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   Chapter 14 THE TOKEN IS DELIVERED

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 16527

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


The logs burnt low upon the hearth, and only a feeble light was in the tower. Anton saw Ellerey drink the wine and then cast himself down not far from Grigosie; but it was too dim for him to see whether all his companions were asleep. Some certainly were, for they snored, and others were restless, for they shifted their positions at intervals and sighed heavily. Where Ellerey and Grigosie were there was deep shadow, growing deeper as the fire died down. One sleeper there was restless for a little while, and then his breathing proclaimed that his sleep was heavy. Once Anton thought there was a darker shadow within the shadow, which moved quite silently, but he did not speak; he only listened very eagerly and raised himself on his elbow a little. Presently Anton slept too.

Ellerey awoke with a start. Some shock in a dream seemed to wake him, and as he raised himself his hand went to his breast, as it constantly did on waking. The token lay there safely. Then he leaned over toward Grigosie and stretched out his arm. The lad's place was empty. He was startled for a moment, as men may be on awaking suddenly from a dream, but he quickly recovered himself, remembering that the lad was sentry part of the night.

He lay down again, being heavy-eyed, but could not sleep. The air was oppressive, and a dull pain was in his head as though a steel band were clasped tightly round his forehead. The dream was still surging unpleasantly through his brain, and at last his restlessness prompted him to go out on to the plateau.

The stars were still bright, but the crescent moon had gone. At the edge of the plateau, resting upon his gun, stood the motionless figure of the sentry. Ellerey did not wish to startle him, so coughed slightly to let him know of his presence.

The boy did not turn.

"Grigosie."

"Is that you, Captain? I was just coming to call you. Watch the mountain opposite, and tell me if my eyes are deceiving me. There is nothing for the moment, but wait, and look steadily."

The top of the opposite side of the pass stood out clearly against the sky, but below was darkness. Grigosie pointed to that part which lay rather below the level of the plateau on which they were standing.

"They must be good eyes to see anything there," said Ellerey.

"Wait," whispered the boy.

Even as he spoke there shone for a moment a wisp of light like a firefly in the darkness, and then another, moving a little below it. Several times this was repeated in different places in the darkness, the point of light gleaming for a moment only and then suddenly going out.

"They have followed us, Captain, and by morning will have climbed high enough to command this position."

"When did you first see the lights, Grigosie?"

"Not ten minutes ago."

"Get to the gate at the top of the zig-zag pass-quickly! I will call the others."

The boy ran to his post at once, and in a few moments the whole of the little company was upon the plateau watching the points of light which came and went on the mountain opposite. There was no more sleep that night, only a waiting for dawn; and as daylight crept slowly down them, the mountains looked innocent enough. The sunlight bursting suddenly over the eastern ridges glinted upon no points of steel betraying hidden men in the hollows of the hills. Ellerey and Stefan stood together looking for such a sign, or the thin curl of smoke from a camp-fire.

"There's no army from Sturatzberg yonder, Captain," said the soldier. "Whoever climbed there last night showed lights only to guide their fellows, either not expecting us to see them, or not knowing that we are here."

"The brigands, perhaps," said Ellerey.

"The same thought was in my mind," Stefan answered.

Sharp eyes watched from the plateau during the early hours of the morning. Weapons were looked to, and the horses saddled ready for any emergency; but no attempt was made to conceal their presence there. Sharp eyes doubtless had also watched their movements from the mountains opposite, for three men presently appeared in the pass below. By what path they came there the watchers on the plateau could not tell. No sign of them had they perceived until they suddenly stood in full view.

"To travel in such fashion those must be born mountaineers," said

Stefan. "Shall I signal to them, Captain?"

"Yes. Let them come up the path; we will meet them at the top. Grigosie, you stand on the rising ground there, and if there be any sign of treachery see you repeat the marksmanship you boast of."

The three men came up the zig-zag path fearlessly. They did not pause when they saw the soldiers waiting for them at the ruined gateway, but came on until they halted some five paces in front of them.

"We are sent to know your mission in the hills," said one, stepping slightly in advance of his companions.

"From whom do you come?" inquired Ellerey.

"From a friend, if we make no mistake, one whom you are sent to seek near the Drekner pass. Are you from Queen Elena?"

"I am the bearer of a message to Vasilici."

"You are welcome, then. We will bring you to him."

"Is he far from here?"

The man turned and pointed up the pass: "An hour's journey."

"We will come. The message I carry will need prompt action, for across the plain there are troops watching the road to Sturatzberg."

"There are more ways than one to the capital, and many men in those troops perchance who will welcome the sight of us."

