at the breakfast table with the ghostly guest.

“Why, I do believe you’re crying,” said the Bertie to the statue. It was true - a large tear was running down his stone face. He put his arm around the ancient merchant and led him to a seat.

“There, there. Start from the beginning and tell us all about it,” he said.

The merchant cleared his throat of some ancient sand, and said, "Ah hum. You see before you a statue. I am the likeness of the merchant, Oloreus, who in his time amassed a great fortune through trade along the silk route. It is my duty to watch over the tomb of Oloreus, where he lies with his faithful wife, three lovely daughters, their husbands, and his grandchildren. My duty is for all time because the love of Oloreus for his family was without end. I guarded the tomb for almost two thousand years, and then I was removed and sold as a souvenir. Does it surprise you that this stone can weep?"

“My dear chap, you’ll have me at it soon,” said the king dabbing his eye. He was so moved by the story, that he instructed Bertie to pack up the statue and to take him back to the tomb of Oloreus in Palmyra. Bertie, of course was only too pleased to visit the fabulous city, because he shares his father’s interest in ancient history.

To ensure that the statue was never moved again, he had a sign made up in several languages that warned all who visited the tomb that anyone who tampered with it or stole from it would suffer a curse and die within two weeks of committing the sacrilege.

And that’s the story of how Bertie returned the statue of the merchant to ancient Palmyra. Tim the Tadpole found it rather frightening, especially when Beatrice found a spider in her lunchbox.

Before I go, I’d just like to say a very special thank you to everyone who has sent emails and messages asking about me while I’ve been away. It’s been very touching. I do hope that you have been enjoying the stories read by Richard and Elizabeth. I’d just like to tell you about my own plans. For the next few weeks I’m going to be finishing reading Alice Through the Looking Glass, and you will be able to hear them on our Alice in Wonderland Podcast and on Storynory.com. It’s a project that’s dear to my heart, and I’ve been meaning to finish it for ages.