Walter dropped the sack and looked behind him. He couldn’t see the trail of cloth strips he’d left, but he thought there must be at least fifty of them tied to trees along the way, and the sack he was carrying felt no lighter for it. But it made a good seat, so Walter sat down and ate snow to quench his thirst.
It was so quiet he could hear the snowflakes touching down. The snow fell steadily, and the king’s tracks were half filled now, but they kept going so he had not been captured as Richard and Roger had insisted he would be.
“Excuse me, please,” said a voice.
Walter twisted and fell over backwards off the sack. He tried to stand up, but got tangled in his coat and fell over again. He looked up into the falling snow and saw a dark shape coming toward him. It stopped a few feet away.
“I’m very sorry to bother you,” the shape said.
Walter remembered his sword because the hilt jabbed him in the ribs when he went down, but decided it was too late to bother with it. He was sure he’d fumble the attempt if he tried to get it out, and he looked clumsy enough already just trying to stand up. Instead, he decided to be polite, but to make no effort to hide his annoyance.
“Who are you, please?”
“My name is Ichabod.”
Walter couldn’t quite see in the cloudy dark, but he remembered the name from his conversation with Richard and Roger. This was the third goblin from their group. Walter came to his feet and put a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“And what can I do for you, Ichabod? You’re very bold showing your face again.”
“Nothing,” Ichabod said. “That is, I’d like to help.”
“How could you possibly help me?” Walter said.
“I don’t know,” Ichabod said. “But I’d like to try.”
“Obviously there’s no way I can trust you,” Walter said. “I met your friends, Richard and Roger.”
“They’re not my friends,” Ichabod said as he took a few steps forward.
“Steady,” Walter said. “That’s close enough.”
“You’re following the king,” Ichabod said. “The one with the magic footprints.”
“You saw that?” Walter said.
Ichabod nodded. “I’m following him, too.”
“Of course you are,” Walter said, tightening the grip on his sword. “Richard and Roger told me your little plan.”
“Our plan?” Ichabod said.
“That’s right,” Walter said, “and it won’t work. I’ll find the king and warn him. And he’ll come here with his army and run you out.”
“I don’t know about any plan,” Ichabod said. “I just want to meet your king.”
“What for?” Walter said.
“Because of the footprints,” Ichabod said. “They kept you warm. It was very cold in those woods.”
“I thought winter goblins don’t feel the cold,” Walter said.
“Yes, we do,” Ichabod said. “At least, I do.”
Walter pointed. “You’re standing there barefoot in the snow.”
“Well,” Ichabod said, looking down. “There are many kinds of cold.”
Ichabod’s remark caused a moment of hesitation for Walter. But his distrust for the goblin was too strong.
“This is all nonsense,” he said. “Those friends of yours are probably around here somewhere.”
He could just barely make out Ichabod’s blue blotchy skin and the large dark eyes looking back at him from the shadows.
“I told you,” Ichabod said, “they’re not my friends.”
“They seemed to know you well enough,” Walter said.
“I asked them not to touch the food. They wouldn’t listen.”
“But you didn’t try to stop them.”
“No. I didn’t.”
“And you were there when they took the baby.”
“Oh, please,” Ichabod pleaded. “I didn’t want any part of that. I was only there because Krampus commanded us to go. We didn’t go into the house. I hid in the Forest with Roger and Richard until it was over.”
“You didn’t try to stop the goblins,” Walter said.
“How could we? There were nearly thirty of them, most of them big red summer fellows. What could three little winters do?”
“Try,” Walter said. “They stole that poor baby from his parents.”
Ichabod was silent. He stood there in the snow, looking down. “I’m very sorry about that. I’ll do anything I can to make it up.”
“Who is this Krampus?” Walter asked.
It was the second time he had heard the name and he didn’t like the sound of it.
“He’s—well—wicked,” Ichabod said. “A creature from the Old Dark.”
A chill went through Walter at the mention of those words. “What’s that?” he said.
“The time before.”
“Before what?” Walter said.
“Before there was Christmas.”
Ichabod refused to say any more about Krampus. He didn’t even like to say the name. They stood there in silence for a moment, until Walter remembered his errand.
“Look, I have to keep going,” he said. “I’m marking the trail so the king’s men can find him.”
“I’ll help you,” Ichabod said.
“No, you will not,” Walter said. “Be off.”
“Oh, please,” Ichabod said. “I’ll do anything to make things right.”
He stepped forward with his hands out. Walter stepped back and drew his sword at last. The sound of it stopped Ichabod in his tracks. Just then the moon broke through the clouds. It glinted off the blade of Walter’s sword and revealed Ichabod’s strange goblin face.
Ichabod looked at the hard stare Walter was giving him, and seemed to decide against pressing his luck. He backed away slowly, then turned and ran off into the Forest. Walter watched him go. He sheathed his sword, took up the sack of cloth strips, and pressed on.