Walter was grateful that the snow had stopped falling, but he could see the sky through the leafless branches above and the clouds were gathering again. As he tied off yet another strip of cloth, he sent up yet another silent prayer that the snow would hold off at least until morning.
After a long, silent march he came to a stand of old gnarled hazel trees. They grew together a few feet apart and formed an obvious tunnel with their limbs. The king’s tracks led straight into the tunnel and there were other tracks also, coming in from various directions. Some were large and some were very small and left hardly any impression on the snow.
Walter knew the legend of the hazel trees. They were the first to sprout their leaves in the springtime, and the last to let them drop in the fall. The hazels were said to be the wisest of trees and if a poet were to spend the night among them, the trees would whisper wisdom and inspiration while he slept. The trouble was living through the night.
Walter had also heard the tales of the great Hazel Thicket in the Forest, the place where the Wicked Peoples met to have their bonfires and councils. According to the stories, the Wicked Peoples had powers for mischief and chaos. Now Walter was standing at the entrance to the very place.
“Well,” he said, “the king went in there, so I will, too.”
He tied a cloth strip to each of the two old hazels that marked the beginning of the tunnel, then stepped through into a forest within the Forest. The trees were old and sprawling, with gnarled knotty trunks and thick twisted branches that reached together. Each tree trunk held a different pose, as if throwing up its great arms to frighten intruders. A little imagination was all it took to see faces in the bark.
Paths were cut into the drifted snow and led away in different directions. In some places the walls that formed were taller than Walter. He peered around in the darkness searching for the path the king had taken.
It wound through the hazel trees, climbing up and down, through tunnels and over snow bridges. It led passed snow castles and rough forts, and a group of snowmen gathered around one snowman with its head chopped off. Further on, there was a frozen fountain of rocks with huge sheets of thick ice all over it, and the nearby trees were covered with heavy icicles.
Strange birds shrieked in the distance and gathered in the trees. Their odd calls made Walter jump. He could see their dark shapes and heard their murmuring as they lurked in the branches above him.
Beyond the fountain he came to a place were tombstones stood among the dark hazel trees, and peaked their rounded heads up through the snow. The stones were arranged without pattern and some were tipped to one side or the other. Near one of the trees there was a pile of them that had recently been dusted off and added to.
“Kurgans like to steal tombstones,” Walter said, remembering the stories he’d heard.
Kurgans were said to tunnel in graveyards. Unlike ghouls who actually lived in graveyards, Kurgans only went there for work every morning, to steal what they could find in the graves. If they didn’t find anything, they would take the grave markers and collect them in secret places.
After that the thicket was more dense and the trees grew closer together. The king’s trail wound on and soon Walter could hear voices in the distance—many voices—like an unruly crowd. He came to a crossing of several paths, marked by a tall, snow-capped stone in the middle. He stopped at the sound of feet crunching in the snow.
Along another path came three dark figures. They were all as small as toddlers and walked on two feet like little men, but Walter could tell no more in the darkness. They were loud and un-watchful as they argued about which way to go.
“I can hear the gathering,” one voice said. “I’m telling you it’s that way.”
“I hear it, too,” another voice replied.
“Both of you keep quiet,” a third voice said. “Just follow me.”
“Well, you were wrong at the last turn.”
“Anyone can go wrong once.”
“Twice. There was that time late this afternoon.”
“Yes,” the first voice said. “For three days we’ve been dealing with your wrong turns. It’s time someone else was in charge.”
“It’s this way or I’ll let you hit me with a stick,” the third voice insisted.
“In the head?”
“No, not in the head! On the shoulder or something. And only once.”
“We get to choose the stick?”
“Certainly. That’s the rule.”
“Well, all right then. We’ll follow you one last time. But if you’re wrong I’ll take my swing and then I’m in charge.”
The three figures headed off down the path the leader had insisted on. As they went, they became excited and started running until they disappeared around the bend.
The king’s tracks led down the very path the three dark shapes had taken. The trail passed by the standing stone that marked the crossing, around a bend and down into a hollow surrounded by a ring of very old hazel trees.
In the middle of the ring there was a fire burning, surrounded by a great crowd of strange creatures seated on benches made of split logs. Walter stopped at the edge of the ring and hid in the trees.
Some had wings and flitted about above the heads of the crowd, drawing swats and angry glares. Others were like huge men and sat among their smaller neighbors in brooding silence. There were horns, pointed ears, skin colors bright and dark, and some were leafy or bark-covered, and looked like plants or even trees.
“The Wicked Peoples,” Walter said.
There were Brownies, Tree Elves, Red- and Blue-pated Gnomes. Kurgans and Pitgrave Dwellers, Bogles and Lurkers-in-the-Barrow. Spindly Treetop Shriekers, flipper-footed Creekside Creepers, filthy Tunnel-Toms, soot-covered Chimney-Voices, and dark-skinned Somethings-in-the-Cellar.
Here were all the creatures from the stories of Walter’s childhood gathered together in one place. He crouched behind a knotted hazel trunk, his mouth hanging open in complete amazement, and all he could do was stare.