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

The Last Victory of Rustem

Gustasp, King of Persia (he reigned second after Kaous), had a son whose name was Isfendiar, a very brave hero, who, among other exploits, had killed one of the great birds that are called Simorgs. Isfendiar was so proud of his victories that he conceived the idea of demanding the throne of Persia from his father. Accordingly he went to the King and said: "See what I have done: I have conquered the Tartars; I have brought their treasures into your palace; you promised that if I came back, having achieved so much, and came back in safety, you would deliver to me the throne and the royal crown. I pray you, therefore, to fulfil your promise."

Gustasp answered: "There is yet one enemy to be subdued—Rustem, the son of Zal. This Rustem in former days was obedient to the Kings of Persia, now he holds himself to be their superior. Go, therefore, and conquer him, be it by stratagem or by force, and bring him bound before me, and I swear that I will surrender to you the throne."

His son said: "Ask anything else of me—that I should make war against the King of China, or against any other ruler under the sun; but do not ask me to go against this old champion Rustem, the man who has defended for so long this realm of Persia."

The King said again: "Rustem has forgotten his duty to God and the King; go, then, bind his hands, and bring him entangled in your lasso before me."

His son answered: "Sire, it is not of Rustem that you are thinking. What you desire is to rid yourself of Isfendiar."


The death of a Simorg.

Nevertheless he set out on this errand with a great army, and sent his eldest son before him with a message of friendship to the champion. Rustem, at the first, was indisposed to accept the Prince's friendship; but listened when his father said, "Let us go and meet the Prince. Have we not always paid our duty to his house. Let us go and offer him such entertainment as becomes his birth."

Accordingly Rustem went to meet Isfendiar, and when he approached his camp, dismounted from his horse, and went on foot to pay him his respects. After the two had embraced, Rustem said, "I pray you to come to my house. We will entertain you according to the best of our power.

The Prince answered: "The King my father has forbidden me to enter any house in this country. But let me put the irons on your feet, and suffer me to take you bound to the King. You shall suffer no harm; indeed the irons shall not remain till night. If you will consent to this, when the crown shall come to me, I will put the whole world under your power."

Rustem answered: "It would be a lasting shame to me if a Prince such as you are should refuse to come under my roof. As for the irons, I cannot suffer them; but everything else that you command I will do."

The Prince said: "I cannot disobey the commands of the King my father by coming under your roof. But come and feast with me. Let us enjoy the present. Why need we think of the future?"

So Rustem departed to put on such a dress as was suitable for a banquet. But when he was gone the Prince said to himself, "Why should I seek friendship with this man? I will not invite him."

Rustem waited long for the invitation, and was grievously offended that it did not come. At last he said, "I will go and talk to this courteous Prince, and tell him my mind."

When he arrived at the Prince's tent, he said, "Young man, these are strange customs that you introduce. Was not, then, your guest worth so much as a message?"

The Prince excused himself by saying, "The day was hot, and the way was long, and I was unwilling to trouble you. But now as you came, sit down by my side and drink a cup of wine with me."

So saying, he offered Rustem a place at his left hand. But Rustem said, "I have never sat but at the right hand of kings." So they gave him a place at the Prince's right hand.

The Prince then said: "I have heard that your father Zal, when he was born, was of so unsightly an appearance that his father could not bear to look on him; and that even the Simorg, when he was exposed on the mountain, would not carry him as food for her young."

Rustem answered: "Why do you use such injurious words?" And he proceeded to describe the greatness of his family, and to enumerate his own achievements. And the Prince, on the other hand, boasted of his own race and of what he had himself accomplished.

When they had thus talked together for a time, Isfendiar said: "We have boasted enough. I am hungry and thirsty; let us eat and drink. To-morrow we will try each other's strength on the field of battle."

Isfendiar ordered meat and drink to be brought, and they sat down to table. All were astonished to see Rustem's appetite. Joint after joint of roasted lamb did he eat, till the Prince could scarcely believe his eyes.

At last he said: "Bring us wine; let it be new wine, not old. We will see how Rustem will behave himself when he has well drunk."

The cupbearer brought a goblet so great that no one could have believed it possible that a man could empty it; but Rustem drained every drop, drinking to the health of the King of Kings. The cupbearer brought it again full; but the hero said: "This wine wants no water; water does but spoil it."

So the Prince said: "Bring another cup without water."

But Rustem astonished him more and more.

When the time of departure was come, Rustem said: "Prince, I pray you to come under my roof, though it be but for a few hours. Listen to the voice of reason, and let us be at peace."

