MARKO'S fame spread rapidly through the land, and stories of his giant strength and of his honesty soon reached the ears of the Emperor Stepan. With his knowledge of human nature the Emperor felt that here was a young man who should be at his court and in his service. So he wrote to King Vukashin to ask for Marko.
"I have heard, my dear kum. King Vukashin," so ran the Emperor's letter, "and men have told me, that your son, Marko Kralyevich, is now grown up. They tell me, too, that he has learned to read and write, and has studied the ancient books with the Archpriest Nedelko, in the fair church of Grachanitsa. Men tell me also that Marko is a mighty warrior, that he can hold his own in single combat, and that he fears no hero upon earth. I need men of learning and of knowledge and mighty men of valor to protect my realm. 0 King Vukashin, send Marko to my court in Prizren, and let him serve me as my secretary. Marko will be always with me, and I shall treat him as my own dear son Urosh."
Such an invitation should have pleased King Vukashin. With a son at court he might normally hope for an increase in personal power and prestige; but he knew full well that Marko would not assist in his intrigues and selfish schemes. He therefore wrote back to the Emperor and tried to make him change his mind.
"0 my master, the glorious Emperor Stepan!" wrote King Vukashin. "People speak the truth. My son is grown up. He knows how to read and write, and he has also all knowledge. He can hunt and ride and take his part in battle. But I will tell you true: Marko will not fit into your court. He will not sit quiet, for he is a headstrong youth. He will not obey his own father, but wanders everywhere. He asks permission of no man, but he sits where he will; he drinks red wine, and no man can control his actions. Marko is not made for the imperial court or to be an imperial officer; you will be displeased with him and his actions will shame me.*'
The Emperor at once replied, briefly and bluntly:
"King Vukashin, do not fear! I want a hero such as Marko Kralyevich."
There was nothing more to do. Vukashin had to consent, and early the next morning Marko called his servant Milutin and ordered him to make ready for the journey.
Milutin went to the warm stable and led out the noble Sharats. On the back of the horse he placed the well-wrought saddle and covered it with a broidered cloth of gold, so long that the tassels readied to the ground. Over this he threw a lynx-skin, and covered that with a dark bearskin, so that the dew and the sweat should not touch the lynx-skin. He bound the whole securely with four saddle girths and with a fifth all made of woven silk. He bridled Sharats with a steel bit of the best German make, and with a bridle of the finest leather. Then he led the horse into the marble courtyard under the lofty towers of the castle to wait for Marko to appear.
Meanwhile Marko was dressing with all the enthusiasm of one who is going on a grand adventure and wishes to look his best. First he put on a silken shirt edged with velvet and decorated with twelve buttons, each one of which was worth a pound of gold. Around his neck he put on an ornament worth three pounds of gold. He slipped a gold ring on his finger, and took his glass cup with the golden handle, which he always carried with him in case he wished to drink wine on the desolate mountains wliere he could find no inn. Around his mighty body he fastened his costly armor of triple strength. This armor was neither chain armor nor was it hammered, but was cast of pure gold in Venice, each of the sections weighing at least ten pounds.
Next he put on his dark-blue breeches with the gold embroidery, which were so elegantly wrought that the observer saw more gold than cloth when he beheld them. Last of all he pur on his cap with its nine golden decorations and the gilded wing. The ornaments were of pure gold and beneath them ran a string of pearls. The wing waved in the breeze in cunning manner, so that it shaded Marko's face from the blazing heat of the summer sun.
At last Marko was ready for his great adventure. Bursting with eagerness and enthusiasm he hurried down to the courtyard of tlie palace, where Sharats was impatiently waiting for his master to appear. Then when Marko came ou!: of tlie gate on to the square, it was only tlie work of a moment for him to leap gracefully into the saddle and start off for Prizren.
The tidings that Marko was going to the Emperor's court spread rapidly through the palace, and soon tlie news reached the other castle on the twin height, the home of Marko's mother. Yevrosima was glad to know that Marko was going up to the court of Stepan, but at the same time she was sorry her soil was leaving the familiar scene of white Prilip.
She hurried down from her castle to the great fiourt, and stood near the entrance to the enclosure, in order to make sure of seeing Marko once more. She wished to bid him a loving farewell and give him a last piece of advice.
