THE troubles of the Serbs did not end with Marko's just judgment in favor of Urosh. Vukashin kept up his intrigues, and disturbed the land for many years. He could do this the more easily since Urosh was not a strong character. He was a weak prince, quite unable to thwart the plots of the wily king and his ambitious brothers, and it was not long before Vukashin decided to secure the country for himself by a bold stroke. His wicked plot was carried out and the young Emperor Urosh was murdered.
During all this time Marko was ruling in white Prilip. His relations with his father did not become any better after the meeting at Kosovo, but his mother Yevrosima was with him much of the time. She acted as hostess in his palace and watched over him. She enjoyed life at Prilip with her son far better than at Skadar with her husband. And well she might, for Marko's palace at Prilip was famous throughout the land.
It was perched high on a lofty and almost insurmountable hill. Only on one side was there a path up which a good steed could carry his rider. The walls of the castle stretched for a mile around the entire hill, and the valley between the two peaks that were within the circuit served as the courtyard of the palace.
On the northern peak was the home of Marko himself, with spacious halls and lofty towers, which looked out for miles over the broad and fertile plain to the haze-hidden mountains of the rest of the land and to the south, almost to the blue sea. On the southern peak, somewhat lower and less extensive, stood the apartments of Yevrosima. The ruins of both buildings still stand above the old city of Prilip, and there still exist the remains of churches and monasteries, of frescoes and paintings, that carry the visitor back to those olden times.
Between Marko and his father there was no affection and little harmony, and Marko paid scant attention to his father's plans. In the meantime, the Serbs to the north and east had chosen Knez Lazar as ruler. The cities and towns of the south and west followed Vukashin, and the division that took place in the kingdom, as a result, was the sign of the coming doom of the Serbian people.
About this time the Turks were beginning to land in Europe. They had tried several times before to cross directly at Istanbul, where there seemed nothing to bar their way but the narrow Bosporus. Yet for centuries no direct attack had succeeded. Persian and Russian, Arab and Turk had all fallen back, baffled by the stubborn defence of the imperial city. The Sultan Murat, dreaming of penetrating Europe, finally saw that he must change his policy of attack.
So the Sultan, profiting by the confusion that existed in the Balkans, landed on the coast near Salonika. There was no one to oppose him, and it was even rumored that Vukashin was not at all unwilling to see the new invasion, provided that it did not disturb his own kingdom.
The Turks were splendidly armed and equipped and it was not long before Vukashin saw his grave error. But by that time it was too late. He gathered together an army, but was surprised by the Turks at the river Maritsa. It all happened so suddenly that Marko was still in Prilip, unaware of what was going on. He had not been invited to take part in the battle and all that he knew of his father's defeat and death came from the alarming rumors that spread throughout the plain of Prilip.
As the rumors spread, a courier arrived from the Sultan with a letter for Marko.
"O Marko Kralyevich of Prilip!" the Sultan wrote. "Pay attention to what this letter says to you. Your father, King Vukashin, and his two brothers, the Despot Uglyesha and the Voyvoda Goyko, raised an army to seize my country and my throne. I attacked their troops on the Maritsa River and defeated them. Your father, King Vukashin, and his brothers Uglyesha and Goyko are dead; their armies have perished, and you cannot assist them. I have taken over the Serb lands, all the territory which they ruled, and besides this Beg Kostadin of Kratovo and Bogdan the Terrible, the lord of the southern sea, have submitted to me.
"Marko of Prilip, hearken to my words! Remain in Prilip as lord, but first come to Edirne and swear allegiance to me. I will leave you your father's crown and you can rule as it pleases you. I will leave you your wealth and cities, and all I demand in return is a promise that you will come to my assistance when I need you. So shall we be friends. But if not, hire as many soldiers as you will and I will come to white Prilip, and there we will contend as heroes."
All this was both surprising and shocking news to Marko. He had hardly dared to believe the evil rumors that had spread through the bazaars, but now the Sultan's letter made clear what had happened. He showed the letter to his mother, and her advice, like that of his own reason, was to submit, at least for a time.
Yevrosima had no illusions as to the wrong that her husband had done to his country. Urosh, weak though he was, might have been successful in unifying the land. But he was dead, and Vukashin was dead. The natural allies had all surrendered and the Turks were just then barring the way to the north, so that Marko could not advance to join Knez Lazar and the group of heroes who were soon to gather at Kosovo Field. There was nothing to be done but submit, and with a sad heart Marko agreed that this was the punishment visited on him for his father's sins, and the fulfillment of part of his father's curse. So he went to Edirne.
