NOW THE Emperor Stepan lay dying in the city of Prizren. Rumor had it that he had been poisoned by the Greek physicians, who were afraid that he might take Istanbul. 'Whatever had laid him low, he was nearing his end, and he realized that his young son Urosh would need a regent to rule his vast kingdom. So the Emperor Stepan sent for King Vukashin and placed him in charge of the realm. Vukashin at first refused to accept the trust, but Stepan kept urging him to do so, for a short time at least.
"My dear kum, King Vukashin," said the Emperor. "I leave to you my kingdom; I leave to you my castles; I leave to you all my officers in the whole of my broad realm. Above all I leave to you my Urosh, my young son, who is eleven years old.
Rule for him seven years and in the eighth year, when he is eighteen, hand over the country to him."
Vukashin objected, saying: "My dear kum, the Serb Emperor Stepan, I cannot rule your country. I cannot rule even my son Marko."
"But kum, King Vukashin," answered the Emperor, "you must take over my kingdom, my castles, my officers, and all my broad realm. You must take over my son Urosh. Take the kingdom and keep it for seven years, and in the eighth year give it back to my son."
So Vukashin obeyed. After the Emperor Stepan had been gathered to his fathers, Vukashin took charge of the country and ruled it from his capital at Skadar on the Boyana. But he had no intention of giving up anything at the end of the allotted time. He ruled for seven years—for eight years— for nine years, and his power became steadily greater and greater, and his taxes on the people heavier and heavier, until there was no hope for the former subjects of the Emperor Stepan, and there seemed no chance that Urosh would ever succeed to his father's throne.
Marko, in the meantime, had gone back to white Prilip, in order to avoid the constant clash with his father when they were together.
When Vukashin had reigned sixteen years, and Urosh was twenty-seven years old, the young prince in despair went to his mother, the Empress Roxanda, and asked her for his father's heritage. Sadly Roxanda told the young man the story. "My dear son Urosh," she said, "you have wealth and power, but that means nothing, for King Vukashin has taken the entire control of the state and he will not give it up. He is breaking the promise he made your father, and he is breaking faith with you. The kingdom should have been yours nine years ago, but King Vukashin will not give it up."
It seemed indeed a hopeless situation, yet one hope had the young Urosh, and that was to send to the Archpriest Nedelko, the Emperor's confessor and the most important priest in the city of Prizren. Nedelko it was who had last seen the Emperor alive, and who had last spoken to him; so he, if anyone, would know who was the rightful heir to the throne. Urosh therefore wrote a letter to Nedelko and sent it by a special messenger. There were others, however, who were also active at this same time. King Vukashin and his two brothers, the Despot Uglyesha and the Voyvoda Goyko, had met on the field of Kosovo, at the Church of Samodrezha. They were quarreling among themselves as to which of them should finally secure the land, and they pitched their white tents on the plain of Kosovo for a conference. From their carefree appearance it did not seem as if important matters of state were being discussed, but each ruler was very much in earnest.
Vukashin and his brothers were the lords of the south and west, and each of them had done just what Urosh had done - sent a messenger to the Archpriest Nedelko. A fourth tent appeared on the plain of Kosovo, for the young Prince Urosh timidly approached the older and more powerful rulers.
The messenger of Urosh went quietly on his way to Nedelko, but the messengers from the other three rulers galloped up the road to the white city of Prizren. They dashed through the streets and up to the house of the Archpriest and hammered on the door. Nedelko was not at home; so the messengers rushed off to the church, the messenger of Urosh following in their wake. At the church the messengers banged noisily on the doors, demanding loudly that Nedelko come out and tell them to whom the Emperor Stepan had left the kingdom.
"Hurry at once to the field of Kosovo, 0 Archpriest Nedelko," they cried, "for you know to whom Stepan left the kingdom. You were his confessor and priest, and you have the old books. Come at once, or you will lose your head."
