The moon shone brightly. It struck shadows, sharp and dark on the blue-white face of the snow that lay deep about them, crisp and even. The stars shimmered in the far parts of the sky where the moon’s glow did not pale them, and the hushed voice of winter was in the trees.
If he had not been carrying Brunswick, King Wenceslas would have looked like a simple woodsman. He wore a thick fur vest, girt by a wide leather belt with a tarnished buckle of brass. He had a wool shirt and britches, thick fur boots cross-gaitered to his legs, a long fur stocking cap, and great mittens lined with fur.
Slung over one shoulder the king carried a wide-mouthed basket filled with wood. Over the other was a sack full of food from the kitchens of his house, and a large double-bladed axe. He marched along as if the way were flat and clear and he could not feel the weight on his back. And he kept the confident pace of a man who knows exactly where he is going.
He also carried a song. He marched along sometimes humming, sometimes singing the words. His voice was clear and deep and filled with the quality that touches every voice when hesitation does not hold it back.
“God rest ye merry gentlemen,
let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our savior
was born on Christmas Day.
La da dee dum dee da dee dum
la da dee dum dee day
La dee da dum de comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.”
The king pounded through the snow looking into the trees and the nighttime sky. Often, he gazed up at the moon that shone brightly down on the white sheets of snow that surrounded them. Sometimes he stopped to listen to the wind in the sleeping trees, or look back to ensure that Walter had not fallen too far behind.
Walter wore his thick uniform coat with the collar turned up, and his stocking cap with its tassel hung down his back. He trudged along, carving his own path in the knee-deep snow. He was still eager with the prospect of a nighttime adventure in the woods, and delighted by the courage he felt in the company of the king. Wenceslas was a great warrior and had the sword Brunswick at his side.
They came to the hilltop where they had spotted Tom Whit gathering wood. The snow was broken and littered with pine needles and bits of bark. The king paused and looked back at the castle and Walter came to stand beside him.
“There is your balcony, sire,” he said, pointing with his mittened hand.
“Yes, Walter,” the king said. “Good eyes you have. And now we stand where once we looked, and we take up the trail of Tom Whit.”
“Sire,” Walter said, “why are you doing this?”
“Are you troubled by it?”
“No, sire, not at all. I think it’s perfect. I only wondered.”
The king gave Walter his full attention and nodded as the boy spoke. “Then, I shall tell you. I’m doing it because in helping the poor we ourselves find blessing.”
The king shrugged his broad shoulders. “Maybe we cannot know. But I believe it.”
“Would you be doing this if it were not the second day of Christmas?” Walter asked.
“Certainly. But there is special power in gestures of this kind during Christmastide. Can’t you feel it?”
Walter considered. “Yes, sire, I believe I can.”
“And what does it feel like?”
“I feel like I do when I’m doing very well at a game and I don’t really care if I win or lose.”
“Good. Very good, Walter. Let that grow inside you.”
He looked up at the deep sky straight above. The stars were so strong the moon could not dim them, bright as it was. The Milky Way struck a great swath through, white and broad, through the forest of tiny lights above.
“We are all made of stars,” the king said thoughtfully. He was far off in his mind, remembering, wondering.
Walter wondered too, until a question pressed him. “Sire,” he said, “of all the Twelve Days of Christmas, which is your favorite.”
“Childermas. The Feast of the Holy Innocents, without question.”
“Really?” Walter said. “Why?”
“Because it has always seemed to me the bravest of sacrifices. And it was made by the little children, who in their innocence could never have felt hatred.
“Also, Herod was a king, like me. I feel it is my duty to make amends in some small way for the horrible thing he did. That is why I give a party for all the children of the towns and hinterlands. It is my way of remembering and saying thank you and—I suppose—I’m sorry. Yes, Childermas is my favorite day of Christmastide. Apart from Christmas Day itself, it is the day most worth remembering.”
Walter considered what the life of the woodsman must be like. Going abroad at night seemed perfectly normal for a man like Tom Whit. It made Walter wonder what adventures must arise for boy his own age living in the hinterlands.
Growing up in the town, he was taught never to stray out of sight of the castle, by night or day. Walter could still see it in the distance, small on the hill where it stood. The light of its windows and watchfires flickered under the moon and he took comfort that it was still watching over him.
“Is that a sword at your waist, Walter?” the king said.
“Yes sire. A Christmas gift from my parents.”
The king stopped and turned. “May I see it?”
Walter drew the little sword from its scabbard and handed it to the king, grip first as he’d seen the dignitaries and soldiers do when they entered the king’s presence. The king took it and held it up to the moonlight.
“Excellent,” he said, sighting a line with it to the castle. “Well made. You must listen for its name.”
“Indeed, yes. The name of your sword will be revealed to you, if you listen. It may take time, but keep a sharp ear out.”
