The Throat of the Wolf
THE THROAT OF THE WOLF.
Fred M. White.
Illustrated by R. Galon Woodville, R.I.
COUNT ULRIC VENDOZA swore softly, but with fervour, as the sergeant of the guard saluted. The man's very moustache was an outrage.
"Look at the fellow," Ulric muttered to himself. "A complexion like oak bark, beard rugged as mountain's torrent, and a nose like a scimitar. And those beautiful white scars all over his face! Prince Thor couldn't call him a 'pretty boy.’"
Wherein lay the source of the trouble. Prince Thor was six feet two, deep-chested as an ox, for had he not carried the gates of Manchi on his shoulders in the face of the army of Farsala? Wherefore it is unkind for such a one to speak of such another as Ulric as "pretty boy."
There was truth in it, and there the sting lay. Ulric was fair as a girl, his skin shone clear under a varnish of bronze gold, his eyes were blue, and the abbreviated moustaches were yellow. A pretty boy, a squire of dames, something to prick and prance in ruffles and point lace in the perfumed atmosphere o£ a ball-room. Oh, 'twas bitter!
And yet this boy possessed a strength beyond his years; he had a cool daring all his own; the finished record of flood and field was his. A wicked young rascal, too, who knew his Paris and London by heart, equally at home in Mayfair or Monte Carlo, under the green trees in the park, or by the green cloth where the lights are low and men's eyes gleam with the gambler's lust. For drinking and fighting and gaming had ever run in the blood of the Vendoza's from the day when they began to carve out the kingdom of Farsala from the slopes of the Balkans and painted it on the map of Europe in blood and fire.
Prince Thor of Sharlock, cousin of the King, Ulric's master, knew all this, of course. But Thor made enemies recklessly, as a man of his inches and courage can afford to do. For he was a disappointed man, and but for the accident of circumstances would have carried the crown of Farsala himself. He and the King were outwardly the best of friends, though Thor never scrupled to conceal the fact that he would turn the tables some day should chance present itself, whereupon King Max, a very Hercules in anything from war to wine-cup, would smite him lustily on the back and bid him try.
All these things passed in the mind of Count Ulric as he mounted upwards from the Castle of Narasoo—where the Court lay-in the dewy sweetness of the morning. As he mounted higher over the crags and the scrambled foliage of the hillside, he could see far across the valley to where Farsala, the capital of the State, lay slumbering also.
"It's all very well for the King," Ulric muttered, still harping upon his pet aversion, Thor, "but some day that man will get his chance. The King holds his own over the most audacious and superstitious set of cut-throats in Europe by sheer force of will and courage. Thor is the Devil; and people forget. It's hard to hold the people who live in legends."
Ulric rose higher and higher. He passed the hunting-lodge of the King and turned almost mechanically into a black-throated gorge—a natural amphitheatre through which an amber stream flowed swiftly—a dizzy kind of place, with steep, precipitous rocks, a false step on which would plunge one into the stream below.
"A fine theatre for a fine deed," Ulric muttered. "Here it was that King Max won his crown and his wife, God bless her! But those days are over; no white-throated wolf will ever stray down the Devil's Windpipe again, for the legend is fulfilled, and the old story will some day be forgotten."
As Ulric spoke a low growl came from the bushes on a ledge in front of him. The growl was followed by a shrill scream, a cry of rage, and yet there was some chord of outraged dignity in it.
Ulric started. His ears were acquainted with the note of every bird that flew and every beast that lurked there. The note was strange to him. The cry was something between that of a tiger and a jackal. Then the bushes parted and a mass of grey fur flashed down almost at Ulric's feet.
It was a great grizzled beast the size of a mastiff. It had the long, lean, vicious head of a wolf, the rugged lines of yellow teeth flashed and snarled. Red blood dripped from the muzzle, the thick pads were stained in the same way. In a dreamy kind of way Ulric was conscious of a pair of green eyes filled with fire, a thin, cruel tongue like pink leather. From the point of the quivering jaw to the dewlap, in vivid contrast to the grizzled face, was a band of soft, white hair like a patch of silken snow.
