At the king’s pace they covered ground quickly. He carried the weight of the firewood and food like a pack mule and it took little extra effort for him to move faster. Walter had no weight at all to carry but still found it hard to keep up.
Tom Whit’s tracks led through hollows and over low hills, through glades of leafless trees that scratched the starry sky like claws. All around the ice and snow drifts sparkled and glistened in the moonlight, and the boughs of the great cypress trees swept low to the ground to form sheltered places where the snow was light.
Walter wanted to remain in such places, to make a fire and rest. After a while he began to regret accompanying the king. He became annoyed by the man’s humming and wished they could at least slow down.
He tried to distract himself with games in his head. He counted pine cones or owl cries, and tried to figure out how many more steps than the king it took him to cover the same ground. Each time he crossed the river he counted the seconds that passed from the moment he first heard the water gurgling under the ice until it went out of hearing again on the other side.
So, he didn’t notice the damp spot in the snow near the bank as he made another river crossing. The king leaped over it into the snow beside the river, but Walter’s foot went right through and the water was half way up his shin before his foot reached the bottom. He left it there a moment too long while trying to regain his balance. The water took that moment to rush over the top of his boot, right through his thick sock to the skin of his foot.
The king didn’t look back. He swept aside a low pine branch with his great hand and disappeared beyond it in a cloud of snow as the limb snapped back into place. Walter ran up the slope trying to pretend he had not gone through the ice, but before he’d made it twenty steps his foot was getting cold.
A bank of clouds began to move in from beyond the Mountain. Thin misty wisps went before it and dampened the moonlight. Gloom and shadow crept among the trees and made it hard to see any distance into the woods.
With the coming clouds the wind blew stronger and swept through in stiff gusts that billowed the snow. Walter turned up his collar and pulled his stocking cap down tight. The king did not slow or respond in any way to the changing weather, and he didn’t even seem to notice the sharp slaps of wind and snow.
Walter’s wet boot was frozen on the outside. It started to get heavy, and a thick clod of packed snow formed on the bottom until it was hard to walk. With each step Walter took, the clod picked up more snow and got larger.
He had to stop often to knock his foot against a tree and shake the clod loose, but it didn’t take long for the snow pack to build up and cause the same trouble all over again. Inside the boot his foot was wet and cold, which by itself made it difficult to walk without the extra discomfort of the ice clod. Walter worked hard to keep up and not complain, but it was getting harder by the minute.
After stopping for the third time to clear the snow from his foot, Walter had to run to catch up with the king. Each time after that he had to run further and he started to get tired. It didn’t take long for him to get angry at the king for not waiting.
He was completely out of temper as he followed the king’s tracks into a hawthorne forest. As he entered, the cloud bank overtook the moon completely and the night went dark. A sudden squall came down, whipping snow through the spiny branches.
Walter turned his head away as he walked and put his hands over his face. He muffled an angry shriek with his mittens, but with his eyes covered he became tangled in the dense branches. He staggered and pushed deeper in, forcing his way through. The sharp spines of the hawthorne plucked his stocking cap from his head, and it hung there in the branches as he cried out and pitched forward face first into the snow. He looked up to find King Wenceslas smiling down at him.
“Walter!” the king said cheerfully.
“Yes, sire,” Walter said.
“Are you hurt?”
“You’ve fallen behind, my boy. Come now, on your feet.”
The king lifted Walter and set him on his feet. He brushed the snow from the boy’s coat, then took the stocking cap from the branches and snugged it down on his head.
“Is everything all right, Walter?” the king said.
“You seem troubled.”
“Well,” Walter said, “the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger.”
“Yes, the clouds have taken away our moon. It will return.”
“Yes, sire,” Walter said.
He did not like how young his voice sounded but he couldn’t help it. The frustration and doubt he felt in the hawthorne grove began to overpower him. In the presence of the king’s compassion, Walter felt the first sting of tears at the back of his nose.
“Come walter,” the king said. “Remember the song, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen? Let nothing you dismay.”
Walter’s tears got stronger. He blinked his eyes in an effort to hold them back. He tried not to look at the king.
Wenceslas shifted the weight of his burden. “Does your heart fail you, Walter?” he said.
“Yes, sire. I don’t know how—I—I can’t go on.”
“You have never been so far from home have you?”
“And you’ve come this far because I command it.”
A single tear escaped over Walter’s lower eyelid. “Yes, sire.”
King Wenceslas nodded. He smiled and put a hand on Walter’s shoulder. “My dear fellow.” He turned and walked away a few steps. “Do you see my footprints in the snow, Walter?”
“Yes, of course, sire.”
