It was very cold that winter. The sun shone but gave little warmth. The wind raged like mad against the old plane tree in Jutbina. So much snow had fallen in the mountains that the beech trees had almost collapsed under the weight. Only the tips of the pines could be seen. The valley echoed from time to time with the sound of avalanches roaring down the mountainsides.
On such a winter’s day, Mujo was out hunting with his warriors when suddenly the weather changed. A dark wall of clouds approached, blotting out the sky and the surrounding mountain peaks and bringing with it new snow. The warriors could hardly see one another as they descended into the river valley because the new powder snow had covered them in a mantle of white. The biting wind took their very breath away, freezing everything in its path. But Mujo’s fortress was not far off on the riverbank and he invited them all in for dinner.
But how was Mujo to warm up three hundred men with an oven alone? He brought out a jug of raki and a couple of barrels of wine. “Drink up, my friends, drink up!” he exclaimed. The warriors drank and could soon breathe freely again for the drink warmed their blood. Then a meal was brought in and they began to eat, converse and enjoy themselves as the snowstorm raged outside and the avalanches echoed through the valleys.
The warriors then turned to their host, saying: “Mujo, we hope you will not take offense since we are sitting here as your guests, but we wish to ask you a question.” “Speak up, men. I know that you are my friends so I won’t be offended.” “Why then has your brother Halil not yet married, Mujo? All the other men of his age are married and have sons and daughters. It is not because of the money that you would have to give him, is it? Or is it too costly for you to hold a wedding? Your brother is often to be seen in New Kotor. We are afraid that someone will ambush him and take him prisoner to dishonour your family and outrage your clan.”
Mujo turned to his friends, saying, “I thank you, my companions, for having divulged your worries to me. I can assure you that it is by no means a question of money. I would not skimp if my brother were to marry. You yourselves have brothers and know what a joy it is for a younger brother to be able to make preparations for a wedding. He who has a brother has two hearts. You are well aware that Halil goes to New Kotor, but he does nothing wrong. He is a warrior and fights courageously like a man. If ever he should cause dishonour to our family, may he go blind. If ever he were to cause outrage to the clan, may he be struck by lightning and may Mother Earth cast him out of his grave the very first night.” Halil then rose and exclaimed, “By my brother and my sister I swear that I would rather die than marry! All the women in the Krahina and all the maidens of Jutbina are like sisters to me. I will perish if I don’t have Tanusha, the daughter of the King of the Christians, for my wife. I saw her when we were allies. No maiden on earth is fairer than she. Her eyebrows are like the branches of the willow, her forehead is like the mountains in the moonlight, her eyes are like black cherries, her eyelashes are like a swallow’s wings, her face is like a red apple shining among the branches, her nose is as slender as a blade of grass, her delicate mouth is like a blossom, her white teeth sparkle like pebbles in the sun after a rainfall. She has the neck of a dove, a body as slender as a fir tree. The skin of her hands is …” Mujo saw his enthusiasm and put his finger to his lips, but that only made Halil more excited.
Basho Jono, an old bachelor, then proclaimed, “We will all have our say here, Mujo! I, too, did not marry, and not for want of money or friends, nor because I never found a maiden. I did not marry because I simply did not wish to!”
Then Aga Dizdar Osman jumped to his feet and addressed Halil indulgently, “Listen, my boy. Tomorrow a great day will dawn for you. We shall send thirty warriors out to find thirty fair maidens. You yourself can choose the best one. Then we will celebrate the wedding and marry you off properly…”
Halil interrupted him, “God forbid, warriors of Jutbina! Where in heaven or on earth has a brother ever married his sister? I have sworn to take the king’s daughter, Tanusha, and marry only her. Listen therefore to my words, warriors of Jutbina! Up to now, I have lived a solitary life as quiet as the grave and have not married. What makes you possibly think that I would get married now?”
Halil then turned and cursed the mountain pastures: “You are at fault, oh, lofty mountain pastures! You are so weighted down in snow that I can find no path to reach the Kingdom of the Christians! Oh, if only a sea breeze would flow through the mountains and melt the snow to open the roads, our marriage could be celebrated!” The mountains heard Halil’s cursing and rumbled in reply. The sea heard Halil’s invitation to invade the mountains and sent forth a warm gale. A dark cloud approached bearing rain. Avalanches tumbled into the canyons, the mountains echoed their roar. In three days time, the snow had melted away and gushed down into the rivers below.
