1. Marko Goes to Church
IT WAS Easter morning. The first flush of dawn had not yet touched the sky, nor had the morning star risen to shed her silvery light abroad. Marko was already stirring in white Prilip, for he wished to attend the Easter services at the great church on the field of Kosovo. He had a long ride ahead of him and he wished to make his confession before the service began.
His mother, the aged Yevrosima, greeted him as he made his preparations for departure.
"My dear son, Marko," she said, "you are thinking of going to church to receive the holy sacrament. Do obey your old mother. You have sinned enough against God already and you will do so again, I fear, if you have the chance. To escape trouble, do not wear your shining armor and your weapons, and you will thus not commit sin before you reach the white church of Kosovo."
As always, Marko obeyed his mother, and as he continued his preparations he called his wife Yelitsa and said to her:
"O my dear wife, Yelitsa, saddle me now my good Sharats and make everything ready, but do not lay out my sword for me."
Yelitsa listened and went to the stable, where she made Sharats ready. She hung Marko's sword in its usual place on the saddle bow, but when she placed a gray bearskin on Sharats, she fastened it so that it covered the saddle and the sword. No one who saw the noble horse with the bearskin hanging down nearly to the ground could suspect that Marko's sharp sword was hidden under it; and Marko himself, if he reached for it, would be unable to draw it without a great deal of trouble.
When she had finished, Yelitsa came back into the palace.
"O my lord, Marko Kralyevich," she said. "I have made ready Sharats. Now you can go wherever your fancy moves you." Then as Marko kissed her farewell and went out to mount, she added:
"If you do find yourself in trouble and you cannot avoid fighting, feel under the saddle and you will find something that can save you."
Marko was so eager to obey his mother's instructions and reach the church without a battle that he did not try to find out what his wife meant, and as Yelitsa said nothing further, he did not question her. He rode out of his palace apparently unarmed, and did not dream that he might, be involved in any difficulties.
Over the plains and the hills on that quiet Easter morning Marko rode. He thought of the meaning of Easter, of the role that the holy day had played in the life of his people. He thought of the beauty of the springtime, of the fields that were green in the rains of the season, and war and battle were far from his mind.
Just as the sun rose over Kosovo, Marko approached the plain. Again, as always, he was thrilled by the sight. He could appreciate, even now, what the great battle only a few years before had meant for him and his people. He realized that on the sacred field of Kosovo his people had lost their liberty, and now they must accept the reign of the Turks until their hour should come and once more Kosovo would be a sign of Serb victory instead of defeat.
So Marko rode on. Suddenly he heard in the distance the sound of women weeping. He looked around and saw thirty Turks dragging off a number of Serb women. They were loaded with heavy chains, and were being hurried along by their brutal captors to the slave market at Istanbul. Marko rode nearer and the women appealed to him for help.
"Save us, our brother, Marko Kralyevich! You alone can help us!" They cried out to him pitifully, but as Marko was unarmed and on his way to church, he gave them no answer. They appealed to him a second time, and a third, the tears rolling down their cheeks at the thought that their last hope was vanishing, for Marko paid no attention to them.
But church or no church, Marko could never see any of his people treated unjustly without feeling a desire to help them. So even though it was Easter he felt he must do something. But he was unarmed. He was angry that he had taken his mother's advice, but there seemed no help for it.
Marko rode up to the Turks and asked them courteously to allow him to ransom the unfortunate women. He offered them a large sum of money and was ready to raise still more in order to redeem the prisoners.
The Turks at once misunderstood his motives, and the leader of the party answered him:
"You miserable beggar! You act as if you were trying to ransom yourself and not some slaves. Your offer is absurd. It is barely worth your own head."
Marko raised his offer and was again met with insults and contempt. His rage began to mount. He was sorry to be unable to save his Serbian-kinswomen, but he did not know what to do since the Turks had refused the money. Suddenly he thought of his wife's parting words. What had Yelitsa meant by her strange remark before he left home? In the hope that he might find some weapon he felt under the bearskin. His sword was there! It took him a few minutes to loosen it from its covering, and while he was doing so the Turks and their prisoners hurried past him.
