The snail brother has gone to stay at the grange farm at Bethlehem for a while. The brother men who live there have sneezing-coughs and he will tend to them until they are better. He has left me, Brother Walter, in charge of his workshop. This is a very important task. I have swept the floor, scrubbed bowls and pots and tidied shelves. The snail brother told me to sweep away the cobwebs from the rafters, but the spiders said they did not want me to do that, so I have left them alone. I did, however, tell the rats that they must find somewhere else to live. They are not happy. The big one with yellow teeth and scars across her nose says it is too cold to leave such a warm and comfortable hut. She does not want to move into the brother men's stone rooms; they are chilly and damp and there is little food to be had since the brother men brought a cat to live in the kitchen. The cat, an ugly brindle creature with evil yellow eyes, has already eaten too many of her relatives. Maybe in the spring, the rat tells me, they will find a farmhouse to live in. I suggested the grange farm, and the rats are considering this.
I went into the forest yesterday, foraging for roots. I met the Old Red Man, a hob-friend who lives by himself in an old beech tree near the pig-keeper's hut. He has been collecting treasures, he told me, and took me to his burrow to show them to me. What treasures indeed! Golden and silver coins, and things with pins for people to wear on their clothing. He showed me a small clay lamp. I remember seeing such things being used long ago by the people who lived in the painted stone house in the fields near Weforde.
The house is no longer there, but the villagers' ploughs sometimes bring up small square stones of red and white and black. They do not know what the stones were for, but we do. We saw the wondrous floors in the painted house many, many years ago, with pictures of fish and strange wild beasts made from the stones.
The Old Red Man has carefully laid the stones he has collected on the floor in his burrow, so he has his own picture. It shows a tree with a black trunk and red leaves and it is quite splendid. I may make a floor picture in the snail brother's hut as a surprise for when he comes home.
Early this morning, I set out to visit Wat Croube, the basket maker. He lives in a clearing in the forest. Old Wat has been making baskets, hurdles and fish traps for more years than anyone can remember. His wife, Merilda, keeps bees and sells the honey at Weforde market, but she also helps Wat, her small and nimble fingers weaving patterns into the finer baskets.
Brother Walter the hob kept me company on my errand. He rode along on the back of Crowfield Abbey's new donkey, Joseph. The hob and Joseph are firm friends already and Brother Walter takes pleasure in weaving garlands of straw to hang around Joseph's long ears, much to the bemusement of the brethren at the abbey, who do not know that a hob lives amongst them.
On our way through the forest, the hob told me a curious thing. Today is the 21st of December, the feast of St Thomas, but it is also midwinter's day, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Every year on this day, deep in the forest, an age old battle takes place. The holly king, the ruler of the forest from midsummer to midwinter, fights the oak king and is defeated, and the oak king becomes the ruler of the forest from now until midsummer's day.
On this day, the sun stands still. The darkness has grown strong. The forest holds its breath. In the winter stillness between the trees the sound of fighting can be heard, the ring of wooden staffs as the two kings battle each other. But the fight ends as it must, with the light victorious over the dark. The holly king slips away into the Deepwoods to wait for midsummer, when the struggle begins all over again. And there, in the summer woods, the oak king will be defeated and the slow wheel of the year will turn once more towards the winter.
'Have you ever seen the two kings fight?' I asked.
The hob nodded. 'Once, many years ago.'
'And what did they look like, these kings?'
The hob considered this for a while. His green-gold eyes stared into the woodland without seeing anything, as the faraway memories filled his mind. I saw a little fear and a great deal of awe in their depths.
'The holly king was green and red, and made of leaves and shadows, an old, old creature whose strength was almost gone. The oak king was brown and black, made of living wood, branches and twigs with buds ready to burst.'
I glanced between the trees, half expecting to glimpse a leafy figure. I listened for the sound of clashing weapons, but the forest hid its secrets well.