"A white-throated wolf!" Ulric cried. "And they are supposed to be extinct. What a chance for the 'pretty boy,' if he only had a weapon!"
There was also a fine chance for the wolf, though the logical point escaped Ulric in the excitement of the moment. But the wolf had no stomach for fighting, evidently. The bloody jaws and dripping pads pointed to a surfeit of another kind. The strangled cry of rage was merely a proclaimed sovereignty of the place. With a growl that shook the lean flanks the wolf plunged into the undergrowth again.
Ulric strode downwards fall of the excitement of his find. He would have that wolf. He would show Prince Thor what the "pretty boy" was made of. The last white-throated wolf ever seen in Farsala had fallen to the strong arm of the King, for the white-throated wolves were the Arms of the State, and the legend on which the very crown rested was rooted in that strange vulpine tribe.
Ulric came down to the Castle full of the news. He found a table with a white cloth and scarlet flowers laid out on the terrace under the grim walls of the fortress, and here King Max and the Queen, with Prince Thor, were breakfasting. There was a dish of trout in cream, flanked by a pie of boar's head, red wine simmered in large three-handled cups, a variety of fruit blushed on the table. No servants were present, and the Queen poured out the coffee with her own hands.
"Come and join us, Ulric," the Queen cried.
"Madam," Ulric stammered, "in this dress I cannot."
He had snatched off his cap and would have passed on. A pair of knickerbockers and golf-stockings are not usually associated with the fierce light that beats upon a throne. Whereupon the King rose in the exuberant buoyancy of his seven-and-seventy inches, and, picking up Ulric like a baby, deposited him in a chair.
"Never mind your bib, little man," Thor cried.
The two sons of Anak roared. They seemed to dominate the place with their majestic presence. Till the grey creeping of the dawn they had sat over a hunting supper with the dead flagons thick as the leaves in Vallombrosa, and here they were fresh and pink as the clean run salmon down yonder in the pool.
"You are annoying the Count," Queen Corona protested gently.
She was tall and dark as the night, with great clear eyes like forest pools, and a face cleaner cut than any cameo. Her voice was a caress, her lips velvet geraniums. In all South-Eastern Europe none held sway with so fine a silken thread as Queen Corona of Farsala. Max paused in his raffish sport.
"Ulric doesn't mind," Thor growled.
"Indeed, I do, your Highness," Ulric protested. "I am no child, remember. Would you like to test me at the end of a rapier, sir?"
Thor laughed hugely and declined the proffered honour, for, young as he was in years, Ulric was old in reputation as a swordsman. The big prince lifted a cup of wine to his lips, nor did he lower it till a good pint had passed down his capacious throat.
"No, no," he cried; "the ox has succumbed to the sting of the hornet before now. But I like your spirit, lad. When I have ousted the King from his throne I shall be glad to have you by me."
"I don't fancy you will, sir, if my mind be the same as it is now," Ulric said dryly.
The big, shaggy eyebrows contracted in a frown. Thor reached out a hand to Ulric, but the Queen's slim fingers interfered.
"I command this to cease," she cried. There was will and majesty in the tones. "We never doubted your desires and intentions, cousin, nor do we doubt the bad taste of your remarks just now. Ulric, you have news—I see it in your eyes."
Prince Thor subsided into the wine-cup again. The King glanced impatiently at his watch. Far down in the courtyard the dogs were gathered, for a great chase was afoot, a long day's sport, to end with another carouse at the hunting-lodge. Next week the Court would adjourn to Farsala for the opening of the two Chambers; meanwhile le roi s'amuse.
"I have news to interest his Majesty, madam," Ulric replied as quietly as possible. "I have just seen a thrilling sight—a white-throated wolf."
The Queen started. Her face turned deadly pale, a strange hope looked from her eyes, a captive behind prison bars.
"Max!" she said hoarsely. "Max, can this be so?"
Prince Thor had relinquished the goblet. His eyes gleamed with a peculiar light. He sought those of the Queen, but they avoided him.
"Impossible," he muttered, "absolutely impossible. Where did you see it?"
The question was in the form of a harsh command. For a moment Ulric made no reply. A sudden idea, a sudden inspiration had come to him. Why should he not have all the kudos of his discovery!