The nightingale sang in the mountains and children frolicked once more in the meadows. The high mountain pastures were covered in green, the beech trees began to bud and flowers and grass grew in the valleys. Halil said to his brother, “Mujo, give me your warhorse so that I can go and claim my Tanusha.” But Mujo refused. Halil was hurt by this refusal because his brother’s steed was as swift as a bird in flight. But what could he do? He mounted his own horse and prepared to set off.
Mujo’s elderly mother scolded him, saying, “What made you do that, my son? Why didn’t you give him your steed? If anything happens to him in the Kingdom of the Christians you will never forgive yourself.” Mujo suddenly regretted his decision and called his brother back. He bestowed upon Halil his warhorse and gave him a final piece of advice, “When you reach the border with the Kingdom, Halil, let the reins loose and the horse will take you directly to Vuk Harambash, my blood brother. Tell him: ‘Mujo sends greetings and asks for money and arms to assist his brother in winning the king’s daughter.’ Have a safe trip, Halil!” Halil mounted the steed, said farewell to Mujo and departed for the Kingdom.
The horse and its rider sped like an arrow, leaving the mountains and valleys behind them. Clusters of fir trees and groves of beeches flew past. They travelled for days on end, encountering no human beings. The sun proclaimed, “Halil shall be under my protection.” The moon too bestowed its protection upon Halil. Even the mountain Oras declared, “Halil shall be under our protection.” The mountain goats of the Zanas whispered, “Halil shall be under the protection of the sun as long as it shines. In the dark of night he shall be under the protection of the moon. May the Zanas protect his weapons.”
Halil was startled and wondered, “What are these voices I hear among the pines? Can it be that the goats are talking?” The reply was immediate, “Make no mistake about it, Halil. We are not simple goats but three mountain goats who live with the Zanas.” Halil listened attentively and said, “So this is the home of the Zanas! May your word never be broken, oh Zanas. May my eyes be under the protection of the sun, may my legs be under the protection of the moon and may my weapons be under the protection of the Zanas who hold watch and vigil.”
When Halil had crossed the mountains, he saw a mighty river. On the other side of it was a broad plain. Halil descended from the mountain pastures to give his horse to drink, but when they arrived the horse shied away, backing off three steps. Halil then saw a human being leaning against a cliff. When he got closer, he recognized that it was no human being, but a mountain Ora herself. She asked Halil, “Where are you going, young man?” Halil replied courteously, “I am on my way to the Kingdom of the Christians to see Vuk Harambash.” The mountain Ora laughed, confusing Halil until she explained, “Listen, young warrior, I know exactly why you have come. I caught sight of you in the Green Valleys and learned to cherish you like my own eyes. I have been watching over you for days now and followed you here to give you my protection. You will not find Vuk Harambash. He left the Kingdom many years ago. Come over here. Can you see yonder mighty river? They call it the Danube. Cast your eyes over to the other side, and look up there at that shadow. Can you see the white tents? And can you distinguish the red tent in their midst? Set off immediately holding the reins of your horse tightly and it will take you straight to the king’s daughter.”
Thereupon, the Ora vanished up into the mountains. Halil rode further down into the valley as the sun set and evening approached.
The nightingales up in the mountain pastures wondered, “What is wrong with the moon, for it is not rising.” The mountain goats on the peaks responded, “Be patient, birds. You have nothing to do but sing. The moon has other tasks tonight. Someone is under its protection and it is accompanying him.”
Halil spurred his steed on and reached the river. There he tied the horse to a young oak tree and approached the tents in the dark of night. When he got close to the red tent, he stopped and chose a spot to rest under a tree whose roots reached the river. There he sat down and waited for midnight.
At the stroke of midnight, Halil drew his sharp dagger, crawled on all fours up to the red tent and cut a hole in it. Putting his hand through the hole, he touched a forehead. It was that of Tanusha, the king’s daughter. The maiden was startled and screamed. Three hundred other maidens rushed to her bedside, asking her, “Why did you scream? You’ve never screamed like that before.” “Go back to bed, my good friends,” replied Tanusha, “I simply dreamt that something touched me and I woke up screaming.”
