In that far north country the nights are dark and they are long, and when winter fastens its jaws about the great forest it feels it may never let go.
The men of that land are hardy, and they are strong and they are brave, but there is not a soul amongst them who would let himself be caught beneath the knotted boughs of the trees after darkness has fallen. The mothers call their children in from play the moment that twilight begins to draw out the shadows and thread them together, and there is not a boy or girl who does not heed their first call. Each tries hard not to be the last in the crowd as they hurry back across the snow, and the unlucky soul who finds themselves the hindmost must fix their eyes hard upon the footprints of their playmates, follow as fast as their little legs may carry them, and never, never look behind.
The bolts are drawn across every door in the village before the dusk has even dimmed the snow to grey. All hands in every house rush to light the candles and test the casements before the blackness can thicken and fill the windowpanes. And in each home the fire is stoked till it roars in the hearth. Each father knows he must keep it fed through to dawn and flaming beneath the chimney’s great black mouth. Every mother knows she must keep her candles trimmed and her windows rubbed with whale-oil so nary so much as an icy draft can find a crack to come creeping in. And every child knows that if, in the depths of the night, they should hear a cold, small hand tap, tapping at the glass they must turn away and wrap their blankets tighter round themselves and stop up their ears. For they must never, never, listen to the voices that whisper out on the wind and the whirling snow.
There was a family that lived at the heart of that village. The father was a huntsman, like all the men in those parts, and his son a strapping lad already near six feet tall and fast approaching the age when he too would be blooded in the hunt. The mother had been a beauty in her day, and she kept the remnants of her beauty still, though life in the north land was not easy, and hers had been harder than some. They had a daughter too, as beautiful as her mother had ever been, and already when she would walk out through the village the boys would laugh and blush to see her, and some of the grown men too.
Her father knew this, and he was proud to see it. And he knew too that the day was coming when a suitor would take him from her, as he had taken her mother from her own father, and as that man in turn had taken his own wife, for this had been the way in those parts for as long as anyone could remember. And earlier that year, when the bite of winter was but something that hovered between a memory and a suggestion on the north wind, he had strapped on his boots and his travelling-coat, loaded up the sled with bearskins and wolfskins and barrels full of smoked meat and left his family for the long journey to the trading post with a special purchase in his mind. Returning after three long weeks he brought with him the usual provisions of oil and spice, of liquor and linen, and musket pellets, tobacco and trinkets that his family fell to cooing-over, but he brought back a special package too, one which stayed wrapped in its waxed paper and ribbon and was even now tucked away in the topmost drawer of the linen press where only he knew. A beautiful gown all stitched in gold, the finest he could buy, and a pair of silk slippers with beads of coloured glass that sparkled in the light.
For it was fast approaching the low time of the year, when the villagers would exchange gifts and good wishes for the return of the sun and the summer when it was at its most distant. But the shortest day cannot come without the longest night, and that, in that village at the heart of the great dark forest, was the time of most danger.
For that far north land is riddled with the elf-kin. They hide themselves in the gnarled trunks where the trees press close in the forest, pursuing a hunt of their own. They bury themselves deep in the slippery leaf-mould beneath the crust of the snow to pull down unwary travelers to join them. And they seek out the places in ill-kept homes where the wood is rotten and bad, and they push themselves into the cracks and bring sourness and blight in their wake.
But the longest, darkest night of the year is when the lord of all the elves himself rides out, looking for children to snatch from their homes. And though no man, woman or child alive can say they have caught so much as a glimpse of him, they say you will know him by his wild white hair and terrible laugh, and by the cloak he wraps tight around himself. For it is as red as blood.
That family were well prepared for his coming that year. The father set to chopping wood all day, his axe flashing red in the light of the dawn and the sunset too. The son trudged back and forth from axe-block to house, his arms filled with logs, so the fire would be well-stocked all through the long night. The mother busied herself at the stove, and the daughter helped her to butcher the deer that had hung in the cottage for seven full days now, and she set to mixing the blood that had gathered in the bucket beneath it for the puddings herself, for her father insisted she learn the skills that would make her a good wife when that day came.
The peaks of the snow were still sparkling rose when the father closed their door and pulled the great bolts across it, and he carried the largest midwinter candles himself and set them in their places on the window ledges as the light beyond faded to blue and on into blackness. Then he bade the mother and the daughter take off their bloody aprons, and the son take off his boots and his cap, and all kneel at the hearth with him at prayer.
“Let this our family circle be joined, and never rent asunder,” he said, “and if any of us have sins to confess, let them confess them now.” And the candle in the left-hand window sputtered and went out.
“Mother, you have not trimmed your candle-wicks well,” he scolded, getting to his feet and snatching up a taper to relight it. But though there was a good length of wick, and more when he took his knife to the candle-tip to shave it, it would not light again. It would only spark, and give off a foul smell.
The father bade them kneel again, and bow, forcing his children’s heads down with his rough hands. Again he said in a louder voice “if any in this family have sins to confess, let them confess them now, lest the elf-kin take them.” And though the mother and the daughter tried to keep to their prayers they could not help but open an eye to look to the candle in the right-hand window, and so they both saw it flicker as if caught in a great gust of wind, and go out.
