At the northern end of Old Tom’s Knap there is a door that can be seen only on the year’s longest night. The moon emerging from its bed of clouds reveals it, casting knot and grain in silver threads, and the door thus lit draws to it all the half-folk of the world.
Under the barrow’s chalk earth lies a great hall, and in the centre of the hall is a long table cut from white oak and inlaid with stars of nacre and quartz. Chairs in their dozens surround the table, and each place is laid with plates of pewter and silver and gold.
In rags and lace the half-folk come, in velvet and in iron. On the year’s longest night the ancient kings shake free their bones, and the forgotten creatures pass from their world into this. From their standing stones and crossroads the hobs and fairies come, from their hills and holes the sidhe and the elves, all down deep into the long, cold barrow.
At the table, as they take their seats lazy tapers bob, and waxy lamps cast black shadows that lick up at the walls. Food is brought and set before them, great platters of meats and roasted fowl, trays laden with vegetables and bowls filled with spiced fruits, each piled high and glazed with unfamiliar sauces. Narrow lips hold narrow tongues, thin fingers curl and twitch, and around the table, impatient, they watch and they wait.
And at last comes the Winter King, in robes of menace that sigh at his feet, and as he walks through the great hall to take his place at the granite throne a terrible silence follows behind him.
When he reaches his throne the Winter King looks at the empty chair beside it and he asks “Where is the child?” for the feast cannot begin until all places are filled.
A dark bell is rung, and a door opens, and into the hall a low, crooked creature comes, leading by the hand a young girl who blinks in the sudden light. The creature brings the girl to the empty seat, and the half-folk watch her pass with hungry eyes, silenced and embittered by envy, for they are older than time and there is nothing that they prize more than youth.
When she has taken her place beside him the Winter King waves his hand, and somewhere a band strikes up and the feast begins. Around the table the half-folk fall upon the food, teeth and talons flashing, and the hall is brought into life by the sounds of celebration.
Only the Winter King does not eat. Every year it is the same: a child taken, a curse of a feast, on the year’s longest night that they might continue on. Their kind are blackened by fate, and the Winter King alone understands that without the child their bodies will fade and their great halls will crack and crumble until nothing remains but dust on the blade of the wind.
He feels the child looking up at him. “Where are the fairies?” she asks, “the lady said there would be fairies.”
There are fairies here, but since their tales were first written and their ballads first sung they have been broken by the long ages, their wings plucked and their hair thinned and their skins made coarse and calloused. The Winter King recalls a time when they brought light to the elder woods, when they dazzled and seduced, but with each passing year those memories sink further into a past concealed. At the Winter King’s table in the Winter King’s great hall the fairy is a lament for what has been lost.
Around them the creatures are destroying the feast, tearing at the meat with cruel fingers, plucking roasted potatoes and steamed fruits and cramming them carelessly into chittering mouths.
“When can I go home?” asks the child.
He wants to tell her that she is already home, that the changeling planted in her family will grow in her place, that she will remain here for eternity. He wants to tell her that eventually she will become one of them; that, in time, she will grow to love them. He wants to tell her these things.
“I want to go home,” she says.
“Eat,” says the Winter King.
Written by Simon John Cox from the keyword Feast