Leryn paged though the notes he’d compiled, the many folk-tales of the village of Bleakbourne on Heath. His landlord, Polcock had told him the town was situated at the crossroads between the Fae and the Mortal realms, and he’d come to believe it was true.
He’d gathered many tales that were hilarious, and many that were far-fetched. Some of those he’d found, through personal experience, to be rooted in reality, and now he was hesitant to discount any.
One tale he’d initially disregarded because of the suspect veracity of the original teller had surfaced again, this time mentioned in passing by Old Scutter, a man whose determined pragmatism was well known. Making his mind up, he went over and sat across from Galahad, who was immersed in a small book of verse.
“Scutter mentioned a Killing Wood…as if the forest is dangerous. Trees that kill? I wonder what that’s all about. When Widow Brown first mentioned it I thought it fluff-and-nonsense.” He gazed out the window. “But with Old Scutter bringing it up too…there may be something to it.”
Galahad nodded. “I’ve heard of this place outside of town too. Not just from the old woodsman—he won’t go into the Killing Wood, and he’s right. I’ve heard the wood is haunted.” His green eyes turned dark.
“Really? As near to town as Widow Brown described?”
The knight shrugged. “It wasn’t always close to town, you know. The town grew larger, and the grove remained.”
The bard caught a glimpse of the man in question, walking up the street toward the tap-room. “Here comes Scutter now. Should I ask him? He’s notoriously closemouthed.”
“The worst he can do is tell you to bugger off. And he likely will.”
Leryn laughed. “As if he hasn’t told me that before. I’ll ply him with ale. That’ll loosen him up”
“Sure—you’ll need a deep pocket for that,” said Galahad. “He’ll make you pay for his whole evening. I guarantee it.”
The door opened, and Old Scutter shuffled in taking his usual place near the fire.
Leryn whispered, “It’ll be worth it. I need to know what that tale is, and if it costs me, fine.”
The night was edging toward closing, and Leryn had paid for five tankards—spending coppers nearly as fast as they fell into his hat. He laid his harp down, and crossed to Polcock, setting two coppers on the bar. “A mug for me, and one more for Scutter—but only if he’ll tell me about the Killing Wood. Otherwise, I’ll have to get the tale from Widow Brown, and who knows whether it’ll be the truth or not. You know how she is—those ‘herbs’ she smokes—more than half-mushroom, I think.”
“Well, a seer must have visions, or they aren’t much of a seer, right?” Polcock rolled his eyes. ”Although I’m not sure how useful some of her visions are—all that stuff about machines despoiling the world and hell on earth—makes no sense to me.”
Galahad agreed. “She’s harmless enough. Just don’t swallow any of her potions.”
Leryn sat beside the old man, “You promised me a tale if I bought you an ale. I’ve bought you several, and now it’s time for you to pay up.” Leryn dropped onto the bench opposite Old Scutter by the fire. “So, tell me about that Killing Wood. What’s so dangerous about it?”
The old man looked hopefully at Leryn’s mug.
The bard said, “Polcock will get you one more, but only if you’ll tell me the tale.”
Clearly, Scutter was loathe to speak of the Killing Wood, but he’d promised. “I did agree. But it’s nothing to joke about, and Widow Brown, she don’t know the truth of it. So she tells…pipe-dreams, makes it much nicer, more fanciful than it is.”
Leryn smiled ingratiatingly at his companion. “But you’ll tell me the truth.”
“Aye. I’ll do that, but you won’t thank me. It’s not a romantic tale like the way the Widow tells it. Truth is, it’s a senseless tragedy that didn’t have to happen.” The old man was suddenly sober, his melancholy palpable. “Us Scutters have always been woodmen. I lost my brother to the Killing Wood. I begged him not to do what he did. But he was never one to listen to his younger brother.
“You must never cut living wood in the forests around here. We build from stone for a reason. Wood-gatherers only take the windfalls and the deadwood. Carpenters cut from a woodlot, trees grown just for the purpose. Paddy was my brother and I loved him, but he was greedy, and sometimes took living wood. One day he cut the wrong tree.”
Leryn said, “Why must you never cut living wood?”
“To keep the wood-spirits appeased, and the tree-women—dryads, some do call them.”
Leryn stared. Scutter was not given to flights of fancy—quite the opposite. He said, “Tell me what happened to your brother.”