As soon as he cauglit sight of his mother Marko rode up to her and dismounted.
"Go with God's blessing, my dear son Marko!" said Yevrosima. "You are going to white Prizren, the capital of the realm, and when you reach the court of your dear kum, the Emperor Stepan, remember that you must always pay him due honor. More than that, you know he ranks above your own father. Honor the customs and traditions, my son, and never betray the Emperor's trust nor shame your own name. In the white city of Prizren you will become friends of all the heroes of the Serb lands. There you will meet the Emperor and all his family, and also Knez Lazar from the north. You will make the acquaintance of the winged Relya of Pazar, the right hand of the Emperor. You will see Mllosh Obilich, the dashing falcon, for Milosh is a hero among heroes, a glory to his mother and a tower of strength to his tsar and emperor. You will meet them all, my son, and every day you will be with all of the men who have helped the Emperor to make broad his territories, give peace at home, and build up this great land. Go, my son, and take your place among those heroes, and may good fortune attend you. Give my respectful greetings to the Emperor and to the Empress, the gracious Roxanda."
Then came the last farewells. Marko kissed his mother's hand and she kissed him on both cheeks. Then slie kissed his noble brow and burst into tears. Meanwhile Marko leaped again upon Sharats and rode rapidly down to the plain of Prilip. His mother watched him until he was but a gleam and flash in the distance, as the sunlight glittered on his golden armor. Yet Yevrosima watched as the moving spot of light passed through the crowded streets of Prilip and went out into the great plain to the west of the city. Hour after hour, from her high tower, Yevrosima followed her beloved son with her eyes, until he ascended one of the hills on the horizon. She saw one last glitter of light and then Marko was gone, hidden away in the next valley.
Marko now had only one idea in mind, and that was to reach Prizren as rapidly as possible. So he pushed on, stopping neither for rest nor for food, and soon he was at the court of the Emperor Stepan Dushan.
Marko had never seen such magnificence as he now beheld in the palace of the Emperor. Never before had he, wealthy though he was, seen such a display of gold, silver and pearls. He was lost in wonder at all that met his eyes. Yet he was sent there on serious business and soon he was conducted to meet the Emperor and Empress. The Emperor entered the room where Marko was waiting, and Marko advanced and kissed his hand and the hand of the Empress. The Emperor greeted him kindly and Marko became a part of the imperial household.
Tlie strength and courage of Marko very soon won the heart of Stepan, but Marko was such a remarkable person that the Emperor at first hesitated to place him in a responsible position. He remembered, too, the difficulties he had had with Marko's father, and he resolved to be cautious.
One day he was in his palace with Marko, when suddenly he turned to Marko and said in an ordinary tone of voice: "Marko, here are three questions. Answer them for me and I shall know how intelligent you are. How many blades of grass are there in my meadow? How many hairs are there on my bead? How many stars are there in heaven?"
Marko answered the Emperor without a moment's hesitation.
"Your Majesty," he said, "I shall be very glad to answer these questions and I shall start at once on the counting. Only I must first have some tools to count with. Give me some needles, so that I can stick one needle in every blade of grass that I count, so there shall be no error. Next, take off your head, so that it will not annoy you while I count the number of your hairs. Then tell me the number of the stars that are above your kingdom, so that I shall not take anything from your realm."
Stepan was surprised at these words of Marko but he only said:
"There are two more things that I should like to know. How many drops of water are there in the Vardar River, and how many leaves are there on the trees on Mount Shar?"
Quick as a flash came the answer.
"I shall count them with pleasure, mighty tsar, but only first bid the Vardar stop Mowing, so that I can measure the drops. Also tell me how many trees and branches there are on Mount Shar and then I can count the leaves."
Marko's answers to these questions convinced the Emperor that his mind was as keen as his body was strong. He was made the Emperor's secretary and was Stepan's inseparable companion. He went with him into the mountains to hunt, and stayed with him in the council chamber to advise. He became the friend of all the heroes of the Serb lands and rapidly secured for himself an important post at court.
Marko made many friends, but his closest companions were Milosh Obilich and the winged Relya of Pazar. The three friends took an oath never to be separated, to be pobratims—men bound together by the conscious adoption of brotherhood with all of its responsibilities—and their fame and their friendship and their exploits were sung throughout the whole realm of the Emperor Stepan Dushan.