"The King says I am mistaken, sir," he replied. "After that I am dumb."
Thor turned away, his eyes gleaming with a strange, unnecessary fury, or so it seemed. The King bent and kissed his consort on the lips.
"Adieu, sweetheart," he cried gaily. "A little more colour in your lips when we return. Come, cousin; we must not keep the dogs waiting."
The clank of boot and clink of spur died away. Ulric watched the splendid swaggering figures with an admiration he could not conceal. Two other such men Europe could not produce. If Farsala had only——
"Ulric, dear Ulric, you must help me now."
"Your Majesty——" Ulric stammered. "Why, you are as pale as death." Queen Corona had fallen into a chair. The vivid pallor of her features caused the Count to feel a sudden alarm. Down in the valley the dogs were flinging their music to the breeze.
"If you cannot help me, I am ruined," the Queen murmured.
Ulric protested passionately. He would die for his sovereign. Let her only command him and the thing was done. For his wit was as neat and nimble as his sword, his courage as finely tempered.
The Queen smiled again and a little colour crept into her cheeks.
"Are you sure," she asked, "that you saw a white-throated wolf to-day?"
"As sure, madam, as I am your devoted slave and servant."
"Well, there is comfort, aye, and truth in that, Ulric. You must slay me that wolf and bring the white fur to me. You wonder why this pressing need, and I am going to tell you. What is the most precious possession in our regalia?"
"The emerald crown, your Majesty, beyond a doubt."
"Spoken truly, Ulric. And what is the most precious part of that crown?"
"The band of white wolf's fur that surrounds the base, your Majesty."
"Yes, yes. Everybody knows that. When we go to open the popular Chamber in Farsala next week we shall wear that crown. And what think you would Farsala say if the white fur were missing?"
A cry came from Ulric's lips. The light of a perfect understanding flashed in upon him—practically speaking, the kingdom of Farsala was tied up by that strip of white wolf's fur. For the Farsalans dwelt in a world of dreams and legends when they had no war to whet their appetites upon.
Time ago Farsala had been vassal to Turkey. Above them, further up the Balkan slopes, were the tribes of Suazi, a warlike people who, when other means failed, drove the hordes of white-throated wolves down the passes, so that Farsala knew the harry of a constant terror. And then there arose a great warrior to Farsala who swore a mighty oath to exterminate the scourge, and he kept his word. At the end of his generation a white-throated wolf was as a black swan for rarity, and the Suazis came down the passes bringing honey and olive branches as a desire for peace.
All this was according to the prophecy of the Wise Woman of the Hills. The white-throated wolves would turn upon the chiefs of Suazi until not one remained. And when a chief of Farsala rescued the last child of the last headsman of Suazi from the teeth of the last wolf, then Suazi and Farsala should be made one, and a kingdom should arise as the fruit of their loins.
Strangely it fell out that this same thing came to pass. Ten years before, Queen Corona, sole survivor of the royal Suazi line, had been attacked by the last of the white-throated wolves, and Prince Max of Farsala had come up in the nick of time and rescued her. With his hands alone he had attacked the wolf, he had torn the white throat out of the beast; and from that day Farsala, in spite of the hereditary claims of Prince Thor, her anointed leader, was ruled by King Max. So the white throat of the wolf was bound around the emerald crown, and so long as it remained there so Farsala stood on the living rock of safety. It was no legend now, it was part of the Farsala religion.
It all came buck to Ulric with vivid force. If aught had happened to the white fur, then the King stood in deadly peril. His splendid strength and magnificent courage could not save him. the thing would pass as a manifestation of Divine displeasure, and Thor had a strong party behind him.
"Prince Thor has done this thing," Ulric cried.
"I fear so," the Queen murmured. "He has made no secret of what he would do, did Fortune smile upon him. He has proclaimed it over and over again with a brutal frankness. Yet the King clings to him."
"He has saved the King's life twice, madam."
