Roy ran and ran and ran until he was breathless; yet still he ran, until little by little he recovered his breath again as wild animals do. Every moment he hoped to see Tumbu either returning or standing still, panting and waiting for the others to come up. But he saw nothing save, stretching away as far as the eye could reach, a smooth, not over steep, snowy slope. So far there was little fear of the sledge being overset.
Then, after he had run a long way, he paused, for there were now two tracks instead of one. The marks of the bear went up a little side valley, the marks of the sledge went down the slope. What could have happened? Had Tumbu in his haste missed the bear's trail? That was not likely. Having come so far, had he determined to go on? That was not likely either, unless the children had urged him forward. Knowing Mirak's bold, adventurous spirit, this seemed possible, and Roy's heart sank; but he started off running again, knowing that no matter what had happened he must follow his little master, and follow fast.
But as he ran downward and downward the frost film on the snow became less and less firm. The sun was rising now, and even its earliest rays seemed to melt his foothold, and he began to sink at every step. The sledge, however, appeared from the faint marks it left to have slid on without difficulty. No doubt, he thought, because of the children's light weight, and because the platform between the swords and scabbards which supported them was so large; many times larger than his own feet! Why, even Tumbu's four broad, furry paws had sunk into the snow a little, and would doubtless have sunk more but for the pace at which he must have been going.
The sledge was the thing! How clever it was of Old Faithful to remember Firdoos Gita Makâni's way of saving his horse; but after all, when one came to think of it, the thanks were due to Babar the brave for being a real King, kind-hearted to animals.
And now Roy's task became dangerous as well as hard, for every moment lessened the firmness of the ice film. And he was now running down a shallow valley, which was completely blocked up by drift, except in the very middle, where every now and again you got a glimpse of a roaring torrent--kept unfrozen by its snowy covering--hollowing its way downward; but for the most part it was invisible, the only sign of it being a roar, a tremble beneath your feet. Thus he was, as it were, on a snow bridge, of which the surface might at any moment give way. And that meant certain death in the dark pools below. In one place, indeed, he was all but lost; however, a wild leap landed him on safe ground, and with a gasp of fear, not for himself, but for the children ahead of him, he ran on, comforted by the sight of the sledge track going on and on.
After a while he had to cease running from sheer fatigue; but still he plodded on, telling himself that even half an hour would have made a difference in the snow. That where he found danger, the children might have found safety; and always before him that track of the scabbard-sledge showed him that so far, at any rate, all had gone well.
And then, as he turned a sharp curve in the shallow, snow-covered valley, he saw a little below him something that made him turn sick with fear. It was the sledge, empty, deserted! A second glance, however, showed him that it was not overset. Those who had been in it must have left it of their own accord; and the cause of this was soon made clear. Within a few yards the snow ended and a rocky descent began, down which the sledge could not have gone. So either Tumbu or the children had been wise; and they were still in front of him, but how far off who could tell? The sun was already high, hours must have passed since he first started in chase; but now that they were on foot there was some chance of overtaking them before anything dreadful happened.
In his hurry Roy almost flung himself from rock to rock down the descent; but he had to pause to take off his fur coat, for in this sheltered spot the sun beat shadelessly, the snow melted as he passed, the stones ran with moisture, and in the crannies of the rocks young green things were everywhere starting into growth. The past storm of bitter cold had ended winter; spring had begun. And now the rushing torrent, escaping finally from its snowy blanket, dashed over the boulders beside him, carrying with it great blocks of melting snow.
On and on he went, thinking the descent would never end, till at a turn he saw below him a tiny valley, just a sort of cup in the hills, through which the stream rushed, sparkling in the sunshine. The banks were still brown, but they were patched with great beds of rose-pink primula, blue gentian, and yellow dog pansies. And on a perfect carpet of these sat three dark figures! Never in his life was Roy so overjoyed. He forgot his fatigue, and ran on until he could plainly see Princess Bakshee Bâni Begum making cowslip balls out of the pink primulas, the Heir-to-Empire contentedly munching a cold hearth cake, and giving bits of it to Tumbu, who, with his head cocked on one side, had evidently heard Roy's distant step. The next instant a furious barking showed that he was on the alert to defend his young charges, and Roy had to call to him again and again before he was satisfied that the newcomer was a friend.
"Why, what a long time you've been coming," said the Heir-to-Empire calmly. "We've had our breakfast, 'cos we couldn't wait any longer. You can't have come as fast as you could. No more would Tumbu, only we made him not be lazy, 'cos Head-nurse says--what is it she says, Bija?"
The little girl looked solemn. "She says every one should do everything as quick as ever they can. So we shouted at Tumbu and pulled his tail just a liddly-wee bit like the bullock drivers do. And then we had the loveliest ride, and Tumbu wasn't a bit cross; but he wouldn't go down the rocks and growled. So we had to get out and walk. And then we came here, and first of all we picked flowers; then I had hearth cakes and popcorn in my veil, and so we ate our breakfast, and then you came--and that's all, thank you!" She had just finished a lovely soft ball and she flung it full at the Heir-to-Empire. It hit him, but he took no notice. He was thinking of something else.