"I do not doubt it," Ellerey answered. "Is the way passable for horses?

We shall not want to return here."

"Yes, to the entrance of the chief's resting-place. How many are you?"

"Ten in all."

"Your numbers guarantee a friendly message," was the smiling answer.

"We will await you at the foot of the path."

As the men departed Grigosie lowered the rifle which he had held ready for use, his finger resting lightly on the trigger; but he did not move from his post until Ellerey called him.

"Ready, lad; we march at once."

"You are satisfied with the embassy?"

"Quite. In an hour's time the first stage of our mission will be accomplished."

"And then?"

"The result lies on the knees of the gods," said Ellerey.

"Do we all go?" asked the boy. "Yes."

"And leave none to keep this refuge?"

"What should we want with a refuge? We have come too far for that. If success does not lie in the road before us, the only refuge we can hope for is in death."

"I have a strange liking for life, Captain, just now."

The men led their horses down the zig-zag path, Ellerey and Stefan bringing up the rear. Grigosie turned to look back at the ruined walls, and the tower standing gaunt against the mountain-side. He had enthusiastically called it his, and in the desertion of it there may have been some regret. From the castle the lad's eyes followed the shape and direction of the ridges which lay about it, as though to impress the picture on his mind, but he spoke no word, and studiously avoided Anton's eyes, which questioned him. He was in no mood to reduce the thoughts which surged through his brain to any order. They raged and beat against the unknown shores of the future as a wind-swept ocean will against a rocky coast, carrying with them his hopes and ambitions, which were driven to and fro like brave craft struggling against shipwreck. There was some reason why he should regret the comparatively quiet haven of that castle in the hills.

In silence he mounted with the others at the foot of the path, and the little band of horsemen proceeded at walking pace, so that the envoys from Vasilici, who were on foot, might keep up with them. Ellerey and Stefan rode side by side, and at a sign from the former fell a few paces farther in the rear.

"It is evident that we shall presently have to leave the horses, Stefan; you and Anton shall stay with them while the rest of us go forward to deliver the token. While you wait keep a keen lookout on the hillsides and on-"

"On Anton," Stefan suggested. "I need no bidding, Captain. I do not trust him. I should trust him still less had I not taken a liking to his companion, Grigosie."

"The boy is stanch, I think, but it is perhaps as well to have them separated," said

Ellerey; "that is why I leave Anton to you."

"He'll be in strict company, Captain, have no fear."

"I see no reason to doubt success," said Ellerey, after a pause, almost as if he had misgivings and wanted to be laughed out of them.

"There are many who have looked upon success, and yet have not had arm long enough to grasp it," said Stefan. "It's as well not to smack the lips until the liquor is running in the throat."

Their way lay up the pass toward the narrow defile which nature had closed long ago. There was an upward incline, but it was quite easy for the horses. The pass gradually narrowed as they went, and the mountain-sides grew more precipitous, shutting them in like great walls on either side. Little foothold was there for a lurking enemy, and there were no deep gorges where an ambuscade might hide. To defend this part of the pass in the old days must have meant a hand-to-hand struggle in the narrow way. Ellerey noted this as he went. His life in Sturatzberg had made him observant.

Presently the leading horseman stopped.

"It is difficult work for horses from here," said one of the brigands.

"They can be fetched afterward to the place the chief directs."

"You, Stefan and Anton, will stay with them," said Ellerey. "I will send

Grigosie back with orders presently. Take orders from none but

Grigosie."

Stefan saluted and gathered the bridles together, smiling to see that Anton was not pleased at being left behind He looked at his youthful comrade, who took no notice of him, and obeyed with an ill grace.

"Why should he leave us?" he asked, when the others had gone, climbing the slope in front of them.

"Why not?" asked Stefan laconically.

"It is the business of servants and lackeys to mind horses."

"But we have neither."

"At least we are given no honorable service."

"For my part, I do as I am told," said Stefan, "and you'll be wise to do the same. That young comrade of yours is capable of looking after himself."

Anton looked at the soldier curiously for a moment, but Stefan's thoughts were always difficult to read. His face never showed a sign of any meaning beyond the words he uttered.

Following the three brigands, the others climbed up the slope of the landslip which had filled up the pass. It was uneven ground, and they were soon hidden from their companions with the horses. Descending presently into a ravine, the brigands stopped.

"As a careful Captain, you will appreciate the caution of our chief," said the spokesman, turning to Ellerey. "We were ordered to bring you no farther than this. He will come to you here."

"We are only eight; let him come with no larger following," Ellerey answered. "There shall be precaution on both sides."

