Walter marched for an hour at a rapid pace, stopping at every tenth tree to tie another cloth strip, just as he’d promised in his note to Captain Vaclav. He used a knot his father had taught him and gave it a sharp tug at the end just to be sure it was secure.
“I’ll bet even a goblin couldn’t untie that,” he said.
As he shouldered the sack again, Walter heard a faint distant thud. A second later it came again but louder and soon Walter knew what it was.
“Someone is beating a drum!” he said.
Then he heard strange, shrill pipes and the clang of some metal chime. Walter peered through the trees and saw half a dozen small lights approaching.
“Goblins!” he said.
He dropped the sack and crouched behind it. The goblins were headed toward him and they were already close enough to see him if he tried to run.
As they got closer the light of the torches made it easier to see their laughing faces twisted with wicked smiles. They had red skin with faint patches of fiery yellow, and their hair was dark orange all spiky on their heads. They all wore heavy furs against the cold and snow.
Some of them played a wild tune on their pipes while others clanged their chimes, and one great fat goblin beat a drum that hung from a strap around his neck. Two large dull-looking goblins pulled a wagon with a tarp over it. The rest just trotted along, pushing and shoving each other, throwing snow.
The goblin troop halted about ten yards away and the din of the music stopped. The goblin with the drum held up a map to the torchlight. Two of the smaller pipers got into a shoving match and started throwing snow until one of the big cymbal clangers knocked them together and threw them side.
“You’re supposed to know the way!” one of them shouted. “Instead you’ve got us lost!”
The big one with the drum around his neck dropped the map and chased the little goblin, who sprang from the snow and got behind a tree. The little one ducked from one side of the tree to the other, darting away each time the big one tried to grab him. The big goblin finally stopped because his drum was getting in the way. He stared at the little one for a moment before taking up the map again.
“I do know the way,” the drummer said, brushing the snow off the map. “To the fortress. But that’s not where we’re going.”
“Where then?” the little one demanded from behind the tree.
The little goblin stepped out from his hiding place. “The jamboree?” he said. “There’s to be a jamboree?”
“It was supposed to be a surprise,” the big drummer said.
“When?” the little goblin said.
“This very night,” said the drummer. “If I can only find the place.”
The goblins all started talking at once.
“This very night.”
“If he can only find the place.”
“What’s a jamboree?”
“A gathering of goblins! Goblins from all over!”
The little goblin came out from behind the tree and stood next to the drummer. The big goblin lowered the map so the smaller one could see it and held the torch for him. The little one pointed to one place on the map, then another, then put his hand on his chin.
“Sorry for my remarks a moment ago, Stuart,” he said. “I wish I’d known about the jamboree.”
“That’s all right, Jeremy,” the big goblin said, shifting his drum to one side. “I might have mentioned it. I just wanted to see the looks on your faces.”
“So, we need to find this riverbed, eh?” Jeremy said, pointing to the map. “And that takes us to this grove of holly trees.”
“A riverbed?” one of the cymbal clangers said. “We passed a riverbed half an hour ago.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Jeremy the little goblin said, looking up from the map.
The goblin shrugged. “I didn’t know it mattered.”
“All right,” Stuart the big drummer said, folding up the map. “We’ll just follow our own tracks backward till we find the riverbed. You speak up when we reach it, Terrance. In the mean time everybody keep a look out!”
Stuart adjusted the drum around his neck and lifted one of his sticks. “Now then,” he called and began a beat.
The others waited for Stuart to nod his head, then launched into a strange lively tune of pipes and chimes. Stuart started walking and the whole troop fell in behind him. The wagon tenders grunted and heaved to get the wheels turning in the snow, and the goblins who weren’t playing instruments started up with chasing and throwing snow again as the whole company set off.
“I still say we need a fiddler!” someone shouted.
Walter stayed hidden until the goblins were out of sight. He stood up and collected himself, but he didn’t start moving until the music had faded out completely.
“A goblin jamboree,” he said. “That bunch was all red and orange. Ichabod and his friends are blue. They must be coming in from lots of different places.”
He looked ahead at the line of rounded low spots that the kings tracks had become in the snowfall. Behind him, his own tracks followed alongside the king’s, much deeper and easier to see.
“I’ve got to move faster,” Walter said.
He shouldered the sack of cloth strips again and set off on the trail of the king.