The Vengeance of Kai Khosrau
Dire was the wailing among the army of Iran at their sore defeat, and they turned them back discomfited. And they came before the Shah, their hearts torn with anguish. And their hands were crossed upon their breasts, and they were humble as slaves. And Kai Khosrau was angry when he beheld them, and he remembered Firoud, and he railed against Tus, from whom was sprung this evil. And he said –
“Cursed be he and his elephants and his cymbals.” And the Shah withdrew from his courts, and he withheld his countenance from the land. So the nobles went out unto Rustem, and entreated of him that he would intercede for them with the Shah. And Rustem did as they desired, and he pleaded for the army and its leaders, and he spake good even of Tus. And Kai Khosrau inclined his ear unto his Pehliva, and he let the light of his countenance shine again upon his army, and he confided unto Tus once more the standard of Kawah, but he made Gew march beside him and restrain his haste.
So they set forth again unto Turan, and Afrasiyab, when he learned of their approach, made ready his army also. And there were joined unto him the hosts of the Khakan of China, and of the Kamous of Kushan, men mighty in the battlefield. And from Ind and all the highlands of Asia there came forth troops unto the aid of Afrasiyab, King of Turan. And he rejoiced thereat, for he was assured that if Rustem came not forth to aid them, the men of Iran could not stand against his host.
Now when the two armies met, many and fierce were the combats waged between them, and blows were given and received, and swords flashed and showers of arrows descended on all sides. And the blood of brave men was shed like unto the shedding of rain from a black cloud. And day by day were the Iranians weakened, for they were smitten with great slaughter, and the number of their dead was past the counting. But Afrasiyab rejoiced in his victory, and his heart shouted within him when he learned after many days that the Iranians were drawn back into the mountains. But Kai Khosrau, when he learned it, was afflicted, and wept sore. Then he sent greeting unto Rustem, his Pehliva, and he craved of him that he would come forth to aid the army, for in him alone could he put his trust. And Rustem said –
“O Shah, since the day that mine arm could wield a mace, I have ever fought the battles of Iran, and it would seem that rest may never come nigh unto me. Yet since I am thy slave, it behoveth me to obey. I am ready to do thy desires.” So he made ready an host to go unto the succour of Iran. And while he did so the army was defeated yet again, and all heart went from the Iranians, and they would have given them over unto their foes. But while they pondered it, there came tidings unto Gudarz that Rustem was drawing nigh. Yet they feared to give way unto belief. But Piran when he heard it was sore discomfited, for he remembered of old the might of Rustem, and he knew that none could stand before it. But the Khakan and the Kamous scoffed at his fears, and they made loud boastings that Rustem should fall by their hands.
Now when some days had passed in this disquietude, it came about one night that, when the moon showed her face above the mountains, like unto a victorious king seated upon a throne of turquoise, a watchman of Iran set up a great cry. And he said – “The plain is filled with dust, and the night resoundeth with noise. And I behold a mighty army drawing nigh, and they bear torches, and in their midst rideth Rustem the mighty.”
When the men of Iran heard this, they set up a great shout, and their hearts seemed to come back into their bodies, and their courage, that had been as dead, returned. And glad was the greeting that they gave unto Rustem the Pehliva. And Rustem mustered them and put them into battle order, and when the sun had wearied of the black veil, and had torn the night asunder, and reappeared unto the world, the men of Iran called upon the host of Turan to come forth in combat. And they defied them unto battle, and they fought with new valour, and they made great havoc in their ranks. And when the evening was come, the day belonged unto Iran.
Then Piran called before him Human the brave, and said unto him – “The nobles of Iran have found again their courage, since an army is come to their aid. Yet I would know if Rustem be their leader, for him alone do I fear.” And when he learned it his spirit was troubled. But the Kamous mocked him, and sware a great oath that, ere the sun should be set once more, he would have broken the might of Rustem. For he said – “There is none, not even a mad elephant, that is mine equal in the fight.” So when the day was come, the Kamous challenged Rustem unto single combat. And Rustem strode forth from the camp, and the Kamous met him upon the plain. Then they struggled sore, and wrestled one with another, but in the end Rustem caught the Kamous in the meshes of his cord. And he showed him unto the army, and he asked of them, saying – “What death desire ye that the Kamous should die, for his hour is come?”
