The Trail Through The Forest





Two years had passed, to a day, almost to an hour, since that

Christmas eve in the cloister of Pfalzel. A little company of

pilgrims, less than a score a men, were creeping slowly northward

through the wide forest that rolled over the hills of central

Germany.



At the head of the band marched Winfried, clad in a tunic of fur,

with his long black robe girt high about his waist, so that it

might not hinder his stride. His hunter's boots were crusted with

snow. Drops of ice sparkled like jewels along the thongs that

bound his legs. There was no other ornament to his dress except

the bishop's cross hanging on his breast, and the broad silver

clasp that fastened his cloak about his neck. He carried a strong,

tall staff in his hand, fashioned at the top into the form of a

cross.



Close beside him, keeping step like a familiar comrade, was the

young Prince Gregor. Long marches through the wilderness had

stretched his limbs and broadened his back, and made a man of him

in stature as well as in spirit. His jacket and cap were of

wolfskin, and on his shoulder he carried an axe, with broad,

shining blade. He was a mighty woodsman now, and could make a

spray of chips fly around him as he hewed his way through the

trunk of spruce-tree.



Behind these leaders followed a pair of teamsters, guiding a rude

sledge, loaded with food and the equipage of the camp, and drawn

by two big, shaggy horses, blowing thick clouds of steam from

their frosty nostrils. Tiny icicles hung from the hairs on their

lips. Their flanks were smoking. They sank above the fetlocks at

every step in the soft snow.



Last of all came the rear guard, armed with bows and javelins. It

was no child's play, in those days, to cross Europe afoot.



The weird woodland, sombre and illimitable, covered hill and vale,

tableland and mountain-peak. There were wide moors where the

wolves hunted in packs as if the devil drove them, and tangled

thickets where the lynx and the boar made their lairs. Fierce

bears lurked among the rocky passes, and had not yet learned to

fear the face of man. The gloomy recesses of the forest gave

shelter to inhabitants who were still more cruel and dangerous

than beasts of prey,--outlaws and sturdy robbers and mad

were-wolves and bands of wandering pillagers.



The pilgrim who would pass from the mouth of the Tiber to the

mouth of the Rhine must travel with a little army of retainers, or

else trust in God and keep his arrows loose in the quiver.



The travellers were surrounded by an ocean of trees, so vast, so

full of endless billows, that it seemed to be pressing on every

side to overwhelm them. Gnarled oaks, with branches twisted and

knotted as if in rage, rose in groves like tidal waves. Smooth

forests of beech-trees, round and gray, swept over the knolls and

slopes of land in a mighty ground-swell. But most of all, the

multitude of pines and firs, innumerable and monotonous, with

straight, stark trunks, and branches woven together in an unbroken

Hood of darkest green, crowded through the valleys and over the

hills, rising on the highest ridges into ragged crests, like the

foaming edge of breakers.



Through this sea of shadows ran a narrow stream of shining

whiteness,--an ancient Roman road, covered with snow. It was as if

some great ship had ploughed through the green ocean long ago, and

left behind it a thick, smooth wake of foam. Along this open track

the travellers held their way,--heavily, for the drifts were deep;

warily, for the hard winter had driven many packs of wolves down

from the moors.



The steps of the pilgrims were noiseless; but the sledges creaked

over the dry snow, and the panting of the horses throbbed through

the still, cold air. The pale-blue shadows on the western side of

the road grew longer. The sun, declining through its shallow arch,

dropped behind the tree-tops. Darkness followed swiftly, as if it

had been a bird of prey waiting for this sign to swoop down upon

the world.



"Father," said Gregor to the leader, "surely this day's march is

done. It is time to rest, and eat, and sleep. If we press onward

now, we cannot see our steps; and will not that be against the

word of the psalmist David, who bids us not to put confidence in

the legs of a man?"



Winfried laughed. "Nay, my son Gregor," said he, "thou hast

tripped, even now, upon thy text. For David said only, 'I take no

pleasure in the legs of a man.' And so say I, for I am not minded

to spare thy legs or mine, until we come farther on our way, and

do what must be done this night. Draw the belt tighter, my son,

and hew me out this tree that is fallen across the road, for our

campground is not here."



The youth obeyed; two of the foresters sprang to help him; and

while the soft fir-wood yielded to the stroke of the axes, and the

snow flew from the bending branches, Winfried turned and spoke to

his followers in a cheerful voice, that refreshed them like wine.



"Courage, brothers, and forward yet a little! The moon will light

us presently, and the path is plain. Well know I that the journey

is weary; and my own heart wearies also for the home in England,

where those I love are keeping feast this Christmas eve. But we

have work to do before we feast to-night. For this is the

Yuletide, and the heathen people of the forest have gathered at

the thunder-oak of Geismar to worship their god, Thor. Strange

things will be seen there, and deeds which make the soul black.

But we are sent to lighten their darkness; and we will teach our

kinsmen to keep a Christmas with us such as the woodland has never

known. Forward, then, and let us stiffen up our feeble knees!"



A murmur of assent came from the men. Even the horses seemed to

take fresh heart. They flattened their backs to draw the heavy

loads, and blew the frost from their nostrils as they pushed

ahead.



The night grew broader and less oppressive. A gate of brightness

was opened secretly somewhere in the sky; higher and higher

swelled the clear moon-flood, until it poured over the eastern

wall of forest into the road. A drove of wolves howled faintly in

the distance, but they were receding, and the sound soon died

away. The stars sparkled merrily through the stringent air; the

small, round moon shone like silver; little breaths of the

dreaming wind wandered whispering across the pointed fir-tops, as

the pilgrims toiled bravely onward, following their clue of light

through a labyrinth of darkness.



After a while the road began to open out a little. There were

spaces of meadow-land, fringed with alders, behind which a

boisterous river ran, clashing through spears of ice.



Rude houses of hewn logs appeared in the openings, each one

casting a patch of inky blackness upon the snow. Then the

travellers passed a larger group of dwellings, all silent and

unlighted; and beyond, they saw a great house, with many

outbuildings and enclosed courtyards, from which the hounds bayed

furiously, and a noise of stamping horses came from the stalls.

But there was no other sound of life. The fields around lay bare

to the moon. They saw no man, except that once, on a path that

skirted the farther edge of a meadow, three dark figures passed

by, running very swiftly.



Then the road plunged again into a dense thicket, traversed it,

and climbing to the left, emerged suddenly upon a glade, round and

level except at the northern side, where a swelling hillock was

crowned with a huge oak-tree. It towered above the heath, a giant

with contorted arms, beckoning to the host of lesser trees.

"Here," cried Winfried, as his eyes flashed and his hand lifted

his heavy staff, "here is the Thunder-oak; and here the cross of

Christ shall break the hammer of the false god Thor."





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