MARKO and Yelitsa returned to white Prilip, and Marko rebuilt his palace on a more elaborate scale and furnished it luxuriously. Here Marko and Yelitsa lived happily for many years. Marko became more and more the idol of the Christians, and at times a useful friend to the Turks. They could count upon him whenever the need arose, but they had to pay well for his services. If they refused to do so, or set too low a price upon his efforts in their behalf, Marko took what he thought due him without asking the Turks.
Yet even Marko had to meet the one last unconquerable foe, Death, and like all great heroes he dreaded the meeting. He could not believe that he, Marko Kralyevich, would ever go down in defeat. But fate was kind to him, and he who had never known a quiet hour was to pass calmly and without pain or anguish from this mortal world. He had wandered from adventure to adventure, from combat to combat, with his trusty Sharats, for a century arid a month of summers. Together they had seen the last days of the Serbian Empire. Together they had served under the Turks, and the curse of Marko's father, Vukashin, had been fulfilled. Yelitsa had died years before, and it had been lonely in white Prilip. Now it was time for Marko to rest, also.
So one day Marko mounted Sharats and rode out to the Urvina Mountains. The country was as calm and quiet as ever. All day long the sun shone down upon the brown and barren hillsides, for it was nearly the end of the summer and the autumn rains had not yet come to refresh the mountains parched by the summer heat. Evening came and with the approaching twilight the shadows crept over the mountains. In the light of the setting sun the hills seemed to be deep purple, and a veil of mystery hung over the whole scene as the haze of afternoon faded into the clearness of evening.
As they reached the top of the mountain the mighty Sharats staggered, and began to weep. For the first time in his life the wonder-horse was showing signs of weakness. His legs refused to carry his rider, and Sharats broke down and wept like a child. Marko was startled, and well he might be.
"O Sharats," he said, "what has happened? For a century and a month of summers, you have carried me everywhere, in battle and in travel, and never have you shown any sign of weakness: Never have your legs hesitated nor your heart weakened. And now, not only are you weak and feeble, but you are weeping like a child. God knows what it means, but this can bring no good either to you or to me!"
Sharats made no answer, but from out the distance came a familiar voice, one that Marko knew well. The mountain vila, Raviyoyla, his old friend and sworn sister, was calling to him.
"Pobratim Marko!" she cried. "Don't you know, my brother, why your horse is staggering? Sharats is pitying you, his master, for the hour is almost come when you must part."
"Part?" asked Marko, wondering. "I have traveled all over the wide world and never have I seen a horse that could compare with Sharats, even as I have never found a hero who could compete with me. Raviyoyla, my sister, no! You are wrong. Sharats and I will never part, as long as my head remains upon my shoulders."
"Pobratim Marko!" Raviyoyla called again. "No one will come to take Sharats from you. More than that, Marko, you will not die in battle, nor from hostile weapon; neither from the sword nor from the spear, the war-club or the dagger. You will never know defeat at the hands of any warrior, but you will die quietly, Marko, at the hands of God, whom no one can resist. Do you doubt me? Continue up the Urvina Mountains until you see two tall pine-trees with a spring lying between them. Ride up to them, and there dismount. Tie Sharats to one of the pine-trees, and go yourself to the spring. Kneel down and look into its clear waters, and you will. see your own face and learn the hour of your death."
The vila's words fell on Marko's heart like a death-blow, but long ago he had learned that what she told him was the truth, so he obeyed her. Quietly Sharats carried him up the lofty mountains, over the familiar trails they had both traveled so often. For the last time they looked out over the valleys beneath them, where peasants were ploughing the fields, over the desolate, barren mountains he knew and loved so well. How beautiful it all was! Yet he, Marko Kralyevich, had to leave it.
Presently they came to two tall pine-trees, standing apart, with a clear crystal spring lying between them. Marko rode up to one of the trees, dismounted, and tied Sharats to it. Then he went over to the spring, knelt down and there he saw his face reflected in the water. There also, although how it is not known, he learned that the hour of his, death was at hand. There was no doubt. The end of the great champion of Christianity was approaching.
And now Marko had some last preparations to make. He broke into tears at the thought that his work was ended. It was not completed, as he knew only too well. The Christians were still the subjects of the Turks, and they would lack a defender, but he could do no more. For the better part of two centuries he had stood forth as their champion, and now he could no longer defend them. His work must stop.
But he could not leave his beloved horse. The mighty Sharats, victor himself in many a conflict, could not be degraded to the level of an ordinary. beast of burden, to be abused by harsh and unkind masters. No, Marko must see that none of his enemies had the chance to take their revenge on his horse after the hero had departed. He walked up to Sharats and with one blow of his mighty sword, Marko cut off the head of his dearest friend. The heart of Marko was crushed, but his iron nerve carried him through the ordeal. He buried the body of his faithful companion with far more dignity and solemnity than he had buried his own brother, Andriya. Then, utterly alone, Marko gave way to his grief.