Then he threw him among the nobles, and they made an end of him with their spears, and they flung his body to the vultures. Now when the Khakan heard of the death of the Kamous, he sware that he would avenge him, and he sent forth a messenger to defy Rustem. But Rustem said unto the messenger – “I seek no quarrel with the Khakan, and in all your army I desire only to look upon the face of Piran. And I beg of him that he will come forth to greet me, for my heart burneth towards him, because he was afflicted for the death of Saiawush, my foster-son, and because of the good he did unto Kai Khosrau and unto his mother.”
So the messenger bare these words unto Piran. And Piran, when he had taken counsel, listened unto the desires of Rustem, and came into his tents. And he said – “I am Piran, leader of the hosts of Turan. Speak unto me thy name.” And Rustem said, “I am Rustem of Zaboulistan, and I am armed with a mace and a sword of Cabul.” Then he gave him greeting from Kai Khosrau, and he lauded him for the good deeds that he had done unto Saiawush and to his son, and he entreated him that he would turn away from Afrasiyab, and go with him unto Kai Khosrau. And he said – “Iran desireth not to destroy the innocent. Therefore deliver over unto me the men upon whose head resteth the blood of Saiawush, and we will withdraw our hosts, and there shall be peace in the land.” Then Piran said, “That which thou askest, verily it can never be, for the slayers of Saiawush are near kinsfolk unto Afrasiyab. And because he hath named me the leader of his hosts, it may not be that I abandon them. But I say unto thee, that it would be sweeter unto me to die than to conduct this warfare, and that my heart is torn because I must lift up the sword of enmity against Kai Khosrau, my son.”
And Rustem saw that the words that Piran spake were true, and he sorrowed for him. And when they parted it was in friendship, although they knew that battle must rage between them. Then they drew up their armies, and for forty days there was waged a battle, mighty and terrible. And great ravages were committed, and Rustem did deeds of valour, and the strong and the weak were alike impotent before him. And the plains were strewn with the bodies of the slain, until that an ant could not have found a road to pass between them, and the blood of the wounded streamed on all sides, and heads without bodies and bodies without heads covered the ground. For neither the claw of the leopard nor the trunk of the elephant, neither the high mountains nor the waters of the earth, could prevail against Rustem when he fought at the head of his hosts. And he slew the mightiest among the Turanians, and only Piran was he mindful to spare. And the Khakan of China was enmeshed in his cord, and he sent him bound unto Kai Khosrau with news of the victory. And when the Turanians fled before his face, he followed after them and pursued them unto the mountains.
Then Piran made haste to come before Afrasiyab, and he spake to him and said – “The land is changed into a sea of blood, for Rustem is come forth, and who can stand against him? And he followeth after me close. Wherefore I counsel thee, flee; for how canst thou stand alone against him? Alas for the woe that thou hast brought upon Turan! Thou hast wounded our hearts with the iron of the arrow wherewith thou didst slay Saiawush the noble.” Then he urged upon him that he tarry not. So Afrasiyab fled from before the face of Rustem and hid himself in the mountains. And when Rustem came into his courts and found that the King was fled, he seized upon much booty and divided it among his men, and he feasted them many days in the house of Afrasiyab, and he suffered them to enjoy repose. Then he destroyed with fire the palace, and when he had done so he turned him to go back unto Kai Khosrau.
Now when he was come within the city of the Shah, glad cries rang through all the air, and the sound of drums filled the land of Iran, and there was joy throughout its breadth because the destroyer of Turan was returned. And the heart of Kai Khosrau rejoiced like a paradise, and he came out to meet his Pehliva mounted upon an elephant gaily caparisoned, and music and singers went before him. And he invited him to a great feast, and he poured rich gifts upon him. And for a month Rustem abode in the presence of his Shah, making merry with wine. And the singers chanted of his great deeds, and the sounds of flutes and stringed instruments went with their words. But when that time was over Rustem asked of Kai Khosrau that he would suffer him to return unto Zal his father, for his heart yearned to look upon his face. And Kai Khosrau suffered it.
Now Rustem was not returned long unto Zaboulistan before there came into the courts of the Shah a shepherd who desired to speak with Kai Khosrau. And the Shah granted his request, and the man opened his mouth before him, and he said – “A wild ass is broken in among my horses, and he doeth great mischief, for his breath is like unto a lion. Send forth, therefore, I entreat of thee, O King of Kings, a warrior of thine host that he may slay him.”