“Take note of them. Mark them well and follow in them boldly, with confidence. Can you do that?”
“Good,” the king said. “You’ll find this winter’s rage to freeze your blood less coldly. You have shown great courage, Walter. All right then. Come along.”
King Wenceslas set off again. He took up his rapid pace and marched along lifting his knees high. In the darkness and gloom Walter lost sight of him quickly, but he could hear the beat of his mighty step and he could see the tracks he left behind him.
Walter still struggled with the doubt he felt and his foot was still a problem, but the conversation with the king lifted his spirits enough to continue. He took a moment to tuck in his shirt, straighten his coat, and check his sword. He remembered what the king had said about listening for the sword’s name, and his sense of adventure got just a little stronger.
“I guess this is what it’s like to be a warrior,” he said to himself
And he set off.
In the jumble of broken snow, Walter sought out the first of the king’s new tracks. Each print was a shadow-filled socket and Walter could not see the bottom. And they were far apart because of the pace the king was keeping.
The prints were so deep he nearly fell over when he stepped into the first one. To reach the next he had to balance on one foot and hop forward. Each step was like hitting a target and he had to catch his balance all over again as he landed in the next footprint.
It was slow going. After ten steps Walter decided it was only making things worse. The clod of ice under his foot had gotten larger and would not come free unless Walter sat down in the snow and pulled it off with his hand.
The king called back to him from the darkness ahead. “Boldly, Walter. With confidence. That’s what makes it work!”
Walter frowned. “Makes what work?”
He was simply angry now and was beginning to forget being afraid. He stared at the king’s tracks and followed them with his eyes to where they led away into the darkness.
“Boldly,” he muttered. “With confidence.”
With a deep sigh he steadied himself and hopped to the next print. He stopped and wavered until he had his balance, then sprang forward again. When he landed this time he didn’t pause before taking the next step, and it was much easier keep his balance.
Walter stopped and looked back. “The faster you go the easier it gets,” he said.
He bounded forward to the next print and didn’t stop. It took a few steps to get the hang of moving faster, but soon Walter was hopping from print to print, hitting each one on target. After about fifteen steps he got tired and stopped again. The ice clod had come free from his foot and had not built itself up again.
With one foot in the king’s print and the other in the snow beside it, Walter stood there catching his breath. After a few seconds the foot standing in the king’s print began to feel warm.
“My circulation is returning,” Walter said. “Very good. Let’s keep this up.”
After ten more paces both his feet were warming up. Walter stopped for rest again and the warmth increased in the king’s footprint. As he stood there the print got warmer until it felt as if he was holding his foot before a fire.
It took several paces before he could be sure, but as Walter set his foot down he thought there must be coals at the bottom of the king’s footprints. The next step was the same, and the one after it. He stopped and stood there looking back at the tracks just behind him, and there seemed to be steam rising from them.
All the tracks as far back as he could see were steaming. Walter pulled off his mitten and stuck his hand into one of the prints. The sod at the bottom was bare and dry. Walter pressed his hand to it and it burned him, like an iron skillet not quite cool enough to touch.
“Ouch!” he cried.
He lost his balance as he yanked his hand out and he fell over into the snow. From the darkness ahead he heard the laughter of King Wenceslas. Walter smiled and crawled back to the footprints for a closer look. They were steaming with heat. He took off his other mitten and warmed his hands.
“Come along, Walter!” the king called out. “We’re nearly there.”
Walter stood up and set off in the steaming footprints, pulling on his mittens as he went. He moved quickly from print to print and the warmth in his feet spread throughout his body. As he chased the king into the darkness, Walter berated himself for the complaints in his heart, and vowed that he would follow King Wenceslas anywhere he went.
When he finally caught up to the king, Walter’s feet were completely dry. He moved at a full run, bounding over the king’s tracks two at a time. The moon returned and in the new glow, he saw the king standing by a large dark object in the snow.
Walter’s smile faded quickly. The king wore a look of deep concern as he crouched to examine the object and the tracks in the snow beyond it. He stood up and looked back at Walter as the boy came to a halt beside him.
“What is it, sire?” Walter said.
“Tom Whit’s wood basket,” the king said. “He’s dropped it and set off at a run. See how the tracks are deeper? And newly made. He’s only just ahead of us.”
“But why would he leave it here?” Walter said. “He’s carried it all this way.”
“My question exactly. Tom Whit has been in a hurry all this way, and now, so close to the end, he abandons his errand and sets off in complete haste. And he has not left his axe behind. Come along and stay close, Walter. It isn’t far now. The Fountain of St. Agnes is just ahead.”