"Oh, I do not doubt his courage. He would save even his bitterest enemy from flood and fire. But we are wasting time. The emerald crown has been stripped of its most precious possession—how, I cannot say. It may be treachery, it may be that Prince Thor has possessed himself of the keys of the strong-room; but the bitter fact remains. I only discovered the truth this morning. I should have told the King, but you came up, it seemed to me, in time to save the situation. When I heard you tell of the white-throated wolf, I knew that Heaven was on our side. Ulric, if you can only get that wolf——"
The Queen paused significantly. The whole matter flashed through Ulric's brain with the rapidity of lightning. Thor had done this thing with his splendid audacity. To tax him with his perfidy would merely elicit a frank confession of his fault. To try and wrest the precious possession from him would be as the snatching of flesh from the teeth of a tiger. There was a chance now to open the King's eyes and remove from the State a magnificent danger.
Truly the hand of Heaven seemed to be guiding this business. The last, positively the last, of the white-throated wolves had come skulking down from the untrodden slopes of Suazi, for the sheer purpose of a sacrifice to uphold the throne. His white, sanguine throat should repair the mischief.
"You want me to kill this wolf for you, madam?" Ulric asked.
"Yes, yes," the Queen responded eagerly. "Track him, slay him, bring his skin to me. There is still time, and I have those about me who will keep the secret. A day or two will suffice to make good that which is lost. Farsala will be none the wiser. An imitation would be out of the question, for Prince Thor would set tongues wagging, and all would be lost. Can you do this, Ulric?"
Ulric made the most of his inches. He would show Prince Thor what a "pretty boy" was made of. He had the most stupendous of State secrets in the hollow of his hand, he alone of all the Court had been chosen as the friend of his sovereign. His heart swelled with the pride of it.
"I can and will do it, madam," he cried. "And this very day."
The Queen looked swiftly around her. Nobody was in sight. Then she stooped swiftly and kissed Ulric on the forehead.
"God bless and preserve you!" she whispered. "Go, and may you be successful. I shall know no peace of mind till you return. And if you fail——"
She said no more, for her words ceased like the snapping of a harp-string. Her head had fallen, her splendid eyes were unutterably sad, as she turned away and disappeared into the Castle.
But there was no fear or sadness in the heart of Ulric. The royal lips had touched his brow, the royal safety lay in the grasp of his fingers. The danger of his enterprise was uplifted into glory.
"I'll not fail," he said between his teeth, "though I dare not use firearms, for fear of ruining the work before it is accomplished. Take heart of grace, sweet Queen, for failure is no word of mine."
Ulric's preparations were of the slightest. A suit of leather, soft, yet tough, a long, curved hunting-knife sufficed. To find the lair of the wolf he knew would be no difficult matter. But to make the attack in the daylight was quite a different thing; added to which was the danger of encountering the hunting-party in the forest, or the possible chance of discovery and all dreaded publicity to follow.
For this thing would have to be as secret and as silent as the grave. There was nothing for it now but to wait until the shades of night had fallen, unless, indeed, it were possible to follow the trail of the wolf with an eye to a surprise.
Trained in woodcraft from a toddling child, Ulric had nothing to learn in this respect. He would follow the trail as far as prudence permitted. It would be easy to avoid the hunting-party, which was numerous and necessarily noisy, and which had gone forth that morning in pursuit of boar only.
At any rate, anything was better than the intolerable suspense of weighing out dull minutes in a scale of lead. So it came about that early in the afternoon Ulric mounted upwards to the gorge where he had encountered the white-throated monster, and cast about for the spoor.
He found it almost at once, the mark of the great pads was plain as print to the eyes of the woodsman. There were four or five sets of marks coming and going to the brink of the river.
"That's a discovery, at any rate," Ulric muttered. "The brute comes down here nights to drink. I shall find him here some time after dark. And a better place for an attack than this flat, cliff-like ledge of rock couldn't be imagined. Uncommonly close to the hunting-lodge, though, but that can't be helped. By the time Lupus comes down for his libation those people will be well into their third flagon and making noise enough to drown a thunderstorm. After all, I don't suppose there will be any real risk."
Night was falling like a grey curtain over the caps of snow and the sombre pines of the forest as Ulric came to the battle-ground again. He could see the darkness rolling down in waves; he saw the faint, straw-coloured lights in the hunting-lodge grow brighter and more ruddy as the heart of the night throbbed over the forest; he could catch bursts of laughter getting wilder and louder in the passing hours. A thin moon behind torn masses of clouds gave a feeble ray upon the rocky platform.
