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
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
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
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
"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
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."