The maidens went back to bed, but Tanusha could not sleep. Suddenly, she noticed a ring rolling across the floor. Picking it up straight away, she saw on it the image of a young man. Tanusha wondered where she had seen the face before and recognized it as that of Halil. Just as she was about to speak, Halil said to her, “It is I, Halil. Do you believe me?” “How did you get here? You must think you have three hundred souls. But come in. Either we will escape for good or we will die here together.” Halil waited no longer, saying, “Stay where you are for a moment!” Crouching in front of the tent, he drew his sword from its sheath and looked around, but could see no one. Then he entered the tent. The maiden took Halil by the hand and led him into another room containing her trousseau. There she took out some women’s clothes embroidered in gold and gave them to him, saying, “Put these on, Halil. If they see you like that tomorrow, the king will behead the both of us.” Halil changed his clothes and looked just like a maiden.
The next day dawned, dispersing the darkness of night. The sun, which was protecting Halil, rose but shone only faintly. The maidens had risen early to take their woollens down to the river to wash. There they sang songs as did their work. Tanusha, too, went down to the river with another maiden. The two held hands and sat down on the rocks on the bank of the river.
“Listen, Earthly Beauty,” the other maidens said to Tanusha, “where did that girl come from who surpasses us all in beauty? Her eyes are like those of a Zana, her forehead is like the moon, her body is as slender as a pine tree in the mountain pastures. No one under the sun is as fair as she.” “Be ashamed of yourselves, all three hundred of you!” replied Tanusha, “There is nothing on earth without compare. She is a poor maiden and has been promised to the Pasha of Dumlik. But the poor thing has no dowry. Her father is dead and her mother gone. That is why she has come to the king to ask him for money. But leave me alone now. Wash your woollens and don’t ask any more questions.” Not another word was said. The maidens washed their woollens in silence among the rocks at the riverbank. Some of them even wept out of pity for the poor girl.
But what was the queen doing in Kotor? She had had a nightmare in which she saw a herd of three hundred white sheep with a black wolf in their midst. A black wolf in sheeps’ clothing. On waking, she got up and went to the king. “Arise, king! You have but one daughter whom you haven’t seen in a long time. Mount your best steed and go to see her. I have had a bad dream.” “May it not come true,” replied the king. “In my dream,” she said, “I saw a wolf from Jutbina come and scatter the three hundred maidens who are protecting our daughter.”
When the king heard this he rose, put on his boots and spurs, had his warhorse saddled and covered with a coat of mail, and set off for the banks of the Danube. When he arrived, he counted the maidens, one by one. There was one maiden too many, the prettiest one, so he asked his daughter, “Tanusha, your father is so happy to see you! But where did this maiden whose fairness surpasses that of all the others come from?” “She is a poor girl whose father is dead. Her mother is gone. She has been promised to the Pasha of Dumlik but has no dowry. That is why she came to me to ask you for something.” The king was deeply moved on hearing this. “We will set off for New Kotor immediately,” he said, “and take the maiden with us.” The king ordered his courtiers to mount the three hundred maidens on horseback and set off with the whole caravan for New Kotor.
And so they departed. Tanusha rode at the end of the caravan hand in hand with Halil. They were surrounded by soldiers so they had no chance to escape. Three days later they arrived in Kotor. The three hundred maidens were given quarters in the houses of the town. Tanusha chose the strongest fortress on a cliff overlooking the sea. The fortress was built of polished marble, twelve stories high and three hundred feet long. There were verdant gardens with fresh water from which they could see the sailboats out at sea. Whenever anyone entered that fortress, it was as if his whole life was transformed.
Tanusha and Halil spent three days and three nights there eating, drinking and amusing themselves. “What shall we do to get back to Jutbina?” asked Halil. “Let your horse go,” said Tanusha, “so that it crosses the sea. Then we will find a boat with oars and a sail. You row and I’ll manage the sailand we’ll get back to the Krahina as soon as a strong wind rises. Your horse will be waiting for us when we get there so that we can ride back to Jutbina. I am afraid to tell my mother, though, because I know her well.”
