98 THE COMB AND THE COLLAR
in that direction. He soon perceived a knight on horseback, with a bow slung to his back, struggling to lift a woman on to his saddle. The knight's surprise at the sight of a man in this desolate spot caused him to drop the woman's arm, and she rushed to take shelter behind her defender, who, to his amazement, then recognised his step-mother.
' How did you come here ?' he asked coldly, more than half regretting that he had not left her to her fate ; but she read what was in his heart, and fell on her knees before him.
' Oh, forgive me my wickedness,' she cried, ' for indeed I have repented of it long ago, and come to the aid of your father who has been sorely smitten by that mad archduke from whom you have just saved me ! There is no time to pursue him,' she added, as the prince started at the sound of the vanishing hoofs; and as they pushed their way along the path she told him all that had happened since they had last met.
' From the moment that the king knew of my cruelty to your sister,' said she, ' he vowed he would never see me again, and left the court in search of you both. I followed him secretly, but not being able to gain any tidings of him, consulted the Mother of Sheaths, who took me to rest in that island where the palm trees are waving. There she showed me a lovely princess who, under a spell, was forced daily to take the form of a crocodile, and when the dreaded moment arrived the skin appeared before her, and, shudder as she might, some unseen power impelled her to wrap herself in it and plunge into the sea. It is to this island I am leading you ; but first w:e must find your sister, for on her presence hangs the life of the white fox—if, indeed, he is not dead already.'
' The white fox ! ' exclaimed the prince. ' What do you know of him ? '
' Not much,' answered the queen; ' but, since I arrived