The Sultan received him kindly, for it was to his advantage to gain the friendship of the famous and mighty Marko, lest he endeavor to become the head of a great movement against the Turks. Sultan Murat therefore gave orders at the approach of Marko that all the Turks should treat him courteously and should avoid any quarrels with him. The Sultan knew well that it would be a hard time for the high-spirited lord of Prilip, because the defeat on the Maritsa had been so complete that no connected story had yet reached the home of Marko.
Once the formal reception was over Marko tarried around the camp, and here for the first time he heard the actual story of his father's death, for Vukashin had not fallen in battle, as Marko had supposed, but had been killed treacherously in the same fashion in which he had disposed of his rightful lord, Urosh.
The battle on the Maritsa had been a desperate struggle. Without the help of the entire nation it had been impossible to withstand the huge army of the Turks, and Vukashin was swept away in the struggle. The bodies of the heroes and their steeds rolled down the swollen river, and were scattered along the shore for many miles. The water of the river ran red with blood, so that the women washing clothes on the flat stones along the hanks miles away were forced to stop their work until the stream should once more run clear.
A young Turkish girl had gone out to wash some clothes when the terrible tide of battle swept down the river. Like all of her sisters she had to stop her work, and was just leaving the river bank when she saw the body of a man floating by. He was not young, and she could see that although he was sorely wounded he still lived. The man was Vukashin.
When he saw the girl on the bank he begged piteously for help.
"O my sister in God, fair maiden!" he called feebly. "Throw out to me a stout rope and pull me out of the river Maritsa and I will give you due honor."
This was an unusual appeal, for the term by which Vukashin addressed the maiden was an intimate one. With his usual impetuosity the king was appealing at first sight to the girl as his own sister. He wished to seek protection through establishing that relation which goes by the name of pobratimstvo, for to be the pobratim of a person meant to have all the rights and responsibilities of a real brother. But Vukashin was at his last gasp and would have promised anything.
With much difficulty the girl dragged Vukashin from, the rushing river and helped him on to the bank. Yet the wily king did not rest content with promising the girl honor. He made a more direct appeal. Vukashin was richly dressed, and the gold on his tunic, discolored though it was by his blood, revealed his wealth and power. His sword was still in its sheath at his side, and there were three golden hilts on the sword; in each hilt were three large precious stories. That sword alone was worth any three of the cities of the Turkish sultan, and the girl's eyes opened wide as she saw the glittering jewels.
"This must be some great hero," she thought, but who he was she did not know.
"My sister, O Turkish maiden," Vukashin said, "who is there in your white house?"
"I have my aged mother," the girl answered, "and one brother; Mustaf-aga is his name."
"My sister, O Turkish maiden," said Vukashin again, "go home and tell your brother Mustaf-aga to come to me and carry me to your white home. You will not go without reward. I have with me three purses of gold and three hundred ducats in each purse, I will give you one purse for yourself. The second I will give to your brother, Mustaf-aga, and the third I will keep for myself and use it while I am being cured of my wounds. If I recover my health I shall sing your praises and those of your brother, Mustaf-aga."
The maiden ran home to her brother and cried out in great excitement: "O my brother, my dear Mustaf-aga, I have dragged a wounded hero from the cold waters of the swift Maritsa. And he is rich! He has three purses of gold, and in each purse are three hundred ducats. He will give me one purse for myself. The second he will give to you, Mustaf-aga, and the third he will keep for himself, in order to heal his cruel wounds. Do not be stem, my brother, and let him die, but carry him to our white home where we can heal him."
Mustaf-aga listened to his sister and went down to the bank of the cold Maritsa. He saw the wounded hero and realized that here indeed was a wealthy prize. He wanted the rich clothing and the golden sword himself, so instead of obeying his sister's plea, Mustaf-aga drew his own sword and cut off the head of the stranger. He stripped him of his rich clothing, and took from his side the golden sword and returned home well satisfied with his booty.
The girl was very angry when she saw her brother come back with the trophies, and without the hero. She rebuked him sternly.
"Why have you violated the laws of God?" she asked. "Why have you killed my pobratim and polluted the honor of the family? What have you gained by it? Only a golden sword! If God gave me the power I would cut off your head myself."
With these words the girl ran out of the house, but Mustaf-aga enjoyed his ill-gotten wealth. It pleased him to wear the costly raiment and to carry the golden sword, but his rejoicing was not for long.