When the queen saw Halil’s steed galloping over the waves of the sea, she was sure that her dream had come true and that something had happened. She set off immediately to see the king. “May God smite you, husband. Our daughter has been in Kotor for three days now and neither you nor I have seen her.” “Well, go and see her then,” replied the king, “for I have no time. I have important affairs of state to tend to.”
The queen readied herself and set off to visit the fortress overlooking the sea. She found the door locked and called gently, “Tanusha, your mother is so proud of you! Open the door so that I can see you, for I’ve missed you so.” The maiden trembled and whispered to Halil, asking him what she should do. Halil replied, “Open the door and leave everything to fate.” But the poor maiden did not have the courage to open the door and called to her mother, “I can’t open, mother, for I am ill in bed and am so exhausted…” “I too was young once, my daughter. I often suffered what you are suffering now. I give you my word of honour that I will take care of you. But you must open the door first.” The naive maiden descended the staircase and opened the door.
But the queen was now more like a ferocious monster than a gentle mother. When she saw Halil, she quivered like a snake and let out a scream. “May God take your life, daughter! You’ve filled the fortress with thugs from Jutbina!” She slammed the door behind her and fled to the king, screaming at him, “You’re done for now, husband! The thugs of Jutbina have taken over, seized the your fortress and blemished your daughter’s reputation!” “Calm down, woman! What are you talking about?” shouted the king of Kotor, his cheeks ablaze. He set off, gathered his soldiers, ordered them to guard the shoreline and took the fortress on the cliffs by storm.
Halil offered no resistance. He was taken prisoner and tied up. The king seized the two of them, Halil and Tanusha. “So this is how you’ve dishonoured me, Tanusha? How could you dare let this thug from Jutbina into the fortress?” he asked his daughter. Tanusha was speechless. She threw her arms around Halil and refused to let him go. “This is the man I loved and still love today!”
But the king with his mighty army was unyielding. He cast Halil into a deep dungeon and threw Tanusha out into the streets. “So, daughter, may you perish in the streets. That’s what you wanted. My door is sealed to you. You need never return!”
The maiden began to weep and lament, and wandered off down the first road she saw. People came out of their houses and felt sorry for her, but no one dared approach her because the king had dispatched his sentries to follow her. When Tanusha got to the edge of Kotor, she came upon a man called Jovan who asked her, “Why are you weeping, my poor Tanusha? I’ve never heard anyone lament the way you do. Come into my house!” “Your invitation is in vain, Jovan. I cannot enter for they have taken Halil prisoner. My father has expelled me from his house and cast me out into the streets.” “My poor sister, who has caused you such pain?” “My own mother! Have pity on me, Jovan. Send a message to Mujo telling him to come to Halil’s assistance at once. Otherwise Halil will rot in prison.” “I don’t know any Mujo,” Jovan replied, “but there is a woman near here from the Krahina who will know where he is to be found. Her fortress is at the end of Kotor. The one with the new gate.” Jovan then accompanied Tanusha up to the gate. There they met the woman from the Krahina who had just returned from a waterfall. “What has happened, poor Tanusha?” asked the woman. “I wish my fate on no one else,” the paiden replied. “My father has thrown me out. I can never return. And they have taken Halil prisoner. If Mujo doesn’t come to save him, I’m afraid he will perish. My father will have him executed.”
The woman, who was of good breeding, consoled Tanusha, saying, “Take courage, Tanusha. If Mujo is alive he will be here within three days and marry you to Halil.” She found a messenger whom she could trust and sent him straight away to Mujo. The following day, the messenger, gasping from exhaustion, knocked at Mujo’s door and explained all that had happened. Mujo listened and laughed aloud, saying as if Halil were standing in front of him, “You stupid ox of Kotor, did I not tell you that they would get you there? If the honour of Jutbina were not at stake, I swear I would not move an inch. But I must act to save you, if only for the sake of Jutbina.”
