When finally he sought him out he found the old chief squatting in the shade before his hut, slightly the worse for the orgy of the preceding night.
“I have come to talk with you, Batando,” he said, “of the desert people.”
Batando grunted. His head ached.
“Yesterday you said that you would lead them to the entrance to the forbidden valley,” said Fejjuan. “You mean, then, that you will not fight them?”
“We shall not have to fight them if we lead them to the entrance to the forbidden valley,” replied Batando.
“You speak in riddles,” said Fejjuan.
“Listen, Ulala,” replied the old chief. “In childhood you were stolen from your people and taken from your country. Being young, there were many things you did not know and there are others that you have forgotten.
“It is not difficult to enter the forbidden valley, especially from the north. Every Galla knows bow to find the northern pass through the mountains or the tunnel beyond the great cross that marks the southern entrance. There are only these two ways in—every Galla knows them; but every Galla also knows that there is no way out of the forbidden valley.”
“What do you mean, Batando?” demanded Fejjuan. “If there are two ways in, there must be two ways out.”
“No—there is no way out,” insisted the chief. “As far back as goes the memory of man or the tales of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers it is known that many men have entered the forbidden valley, and it is also known that no man has ever come out of it.”
“And why have they not come out?”
Batando shook his head. “Who knows?” he asked. “We cannot even guess their fate.”
“What sort of people inhabit the valley?” asked Fejjuan.
“Not even that is known. No man has seen them and returned to tell. Some say they are the spirits of the dead, others that the valley is peopled by leopards; but no one knows.
“Go therefore, Ulala, and tell the chief of the desert people that we will lead him to the entrance to the valley. If we do this we shall not have to fight him and his people, nor shall we ever again be bothered by them,” and Batando laughed at his little joke.
“Will you send guides back with me to lead the Bedauwy to the valley?” asked Fejjuan.
“No,” replied the chief. “Tell them we shall come in three days. In the meantime I shall gather together many warriors from other villages, for I do not trust the desert people. Thus we shall conduct them through our country. Explain this to their chief and also that in payment he must release to us all the Galla slaves he has with him—before he enters the valley.”
“That Ibn Jad will not do,” said Fejjuan.
“Perhaps, when he sees himself surrounded by Galla warriors, he will be glad to do even more,” replied Batando.
And so Fejjuan, the Galla slave, returned to his masters and reported all that Batando had told him to report.
Ibn Jad at first refused to give up his slaves, but when Fejjuan had convinced him that under no other terms would Batando lead him to the entrance to the valley, and that his refusal to liberate the slaves would invite the hostile attentions of the Gallas, he finally consented; but in the back of his mind was the thought that before his promise was consummated he might find an opportunity to evade it.
Only one regret had Fejjuan in betraying the Beduins, and that was caused by his liking for Ateja, but being a fatalist he was consoled by the conviction that whatever was to be, would be, regardless of what he might do.
And as Ibn Jad waited and Batando gathered his black warriors from far and near, Tarzan of the Apes came to the water hole of the smooth, round rocks and took up the trail of the Beduins.
Since he had learned from Blake’s blacks that the young American was missing and also that they had seen nothing of Stimbol since the latter had separated from Blake and started for the coast, the ape-man was more convinced than ever that the white prisoner among the Arabs was Blake.
Still he felt no great concern for the man’s safety, for if the Beduins had sufficient hopes of reward to spare his life at all he was in no great danger from them. Reasoning thus Tarzan made no pretense of speed as he followed the spoor of Ibn Jad and his people.
Two men sat upon rough benches at opposite sides of a rude table. Between them a cresset of oil with a cotton wick laying in it burned feebly, slightly illuminating the stone flagging of the floor and casting weird shadows of themselves upon the rough stone walls.
Through a narrow window, innocent of glass, the night air blew, driving the flame of the cresset now this way, now that. Upon the table, between the men, lay a square board blocked off into squares, and within some of these were several wooden pieces.
“It is your move, Richard,” said one of the men. “You don’t appear to be very keen about the game tonight. What’s the matter?”
“I be thinking of the morrow, James, and my heart be heavy within me,” replied the other.
“And why?” demanded Blake.
“Malud is not the best swordsman in Nimmr,” replied Sir Richard, “but—” he hesitated.
“I am the worst,” Blake finished the sentence for him, laughingly.
Sir Richard looked up and smiled. “Thou wilt always joke, even in the face of death,” he said. “Art all the men of this strange country thou tell’st of alike?”
“It is your move, Richard,” said Blake.