Such a message alarmed the old priest, and he thought for a moment. Then with tears in his eyes he said:
"Wait, ye strong, until the service in the church is finished. Then you will know to whom the Emperor Stepan gave the kingdom."
Filled with impatience the messengers waited until the priest came out of the white church.
"My children," said Nedelko to the four messengers, "it is true that I did give the Emperor the sacrament and that I was his confessor, but I never talked to him about politics or the kingdom. Instead, I talked to him of his sins. Go now to the city of Prilip, to the court of Marko Kralyevich— Marko, the son of Vukashin. He was my pupil. I taught him to read, and he became the secretary of the Emperor. Marko has the old books and papers, and he can tell you the rightful heir to the throne. Call Marko to Kosovo and he will tell you the truth. Marko fears no one except God."
So the four messengers started off and presently they came to the city of Prilip as it lay on the steep hillside. From afar they could look up and see the churches of the city and, high above all, the palace of Marko. They knew it would never do to approach Marko roughly, so they rode up the steep path that led to the palace and quite humbly and without threats stated their mission to Yevrosima, the mother of Marko. She heard their story, and then called her son. Marko opened the gates of his palace and the messengers came in most respectfully.
"Are you come with good news, my children?" Marko asked as he greeted them. "Are the Serbian princes, kings, and tsars in good health?"
The messengers bowed low and said:
"O master, Marko Kralyevich, all are well, but peace is lacking. The mighty lords have gathered at the field of Kosovo, at the white church of Samo-drezha, and they are debating about the kingdom. They bid you come to Kosovo and tell them who is the rightful heir to the throne."
Marko was known for his truthfulness, but this was a tremendous temptation to evade telling the truth, for well he knew the trouble it would cause if he declared who was the rightful heir. His mother thought it right to advise him to live up to his principles and to tell the truth and only the truth. Marko heard his mother, and then without answering her, gathered together without delay a load of moldy documents, books and letters—all the records of the Emperor Stepan. He saddled the good Sharats, loaded the horse down with the papers, and set out for Kosovo.
As Marko approached the first tent, that of King Vukashin, his father caught sight of him and was overjoyed as he greeted his son. Now he could receive the throne!
"What a good thing it is," said King Vukashin to himself, "that my son Marko is to be the judge! He will give me the throne, so that he will inherit it later himself."
Marko said nothing. He did not answer his father's greeting but rode straight on past the tent
The Despot Uglyesha saw him coming and saluted him.
"How glad I am," thought he, "that my nephew Marko is the judge! He will tell me that the kingdom is mine, and Marko and I will reign as brothers."
Marko said nothing. He did not answer his uncle's greeting but rode straight on.
Voyvoda Goyko saw him coming and saluted him.
"How glad I am," thought Marko's other uncle, "that my nephew Marko is the judge! He will tell me that the kingdom is mine. I have always liked Marko and I've been kind to him at all times. When he was a little boy I made much of him. I gave him red apples, and carried him with me on my horse. Marko will give me the kingdom and I will let him reign alone, and I will sit at his feet."
Marko said nothing. He did not answer his uncle's greeting but rode straight on—to the tent of Urosh. There he stopped and dismounted from Sharats.
This action of Marko was entirely unexpected by the youngest claimant to the throne, and Urosh jumped up from his couch and ran out to meet him.
"Greetings, Marko!" he cried. "Here is my kum Marko. He will tell us who is to have the kingdom.
The two men threw their arms about each other, kissed and inquired about each other's health. Then Marko entered the tent of Urosh and spent the night with him.
Morning came, and the voice of the great bell in the Church of Samodrezha was heard, calling the people to worship. The princes went into the house of God, and Marko and Urosh followed them to take part in the service.
The Serb Orthodox Church was then at the height of its glory, and the service was splendid in the extreme. The ikonostasis, or screen in front of the altar, was covered with gorgeous paintings of the different saints, arid in front of each a small lamp was burning. At the very summit of the church was a painting of the Last Judgment, a constant reminder to all the mighty Serb rulers who were gathered there, to do justice and to act righteously.
