"Noise? I heard only the wind."
"Mayhap it was. Yes, doubtless that was it. I have been hearing it faintly all the — there it is again! It is not the wind! What an odd sound! Come, we will hunt it out!"
Now the King's joy was nearly insupportable. His tired lungs did their utmost — and hopefully, too — but the sealed jaws and the muffling sheepskin sadly crippled the effort. Then the poor fellow's heart sank, to hear the hermit say —
"Ah, it came from without — I think from the copse yonder. Come, I will lead the way."
The King heard the two pass out, talking; heard their footsteps die quickly away — then he was alone with a boding, brooding, awful silence.
It seemed an age till he heard the steps and voices approaching again — and this time he heard an added sound, — the trampling of hoofs, apparently. Then he heard Hendon say —
"I will not wait longer. I CANNOT wait longer. He has lost his way in this thick wood. Which direction took he? Quick — point it out to me."
"He — but wait; I will go with thee."
"Good — good! Why, truly thou art better than thy looks. Marry I do not think there's not another archangel with so right a heart as thine. Wilt ride? Wilt take the wee donkey that's for my boy, or wilt thou fork thy holy legs over this ill-conditioned slave of a mule that I have provided for myself? — and had been cheated in too, had he cost but the indifferent sum of a month's usury on a brass farthing let to a tinker out of work."
"No — ride thy mule, and lead thine ass; I am surer on mine own feet, and will walk."
"Then prithee mind the little beast for me while I take my life in my hands and make what success I may toward mounting the big one."
Then followed a confusion of kicks, cuffs, tramplings and plungings, accompanied by a thunderous intermingling of volleyed curses, and finally a bitter apostrophe to the mule, which must have broken its spirit, for hostilities seemed to cease from that moment.
With unutterable misery the fettered little King heard the voices and footsteps fade away and die out. All hope forsook him, now, for the moment, and a dull despair settled down upon his heart. "My only friend is deceived and got rid of," he said; "the hermit will return and — " He finished with a gasp; and at once fell to struggling so frantically with his bonds again, that he shook off the smothering sheepskin.
And now he heard the door open! The sound chilled him to the marrow — already he seemed to feel the knife at his throat. Horror made him close his eyes; horror made him open them again — and before him stood John Canty and Hugo!
He would have said "Thank God!" if his jaws had been free.
A moment or two later his limbs were at liberty, and his captors, each gripping him by an arm, were hurrying him with all speed through the forest.