HOWEVER heavy the rule of the Sultan was for the average Christian inhabitant of the Balkans, it was only rarely that it laid any special burdens upon Marko Kralyevich. Life for him ran along smoothly, and only once in a while did something very unpleasant happen.
One evening he was silling with his mother, the aged Yevrosima, and his young wife Yelitsa, and enjoying his dinner, the dry bread and the red wine, when there came a loud knocking at the outside gate and a voice of thunder commanded Marko to open in the name of the Sultan. It was a messenger from the Sultan Bayazet, bidding Marko come at once to Istanbul for service in the army against the Arabs who were attacking the Ottoman Empire.
Hardly had the man entered and delivered his message, when another envoy arrived, with less formality and more courtesy, from Beg Kostadin. The messenger bore an invitation for Marko to come and act as kum at a wedding which he was arranging.
Immediately after this, a third messenger arrived from Yanko of Sibin, inviting Marko to come and act as godfather at the baptism of his twin sons.
So Marko found himself overwhelmed with three invitations. The fact that the first of these invitations was from the Sultan himself, the overlord of Marko, did not mean that the mighty hero would obey that command rather than accept the other invitations.
In the confusion, Marko turned to his mother. "Mother," he said, "which one of these letters and invitations shall I accept first? Shall I go to serve in the army of the Sultan; shall I go to the wedding of Beg Kostadin; or shall I attend the baptism of the two sons of Yanko?"
The aged Yevrosima had had long experience with the ways of the world and her advice was good.
"My son," she said, "go to the army of the Sultan. A man accepts an invitation to a wedding because he wants to have a good time. He goes to act as godfather at a baptism because it is the rule of his religion. But he goes to the army of the Sultan because he has to, and will be punished it he does not do it. God will forgive you, my son, if you do not attend His religious service, but the Turk will not forget, so you had better obey the Turk."
This reasoning seemed good to Marko and he decided to follow it. He made the necessary arrangements for his journey and he took with him on this trip his squire Milutin. The preparations for departure were such as had often been made in white Prilip. Marko came out dressed for the journey, taking with him his best and most effective weapons.
Before he left the palace on what he knew might be a long expedition, he spoke to his mother about the care of the palace while he was away.
"Mother, dear," he said, "listen to my counsel. Shut the gates of the palace early and in the morning open them late. You know I have a feud with the accursed Mina of Kostur, and I am afraid that while I am away he will try to plunder my palace."
Then with all his preparations finished, Marko mounted his trusty Sharats and set off, accompanied by Milutin. This time, however, he did not leave home with his usual cheerfulness. He had a foreboding of evil.
The third day of his journey, as Marko sat down to eat his evening meal, and Milutin poured out the red wine, Marko suddenly lost consciousness. He seemed dazed and stupefied, and he dropped his wine cup. Not a drop of wine fell out of the cup, and Milutin picked it up and handed it to Marko.
"O master, Marko Kralyevich!" Milutin said in alarm. "You have been a good many times with the army in the field, but I have never known you to drink so much that you dropped your glass and fell asleep. That is not like you."
"My trusty servant, Milutin," Marko replied. "I closed my eyes for but an instant and I had a very strange dream; a strange dream at a strange time. For a cold fog swept down on white Prilip from the city of Kostur, and out of that fog appeared Mina of Kostur. He plundered my white palace and burned everything with fire. My aged mother he trampled under the hoofs of his horses, and he took captive my faithful wife. He drove the horses out of my stable, arid took the gold from my storehouses."
"That is a strange dream," said Milutin, "and I cannot understand why you dreamed it. There must be a good meaning in it, for you are a great warrior. God is true, however false the dream may be."
No other strange occurrences marked the rest of their journey, and before many days had passed Marko and Milutin rode into Istanbul. They found the city in great confusion and excitement. Everyone was talking about the approaching expedition. The more adventurous rejoiced, but there were many among the Christians who were sad and depressed.
It was a great enterprise that was on foot. The Arabs had been ravaging the Turkish lands, and now the Sultan had decided that he would take an army across the blue sea and invade the Arab land himself. Only thus might the Arabs be forced to admit defeat.
The army started with all the pomp and splendor of an Oriental pageant. The Sultan and his officers rode out of the city in solemn state, and behind them followed detachments of Turks, of Christians from the Balkans, of representatives of every land arid tribe that was included within the great Ottoman Empire. Among all the heroes who were gathered none was more splendidly equipped or presented a more attractive appearance than Marko Kralyevich.
