IT WAS the middle of the fourteenth century. Peace had come for a few years to the bloodstained hills of the Balkans. The great Roman Empire had broken up and war and disorder had followed; but now in the Balkans a ruler had emerged who brought the country together, organized society, and created a spirit of unity. He was the greatest of the administrators of the Serb dynasty of the Nemanyas, Stepan Dushan. Nearly all that is now Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania, almost to the walls of Istanbul, came under his domain, and for his services to his country he was crowned in the city of Skoplye Emperor of the Serbs, or, as a chronicler of those times expressed it. Emperor of the Serbs and the Greeks. It was a proud title, and if Stepan had lived longer he might have succeeded in organizing a great Christian stats, able to hold off the advancing Turks.
Stepan's land was rich and his people were cultured. He adorned his capital cities of Prizren and Skoplye with churches and palaces. He built in Skoplye a new bridge across the Vardar River which is still in use as the chief means of crossing from one side of the city to the other. Gold and silver and precious stones he used in abundance, and the princes and lords under his rule imitated their emperor in his love of culture and of luxury.
It was a great era, but the cloud that boded ill was already visible on the horizon. In the year 1354, one year before the death of Stepan, a Turkish army occupied the peninsula of Gallipoli on the north shore of the Dardanelles, and from that hour the advancing power of Islam made itself felt more and more strongly.
At the same time, some of the powerful nobles sought to make themselves independent rulers. Some were working for what they thought was right; others were willing to stop at nothing to advance their individual possessions and personal importance. All of them sought powerful positions. Foremost among the rulers working for their own ends was King Vukashin, an able but unscrupulous man who had great power in the southern part of the domain of Stepan. The Emperor saw his ability and was forced to make him one of the guardians of his young son Urosh, but at the same time Vukashin—or King Vukashin, as he is always called— was playing the game of statecraft for his own interests and not for the good of his country.
Prior to this, in order to gain more power by a cleverly planned marriage, King. Vukashin had attacked Momchilo, one of the feudal lords of Hercegovina. The ballad writers tell how Vidosava, the wife of Momchilo, a wicked and designing woman, aided Vukashin in his plan. Vidosava betrayed her husband to Vukashin, and then King Vukashin realized that the woman who had betrayed such a hero as Momchilo might betray him—Vukashin—in turn to some other ruler later on.
So instead of marrying Vidosava, King Vukashin married Momchilo's sister, Yevrosima, and Vidosava paid for her treachery to her husband with her life. Yevrosima and Vukashin lived happily for many years and two sons and a daughter were bom to them. One son, Andriya, played no special part in the history of his country and early in his life fell a victim to the Turks. The other son, Marko, was destined by fate for a great career. As Momchilo lay dying he had urged King Vukashin to marry Yevrosima and not Vidosava, and he prophesied that a child of theirs would be more powerful than he had been.
This was not the only prophecy of Marko's greatness. One day, some time before Marko was born, Yevrosima and her attendants were walking along the bank of the Vardar River when they saw a gypsy child fall into the stream. The queen at once leaped into the water and saved the child. The gypsy was grateful and thanked Yevrosima. Then she suddenly asked her:
"Do you wish your child to be a king or a hero?"
The queen was surprised and replied, "Of course he will be a king like his father."
"I know that," replied the gypsy. "A king rules and everyone hates him, and when he dies he is at once forgotten. But everyone loves a hero, and his fame is never forgotten. If you wish a hero for a son, found a church in honor of the Mother of God, and cultivate nine vineyards for the poor and the orphans. Mark also nine springs in nine different places, and bathe three times a day in the waters of the River Boyana. Besides this, drink a skin of sheep's milk from Mount Shar every day."
Yevrosima desired her child to be a hero rather than merely a king, so she did as the gypsy told her. The wonder-child that was bom to the Queen in due season was Marko. Yevrosima was overjoyed, arid sought everywhere for the gypsy to reward her properly, but the gypsy was nowhere to be found. So Yevrosima knew that the gypsy was a saint or a vila who had appeared to her to foretell Marko's birth.
From early childhood Marko, the King's son, was a remarkable youth. He was much stronger than any of his playmates and companions, but more than that, his distinguishing characteristics were frankness and honesty, qualities which his father, King Vukashin, lacked. Marko was so unlike his father, in fact, that legends grew up about his birth, and many people believed that his mother was a vila and his father was a zmay, or dragon. The vilas became the special friends of Marko later in his life, so it was easy for the people to imagine that his mother was one of these spirits, and that from the union of a vila and a magic dragon had sprung their beloved hero.
As a boy Marko was always in mischief. He was fond of practical jokes, but the difficulties in which he found himself as a result were caused more by his great strength than from any real desire to hurt people and see them suffer. Neighbors and friends were not likely to admire a lad who had the strength to swing a horse around by the tail, or to toss a bull as if it were a ball. Marko developed very rapidly, both physically and mentally, and in all his many adventures he did not rely solely on his physical prowess, but used his extraordinarily keen brain to get him out of the difficulties in which he found himself.
For Marko was not only strong physically, as befitted a prince of the Nemanya period of the Serbs, but he was well educated. He was taught to read and write at an early age, for in the fourteenth century the knowledge of reading and writing was far more widespread in the empire of the Nemanyas than in western Europe. Marko in his later years was an untiring letter-writer, and in this respect he is unique among the great heroes of the world,
Between Marko and his mother Yevrosima there existed the most perfect understanding. To the end of her life Marko always treated her with great respect, and he obeyed her counsels without ever questioning their wisdom. The most important person in Marko's household at white Prilip was Yevrosima.
On the other hand, the frank and generous nature of Marko could not fail to arouse the jealousy and hate of his father, King Vukashin. One day Marko's teacher, the Archpriest Nedelko, told the boy that kings and emperors were the most important persons in the world.
"No!" Marko exclaimed at once. "The poor and the orphans are more important."
A few days later Nedelko told Marko that one should love God and honor the king.
"Yes," agreed Marko without hesitation, "provided the king is honorable and just."
Nedelko told King Vukashin of this strange idea of Marko, and he became so angry that Marko found it necessary to leave the palace of his father for some time. He went out into the country near Prilip, and worked as a shepherd. He had been doing this for several months when he heard of a man who had some wonderful horses. So Marko sought him out and for three years he worked for this man, in order that at the end of the time he might select a horse of his own from the steeds in the pasture. When the time came for Marko to choose a horse he tested each animal by taking it by the tail and swinging it around his head. Finally he found one colt that he was unable to lift so carelessly, and he chose that horse, the famous Sharats, for his own, and the two became fast friends. Sharats was a very odd-looking animal, quite unlike other horses. His name meant Dapple—covered with light spots. Apparently Sharats was piebald and spoiled, and some have said that his hide was more like that of an ox than of an ordinary horse.
Sharats and Marko were inseparable companions all their lives, and wherever one appeared the Serbs could be sure that the other was not far away. They shared the same food and drank the same wine, and Marko gave half of all that he had to his beautiful horse.