Isfendiar answered: "As for coming under your roof, I have spoken already. But listen to me. Suffer me to bind you and bring you before the King. Believe me that, if you will consent, he will think more highly of you than before."

"I cannot endure the disgrace of being bound," said Rustem. "Did I suffer it, I should lose all the glory that I have gained. Why are you so bent on strife? Believe me, it will turn out ill both for your life and for mine."

The Prince answered: "Say no more; my purpose is fixed. To-morrow, on the field of battle, we will see who is the better man."

But when Rustem was departing, Isfendiar said to his brother: "I am astonished at this hero, so strong is he, so noble in countenance. Nevertheless the orders of the King must be obeyed, and to-morrow I will darken for him the light of the sun."

His brother answered: "Listen to me. Go to-morrow without escort to the hero's palace. I am sure that his heart is full of loyalty to the King and to you. Speak peaceably to him, and banish this unreasonable anger from your heart."

The Prince made no reply; he was bent on his own fall.

On the other hand, the old man Zal urgently entreated his son that he should not fight with the Prince. "If you fall," he said, "by the hand of this young man, the glory of our house is departed. If you kill him, you kill the son of a king, and you cover yourself with disgrace. Go and submit yourself to him; if you will not do that, ransom yourself with all your treasures. Whatever you do, do not fight with the Prince."

Rustem said: "I spoke peaceably to him, but he would not hear me. Nevertheless, have no fear for his life; I will not wound him. No; I will snatch him from his saddle and carry him off a prisoner. Then he shall be my guest; and when we are friends I will take and set him on the throne of Persia."

Zal smiled to hear such talk from his son.

"These are foolish words," he said. "Do you talk of carrying off the son of the King and bringing him to my palace? This is not such a thing as you should say."

And he bowed his head to the ground and prayed: "O Judge and Master of the World, deliver us from our troubles."

The next day, as soon as it was light, Rustem armed himself for battle, and went out to meet Isfendiar, who also armed himself, and leapt on the back of his charger, as a leopard leaps on to the back of a wild ass. So the two met together, the old warrior and the young.

But, first, Rustem again attempted to turn Isfendiar from his purpose.

"If you are bent," said he, "on battle, why not bid your Persians advance? I, on my part, will command my warriors of Zabulistan to charge. We can sit here in peace, and see others fight till we are satisfied."

"This is folly," answered Isfendiar; "what quarrel is there between Persia and Zabulistan? Let our armies remain in peace. We two will fight, and will see whether Isfendiar's charger will return riderless to his stable, or Raksh go back without his master to the palace of Zal."

Then the two champions delayed no longer, but fell upon each other. First they fought with their spears, and when these were broken they drew their swords, and when their swords were shivered to pieces they seized their clubs, and when the handles of the clubs were broken by the violence of their blows, they threw their lassos; each caught the other round the body; each used all his strength to drag his adversary from the saddle, but neither could prevail. So they fought till both they and their horses were worn-out with weariness.

In the meanwhile, the lieutenants of Rustem had provoked a battle between the two armies, and in this battle two valiant youths, sons of Prince Isfendiar, were killed. When Isfendiar heard this bad news he was transported with rage.

"Is this the way," he cried to Rustem, "that nobles keep treaties? Do you hear this, that your chiefs have killed my two sons?"

Rustem said: "I swear by the head of the King, and by the sun, and by my sword, that this is no doing of mine. Whoever has been in fault, though it were my own brother, I will bind him hand and foot and carry him before the King, and you shall have vengeance for the blood of your sons."

"It is idle," answered the Prince, "to kill the snake to avenge the peacock's death. No—save yourself, for your last hour has come."

Thus saying, he seized his bow and arrows, and rained a shower of arrows on Rustem and Raksh. Sixty arrows there were in all, and there was not one of them but what wounded the hero or his horse. But Rustem, with his arrows, did not inflict so much as a single wound upon his adversary. The hero felt all his strength passing from him, and said:

"It is enough for to-day; night is at hand, and no one can fight in the darkness. Go to your tent, and I will return to my palace, and rest awhile, and heal my wounds. And I will call my best counsellors togethers, and we will consider whether we will not obey your commands."

Isfendiar said: "Old man, you know many stratagems and devices. Do not think that you deceive me. But go—I spare your life for to-night."

