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Stories of the Magicians by  Alfred J. Church

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RUSTEM AND HIS HORSE RAKSH

[139] WHILE Rustem was growing to manhood, Persia suffered great troubles. First the good King Minuchehr died, and his successor, his son Newder, exercised his power very ill. When the news of this change came to the King of the Tartars, he conceived the idea of conquering the country for himself and avenging the Tartars, for all that they had ever, suffered at the hands of the Persians. Accordingly he sent for his son Afrasiab, who was next to himself in the kingdom, and asked his advice. Afrasiab gave his voice for war, and though his younger brother counselled peace, he prevailed. So when the plains were covered with the green freshness of spring, the army of the Tartars set forth.

[140] It was an unlucky hour?or Persia, for the great hero San was just dead, and Zal, the white-haired, his son, was busy with his burial, and Rustem was sick. Nevertheless, King Newder raised as great an army as he could, and came to meet the invaders. On the first day of the battle, a Tartar champion, Barman by name, rode forth and challenged all the Persians to single combat. There was no one to answer except Kobad, who was the oldest warrior in the army. The old Kobad was killed, and afterwards the two armies fought together till the darkness separated them.

That night the two armies rested on the field of battle, and the next morning they renewed the conflict. A terrible struggle it was, and nothing in it was more dreadful than when King Newder himself charged out of his army to meet Afrasiab. They threw javelins at each other; they met with their lances; they even closed with each other like two serpents. At last, as night was coming on, Afrasiab began to prevail, and the king could scarcely escape. That day the Persians suffered far more loss than did their enemies; and when the darkness put an [141] end for a while to the battle, they were greatly discouraged.

The king sent for two of his sons, and said to them—"My sons, the evil which my father prophesied has come upon us. He said: 'An army of Tartars will invade Persia, and you will be defeated.' Go to Mount ,Alburz, and there gather such as are still faithful to our house; but go in secret, lest the army be discouraged. I know not whether I shall see you again; I shall try my fortune once more. Be brave, be prudent; and if ye hear bad news of me, know that it has been the will of heaven to afflict me." So saying, he embraced his sons and sent them away.

For two days the armies rested. Early in the morning of the third the battle began again. From morning till evening it raged so fiercely that the ground could not be seen for the dead. In the end the Persians suffered a great defeat; and indeed, before many days were past, King Newder himself fell into the hands of Afrasiab, who slew him in a fit of rage on hearing that some of his bravest warriors had been killed by the Persians.

[142] Some time after these things had happened, certain Persian nobles came to Zal and said—"The people are without a king; the Tartars oppress us, and you do not help us out of our troubles."

Zal said: "All my days I have feared nothing but old age; now it has come upon me, my back is bowed; I cannot wield the sword. But, thanks to God, the stump has put forth a noble shoot. My son Rustem will do all that you desire. But first I must find him a war-horse; the Arab horses are not strong enough for him."

Zal then called Rustem to him, and said: "My son, you are not yet come to the age of a soldier"—for he was yet but a boy—"can you meet the Tartar nobles on the field of battle? What say you?"

"My father," said Rustem, "have you forgotten how I took the fortress of Mount Sipend, and killed the white elephant? It would be a great disgrace if I were to be afraid of Afrasiab and his Tartars."

Still Zal was in doubt. "I remember, my son, what you have done; and yet I cannot [143] help trembling. At your years you should be delighting yourself with music and song; you are not yet ready for battle."

Rustem answered—"I am not one to find any pleasure in peace. Give me the field of battle, and you shall see what I can do. But I must have a horse as strong as a mountain, which none but I shall be able to bridle; and I must have a club such as none but I shall be able to wield."

Zal was delighted with this answer, and sent immediately to Zabulistan and Cabul for all the finest horses that could be found in them. They were all made to pass before Rustem, to whom the attendants explained the royal marks which were upon them. But every horse that Rustem took hold of, and put his hand upon its back, bent under the weight of his arm, till its belly touched the ground. At last came a herd of horses from Cabul, and in it was a grey mare. She was as strong as a lioness; but her height was but small. She was followed by a foal larger than herself. Its eyes were black and bright—one could have seen them a mile away at night—its tail was arched, its hoofs were like [144] steel. Its colour was saffron, with red spots. It was as strong as an elephant, as tall as a camel, and as vigorous as a lion. As soon as Rustem saw the colt, he made a knot in his lasso, and prepared to separate it from the rest of the herd. The keeper said to him—

"Noble sir, do not take that animal; that belongs to another."

Rustem said, "To whom, then, does this horse belong? I see no mark on his quarter."

"There is no need to look for a mark," said the old herdsman; "the horse is famous enough. He is as light as water, and as swift as fire. We call him 'Raksh'—'Rustem's Raksh,' but we do not know who is his master. It is three years since he has been able to bear a saddle, and many nobles have desired to have him. But as soon as his mother sees a man's lasso, she runs up like a lioness to fight him. We do not know what secret is hidden under all this; but take care, young man, to have nothing to do with this savage beast; she will tear the heart out of a lion, and the skin off a leopard's back."

No sooner had Rustem heard this, than he [145] threw his lasso, and caught the spotted colt. The mare ran at him like a wild elephant, and would have seized his head in her teeth; but Rustem roared at her with so terrible a voice, that she stood still in astonishment. And as she stood, he dealt her a great blow on the head with his fist, so that she rolled in the dust. When she got up again, she sprang away and hid herself in the herd. Rustem tightened the knot of the lasso, and then pressed one of his hands with all his might on the colt's back. Raksh did not bend under it; one would have said, indeed, that he did not feel it. Rustem said to himself—

"That is my place; there I shall do great things."

He jumped on the colt's back, and said to the herdsman—

"Tell me what is the price of this horse."

"If you are Rustem," answered the herdsman, "mount him, and redress the wrongs of your country. His price is the land of Persia."

It was thus that Rustem got his great horse Raksh; never was there one that was swifter, or more sagacious, or more tractable.


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