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.