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AFTER the sound of that terrible shouting there came silence- that is, there was silence where the children were, but all above they could hear the rush and rustle of a quick arming.
"The war-cry of the People of the Depths," said the Princess.
"I suppose," said Kathleen forlornly, "that if they're so near as that all is lost."
"Lost? No, indeed," cried the Princess. "The People of the Depths are very strong, but they are very heavy. They cannot rise up and come to us from the water above. Before they can get in they must scale the wall."
"But they will get over the wall- won't they?"
"Not while one of the Royal Halibuts still lives. The Halibuts have manned the wall; they will keep back the foe. But they won't attack yet. They'll send out their scouts and skirmishers. Till they approach, the Crustacean Brigade can do nothing. It is a hard thing to watch a fight in which you may not share. I must apologise for appointing you to such an unsatisfactory position."
"Thank you, we don't mind," said Cathay hastily. "What's that?"
It was a solid, gleaming sheet of silver that rose above them like a great carpet - which split and tore itself into silver threads.
"It is the Sword-fish Brigade," said the Princess. "We could swim up a little and watch them, if you're not afraid. You see, the first attack will probably be delivered by one of their Shark regiments. The 7th Sharks have a horrible reputation. But our brave Sword-fish are a match for them," she added proudly.
The Sword-fish, who were slowly swimming to and fro above, seemed to stiffen as though to meet some danger at present unseen by the others. Then, with a swift, silent, terrible movement, the Sharks rushed on the noble defenders of Merland.
The Sword-fish with their deadly weapons were ready - and next moment all the water was a wild whirl of confused conflict. The Sharks fought with a sort of harsh, rough courage, and the children, who had drawn away to a little distance, could not help admiring their desperate onslaught. But the Swordfish were more than their match. With more skill, and an equally desperate gallantry, they met and repulsed the savage onslaught of the Sharks.
Shoals of large, calm Cod swept up from the depths, and began to shoulder the dead Sharks sideways towards the water above the walls - the dead Sharks and, alas! many a brave, dead Sword-fish, too. For the victory had not been a cheap one.
The children could not help cheering as the victorious Sword-fish re-formed.
"Pursuit is unnecessary," said the Princess. "The Sharks have lost too heavily to resume the attack."
A Shark in terror-stricken retreat passed close by her, and she clipped its tail with her oyster-shell.
The Shark turned savagely, but the Princess with one tail-swish was out of danger, hushing the children before her outspread arms, and the Shark began to sink, still making vain efforts to pursue them.
"The shell will drag him down," said the Princess; "and now I must go and get a fresh shield. I wish I knew where the next attack would be delivered."
They sank slowly through the water.
"I wonder where Reuben is?" said Bernard.
"Oh, he's quite safe," said the Princess. "The Boy Scouts don't go outside the walls- they just do a good turn for anybody who wants it, you know- and help the kind Soles to look after the wounded."
They had reached the great flooded garden again and turned towards the Palace, and as they went a Sea-urchin shell suddenly rose from behind one of the clipped hedges-a Sea-urchin shell and behind it a long tail.
The shell was raised, and the face under it was Reuben's.
"Hi, Princess!" he shouted. "I've been looking for you everywhere. We've been scouting. I got a lot of seaweed, and they thought I was nothing but seaweed; and so I got quite close to the enemy."
"It was very rash," said the Princess severely.
"The others don't think so," he said, a little hurt. "They began by saying I was only an irregular Sea-urchin, because I've got this jolly tail" -he gave it a merry wag- "and they called me Spatangus, and names like that. But they've made me their General now - General Echinus. I'm a regular now, and no mistake, and what I was going to say is the enemy is going to attack the North Tower in force in half an hour."
"You good boy," said the Princess. I do believe if it hadn't been for his Sea-urchin's uniform she would have kissed him. "You're splendid. You're a hero. If you could do it safely - there's heaps of seaweed - could you find out if there's any danger from the Book People? You know - the ones in the cave. It's always been our fear that they might attack, too: and if they did - well, I'd rather be the slave of a Shark than of Mrs Fairchild." She gathered an armful of seaweed from the nearest tree, and Reuben wrapped himself in it and drifted off - looking less like a live Boy Scout than you could believe possible.
The defenders of Merland, now acting on Reuben's information, began to mass themselves near the North Wall.
"Now is our time," said the Princess. "We must go along the tunnel, and when we hear the sound of their heavy feet shaking the flow of ocean we must make sallies, and fix our shell shields in their feet. Major, rally your men."