Having said this, he climbed out onto the parapet of his fortress and proclaimed so that all of Jutbina and the Krahina could hear him, “To arms, warriors! Gjeto Basho Mujo summons you! Come with me to do battle!” The warriors heard his call and were at his side immediately. When they asked what had happened, Mujo declared that Halil had dishonoured them and had been taken prisoner in New Kotor. The honour of Jutbina and the whole Krahina was at stake. The three hundred warriors prepared for battle. The forests resounded and the rivers grew murky as their horses sped onwards to New Kotor. Dismounting at the seashore, Mujo positioned his companions in the bushes and among the rocks, ordering them not to move or attack until he gave the signal.
Oh, what a multitude arrived that day in New Kotor! The king had summoned all his subjects to show them something they had never seen before. A thug from Jutbina was to be beheaded. Everyone assembled on a large square. It was a Sunday. In the middle of the square was a handsome young man, It was poor Halil with his hands and feet in chains. All of Kotor had come to laugh and make fun of him. Halil stared at them indifferently and suffered the humiliation in silence.
Finally the king rose to his feet, twirled the tips of his long moustache, opened his mouth and said to Halil, “Can you see death already, Halil? It is right beside you. Have you ever been in such dire straits before? Can anything be worse than death?” Halil responded bravely, “Listen to my words, king. A man is never in a real predicament until his final hour comes. But many things are worse than death. For an Albanian, death is less bitter than betraying a friend after giving one’s word of honour or not having a crust of bread to offer to a guest. And know, king, that no matter what predicaments I was in before, I was all the freer afterwards. It will be no different this time!”
The king looked at his subjects assembled on the square and at his warriors surrounding Halil. He gave a forced smile and said, “If you have a final word to speak, speak it now, for your life is about to end at the post you see beside you. We are going to behead you. And the same treatment will be given to the other thugs of Jutbina.”
“May God smite you, king, for only God knows who this post is really for. You must know that we Albanians are not afraid of death. Our ancestors taught us never to fear death or die in our beds, but to look death in the eye with a song on our lips and sword in hand. Such is the sweetest of deaths for a man. Will you allow me to sing one last song?” “Sing as much as you want, Halil. I would enjoy hearing a song from Jutbina hearing it and laughing at it,” said the king.
They untied Halil’s hands and brought him a lahuta. He picked it up and began in a mighty voice to intone a mountain song in his mother tongue, a language the king did not understand. The people listened with great interest. The king, too, was intrigued by the song and asked an old man, “What is the song about? It sounds more like a war cry.” The old man, who understood Albanian, told the king, “He is chastizing the sun and moon and calling upon the Zanas to come to his assistance. And he is sending a final greeting to the oldest of the Zanas as is the custom of the Albanians.” The king exploded with laughter, exclaiming, “Hey! There are no more Zanas left. The sun is ours, and the rivers too. Everything belongs to us!”
At that moment, a bird flew down from the mountains and perched on the branch of a beech tree nearby. Halil sang to the bird, telling it to send Mujo greetings from his brother.
Gjeto Basho Mujo heard the song and, thundering down into the valley, let out a strident war cry causing the very foundations of the fortresses to tremble and a tidal wave to swell in the sea. The mountains echoed as if a storm had broken. Mujo’s warriors rushed into battle letting no one escape. The carnage began. The warriors tore at each other with their teeth. The horses, too, bit into one another. The sea was covered with bodies floating in blood. Gjeto Basho Mujo, untiring, fought on in the enemy’s midst. Halil called out to him, “Take care not to slay the king, Mujo! Free me from my chains first for I have sworn that he will breathe his last at this post.” Mujo freed his brother who rushed forth to take the king alive. And the king was indeed to perish with his back to the post.
The warriors of Jutbina put New Kotor to the torch and within minutes the whole town was ablaze. Mujo went bezerk at the sight of the blood and showed no mercy, neither with the fortresses collapsing around him nor with the burning bodies. Three times the sun set and three time the moon rose before the fires went out. Not a single stone in the town was still in place.
As the warriors set off to return to Jutbina, they turned to look back at New Kotor, proclaiming, “Hear our words, city of destruction. We have razed you to the ground! Should anyone ask you why, tell them it was because a mother betrayed her daughter.”
Thus Mujo saved his brother and Halil married the maiden he loved, though she was now an orphan.