With his sword in his hand, the tables were turned. Marko was no longer a suppliant. He was Marko Kralyevich, avenger of his people's wrongs! He spurred on Sharats, and the great horse bore down at full speed upon the rapidly moving party of Turks. At the sound of the galloping hoofbeats the leader looked around, but it was too late.
The stranger was on them. "You Turkish curs," Marko shouted. "I offered to ransom the prisoners. You refused! Now let them go without ransom."
The Turks had no time to reply. Marko was upon them, and in a few minutes he had cut down the entire group of thirty men. The whole party lay dead, and the prisoners were free. Marko took them back to their village, and without waiting to be thanked or to rest he galloped up to the church at Kosovo.
What a spectacle he presented! His arms were covered with blood to the shoulders. His clothes were spattered with blood, and Sharats, too, was covered with blood and foam. It was Turkish blood, however, for Marko and his horse had not been scratched. Yet Marko did not hesitate, and the pious worshipers at Kosovo were startled to see this terrible figure ride up to the church, boldly dismount, and walk calmly but reverently toward the building.
The old heguman stepped forward, protesting.
"Marko," he exclaimed, "can't you even come to church without bloodstains on your garments and the marks of battle on your person?"
Marko knelt reverently at the feet of the heguman and made his confession, telling as he did so the story of the rescue of the captive women.
The heguman shook his head. "That is just like you, Marko," he said. "As if you could do anything else!"
And he led Marko, all bloodstained as he was, into the white church.
The service opened with all the splendor and beauty of an Easter service in the Orthodox Church. The candles and the lamps were lighted around the ikonostasis, and the lights glittered on the silver and golden coverings of the ikons, until it seemed—as it so often appeared in the great church of St. Sophia in Istanbul—that this was the very church of God, a bit of heaven come down to earth in all of its wonderful beauty.
And among the worshipers was the battle-scarred Marko, who could not stop fighting for the right, even to attend church on Easter Sunday. Marko reverently received the Sacrament with the rest, and when the service was over he knelt again for the blessing of the heguman, and kissed his hand, Then slowly and thoughtfully he walked out of the church, mounted Sharats, and went quietly back to white Prilip.
2. Marko Pays a Wedding Tax
Some days after the Easter service, Marko and Sharats were wandering around the country. They were traveling with no definite goal, but Marko was half hoping that he might meet with some adventure to relieve the quiet of the day. As he looked around him he noticed that the region seemed very familiar, and he saw that he was again approaching the plain of Kosovo.
As he rode toward the field Marko observed a young girl walking across the plain, weeping. This of itself was enough to arouse the sympathy of Marko; so he rode over to her. She was still young and attractive, but her hair was disheveled and her eyes were red with weeping. Her whole attitude showed the deep sorrow and dejection which she felt.
Marko rode up to her and gently inquired as to her sorrow. "O dear sister, maiden of Kosovo," he said, "what has happened? Long before now your hair should have been hidden under the kerchief of a married woman, and yet you are still unwed. What is the cause? Is it that some misfortune has slain the man who loves you? Is it because of your aged mother, yourself, or a venerable sire?"
"No, dear brother, unknown hero," came the answer. "It is not for my parents or myself that I am no longer young. Nine years ago the Sultan leased out the revenues of Kosovo to an Arab who came from across the seas, and he is here and is taxing everything in the land. He receives his food and drink from Kosovo, and he collects much. Even that seemed too little to him, and now he has added another tax. He demands that every girl who gets married must give him thirty ducats, and every bridegroom must pay him thirty-four ducats. Where can the people find that sum? They must pay it before he will allow the bridegroom to take his bride to his house. My brothers are poor and they have no money to give to the Arab, so there is no chance that I can ever marry. I must pine away here and never have a husband."
