"On that night, a terrible thunderstorm occurred -- as terrible, it may be, as that of last night -- and during its continuance, the oak on which Herne had hanged himself was blasted by the lightning.
"Old Osmond was immediately reinstated in his post of chief keeper; but he had little time for rejoicing, for he found that the same spell that had bound Herne had fallen upon him. His bolts and arrows went wide of their mark, his hounds lost their scent, and his falcon would not be lured back. Half frantic, and afraid of exposing himself to the taunts of his companons, he feigned illness, and left his comrade, Roger Barfoot, to take his place. But the same ill-luck befell Barfoot, and he returned in woeful plight, without a single head of game. Four others were equally unfortunate, and it was now clear that the whole party were bewitched.
"Luckily, the king had quitted the castle, but they felt certain they should be dismissed on his return, if not more severely punished. At last, after taking counsel together, they resolved to consult Urswick, who they doubted not could remove the spell. Accordingly, they went to Bagshot Heath, and related their story to him. When they had done, he said, 'The curse of Herne's blood is upon you, and can only be removed in one way. As you return to the castle, go to the tree on which he destroyed himself, and you may learn how to act.'
"The keepers would have questioned him further, but he refused to answer, and dismissed them.
"The shades of evening had fallen as they quitted Bagshot; and it was midnight as they entered the home park, and proceeded towards the fatal oak. It was pitchy dark, and they could only distinguish the tree by its white, scathed trunk. All at once, a blue flame, like a will-o'-the- wisp, appeared, flitted thrice round the tree, and then remained stationary, its light falling upon a figure in a wild garb, with a rusty chain hanging from its left arm, and an antlered helm upon its head. They knew it to be Herne, and instantly fell down before him, while a burst of terrible laughter sounded in their ears.
"Without heeding them further, the spirit darted round the tree, rattling its chain, and uttering appalling imprecations. It then stopped, and turning to the terrified beholders, bade them, in a hollow voice, bring hounds and horses as for the chase on the following night and vanished.
"Filled with dread, the keepers returned home, and the next day Old Osmond again sought the forester, and told him what had occurred.
"'You must obey the spirit's injunctions, or worse mischief will befall you,' said Urswick. 'Go to the tree, mounted as for a hunting-party, and take the black steed given to Herne by the king, and the two black hounds with you. You will see what will ensue.' And without another word he dismissed him.
"Osmond told his comrades what the forester had said, and though they were filled with alarm, they resolved upon compliance. At midnight, therefore, they rode towards the tree with the black hounds in leash, and leading Herne's favourite horse, saddled and bridled. As they drew near, they again saw the terrible shape stalking round the tree, and heard the fearful imprecations.
"His spells ended, Herne called to Osmond to bring him his steed; and the old man tremblingly obeyed. In an instant the mysterious being vaulted on its back, and in a voice of resistless authority cried, 'To the forest! -- to the forest!' With this, he dashed forward, and the whole party, hounds and men, hurried after him.
They rode at a furious pace for five or six miles over the great park, the keepers wondering where their unearthly leader was taking them, and almost fancying they were hurrying to perdition, when they descended a hillside leading to the marsh, and halted before a huge beech-tree, where Herne dismounted and pronounced certain mystic words, accompanying them with strange gestures.
"Presently, he became silent and motionless. A flash of fire then burst from the roots of the tree, and the forester Urswick stood before him. But his aspect was more terrible and commanding than it had seemed heretofore to the keepers.
'Welcome, Herne,' he cried; 'welcome, lord of the forest. And you his comrades, and soon to be his followers, welcome too. The time is come for the fulfilment of your promise to me. I require you to form a band for Herne the Hunter, and to serve him as leader. Swear to obey him, and the spell that hangs over you shall be broken. If not, I leave you to the king's justice.'
"Not daring to refuse compliance, the keepers took the oath proposed -- and a fearful one it was! As soon as it was Urswick vanished, as he came, in a flash of fire. Herne, then commanded the others to dismount, and made them prostrate themselves before him, and pay him homage.
This done, he blew a strike on his horn, rode swiftly up the hillside, and a stag being unharboured, the chase commenced. Many a fat buck was hunted and slaughtered that night; and an hour before daybreak, Herne commanded them to lay the four finest and fattest at the foot of the beech-tree, and then dismissed them, bidding them meet him at midnight at the scathed oak in the home park.
"They came as they were commanded; but fearful of detection, they adopted strange disguises, not unlike those worn by the caitiffs who were put to death, a few weeks ago, by the king in the great park. Night after night they thus went forth, thinning the herds of deer, and committing other outrages and depredations. Nor were their dark proceedings altogether unnoticed. Belated travellers crossing the forest beheld them, and related what they had seen; others watched for them, but they were so effectually disguised that they escaped detection.
"At last, however, the king returned to the castle, and accounts of the strange doings in the forest were instantly brought to him. Astonished at what he heard, and determined to ascertain the truth of the statement, he ordered the keepers to attend him that night in an expedition to the forest, when he hoped to encounter the demon huntsman and his hand. Much alarmed, Osmond Crooke, who acted as spokesman, endeavoured, by representing the risk he would incur, to dissuade the king from the enterprise; but he would not be deterred, and they now gave themselves up for lost.