Walter closed the door as quietly as he could. Tom Whit sat near the fireplace rocking a low wooden cradle on the floor beside his chair. A christmas tree stood near with toys beneath it—a little drum, a stack of blocks, a stuffed patchwork horse with little man to ride it.
The house was decorated with holly and pine, and the Advent wreath on the table was lit with four white candles. A big patchwork sack of cloth scraps stood next to a chair off to the side, along with all the needles, thread and scissors Eugenia Whit needed for the little quilt she was making. It was as if Christmas itself had suddenly stopped. For of course it had.
From where he stood at the front door, Walter could see the iron stove in the kitchen, with its black pipe rising up through the ceiling. A closed door across from the kitchen led into the bedroom, and Walter could hear Eugenia weeping inside. Everything was clean and neat and kept in its proper place, and except for the blankets and pillows stuffed into the windows, it reminded Walter of his own home.
“What else could I do?” Tom Whit said.
“Sir?” Walter said.
He set the food sack on the floor and poked the fire with a long iron rod that stood by the hearth. Sparks raced up the chimney and Walter watched them go before adding a large chunk of oak to the embers of pine already burning.
“Pine for heat on the quick,” he said as he worked, “and oak to last the night.”
Tom Whit stared into the flames. “They came last night and burned the woodshed.”
“Yes, sir,” Walter said.
“All our wood with it. I spent the autumn collecting it.”
“I’m very sorry for your trouble.”
“No neighbors close enough to help. I had no choice. I had to search for wood.”
“Yes sir, of course you had to.”
“I tried to stay close to home but it took too long to find wood beneath the snow. My wife and son were freezing. The Pine Wood is dense so the floor is clear of snow. There’s always plenty of deadfall from those old trees.”
“It’s just what I would have done, sir.”
“We had only just enough wood left to keep them warm while I made the journey. The frost is so cruel tonight. I had to keep them from freezing. I had to keep my family warm.”
“Of course, sir. There was nothing else to be done.”
“My boy,” Tom Whit said. His face crumpled with sadness. “Born to us in the spring. My little boy.”
Walter took plates and forks from the kitchen cupboards and spread the king’s feast as neatly as he knew how. There was meat and bread and wine still wrapped tight and untouched by the goblins, but the pastry was all gone.
Tom Whit did not move from his chair. He slouched to one side as if he might fall asleep. His shoulders shook gently, and he held his face in one hand.
“You must take heart, Mr. Whit,” Walter said. “Our king will not fail.”
The man turned to look at him. “You’re Walter Podevin,” he said.
“I know your father, I think.”
“Yes, sir, I think you do.”
“A good man, your father. He must be very proud of you.”
“I hope so, sir. Thank you.”
“I wanted to go with him,” Tom Whit said. “With the king, I mean. But he forbade me. He said my place was here in case the creatures return.”
“I’m sure he’s right, sir,” Walter said.
He lit a fire in the kitchen stove and checked the kettle that sat on top of it. A small splash of water sloshed at the bottom, but there was no other water in the house. Both buckets were empty, so Walter put on his coat, cap and mittens, and headed out to the Fountain of St. Agnes.
A track was beaten through the snow to the natural spring that spouted from the rocks. It was very close to the fence of the Forest—the place where the meadow ended and the trees began. Rising above it all, from deep inside the Forest, Walter could see the dark top of the Mountain.
The spring itself was frozen and buried in snow, but a stone well had been dug for collecting the water. It was surrounded at the top by a circular wall with a bench on one side, and it was covered by a shingled roof on four stout posts. A pulley with a rope and bucket hanging from it was fixed to the underside of the roof, and the rope was tied off to one of the posts.
A large rock rested on the wall of the well. It had an iron ring set into it, connected to a long chain that was looped around one of the posts. Walter pushed the rock off the wall into the well and listened.
It struck the ice with a loud boom that echoed up and out of the darkness. Walter hauled the rock up to try again, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that the ice finally broke and the rock went through to the water beneath.
Walter lowered the bucket and waited till it felt heavy and full on the end of the rope. The pulley creaked as the frozen rope passed through it. When the bucket finally came in reach, Walter tied off the rope again and set one of the buckets from the house within reach so he could fill it.
It was a tricky job working each bucket with one hand, tipping them to face each other as he poured the water. The buckets shook and wavered in the effort until finally the water started to flow from one to the other. At last Walter let the well bucket swing back and set the house bucket, now filled to the brim, to rest on the rim of the well.
He stepped back and took a rest. It was thirsty work, so he took the ladle that hung on one of the posts, tapped the snow out of it, and scooped himself a drink from the house bucket. As he stood there sipping, a snowball hissed out of the darkness and struck the house bucket in just the right spot to knock it into the well.
For a moment, Walter just stood there staring at the spot where the bucket had been. A splintering thud echoed up as the bucket hit the ice and water with a deep chugging splash. As the echo died, Walter heard laughing. Another snowball struck the side of his head, followed by at least five more, and Walter dove for cover behind the well.
“Come to take a drink? Ha!”
“Got any more pastry for us?”
“So it’s you!” Walter shouted.
“Richard and Roger at your service!”
“And where’s the other one?” Walter demanded. “There were three of you before.”
“Ichabod? He’s just a coward and who needs him?”
“Show yourselves!” Walter shouted.
He stepped up onto the bench beside the well and took a stand. The goblins were hidden in the Forest and Walter peered into the trees to spot them.