So Rustem departed. And Isfendiar went to his tent and lamented over the death of his two sons. Their bodies he sent to the King in coffins of gold on biers of ebony, with this message:

"See the firstfruits of your devices! Isfendiar is yet alive, but I know not what fate is in store for him. He is consumed with sorrow, and you enjoy the pleasures of the throne; but remember that these pleasures do not last for ever."

Meanwhile Rustem held council with Zal his father, and with the chiefs.

"I am in despair," he said. "Never before have I met a warrior who could resist me; but now I am helpless against this Isfendiar. My arrows could no more pierce his cuirass than a thorn can pierce a rock. If it had not been for the darkness, he had certainly slain me. Nothing remains for me but to mount on Raksh and ride away to some distant country where this terrible enemy shall not be able to find me."

Zal said: "My son, listen to me. There is yet one hope of safety. We will call the Simorg to our help."

Immediately Zal climbed a high mountain, taking with him three censers filled with fire, and being accompanied by three magicians. When he reached the crest of the mountain, he took out a feather which was wrapped in a piece of brocade, and stirring the fire in one of the censers, burnt the feather. At the end of the first watch, the night suddenly became darker than before: it was the Simorg, which had spied the glimmer of the fire. The bird approached in great circles, and Zal rose from the ground with the magicians, who all the while were burning incense, and did homage to it.

The Simorg said, "Prince, why have you called me by burning this feather?"

"Because my house is in danger," answered Zal. "Rustem is so grievously wounded that I fear for his life; and Raksh, his horse, is nearly dead."

The Simorg said, "Let me see the warrior and his horse."

So Zal sent for Rustem and Raksh; and they came, though they had scarcely strength to move.

The Simorg examined their wounds, and first drew from the hero's body four arrow-heads. Then he sucked the blood from the wounds with his beak; lastly he rubbed them with his wings. Rustem, in a moment, felt all his strength return to him.

"Dress the wounds," said the Bird, "and take care for seven days not to hurt yourself. If you will dip one of my feathers in milk, and pass it over the places, they will soon be healed."

Then he did the same service to Raksh, drawing from his body six arrow-heads. The horse's strength came back, and he neighed, to his master's great joy."

"Why," said the Simorg, "did you seek to do battle with Isfendiar?"

"He would have chained me," answered Rustem, "and my soul could not endure such dishonour."

"Listen to me," said the Simorg again. "Offer your homage to this son of a king, Surrender yourself to him. If his hour is come, he will refuse your submission; if that be so, I know a way of delivering you."

The Bird then led the way to a tamarisk-tree.

"Choose," said he to the hero, "the straightest, longest, and finest branch that you can find. To this branch is bound the fate of Isfendiar. Make it straight before the fire; look out a well-tempered arrow-head for it; feather it well; and if it is Isfendiar's hour to die, this is the weapon by which he will perish."

Rustem did exactly as the Bird had commanded him. When the time was come, he presented himself before Isfendiar, and offered his submission. "Only," he said, "spare me the chains; they will disgrace me for ever."

"This is idle talk," said the Prince; "choose between chains and battle."

Then Rustem, seeing that his submission was not accepted, bent his bow, and laid the arrow of tamarisk-wood in rest, and so held it, while he prayed in secret to God. The Prince, seeing him delay, thought that he did it from fear, and taunted him. Then Rustem hesitated no longer, but let the arrow fly, aiming at the Prince's eye. The arrow flew straight at its mark, and Isfendiar's strength left him in a moment; his bow dropped from his hand, and he seized his horse's mane.

"You have reaped as you have sown," cried Rustem; "you thought yourself an invincible hero, and now a single arrow has robbed you of all your strength."

As he spoke, the Prince dropped from his horse upon the ground. There he lay senseless for a while; then, sitting up on the ground, he drew the arrow from his eye, covered as it was with blood from the steel to the feathers.

Two of his nobles, seeing what had happened, ran up and lifted him from the ground, uttering loud cries of grief and despair. The white-haired Zal also hastened to the place, and lamented over this misfortune.

"The wise men have told me," he cried, "that the man who slays Isfendiar, will have no peace either in this world or in the next."

Isfendiar said: "Trouble not yourselves. It is not Rustem that has slain me, nor the Simorg, nor the magical arrow. It is my father who sent me to my death. But do you, Rustem, take my son Bahman in your charge; teach him the ways of a king, for it has been foretold to me that he will sit upon the throne that has been denied to me."

Rustem laid his right hand upon his heart, and swore that he would do as Isfendiar had said.

Then the soul of Isfendiar was satisfied. This was the last victory of Rustem.

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