A tall merchild in the Crustacean uniform blew a clear note, and the soldiers of the Crustacean Brigade, who having nothing particular to do had been helping anyone and everyone as best they could, which is the way in Merland, though not in Europe, gathered about their officers.
When they were all drawn up before her, the Princess addressed her troops.
"My men," she said, "we have been suddenly plunged into war. But it has not found us unprepared. I am proud to think that my regiments are ready to the last pearl-button. And I know that every man among you will be as proud as I am that our post is, as tradition tells us it has always been, the post of danger. We shall go out into the depths of the sea to fight the enemies of our dear country, and to lay down our lives, if need be, for that country's sake."
The soldiers answered by cheers, and the Princess led the way to one of those little buildings, like Temples of Flora in old pictures, which the children had noticed in the gardens. At the order given a sergeant raised a great stone by a golden ring embedded in it and disclosed a dark passage leading underground.
A splendid captain of Cockles, six feet high if he was an inch, with a sergeant and six men, led the way. Three Oyster officers followed, then a company of Oysters, the advance guard. At the head of the main body following were the Princess and her Staff. As they went the Princess explained why the tunnel was so long and sloped so steeply.
"You see," she said, " the inside of our wall is only about ten feet high, but it goes down on the other side for forty feet or more. It is built on a hill. Now, I don't want you to feel obliged to come out and fight. You can stay inside and get the shields ready for us to take. We shall keep on rushing back for fresh weapons. Of course the tunnel's much too narrow for the Under Folk to get in, but they have their regiment of highly-trained Sea-serpents, who, of course, can make themselves thin and worm through anything."
"Cathay doesn't like serpents," said Mavis anxiously.
"You needn't be afraid," said the Princess. "They're dreadful cowards. They know the passage is guarded by our Lobsters. They won't come within a mile of the entrance. But the main body of the enemy will have to pass quite close. There's a great sea mountain, and the only way to our North Tower is in the narrow ravine between that mountain and Merland."
The tunnel ended in a large rocky hall with the armoury, hung with ten thousand gleaming shields, on the one side, and the guard-room crowded with enthusiastic Lobsters on the other. The entrance from the sea was a short, narrow passage, in which stood two Lobsters in their beautiful dark coats of mail.
Since the moment when the blue sky that looked first so like sky and then so like painted tin had, touched, confessed itself to be a bubble - confessed, too, in the most practical way, by bursting and letting the water into Merland - the children had been carried along by the breathless rush of preparations for the invasion, and the world they were now in had rapidly increased in reality, while their own world, in which till to-day they had always lived, had been losing reality at exactly the same rate as that by which the new world gained it. So it was that when the Princess said "You needn't go out and attack the enemy unless you like," they all answered, in some astonishment:
"But we want to."
"That's all right," said the Princess. "I only wanted to see if they were in working order."
"If what were?"
"Your coats. They're coats of valour, of course."
"I think I could be brave without a coat," said Bernard, and began to undo his pearlbuttons.
"Of course you could," said the Princess. "In fact, you must be brave to begin with, or the coat couldn't work. It would be no good to a coward. It just keeps your natural valour warm and your wits cool."
"It makes you braver," said Kathleen suddenly. "At least I hope it's me - but I expect it's the coat. Anyhow, I'm glad it does. Because I do want to be brave. Oh, Princess!"
"Well?" said the Princess, gravely, but not unkindly, "what is it?"
Kathleen stood a moment, her hands twisting in each other and her eyes downcast. Then in an instant she had unbuttoned and pulled off her coat of pearly mail and thrown it at the Princess's feet.
"I'll do it without the coat," she said, and drew a long breath.
The others looked on in silence, longing to help her, but knowing that no one could help her now but herself.
"It was me," said Kathleen suddenly, and let go a deep breath of relief. "It was me that touched the sky and let in the water; and I am most frightfully sorry, and I know you'll never forgive me. But-"
"Quick," said the Princess, picking up the coat, "get into your armour; it'll prevent your crying." She hustled Kathleen into the coat and kept her arms round her. "Brave girl," she whispered. "I'm glad you did it without the coat." The other three thought it polite to turn away. "Of course," the Princess added, "I knew- but you didn't know I knew."
"How did you know?" said Kathleen.
"By your eyes," said the Princess, with one last hug; "they're quite different now. Come, let us go to the gate and see if any of our Scouts are signalling."