"I will give your message, but-"

"Unless he fulfils my terms I depart the way I have come, and make my terms in the shadow of the castle yonder."

"I will tell him so," said the man, and the brigands went quickly up the ravine and disappeared.

"This is their vantage ground," said Ellerey. "Stand apart, all of you, near enough to help each other, but not in each other's way should a rush come. Grigosie, stand there, carelessly as it were, but with ready fingers. We have no knowledge of the honor of these men."

They had not long to wait. From the bend in the ravine came three men, the central figure a man of great stature. He walked proudly, with long, swaggering strides and swinging arms. His long black hair, bearded chin, and beady eyes set under heavy eyebrows, gave a ferocity to his appearance which Ellerey did not find attractive. He looked like a man in whom the barbarian was still active, whose laws of right and wrong and honor were likely to be of his own fashioning-one in whom it would be dangerous to trust too implicitly. Yet he was a striking and a handsome figure, and his dress gave him distinction. A scarlet feather was in his hat, and he wore a scarlet cloak which the weather had stained. A heavy knife was stuck in his belt, and it was obvious that his companions treated him with marked respect.

"Is this bravado, or does he know that a hundred pairs of eyes are watching us?" said Ellerey.

Grigosie did not take his eyes from the three men. He stood in a careless attitude, one hand resting on his hip, the other thrust into his breast, and his fingers were upon a revolver. No gesture of the men escaped him, and long before they came to a standstill in front of Ellerey he had learned their features thoroughly.

The big man gave a short salute rather as acknowledging an inferior than answering an equal.

"You have a message for me, Captain."

"I can answer that question when I know who you are," said Ellerey.

The big man laughed, with a glance at his companions, who laughed too, pleased to humor him. "You are a stranger in these hills, or you would know me. I am Vasilici."

He did not call himself great, but his manner easily filled the omission. He glanced at Ellerey, and at the soldiers, to see the effect of his words.

"Then I have a message for you from Queen Elena."

"It has been so long in coming that I have almost grown tired of waiting," Vasilici answered. "I presume she would have done without my help if she could."

"I am only the bearer of one message," Ellerey said shortly. The fellow's insolent manner came near to raising Ellerey's temper. This was a dangerous ally the Queen had chosen. "Do you know the nature of the message I bring?"

"Aye, as I know the price to be paid for my help. The Queen has not dared to question my terms, has she?"

"I know nothing of the price. I might find it too high if I did."

"Nor were you sent to argue, Captain, but to deliver the token," said

Vasilici, holding out his hand.

Ellerey swallowed his rages a best he could, with a determination to take the pride out of this boaster some day; and drawing out the sealed box containing the bracelet of medallions, handed it to the brigand.

"At last the great day dawns for me and for Wallaria!" Vasilici exclaimed. "The kingdom of the hills comes to power and honor."

"Did they tell you that an army lies in wait between here and

Sturatzberg?" asked Ellerey.

"Fifty armies will not stop me and those I lead when I elect to strike," cried the brigand, snapping his fingers. "The puppets in Sturatzberg will either bow to me or squeal at their punishment when I enter the city."

"You'll find the gates shut and some good men to guard them," Ellerey answered. "I am in a position to know that."

"We may use you, Captain, and for good service there is something more than thanks."

Ellerey laughed loudly; it was the only way he could prevent himself from cursing this insolent scoundrel. He almost despised himself for being even in the same cause with this swaggerer. For a moment Grigosie glanced at him, understanding something of what was in his mind, but the next instant he had turned again to watch Vasilici. The man was a swaggerer through and through, although if the tales told of him were true he did not lack courage. He had for a long time impressed his followers with his bluster and attitudes, playing a carefully studied part before them, appealing to that vein of romance which life in the mountains had fostered in them; and he played the part now for the benefit of Ellerey and his comrades. Falling into a pose, he turned the box this way and that, as though the opening of it were a supreme thing which a little delay would materially add to. Then with a flourish he drew the knife from his belt and broke the seals, pausing again to carefully replace the knife.

"Freedom to this wretched land at last," he said, "and so I open the

Queen's token."

The box fell to the ground with the packing it had contained, and then with an oath Vasilici drew himself to his full height, one hand upon the haft of his knife in a moment.

"Is this how her Majesty attempts to fool me!" he cried.

Ellerey took a step forward to look, and an oath burst from his lips, too. It was not the iron bracelet of medallions which Vasilici held up, but a cross of gold, curious in shape and workmanship, upon which the sun glinted as it swung by its little chain in the brigand's hand.

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