Darker grew the night, the wind sobbed in the pines, high up overhead Ulric could see the twinkling lights of the hunting-lodge. It seemed to his strained fancy that he was alone there with the weight of the world pressing on his shoulders. For on a single fling of the dice his empire rested.
He began to throb and glow with the thought of it. Despite the vivid experience of his years, those years only numbered twenty-four, and all illusions are not fired at that age. The future of Farsala had been entrusted to him; out of all the brave hearts and loyal swords about her, Queen Corona had chosen him alone to save the dynasty.
Then, as the flood-tide of exultation ebbed away, Ulric grew cool and cautious again. That a terrible danger loomed before him he knew. That it might be the man or the wolf who came out uppermost he knew also.
But Ulric was going to take no risks. He had the discretion which should ever accompany true courage. He cast about him with an eye to strategic advantages. The field of battle had to be taken into consideration.
On one side of the rocky platform was a fringe of bushes from which the wolf would assuredly emerge when he came down to water—indeed, Ulric had already proved this by the spoor. On the other side of the platform was a rugged, steep slope of rocks overhanging the river. Down this slope the wolf would in all probability make his way.
Near to the end of this miniature cliff was a shelf or ledge of rocks under which a man could hide himself. There was just a chance that Ulric might lurk there and deal the wolf a treacherous and fatal stab as he passed. It was no time for the nice honour of attack.
"It's a case of the Devil and the baker," Ulric muttered. "If possible, I mean to be the Devil on this occasion. But waiting is weary work, worse than fighting, a great deal. Will he never come?"
The night wind moaned in the pines, the leaden-footed minutes crept on to the burial of the lagging hour, and yet the quarry came not. Wafted on the breeze from the fortress below, twelve o'clock struck on the big bell. At the last stroke Ulric's ear caught something.
He peered out eagerly. Lights still winked redly like wine from the hunting-lodge as they were likely to wink for some time to come. Ulric felt for his knife and fastened the strap of it about his wrist.
The hour had come and the man was ready. He could hear the soft footfall of some creeping thing, he could hear the crackle of dry twigs and the flutter of leaves. Then something between a purr and a snarl broke the silence. Nearer and nearer it came; a peculiar, sweaty odour, mingled fur and grease and foul miasma, filled the air. The wolf paused and growled uneasily as Ulric held his breath. The brute scented danger and advanced more cautiously, but still he advanced, till Ulric from his hiding-place could see the long, lean, ragged form quivering there.
The wolf was close to him now, so close that he could have touched him with the tip of his fingers. With nerves strung to the highest tension, Ulric was filled with hysterical impulse to rush blindly out and grapple with the foe.
But hereditary instinct and ingrained woodcraft restrained him. He crouched under the shelf with knife upraised, waiting for the wolf to proceed. The heavy russet coat of the wolf rustled and quivered; Ulric could almost see the snarling fangs, but he waited, waited with the patience of the Guards at Waterloo. With patience the game must assuredly be his.
Still the wolf advanced, the fœtid odour became nauseating. The long, lean flanks came on and on, not more than a foot from Ulric's knife. His hand shot out as he caught the near hind-leg in a grip of steel. A scream of rage and pain and fear smote on the startled air.
A grey muzzle pointed with black and armed with two rows of shining teeth whipped round with the rapidity of light. The white ivory trap snatched at Ulric's breast as he raised his knife.
The blade flashed, there was a dim half-circle, like the fading glow of a star that falls, the steel met flesh and bone and sinew, and shearing them as if they had been a carrot, cut the limb away.
A cry of triumph burst from Ulric. With three legs only the wolf would be at his mercy. Its instinct would be to turn and fly, pursued by the victor, who had only to track his prey down until, exhausted by loss of blood, the end came. Farsala was saved!
Not yet, not yet. This was no ordinary breed of wolf, as Ulric might have remembered. With an amazing energy and tenacity the beast turned and faced his enemy. He could see Ulric now, and, lying under the ledge of rock, the latter was at a terrible disadvantage. Foaming with rage and filled with lust to kill, the white-throated wolf came on.
