A certain great Persian hero, San by name, after being childless for many years, had a son born to him. The child was as fair as the sun, but, by a strange misfortune, his hair was white. For seven days no one dared to tell the father what had happened—that his beautiful wife had brought into the world an infant like an old man. At last the child's nurse, who was as bold as a lioness, went bravely to him, and said, "Sire, I bring you good news. May your days be happy! May the heart of your enemies be torn asunder! God has, granted you the desire of your heart. You have a son, who, small as he is, yet shows the heart of a lion. A beautiful child he is, and you will see nothing amiss in him, except that by some ill-luck his hair is white. Fate would have it so. Be content, my lord, with what God has given you."
On this the hero came down from his throne, and went to the apartments of the women. There he saw a child, of a singular beauty, but with the head of an old man, such as he had never seen or even heard tell of before. The sight struck him with despair. He lifted his eyes to heaven, and said, "O God, all that Thou ordainest is for good. If I have done any evil, if I have departed from the faith, accept my repentance, and pardon my sin. Truly my soul is overwhelmed with shame that I have had a son born to me who seems to be of the race of Satan, with his black eyes and his hair white as a lily. What shall I say when the nobles come to me? What shall I say about this child of a demon? Verily I shall be compelled to leave Persia for very shame."
Thus cursing his lot, he ordered them to take the child and carry it to a mountain which they call Alburz, or the White Mountain, a lonely place which was never trodden by the foot of man. But, though his father cast off the innocent child, God did not forget him. A great bird, the Simorg by name, had its nest on the mountain, and, going out to look for food for its young, saw the child lying on the ground; the thorns were his cradle, the hard earth his nurse. A day and a night he had lain there crying for hunger. God touched the heart of the Simorg with pity, so that it did not think of devouring the child, but, catching him up in its claws, carried him to its nest upon the mountain. The young of the great bird were not less kind to him; indeed they showed him a marvellous pity, so astonished were they at his beauty. As for the Simorg, it chose out for its guest the tenderest part of its prey; and the poor child, for want of milk, was nourished on blood. Thus he grew up, sometimes remaining in the nest, and sometimes wandering in the forests on the mountain side. He was straight and tall as a cypress-tree, and the report of his beauty and strength was carried far and wide.
After a while San had a dream. He thought that he saw a rider mounted on an Arab steed, and that this rider came to him and gave him news of his son. When he woke, he called his nobles to him, and told them his dream.
"Do you think it possible," said he, "that the child survives the cold of winter and the heat of summer?"
Old and young answered him with one voice—"You were ungrateful to God for His gift. The sight of the child's white hair threw you into despair, but what was that in a body so fair? And now prepare to look for him. Do not fancy that he is dead. He whom God regards with favour will not perish either of cold or heat."
So San went to Mount Alburz with a great company of followers to look for his son. When he came to the mountain side he saw a great rock which seemed to pierce the very skies, so high was it. On this was a great nest, built of trunks of ebony and sandal-wood, interlaced with branches of aloes. Walking round the edge of this nest was a young man of tall stature, and San saw that the young man was like himself; but he could find no way up to the nest. Then, bowing his head to the ground, he cried, "I implore forgiveness for my sins. If this child be not the child of a demon, but of my own race, be merciful to me, and help me to climb to this nest." God heard his prayer and granted it.
When the Simorg saw San and his followers he said to Zal, "I have been as a mother to you; but now your father, the hero San, has come for you, and I must give you up to him safe and sound."
The young man was sorry to hear this, and said (he had never seen the face of man, but the Simorg had taught him to speak): "Are you tired of my company? Your nest is as good as a throne to me."
The Simorg said, "When you have seen a real throne, it may be that my nest will no longer seem all that you can desire. It is not for want of love that I send you away; indeed I could have wished for nothing better than that you should have remained here; but your lot in life is otherwise ordered. Take one of my feathers with you, and if ever you find yourself in a strait, throw it into the fire, and I will come to your help. And do not forget me, for the love that I have for you breaks my very heart."
Thus speaking he took him up, and carried him to his father. When San saw his son, he perceived that he was worthy of a throne. He was as strong as a lion; his eyelashes were black, his eyes dark brown, his lips like coral, his cheeks red as blood. The one fault in him was his hair. San blessed his son, and clothed him as became his birth, and gave him a war-horse to ride, and called his name Zal.
Then the father and the son journeyed together to pay their court to the great King Minuchehr, and told him the story. The King consulted the wise men, who told him that Zal would become a great hero, both prudent and brave. These prophecies so delighted him that he gave San the richest presents that can be imagined—Arab horses with trappings of gold, Indian swords in gold scabbards, rubies, pages clothed in brocades of gold, embroidered with jewels, and, among other splendid gifts, a throne adorned with turquoises, and finally a charter that invested him with the dominion of India and the East.
After this San made an expedition against the Kingdom of Mazenderan, the country of the Demons, leaving his kingdom in the charge of Zal, and Zal, having learnt all that he could from the wise men of the land, resolved to visit various parts of his dominions. Accordingly, he came to Cabul, which was a province tributary to his father, and was received with great honour by Mihrab, prince of that country. Mihrab would gladly have entertained him, but Zal said, "It is impossible; what would my people say if they heard that I drank wine and was the guest of an idolater? Ask me anything else, and you shall have it."
Now Zal's companions had described to him Rudabeh, the daughter of Mihrab, as being the very greatest beauty in the world; and it so happened that Mihrab himself said in his daughter's presence that there was no hero under the sun that could be compared to Zal. Thus the two came to love each other; and their love so increased, that it passed all limits of reason. But there was this hindrance to their marriage, that the lady came of an evil stock, the race of King Zohak, the cruellest tyrant that ever had lived upon the earth.
