R USTEM was eight years old when his grandfather, the mightiest of all the princes of Iran, came up out of Seistan to see him. For the old man had heard that the boy excelled all others in stature and beauty, and the fame of his strength was known throughout the whole of Persia. At the head, therefore, of a splendid retinue of warriors, the aged prince set out for Zaboulistan, the home of Rustem and his noble father, the white-headed Zal. When he was yet a day's journey from the city, the young boy, mounted on an elephant of war and accompanied by a cavalcade of lords and nobles, went out to meet him.
As the long line of riders wound through the defiles of the mountains or passed in orderly array across the plains, it presented a picture of splendor and beauty which, even in the gorgeous East, has seldom been surpassed. The young prince's body-guard, mounted on coal-black steeds, rode in advance. They were armed with golden maces and with battle-axes that gleamed like silver, and they carried the red banner of the house of Zal. Then followed the elephants, upon whose backs were the nobility of Zaboulistan, seated in howdahs decked with curtains of embroidered silk and ornamented with flags and waving plumes. After these came a thousand young men, the flower of the land of Iran, riding on horseback, with swords at their sides and long spears resting upon their saddle-bows. The march, moreover, was enlivened with music and song, and nothing was left undone that would give pleasure to the boy or add to the sincerity of the welcome which was to be accorded to the ruler of Seistan.
When at length Rustem saw his grandfather's caravan a long way off, he bade his own retinue stand still, while he, dismounting from his elephant, went forward on foot. And when he drew near and could look into the face of the old prince, he bowed his head to the ground, and cried out, "O mighty ruler of Seistan, and prince of princes in Iran, I am Rustem, thy grandchild! Give me, I pray thee, thy blessing, ere I return to my father's house."
The aged man was astonished, for he saw that not the half had been told him concerning the boy's stature and grace. He commanded his elephant to kneel while he descended and lifted him up and blessed him, and placed him in the howdah beside him; and the two rode side by side into Zaboulistan.
"For more than a hundred years," said the grandfather, "have I been the chief of the princes of Iran, and at no time has anyone arisen to dispute my will. Yet never have my eyes been gladdened as now. I am an old, old man, and you are only a child; but you shall soon sit on my throne and enjoy the pleasures which have been mine, and wield the power both in your father's kingdom and in my own."
"I am glad," answered Rustem, "that I can call you my grandfather. But I care nothing at all for pleasure, and I never think of play, or rest, or sleep. What I want most of all things is a horse of my own, and a hard saddle such as the Turanian riders use, and a coat-of-mail and a helmet like those your warriors have. Then with my lance and my arrows, which I already can use quite well, I will vanquish the enemies of Iran, and my courage shall be like yours and my father's."
This speech pleased the old prince very much, and he blessed Rustem again, and promised him that as soon as he should reach the ordinary stature of a man he should have his wish. During the whole of his stay in Zaboulistan he wanted the boy to be always with him, nor did he care to see anyone else. And when, at the end of the month, messengers came from Seistan with news which obliged him to return, he said to his son, the white-headed Zal: "Remember, that when this child's stature is equal to thine he shall have a horse of his own choosing, a hard saddle like that of a Turanian rider, and a coat-of-mail and a helmet such as we ourselves wear into battle. And forget not this—my last command."
"And see, father," said Rustem, "am I not now almost as tall as you?"
Zal smiled and promised that he would remember.
But before Rustem reached the stature of his father, the good prince of Seistan had passed from the earth, and Zal, himself an old man, had succeeded to his throne. Then news was brought that a vast army of Turanians, the foes of Iran, had come down from the north and were threatening to cross into Persia. They had even cut in pieces an army which the Shah had sent out against them, and messengers had arrived in Zaboulistan beseeching aid from Zal. Then Rustem begged of his father that he might lead a band of young men against the invaders.
"It is true," said he, "that I am only a child in years. But, although I am not quite so tall as you, my stature is now equal to that of ordinary men; and I am skilled in the use of all kinds of weapons. Give me therefore the steed that was promised me, and the mace of my grandfather, and let me go to the succor of Iran."
These words pleased Zal not a little, and he answered: "O my son, thou art still very young, and thy lips smell of milk, and thy days should be given to play. But the times are full of danger, and Iran must look to thee for help."
Then he at once sent out a proclamation into all the Persian provinces, commanding that on the first day of the approaching Festival of Roses all the choicest horses, of whatsoever breed, should be brought to Zaboulistan in order that Rustem might select from among them his steed of battle. For the one that was chosen, its owner should receive mountains of gold in exchange; but should any man conceal a steed of value, or fail to bring it for the prince's inspection, he should be punished without mercy.