The two Lobster sentries presented claws as the Princess passed with her Staff through the narrow arch and on to the sandy plain of the sea-bottom. The children were astonished to find that they could see quite plain a long way through the water - as far as they could have seen in air, and the view was very like one kind of land view. First, the smooth flat sand dotted with copses of branching seaweed -then woods of taller tree-like weeds with rocks shelving up and up to a tall, rocky mountain. This mountain sent out a spur, then ran along beside the Mer-kingdom and joined the rock behind it; and it was along the narrow gorge so formed that the Under Folk were expected to advance. There were balls of seaweed floating in the air - at least, it really now had grown to seem like air, though, of course, it was water - but no signs of Scouts.
Suddenly the balls of seaweed drew together and the Princess murmured, "I thought so," as they formed into orderly lines, sank to the ground, and remained motionless for a moment, while one ball of seaweed stood in front of them.
"It's the Boy Scouts," she said. "Your Reuben is giving them their orders."
It seemed that she was right, for next moment the balls of seaweed drifted away in different directions, and the one who had stood before them drifted straight to the arch where the Princess and the children stood. It drifted in, pulled off its seaweed disguise, and was, in effect, Reuben.
"We've found out something more, your Highness," he said, saluting the Princess. "The vanguard are to be Sea-horses; you know, not the little ones, but the great things they have in the depths."
"No use our attacking the horses," said the Princess. "They're as hard as ice. Who rides them?"
"The First Dipsys," said Reuben. " They're the young Under Folk who want to cut a dash. They call them the Forlorn Hopers, for short."
"Have they got armour?"
"No-that's their swank. They've no armour but their natural scales. Those look thick enough, though. I say, Princess, I suppose we Sea-urchins are free to do exactly as we choose?"
"Yes," said the Princess, "unless orders are given.
"Well, then - my idea is that the Lobsters are the fellows to tackle the Sea-horses. Hold on to their tails, see? They can't hurt the Lobsters because they can't get at their own tails."
"But when the Lobsters let go?" said the Princess.
"The Lobsters wouldn't let go till they had driven back the enemy," said the Lobster Captain, saluting. "Your Highness, may I ask if you propose to take this Urchin's advice?"
"Isn't it good?" she asked.
"Yes, your Highness," the Lobster Captain answered, "but it's impertinent."
"I am the best judge of that," said the Princess gently; "remember that these are noble volunteers, who are fighting for us of their own free will."
The Lobster saluted and was silent.
"I cannot send the Lobsters," said the Princess, "we need them to protect the gate. But the Crabs-"
"Ah, Highness, let us go," pleaded the Lobster Captain.
"The Crabs cannot keep the gate," said the Princess kindly. "You know they are not narrow enough. Francis, will you be my aide-de-camp and take a message to the Queen?"
"May I go, too?" asked Mavis.
"Yes. But we must deliver a double assault. If the Crabs attack the Horses, who will deal with the riders?"
"I have an idea about that, too," said Reuben. "If we could have some good heavy shoving regiment - and someone sharp to finish them off. The Sword-fish, perhaps?"
"You are a born general," the Princess said, "but you don't quite know our resources. The United Narwhals can do the shoving, as you call it - and their horns are sharp and heavy. Now" - she took a smooth white chalkstone from the sea-floor, and a ready Lobster brought her a sharpened haddock-bone. She wrote quickly, scratching the letters deep on the chalk; "Here," she said, "take this to the Queen. You will find her at Headquarters at the Palace-yard. Tell her everything. I have only asked for the two regiments; you must explain the rest. I don't suppose there'll be any difficulty in getting through our lines, but, if there should be, the password is 'Glory' and the countersign is 'or Death.' And hurry, hurry, hurry for your lives!"
Never before had Mavis and Francis felt anything like the glow of excitement and importance which warmed them as they went up the long tunnel to take the message to the Queen.
"But where is the Palace?" Mavis said, and they stopped, looking at each other.
"I'll show you, please," said a little voice behind them. They turned quickly to find a small, spruce, gentlemanly Mackerel at their heels. "I'm one of the Guides," it said. "I felt sure you'd need me. This way, sir, please," and it led the way across the gardens in and out of the clumps of trees and between the seaweed hedges till they came to the Palace. Rows and rows of soldiers surrounded it, all waiting impatiently for the word of command that should send them to meet the enemies of their country.
"Glory," said the gentlemanly Mackerel, as he passed the outposts.
"Or Death," replied the sentinel Sea-bream.
The Queen was in the courtyard, in which the children had received their ovation - so short a time ago, and yet how long it seemed. Then the courtyard had been a scene of the calm and charming gaiety of a nation at peace; now it was full of the ardent, intense inactivity of waiting warriors. The Queen in her gleaming coral armour met them as the password opened a way to her through, the close-packed ranks of the soldiers. She took the stone and read it, and with true royal kindness she found time, even at such a moment, for a word of thanks to the messengers.