All the subjects of the Sultan had to serve in the Turkish array, so when Mustaf-aga went to the camp of the Sultan he took with him the golden sword which he had taken from the heroic stranger on the banks of the cold Maritsa. He was vain and wished to show his greatness, so he was pleased when everyone in the army admired him as he strode through the camp, for no one had even seen such a costly weapon. Everyone talked about it, and as they gathered in the evening around the camp-fires the Turkish soldiers passed the golden sword from hand to hand, and each man admired it. One and all they praised the glory, the bravely, and the good fortune of Mustaf-aga.
Then one evening the sword came into the hands of Marko Kralyevich, for he had not yet left the Sultan to return to Prilip. Marko looked at the sword carefully. It seemed vaguely familiar to him, and as he turned it in his hands he saw engraved on the sword three Christian names. They were the names of Novak, the smith who had made the sword, King Vukashin, who carried the sword, and his own name, Marko Kralyevich, the heir to the throne and the sword.
The Turks did not notice at once that something was wrong with Marko. The little group around the camp fire paid no attention as Marko asked very calmly: "Mustaf-aga, young man, how did you get this sharp sword? Did you buy it for a great price? Did you win it in battle? Did you inherit it from your father? Or did your beloved give it to you in her dowry?"
Mustaf-aga did not perceive the ominous undertone in Marko's question. He, being a Turk, did not realize that the marks on the sword were in Serbian and that the whole history of the sword was therefore clear to this powerful young man who was talking to him so quietly. So Mustaf-aga told Marko the whole story.
"Why did you kill him?" Marko asked sternly when Mustaf-aga had finished. "Why did you not heal his wounds? If you had, I would have secured favor for you from our august sovereign."
The young Turk was still unaware of the danger he was in.
"O giaour Marko," he said, "do not jest with me. If you could win favor from the Sultan you would seek it yourself. Give me back my golden sword."
Then before the eyes of the amazed group around the camp fire Marko swung the golden sword and with one well-aimed blow cut off the head of Mustaf-aga. A Christian daring to raise his hand against the conquering Turk! Tumult broke out, and the army demanded that the Sultan punish the insolence of Marko in daring to lift his arm against a Turk. But Marko paid no attention to the strife he had caused, and no one man dared lay a hand on him.
When news of the affair reached the ears of the Sultan, he sent messengers to Marko and demanded that he appear at once before him and answer for the outrage. Marko showed not the slightest interest. He lounged around his tent, eating, and drink-ing red wine. More messengers came from the Sultan, men of high rank, but still Marko did not stir. Finally the council of state came to demand the presence of Marko.
Then Marko consented to appear before the Sultan. He arose slowly, put on his wolf coat with the fur side nut, took his heavy war club, and started for the pavilion of the Sultan. An onlooker could tell he was angry, but as yet no one in the army knew why. Marko's wrath rose higher at every step he took, and he strode into the presence of the Sultan without deigning to remove his heavy boots. With tears of blood in his eyes he. advanced toward the Sultan.
It was a weird and terrifying figure that Marko presented as he crossed the floor of the pavilion. His gaze was fixed on the Sultan, until the latter began to fear that he might meet the same fate as Mustaf-aga. Marko strode across the floor, swinging his heavy war club threateningly in his hand. The Sultan gave it one look and wondered what would happen if Marko's foot slipped, or if the club should drop as it made circles above his head. He decided to seek a safer place, and with such dignity as he could muster he retreated slowly, step by step, until he was cowering against the far wall of the tent.
Still Marko advanced, until he was almost upon the Sultan. Then the Sultan tried other methods. He reached his hand into his pocket and brought out one hundred ducats in a silken purse. This he held out to Marko.
"Take these ducats, Marko," he said, "and drink your fill of wine. Why are you so disturbed?"
Marko ignored the peace offering of ducats.
"That was my father's sword," he said, "that Mustaf-aga was passing around from hand to hand. It was my father, King Vukashin, whom he murdered in cold blood. For that reason I had to avenge my father. If God had given you my father's sword you can well imagine what I would have done to you, for rank, power and fame avail nothing in such a case. It was the need of vengeance that moved me, and even the Sultan could not stop me!"
The Sultan met Marko's threats with soft words, for he saw that Marko had dealt justly with his father's murderer. So after a time Marko went back to his own tent, still carrying the golden sword of his father, the ill-fated King Vukashin.