THE KING'S ARMY.
HE woke like a giant refreshed with wine.
When he went into the king's chamber, the housemaid sat where he had left her, and everything in the room was as it had been the night before, save that a heavenly odour of roses filled the air of it. He went up to the bed. The king opened his eyes, and the soul of perfect health shone out of them. Nor was Curdie amazed in his delight.
"Is it not time to rise, Curdie?" said the king.
"It is, your majesty. To-day we must be doing," answered Curdie.
"What must we be doing to-day, Curdie?"
"Then fetch me my armour—that of plated steel, in the chest there. You will find the underclothing with it."
As he spoke, he reached out his hand for his sword, which hung in the bed before him, drew it, and examined the blade.
"A little rusty!" he said, "but the edge is there. We shall polish it ourselves to-day—not on the wheel. Curdie, my son, I wake from a troubled dream. A glorious torture has ended it, and I live. I know not well how things are, but thou shalt explain them to me as I get on my armour.—No, I need no bath. I am clean.—Call the colonel of the guard."
In complete steel the old man stepped into the chamber. He knew it not, but the old princess had passed through his room in the night.
"Why, Sir Bronzebeard!" said the king, "you are dressed before me! Thou needest no valet, old man, when there is battle in the wind!"
"Battle, sire!" returned the colonel. "—Where then are our soldiers?"
"Why, there, and here," answered the king, pointing to the colonel first, and then to himself. "Where else, man?—The enemy will be upon us ere sunset, if we be not upon him ere noon. What other thing was in thy brave brain when thou didst don thine armour, friend?"
"Your majesty's orders, sire," answered Sir Bronzebeard.
The king smiled and turned to Curdie.
"And what was in thine, Curdie—for thy first word was of battle?"
"See, your majesty," answered Curdie; "I have polished my mattock. If your majesty had not taken the command, I would have met the enemy at the head of my beasts, and died in comfort, or done better."
"Brave boy!" said the king. "He who takes his life in his hand is the only soldier. Thou shalt head thy beasts to-day.—Sir Bronzebeard, wilt thou die with me if need be?"
"Seven times, my king," said the colonel.
"Then shall we win this battle!" said the king. "—Curdie, go and bind securely the six, that we lose not their guards.—Canst thou find us a horse, think'st thou, Sir Bronzebeard? Alas! they told us our white charger was dead."
"I will go and fright the varletry with my presence, and secure, I trust, a horse for your majesty, and one for myself."
"And look you, brother!" said the king; "bring one for my miner boy too, and a sober old charger for the princess, for she too must go to the battle, and conquer with us."
"Pardon me, sire," said Curdie; "a miner can fight best on foot. I might smite my horse dead under me with a missed blow. And besides, I must be near my beasts."
"As you will," said the king. "—Three horses then, Sir Bronzebeard."
The colonel departed, doubting sorely in his heart how to accoutre and lead from the barrack stables three horses, in the teeth of his revolted regiment.
In the hall he met the housemaid.
"Can you lead a horse?" he asked.
"Are you willing to die for the king?"
"Can you do as you are bid?"
"I can keep on trying, sir."
"Come, then. Were I not a man I would be a woman such as thou."
When they entered the barrack-yard, the soldiers scattered like autumn leaves before a blast of winter. They went into the stable unchallenged—and lo! in a stall, before the colonel's eyes, stood the king's white charger, with the royal saddle and bridle hung high beside him!
"Traitorous thieves!" muttered the old man in his beard, and went along the stalls, looking for his own black charger. Having found him, he returned to saddle first the king's. But the maid had already the saddle upon him, and so girt that the colonel could thrust no finger-tip between girth and skin. He left her to finish what she had so well begun, and went and graithed his own. He then chose for the princess a great red horse, twenty years old, which he knew to possess every equine virtue. This and his own he led to the palace, and the maid led the king's.
The king and Curdie stood in the court, the king in full armour of silvered steel, with a circlet of rubies and diamonds round his helmet. He almost leaped for joy when he saw his great white charger come in, gentle as a child to the hand of the housemaid. But when the horse saw his master in his armour, he reared and bounded in jubilation, yet did not break from the hand that held him. Then out came the princess attired and ready, with a hunting-knife her father had given her by her side. They brought her mother's saddle, splendent with gems and gold, set it on the great red horse, and lifted her to it. But the saddle was so big, and the horse so tall, that the child found no comfort in them.
"Please, king papa," she said, "can I not have my white pony?"
"I did not think of him, little one," said the king. "Where is he?"
"In the stable," answered the maid. "I found him half-starved, the only horse within the gates, the day after the servants were driven out. He has been well fed since."
"Go and fetch him," said the king.
As the maid appeared with the pony, from a side door came Lina and the forty-nine, following Curdie.
"I will go with Curdie and the Uglies," cried the princess; and as soon as she was mounted she got into the middle of the pack.
So out they set, the strangest force that ever went against an enemy. The king in silver armour sat stately on his white steed, with the stones flashing on his helmet; beside him the grim old colonel, armed in steel, rode his black charger; behind the king, a little to the right, Curdie walked afoot, his mattock shining in the sun; Lina followed at his heel; behind her came the wonderful company of Uglies; in the midst of them rode the gracious little Irene, dressed in blue, and mounted on the prettiest of white ponies; behind the colonel, a little to the left, walked the page, armed in a breastplate, headpiece, and trooper's sword he had found in the palace, all much too big for him, and carrying a huge brass trumpet which he did his best to blow; and the king smiled and seemed pleased with his music, although it was but the grunt of a brazen unrest. Alongside of the beasts walked Derba carrying Barbara—their refuge the mountains, should the cause of the king be lost; as soon as they were over the river they turned aside to ascend the cliff, and there awaited the forging of the day's history. Then first Curdie saw that the housemaid, whom they had all forgotten, was following, mounted on the great red horse, and seated in the royal saddle.
Many were the eyes unfriendly of women that had stared at them from door and window as they passed through the city; and low laughter and mockery and evil words from the lips of children had rippled about their ears; but the men were all gone to welcome the enemy, the butchers the first, the king's guard the last. And now on the heels of the king's army rushed out the women and children also, to gather flowers and branches, wherewith to welcome their conquerors.
About a mile down the river, Curdie, happening to look behind him, saw the maid, whom he had supposed gone with Derba, still following on the great red horse. The same moment the king, a few paces in front of him, caught sight of the enemy's tents, pitched where, the cliffs receding, the bank of the river widened to a little plain.