On the day appointed, the finest horses in all Persia were assembled at Zaboulistan. The most famous breeders from Kabul and the Afghan pasture-lands were there with their choicest stock, and the hill-slopes to the south of the city were white with tents. A caravan of low-browed men from the shores of the Caspian had just arrived, weary with their journey, but proud of their horsemanship and of the clean-limbed, swiftly moving animals which they had brought fresh from the freedom of the steppes, and which they were accustomed to ride at full speed, while standing erect on their saddles. Near them were the tents of a patriarchal sheik, who had come from the distant valley of the Euphrates, bringing his numerous family and his large following of servants and herdsmen, and four matchless Arab coursers, for which he had already refused more than one princely offer. But the greater number of horses had been brought in by the men of Seistan, some of whom were encamped outside the walls, while others lodged with friends and acquaintances in the city. Most of these last had brought only a single animal each, and they had done this not so much for the hope of reward, as for the fear of punishment. Every one had brought the best that he had, and I doubt if the world has ever seen a nobler or more wonderful collection of steeds.
"Fresh from the freedom of the steppes."
At an early hour in the morning, the whole city was astir. Everybody, both within and without the walls, was moving toward the western gate, just outside of which Prince Zal and young Rustem had already taken their stand, in order to inspect the animals that would be presented. A troop of armed men was drawn up in such a way as to form a passage through which the competing horses were to be led directly in front of Rustem. On the top of the wall was a covered pavilion, from which the ladies of Zaboulistan, without being seen, could look down upon the concourse below.
At a given signal, the horses, which had already been brought together at a convenient spot, were led, one by one, before the prince. The first were those of the Zaboulistan herds—strong, beautiful steeds, many of which had been bred and cared for with the sole thought of their being chosen for the use of Rustem.
"Do you desire swiftness?" asked the keeper of the foremost. "Here is a steed that can outstrip the wind."
"Not swiftness only, but strength," answered Rustem. Then he placed his hand upon the horse to see if it could stand that test; and the animal shuddered beneath his grasp and sank upon its haunches from the strength of the pressure. Thus it fared with all the steeds that were brought forward.
"Do you want a perfect steed?" asked the long-bearded sheik from the west. "If so, here are beauty and strength and swiftness and intelligence, all combined in one." And he led forward the largest of his Arabs.
There was a murmur of admiration from all the lookers-on, for seldom, in that land of beautiful horses, had an animal been seen which was in every way so perfect. Rustem said nothing, but quietly subjected the steed to the same test that he had applied to the others. Lastly, the traders from Kabul brought forward a herd of ten which they had carefully selected as the strongest from among all that had been bred in the Afghan pastures. But every one of them quailed beneath Rustem's iron hand.
"Whose is that mare that feeds on the plain beyond your tents?" asked Rustem. "And whose is the colt that follows after her? I see no marks on its flanks."
"We do not know," answered the men from Kabul. "But they have followed us all the way from the Afghan valleys, and we have been unable either to drive them back or to capture them. We have heard it said, however, that men call the colt Rakush, or Lightning, and that, although it has now been three years ready for the saddle, its mother defends it and will let no one touch it."
The colt was a beautiful animal. Its color was that of rose-leaves scattered upon a saffron ground, its chest and shoulders were like those of a lion, and its eyes beamed with the fire of intelligence. Snatching a lariat from the hands of a herdsman, Rustem ran quickly forward and threw the noose over the animal's head. Then followed a terrible battle, not so much with the colt as with its mother. But in the end Rustem was the winner, and the mare retired crestfallen from the field. With a great bound the young prince leaped upon Rakush's back, and the rose-colored steed bore him over the plains with the speed of the wind. But when the animal had become thoroughly tired, he turned at a word from his master and went back to the city gate.
"This is the horse that I choose," said Rustem to his father. "Let us give to the Afghan herdsmen the prize that is due."
"Nay," answered the herdsmen; "if thou be Rustem, take him and save Iran from its foes. For his price is the land of Iran, and, seated upon him, no enemy can stand before thee."
And that is the way in which Rustem won his war steed.
To relate all the adventures of Rakush and his master,—how they led the men of Iran against the Turanians, how they alone put whole armies to flight, how they vanquished the Deevs in their mountain-fastnesses, and how they extended the dominions of the Shah from the sea to the great salt plains,—would alone fill a volume. Their names were known throughout the length and breadth of Iran, and so inseparable were they that one was never mentioned save in connection with the other. It will be enough if I relate a single one of their adventures.