Thus was ended the comradeship of years. Sharats was gone, and with him passed the chief bond that bound Marko to the earth. He had loved the horse and had lavished on him all his affection, often sharing his own dinner with Sharats when there was scarcely enough food for one. Sharats had never betrayed him, for the loyalty of animals is often greater than that of men.
But there was still more to do. The last blow of his mighty sword had been struck. Exerting his giant strength, Marko snapped it into four parts as if it had been a toothpick, and hurled the pieces high above the pine-trees to land where they would. That sword which had struck so many blows for the Christian cause must not be used against the friends of Marko, or treasured by some boasting unbeliever as a spoil of battle.
There still remained Marko's great spear. This he shattered into seven pieces and hurled them as far as his mighty arm could send them. His ribbed war-club came next, and this Marko cast into the blue waters of the deep sea. A powerful throw it was, and as he watched the club hurtling through the air, Marko thought of the distant future.
"When my war-club rises from the sea," he ex claimed prophetically, "then will all the heroes return to earth!"
And through the centuries since then that has been the hope of the Balkans—that Marko would return, that Sharats would rise with him, and that in the new and better age that is to be, the great heroes of the past will bring in that happiness for which they struggled while on earth.
Marko's work was done. His arms were scattered to the four winds of heaven. Now it was time for him to rest. He sat down under one of the pine-trees and took the ink-horn from his girdle and some paper from his pocket. Then with his pen he wrote out his last message to humanity.
"Whoever comes unto the Urvina Mountains," he wrote, "and looks between the two tall pine-trees will find the body of the hero, Marko Kralyevich. Let him know for sure that Marko is dead. On my body are three purses of golden ducats. One purse is for the man who finds my body and buries me. The second purse is to be spent to adorn a church in my memory, where prayers can be said for the repose of my soul. The third purse is to be distributed among the poor and the blind, so they will sing of the deeds of Marko, that his fame shall be remembered forever."
With that, he hung the letter containing his last requests on a branch of one of the pine-trees, so that travelers and passers-by could see it without difficulty. Then he threw his golden ink-horn into the spring. His task was over.
Marko took off his green cloak and spread it on the ground under the pine-trees. He knelt down and made the sign of the cross. His last prayers said, he lay down on the cloak and pulled his sable cap over his eyes. Peacefully he sank into his last sleep. Thus Marko, the stormy and tempestuous, passed from this world in peace.
Day after day Marko's body lay unnoticed beside the road. Many travelers passed, but they did not catch sight of the letter and naturally supposed that the hero was only resting after some great exertion. They went on quietly, so as not to disturb him.
It was fully a week and more before Vaso, the Heguman of the Monastery of Hilandar on the Holy Mount, happened to be passing with a deacon. They saw Marko asleep, as they thought, and like all who had preceded them, they were sure that he was only resting.
"Be careful," said Vaso to his friend. "Do not wake Marko Kralyevich, for when he is awakened there is trouble. We want to reach our monastery safely, and safety is not for him who disturbs Marko."
Curiosity got the better of the younger man, however, for he wished to see the hero. He came near to the body and discovered the letter. He took it down from the pine-tree and brought it to Vaso and the two men read it.
Then they looked again at Marko. He lay there, an expression of peace on his face. Death had not come in battle, but softly and quietly. It seemed indeed as if Marko were only sleeping. But there was the letter. Sharats me inseparable was gone;
the sword was gone, the spear, the war-club; yes, even the golden ink-horn was gone. There could be no doubt of it. Marko was dead.
Both Vaso and his friend wept, for they realized the blow that had fallen on the Christian cause. They realized, too, that never again would they be able to count upon his invincible arm and his mighty strength put forth in their behalf. Yet they could not but be glad at the good fortune that had smiled upon them.
What should they do next, they asked themselves. They could not leave the body where it was. Marko had been unwilling to let Sharats fall into the hands of the enemy, and they could not leave the hero's body for his foes to mock now that he was no more. Finally they decided to take the body back with them to the Holy Mount. They placed it on one of their horses and carried it down to the seashore. Then they secured a small boat arid went over to the Holy Mountain, and up to the white Church of Hilandar.
Here the two men dug a grave in the pavement of the Church and in it they laid Marko Kralyevich, the Lord of Prilip. Over the body they read the service, as the Church bids, and showed all possible honor to their dead leader. Then once more they replaced the pavement in the white Church of Hilandar on the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos. There the body of Marko rests, in an unmarked grave, until that day when he shall rise again and return with Sharats unto his native land and to his people, to bring in a new and better age. May Marko return soon!