Ranni lighted his pipe and puffed at it. Everyone waited for him to begin, wondering what he had to tell them.
“I found a small camp,” said Ranni. “Not more than four or five men were there. They had been out hunting. When they saw me coming they all hid behind the rocks in terror.”
“But why were they so afraid?” asked Nora in wonder.
“Well, I soon found out,” said Ranni. “I can speak their language a little, because I have hunted round about this country before, as you know. It seems that they thought I was one of the strange folk from the Secret Mountain.”
“From the Secret Mountain!” cried Mike. “What do you mean? What secret mountain?”
“Be patient and listen,” said Pilescu, who was listening closely. “Go on, Ranni.”
“Somewhere not far from here is a strange mountain,” said Ranni. “It is called the Secret Mountain because for years a secret and strange tribe of people have made their home in the centre of it. They are not like the people round about at all.”
“What are they like then?” asked Jack.
“As far as I can make out their skins are a queer creamy-yellow, and their beards and hair are red, like Pilescu’s and mine. They are thin and tall, and their eyes are green. No one belonging to any other tribe is allowed to mix with them, and no one has ever found out the entrance into the Secret Mountain.”
“Ranni! This is a most wonderful story!” cried Prince Paul, his eyes shining with excitement. “Is it really true? Oh, do let’s go and find the secret mountain at once, this very minute!”
“Don’t be an idiot, Paul,” said Mike, giving him a push. The little Prince was very excitable, and Mike and Jack often had to stop him when he wanted to rush off at once and do something. “Be quiet and listen to Ranni.”
“All the people that live anywhere near are afraid of the Folk of the Secret Mountain,” said Ranni. “They think that they are very fierce, and they do not come this way if they can possibly help it. When they saw me, with my red hair, they really thought I was a man from the Secret Mountain, and they were too terrified even to run away.”
“Did you ask them if they knew anything about Daddy and Mummy?” asked Peggy eagerly.
“Of course,” said Ranni. “They knew nothing — but tomorrow a man is coming to our camp here, who saw the White Swallow come down, and who may be able to tell us something. But I think, children, that there is no doubt that Captain and Mrs. Arnold were captured by the Folk of the Secret Mountain. We don’t know why — but I am sure they are there.”
“We cannot search for them, then,” said Pilescu. “We must fly to the nearest town and bring a proper search party back here.”
“No, no, Pilescu,” cried everyone in dismay.
“We are going to look for our parents,” said Mike proudly. “Pilescu, this is the third great adventure we children have had, and I tell you we are all plucky and daring. We will not fly away and leave others to follow this adventure.”
All the children vowed and declared that they would not go with Ranni and Pilescu, and the two men looked at one another over the camp fire.
“They are like a litter of tiger-cubs,” said Ranni in his own language to Pilescu.
Prince Paul laughed excitedly. He knew that Ranni wanted to follow the adventure himself, and that this meant that Paul too would be with him, for he would not leave his little master now. Paul turned to the other children.
“It’s all right,” he said. “We shan’t go! Ranni means to help us.”
For a long time that night the little camp talked over Ranni’s strange tale. Where was the Secret Mountain? Who were the strange red-haired people who lived there? Why had they captured Captain and Mrs. Arnold? How in the world were the searchers to find the way into the mountain if not even the people round about know it? For a long time all these questions were discussed again and again.
Then Pilescu looked at his watch. “It is very late!” he exclaimed. “Children, you must sleep. Ranni, I will keep watch tonight, for you must be very tired.”
“Very well,” said Ranni. “You shall take the first half of the night and I will take the other. We can do nothing but wait until tomorrow, when the man who saw the White Swallow will come to talk to us.”
Very soon all the camp was asleep, except Pilescu, who sat with his gun in hand, watching the moving animal-shapes that prowled some distance away, afraid to come nearer because of the fire. Pilescu loved an adventure as much as anyone, and he thought deeply about the Folk of the Secret Mountain, with their creamy-yellow skins, red hair and curious green eyes.
The big Baronian was brave and fierce, as were all the men from the far-off land of Baronia, where Paul’s father was king. He was afraid of nothing. The only thing he did not like was taking the five children into danger — but, as Ranni had said, they were like tiger-cubs, fierce and daring, and had already been through some astonishing adventures by themselves.
Morning came, and with it came the native who had seen the White Swallow come down. He was very tall, but with a sly and rather cruel face. Carrying three spears for him came a small, thin boy, with a sharp face and such a merry twinkle in his eyes that all the children liked him at once.