"But where," he began, and his little lip went down, "is Head-nurse--and Foster-father--and Foster-mother--and Old Faithful--and Meroo--and Down? What have you done with them, slave?"
He was half angry, half ready to cry, so Roy, though his own heart failed him as he thought of the dangers of the road, had to soothe and comfort him by saying, as cheerfully as he could, that they would come before long. But would they? Now that the relief of finding the children were safe was over, poor Roy began to see the difficulties before him. If those others did not come, what would he, a mere lad, do? How could he care for his little master and mistress? They had had their breakfast, it is true--Roy forgot he had had none himself!--but what could they have for supper? He could not even think, he felt too giddy and tired even to sleep; so, after he had rolled his fur coat into a soft pillow for the little Prince and Princess, who were drowsy for their mid-day rest, and covered them over with their own, he sat with his head between his hands, his eyes closed, wishing he were not so stupid, wishing he could only think of something to do; for in reality he was quite wearied out. If the others did not come! Of course they might come at any moment; and yet the moments passed to minutes, the minutes to hours, while the children slept in the sunshine, and Roy felt that he was a fool.
And then something cold touched his hand. He opened his eyes and saw that it was Tumbu's nose; Tumbu, who had something strange in his mouth--something like a rabbit and yet like a squirrel!
In reality it was a fresh-killed young marmot, an animal that lives amid the snow and ice and rocks of the very highest hills. Tumbu, having handed over charge of the children, must have gone off on his own hunting, found a colony of the quaint creatures, and, as usual, brought home his bag! Roy did not in the least know what the marmot was, but he saw it was something to eat! The relief was too much for him! Here, at least, was supper. He flung his arms round Tumbu's neck and burst into tears, murmuring with choking sobs that he, Roy, had been foolish, but Tumbu was a wise, wise, good doggie. And so he was!
After this Roy felt better, and having, as all Indian boys used to have in those days, a flint and steel with him, began to look around for fuel with which to light a fire and cook the supper. There were, of course, no trees and no bushes; but right away at the farther end of the long valley there were some patches of very dark green. They did not look promising, but he would go and see. They proved to be a creeping sort of evergreen plant that trailed its stiff branches right on the very ground. He picked a bit, and on trying to light it, found to his surprise, that it blazed up in a fierce flame. For it was juniper, and so full of resin.
He now had the possibility of fire, so that evening the little cup in the hills held quite comfortable encampment.
Roy had brought down the sledge, and using the swords and their scabbards as supports, had made a lean-to tent against a warm rock out of the strip of shawl. In this he had strewn juniper branches to make a soft bed, and the children could just creep into it. Then they had the marmot, roasted in its skin, for supper, and all the three were too hungry to ask themselves if marmot flesh was as toothsome as rabbit or as bitter as squirrel! And Tumbu ate the bones with an air as if he would say, "It is not bad, but to-morrow I must catch two marmots."
After that there was peace and quiet in the camp, Roy sitting beside the fire and making it blaze up every now and again by putting on a fresh juniper branch. For he knew that since the others had not arrived by daylight, they must either all have perished on the road or else be waiting until the cold of night once more froze the ice-film on the snow. In this case the firelight seen from afar might be a guide.
So the night passed. More than once Roy fell asleep, for despite his care the smoke of the juniper branches could not quite be avoided, and that, every one knows, is terribly sleepifying. He woke every time, however, before the fire was quite out, and hastened to send up a flare of flame. As he did so the last time it was answered by a hulloo from the rocks above, and shortly afterward Meroo, the scullion's, blubbering voice could be heard as he uttered thanks to Heaven.
"And the others?" asked Roy anxiously, as out of the darkness Meroo appeared and cast himself at the lad's feet, bellowing joy.
"They come, they come! They are but a short way back. I saw the fire, and the sight of it warmed the cockles of my heart! Lo! I shall cook once more! I shall not die hungry in the wilderness. Nay! go not," for Roy was starting up. "True! the women are nigh dead, and Foster-father hath his fingers frost-bitten, but--nay, put more flame to the fire, boy! It is the fire they need!"
He was half beside himself, but he was right. As the fresh juniper branches blazed up Head-nurse came tottering and stumbling into its light. Roy sprang to help her, but she pushed him aside.
"The Heir-to-Empire?" she muttered, her lips almost refusing to form the words. "The Heir-to-Empire, the Admired-of-the-World----"
Roy pointed to the little tent. "There! Safe! Well! Asleep!" he cried; and the poor woman with a sob sank as she stood, and lay prone muttering long strings of titles.
Before a minute had passed Foster-father and Foster-mother struggled into the circle of light, and after a word of question and reply, sank down also.
Then there was a long pause, but no sign came of good Old Faithful's tall, gaunt figure. At last Roy spoke.
"Faithful?" he asked in a low whisper. "What of him?"
There was no answer at first; only Foster-father covered his face with his hands. At last he spoke gently.
"He was faithful to death. He was going first, as ever, cheering us all with his sayings of Firdoos Gita Makâni. I saw him there one moment turning to tell us words of wisdom--the next the snow bridge had given way beneath his feet and he was gone. We waited on the bank of the awful chasm for a long time, but there was no sound save the roaring of the stream below. Firdoos Gita Makâni, his master, had called him. Peace be with them both!"