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Chapter XI: A Winter March

It was only too true! The escort which was to see them on the road was already occupying the garden, the horses champing their bits and fretting because the long branches of the roses at which they snatched held nothing but thorns.

Prince Akbar, indeed, was too much interested in watching them and wondering if they were very hungry to take much heed of anything else, but Princess Bakshee Bâni Begum, who was a very practical little person, at once began to pack up her favourite doll.

"You had better choose out some toy, Mirak," said she, "or you will be wanting to play with mine, and I won't let you."

But Mirak was busy with the horses.

"I sha'n't want anything but my sword," he replied valiantly. "I'm a big boy now, and I'm going to play with real things." Then he turned to one of the troopers with a quaint air of authority. "Your horse is too thin. When I am King I shall see that my men give their horses enough to eat."

Foster-father, who overheard the child, paused in the hasty arrangements he was making to look at the little Heir-to-Empire and put up a prayer that the fates might let him be King; but the future looked black indeed. The road to Kâbul must still be blocked with snow, even if more did not fall by the way. A likely happening, with the bitter north wind and the dull lowering sky. And if the young child escaped the danger of extreme cold and extreme hardship, what might not be before him in Kâbul itself?

Better, it might have been, for those in charge of him, to have risked all, taken refuge with the old mountain chief, and died like brave men. There was but one comfort in the whole affair. Prince Askurry must know that Humâyon or his friends were close at hand, or he would not be in such a desperate hurry to send away the Heir-to-Empire.

And this, indeed, was the truth. The fear of a rescue was so real and immediate that Prince Askurry had had to make his decision in a minute. So there was scarcely any time for preparation, and by noon the party had started for the three hundred and odd miles of mountainous country that lay between them and Kâbul. Only the children's faces were cheerful; even Roy's showed grave and anxious.

They rode fast and far till dusk fell, when they had covered full twenty miles. For the last few, both the women, who were mounted behind troopers, had almost been dropping with fatigue, but the captain of the escort was under orders to go as far as possible that night, so he pushed on to reach a place called Robât. Here they were all unceremoniously bundled into one large room, and by the steady tramp through the night of a sentry outside, Foster-father judged they were complete prisoners. Luckily they were given plenty of fuel to replenish the fire that roared in the wide chimney, so the elders squatted round it and dozed, holding the children in their laps. They slept as soundly as if they had been in their beds, and so did Tumbu and Down, who had both insisted on being of the party; the latter having quite calmly taken her place on Horse-chestnut's broad wavy back on the wide cushion of felt which Foster-father used as a saddle-cloth. She had left her kitten behind her as it was now quite a big tom-cat, and able to take care of itself.

In a way, both Tumbu and Down had already been of service to their young master, for the troopers of the Escort had been amused by the golliwog's gambols, and had admired Down's dignity, so they were more inclined to treat the whole party in kindly fashion. Indeed, next morning, the Captain of the Escort, whose anxiety about a rescue had, perhaps, been lessened by the uneventful night, was much less strict in his orders, and took Prince Akbar on his own saddle and let him hold the reins.

"He is a brave, bold lad," he said to Foster-father; "were he to live, he would make a good King." Then he frowned, his mouth hardened and Foster-father, watching him, augured ill for the safety of the Heir-to-Empire. For the time, however, all went well, though Foster-father remarked that they kept off the direct track as much as possible; no doubt to avoid pursuit. And at Ghuznee, where they halted the second night, the Captain of the Escort sent nearly all his men into the city by one gate, taking with them, despite their protestations, Roy and Meroo and Old Faithful, while he himself, with but one or two troopers, Foster-father, Foster-mother, Head-nurse and the two children, entered by another and found lodging in the caravanserai as common travellers. Evidently, Foster-father surmised, it was thought best for some reason or another to conceal the fact that the Heir-to-Empire was being carried off to Kâbul; and something happened that evening to make him certain that this was the case. It was dark ere they arrived, so the other travellers in the serai took little heed of the small party, especially as there were women and children in it, and it is not polite in Eastern countries to take any notice of them. But while Head-nurse and Foster-mother were busy settling down the children's quilts in the little dark archway room, which was all the accommodation available, and Foster-father had gone to purchase them some milk for their supper, the little Prince and Princess, greatly excited at the novelty of their surroundings, wandered out into the dark square enclosure, where fires burned here and there in the open, lit by travellers who were cooking their evening meal. They stood by these watching what was going on with quick interest, answering questions that were put to them with frank smiles and laughter. Being dressed in heavy sheepskin outer coats to keep out the cold, no one guessed that they were other than they seemed, poor travellers' children, until at the end of a long row of picketed horses at the further end of the courtyard, Akbar saw Horse-chestnut, Foster-father's pony. Now Foster-father had only had time to tie the poor beast head and heel, so there the honest creature stood, looking very dejected, with emptiness before it, while the troopers' horses beside him were enjoying great bundles of green grass. The little fellow flushed up in a moment; he called loudly to a man who stood near:

"Ho! slave there! bring my pony grass--dost hear? and be quick!"

