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

Sohrab, (Continued)

The next day King Kaous and Rustem, with a great army, began their march. Now Sohrab was still at the fort from which the beautiful Gurdafurd had escaped. When the army of the Persians came in sight, the Tartars that were in the fort set up a great shout; and Sohrab hearing it, came and stood on the rampart, with Hedjir, the champion whom he had conquered and taken prisoner, by his side. "You do not see," he said, "in this great army a man with a great club who would be able to meet me in battle. There are many men, it is true; but not a single man of war. Verily I will cover the plain with their blood, as the waters cover the sea."

So saying, he went down from the rampart, and called for a cup of wine. He had not a thought of fear in his heart. On the other side, the King's army pitched their tents on the plain, which they covered from side to side with their encampment.

That night Rustem went to the King, and said, "Will the King suffer me to go out tonight without helmet or belt that I may see for myself who this champion is, and who are the warriors that follow him?"

The King said, "It is well thought of. Only be prudent, and may God have you in His keeping."

So Rustem put on the dress of a Tartar, and set out for the fort. He made his way into it, like a lion which steals on a herd of antelopes, and saw Sohrab and the chief sitting at the feast.

Now Sohrab's mother had said to Zendeh her brother, when her son was setting out for the war, "Go with Sohrab, for you know the face of Rustem; and when the time is come, you will show my son his father." So Sohrab sat at the feast, and Zendeh his uncle sat by him.

Rustem stood by the door watching the feasters, and it so chanced that Zendeh, leaving the room, saw him standing there. "Who are you?" he said, for there was not a man in the whole army of the Tartars that was his like in strength and stature.

Rustem answered him not a word, but struck him on the nape of the neck so fierce a blow that he fell down and died. There was no more feasting or fighting for Zendeh.

When Sohrab saw that Zendeh's place remained empty, he asked where he was. Some of the guests went to look for him, and found him lying dead by the door. They came and told Sohrab, who called the nobles and said to them, "We must not sleep to-night, but must spend the time in sharpening the points of our lances. The wolf has come into the fold, and, in spite of shepherds and dogs, has taken the best of the flock. With God for my helper, I will avenge on the Persian the death of Zendeh."

When he had thus spoken he came back to his place, and cried, "Zendeh will be wanting by my side in the battle; but I am not weary of the feast."

Meanwhile Rustem went back to King Kaous, and told him what he had seen and done. "As for Sohrab," said he, "he has not his equal in Persia, or among the Tartars. He might have been the great warrior San, and what can I say more?"

The next day Sohrab put on his armour, and, going out of the fort, chose a steep place from which he could see the army of the Persians, and bade Hedjir come and stand by him. "Deal fairly with me," said he, "answer me true, and it shall go well with you. You shall have rewards to your heart's content. But if you deceive me, you shall lie in prison for the rest of your days."

Hedjir said, "I will tell you truly all that I can about the army of the Persians. And, indeed, why should I lie unto my lord?"

Sohrab went on, "I am going to ask you questions about the great men of the Persian army. Tell me now who they are. And first I see a tent of leopard skin, surrounded with brocade of many colours, and guarded by a hundred war-elephants. Over the tent there floats a violet flag, on which are figured the sun and the moon in gold. Whose is this tent?"

"That," said Hedjir, "is the tent of the Persian king."

"I see another tent," said Sohrab, "and the flag that flies over it has the figure of an elephant. Whose is it?"

"That is the tent of Thous, son of King Nereder."

"And now," Sohrab went on, "tell me whose is that tent of green? I see, sitting on a chair, a stalwart hero, with such an air, such shoulders, and such a frame as I have never seen before. Though he is sitting, yet he overtops all the warriors that are near him. And in front of him there stands a great charger, as high as the hero himself; and from the saddle there hangs a lasso. Nowhere have I seen such a man or such a horse. See his standard; it has the figure of a dragon, and on the spear-head is a lion's head."

Hedjir said to himself, "If I were to tell this young lion that this great warrior is Rustem, he would do his best to slay him. No; I will keep his name secret." So he said: 'This is one of the King's allies that is newly come from China."

"But what is his name?" said Sohrab.

"I do not know," answered the other, "for I was in the fort when he came to the King."

Sohrab was greatly grieved to find no trace of Rustem. His mother had told him certain signs by which he should know the hero. He saw them all, but he could not believe his eyes. Again he asked Hedjir about the green tent, and the mighty horse, and the lasso hanging from the saddle. But Hedjir answered: "Why should I hide the truth from you? If I do not tell you the name of this warrior from China, it is because I do not know it."

"But," said Sohrab, "where is Rustem? Not a word have you said of him; and yet so great a hero could not remain concealed in the middle of a camp. You told me that he is the chief of the army and the guardian of the provinces. Why, then, is he nowhere to be seen?"

Hedjir answered: "Perhaps he is gone to Zabulistan. It is now that they hold their feasts in the rose-gardens of that land."

"This is idle," said Sohrab. "Rustem is one who will always be found in the front of the battle. Now, listen to me. If you will tell me which is Rustem, I will put you above all the people and load you with treasure. But if you hide from me what I want to know, I will cut your head from your body. Now choose between the two."