It chanced upon a time that the great Shah conceived the foolish plan of conquering Mazinderan and obliging the king of that country to pay him tribute. But the small army which he led was utterly defeated by the forces of Mazinderan, and he himself, being taken prisoner, was thrown into a dungeon where the light of day was never seen. Nevertheless, with the aid of one of his keepers, he contrived to write and send a letter to Prince Zal of Zaboulistan. After narrating all his misfortunes, he said:
"I have sought what the foolish seek, and I have found what the foolish find. And if thou wilt not speedily send me help I shall surely perish."
When Zal received this letter he was much troubled, and he gnawed his very finger-tips for vexation. For the Shah's expedition had been undertaken contrary to his advice. Yet he called to Rustem and said: "See how our lord the Shah has been vanquished by his enemies. It has happened just as I told him, and yet it behooves us to send him aid. Saddle Rakush, therefore, and cast your leopard-skin about you, and hasten by the nearest route to the deliverance of Iran's ruler."
"It is well, my father," said Rustem. "My sword is ready, and I will ride alone into Mazinderan. And if fortune favor me I will retrieve the losses that have been suffered there."
Then he mounted Rakush and set out by the shortest road across the Great Salt Desert that lies toward Mazinderan; and such was the speed of the good horse that in twelve hours they accomplished a journey of more than two days. Late in the evening Rustem dismounted, and having taken the saddle from the horse's back, he turned him loose to graze upon the scant herbage. Then he built a fire of dry brush and lay down beside it to rest for the night.
A fierce lion, who had his lair in a cluster of reeds close by, saw the tall man and the rose-colored steed, and crept forward to attack them. Rakush heard him coming and hastened to meet him; and before the lion could make a spring, the horse leaped upon him and beat him down with his hoofs and stamped upon him till he died. Rustem, awakened by the great noise, sprang to his feet only in time to see the dead lion upon the ground, and the horse still trampling upon him. He was angry that Rakush, instead of himself, had slain the beast, and instead of praising the faithful animal he scolded him unmercifully.
"O rash and foolish steed!" he cried, "who told you to fight with lions? You should have awakened me at the first, for had you been killed in your folly, who would have carried me into Mazinderan?"
Then he lay down again to sleep; but the horse was much grieved by his unkind words.
At the first peep of dawn Rustem was again in the saddle. All day long he rode over the barren wastes where there was no green thing nor anywhere a drop of water. The hot sun beat pitilessly down upon man and horse, and the sand beneath them was like a burning oven. At length Rustem was so overcome by the heat and with thirst that he lost all hope, and alighting from his steed lay down in the sand to die. But while he was commending his soul to God and expecting that every moment would be the last, he chanced to see a fine sheep running at no great distance.
"Surely," thought he, "there must be water not far away, or this animal could not be here."
The hope gave him new courage, and remounting Rakush, he urged him forward in pursuit of the sheep. Nor did they have to follow it far, for it led them into a narrow green valley, through the middle of which ran a little brook. And man and beast drank their fill, and while Rustem gave thanks to Ormuzd for their deliverance, Rakush nipped the fresh herbage that grew along the banks of the stream. When at length the sun had set and the stars had risen, Rustem lay down to sleep. But first he charged his steed that he should not fight with any wild beasts.
"If any danger come," said he, "you must waken me at once, and I will defend both myself and you."
Rakush listened to his master's words, and then returned quietly to his grazing. All went well until near midnight, when a fierce dragon which lived in that valley, coming out of his den, was astonished to see the horse feeding and a man asleep not far away. Angry that anyone should intrude upon his domain, he was just ready to rush upon them and destroy them with his poisonous breath, when Rakush, seeing the danger, hastened to awaken his master. At the sound of the horse's shrill neighing, Rustem sprang up quickly and seized his sword, expecting to meet an enemy. But the wily dragon had hastened back into his den, and no cause of fear could be seen in all the valley.
"Unkind steed that you are," cried Rustem, angrily, "why do you thus needlessly disturb my sleep? "
Then he lay down again to rest. Soon the dragon came out a second time, fiercer than before, and a second time did Rakush waken his master in vain. A third time did this happen, and a fourth, and then Rustem could no longer restrain his anger. He heaped reproaches, upon the horse and abused him with vile epithets, and declared that if his slumbers were again disturbed thus uselessly, he would kill him and make his way on foot into Mazinderan.