The man laughed. "Alâh!" he said; "whose son be you to give orders that fashion?"

"Whose son?" echoed the child passionately. "I am----"

But Bija clung to his arm. "H'st, Mirak!" she whispered. "Remember what Head-nurse said that we were not to tell----"

Akbar stood irresolute; he was wise beyond his years. "But Horse-chestnut must not be hungry. I won't have it!--he shall have grass," he said angrily; then, without another word he walked up to the next horse, took a great armful of the grass that lay in front of it and scattered it before his favourite.

"So there! slave!" he cried defiantly with a stamp of his foot.

The man looked at him curiously, said nothing, but went over to some others and began to whisper.

A minute afterwards, Foster-father returning, found the children the centre of a little crowd eager in enquiry whence they came, whither they were going, and, ere he could get them safely to their quarters, the attention of the Captain of the Escort had been arrested, he came out frowning and fuming.

"We march again in an hour," he said angrily to Foster-father. "On thy head be it if thou can'st not keep thy young fighting cock in order--'twill be all over the town by midnight!"

Foster-father did not often let his temper get the better of his prudence, but he could not resist saying mildly: "Kingship is like the musk-bag, friend, that was broken at the royal child's birth. It diffuses its perfume over the habitable world, and none can mistake it."

The Captain of the Escort shrugged his shoulders. "Then it shall smell in the wilderness, friend; for I run no risks of rescue this side the passes. So bid the women give the young crowing cockerel his supper and prepare to start again. There will be a moon in another hour and we can push on. Meanwhile I go to warn the other folk where to rejoin us."

It was a bitter cold night. The wind blew keenly from the snow before them, and by the time they reached a miserable village, high up on the slopes of the pass, every one save the two children was chilled to the bone; but they, well happed in all the coverings the fugitives could compass, were warm; Akbar, in Foster-father's arms, with Down, the cat, cuddled up beside him, and acting as a hot bottle! Once more there was plenty of fuel in the rude hut where they found shelter, and stiffened limbs and half-frosted fingers soon began to thaw. Tumbu, who had kept himself supple by, as usual, bounding about, was the only one of the party who did not doze off at once, now comparative comfort was reached.

But he was curiously restless. Over and over again he rose, went to the door and seemed to listen. Then he began to whine a little, then to scratch at the door as if he wanted to get out. Finally, finding no one paid any attention, he let loose one short, sharp bark, which awakened Head-nurse, who with an impatient look to see if her children had been disturbed, and an angry whisper, "Go, then! thou mean-born beast," rose softly, set open the door for a second, then closed it again, shivering with the chill blast that swept in. But Tumbu was out like a flash and disappeared in the darkness.

It must have been an hour afterward that every one's slumber was disturbed by the most insistent barking that ever was heard. Even Akbar, usually the soundest of sleepers, sat up and rubbed his eyes.

"The evil-dispositioned hound!" said Head-nurse in drowsy anger. "I deemed he had left us forever, and good riddance, too."

But little Prince Akbar, half awake, protested in defence of his dear dog.

"Tumbu only barks when he wants something, nurse; go and see what it is."

"A likely story!" cried Head-nurse.

"Well," interposed Foster-father philosophically, "some one must go if any one is to sleep."

Whereat he went to the door; but Tumbu on the doorstep refused to come in; he barked, bounced off, and returned the next minute to whine and bark again.

"He only wants something; go and see what it is," came Mirak's deep-toned voice. "I know he wants something."

"Lo! man alive!" grumbled Head-nurse; "shut the door whichever way it is. I perish with cold!"

Foster-father was a wise man, so to avoid further discussion he stepped out and shut the door behind him. Thus for a minute or two there was peace. Then Foster-father's voice rose urgently from outside.

"Open! I say open! Quick!"

Foster-mother flew to obey, and her husband staggered in, bearing some one in his arms. "God send the boy be not dead," he said as he laid down his burden.

It was Roy the Râjput!

"I found him quite close, frozen by the cold," he continued, as they set to work before the fire to rub the poor, stiff limbs and force a few drops of hot milk through the blue lips.

It was some time before a faint sigh, a quiver of the eyelids told that Roy was once more coming back to the world; but after that it was not long before he could sit up and tell them what had happened.

He had managed to evade the eyes of the troopers, and had arrived at the serai just after the startled party had left it; had followed on their traces until he had lost his way. In despair he had been stumbling along aimlessly when Tumbu had suddenly appeared. Following his lead, he had struggled on, gradually benumbed by cold, until at last his feet had failed him, and he remembered no more.

"Tumbu wanted Roy!" said little Prince Akbar gravely. "I told you he wanted something."

And Tumbu, hearing his name, roused his furry head from his furry paws and looked at his young master with his sharp, beady, black eyes, as who should say:

"Of course I did, because I knew you wanted him."