“Hide not his sword from thine eyes with thy buckler, James,” cautioned Richard. “Ever keep thine eyes upon his eyes until thou knowest whereat he striketh, then, with thy buckler ready, thou mayst intercept the blow, for he be over slow and always his eyes proclaim where his blade will fall. Full well I knoweth that for often have I exercised against him.”
“And he hasn’t killed you,” Blake reminded him.
“Ah, we did but practice, but on the morrow it will be different, for Malud engages thee to the death, in mortal combat my friend, to wash away in blood the affront thou didst put him.”
“He wants to kill me, just for that?” asked Blake. “I’ll tell the world he’s a touchy little rascal!”
“Were it only that, he might be satisfied merely to draw blood, but there is more that he hath against thee.”
“More? What? I’ve scarcely spoken to him a dozen times,” said Blake,
“He be jealous.”
“Jealous? Of whom?”
“He would wed the Princess and he hath seen in what manner thou lookest at her,” explained Richard.
“Poppycock!” cried Blake, but he flushed.
“Nay, he be not the only one who hath marked it,” insisted Richard.
“You’re crazy,” snapped Blake.
“Often men look thus at the princess, for she be beautiful beyond compare, but——”
“Has he killed them all?” demanded the American.
“No, for the princess didst not look back at them in the same manner.”
Blake leaned back upon his bench and laughed. “Now I know you’re crazy,” he cried, “all of you. I’ll admit that I think the princess is a mighty sweet kid, but say young fellow, she can’t see me a little bit.”
“Enough of thy outlandish speech I grasp to gather thy meaning, James, but thou canst not confuse me upon the one subject nor deceive me upon the other. The eyes of the princess seldom leave thee whilst thou art at practice upon the lists and the look in thine when they rest upon her—hast ever seen a hound adoring his master?”
“Run along and sell your papers,” admonished Blake.
“For this, Malud wouldst put thee out of the way and it is because I know this that I grieve, for I have learned to like thee over well, my friend.”
Blake arose and came around the end of the table. “You’re a good old scout, Richard,” he said, placing a hand affectionately upon the other’s shoulder, “but do not worry—I am not dead yet I know I seem awkward with the sword, but I have learned much about its possibilities within the past few days and I think that Sir Malud has a surprise awaiting him.”
“Thy courage and thy vast assurance should carry thee far, James, but they may not overcome a life-time of practice with the sword, and that is the advantage Malud hath over thee.”
“Does Prince Gobred favor Malud’s suit?” demanded Blake.
“Why not? Malud is a powerful knight, with a great castle of his own and many horses and retainers. Besides a dozen knights he hath fully an hundred men-at-arms.”
“There are several knights who have their own castles and following are there not?” asked Blake.
“Twenty, perchance,” replied Richard.
“And they live close to Gobred’s castle?”
“At the edge of the hills, within three leagues upon either hand of Gobred’s castle,” explained Richard.
“And no others live in all this great valley?” demanded Bhike.
“You have heard mention made of Bohun?” asked Richard.
“He calls himself king, but never will we refer to him as king. He and his followers dwell upon the opposite side of the valley. They number, perchance, as many as we and we be always at war against them.”
“But I’ve been hearing quite a bit about a great tournament for which the knights are practicing now. I thought that Bohun and his knights were to take part in it.”
“They be. Once each year, commencing upon the first Sunday of Lent and extending over a period of three days, there hath been from time immemorial a truce declared between the Fronters and the Backers, during which is held the Great Tourney, one year in the plain before the city of Nimmr and the next year in the plain before the City of the Sepulcher, as they call it.”
“Fronters and Backers! What in heck do those mean?” demanded Blake.
“Thou art a knight of Nimmr and know not that?” exclaimed Richard.
“What I know about knighting would rattle around in a peanut shell,” admitted Blake.
“Thou shouldst know and I shall tell thee. Hark thee well, then,” said Richard, “for I must need go back to the very beginning.” He poured two goblets of wine from a flagon standing on the floor beside him, took a long drink and proceeded with his tale. “Richard I sailed from Sicily in the spring of 1191 with all his great following bound for Acre, where he was to meet the French king, Philip Augustus, and wrest the Holy Land from the power of the Saracen. But Richard tarried upon the way to conquer Cyprus and punish the vile despot who had placed an insult upon Berengaria, whom Richard was to wed.
“When the great company again set their sails for Acre there were many Cyprian maidens hidden away upon the ships by knights who had taken a fancy to their lovely faces, and it so befell that two of these ships, encountering a storm, were blown from their course and wrecked upon the Afric shore.
