The Lost Prince

Chapter 27. "It Is the Lost Prince! It Is Ivor!"

Many times since their journey had begun the boys had found their hearts beating with the thrill and excitement of things. The story of which their lives had been a part was a pulse-quickening experience. But as they carefully made their way down the steep steps leading seemingly into the depths of the earth, both Marco and The Rat felt as though the old shepherd must hear the thudding in their young sides."'The Forgers of the Sword.' Remember every word they say," The Rat whispered, "so that you can tell it to me afterwards. Don't forget anything! I wish I knew Samavian."

At the foot of the steps stood the man who was evidently the sentinel who worked the lever that turned the rock. He was a big burly peasant with a good watchful face, and the shepherd gave him a greeting as he took from him the lantern he held out.

They went through a narrow and dark passage, and down some more steps, and turned a corner into another corridor cut out of rock and earth. It was a wider corridor, but still dark, so that Marco and The Rat had walked some yards before their eyes became sufficiently accustomed to the dim light to see that the walls themselves seemed made of weapons stacked closely together.

"The Forgers of the Sword!" The Rat was unconsciously mumbling to himself, "The Forgers of the Sword!"

It must have taken years to cut out the rounding passage they threaded their way through, and longer years to forge the solid, bristling walls. But The Rat remembered the story the stranger had told his father, of the few mountain herdsmen who, in their savage grief and wrath over the loss of their prince, had banded themselves together with a solemn oath which had been handed down from generation to generation. The Samavians were a long-memoried people, and the fact that their passion must be smothered had made it burn all the more fiercely. Five hundred years ago they had first sworn their oath; and kings had come and gone, had died or been assassinated, and dynasties had changed, but the Forgers of the Sword had not changed or forgotten their oath or wavered in their belief that some time—some time, even after the long dark years—the descendent of their Lost Prince would be among them once more, and that they would eagerly submit to his rightful rule. And for the last hundred years their number and power and their hiding places had so increased that Samavia was at last honeycombed with them. And they only waited, breathless, for the Lighting of the Lamp.

The old shepherd knew how breathlessly, and he knew what he was bringing them. Marco and The Rat, in spite of their fond boy-imaginings, were not quite old enough to know how fierce and full of flaming eagerness the breathless waiting of savage full-grown men could be. But there was a tense-strung thrill in knowing that they who were being led to them were the Bearers of the Sign. The Rat went hot and cold; he gnawed his fingers as he went. He could almost have shrieked aloud, in the intensity of his excitement, when the old shepherd stopped before a big black door! Marco made no sound. Excitement or danger always made him look tall and quite pale. He looked both now.

The shepherd touched the door, and it opened.

They were looking into an immense cavern. Its walls and roof were lined with arms—guns, swords, bayonets, javelins, daggers, pistols, every weapon a desperate man might use. The place was full of men, who turned towards the door when it opened. They all greeted the shepherd, but Marco realized almost at the same instant that they were startled to see that he was not alone.

They were a strange and ragtag band as they stood under their canopy of weapons in the bright torchlight. Marco saw at once that they were men of all classes, though all were alike roughly dressed. They were huge mountaineers, and plainsmen young and mature in years. Some of the biggest were men with white hair but strong features, and with determination in their strong jaws. There were many of these, Marco saw, and in each man's eyes, whether he were young or old, glowed a steady unconquered flame. They had been beaten so often, they had been oppressed and robbed, but in the eyes of each one was this unconquered flame which, throughout all the long tragedy of years had been handed down from father to son. It was this which had gone on through centuries, keeping its oath and forging its swords in the caverns of the earth, and which for this day was… waiting.

The old shepherd laid his hand on Marco's shoulder, and gently pushed him before him through the crowd which parted to make way for them. He did not stop until the two stood in the very midst of the circle, which fell back gazing wonderingly. Marco looked up at the old man because for several seconds he did not speak. It was plain that he did not speak because he also was excited, and could not. He opened his lips and his voice seemed to fail him. Then he tried again and spoke so that all could hear—even the men at the back of the gazing circle.

"Fellow patriots," he said, "this is the son of Stefan Loristan, and he comes to bear the Sign. My son," he said to Marco, "speak!"

Then Marco understood what he wished, and also what he felt. He felt it himself, that magnificent uplifting gladness, as he spoke, holding his black head high and lifting his right hand. "The Lamp is Lighted, brothers!" he cried. "The Lamp is Lighted!"

Then The Rat, who stood apart, watching, thought that the strange world within the cavern had gone crazy! Wild smothered cries broke forth, men caught each other in passionate embrace, they fell upon their knees, they clutched one another sobbing, they wrung each other's hands, they leaped into the air. It was as if they could not bear the joy of hearing that the end of their waiting had come at last. They rushed upon Marco, and fell at his feet. The Rat saw big peasants kissing his shoes, his hands, every scrap of his clothing they could seize. The wild circle swayed and closed upon him until The Rat was afraid. He did not know that, overpowered by this frenzy of emotion, his own excitement was making him shake from head to foot like a leaf, and that tears were streaming down his cheeks. The swaying crowd hid Marco from him, and he began to fight his way towards him because his excitement increased with fear. The ecstasy-frenzied crowd of men seemed for the moment to have almost ceased to be sane. Marco was only a boy. They did not know how fiercely they were pressing upon him and keeping away the very air.