The maiden wept afresh, and then continued. "That was bad enough and I could stand it, for poverty is always here and we cannot grumble against it, but there is worse to come. Every day the Arab demands that a young wife and a maiden be. brought to his tent. He amuses himself with the maiden and turns the young wife over to his Arab servants. The people of Kosovo have been forced to obey him, and to-night it is my turn, but I am wondering whether it would not be better to jump into the water, or hang myself. I will not serve my country's foe."
Here was an adventure quite after the heart of Marko Kralyevich. He at once started to comfort the maiden.
"Dear sister, maid of Kosovo," he said, "do not be foolish. Do riot jump into the water and do not hang yourself, thereby committing a sin. Trust in me and tell me now where the palace of the Arab is, for I must have a little chat with him to-day."
No one in Kosovo ever referred to a meeting with the Arab in that careless way and the maiden remonstrated with him.
"Dear brother, unknown hero!" she said. "Why are you asking about the palace of the Arab? That beast has no palace. He does not live under a roof. He has only a few tents, which he has pitched down there in the plain of Kosovo. Don't go near them! Or perhaps you are bringing the money to pay the tax for yourself to get permission to marry your own sweetheart. Then go, arid may you meet with good fortune! But do not resent what he says, for if you do your mother will be left without a son."
Marko thanked her for her warning and then took out of his pocket thirty ducats and handed them to her.
"Take these, my sister," he said, "and go to your white home, and stay there until you find a suitor coming for your hand. Tell me where the Arab tents are and I will pay the wedding tax for you. Why should the Arab kill me, when I have the money to give him what he wants? I could buy the entire plain of Kosovo, and why should I not pay the wedding tax?"
"You see his tents with the silken banner down there on the plain," the maiden told Marko. "Around them is a green courtyard and every post in the fence around it has a human head on it. A week ago that accursed Arab slew seventy-seven of the heroes of Kosovo, all of them young bridegrooms, because they objected to his demands. Besides that, he has forty Arab servants who guard his tents continuously, so that the man cannot be attacked."
The whole business aroused Marko. Such actions on the plain of Kosovo, such actions on the spot where heroes died in a vain attempt to save their people and their faith! Marko became thoroughly angry. He turned Sharats and galloped across the plain of Kosovo. The hoofs of Sharats struck fire from the rocks as he galloped, and so rapidly did he move that jets of blue flame came out of his nostrils. Marko was so angry at the insult to the Serbs that he shed tears of rage as Sharats dashed along, and he swore vengeance on the black Arab who had dared to act in such a way—and in Kosovo, too.
"Did anyone ever think," Marko said aloud to Sharats, "that such deeds would take. place on the very spot where Knez Lazar fell so gloriously? That an Arab would rule there? I cannot endure the shame nor tolerate the insult. And then the demands of the Arab for maidens and for brides! Brothers, I shall stop this insult to your memory to-day, or else I shall join you in death."
Marko galloped straight up to the tent of the black Arab, and he made a dashing figure as he approached. Every one around Kosovo looked at him in admiration, and those who did not recognize Marko wondered why such a noble hero should approach the Arab.
The forty servants of the Arab saw the solitary horseman approaching, and they reported it to their master.
"O master, Arab from over the seas," they said, "an unknown hero is galloping up to Kosovo and he is riding a piebald horse. The horse is angry. It is striking fire with its hoofs; it is breathing fire from its nostrils. This hero will certainly attack us."
The Arab looked out and he too saw Marko and Sharats. Yet he interpreted the situation very differently.
"No, my children, my forty servants," he said. "This hero does not intend to fight with us. He is in love and has found the maiden whom he desires, so he is hurrying to pay the tax. Go out before the court and greet him courteously, bring him into my tent, and there I shall strike off his head, for I want that horse for myself."
So the servants went and they reached out their hands to catch the bridle of Sharats. Marko gave them one look. Fire flashed from his eyes and the imperious gesture with which he waved them back startled them. The servants dashed in terror into the tent of the Arab, seized swords and hid them under their cloaks. All was ready for the ambush.