"See the Narwhals start," she added, "and then back to your posts with all speed. Tell your commanding officer that so far the Book People have made no sign, but the golden gate is strongly defended by the King's Own Cod- and-"
"I didn't know there was a King," said Francis.
The Queen looked stern, and the Mackerel guide jerked Francis's magic coat-tail warningly and whispered "Hush!"
"The King," said the Queen quietly, "is no more. He was lost at sea."
When the splendid, steady column of Narwhals had marched off to its appointed place the children bowed to the Queen and went back to their posts.
"I'm sorry I said anything," said Francis to the Mackerel, "but I didn't know. Besides, how can a Mer-king be lost at sea?"
"Aren't your Kings lost on land?" asked the Mackerel, "or if not kings, men quite as good? What about explorers?"
"I see," said Mavis; "and doesn't anyone know what has become of him?"
"No," said tb a Mackerel; "he has been lost for a very long time. We fear the worst. If he were alive he would have come back. We think the Under Folk have him. They bewitch prisoners so that they forget who they are. Of course, there's the antidote. Every uniform is made with a little antidote pocket just over the heart." He put his fin inside his scales and produced a little golden case; just like a skate's egg. "You've got them, too, of course," he added. "If you are taken prisoner swallow the contents at once."
"But if you forget who you are," said Francis, "don't you forget the antidote?"
"No charm," the Mackerel assured him, "is strong enough to make one forget one's countercharm."
And now they were back at the Lobster-guarded gate. The Princess ran to meet them.
"What a time you've been," she said. "Is all well? Have the Narwhals taken up their position?"
Satisfied on this point, she led the children up a way long and steep to a window in the wall whence they could look down on the ravine and see the advance of the foe. The Narwhals were halted about half-way up the ravine, where it widened to a sort of amphitheatre. Here, among the rocks, they lay in ambush, waiting for the advance of the foe.
"If it hadn't been for you, Reuben," said the Princess, as they leaned their elbows on the broad rocky ledge of the window, "they might easily have stormed the North Tower - we should not have been ready - all our strongest defences were massed on the south side. It was there they attacked last time, so the history-books tell us."
And now a heavy, thundering sound, faint yet terrible, announced the approach of the enemy - and far away across the sea-plain something could be seen moving. A ball of seaweed seemed to drift up the ravine.
"A Sea-urchin gone to give the alarm," said the Princess; "what splendid things Boy Scouts are. We didn't have them in the last war. My dear father only invented them just before-" She paused and sighed. "Look," she said.
The enemy's heavy cavalry were moving in a solid mass towards Merland- the great Seahorses, twenty feet long, and their great riders, who must have been eight or ten feet high, came more and more quickly, heading to the ravine. The riders were the most terrible beings the children had ever seen. Clothed from head to feet in closely-fitting scales, with large heads, large ears, large mouths and blunt noses and large, blind-looking eyes, they sat each erect on his armoured steed, the long harpoons swaying lightly in their enormous hands.
The Sea-horses quickened their pace - and a noise like a hoarse trumpet rang out.
"They are sounding the charge," said the Princess; and as she spoke the Under Folk charged at the ravine, in a determined, furious onrush.
"Oh, no one can stand up against that- they can't," said Cathay, in despair.
From the window they could see right down on to the amphitheatre, where the Narwhals were concealed.
On came the Sea Cavalry - so far unresisted - but as they neared the ambush bunches of seaweed drifted in the faces of the riders. They floundered and strove to push away the clinging stuff - and as they strove the Narwhals made their sortie-drove their weight against the riders and hurled them from their horses, and from the covers of the rocks the Crabs advanced with an incredible speed and caught the tails of the Sea-horses in their inexorable claws. The riders lay on the ground. The horses were rearing and prancing with fear and pain as the clouds of seaweed, each with a prickly Seaurchin in it, flung themselves against their faces. The riders stood up, fighting to the last; but the harpoons were no match for the Narwhal's horns.
"Come away," said the Princess.
Already the Sea-horses, urged by the enormous Crabs, were retreating in the wildest disorder, pursued by Narwhals and harassed by Sea-urchins.
The Princess and the children went back to the Lobster sentries.
"Repulsed," said the Princess, "with heavy loss" - and the Lobsters cheered.
"How's that, Princess?" said a ball of seaweed, uncurling itself at the gate and presenting the familiar features of Reuben.
"How is it?" she said,- "it is Victory. And we owe it to you. But you're wounded?"
"Only a scratch," said Reuben; "harpoon just missed me."
"Oh, Reuben, you are a hero," said Cathay.
"Get along, you silly," be answered gracefully.
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