Zal put the matter before his father, and his father again asked the advice of his wise men. The wise men consulted the stars, and gave him this answer: "Great King, we have good news for you. The marriage of Zal and the daughter of Mihrab will be fortunate above all others. They shall have a son who shall be unmatched for strength and valour, who shall root out the wicked from the earth. He shall subdue the Tartars, and raise the kingdom of the Persians to the heavens."
When he heard this, he sent back the messenger whom Zal had sent to him with this answer: "This is a foolish passion of thine, my son; nevertheless, I will not hinder. Only we must see what King Minuchehr will say."
King Minuchehr assembled his wise men, and said to them, "My fathers broke down the power of the tyrant Zohak; and we must not let the foolish passion of Zal raise it up again. Mix these races together, and it will be like mixing a poison with some precious drug; and, indeed, if the child of these two should be like his mother rather than his father, there will be great troubles for Persia. Tell me what I should do."
But the wise men had no answer to give. Then the King sent for Prince San, who was now returning victorious from his expedition. The Prince came and related to him his adventures; but when he would have gone on to speak of his son and the Princess Rudabeh, the King interrupted him.
"Go," he cried, "and burn with fire the city of Mihrab. And as for Mihrab, and his family, let not one of them live. His nobles, his servants—kill them all."
He spoke with such fury that San dared not answer a single word. He bowed his head to the ground and departed, setting out that very day with his army for the land of Cabul.
Zal heard that he was coming, and went to meet him. When he came into his father's presence, he kissed the ground at his feet, and said, "Sire, your justice and goodness make all men happy except your son. When I was a new-born child, you left me to die upon the mountains; and now—what are you intending to do? I went to dwell in Cabul by your orders; it was for your pleasure that I performed the journey hither. And now you have brought an army to lay waste the country which I inhabit, and to slay the Prince who has welcomed me. This is the justice that you do to your son. See, I am in your hands; do with me as you will; cut me in pieces. if it is your pleasure. But know that all the harm you do to Cabul, you do to me."
San answered: "You are right; you say nothing but what is just and right. But wait and see whether I cannot help you. I will write a letter to the King, and you shall carry it to him yourself."
San wrote a letter in which he pleaded the cause of his son. "I behaved very ill to him once," he said, "and I promised that I would never again refuse him a request; and now he has set his heart on marriage. For myself I have asked neither provinces nor honours; and for him, great King, I ask only that you should deal with him after your wisdom."
Zal carried the letter to the King, who received him with all honour and kindness. "You have brought up again," he said, "an old sorrow; your father's letter troubles me; but he and you shall have your desire. Wait a while till I can consult my wise men."
The wise men spent three whole days and nights in searching into the secrets of the heavens. Then they came to the King and said, "We have inquired into the movements of the stars, and they tell us this—the child that shall be born to the son of San and the daughter of Mihrab shall be a great hero. He shall have long life, courage, strength, and glory. No man shall be his match in the battle or at the banquet. He shall catch lions in his hunting nets, and roast a wild ass whole for his meal."
The King said, "Keep secret what you have told me. I will put the young man's wit to the proof. Ask him questions that shall try him."
The first sage said to him: "I saw twelve trees, fair and tall. Each puts forth thirty branches; and they neither increase nor diminish."
The second said: "I saw two noble horses, one black as a sea of pitch, the other bright as crystal. They are always running at full speed, and cannot gain one on the other."
The third said: "I saw thirty knights passing before the King; I counted them and I found one wanting; I counted them again, and there were thirty."
The fourth said: "I saw a garden filled with green things, and abounding with water. A strong man came into it, carrying a sharp scythe. He cut down the green and the dry alike. I f you cried to him for pity he would not listen."
Zal reflected a while on these questions, and then answered: "The twelve fair trees that have each thirty branches and neither increase nor diminish are the twelve months, each of which has thirty days, neither more nor less.—The two noble horses, of which one is black, the other white, that are always pursuing each other, are night and day. They fly like a wild beast before a dog, and neither gains upon the other.—As for the thirty knights, whose number seems to want one, but is complete if you count it again, it is in this: in every month there is one moon that is hidden from our eyes, but when you look again it is there.—And the man with the scythe, who cuts down the green and the dry alike, who listens to no complainings, he is time, and we are the grass which he cuts."
The King and all his nobles greatly applauded the wisdom of Zal. Then the King would try his strength. He bade some of his greatest warriors arm themselves, and Zal, on the other hand, armed himself. Zal looked among his adversaries for him who was the most famous and skilful of them all; he burst out of the cloud of dust in which he was hidden like a leopard, seized his opponent by the girdle, and lifted him out of his saddle so lightly that the King and all his people were astonished. They cried with one voice, "There was never the equal of Zal!" and the King said, "Happy the father of such a son! Unhappy the mother of him who shall meet him in battle!"
So Zal, having proved his wisdom and his courage to the satisfaction of the King, had his will, and married the daughter of Mihrab. In due time his wife bare him a son; but before the birth she was so near to death that Zal was in despair. In the midst of his grief he bethought him of the feather which the Simorg had given him. This he took, and put it on the coals of a brazier; before it was consumed the Simorg appeared.
"Do not vex yourself," said the wise Bird; "so mighty a child cannot come into the world without great trouble. Give the mother this nut which I have brought with me, having first pounded it in milk and musk. And give her also strong drink that she may forget her pains."
Zal did as the Simorg told him; after this all went well with the mother. When she awoke they brought her the child. He was but a day old, and yet he seemed to have been born a whole year; and he was as fair as a nosegay of lilies and tulips. When his mother saw him, she smiled upon him, and said, "He shall be called Rustem." Now Rustem means deliverance.