[Illustration: John was protected by powerful friends.]
“Have a care!” warned John. “My friends are armed with sharp teeth and claws, and they will not readily let a stranger touch me.”
“He is a wizard!” muttered the soldiers; but they shrank back, afraid to touch him.
“Why do you treat me thus?” asked John wistfully.
“Because you say you are a friend to that vile magician of the woods, by whose arts the Prince was wounded, they say, and who yet holds him at death’s door.” So spoke the Captain of the guards. “The Prince still lives. But when he passes, the King has decreed that the wizard shall die the death. You come in time to share it, if you be his pupil!”
“Oh, hasten, hasten!” cried John, clasping his hands. “Please take me to him! Perhaps I may yet save the good old man. If it is not too late, perhaps I can also save the Prince.”
“Ay, we will take you to him fast enough, if you will call off your growling beasts,” said the Captain.
“Nay, we must all go together,” answered John, who saw how they meant to trap him. “Oh, come, let us be moving, for there is no time to lose!”
Grumbling, but afraid either to delay or to venture near John, the guards formed in a hollow square about him and his pets, and they all began to march in a strange company through the city streets to the palace.
A crowd gathered as they passed. Men, women, and children craned their necks to look at this group of animals, such as had not been seen in the city for years. They gazed, too, at the handsome yellow-haired boy, and whispered among themselves, “Who is he? What has he done?”
John noticed that the faces of the people who gazed at him were set and hard. They seemed sad and hopeless. He pitied them. “It is a kingdom without love,” he said to himself.
Yet, as they looked, their faces changed. A new something came into their eyes. A whispering went around among the crowd, increasing to a murmur, like the sound of bees.
They came at last to the palace, where the crowd was forced to pause. But, surrounded by the band of soldiers, John and his party went in and on, led by the Captain himself, at whose word or gesture doors flew open and servants bowed.
Through long, glittering halls, lined with mirrors in which their rags and dust, draggled feathers and matted hair showed pitifully, limped John and his weary friends. Up a grand marble staircase, with wondering footmen lining either side, pattered on muddy feet Brutus and his gray brother, and the bear, clumsily erect at John’s side. Behind mewed the tired Blanche, whose kittens John carried in his arms, while the carrier pigeon and the raven perched on his shoulder. But the other birds had remained outside in the trees of the palace garden.