Prince Marko and Alil Aga
Heroic Ballads of Serbia
George Rapall Noyes & Leonard Bacon
There once were two sworn brothers; through Tsárigrad (1) rode they:
The one is the Prince Marko, the other Kostádin the Bey.
“Bey Kostádin, sworn brother of mine own,
Now that I ride in Tsárigrad some woe may strike me down.
Mayhap they will summon me to the lists; a sickness will I feign,
Heartache, the evil illness, that is so fierce a pain.”
So Marko feigned a sickness, though none he had indeed;
Of his grievous cunning he bowed him on the back of Dapple the steed;
He leaned his breast on the saddlebow, through Tsárigrad he rode.
Good meeting befell him. Before him one Alil Aga strode,
The tsar his man, and thirty were his janissaries there.
Said Alil Aga to Marko:
“To the lists now let us fare,
Thou hero good, Prince Marko; with the shafts let us make play.
And if God and good luck serve thee, and thou shootest beyond me this day,
Be there given thee my white houses, that heritage of mine,
And the Turkish matron, my faithful wife. But if my shot pass thine,
To thy houses and thy faithful wife faith I will pay no heed;
I only hope to hang thee high and seize on Dapple the steed.”
“Let be, thou Turk accurst, how shall I shoot with thee,
When such a bitter sickness has taken hold of me,
Heartache, the evil illness, that is so fierce a pain?
I cannot hold myself on the steed: how shall we shoot amain?”
But the Turk, Alil Aga, he will not let him alone.
The right skirt of Marko’s tunic, he set his hand thereon;
Marko drew from his belt the knife and cut the skirt away:
“Go to, wretch, Alil Aga! May a plague strike thee this day!”
But the Turk Alil Aga he will not let him alone.
The left skirt of Marko’s tunic, he set his hand thereon;
Marko drew the knife from his belt and cut the skirt away:
“Go to, wretch, Alil Aga! May God in heaven thee slay!”
But the aga will not let him be. With his right hand Dapple’s rein
He seized; his left hand thrust therewith in Marko’s bosom amain.
Marko flashed like the living fire; straight he rose on the steed;
He grasped the reins, and Dapple pranced as he were mad indeed.
Hero and horse ran the wild course. He called Kostádin Bey:
“To the cloth market, Kostádin, my brother, take thy way;
Bring thence a Tatar arrow with nine hawk-feathers white.
I will go forth with the aga, that the cadi may judge aright,
And no matter arise hereafter, sufficient cause for a fight.”
The bey went to the cloth market; with the aga Marko hied
To the cadi. The aga his slippers doffed and sat at the cadi’s side;
And out he took twelve ducats that he laid on the cadi’s knee:
“Set no just terms for Marko; and here are ducats for thee!”
But Marko knew the Turkish tongue. No coin had he in the place;
Forthwith before his bosom Prince Marko held his mace:
“Dost thou hear me, master cadi; set thou just terms for me!
Since my club with the six spikes of gold thou easily mayst see.
If I strike thee with the war club, thou wilt need no plaster therefor;
Thou wilt forget the courtroom, nor want the ducats more.”
Fever fell on the master, the cadi, to behold
The great war club before him, with the six spikes of gold.
He straightway wrote the terms for them, but his hands shook for dread.
Then out to the single combat at once the heroes sped;
And thirty janissaries with Alil Aga strode,
But none but Greeks and Bulgars on Marko’s part abode.
When they came to the lists spoke Alil, the aga of the tsar:
“Shoot, captain, thyself that vauntest for a great man of war,
With thy brag in the tsar’s council that thy shooting is so strong
Thou canst hit an eagle of the cross, (2) that leads the clouds along.”
“I am a hero good, but older than I art thou;
For, hero, thine is the lordship, and thine is the empire now;
Thine is the right of the elder, and since thou hast summoned me,
Shoot now, Turk, in the order of thy seniority.”
Thereupon Alil Aga his first white arrow shot;
An hundred yards and twenty was it measured from the spot.
Marko his first white arrow two hundred yards he drave;
The Turk a full three hundred hath sent his second stave.
Prince Marko the second arrow five hundred yards he sent,
But the Turk’s third white arrow a full six hundred went.
Meanwhile the Bey Kostádin by Marko did alight,
And bore the Tatar arrow with nine hawk-feathers white.
Marko unloosed the Tatar shaft; through the dust and mist it blazed,
And forthwith vanished from them, however hard they gazed;
Nor could it e’er be measured. Hot tears the aga shed;
With Marko, calling on God’s name, in his despair he pled:
“Marko, who art my brother sworn, in the name of God and St. John,
By thy good law; my house is thine, for thee to seize thereon,
And the Turkish matron, my true wife, is thine to lead away:
Only I prithee, brother, hang me not up this day!”
But Marko spake:
“May God on high forthwith destroy thy life!
If thou callest me brother, wherefore dost thou offer me thy wife?
Thy wife is not needful to me. We are not as the Turks in this;
With us the wife of a brother even as a sister is. (3)
I have a faithful wife at home, even Yélitsa nobly born.
And I would forgive thee all, brother, but my tunic hast thou torn;
Give me three loads of money to patch my skirts apace!”
Merrily then the Turk leaped up and kissed Prince Marko’s face.
Marko for three white days he kept within the lordly hall,
And gave him three loads of money; and his lady therewithal
Gave to the prince a mighty shirt sewn with a thread of gold,
And also a silver towel. Three hundred horsemen bold
The aga gave him for escort, when he rode to his house afar.
Long they abode thereafter, and held the land for the tsar:
When the foe invaded, Marko and Alil beat them back;
Wherever fortresses were ta’en, they marshaled the attack.
(1) The tsar’s city, Constantinople.
(2) “Aquila imperialis, which has a sort of cross on its back.” Budmani, Serbian Dictionary.
(3) “An old Serbian custom still surviving in many districts is the adoption by two men or boys of each other as ‘brother,’ or by girls as ‘sister,’ or sometimes by two of different sex as brother and sister. The brother, in that case, would be a relative of the girl, too near in blood, according to Serbian usage, to marry or admit of any but fraternal affections between the two. It would be sacrilege and illegal for them to marry. This system is and was the literal application of the Christian principle of ‘brotherhood,’ developed into an institution during the bitterest times of oppression by a foreign foe. Two young men going into battle bound themselves as brothers in ties of close fealty which endured through all trials. The oath of fidelity for life was sworn before the altar in the church and consecrated by the priest, and often sealed by the exchange of a drop of blood drunk in a cup of red wine. If one died the surviving one was, in all respects, like a true brother to the family of his dead ‘pobratim.’ This tie is considered most sacred by Serbians and cannot be broken, no matter how severely it may be tried by any circumstances that may arise. It is recognized by a law conferring right of inheritance as well as family obligations. Milosh Obrenovich, of the war of Serbian liberation, was the pobratim of the Turkish commander Ali Aga Sertchesma, a Mohammedan Serbian, who was afterward opposed to him in battle. When the aga’s army was vanquished, Milosh was a brother to him and protected his personal life, liberty, and property, as he in similar circumstances protected Milosh’s life.” Lazarovich-Hrebelianovich, The Serbian People (New York, 1910), vol. I, pp. 73, 74.
Just above, Alil Aga has addressed Marko as “sworn brother,” as a compliment or appeal.