ONE DAY in early spring Marko and his friend Beg Kostadin were riding through the country toward Istanbul. The warm rains of spring had covered all the hills with soft green, and all the trees and flowers were in full bloom, and the two heroes looked forward to a fruitful summer. The hot dry Balkan summer was the quiet season in the land. The peasants worked hard in the grainfields and the vineyards, but gradually, as summer wore on, the hills and fields turned brown and bare as the crops were gathered. Later on, in the autumn when the summer heat was past, and the harvest had been gathered and the wine made, all the villages came together to celebrate. That was the season for entertainment, for weddings, and for festivals of every kind. At that time, too, the lords and the princes met and held their splendid feasts. It was then, also, that all the clans gathered and entertained their families and friends with all their retainers and allies.
As the two friends rode along they talked together of this and that. Beg Kostadin was one of the Serb leaders who, like Marko, had been forced to accept the supremacy of the Sultan. The two men often made visits together to Istanbul to the court of the Turkish ruler. Beg Kostadin, however, unlike Marko, was ambitious, and loved to be surrounded by the rich and successful, while Marko was friendly to all, no matter who they were. Rich or poor, high or low, anyone was free to approach him and was sure of a hearty welcome.
Beg Kostadin had noticed that Marko had missed the Slava, the feast which the Beg had given the October before on the day of St. Dimiitry, his patron saint. This was not surprising, because the number of days of the feast was limited, and Marko was on such good terms with all the lords of the Balkans that he could hardly have time to pass from one feast to another. But Beg Kostadin wanted Marko to be there the next fall, so now, in the early spring, he pressed his invitation for the next autumn.
"O my pobratim, Marko Kralyevich," said the Beg, "if you want to be magnificently entertained, with all sorts of good things to eat, and if you want to meet many famous folk, come and visit me next autumn on the day of my patron saint, St. Dimitry."
This was an opportunity Marko had been waiting for, as he had wished to say certain things to the Beg for some time. So he took advantage of the occasion to tell Beg Kostadin how he felt about the latter's feasts.
"Don't boast of your food and of your entertainment, O Beg Kostadin," said Marko, somewhat sternly. "Some years ago, when I was looking for my brother Andriya, I happened to be at your house the day of the feast of your patron saint. I saw there three things that I did not like and that were unworthy of you."
Beg Kostadin was naturally curious as to what Marko meant, so he asked him what the things were.
"The first thing I saw that I did not like," said Marko, "was this. Two orphans came to your feast to get a piece of white bread and a drink of red wine. You had invited everyone to your feast and yet you said to these orphans: 'Go away, you vile outcasts. Don't drink wine here among the gentlemen!' You sent them away, and I saw it and went with them. We walked down to the market and I took them into a little coffee shop and bought them white bread and red wine. Then I went with them to a tailor and purchased new suits of pure scarlet and of green silk for them. Then I sent them back to your house. They entered splendidly dressed and you invited them in. You took one by your right hand and the other by your left, and you led them up to the table and said, 'Eat and drink, young gentlemen.'"
The Beg was silent, for he knew Marko spoke truly.
"The second thing I did not like," continued Marko, "was the fact that you gave higher rank to these young orphans who had just appeared in new suits of scarlet than you did to distinguished elderly people who had lost their money and whose clothes were faded and old.
"And the third thing," went on Marko relentlessly, "was that you invited neither your father nor your mother to the table to drink the first cup of wine."
So saying, Marko abruptly changed the subject and talked about other things as they rode toward Istanbul. But Beg Kostadin pondered the words of Marko and saw that his friend spoke with cause. He resolved to do differently the next autumn when he held his Slava on the day of St. Dimitry, his patron saint.
In a few hours Marko and Beg Kostadin reached the city of Istanbul, formerly Tsargrad, or the Imperial City. In the minds of the Serbs and Russians this city was the center of the world.
The two Serb heroes were objects of interest everywhere and it was impossible for them to go unrecognized. Marko and his horse Sharats were known all over, and people who passed them on the street wondered why they had come to Istanbul. The attention that they gave him presently annoyed Marko, who was accustomed to riding alone for days over the mountains and plains of his own country, and he became alarmed lest someone might try to involve him and his friend in a fight or a contest of some kind.
