The children sat in a semi-circle around an old old man: the story-teller, who was telling them stories about their dead ancestors, fairies, witches, hobgoblins and demons. Their wide-eyed little faces tilted up with expressions of wonder and terror. Occasional squeals of delight and fear erupted from them as the old man pulled a hideous face in imitation of some dread creature. They were having so much fun.
On this night, Samhain, the end of harvest and start of a new year, they must put out offerings of food and drink for the ghosts of their dead relatives who were cold, lonely and hungry. The chill of Autumn was changing to the hard cold of Winter and the dead would want to warm themselves by the fire and bathe in the love and respect of the living.
He promised the little ones a last story and then they would have to go and help their mothers to present the offerings.
Now, they all knew that they must not wander too far from the village and their mothers, didn't they?
Yes, they all agreed.
And why must they not wander off from the village and their mothers?
Because there were terrible monsters and tricky fairies and not everything and everybody were what they seemed.
That's right! Bad, bad things might be lurking behind trees and bushes, or hiding in barrows. Fairies would appear sweet and kind but they could lure children away and steal them from their families.
This story is about a boy who wandered off and learned this lesson too late:
Once upon a time, a boy from this village wandered off on the day of the festival, so that he wouldn't have to help his parents with the work. He meant to come back just in time for the feast. It was a lovely sunny day, bright and unseasonably warm. He walked further than he intended and came upon a green hill surrounded by curious looking stones. He wondered if he would be able to see the village from the top of it, so he climbed up to find out. Shading his eyes, he looked back the way he had come, but he couldn't see the village.
The grass looked lush and fresh and springy as the sun shimmered on it in the soft breeze that whispered over the hill-top. He felt tired and that grass looked so comfortable that he laid himself down and fell asleep. His dreams were vivid but when he woke, he couldn't remember any of them. He was cold and hungry. The sun was sinking and he remembered that the ghosts of his ancestors would be cold and hungry and expecting him to help arrange food and drink for them this night.
It was so late already. He got up hurriedly but then found he was unsure of the direction home. As he stood there pondering, the sun went down behind the hills to the West and he felt a rising sense of unease. Presently, small points of light started twinkling all around him and there was a noise, almost above the range of human hearing. After a while he identified it as the tinkle of distant bells, getting ever closer. He supposed that he must have fallen asleep on a fairy hill and now the fairies were coming. Unease changed to dismay as the first fairy became clearly visible.
The boy prepared to run away, but before he even decided which direction to run, a fairy alighted on his shoulder and made a sweet, tinkling sound that resembled childish laughter. It smiled at him gaily and tugged at his sleeve, guiding him towards a circle where food and drink were being set out. Several more fairies flew over to him, laughing and smiling invitingly and tugging him towards the feast.
Ever since he was a small child, he had been warned repeatedly about the wicked, treacherous fairies. But these fairies were friendly and hospitable. He joined the feast and as soon as he started to eat and drink with his gracious hosts, he felt safe and happy. Snared in this glamour, he forgot all about his mother and father and the village feast - and the offering of food and warmth to his poor, cold dead family members. Unfortunate fool that he was!
Before long, he was completely enmeshed in the enchantment. Sitting there, smiling and gorging like a happy idiot, he suddenly noticed that the fairies were no longer twinkling, laughing or eating. A cold, dim light was shining up from the hill, tinged green by the grass. The fairies looked different and they were all staring balefully at him. They were getting bigger. And uglier. He stopped chewing and spat out the food. It was grass and mud and something bitter.
They started to laugh now. Not that light tinkling laugh that sounded so sweet to his ears, but a cruel, hard laugh - almost human, but cold and hollow. The 'fairies' were now of human height but thin and grim looking. He thought he recognised one of them. It looked like his father's uncle who died four years ago. Yes. It was his great uncle! He stepped back with a gasp. They all roared with icy mirth.
As he stared from face to face in growing horror, he recognised more of the old people who had died in his village during the years of his short life. They were cruelly mocking him, grabbing at him and pinching him. It was impossible to escape now. The dead were pulling him along as they moved in rhythmical gyrations to a haunting tune that was rising up through the hill. They were forcing him to dance. A dance of the dead. Overcome by terror, he passed out.
Their guest unconscious, the dead left him where he fell and carried on with their normal Samhain traditions. Like a spirit river, they flowed silently off towards the village to join their beloved living relatives, accept their food offerings and warm themselves at the fire.
Hours later, in the middle of the night, the boy was woken by angry grunting and cursing as two hobgoblins argued over which was going to eat him. One grabbed his legs and the other his arms and started pulling until he thought he would be torn in two. Just when he was about to die, the goblins were chased off by witches who dived at them on their brooms.
Those hobgoblins had injured him so badly that he couldn't move, so the witches didn't even need to tie him up while they set up their cauldron and built their fire. As soon as the water was boiling, they stripped off his clothes and tipped him in, adding herbs and potions, singing spells and shrieking curses.
So, children, that silly boy failed to heed all the warnings. He wandered off, as he knew he shouldn't, neglected his family duties and offended his dead relatives. And instead of enjoying the wonderful Fire Festival and Feast of Samhain, he became a feast for a different celebrations.
Now, run along boys and girls. Go and help your mothers. It'll soon be time to light the fire and begin the feast.