As they entered, the princes and the rulers lighted candles and placed them in little holders around the church until the whole building was studded with light. The splendor of the vestments of the clergy matched the glittering costumes of the princes, and the whole scene was one of magnificence and beauty.
The service continued for hours, and not one of the men sat down during the entire time. In fact, there were no seats in the building and it was necessary either to stand or to kneel. At times the slow pace of the service irritated Vukashin and his brothers, for they had been greatly surprised by the resolute action of Marko in going directly to the tent of Urosh, and they wished to learn the outcome.
Finally the service came to an end, and the four claimants to the throne filed out and took their places at the tables which had been set in front of the church. Here they sat and drank brandy through pieces of sugar held in their teeth.
Marko was the center of interest, although his verdict was already suspected. The conscience of the brothers told them what should be Marko's course, and they knew he was not to be bribed. Urosh was the only one who was at all easy. Marko spread out the old books and records of the Emperor Stepan and began to speak.
"Father, King Vukashin!" he said. "Is your kingdom too small for you? Is it small? May it become waste! And now you try to steal another's realm."
Vukashin, his hopes dashed to earth, looked at his brothers and then at Marko. The judgment went on.
"And you, my uncle, Despot Uglyesha," said Marko. "Is that land where you are despot too small for you? Is it small? May it become waste! And now you try to steal another's realm."
Uglyesha looked angrily at Marko and at Goyko, but Marko continued.
"And you, my uncle, Voyvoda Goyko!" he said. "Is that land where yon are voyvoda too small for you? Is it small? May it become waste! And now you try to steal another's realm!"
Then Marko addressed the three brothers. "You all know the truth," he said, "and you know that God is not deceived. The books say plainly that Urosh is the heir and that the Emperor Stepan left his kingdom to his son. The crown goes down from father to son, from Stepan to Urosh, and so will it continue to the end of time."
Vukashin waited to hear no more. He leaped up in anger, drew his sword and made a frantic lunge at his son. Marko turned and ran. He had no doubt that he had done right in keeping his word to Stepan, but he could not fight his own father, for he knew himself to be the stronger.
Three times around the Church of Samodrezha Marko ran. with his father in hot pursuit. Vukashin could not hope to overtake his fleeing son, but neither was there any refuge for Marko save to turn and meet his father in combat. As Marko passed the door of the church for the fourth time, a voice came out of the church.
"Run into the church, Marko Kralyevich," the voice said, "or you will perish at the hands of your father for the sake of the truth of God."
Then the gates of the church miraculously opened and Marko entered, and they were closed again by the same unseen hand.
Vukashin could not realize the startling tarn of events. He dashed up against the gates and drove his dagger into them up to the hilt. As he did so drops of blood bespattered the door. Vukashin still did not understand what had happened, but when he saw the blood he suddenly recovered his mind. He believed that he had wounded his noble son, and he exclaimed:
"Woe is me! I have sinned against God and destroyed my son Marko!"
The same voice answered:
"No, King Vukashin. Marko is safe, but you have slain one of the angels of God."
An angel had intervened to save Marko from his father's wrath.
The calm which this message brought to Vukashin was of short duration. His rage in being balked in his ambitious career by his own son knew no bounds. So he called upon heaven as a witness and cursed his son Marko.
"0 my son Marko!" Vukashin cried. "May God slay you! May you have neither grave nor descendants! May your soul not pass from your body until you have bowed the knee to the Turkish Sultan!"
Although Vukashin's curse in due time was fulfilled, Marko had others who blessed him. Urosh, the young emperor, prophesied good for Marko.
"0 my kum, Marko," Urosh said, "may God help you! May your face be bright in the council! May your sword ever be sharp in battle! May you never find a hero who can master you, and may your fame endure as long as the sun and the moon remain!"