He turned to Beg Kostadin and said:
"Here we are going through Istanbul, and I am afraid that I may get into some trouble or some conflict. I shall pretend to be sick, so that no one will bother me. Heartache is perhaps the best thing to have, for I hear that this illness brings great evil."
Beg Kostadin agreed with him and promised not to reveal that his friend's illness was a sham. So Marko took his feet out of the stirrups and slouched down on the back of Sharats, as if he could hardly hold his head up, but all this was merely a trick to avoid trouble. The two men rode through the streets of Istanbul and they admired the churches and the mosques. They had never seen such a large city. The bazaars and the market-places of white Prilip and of the cities that they had visited were as nothing in comparison with what they now saw.
In other sections they passed between plain and uninteresting-looking whitewashed walls, unpierced by windows, yet these were the best and richest sections of the city. Now and again as they passed the entrance to some house, the great gates were open and they could see inside the gorgeous colonnades and courtyards. Some of the houses were two or more stories high, with beautiful porches and balconies, and rich rugs and expensive furnishings.
While they were looking their fill Alil-aga, an officer of the Sultan, rode by in state, with thirty of the Corps of the Janissaries, the most terrible of all the Ottoman troops, for they were men who were without any ties in the world. Alil-aga caught sight of Marko and came to a sudden halt.
"O hero, Marko Kralyevich," he called. "Come with roe to a contest of shooting. If God gives you the grace and the fortune to conquer me, you may take my white palace and all my inheritance, and also my faithful wife. But if Allah to-day favors me and I conquer you, I will take neither your palace nor your life, but I will hang you and take your charger Sharats for my own."
"Leave me alone, accursed Turk," replied Marko. "I won't take part in your shooting. Can't you see that grievous illness, the savage heartache, has come upon me and I can hardly hold myself on my horse? How then can I shoot?"
This was good news to Alil-aga and he insisted more vehemently that Marko shoot with him. He caught hold of the right fold of Marko's coat to pull him off Sharats, but Marko drew a dagger and cut off the fold of his coat. Then Alil-aga caught hold of the left side and again Marko cut it off.
The Turk was now at white heat with enthusiasm. He caught Sharats by the bridle and with his left hand took hold of Marko's collar to drag him from his horse for the contest.
This was going too far. Marko forgot his illness, straightened himself in the saddle and tightened the reins of Sharats. The good horse knew what Marko meant. He leaped over the other horses and riders and danced around until Marko pulled him down and quieted him. Then Marko turned to his friend.
"Beg Kostadin, pobratim!" he said. "Go to the armorers' section of the market and buy for me a Tatar arrow with nine white falcon feathers. Meanwhile I will go with the aga to the cadi so that he may give justice and so that there will be no dispute between us as to the terms of the contest."
Beg Kostadin galloped off to the bazaar, and Marko went with Alil-aga to the cadi.
When the two men entered, the cadi was sitting cross-legged on a rug with his turban around his head. Gathered around him were a number of friends and petitioners, all of them seeking his favor by fair means or foul, for bribery was not considered a sin then, but the customary thing in Turkey.
Alil-aga, therefore, when he had removed his slippers, as was the Turkish custom, sat down at the side of the cadi and laid twelve golden ducats on the knees of the judge. "Effendi, sir," he said, in Turkish, "there are twelve ducats for you. Do not give Marko a righteous and a fair judgment."
Marko of course knew Turkish as well as he knew Serbian, so he understood what the aga had said. He also knew the Turkish manner of justice, but he had no ducats, and if he had had he would have refused to spend them in any such way. He calmly took his six-ribbed mace and placed it meaningly across his knees. The cadi understood the significance of this, but to make his meaning clear Marko said:
"Effendi, sir, O judge! Give me a righteous and a fair agreement. You see my six-ribbed mace. One blow from that and you will never need a physician or the ducats."
Marko's fame and the sight of the mace influenced the cadi more than did the ducats of Alil-aga. He drew up the contract properly and was much relieved when the troublesome Serb left the office.
Alil-aga came to the lists with his thirty Janissaries, and he had the admiration and sympathy of all the Turks whom they passed. Marko came alone and unattended, save for some Greeks and Bulgars whom he met by chance. These Christians hoped against hope that their champion might win, yet they feared Turkish vengeance if he did.
