He got close enough to see the creatures in the moonlight before they noticed him. Two of them were laughing and hopping around, eating the pastries from the food sack. A third stood a few feet away, watching. Before Walter realized what he was doing he was charging into them, dragging the toboggan behind him.
“Look out!” one of them cried. They threw themselves aside and rolled out of Walter’s way as he ran through their midst.
By the time he turned around, the creatures were a dozen yards away, but he’d managed to catch a glimpse of them. They were blotchy blue and white and wore fur vests and fur caps. And they ran barefoot in the snow.
One of them was gone but the other two stood there eating their stolen pastries, gyrating and hopping up and down. They yelled strange words and when they finished their pastries, each one shaped a snowball and threw it at Walter.
“Can’t catch us, lilly liver!” one of them called. “Nobody catches a winter goblin in the snow!”
“Open your mouth and close your eyes,” the other said, shaping another snowball, “and I’ll give you a big surprise!”
The snowball whistled past Walter’s head and the goblins set off running across the meadow, leaping and bounding with wild, gleeful noises. Walter thought of chasing them, but realized how foolish that would be and decided to collect the food instead.
As he crouched down to pick up the open sack, he spotted a small dark shape standing nearby. It was the third goblin, and it did not move or make a sound. It stood just far enough away so that Walter could not see its face.
“Be off!” Walter shouted and he stood up, still holding a large frosted bun.
The goblin did not move, so Walter threw the first thing he could find, which was the frosted bun in his hand. The goblin flinched as it hit him and dropped to the snow in front of him, but he didn’t run away.
“Be off, I said!” Walter shouted.
Still the goblin didn’t move. Walter took a step forward and the goblin took a step back, but went no further. Walter took hold of his sword.
“In the name of the king, be off!” he shouted and he swept out the little blade.
The goblin took a few steps backward before turning to run off into the darkness. Walter was relieved because he was scared of the creature and felt he might have to fight it. He sheathed his sword and returned to the food sack.
As he hauled the toboggan across the meadow, the cottage door opened and the king stepped out into the night. For a moment the light of the lamps spilled out around the man, but he closed the door to keep the heat inside and the front step went dark again.
“Walter?” the king called.
“I’ve seen them sire,” Walter said as he pulled up to the house. “Goblins!”
“Goblins?” the king said, stepping down into the snow.
“That’s what they said, sire. And they looked it. They’ve gone now, but they were rummaging the food sack.”
“Are you hurt? What happened?”
“I ran them off, sire.”
“Did you?” the king said with a wide smile. “Well, that was dangerous, Walter. But well done. Did they foul the food? Tom and Eugenia must eat.”
“Just the pastry sire,” Walter said. “They never touched the rest.”
“Good. Walter, I want you to stay with the Whits tonight. They’ve agreed to shelter you until morning. I have blocked the broken windows with blankets and pillows and set a fire on the hearth. The house will be warm again soon.”
“What about you, sire?” Walter said, slinging the food bag over his shoulder.
“I’m going in pursuit of these kidnapping villains,” the king said. “There seems to be some new mischief afoot. Goblins haven’t been seen in the Forest for a very long time.”
“You’re going alone, sire?” Walter said.
“Men and horses are what I need, but there is no time to lose. I’d send you back to alert Captain Vaclav, but I don’t want you abroad alone.”
“But sire, you’ll get lost.”
“I have tracks to follow,” the king said. “And I have my sturdy friend Brunswick to protect me.”
The king patted the hilt of his sword and nodded. “Keep the fire going, Walter. Remember, pine for heat on the quick and oak to last the night. Stay here until morning and return to the castle when it is light. I will join you there as soon as I may.”
King Wenceslas turned and marched off toward the trees, following the goblin tracks in the snow. Walter stood there on the step, watching the king go, and his heart sank as the man entered the darkness of the Forest.