A faint sound reached them on the breeze. It might have been a night bird. The king stood up from Tom Whit’s basket, looking in the direction of the sound.
“Did you hear that, Walter?”
“I did, sire,” Walter said. “A whippoorwill?”
The king did not answer. He set off walking in Tom Whit’s tracks again. Walter tried to lift the abandoned wood basket, but it was too heavy. He shook his head and marveled for a moment at the strength and determination Tom Whit had shown in carrying the load so far and so quickly.
As he set off after the king, the sound came again, a little louder. It was no night bird at all but the sound of a woman screaming. Walter began to run and soon broke through the trees into a wide meadow.
The king had dropped his own burden of food and firewood. He was already far ahead running with all his speed toward a little house with two faintly glowing windows.
Ahead of the king, Tom Whit ran also. He went so quickly it seemed impossible that he had just completed such a long journey with a basket of firewood on his back.
Walter followed as hard on the king’s heels as he could manage. He completely forgot his own struggle and thought only of helping King Wenceslas. He remembered the miraculous heat in the king’s footprints that warmed him when he needed it, and the thought gave him the strength to push himself on.
A woman stood in the open door of the cottage and the light from inside cast her shadow on the snow. It was she who had screamed and now she screamed again. But it faded to crying and moaning and she fell to her knees in the snow.
The king stopped short of the cottage and waited. When Walter caught up the king waved him over and motioned to him for silence. They stood near enough to hear, but Tom Whit and the woman had not yet noticed them.
The woman was desperate. She held her face in her hands and her whole body shook with sobs. Tom Whit set down his axe and knelt beside her, holding her in his arms as he tried to calm her.
“What is it Eugenia?” he said. “What’s happened?”
“The creatures, Tom! The devils from the Forest!”
“They’ve returned?” Tom Whit said. “Where?”
He took up has axe again and stood over his wife, scanning the darkness toward the Forest. Walter noticed it for the first time—a dark fence of trees standing sharp against the white of the snow—the Forest itself. It looked wicked and menacing, and it stood only thirty yards away.
“Come out you devils,” Tom Whit shouted as he started to walk toward the Forest. “Come out and take what’s coming to you! I am Tom Whit and you’ve wronged me for the last time!”
“They’ve taken the baby, Tom!” Eugenia wailed. “They’ve taken our child!”
“What?” Tom Whit cried. “No!”
He dropped his axe in the snow and ran to his wife’s side again, falling to his knees beside her. He threw his arms across her and they clung to each other. Walter looked up at the king and saw what had never seen in his master’s face before—a look of cold hard wrath.
“What will happen to him, Tom?” Eugenia cried. “What will happen to our baby?”
The couple knelt there in the snow, rocking back and forth, moaning and crying and clinging to each other. The king moved forward slowly and came to stand beside them.
“My dear people,” he said, “what has happened? What’s this about creatures from the Forest?”
Tom Whit looked up. In the light of the open cottage he recognized the king.
“Your majesty!” Tom Whit cried.
Before the couple could rise the king knelt before them and put his hands on their shoulders. “Never mind that now. Tell me what has happened, Eugenia.”
“Creatures from the Forest came. They’ve taken our baby, sire, taken him who knows where? They waited for you to leave Tom, they must have been watching. They may be watching now! They were all around outside, on the roof. They poured snow down the chimney and doused the fire. They pounded on the walls and smashed the windows. I managed to get the shutters closed but not before I saw them. Oh, Tom they’re terrible. Terrible!
“At last they forced their way in and four of them took our boy. They knocked me unconscious, Tom, I’ve only just now awakened. And they’ve taken our little John into the Forest, Tom! They’ve taken him into the Forest!”
“What have I done?” Tom Whit said, collapsing into tears again. “What have I done? I should have been here! I—I never should have left!”
The king stood up and looked around. Twenty yards away there was a great pile of burned wood. It looked to be the remains of a small building and it was still smoking.
“They burned your woodshed,” the king said, glaring at the black spot on the snow.
“In the dark of morning sire,” Tom Whit said. “I went to the pine forest to gather more wood. The winter is so cold, sire. I had to keep my family warm.”
“Tracks your highness,” Walter said, looking around at the snow. “To and from the Forest.”
The king nodded. “Walter, go and fetch the wood and food. I dropped it back at the edge of the meadow. Bring the bundles here. Can you manage that?”
“At once, sire,” Walter said.
“Good lad,” the king said. “See to it. Come, my dear people, we must get you into the house.”
Tom Whit helped Eugenia to her feet. The king picked up Tom Whit’s axe and held his arms open around the couple as if to shield them from the night. He guided the Whits to the door, set down the axe on the porch and followed them inside.
As he turned to set out, Walter noticed a toboggan flipped upside down in the snow. He remembered the weight of Tom Whit’s wood basket and knew the king’s burden must be at least as heavy. He turned the toboggan right side up, slung the rope over his shoulder, and set off across the meadow.
A new willingness came over Walter and he felt proud and strong as he ran. The night was even colder now, but he was up to it. A thrill of hope went through him—hope and adventure. And he shared the king’s anger over the plight of the stolen child. Above him the rolling clouds covered the moon again.
Walter decided to start with the wood Tom Whit had been carrying. It took all his strength to move the heavy basket from its place embedded in the snow, but he managed to get it onto the toboggan. The king’s wood bundle fit also, but there was no room for the food, so Walter decided he would return for it.
“Sire, I’ve brought the wood!” Walter called as he pulled the toboggan up to the house.
The king opened the door and looked out. Inside, Walter could see the Whits sitting on a bench beside their table with their faces buried in each other’s shoulders. The king had set a small fire with what little wood the couple had left.
“Well done, Walter,” the king said. “Will you go back for the food, then?”
“At once sire,” Walter said as they lifted the wood baskets onto the step.
“Excellent. You’re a brave boy, Walter. I’m proud of you. Hurry now.”
Walter gave the king a firm nod. “Yes, sire,” he said, and set off.
The toboggan bounced against his heels as he high-stepped it back over the meadow. Half way across the moon peeked out and lit the snow again. Walter spotted the food sack, right where the king had left it, but there was something else—more than one thing—moving around it.