“Is that how you named Brunswick?”
“I didn’t name my sword. It has been in my family for a very long time and Brunswick has always been its name.”
“I’m to ask you, sire, may I carry my sword inside the castle?”
“You may wear your sword whenever I wear Brunswick, Walter. In fact, I hereby require it. And if you leave the castle grounds without me you may wear it if you wish. Agreed?”
“Agreed, sire,” Walter said.
“When we return, to the castle, you must bind the blade into the sheath with a length of white ribbon, and keep it so for the Twelve Days. Will you do that?”
“I will, sire.”
“And when Christmastide has ended, will you consent to have Captain Vaclav train you in the proper use of the sword? He is the greatest in the realm, you know.”
“Yes, sire, I know. And I will!”
“Good. Take your blade, Walter. And bear it wisely.”
“I will, sire,” Walter said.
The king returned the little sword as he had received it, hilt first, and Walter took extra pleasure in the sound of it sliding home.
For a long time they walked in silence, following the river until Walter looked back to discover he could no longer see the castle. A chill came over him and he felt lost and very far from home. He’d ventured beyond the boundaries of his childhood to stand for the first time on a strange frontier. All the tales he’d heard about the faerie peoples of the Forest and the Mountain began to haunt him.
“Do you fear the Mountain, Walter?” the king said.
It startled Walter that the king should ask that question just then. He looked up at the dark mass in the distance. It was really just a very tall hill. But it had always seemed a whole world away when he looked at it from the castle walls, and though it was still far off, Walter had never been so close to it.
“No sire,” he replied.
“Well, maybe a little.”
“Do you know its name?”
“Then I will tell you, for to name a thing can help make it less fearful. It is called Blanik, and there is a legend about it which you may have heard already.”
“No, sire, I haven’t.”
“Then I will tell you. It is said that beneath Mount Blanik, there sleeps a troop of knights who went there when Bohemia was young.
“They were out playing war games, practicing their strategies and honing their battle skills. They came upon a gate in the side of the Mountain. Being men of courage and renown, they went in.
“And they found a great hall as big as a cavern, but with tall arches and pillars of carved stone. There were wide stalls for the horses, exactly the right number, each with sweet hay and water. A feast was spread on a great table and there were exactly enough chairs so that every knight could take his seat.
“When they did, and ate the meal, enchanted sleep came upon them where they sat. The same sleep befell the horses as they ate the sweet hay and drank the water. There they remain to this very day, the whole company, man and horse.
“It is said that one night each month, when the moon is dark, they ride out and make merry with war games in the woods and fields. The people of the hinterlands tell how the prints of the horses can be found in the morning twilight, but vanish with the rising of the sun.”
King Wenceslas paused and looked at the moon. “It is said also, that on a Twelfth Night, when someday Bohemia faces its greatest danger, the knights of the Mountain will ride out to be commanded by the king, so long as he carries the sword called Brunswick.”
Walter stared up at the king. “Brunswick, sire?”
The king smiled. “It’s only a legend Walter. A story.”
“So is the tale of the Nativity.”
The king thought for a moment. “Yes, I suppose you have a point.”
He stared at the moon for a moment longer and took up the march again.
They walked among the hills and woods, following the line of the river. It was frozen and snow covered like the rest of the countryside, and the boulders that created rapids in the spring bulged here and there like the beginnings of giant snowmen.
Tom Whit’s trail crossed the river time and again, and sometimes led straight ahead up the middle of the frozen water. Each time King Wenceslas led the way across, Walter listened for the gurgling of the river as it passed through the air pockets beneath the ice. They came to a waterfall where the gurgling sounded like faint thunder and the trail took to the woods again.
“Our man is moving quickly,” the king said, pointing to the tracks ahead of him. “His stride is long. I think he must be in some hurry.”
“Maybe he’s trying to keep warm, sire. Isn’t that what one does when lost in the woods?”
“Yes, Walter, you’re right. It is wise to keep moving in the cold. But Tom Whit is not lost.”
“Then why do his tracks wander so much?”
“He is following an expert trail. He crosses the river to avoid places in the trees that are dense and difficult to pass. No he is not lost. And I don’t think his speed is an effort to stay warm, either. A man of the woods knows the danger of haste when alone abroad, and I should think the labor of his burden would be effort enough to keep him warm.”
“I can’t imagine,” the king said. “The fact that he is abroad at all is a mystery to me. But I should like to quicken our pace if that’s all right with you. My heart tells me the sooner we overtake Tom Whit the better.”
Until that moment Walter had felt he was a match for the journey. He was warm in his coat and safe with the king and their errand was noble. But at the king’s suggestion that they start moving faster he felt suddenly tired and cold, and a seed of doubt and frustration sprouted in his thoughts.
“Certainly, sire,” he said, trying to be brave, but the sound of his voice was unconvincing even to himself.