Now Kai Khosrau, when he had listened, knew that this was not a wild ass but the Deev Akwan, who had taken this disguise upon him. So he cast about whom he should send forth to meet him, and he knew there was none other but Rustem, the son of Zal, to whom he could turn in this strait. So he sent a messenger swift as a cloud before a storm to summon him forth yet again. And Rustem obeyed the voice of his Shah, and he set forth in search of the Deev, and he was mounted upon Rakush his steed. And in his hand was a mighty mace, and round his wrist was rolled a cord of length. And he went in search of the wild ass, and when he had found him he threw his cord about him. But the ass vanished under his hands. Then Rustem knew that it was a Deev, and that he fought against the arts of magic. Yet was he not dismayed. And after a while the ass came forth again, and Rustem threw his cord once more about him. And yet again the Deev vanished under his hand. And thus did the Deev three days and three nights without ceasing, so that weariness came upon Rustem and he was heavy with slumber. So he sought out a spot of safety and he laid him down to rest, and he bade Rakush browse beside him.
Now when the Deev saw that Rustem was sleeping, he drew nigh and loosened the earth whereon he lay, and lifted it and placed it upon his head, that he might cast it away and destroy Rustem. But as he carried him Rustem awoke, and when he saw what was come to pass he feared that his hour was come. And the Deev, when he beheld that Rustem was awakened, spake, and said unto him – “O hero, which death dost thou covet? Shall I fling thee down upon the mountain or cast thee into the sea?” Now Rustem knew that the Deev questioned him in wile, and he bethought him that he would of a surety do that which Rustem desired not, so he said – “I have heard it said that it is not given to those that perish in the waters to look upon the face of the Serosch or to find rest in the life that is beyond.” Then the Deev said, “I desire that thou know not repose.”
And he flung him into the sea at a spot where hungry crocodiles would devour him. Now Rustem, when he felt the water beneath him, forthwith drew out his sword and combated the crocodiles with his right hand, and with his left he swam towards the shore. And long did he struggle and sore, but when the night was fallen he put his foot upon the dry land. Then, when he had given thanks unto God and rested him, he returned unto the spot where he had found the Deev. And he sought after Rakush his steed, and his eye beheld him not. Then fear filled his spirit, and he roamed around to seek him. And he found him at last among the horses of Afrasiyab, that grazed in a spot hard by, for the keepers had ensnared him. But when Rakush heard the voice of Rustem he neighed aloud, and brake from the keepers and ran towards his master. And Rustem put the saddle upon him and mounted him. Then he slew the keepers and took their herds unto himself.
Now while he was so doing Afrasiyab came forth from his hiding-place, for his heart yearned to look upon his horses. And when he beheld Rustem in their midst he was dismayed, and knew not whither he should turn, for he deemed that the Pehliva had discovered his hiding-place and was come forth against him. So he offered battle unto him with the men that were with him. And Rustem accepted the challenge, although he was alone; and he fought with might and overcame the men, and slew sixty of them with his sword and forty with his mace. And Afrasiyab fled once more from before him.
Now when it was done the Deev came forth again, for he thought he could quell Rustem now that he was weary. But Rustem sprang on him and crushed him, and he was slain at his hands. Then the Pehliva returned unto Kai Khosrau. And when the Shah had learned of all his deeds, and beheld the booty that he had brought back, his mouth could not cease from praising the prowess of Rustem, and he would have kept his Pehliva beside him for ever. But Rustem said – “Suffer thy servant to go forth. For I would make ready an host, since it behoveth us not to cease from the vengeance that is due unto Saiawush, for his murderers yet cumber the ground.” Wherefore Rustem departed yet again from out the courts of the Shah.
(from ‘The Epic of Kings’ by Ferdowsi, translated by Helen Zimmern)
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a painting from a 16th or 17th century copy of the Shahnameh. King Khusraw had summoned Rustam to capture a demon (div) disguised as a wild ass that was ravaging the royal herds. Legend has it that Rustam fell asleep after three days of battle. Thereupon, the Div Akvan cast aside his disguise, assumed his demonic form, rushed towards Rustam, and dug up the ground around the hero. He gave Rustam the choice of being thrown against the mountains, or cast into the sea. Knowing that the enemy would do the exact opposite and realizing that, if cast to the sea, he would have a chance to swim to survival, he asked to be thrown against the mountains. He was cast into the sea, swam back to the shore, and defeated the demon in combat. The painting is preserved in the Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division, Washington, D.C.
- The Epic of Kings by Ferdowsi (The Internet Classics Archive)