It happens but once a year. The Harrowing. As the nights draw in and the first snow begins to fall on the Old Town, the muttering begins. Dark and twisted rumours of a gathering storm. Eleven months a year we labour to forget, to make a life for ourselves in this city nestled in the hills. But every year in deadest winter comes a reminder that we are subjects to a power greater than our own, a great and terrible unknown before which we are helpless.
The burghers put up trees, warded with lights and sigils that glitter menacingly in the dark. Every year, the bishop looks on with disapproval, but he knows the value of his silence. The beast must have its tribute, or it will exact a great and terrible vengeance, sparing none. No-one knows why it likes the trees. No-one dares ask. But we do as we're bidden, acting as if we have a choice. At the inn the old men tell stories birthed from years of bitter experience. Ominous noises. Strange lights in the sky. Every year, they say, it begins a little earlier.
One year the baron decided to put an end to it. He took a band of men, stolid farmers with pitchforks and halberds. Led them off to the frozen north, into the barbarian lands, in search of vengeance. We never heard from them again, and that winter the price exacted was steeper than ever. Now his son reigns in his stead, and a mighty spruce stands in the castle courtyard as a sign of submission. And on that fateful night, every home makes its offering of food and drink. Earth and water. We dare not watch to see if it is taken, but the next morning it is always gone.
And so, without fail, it comes. Massive hooves rumbling over nothing but sky. The horned beasts are a portent. They have names, they say. Black reminders of death and destruction. Thunder and lightning and the one with the bloody maw that is the deadliest of them all, their captain and their chief, accomplice to all their worldly evils. What sort of power could bring beasts such as this to harness? They fly without wings, gliding silently over the velvet night. We sense their presence, and we are afraid.
Behind them is pulled the true enemy, riding atop his engine of destruction. Its form is so familiar as to be mocking, but twisted, perverted into a new and inescapable purpose. His coat is stained scarlet, thick with the blood and viscera of innocents. And every year as we shiver in our beds, we hear his deranged battle cry echo over the wooden rooftops and gables. His very corpulence is obscene, a calculated affront to a city on the verge of starvation under his tyranny. Many have tried to escape, to run or fight.
But he keeps a list. A list of those guilty of disobedience or lese-majeste. And to those families he exacts a terrible revenge. In the morning, their children will be gone, replaced only by a lump of coal as black as his sinful heart. To those who have been dutiful in their obeisance, presents are left, and we unwrap them with fear in our hearts as we ask ourselves who we have lost. They say the ones he takes make them, in some infernal factory in the borderlands.
There's a song the children sing sometimes. We try to stop them, but it always comes back. No-one ever seems to teach it to them. It simply ...is.
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness' sake
You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town