Marko rode up to the courtyard and into the gate that admitted him to the tent of the Arab. He jumped lightly from his horse and spoke to Sharats.
"Wait here, my dear Sharats," he said, "and stay in the courtyard. I am going into the tent of the Arab. Wait by the tent until I come out, so that I may not fall into some trouble."
Then Marko walked into the tent. He was surprised by the luxury that he saw, the costly rugs thrown carelessly about, and the gold and silver vessels on the small tables. The Arab, swarthy and black, was sitting on a soft rug with a little table in front of him, and drinking cool wine, while a young bride and a maiden, obviously his latest victims, were serving him.
Marko walked up and courteously said: "God bless you, dear master."
The Arab greeted him rather kindly. "Hail, unknown warrior!" he said. "Greeting! Sit down and let us drink wine, and then tell me why you have come."
Something about Marko suggested to the Arab that he was not one of his customary visitors. Try as Marko would to be courteous and humble, there was not that terror and fear displayed that the Arab had been accustomed to see on the faces and in the bearing of his victims. He grew curious to learn what this stranger really desired.
Marko decided to stick to the role that he was playing and so without any delay launched into the question.
"I have no time to drink wine with you," Marko said. "I come on business, truly important business. I have secured a beautiful girl to be my wife; the guests are all assembled and waiting for me on the road, and I have come to pay the marriage tax. Then I shall take the maiden, and woe to the man who gets in my way! But now tell me, I ask you, how much is the tax?"
"Such ignorance," growled the Arab. His former interest in Marko had vanished. This was no wandering hero; merely another beggar who wanted to get married. "You know how much it is," he said in surly fashion. "Thirty ducats from the bride; thirty-four from the bridegroom. But I see you are a good-looking young man and you can pay a hundred just as well."
This was characteristic of the tax-collectors of the day, and Marko was furious. He was half-inclined to strike at once, but he decided to play with the Arab a little longer, so he drew out of his pocket three ducats.
"O master, believe me," he begged piteously, "I have only three ducats. If you will let me get the girl and the dowry—she will have a large one—I will give you it all arid keep only the girl for myself."
The Arab hissed like a snake. "You cheating, lying scoundrel!" he said. "You don't intend to pay me. You are only mocking me."
With that he picked up a heavy mace and struck Marko three or four times as hard as he could. The hero swayed a little under the blows, but they were riot blows such as his mighty opponents had given him in battle, and he laughed.
"O noble hero, black Arab," he cried, "are you hitting me seriously or merely in sport?"
This was too much, and the Arab replied angrily:
"I am not joking. I am hitting you seriously."
Marko laughed more loudly. "I thought, stranger," he said, "you were only jesting. I never felt so light a blow from one who claimed such power as you do. But if you are really in earnest and want to punish me, I have a little mace here, and I shall tap you with it three or four times, just as often as you do me, and then we will go out of the tent and have a real fight outside."
The Arab gave a howl of impotent rage when he realized what Marko meant, for the hero swung into the air his giant mace, compared with which the Arab's mace was but a toy. He gave the Arab a light blow, and his head flew off his shoulders. Marko laughed again.
"He was a fine hero," he said. "I never saw one whose head was balanced so lightly. Glory be to God!"
There were still the forty black servants of the Arab, so Marko drew his sharp sword and in a short and unequal battle cut off the heads of all these marauders except four. These he saved and took prisoners in order that they might tell about his battle with the Arab.
Next Marko took down all the heads of the knights and heroes from around the court and buried them all with due solemnity, so that the eagles and crows might not feed upon them. Then he took the heads of the Arabs and placed them on the poles instead, and he took all the wealth of the Arab—all the gold and silver, and all the ducats.
The four servants whom Marko kept alive he sent throughout Kosovo, to the north and to the south, to the east and to the west, and ordered them to proclaim aloud to all the people this order:
"Wherever a maiden is old enough to wed, let her seek a husband and let her marry while she is young. Where a young man is of age to marry, let him marry also. And there will be no taxes to be paid on any marriage, for Marko pays the tax for all."