“Who is that boy?” asked Jack, curiously. Ranni asked the man, and he replied, making a scornful face.
“It’s his nephew,” said Ranni. “He is the naughty boy of the family, and is always running away, exploring the country by himself. Children of this tribe are not allowed to do this — they have to go with the hunters and be properly trained. This little chap is disobedient and wild, so his uncle has taken him in hand, as you see.”
“I like the look of the boy,” said Jack. “But I don’t like the uncle at all. Ask him about the White Swallow, Ranni. See if he knows anything about Captain and Mrs. Arnold.”
Ranni did not speak the man’s language very well, but he could understand it better. The man spoke a lot, waving his arms about, and almost acting the whole thing so that the children could nearly understand his story without understanding his words.
“He says he was hunting not far from here, keeping a good look-out for any of the Secret Mountain Folk, when he heard the sky making a strange noise,” said Ranni. “He looked up, and saw a great white bird that said ‘r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r,’ as loudly as a thunderstorm.”
The children shouted with laughter at this funny description of an aeroplane. Ranni could not help grinning, even though he knew the man had probably never seen a plane before, and went on with his translation.
“He says the big white bird flew lower, and came down over there. He stayed behind his tree without moving. He thought the big white bird would see him and eat him.”
Again everyone laughed. The tribesman grinned too, showing two rows of flashing white teeth. The little boy behind joined in the laughter, but stopped very suddenly when his uncle turned round and hit him hard on the side of the head.
“Oh my goodness!” shouted Jack in surprise. “Why shouldn’t he laugh too?”
“Children of this tribe must not laugh if their elders are present,” said Ranni. “This man’s nephew must often get into serious trouble, I should think! He looks as if he is on the point of giggling every minute!”
The man went on with his story. He told how he had seen two people climb out of the big white bird, which amazed him very much. Then he saw something that frightened him even more than seeing the aeroplane and the pilots. He saw some of the Folk of the Secret Mountain, with their flaming red hair and pale skins!
He had been so interested in the aeroplane that he had stayed watching behind his tree — but the sight of the Secret Mountain Folk had given him such a scare that his legs had come to life and he had run back towards his village.
“So you didn’t see what happened to the White Bird people?” asked Ranni, deeply disappointed. The man shook his head. The small boy watching, imitated him so perfectly that all the children laughed, disappointed though they were.
The man looked behind to see what everyone was smiling at and caught his nephew making faces. He strode over to him and knocked him down flat on the ground. The boy gave a yell, sat up and rubbed his head.
“What a horrid fellow this man is,” said Pilescu in disgust. “Ranni, ask him if he can tell us the way to the Secret Mountain.”
Ranni asked him. The man showed signs of fear as he answered.
“He says yes, he knows the way to the mountain, but he does not know the way inside,” said Ranni.
“Ask him if he will take us there,” said Pilescu. “Tell him we will pay him well if he does.”
At first the man shook his head firmly when Ranni asked him. But when Pilescu took a mirror from the cabin of the plane, and showed the man himself in it, making signs to him that he would give it to him as well, the man was tempted.
“He thinks the mirror is wonderful. He is in the mirror as well as outside it,” translated Ranni with a grin. “He says it would be a good thing to have it, because then if he is hurt or wounded, it will not matter — the man inside the mirror, which is himself too, will be all right, and he will be him instead.”
Everyone smiled to hear this. The man had never seen a mirror before, he had only caught sight of himself in pools. It seemed as if another himself was in the strange gleaming thing that the red-haired man was offering him. He stood in front of the mirror, making awful faces, and laughing.
Ranni asked him again if he would show them the way to the Secret Mountain if he gave him the mirror. The man nodded. The mirror was too much for him. Why, he had never seen anything like it before.
“Tell him we will start tomorrow at dawn,” said Pilescu. “I want to make sure that we have everything we need before we set off. Also I want to look at the engines of the White Swallow and our own plane to see that they are all ready to take off, should we find Captain and Mrs. Arnold, and want to leave in a hurry!”
The children were in a great state of excitement. They hardly knew how to keep still that day, even when the great heat came down, and they had to lie in the shade, panting and thirsty. It was so exciting to think that they really were to set off the next morning to the strange Secret Mountain.
“I’m jolly glad Ranni and Pilescu are coming with us,” said Nora. “I do love adventures — but I can’t help feeling a little bit funny in the middle of me when I think of those strange folk that live in the middle of a forgotten mountain.