“One of these companies was commanded by a knight y-clept Bohun and the other by one Gobred and though they marched together they kept separate other than when attacked.
“Thus, searching for Jerusalem, they came upon this valley which the followers of Bohun declared was the Valley of the Holy Sepulcher and that the crusade was over. Their crosses, that they had worn upon their breasts as do all crusaders who have not reached their goal, they removed and placed upon their backs to signify that the crusade was over and that they were returning home.
“Gobred insisted that this was not the Valley of the Holy Sepulcher and that the crusade was not accomplished. He, therefore, and all his followers, retained their crosses upon their breasts and built a city and a strong castle to defend the entrance to the valley that Bohun and his followers might be prevented from returning to England until they had accomplished their mission.
“Bohun crossed the valley and built a city and a castle to prevent Gobred from pushing on in the direction in which the latter knew that the true Sepulcher lay, and for nearly seven and a half centuries the descendants of Bohun have prevented the descendants of Gobred from pushing on and rescuing the Holy Land from the Saracen, while the descendants of Go-bred have prevented the descendants of Bohun from returning to England, to the dishonor of knighthood.
“Gobred took the title of prince and Bohun that of king and these titles have been handed down from father to son during the centuries, while the followers of Gobred still wear the cross upon their breasts and are called therefrom, the Fronters, and the followers of Bohun wear theirs upon their backs and are called Backers.”
“And you would still push on and liberate the Holy Land?” asked Blake.
“Yes,” replied Richard, “and the Backers would return to England; but long since have we realized the futility of either hope since we be surrounded by a vast army of Saracens and our numbers be too few to pit against them.”
“Thinkest thou not that we are wise to remain here under such stress?” he demanded.
“Well, you’d certainly surprise ’em if you rode into Jerusalem, or London, either,” admitted Blake. “On the whole, Richard, I’d remain right here, if I were you. You see, after seven hundred and thirty-five years most of the home folks may have forgotten you and even the Saracens might not know what it was all about if you came charging into Jerusalem.”
“Mayhap you speak wisely, James,” said Richard, “and then, too, we be content here, knowing no other country.”
For a while both men were silent, in thought. Blake was the first to speak. “This big tourney interests me,” he said. “You say it starts the first Sunday in Lent. That’s not far away.”
“No, not far. Why?”
“I was wondering if you thought I’d be in shape to have a part in it. I’m getting better and better with the lance every day.”
Sir Richard looked sadly at him and shook his head. “Tomorrow thou wilt be dead,” he said.
“Say! You’re a cheerful party,” exclaimed Blake.
“I am only truthful, good friend,” replied Richard. “It grieveth my heart sorely that it should be true, but true it be—thou canst not prevail over Sir Malud on the morrow. Wouldst that I might take thy place in the lists against him, but that may not be. But I console myself with the thought that thou will comport thyself courageously and die as a good sir knight should, with no stain upon thy escutcheon. Greatly will it solace the Princess Guinalda to know that thou didst die thus.”
“You think so?” ventured Blake.
“And if I don’t die—will she be put out?”
“Put out! Put out of what?” demanded Richard.
“Will she be sore vexed, then,” corrected Blake.
“I should not go so far as to say that,” admitted Richard, “but natheless it appears certain that no lady would rejoice to see her promised husband overthrown and killed, and if thou art not slain it may only be because thou hast slain Malud.”
“She is his affianced wife?” demanded Blake.
“’Tis understood, that be all. As yet no formal marriage bans have been proclaimed.”
“I’m going to turn in,” snapped Blake. “If I’ve got to be killed tomorrow I ought to get a little sleep tonight.”
As he stretched himself upon a rough wool blanket that was spread over a bed of rushes upon the stone floor in one corner of the room and drew another similar blanket over him, he felt less like sleep than he had ever felt before. The knowledge that on the morrow he was to meet a medieval knight in mortal combat naturally gave him considerable concern, but Blake was too self-reliant and too young to seriously harbor the belief that he would be the one to be killed. He knew it was possible but he did not intend to permit the thought to upset him. There was, however, another that did. It upset him very much and, too, it made him angry when he realized that he was concerned about it—about the proposed marriage of Sir Malud of West Castle and Guinalda, Princess of Nimmr.
Could it be that he had been ass enough, he soliloquized, to have fallen in love with this little medieval princess who probably looked upon him as dirt beneath her feet? And what was he going to do about Malud? Suppose he should get the better of the fellow on the morrow? Well, what about it? If he killed him that would make Guinalda unhappy. If he didn’t kill him—what? Sir James did not know.