It was a long, hard journey that the army made. On the way they captured four-and-forty cities, and swept everything before them, until they came to the city of Kara-Okan. Here they were stopped by the enemy. For three years they besieged the city without success. The city resisted direct attack and apparently it could not be starved into submission.
During this long struggle Marko distinguished himself. Again and again he won significant advantages. He overthrew Arab champions, and captured important prisoners; it was Marko who was really the hero of the campaign. The Sultan liked and valued him and gave him many rich presents because of his faithfulness and devotion.
These repeated marks of favor angered the Turkish lords. They went to the Sultan with a protest.
"O Sultan Bayazet," they said, "Marko is not the hero that he appears to be. The truth is that he rides over the field of battle and whenever he sees the dead body of one who appears to have been a leader of the Arabs, he dismounts and collects the spoil and the head and brings it to you. He has made a good thing of it, and rich are the gifts that he receives from you by acting in this fashion."
Rumors of what the Turkish lords were saying arid of their jealousy finally came to the ear of Marko, and he decided to put a stop to it before he was involved in trouble with the Sultan. Instead of becoming angry and resenting these tales, he merely presented a peaceful and innocent petition to the Sultan.
"O Sultan, my lord and father," Marko said, "to-morrow is the day of my family feast, the great Slava, when I must remember the founder of my clan and celebrate the event, enjoying all the gifts that my patron saint has brought me. To-morrow is Saint George's Day, and I ask that you give me leave to celebrate this feast in such wise and with such customs as I have always done when I was still in white Prilip. Let me take my pobratim Alil-aga, and let us drink wine to our fill, undisturbed."
This request seemed harmless to the Sultan, and he readily allowed Marko and Alil-aga to go to a green mountain, far from the noise and tumult of the army, in order to celebrate his Slava. The two friends packed up the necessary supplies of food and drink, and went a long distance from the army to a green mountain, where they pitched their white tent. They made everything comfortable and then, entirely forgetful of the great war that was raging nearby, they set out to celebrate the day in the manner in which Marko had always marked it, with eating and drinking and making merry.
It did not take the Arab sentinels long to realize that Marko had left the camp. As the divisions began to come into line Marko was not to be seen. On previous days he had been everywhere, in every skirmish, and wherever he moved the Arabs turned and fled. Almost at once the glad word went around the Arab camp:
"The terrible warrior with his piebald horse has left the army!"
The Arabs charged fiercely on the host of the Sultan with thirty thousand men, but there was no Marko there to repel the charge. Slashing madly to right and left with their sharp scimitars, and riding their small, wiry horses, they played havoc in the army of the Sultan. Man after man fell. The Turkish lines began to waver, and finally the Sultan in desperation wrote a letter to Marko and ordered his messengers to carry it as quickly as possible to the hero.
"Marko, my son," the Sultan wrote, "come at once! A host of thirty thousand men is attacking me."
Marko received the note but he was already deep in the enjoyment of his Slava, and he had no mind to interrupt that festive rite for the sake of a mere thirty thousand men. So he sent back word by the messenger that he would come as soon as possible, but he had not yet drunk all his wine nor was he ready to finish his Slava.
The Sultan did not like this reply, but he knew Marko too well not to accept it in the spirit of independent loyalty that was Marko's; so he gave orders that his troops should maintain their position, hoping and praying meanwhile that Marko might return in time.
It seemed as if he would be disappointed. The next morning the Arab sentinels again called out joyfully:
"Charge, ye fierce Arabs! The terrible hero on his great piebald horse is not with the army."
The day before, the Arabs had feared a surprise. On this day they were certain that Marko had gone for good, so they felt freer in making their attack. They hurled a force of sixty thousand men against the Turkish lines, and their attack was even more successful than the previous one. They destroyed a larger number of the Turks. They even penetrated into the Turkish encampment, and the nobles who had been telling how little assistance Marko had brought the Turks were among the first to beg the Sultan for the protection that only Marko could give.
So the Sultan sent another letter to Marko.
"Come at once, my son Marko!" he begged. "Sixty thousand Arabs are attacking me."
But what did sixty thousand Arabs count in comparison with a Slava, with the recognition of all that a hero's own ability has brought and what a patron saint has given?
"Wait a little, O father Sultan," Marko wrote in reply, "for I have not yet feasted sufficiently with my pobratim."
