“That will not last long,” I said; “they will be back at the water’s edge in a minute.”
Thereat we took to the bushes, which were thick here, in a little patch. Beyond them was a clear space of turf a hundred yards wide, which we must cross to reach more wooded land, where we might go as we pleased back to the ruin where the horses waited. Hilda went slowly, for the wet garments clogged her, and were heavy still.
We must bide here till the men went away, or till it grew darker; for there was no need—though they would hardly follow us—to let them know who was with their quarry, or that she was anywhere but on their side of the water. We might find our way to Fernlea cut off. We took Hilda into the thicket, and crept back to see what happened, leaving the dry cloaks with her.
The loud voices had stopped suddenly, and we knew that it meant that the men were coming back through the wood, beating it cautiously. We lay flat under the nut bushes and alders, watching, and the edge of the cover was not more than an arrow flight from us.
Presently there was a rustle in it, and a man looked out, but we could not see much of him. He spoke to another, and then came into the open, peering up and down the moonlit river. Another joined him, and this newcomer wore mail which glistened as he turned. A third man came from the other side of the wood and saw these two, and came to them, and there they stood and wondered.
“I could swear the girl went into the wood,” said one; “I saw her plainly.”
“Then she must be there still,” answered the second comer. “Get back and look again.”
“We have beaten the wood as if for a hare,” said the third. “Unless she has climbed a tree she is not there.”
“Well, then, look in the trees,” said the mailed man, and with that he came down to the water, and turned his face toward us.
It was Gymbert himself.
“Mayhap she has drowned herself,” said one of the men sullenly.
Gymbert growled somewhat, and turned sharply, going back to the wood. The other men looked after him, and one chuckled.
“Best thing she could do,” he said. “Gymbert would surely have sold her to the Welsh.”
“Maybe made her his own slave, which were worse.”
“No, but he is out of favour just now. The money she would fetch will be more to him maybe. He dare not let Offa see him.”
They turned away slowly. At least it did not seem that these two were much in earnest in the matter. As they went, one asked the other who cried the chase back after all.
“Some fool on the other side who doesn’t care to own to it now, seeing that he must have fancied he saw her,” was the answer.
Then they turned into the wood again and were gone. Still we waited; and it was as well, for suddenly Gymbert came back, leaping out into the open as if he thought to surprise the lost object of his search. He glanced up and down, and then went back. I heard him call his men together and rate them, and so they seemed to pass back to the palace. Their voices rose and died away, and we were safe.