THE Turkish victory on the river Maritsa was followed by a period of calm. The Sultan Murat was interested in other plans of conquest and for a while peace seemed to be settling down again upon the Balkans. Princes like Marko who had already been forced to submit were able to pay visits to their friends and to travel almost as in the last years before the conquest.
Marko delighted in wandering around the country. Everywhere he went he was popular, and he was invited to all the weddings and other ceremonies, and gatherings of every kind. He thus spent much of his time at the palaces of his friends.
Marko had several narrow escapes from defeat in his travels and adventures, but his good fortune, his bravery, and his giant strength always brought him victory. In the course of time his continued success made him boastful and vain, and it was obvious to all his friends that someone ought to teach Marko a lesson and make it clear to him that he was after all only human.
One day there was a great feast of all the Serb lords, and seventy kings and bans and nobles were gathered together. One and all were boasting of their prowess, of their exploits, of their wealth. They were telling whom they had conquered, whom they would conquer, whom they would like to conquer. As they drank deeply of the red wine, and boasted in this fashion, their deeds and ambitions rose higher and higher.
Marko looked on at such bragging in cold disdain. Finally it came his turn and he spoke up proudly and defiantly.
"O kings and bans and nobles!" he said. "You all may be heroes, but I am the chief of heroes, the hero of heroes! No one can dare to compare himself with me; no, not on this earth nor any creature that is beneath the earth or above it. I am so strong that with one hand I can overturn Mother Earth if I will, and I shall think no more of it than of snapping a twig. If any one wants to fight with me, let God Himself come down to earth and challenge me. I will not refuse the challenge, nor will I lose."
This impious threat was not well received by the rest of the company. Marko's enemies were angry and his friends were hurt at his presumption, but there was no one who could call Marko to account. Gloom fell upon the company and Marko took advantage of it to leave for his home in white Prilip.
The next morning Marko was coming toward Prilip, dashing along on Sharats over mountain and valley, stopping for nothing, when he came to a crossroad. He saw sitting there a very old man with a long gray beard, apparently in need of help. Marko drew rein and approached the old man in a kindly manner.
"Old man," he said, "what is your need and why are you sitting here at these crossroads? Can I help you?"
"Yes, O hero, unknown warrior," replied the stranger. "I dismounted from my horse to pick up this little knapsack. But it is very, very heavy, and I am very old, and I cannot pick it up or carry it. You are young and strong, so it will not be hard for you to pick it up and give it to me."
What a simple request! Marko Kralyevich smiled as he heard it. To think that this old man would ask him to pick up a little knapsack; him, Marko Kralyevich, who could move the earth with one hand! It was really not worth dismounting to perform such a simple service. So Marko rode casually up to the knapsack and stretched out his spear to pick it up.
Imagine his surprise when the little knapsack stayed on the ground! It had not budged an inch. Marko pushed and shoved, and his spear bent and twisted. It curved to the breaking point and still the knapsack did not stir.
Marko was very much disturbed at. this. He dropped his spear and reached down in the saddle to pick up the obstinate thing. He could reach it without any trouble and he took a good grip upon it, but the result was the same. Marko could not stir it, and his giant strength and his tremendous efforts only had the effect of forcing Sharats to his knees.
By now Marko was thoroughly enraged. He leaped off his horse and braced himself in order to get a firm footing. The result was the same. Marko pulled and shoved; he strained and tugged; he exerted every ounce of his gigantic strength, and still the little knapsack lay perfectly still. Drops of blood came out with the sweat and Marko felt himself weakening, but still there was no result. Marko's eyes and mouth were filled with blood. He could barely stand on his feet from exhaustion, and still the little knapsack lay there. Suddenly Marko became frightened.
Then the old man smiled and said: "Marko, you seem to be having a hard time. Do not be surprised. In that little knapsack lies the weight of the whole of Mother Earth. You have gigantic strength, but you see now that you cannot overturn Mother Earth with one hand, nor can you hope to have God come down from heaven for you to conquer Him."
Marko realized at once that he had sinned in boasting foolishly, and he said: "Yes, this is a miracle. I have sinned and I am sorry." The old man looked keenly at Marko. "More than that, Marko Kralyevich," he said, "when you pressed the knapsack with your spear you lost half of your supernatural strength. When you leaned over in your saddle and took hold of the knapsack, you lost half of what was left to you. When you dismounted and took hold with both hands, you lost half of what was left. You are still a great warrior and hero, but you will meet one who is stronger and more heroic than you are. Yet you will never be conquered, for you can use your reason and your mind as well as mere strength, and through your intelligence you will win even where you are deficient in strength."
With these words the old man vanished into thin air, and Marko realized then that God had sent an angel to answer his impious challenge, and never again did Marko sin in this way.