“The truth and the falsity of this whole strange business is beyond me, but this I know: if you are not the king today I pray God that the other may not find his way to Lustadt before noon tomorrow, for by then a brave man will sit upon the throne of Lutha, your majesty.”
Barney laid his hand upon the shoulder of the other.
“It cannot be, my friend,” he said. “There is more than a throne at stake for me, but to win them both I could not do the thing you suggest. If Leopold of Lutha lives he must be crowned tomorrow.”
“And if he does not live?” asked Butzow.
Barney Custer shrugged his shoulders.
It was dusk when the two entered the palace grounds in Lustadt. The sight of Barney threw the servants and functionaries of the royal household into wild excitement and confusion. Men ran hither and thither bearing the glad tidings that the king had returned.
Old von der Tann was announced within ten minutes after Barney reached his apartments. He urged upon the American the necessity for greater caution in the future.
“Your majesty’s life is never safe while Peter of Blentz is abroad in Lutha,” cried he.
“It was to save your king from Peter that we rode from Lustadt last night,” replied Barney, but the old prince did not catch the double meaning of the words.
While they talked a young officer of cavalry begged an audience. He had important news for the king, he said. From him Barney learned that Peter of Blentz had succeeded in recruiting a fair-sized army in the lowlands. Two regiments of government infantry and a squadron of cavalry had united forces with him, for there were those who still accepted him as regent, believing his contention that the true king was dead, and that he whose coronation was to be attempted was but the puppet of old Von der Tann.
The morning of November 5 broke clear and cold. The old town of Lustadt was awakened with a start at daybreak by the booming of cannon. Mounted messengers galloped hither and thither through the steep, winding streets. Troops, foot and horse, moved at the double from the barracks along the King’s Road to the fortifications which guard the entrance to the city at the foot of Margaretha Street.
Upon the heights above the town Barney Custer and the old Prince von der Tann stood surrounded by officers and aides watching the advance of a skirmish line up the slopes toward Lustadt. Behind, the thin line columns of troops were marching under cover of two batteries of field artillery that Peter of Blentz had placed upon a wooden knoll to the southeast of the city.
The guns upon the single fort that, overlooking the broad valley, guarded the entire southern exposure of the city were answering the fire of Prince Peter’s artillery, while several machine guns had been placed to sweep the slope up which the skirmish line was advancing.
The trees that masked the enemy’s pieces extended upward along the ridge and the eastern edge of the city. Barney saw that a force of men might easily reach a commanding position from that direction and enter Lustadt almost in rear of the fortifications. Below him a squadron of the Royal Horse were just emerging from their stables, taking their way toward the plain to join in a concerted movement against the troops that were advancing toward the fort.