The terrible hurt seemed to give him fresh life and energy. The evil-smelling muzzle came down under the shelf of rock as Ulric made a plunge with his reeking knife for the heart. Cramped and hampered as he was, the stroke lost force and direction, merely glancing from the wolf's jaw and penetrating the ground.
Before Ulric could recover and strike again, the wolf had him by the thick leather jerkin that protected his chest. As if he had been a blind kitten in the mouth of some feline mother, he was carried out into the open. As Ulric fought to save himself, the knife slipped from his hand. the knife was attached by a thong to his wrist, it is true, but he dared not reach for the haft now.
He had business of a much more pressing nature on hand now than the speedy despatch of the foe. For the moment Farsala and its depleted crown were forgotten. He lay on his back fighting for his life.
His throat, his throat, if he could only protect his throat. The stiff leather collar about it stood him in good stead now, and, fortunately for him, those sharp, tearing claws were more or less useless, seeing that the severing of a leg had deprived those nervous loins of their power. Still, the whole weight of the beast lay like lead on Ulric's chest, the dripping, foaming jaws were tearing his collar. The breath of the wolf was hot, the fœtid smell of it horrible. A physical sickness turned Ulric's soul to water for the moment.
He was nearly, nearly lost. When he came to himself again he realised that his leather collar was getting soaked and sodden with saliva and torn to ribbons by those cruel teeth. In the blindness of despair Ulric shot a hand out and gripped the wolf by the lower jaw.
In a moment the wolf was practically powerless. Given strength enough, and a man might hold a tiger thus, gripping the lower jaw and the tongue simultaneously. If only Ulric could reach and use his knife.
As yet he dared not try for that, the opportunity might come presently. The wolf jerked his head upwards, wrenching Ulric almost to his knees. That he would not be able to maintain his hold he knew perfectly well. But the wolf must be bleeding, bleeding slowly, and every instant's delay was precious as water in a dry land. So far Ulric could hug himself with no delusion as to the fading of that nervous strength; still, he clung with the bulldog tenacity of despair. He could only set his teeth and wait.
With a muffled snarl the wolf tugged afresh. The force of the struggle rolled him clean over, Ulric following, still glued to the dripping jaws. Then Ulric found himself slipping and rolling down a ledge of rock, there was a sudden fall as through velvet space, and then as sudden a shock, a cold, gasping plunge, and the two, still locked together, were fighting in the rapid mountain stream.
They had fallen some twenty feet or so into water which, though shallow, was sufficient to break the force of the fall. On either side the wall was sheer, below a bridal-veil fall of the river, above a deep, black pool.
Ulric lay breathless and exhausted upon a yellow spit of sand that cropped out of the torrent. He saw no way of escape, for to go down was death, and to try and swim upstream was impossible. No man in Farsala, save the King, could have done it.
Ulric eyed the wolf grimly.
"It's you or I, or both of us, now," he muttered. "Not much chance of either of us getting away from here, anyway. The only thing is—will they find me in time to save the situation, or will they come too late? 'To be or not to be? that is the question.’"
But wolves, white-throated or otherwise, are not much interested in Shakespeare's philosophy. The beast had made, like Ulric, for the spit of sand, a proceeding Ulric resisted, seeing that there was only room for one, therefore the other would have to yield the palm and take the mercy of the roaring stream.
Ulric had his knife again now. As the wolf crawled snarling up to him he made a motion to strike—a mere feeble motion, for his strength was being exhausted and the coldness of the water chilled him to the soul.
Still, it sufficed, for from a wound in the neck the red blood came pouring. The great beast with one convulsive spring was on Ulric again and bore him down deep to the wet sand. Once more did Ulric grip the jaw and tongue, and then, despite himself, and with a sullen shame for his weakness did he open his lips and scream for "Help! help!"
It was once and only once, it was the confession of the limit of human fortitude. Not for a kingdom would Ulric have called again. He felt his strength ebbing away, and at the same time he knew by the sobbing breath of the creature above him that the wolf was in extremis also. Which would last the longer? which would come through the fire?