This was cold comfort to the Sultan. The next morning the Arab sentinels called out again as before:
"Charge, ye fierce Arabs! The terrible hero on his great piebald horse is not with the army."
Now the Arabs were sure that Marko had vanished for good and all. They hurled their entire force against the Turkish lines. They pierced them, and attacked the camp, sweeping everything before them. The Sultan saw himself absolutely crushed, and in his despair he sent a third letter to Marko.
"Come at once, my dear son Marko I" ran the message. "Come at once, my son in God, Marko. The Arabs have thrown down my own tent."
And Marko came. The Slava was over, the three days of feasting were past. Marko mounted Sharats and galloped back to the field. He found the Turks despondent, beaten, thinking only how to get out of the position in which they found themselves.
It was dark when Marko reached what had been the proud and jubilant camp of the Turks, and no one noticed him enter. But at the first flush of dawn he mounted Sharats and went into the lines.
The Arab sentinels saw his return, and they cried out in terror:
"Retreat, ye fierce Arabs! The terrible hero on the great piebald horse is back."
But it was too late. Marko burst into the Arab lines at the head of the Turks. Striking right and left, his mighty sword cut down one-third of the Arab host. The hoofs of Sharats in his wild charge crushed another third, and the rest Marko drove before the Sultan like helpless lambs, that the Sultan might dispose of them as he would.
It was a great victory, and Marko paid for it with seventy wounds. The Sultan saw him weak and bleeding, and said in sympathy and pity:
"O my son, Marko Kralyevich! Are you mortally wounded? Can you be cured by doctors?"
"O father, Sultan," Marko answered, "my wounds are not mortal and I think I can be cured."
The Sultan gave the bleeding hero one thousand ducats to use for the treatment of his wounds, and he ordered two trusty servants to follow Marko to care for him. But Marko scorned doctors. Instead, he went around all the villages near the battlefield to see where he could get the best wine. He sat down to drink, and his wounds healed at once.
Marko was busy celebrating the victory when a messenger arrived for him. The man came in great haste; he was worn out from riding hard and fast, and agitated by the news he carried. Marko recognized him as he came in, and guessed at once what the man had to say. It was a sad tale and soon told.
Mina of Kostur had attacked the white palace at Prilip and burned it with fire. He had pillaged it thoroughly, and had driven off all of Marko's horses. Worse than that, he had trampled Marko's aged mother to death, and had carried his young wife off into slavery.
Marko was overwhelmed at this misfortune and went directly to the Sultan and told him of it. The Sultan was sympathetic, but he saw nothing in it to disturb him. He felt instead that the loss of his home in Prilip might bind Marko closer to him. He therefore made Marko a liberal offer.
"Don't be afraid and grieve too much, my son Marko!" said the Sultan. "Your palace has been burned. I will build you a better one here with me, and you may always stay here. Your wealth has been destroyed. I will make you a tax-collector and you can get more money than you ever dreamed of. Your wife has been carried off. I will give you one who is more beautiful and more loving."
Marko was not content with this proposal; in fact, he rather resented it, for the Sultan calmly ignored all of his personal feelings.
"Thanks, father Sultan," he said, "If you build me a palace, even the beggars in the street will say; 'Where is that cur, Marko Kralyevich? His old castle was burned; he did nothing. May his new one slip from him!' If you make me a tax-collector, I cannot get money without taking it from the poor and needy, and orphans will curse me, saying:
'Where is that dog, Marko Kralyevich? His wealth was stolen. May he get no profit from this!' And how can I marry again when my own dear wife is still alive? I am a Christian and cannot even think of that. But if you want to help me, give me three hundred janissaries and have made for me crooked knives and give them light mattocks. I will go with the janissaries to Kostur, and see if I cannot recover my wife."
This would cost the Sultan much less than what he had offered Marko, so he consented. He gave Marko the janissaries, and then Marko outlined his plan of campaign to them.
"Go now, my brothers, three hundred janissaries," he said, "to Kostur, and as you approach, the Greeks will be very glad and they will say:
'We are lucky, here are some idle workmen and they will work for us for very little.' Do not take up their offers, brothers, but go to the castle of Kostur. Sit down in the coffee-house and drink wine and rakija until I reach Kostur."
The janissaries went off to Kostur and did as Marko commanded.
In the meantime, Marko had left the Turkish camp and had disappeared from the eyes of all who were watching him, both friend and foe. He went back to Istanbul, passed through it without visiting any of his friends, and then he went to the Sacred Mountain, to Mount Athos.
