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7. The Gray Men
The adventurers gave no heed to the path they followed after leaving the cave of the reformed thieves, but their horses accidentally took the direction of the foot-hills that led into the wild interior Kingdom of Spor. Therefore the travelers, when they had finished their conversation and begun to look about them, found themselves in a rugged, mountainous country that was wholly unlike the green plains of Heg they had left behind.
Now, as I have before said, the most curious and fearful of the island people dwelt in this Kingdom of Spor. They held no friendly communication with their neighbors, and only left their own mountains to plunder and rob; and so sullen and fierce were they on these occasions that every one took good care to keep out of their way until they had gone back home again.
There was much gossip about the unknown king of Spor, who had never yet been seen by any one except his subjects; and some thought he must be one of the huge giants of Spor; and others claimed he was a dwarf, like his tiny but ferocious dart-slingers; and still others imagined him one of the barbarian tribe, or a fellow to the terrible Gray Men. But, of course, no one knew positively, and all these guesses were very wide of the mark. The only certainty about this king was that his giants, dwarfs, barbarians and Gray Men meekly acknowledged his rule and obeyed his slightest wish; for though they might be terrible to others, their king was still more terrible to them.
Into this Kingdom of Spor Prince Marvel and Nerle had now penetrated and, neither knowing nor caring where they were, continued along the faintly defined paths the horses had found. Presently, however, they were startled by a peal of shrill, elfish laughter, and raising their eyes they beheld a horrid-looking old man seated upon a high rock near by.
"Why do you laugh?" asked Prince Marvel, stopping his horse.
"Have you been invited? Tell me - have you been invited?" demanded the old man, chuckling to himself as if much amused.
"Invited where?" inquired the prince.
"To Spor, stupid! To the Kingdom of Spor! To the land of King Terribus!" shrieked the old man, going into violent peals of laughter.
"We go and come as we please," answered Prince Marvel, calmly.
"Go - yes! Go if you will. But you'll never come back - never! never! never!" The little old man seemed to consider this such a good joke that he bent nearly double with laughing, and so lost his balance and toppled off the rock, disappearing from their view; but they could hear him laugh long after they had passed on and left him far behind them.
"A strange creature!" exclaimed the prince thoughtfully.
"But perhaps he speaks truth," answered Nerle, "if, in fact, we have been rash enough to enter the Kingdom of Spor. Even my father, the bravest baron in Heg, has never dared venture within the borders of Spor. For all men fear its mysterious king."
"In that case," replied Prince Marvel, "it is time some one investigated this strange kingdom. People have left King Terribus and his wild subjects too much to themselves; instead of stirring them up and making them behave themselves."
Nerle smiled at this speech.
"They are the fiercest people on the Enchanted Island," said he, "and there are thousands upon thousands who obey this unknown king. But if you think we dare defy them I am willing to go on. Perhaps our boldness will lead them into torturing me, or starving me to death; and at the very least I ought to find much trouble and privation in the Kingdom of Spor."
"Time will determine that," said the prince, cheerfully.
They had now ridden into a narrow defile of the mountains, the pathway being lined with great fragments of rock. Happening to look over his shoulder Prince Marvel saw that as they passed these rocks a man stepped from behind each fragment and followed after them, their numbers thus constantly increasing until hundreds were silently treading in the wake of the travelers.
These men were very peculiar in appearance, their skins being as gray as the rocks themselves, while their only clothing consisted of gray cloth tunics belted around the waists with bands of gray fox-hide. They bore no weapons except that each was armed with a fork, having three sharp tines six inches in length, which the Gray Men carried stuck through their fox-hide belts.
Nerle also looked back and saw the silent throng following them, and the sight sent such a cold shiver creeping up his spine that he smiled with pleasure. There was no way to avoid the Gray Men, for the path was so narrow that the horsemen could not turn aside; but Prince Marvel was not disturbed, and seemed not to mind being followed, so long as no one hindered his advance.
He rode steadily on, Nerle following, and after climbing upward for a long way the path began to descend, presently leading them into a valley of wide extent, in the center of which stood an immense castle with tall domes that glittered as if covered with pure gold. A broad roadway paved with white marble reached from the mountain pass to the entrance of this castle, and on each side of this roadway stood lines of monstrous giants, armed with huge axes thrust into their belts and thick oak clubs, studded with silver spikes, which were carried over their left shoulders.
The assembled giants were as silent as the Gray Men, and stood motionless while Prince Marvel and Nerle rode slowly up the marble roadway. But all their brows were scowling terribly and their eyes were red and glaring - as if they were balls of fire.
"I begin to feel very pleasant," said Nerle, "for surely we shall not get away from these folks without a vast deal of trouble. They do not seem to oppose our advance, but it is plain they will not allow us any chance of retreat."
"We do not wish to retreat," declared the prince.
Nerle cast another glance behind, and saw that the Gray Men had halted at the edge of the valley, while the giants were closing up as soon as the horses passed them and now marched in close file in their rear.
"It strikes me," he muttered, softly, "that this is like to prove our last adventure." But although Prince Marvel might have heard the words he made no reply, being evidently engaged in deep thought.
As they drew nearer the castle it towered above them like a veritable mountain, so big and high was it; and the walls cast deep shadows far around, as if twilight had fallen. They heard the loud blare of a trumpet sounding far up on the battlements; the portals of the castle suddenly opened wide, and they entered a vast courtyard paved with plates of gold. Tiny dwarfs, so crooked that they resembled crabs, rushed forward and seized the bridles of the horses, while the strangers slowly dismounted and looked around them.
While the steeds were being led to the stables an old man, clothed in a flowing robe as white in color as his beard, bowed before Prince Marvel and said in a soft voice:
The prince stretched his arms, yawned as if tired with his ride, and then glared upon the old man with an expression of haughty surprise.
"I follow no one!" said he, proudly. "I am Prince Marvel, sirrah, and if the owner of this castle wishes to see me I shall receive him here, as befits my rank and station."
The man looked surprised, but only bowed lower than before.
"It is the king's command," he answered.
"Yes; you are in the castle of King Terribus, the lord and ruler of Spor."
"That is different," remarked the prince, lightly. "Still, I will follow no man. Point out the way and I will go to meet his Majesty."
The old man extended a lean and trembling finger toward an archway. Prince Marvel strode forward, followed by Nerle, and passing under the arch he threw open a door at the far end and boldly entered the throne-room of King Terribus.
Turn to the next chapter: 8. The Fool-Killer