"Prince," said the other, "when you are tired of life, go out and fight with Rustem, who can kill two hundred men with one blow of his club."

Nevertheless he thought to himself: "If I show Rustem to this young lion he will rush on him and slay him, for all his strength and vigour. After this there is not a Persian who will dare to fight with him, and he will become King of Persia. No; I will hide the truth, and if I die, I die." Then, turning to Sohrab, he said: "Why are you so angry, and why do you threaten to kill me because I do not point out Rustem to you? But after all, are you not hiding your real thought? You want to meet Rustem in battle; but I say to you, Avoid him, for surely he will bring you to nought."

Sohrab, in a rage, struck him from his horse to the ground. Then, going back to the fort, he armed himself for battle, and went out. First he charged the King's tent, and not one of the warriors of Persia dared to stand before him. He cried out to the King and said: "Noble King, what are you doing here on the field of battle? How dare you take the lance of Kaous, you who never dare to fight among the warriors in the battle. Listen to me. The night that Zendeh was slain I swore a great oath that I would not leave a man, little or great, alive in Persia, and that I would hang the King of Persia alive on a gallows. Come, now, if you have a champion who dares to meet me, let him come forth!"

Not a man among the Persians took up this challenge; and the King, in great trouble, sent to Rustem, saying: "The faces of my warriors grow pale before this young Tartar, and there is not one who dares meet him in battle."

Rustem said to the messenger: "When other kings have called me, it has been sometimes to the battle and sometimes to the banquet; but King Kaous never calls me except to fight for him."

Nevertheless he bade his people saddle his horse Raksh, and he put on his circlet of leopard-skin and his royal girdle, and mounted, and set out for the battle, with his standard carried before him.

When he saw Sohrab, and observed how tall and stalwart he was, he cried out to him: "Come out from the line of your army, and I will come out from mine."

Sohrab rubbed his hands in delight, and rushed out, saying: "We are warriors, you and I. Do not call to your side any of the men of Persia, and there shall be no Tartar with me. You and I will fight alone. But listen: you cannot stand against me. You are tall of stature, and you have stalwart arms; but the weight of years is on you."

Rustem looked at the young man, and said: "Young man, the earth is dry and cold, but the air is sweet and warm. I have fought in many a battle; many an army have I put to flight; many a warrior and many a genius have I slain, and never yet have I been beaten. But I should be grieved to do you any harm. Leave these Tartars and Arne to us. I know not a man in the whole land of Persia who has arms and shoulders such as yours."

When Rustem thus spake, the heart of Sohrab went out to him, and he said: "Come, now; I will ask you a question, and I beseech you to answer me truly. Tell me frankly who you are. Surely you are Rustem, the son of Zal?"

Rustem answered: "It is false; I am not Rustem; I am but a common man; I have neither throne, nor palace, nor crown."

When Sohrab heard this his heart was filled with despair, and he addressed himself to the combat.

The two champions chose a narrow place, and attacked each other with short spears. And when their spears had no more iron left on them—so fierce were their blows—they drew their Indian swords, and fell to work again. And when their swords were broken they used their clubs. Terrible blows they dealt each other! The armour of their horses was broken in pieces; their coats of mail were shattered. At last neither the warriors nor their horses moved more, so fierce had been their struggle. Surely this was a strange and marvellous thing! The beasts know their own young; but man in his fury cannot distinguish between his son and his enemy!

Rustem said to himself: "The battle with the White Genius was but child's play to this. Never yet have I been conquered, and now my heart fails me before this man without a name."

When the two combatants had rested awhile they renewed the battle. Rustem seized Sohrab by the belt, hoping to drag him from his saddle; but he could not move him an inch from his place. Then Sohrab took up again his great club from where it hung by the side of the saddle, and dealt Rustem a mighty blow that bruised his shoulder. The hero writhed under the agony, but was strong enough to swallow down the pain. But Sohrab saw that he had struck a timely stroke, and smiled, saying: "Warrior, you are not one who can stand against the blows of the strong. But it is your age that disables you; it is folly for the aged to match themselves with the young."

After this the two combatants parted, and Rustem chased the army of the Tartars, as a tiger rushes on his prey. When Sohrab saw this he fell, in his turn, upon the Persians; and scattered them like a flock of sheep before him.

Rustem was filled with fury at the sight, and cried: "Man of blood, why have you fallen on the Persians, like a wolf on the fold?"

Sohrab answered: "The army of the Tartars had not joined in the battle, and yet you charged it."

Rustem said: "We will fight again to-morrow, and God shall decide who of us two shall remain the conqueror."

After this they rode back each to his own army. Rustem sought the presence of the King, and told him what a mighty champion this Sohrab was. "We tried all our arms .against each other," he said; "the arrow, the sword, the mace, and the lasso, but it was all in vain. At last I caught him by the girdle, hoping to lift him from his saddle, as I have done many a warrior before; but the wind might as well try to drag a mountain from its place as I drag this young warrior from his seat. Nevertheless, I will meet him again to-morrow, and then we will see what is the will of God, whether he is to prevail or I."

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