Mount Athos played a role of great importance in the lives of the early Balkan peoples. Here on the mountain peninsula were monasteries of all the Balkan nations. Greek and Serb, Bulgarian and Russian, all reverenced the twenty-odd monasteries perched on the wind-swept sides of the mountain. Here at the Monastery of Hilandar, St. Sava, the patron saint of the Serbs, had lived and worked. All of Serb history was connected with this mountain, on which no woman nor female animal was ever allowed to set foot. It was an abode solely for men, a monastic republic, and so it remains until this day.
Hither to this sacred spot came Marko, to repent of all the bloodshed he had done, of all the sins that he had committed by fighting for the Turks, and of leaving his Christian home to be ravished by his enemy.
When he had prayed and fasted and received the Sacrament, he dressed in the robes of a monk and put on a long black cassock. He let his black beard grow until it came down to his waist, and put on the tall hat of a monk. Thus disguised he started for Kostur. No one would have recognized in the monk mounted on the good Sharats the great fighter and hero, Marko Kralyevich. So, undetected, he came to Kostur.
There was great gaiety in the castle, for Mina was drinking red wine and was still celebrating his victory over Marko. Marko's wife, Yelitsa, was serving him, and was in mortal terror of what Mina would take it into his head to do next. Suddenly she saw a monk enter the castle, riding on Sharats. This was surprising to Yelitsa, but it was also as surprising to Mina.
Mina recognized the horse, so he had the monk summoned to his presence.
"Tell me, black monk," said he, "how did you get that piebald horse?"
"I will tell you, Sir Mina," the monk answered. "I was with the Sultan's army in the war against the fierce Arabs. I burled there a stupid fellow by the name of Marko Kralyevich. He had lost all of his money, and to pay for the last rites of the Church and for his burial, he gave me this horse, and on him I have been riding ever since." This was good news to Mina. "Black monk," he exclaimed, jumping up, "that is great news. For months now I have been waiting for this word. I plundered the home of Marko, and burned it with fire. I carried off his faithful wife, but I have not married her, for I was waiting for Marko to die, and now you will marry me to her."
Marko Kralyevich took the prayer-book and read the marriage ceremony over Mina and his own faithful wife. Then the monk sat down to drink after the ceremony.
This was a terrible blow to Yelitsa. She had been hoping against hope that some day Marko would return, that she would see him riding up to rescue her on his noble Sharats. Now Sharats was come, but he came bearing a monk who brought the news of Marko's death. She made therefore no resistance to the wedding. Mina, in the pride of his victory, had not allowed her to enter a convent to weep for Marko. She had had to submit to the position he forced on her of half-queen, half-prisoner.
The monk ate and drank and Mina became cheerful. The monk did not change his expression however much he drank. If Mina had but thought of it, this was a grim portent.
No one noticed the monk, and Mina suddenly turned to his bride.
"O Yelitsa, my heart and soul! You have been the wife of Marko. Now you arc the spouse of Mina in charge of all his treasures. Go into the lower storehouse and bring out three goblets full of ducats, that I may give them to the monk who has brought these glad tidings."
Yelitsa had only to obey. She brought the three goblets of ducats, not from the treasure of Minabut from the spoils of Marko's palace. And she brought out Marko's rusty sword which had been so many times on the saddle of the monk's horse, Sharats, and she gave that also to the monk.
"Take this sword as well, black monk," said Yelitsa, "and pray for the soul of Marko Kralyevich."
The monk grasped the sword with no inexperienced hand. Things were going better than Marko had dared to hope. Still Mina had no suspicions. Then the monk spoke.
"Lord, Mina of Kostur," he said, "is the monk free at your wedding to enjoy himself?"
"Yes, black monk," answered Mina. "Why should he not be joyful?"
"He must be joyful," came the astonishing reply, "for the monk is Marko."
As he spoke Marko leaped up and it was no longer the solemn monk that Mina saw, but to his astonishment and horror he recognized the reckless bearing of Marko. The palace shook under his heavy footsteps. The rusty sword was flashing in giant circles, and with one blow Marko cut off the head of Mina, thus avenging his honor. Then he called out from the castle, and his voice rang out through the surrounding village.
"Come here, my laborers," he cried. "Mina of Kostur is dead!"
The three hundred janissaries swarmed into the palace. They plundered the building and burned it with fire. Then with his wife Yelitsa, and with all of the treasure of Mina, Marko returned to white Prilip, singing a song of triumph as he went.