Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Magicians by Alfred J. Church
Stories of the Magicians by  Alfred J. Church

Sohrab, (Continued)

Meanwhile the governor of the fort had sent a letter to King Kaous, telling him how there had appeared among the Tartars a mighty champion, against whom, such was the strength of his arms, no one could stand; how he had overthrown and taken prisoner their champion, and now threatened to overrun and conquer the whole land of Persia. When the King had received and read this letter he was greatly troubled, and, calling a scribe, said to him, "Sit down and write a letter to Rustem." So the scribe sat down and wrote. The letter was this: "There has appeared among the Tartars a great champion, strong as an elephant and fierce as a lion. No one can stand against him. We look to you for help. It is of your doing that our warriors hold their heads so high. Come, then, with all the speed that you can use so soon as you shall have read this letter. Be it night or day, come at once; do not open your mouth to speak; if you have a bunch of roses in your hand do not stop to smell it, but come; for the warrior of whom I write is such that you only can meet him."

King Kaous sealed the letter and gave it to a warrior named Giv. At the same time he said, "Haste to Rustem. Tarry not on the way; and when you are come, do not rest there for an hour. If you arrive in the night, depart again the next morning." So Giv departed, and travelled with all his speed, allowing himself neither sleep nor food. When he approached Zabulistan, the watchman said, "A warrior comes from Persia, riding like the wind." So Rustem, with his chiefs, went out to meet him. When they had greeted each other, they returned together to Rustem's palace. Giv delivered his message and handed the King's letter, telling himself much more that he had heard about the strength and courage of this Tartar warrior. Rustem heard him with astonishment, and said, "This champion is like, you say, to the great San, my grandfather. That such a man should come from the free Persians is possible; but that he should be among those slaves the Tartars, is past belief. I have myself a child, of the daughter of a Tartar king bore to me; but the child is a girl. This, then, that you tell me is passing strange; but for the present let us make merry."

So they made merry with the chiefs that were assembled in Rustem's palace. But after awhile Giv said again: "King Kaous commanded me, saying, 'You must not sleep in Zabulistan; if you arrive in the night, set out again the next morning. It will go ill with us if we have to fight before Rustem comes.' It is necessary, then, great hero, that we set out in all haste for Persia."

Rustem said, "Do not trouble yourself about this matter. We must all die some day. Let us, therefore, enjoy the present. Our lips are dry, let us wet them with wine. As to this Tartar, fortune will not always be with him. When he sees my standard, his heart will fail him."

So they sat, drinking the red wine and singing merry songs, instead of thinking of the King and his commands. The next day Rustem passed in the same fashion, and the third also. But on the fourth Giv made preparations to depart, saying to Rustem, "If we do not make haste to set out, the King will be wroth, and his anger is terrible." Rustem said, "Do not trouble yourself; no man dares to be wroth with me." Nevertheless he bade them saddle Raksh, and set out with his companions.

When they came near the King's palace, a great company of nobles rode out to meet them, and conducted them to the King, and they paid their homage to him. But the King turned away from them in a rage. "Who is Rustem," he cried, "that he forgets his duty to me, and disobeys my commands? If I had a sword in my hand this moment, I would cut off his head, as a man cuts an orange in half. Take him, hang him up alive on gallows, and never mention his name again in my presence."

Giv answered, "Sir, will you lay hands upon Rustem?"

The King burst out again in rage against Giv and Rustem, crying to one of his nobles, "Take these two villains and hang them alive on gallows." And he rose up from his throne in fury. The noble to whom he had spoken laid his hand upon Rustem, wishing to lead him out of the King's presence, lest Kaous in his rage should do him an injury. But Rustem cried out, "What a king are you! Hang this Tartar, if you can, on your gallows. Keep such things for your enemies. All the world has bowed itself before me and Raksh my horse. And you—you are king by my grace."

Thus speaking, he struck away the hand that the noble had laid upon him so fiercely that the man fell headlong to the ground, and he passed over his body to go from the presence of the King. And as he mounted on Raksh, he cried: "What is Kaous that he should deal with me in this fashion? It is God who has given me strength and victory, and not he or his army. The nobles would have given me the throne of Persia long since, but I would not receive it; I kept the right before my eyes. Verily, had I not done so, you, Kaous, would not be sitting upon the throne." Then he turned to the Persians that stood by, and said, "This brave Tartar will come. Look out for yourselves how you may save your lives. Me you shall see no more in the land of Persia."

The Persians were greatly troubled to hear such words; for they were sheep, and Rustem was their shepherd. So the nobles assembled, and said to each other: "The King has forgotten all gratitude and decency. Does he not remember that he owes to Rustem his throne—nay, his very life? If the gallows be Rustem's reward, what shall become of us?"

So the oldest among them came and stood before the King, and said: "O King, have you forgotten what Rustem has done for you and for this land—how he conquered Mazanderan and its king and the White Genius; how he gave you back the sight of your eyes? And now you have commanded that he should be hanged alive upon a gallows. Are these fitting words for a king?"

Thy King listened to the old man, and said: "You speak well. The words of a king should be words of wisdom. Go now to Rustem, and speak good words to him, and make him forget my anger."

So the old man rode after Rustem, and many of the nobles went with him. When they had overtaken him, the old man said, "You know that the King is a wrathful man, and that in his rage he speaks hard words. But you know also that he soon repents. But now he is ashamed of what he said. And if he has offended, yet the Persians have done no wrong that you should thus desert them."

Rustem answered, "Who is the King that I should care for him? My saddle is my throne, my helmet is my crown, my corselet is my robe of state. What is the King to me but a grain of dust? Why should I fear his anger? I delivered him from prison; I gave him back his crown. And now my patience is at an end."

The old man said, "This is well. But the King and his nobles will think, 'Rustem fears this Tartar,' and they will say, 'If Rustem is afraid, what can we do but leave our country?' I pray you therefore not to turn your back upon the King, when things are in such a plight. Is it well that the Persians should become the slaves of the infidel Tartars?"

Rustem stood confounded to hear such words. "If there were fear in my heart, then I would tear my soul from my body. But you know that it is not; only the King has treated me with scorn."

But he perceived that he must yield to the old man's advice. So he went back with the nobles.

As soon as the King saw him, he leapt upon his feet, and said, "I am hard of soul, but a man must grow as God has made him. My heart was troubled by the fear of this new enemy. I looked to you for safety, and you delayed your coming. Then I spoke in my wrath; but I have repented, and my mouth is full of dust."

Rustem said, "It is yours to command, O King, and ours to obey. You are the master, and we are your slaves. I am but as one of those who open the door for you, if indeed I am worthy to be reckoned among them. And now I am come to execute your commands."

Kaous said, "It is well. Now let us feast. To-morrow we will prepare for war."

So Kaotis, and Rustem, and the nobles feasted till the night had passed and the morning came.

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