"Don't kill him! Don't kill him!" yelled The Rat, struggling forward. "Stand back, I say! I'm his aide-de-camp! Let me pass!"

And though no one understood his English, one or two suddenly remembered they had seen him enter with the shepherd and so gave way. But just then the old shepherd lifted his hand above the crowd, and spoke in a voice of stern command.

"Stand back, my brothers!" he cried. "Madness is not the respect you must bring to the son of Stefan Loristan. Compose yourselves!" His voice had a power in it that penetrated even the wildest herdsmen. The frenzied mass swayed back and left space around Marco, whose face The Rat could at last see. It was very white with emotion, and in his eyes there was a look which was like awe. The Rat pushed forward until he stood beside him. He did not know that he almost sobbed as he spoke.

"I'm your aide-de-camp," he said. "I'm going to stand here! Your father sent me! I'm under orders! I thought they'd crush you to death." He glared at the circle about them as if, instead of adoring followers, they had been enemies.

The old shepherd, seeing him, touched Marco's arm. "Tell him he need not fear," he said. "It was only for the first few moments. The passion of their souls drove them wild. They are your servants."

"Those at the back might have pushed the front ones on until they trampled you under foot in spite of themselves!" The Rat persisted.

"No," said Marco. "They would have stopped if I had spoken."

"Why didn't you speak then?" snapped The Rat.

"All they felt was for Samavia, and for my father," Marco said, "and for the Sign. I felt as they did."

The Rat was somewhat softened. It was true, after all. How could he have tried to quell the outbursts of their respect for Loristan—for the country he was saving for them—for the Sign which called them to freedom? He could not.

Then followed a strange and rugged political ceremony. The shepherd went about among the encircling crowd and spoke to one man after another—sometimes to a group. A larger circle was formed. As the pale old man moved about, The Rat felt as if some kind of coronation were going to be performed. Watching it from first to last, he was thrilled to the core.

At the end of the cavern, against the wall, hung a large picture veiled by a curtain. From the roof there swung before it an ancient lamp of metal suspended by chains. The shepherd asked Marco to stand under it, with his aide-de-camp nearby in attendance. A knot of the biggest herdsmen went out and returned. Each carried a huge sword which had perhaps been of the earliest made in the dark days gone by. The bearers formed themselves into a line on either side of Marco. They raised their swords and formed a pointed arch above his head and a passage twelve men long. When the points first clashed together The Rat felt his own heart skip a beat. His exultation was too keen to endure. He gazed at Marco standing still—in that curiously splendid way in which both he and his father COULD stand still—and wondered how he could do it. He looked as if he were prepared for any strange thing which could happen to him—because he was "under orders." The Rat knew that he was doing whatsoever he did merely for his father's sake. It was as if he felt that he was representing his father, though he was a mere boy; and that because of this, boy as he was, he must bear himself nobly and remain outwardly undisturbed.

Then followed a strange and rugged political ceremony.

The shepherd moved to Marco's side, and brought him near the veiled picture. He leaned forward and took in his hand a cord which hung from the veiled picture—he drew it and the curtain fell open. There seemed to stand gazing at them from between its folds a tall kingly youth with deep eyes in which stars were brightly shining, and with a smile wonderful to behold. Around the heavy locks of his black hair the long dead painter had set a golden crown.

"Son of Stefan Loristan," the old shepherd said, in a shaken voice, "it is the Lost Prince! It is Ivor!"

"Ivor! Ivor!" the voices broke into a heavy murmur. "Ivor! Ivor!"

Marco staggered forward, staring at the picture, his breath caught in his throat, his lips apart. "But—but—" he stammered, "but if my father were as young as he is—he would be LIKE him!"

"When you are as old as he is, YOU will be like him—YOU!" said the shepherd. And he let the curtain fall.

The Rat stood staring with wide eyes from Marco to the picture and from the picture to Marco. And he breathed faster and faster and gnawed his finger ends. But he did not utter a word. He could not have done it, if he tried.

Then Marco stepped away from the picture as if he were in a dream, and the old man followed him. He and the boy passed under the archway of swords together. Now every man's eyes were fixed on Marco. At the heavy door by which he had entered, he stopped and turned to meet their glances. He looked very young and thin and pale, but suddenly his father's smile was lighted in his face. He said a few words in Samavian clearly and gravely, saluted, and went out.

"What did you say to them?" gasped The Rat, stumbling after him as the door closed behind them and shut in the murmur of impassioned sound.

"There was only one thing to say," was the answer. "They are men—I am only a boy. I thanked them for my father, and told them he would never—never forget."
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