When they reached the lists, Alil-aga spread out the arrows and said proudly:
"You claim to be a great hero, Marko Kralyevich, and you have boasted in the councils of the Sultan that you could shoot the cross-shaped eagle as it speeds to its rocky cliff above the clouds."
"Yes, Turk," said Marko, "I am a great hero, and a good shot. But you come ahead of me, for this is your country and your realm. You must shoot before me in this contest, for it is you who have challenged me. So, Turk, loose your arrows and shoot."
The Turk loosed the first white arrow and it new straight and true through the air. When it landed the umpires measured where it fell, and it was full one hundred and twenty yards.
Marko strolled up to the lists and carelessly drew his bow. The string twanged and the arrow went two hundred yards.
Alil-aga frowned a little, but came up for the second round with courage and determination. This time he took more care and he pulled the string back with more vigor and energy. The arrow covered three hundred yards. The Turks applauded, for this was a mighty shot.
It was now Marko's turn. Still almost as carelessly as the first time, and seeming to take little interest in the affair, he drew hack his arm. The bow bent and the arrow leaped forward. Five hundred yards!
Alil-aga was plainly worried and the loud and enthusiastic support of his Janissaries could not conquer the fear he had of what might happen if Marko seriously took an interest in the contest. He adjusted another arrow and bent his bow as far as he could. Every muscle was tense; he put every ounce of energy and power he had into the bow. Slowly it bent, slowly, slowly, and then when it seemed as if it could bend no more, the string roared arid the arrow flew straight past the last one of Marko's. Six hundred yards—one-third of a mile!
The Turks were jubilant and even among the Bulgarians and Greeks there was involuntary admiration of Alil-aga. But there was much at stake.
Many wagers had been laid and some of the more fearful withdrew, for they were afraid that the victory of the Turks would end with a disaster for the Christians. Just then Beg Kostadin came back from the bazaar, and he brought with him a Tatar arrow with nine white falcon feathers.
Marko took it, examined it carefully, and felt the feathers to make sure that they were stiff and straight. Then without a word he stepped to the lists. Carefully he adjusted the arrow. Carefully he aimed into the. air so as to secure the proper angle for his shot. Then with all of his giant strength he pulled on the great bow. Back, back it went, back until the curve on it made the bow seem straight when Alil-aga was pulling. Back it went until the bow seemed on the verge of breaking, and then Marko let fly.
With a screech and a roar the string relaxed, and the bow sprang back to shape and off went the arrow into the hot, dusty air. The arrow flew up and up into the sky, until it was lost to sight, and where it came down no one ever knew, for no one could find it. The umpires looked long and sharply. They searched everywhere, but it was never found. How could they measure the shot? Marko's victory was undoubted, and Alil-aga and the Turks had to bow to Marko's superior shooting.
Then Alil-aga broke down and wept loudly. His bravado and courage were gone and he begged for mercy.
"O brother in God, Marko Kralyevich," he pleaded, "by God above, and by St. John, and by your holy religion, you have won from me my v/hite palace and broad lands, as well as my faithful wife. But brother, take them and do not hang me!"
"May the living God smite you!" Marko answered sternly. "You call me brother and offer me your wife. I do riot want her. We are not like the Turks, and to us a brother's wife is like a sister. I have at home a loving and faithful wife, my Yelitsa, daughter of King Shishman. I would forgive you everything if you had not made me cut my coat. Give me therefore three loads of money, that I can have my coat repaired."
This was good news for the Turk. He jumped up, embraced and kissed Marko. Kralyevich on Loth cheeks, and took him home to his noble palace. There he entertained him for three whole days, without counting the cost, and he gave him as much money as three horses could carry. And Alii-aga's wife gave Marko a gold-embroidered shirt and a kerchief wrought with silver. Alil-aga gave Marko a bodyguard of three hundred men and sent him off rejoicing to his own home in white Prilip.
For the rest of their lives the two men held the land together for the Sultan, and whenever there was war in the land Alil-aga and Marko fought together as brothers. Wherever any cities were to be taken, it was always Alil-aga and Marko who captured them.