"God grant it may be me," Ulric muttered. "Not for my sake, but for hers. Would Heaven sacrifice a kingdom for this carrion? Nay, nay."
And then a voice from the river's bank called Ulric by name.
New life and vigour flashed meteor-like in every limb. The voice was that of the King.
"Where are you, Count?" he cried. "I heard you call."
Ulric explained with a brevity fitting the occasion. The next instant the mighty figure of the King no longer loomed large, for its place was absent. Then came a plunge in the black heart of the pool, and King Max was by Ulric's side.
A huge hand shot out, there was a groan and a rattle, the splash of a body in the pool, and the King stood neck-deep in the flood with the white throat of the wolf in his hand. He had torn the throat out as he had done on one great occasion before.
"The body," Ulric faltered, "the body!"
"Will go over the waterfall into the pool below, never to be seen any more. You seem to have forgotten that anything once there never rises again. Get on my back."
Ulric knew that tone and instantly obeyed. Then the King did perhaps the greatest exploit of all his splendid romantic career. With that dead weight he swam a good rifle-shot up a rapid, smooth as ice and as cold, until he landed his burden safely. He shook the water off him like a big dog, and his laugh set the shadows ringing. Yet his shoulders rose and fell, Ulric could hear the beating of his heart.
"You are unhurt?" he asked.
Ulric was unhurt, but utterly spent and weary. The throat of the wolf was in his hand now, for the King had gracefully surrendered it.
"I shall accompany you to the Castle," said the King.
"But, your Majesty," Ulric stammered, "there is no necessity. Your companions——"
"Consign my companions! For the time I am sick of them. I stole out to get a breath of fresh air, and when I heard you cry I recognised your voice. The rest of them will think I have gone home. And it seems to me, my dear Count, that I have yet much to learn concerning your adventure. The prelude and the prologue are yet missing. Tell me."
There was no help for it now, the truth would have to be told. Ulric placed the white throat of the wolf in the hand of the King.
"I would prefer that her Majesty told you, sir," he said. "For myself, I am not afraid of the issue."
Late though it was, lights were still burning in the Queen's private apartments. The faint grey streaks of the dawn were glinting on banners and bars and stained glass before Ulric looked on the face of the King again.
"A trusty messenger has already been despatched to Farsala with the crown," he said. "Yes, the Queen has told me everything. Of your share I say nothing at present. What I owe you I shall repay in deeds, not in words. I was wrong to keep my crown here, and I see it now. My egotism seems to have been commensurate with my physical powders."
"You will send Prince Thor away?" Ulric asked eagerly.
The King nodded. A dark frown had settled on his forehead. Ulric had never seen this mood before, there was a majesty in those broad shoulders strange to him.
"Wait till to-morrow," he said, "and you shall see."
Prince Thor came down to the great hall where breakfast was prepared. Most of the Court were gathered there, something seemed in the air. State formed no part of the doings at the Castle generally. Then, as the Queen came sweeping down in her robes, all rose, for she wore the emerald crown on her head.
One glance, and Prince Thor rose to his feet. His eyes were staring at the crown. The King watched him with contempt in his eyes.
"What does it mean?" Prince Thor gasped.
"We do you honour to-day," the King cried. "It is to give you the respect due to you on your departure for foreign lands. Gentlemen, Prince Thor leaves here to-day for an indefinite period. The decision has been come to suddenly, but it is not for us to throw obstacles in the way. Everything is ready, and in an hour the Prince will be on his way to the capital. You would hardly imagine it in one so robust, but the air of this place does not agree with our royal cousin. The blow of his departure will be severe, but we shall survive it in time. There is no need for me to say more, except that, as token that we part in amity, I extend to my cousin my hand."
The King crossed the room and extended his hand. Thor hesitated, but only for a moment. Like the strong man he was, he recognised the crushing force against him. He had been tricked and fooled, but he did not know how—indeed, he was not destined to know.
"It is all for the best," he said. "Your Majesty is kind. To the Queen I kiss—my—hand; and long may she continue to wear the emerald crown. For thrones—are slippery things."
The Queen smiled unsteadily. Her glance fell on Ulric's proud face.
"Not when they are cemented with the hearts of my people," she said.