The relief that spread over the land was great, and the sadness and mourning were turned into Joy. When the people living in the little villages heard the Arab servants proclaim this fine news, large and small, old and young, all came together and sang the praises of Marko Kralyevich.
Long live Marko Kralyevich," they shouted, "who freed our land from evil, who destroyed the oppressor of our country! May he ever prosper both in soul and in body!"
Marko listened silently to the congratulations and thanks of the entire population, and then he slowly mounted Sharats and resumed his wanderings, until he came once more to white Prilip.
3. Marko Ploughs a Field
Life around white Prilip was never dull. Marko was always meeting with adventures. The poor came to him with petitions. The mighty, even the Sultan, appealed to him for aid. Robbers, outlaws, enemies of the people, were continually being overthrown by Marko, ana every one of these attacks and appeals caused a quarrel. Marko would sally forth with Sharats and very soon he would return covered with blood, the blood being that of his enemies more often than his own. Yet the constant state of excitement in which he lived made it monotonous.
One day Marko was silting with his young wife Yelitsa, and his mother, the aged Yevrosima. They were talking of the accomplishments of Marko during the past years and of his heroic deeds. Yevrosima wanted Marko to stop fighting.
"Marko, my son!" she said, "please give up this constant warfare. There is nothing good that this evil brings. Look over the hills near while Prilip. See, they need to be ploughed. Think of the crops you could raise on these hills to feed us and your people, if you would only go to work and stop fighting. Then too, Yelitsa and I are tired of washing your clothes that are all bloodstained and covered with dirt from battle. Please give up fighting, and instead, take a plough and a yoke of oxen, and plough up the hills and the valleys. Thus you will set an example of farming to all your people, and so shall you and Yelitsa and I have more grain in our barns."
This was a new idea to Marko, and as usual be listened to his mother and obeyed her. He took his oxen and his plough and went to work.
As he went out of the castle he heard that one of the neighboring cities had been plundered by the Turkish janissaries and that the men were passing that way with the booty. Marko did not hesitate. He swung his giant plough directly across the Sultan's highroad. He ploughed it lengthwise and crossways. The furrows made great gaps in the earth, and the soil that he turned up made hills, so that the. janissaries could not ride over the barrier that Marko had built.
Soon they came along with their booty, three loads of money which they had taken. They found that their way was barred by the ridges Marko had ploughed in the road. They did not feel any desire to fight, but wished to pass with the spoil. Marko knew it, so he kept on ploughing.
"Marko, listen," the janissaries called. "Stop ploughing up the roads."
Marko paid no attention. His heart was in his work this time, so he merely said, "O Turks, don't interrupt my ploughing."
"But Marko- stop ploughing up the roads."
"No, Turks, I shall not. Don't interrupt my ploughing."
So they kept arguing back and forth, and very soon angry words were uttered, and then threats. Then the janissaries decided that it was time to put an end to the controversy. They attacked Marko suddenly. They saw he was unarmed, so they attacked him from all sides.
It was a well-laid attack, and any ordinary man would have fallen under it. Marko kept on with his ploughing and seemed to be paying no attention to them. Then just as the enemy was almost on him, Marko suddenly dropped the handle of the plough and took a step forward. He bent over, caught the plough by the pole and with a swing of his giant arm lifted oxen and plough high above his head arid swung them around.
This move astonished and terrified the janissaries, but it was too late. They could not flee from the reach of Marko's mighty arm. The plough and the oxen swung around, and under the blows of the ploughshare and the weight of the oxen not one of the janissaries escaped. All were killed.
Marko then set the oxen down upon the ground and put the ploughshare back into the furrow. He gathered up the booty and started back with it to his mother. Then he looked down at his clothes. They were stained with blood, for he had struck so hard in his encounter that blood had spattered on him as the men fell. But there was no help for it, so he went back to his mother and gave her the spoils.
"Mother," he said, "this is what I have made to-day by ploughing!"