This time the father did not leave the hearth, though he leaned forward to hurl a fresh log into the heart of the fire. He pushed his children’s heads down until they were brushing the floorboards, and he said once more, in a voice which echoed throughout the darkened house, “confess to your sin.” But his family said nothing, and all that could be heard was the wind.
So the family knelt on in silence, as the flames that had leapt up towards the great black mouth of the chimney but minutes before fell back and sank back into the glowing ashes. And the embers themselves began to lose their glow, and a cold blackness began to close on the room.
The father’s voice was hoarser now. “Speak!” he ordered. “For surely one of you has sinned.”
And at that moment a spark seemed to catch in the dying fire, and a glowing ember loosed itself and floated out into the room above their heads. It was not orange, as would issue from an ordinary fire, but a bright white. And it did not dance in the air like an ordinary ember, but bore steadily out across the room, and up to the linen press on the far wall where it lingered at the very topmost drawer.
The father let out a roar, and he strode to the press and yanked it open. Inside lay the package, still in its waxed paper, and tied with a ribbon, but even with his rough ways he could see that the paper was crumpled and the ribbon re-tied by a clumsy hand that belonged to no shopkeeper. He caught up the package in one hand, and took his daughter by her hair with the other, pulling her to her feet as she let out a scream.
“Confess!” he urged her, brandishing the package in her face. “You have sought out the gift that should have been thine, and been looking upon it with covetous eyes! Well, for your pride, you shall not have it!” And though it had cost him dear, he made to throw the gown and the silk slippers, paper and ribbon and all, onto the fire which let out a little heat still. But his hand was stopped by another scream, and this one came from his wife.
“What is it?” he hissed as he looked at her in the light of the low flames. But the woman had clamped both her hands to her mouth, as if to stop any further noise issuing from it.
The man let loose his daughter, who fell sobbing back on the hearth. And he crossed instead to his wife, and hauled her up by the shoulder. “So, it is you, is it?” he demanded. “Could you not bear to see your own daughter’s beauty? Are you so envious? Did you think you should have it yourself?” And he drew back his arm, and gave her such a blow across her face that it swelled and blackened her eye and she fell sobbing to the floor.
At that the light of the fire dipped yet lower, so that the family could barely see one another. But the father’s rage was still blazing. And he spoke to his son without looking at him, telling him “fetch my whip, boy.”
But his son’s voice came back from the darkness. “I will not.”
Still the father did not turn, for he was looking down at the sobbing women at his feet. “What did you say to me, boy?” he said in a voice that was low like the growl of a bear.
“I will not fetch your whip, father,” said the son in a voice that quavered between the reedy treble of a boy and the boom of a man, but was ever firm. “For it is I that have sins to confess.”
“Speak them then, boy,” snarled his father, who knew full well that for many long years he had been the only one tall enough to reach the topmost drawer of the linen press.
“It was I who was covetous, father. For I looked upon the package, and I wished that it should be mine.”
There was so little light in the room now that all the boy could see was the shape of his father towering over the women where they lay in front of the fireplace.
“It was I who was envious, father. For I took out the gown, and I ran my fingers over its golden stitching, and I wished it could be mine.”
The very last light of the embers showed the black mouth of the chimney gaping wide.
“It was I who was proud, father. For when I took down the silk slippers, with their beads of coloured glass that sparkle in the light, they fitted me perfectly.”
And at that the father turned, and whip or no whip he raised his arm to strike down upon his son with all the force that was in him. But the boy did not flinch, and though the tears ran down his face he stood firm, and shouted into his father’s face in a voice which cracked and fluted:
“I have listened to the voices on the wind, father. And they are full of music. And there is laughter!”
And at that very moment the cottage was plunged into a blackness so total that the father could not tell up from down or which from what, and a great whirling wind and choking ashes filled the air around him, and a terrible roaring laughter that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The boy felt a pair of arms fasten about his waist, as strong as knotted oak branches, and as he was pulled backwards and upwards it was all that he could do to reach out in the darkness and clutch his sister’s hand in his left and his mother’s hand in his right and hold on to them as tight as never-let-go.
In that far north country the nights are dark and they are long, and when winter fastens its jaws about the great forest it feels it may never let go. The men of that land are hardy, and they are strong and they are brave, but there is not a soul amongst them who would let himself be caught beneath the knotted boughs of the trees after darkness has fallen. For that far north land is riddled with the elf-kin. They hide themselves in the gnarled trunks where the trees press close in the forest, pursuing a hunt of their own. They bury themselves deep in the slippery leaf-mould beneath the crust of the snow to tempt unwary travellers. You may hear their music and laughter on the wind and the whirling snow. And though no man alive will admit that they have caught so much a glimpse of them, they say that you will see them sometimes in the distance, in the shadows of the trees or just beyond the candle light that spills from your window.
They say that their lord wears a cloak as red as blood. And they say that amongst his retinue there are two ladies, an old one and a young one, both of whose beauty is beyond compare. But the tallest and most beautiful of them all is clad in a gown with golden stitching, and when he passes over the snow his silken slippers leave no footprints.