“Return the child at once,” he shouted, “or you’ll have the wrath of King Wenceslas upon you!”
“What sort of name is Wenceslas?” Richard said.
“It’s a name for a sausage!” Roger answered.
“Wenceslaus in a lady’s blouse!”
“How dare you!” Walter shouted.
“Your king’s not so tough. We’ve already caught him. We got him in our net and hoisted him up a tree!”
“That’s not true!”
“Yes, it is!”
“No, it isn’t,” Walter shouted.
“All right, it isn’t. But he won’t get far. Krampus rules the Forest now and he’s brought the goblins with him!”
“Who is Krampus?”
“Who is Krampus? I’ll tell you who.”
A snowball hissed out of the darkness and hit Walter square in the chest. It knocked him clean off the bench onto his back in the snow. He scrambled to his feet as the next snowball struck his head and another hit his shoulder.
He was hit five more times before he managed to get behind the well for cover. Three snowballs struck the roof of the well and the heavy slab of snow slid down off one side of the roof and buried him. Walter lay there and waited for it to end. When it did, he hauled himself out of the snow pile and crept around the side to peer out.
“These two are good,” he said.
A small shadow move from one tree to take cover behind another. Walter knelt and shaped a tight, round snowball about the size of an apple. Not very big, but hard packed and just right for his grip. He reached out to the well bucket, still swaying where he’d tied it off, and dipped the snowball into the what remained of the water he’d hauled up. Walter set the ball of slush to harden on the rim of the well, and went to one knee to shape another snowball.
A few seconds past and the dark shape appeared again, creeping to another tree as the goblin tried to get closer to the well. Walter sprang and threw the snowball with the speed of a whip. It went so fast he lost it in the darkness but he heard the dull thwap as it struck the goblin on the side of the head.
“Awww!” the goblin hollered and went down in the snow.
“Richard!” the other goblin cried.
The dark shape of Roger sprang from hiding and ran off. Walter grabbed the slushball from the rim of the well and dashed across the open space toward the spot where Richard lay. The goblin saw him coming, leaped to his feet and fled.
Walter knew he could not catch the goblins. They were too fast and the snow was too deep. So, he flung the slushball at Richard and it struck the goblin square in the back of the head just before it dodged behind a tree.
“Awwweee!” the goblin cried. “Aaahaweee, not fair!”
The shushing, snowy footsteps of the fleeing goblins faded into the Forest and they were gone. Walter stood there in the cold with his heart pounding. He crouched and shaped another snowball, but he knew he wouldn’t have to use it.
“Don’t come back!” he shouted. “In the name of the king!”
It was snowing hard as Walter carried the full bucket of water back to the house. He had not noticed how uneven the path was on the way out to the well when the buckets were empty. One full bucket was all he could manage going back.
Inside he found the fire crackling and the house was perfectly warm. The door to the bedroom was closed and faint light streamed out beneath. Walter could hear Tom and Eugenia Whit inside murmuring to each other.
He set the bucket by the door and hung his cape on the peg. In the kitchen, he filled the kettle on the iron stove, which had become hot with the fire he’d set before going to the well. It wasn’t long before the kettle was boiling and sending up steam to moisten the air inside the house.
The food from the king’s kitchens was delicious, and some of it was still warm. Walter sat in front of the fire and ate his fill. He thought about Richard and Roger and what they’d said about Krampus and goblins hunting the king.
“I have to tell Captain Vaclav,” Walter said. “He’ll bring men and horses. There’s no time to lose. I must return to the castle at once.”
Walter put on his coat and stocking cap, but he stopped as he pulled on his mittens at the thought of getting lost on the way back. It was a long walk. It was snowing and the moonlight was gone. Walter wondered if there might not even be wolves abroad, and of course there were the goblins to consider.
“I’ll follow our tracks,” he said. “They’re very clear to see. I’ll be fine.”
Outside the wind picked up and snow began to fall. Walter went to the window and looked out, finishing off a steaming cup of Christmas cider. The snow was light but steady and the wind was strong.
“I’d better go now,” he said. “This storm will fill the tracks and I’ll never get back in time. I just need to come in sight of the castle.”
With his hand on the door latch, Walter paused. “If the snow fills the tracks, how will Captain Vaclav find the king?”
He turned and saw the sack of cloth scraps Eugenia Whit was sewing into a quilt. He stared at it for a moment and a plan quickly formed in his mind. Walter ran to the drawing table near the Christmas tree, took up a pen and paper, and began to write.
To Captain Vaclav of the castle guard, should he come in search of the king:
Dear Captain Vaclav,
The king’s tracks may be lost to the snow by the time you arrive. I have gone ahead of you to mark the path. Follow the scraps of cloth. You will find them tied to every tenth tree along the way.
The flames leaped up as Walter dropped a thick chunk of oak onto the deep red bed of embers. “Oak to last the night,” he said and put the screen in front of the fireplace.
Eugenia’s scrap bag was heavy. Walter shook his head at the thought of carrying it any great distance, but then he chided himself. “Nonsense,” he said. “Tom Whit carried his burden, and so did the king. Now I shall carry mine.”
At the fence of the Forest, Walter dropped the sack of cloth scraps in the snow. He stood there for a long time, peering into the trees. The king’s tracks faded quickly into the darkness and already the snow was filling them.
Walter chose a long strip of cloth from the sack and tied it tight to the very first tree. He looked back through the falling snow at the little house and the warm light in the windows. He shouldered the sack, stopped himself from looking back again, and went into the Forest alone.