Rakush, although distressed, was as watchful as before. When the dragon came out the fifth time he hastened quickly to waken his master. Rustem, filled with rage, sprang up and seized his sword, intending to slay his best friend. But this time he saw the dragon ere it could return to its den, and there followed such a battle as had never been seen before. The dragon leaped upon Rustem and wrapped itself about him, and would surely have crushed him to death had not Rakush come to the rescue. With his teeth the horse seized the reptile from behind, and as it turned to defend itself, Rustem's arm was freed so that he could use his sword. With one mighty stroke he cut off the dragon's head; and the vile pest of the desert was no more.
Then Rustem praised Rakush for his valor, and washed him in the stream, and fondled him until the break of day; and the horse forgot the unkind words that had been spoken to him. And when the sun arose they set out on another day's journey across the burning sands.
But I need not follow them farther on their perilous way, nor relate what befell them in the land of the magicians and in the country of darkness, where there was no light of sun or stars, and where they were guided by Rakush's instinct alone. Neither will I tell of their adventures after they had come into Mazinderan, nor how, after meeting innumerable dangers, they delivered the Shah from his dungeon, and rallied his scattered army and led it to victory. These things are narrated in the songs of Firdusi, the Persian poet.
Never in all the East was there a hero that could be likened unto Rustem, and never a horse that could in any way be compared with Rakush. Many years passed by,—years of peace and years of war,—and many Shahs sat upon the throne of Iran, but the real power was in the hands of Rustem of Zaboulistan. And although he lived to a great age, and Rakush was so very, very old that he was no longer of the color of rose-leaves, but white as the snow of winter, yet both of them retained their strength and their wisdom to the end. And the end came in this way:
The king of Kabul had become tired of paying tribute to Rustem, and he resolved, if possible, to bring about the old hero's death, and thus free himself from that burden. Hence, by the advice of his nobles, he invited Rustem to visit him in his country palace, where they could spend the summer months in hunting and in other amusements, of which both were very fond. Rustem suspected no guile, for he had enjoyed the king's hospitality many times before. He therefore accepted the invitation, and with Rakush and a retinue of his noblest men, arrived in due time at the king's summer home. The king had prepared a royal welcome for him, and for several days they feasted together and made merry in the palace. Then a great hunt in the forest was proposed, and to this Rustem gladly consented, because, next to feats of courage in battle, he loved the excitement of the chase.
It was known that there were many wild animals in the mountain valleys, and the company set out from the palace with high expectations—for but few of the guests suspected the dark designs of the king. All went well until the afternoon, and much game of all kinds was taken. At length a deer was started from its covert, and all the party gave chase. But Rustem, through the king's designing, followed a different pathway from that taken by the others—a pathway across which deep pits had been dug and then carefully concealed with leaves and sod. Huntsmen had been stationed here and there to direct Rustem into the snare, and he rode fearlessly onward, looking for nothing except traces of the fleeing deer.
When they came to the first pit, Rakush smelled the newly turned soil and stopped suddenly. Rustem urged him to go forward, but the horse, for the first time in his long life, refused to obey. Then Rustem, growing impatient, urged him still harder, but he reared upon his hind feet and tried to turn back. This aroused Rustem's anger, and, raising his whip, he struck the faithful beast—a thing that until this sad day had never been done. So grieved and terrified was Rakush that he sprang forward and fell into the pit, and both horse and rider were pierced with the sharp spears which projected, points upward, from the bottom.
As they lay weltering in their blood and dying, the king of Kabul came up, and seeing their plight, pretended to be overcome with grief.
"O matchless hero," he cried to Rustem, "what mishap is this that has befallen thee? I will run and call my physicians to come to thy aid."
But Rustem answered: "Thou traitor, this is thy doing. The time for physicians is past, and there is for me no healing save that of death, which comes once to all men! I pray thee, however, to place beside me my bow and two arrows, and deny not this my last request. For I would not that while thou art calling a physician, a lion should come upon me and devour me."
Without taking thought, the king did as Rustem desired; but he had no sooner placed the bow within the hero's reach than, filled with fear, he ran and hid himself in a hollow tree which stood close by.
Rustem, in great agony, raised the bow, and with his last strength shot an arrow with such force that it transfixed the king where he stood and pinned him to the tree. Then the hero gave thanks to Ormuzd the Good, that he had been permitted thus to take vengeance upon the traitor. And when he had spoken he fell back upon his horse, and Rakush and his master, in the same moment, passed from the world.