Grief made the old man’s face crumple, but he pulled himself together. Leryn immediately felt terrible for pressing him. “I’m sorry, Scutter. You don’t have to tell it.”
“No. Widow Brown—she won’t accept the truth, that the wood-women are not benevolent spirits. They’re dangerous as any other wild thing. Harm their trees, and they’ll kill you with less compassion than you would show a gnat.” He set his tankard down. “This is what happened. We were young in those days. Paddy was courting a girl from town, and I was courting…but that doesn’t matter. She died during the plague year.
“We’d risen early as was our habit. It was a beautiful morning. We walked out to the old forest as we always did. A storm the week before had brought down many limbs, but we had cleared the forest nearest us. Winter is the best time for wood-gathering, but we worked hard, and even after a bad storm we were able to clear the forest nearest our house quickly, so there was little to gather near home. We had to go farther and farther to find the dead wood. Our sledges were still empty at midmorning.
“Paddy was always impatient—nothing ever happened fast enough for him. I was content to work the way we always had, but he wanted to meet his girl that evening, and every minute we spent searching for downed wood grated. Then we passed a grove of oaks.
‘It was a dark place. They were old and too big even for Paddy, but several smallish trees were growing in odd places, underneath the others, as if they were being sheltered. There were no other plants or downed wood under them, which should have warned him off. I wanted to continue on past the grove and look elsewhere. But not Paddy.
“My brother stopped. ‘I’m going no further,’ he said. ‘These trees are in the wrong place—they’re small, and get no light where they are. They won’t be missed—they’re taking food and water from the big ones.’
“I argued with him. ‘Something’s wrong here. Feel it, Paddy! Besides, living wood has to cure at least a season before it’ll burn right. There’s no deadwood here despite the storms,’ I said. ‘This grove is alive—none of its branches fell to the wind this year. These trees may be the domain of wood-spirits.’
“He agreed it was strange that no limbs had been lost during the winter in that grove, but would not be dissuaded from cutting those trees. ‘What spirits, Angus? Dryads? You’re a fool, brother. In all our time walking these forests have you ever met one?’
“I said, ‘Just because we’ve not met them is not proof they don’t exist. Dad said never to take living wood. He had a reason to say so.’
“’Dad was a fool, wedded to the old ways just because it had always been done that way,’ replied my brother, whose stubbornness was unmatched. ‘I see nothing dangerous about these trees. They’re small enough that I can cut them today, and large enough to provide easy wood for days to come. I’ve cut living wood before, and naught happened. Sure, it takes a little curing but it burns good as deadfall. I’ll get at least ten sledges from this small tree, and I won’t be wasting time wandering around looking for it.’
“I refused to be a part of it, and left him. We often worked separately. God rest him—my brother could be difficult, and I could only stand him in small doses. I took my oxen deeper into the forest looking for dead-falls. Half an hour beyond the grove, I came upon the trunk of a large wind-fallen tree along with many limbs blown down from the still-standing forest. I spent the rest of the day cutting it up and sorting it, and then loaded my sledge.
“It was dusk when I passed the grove where I’d left Paddy. There were many shadows in the gloom of the ancient place, but I could see the trunks of several young oaks resting on the ground, stripped of limbs and cut into pieces in preparation for being carted away. The scent of fresh-cut wood was overlaid with some unpleasant odor, but the wood-scent was so strong I couldn’t identify it. There was no sign of my brother or his oxen and sledge, so I assumed he’d returned to town. It didn’t occur to me to examine the shadows. It seemed a fearful place, and I wanted to get away from there.
“But he hadn’t gone home. When I arrived home it was full dark. I searched the near area as well as I could but found no sign of him. By dawn, he still hadn’t returned and our mother was frantic, fearing some terrible fate had befallen him. Remembering our disagreement, I was worried too, so I asked the men of the village to help me search for him.
“Now remember, when I passed the grove the evening before it was growing dark. In the twilight I’d seen only the logs of the trees lying on the ground and many shadows, and hadn’t looked any further. In the light of day however, we saw that much of what I had seen and assumed to be shadow was actually the dark stains of blood. By then, the grove reeked with the stench of death. So much blood had splattered around the clearing, it was clear that my brother and his oxen met a gruesome fate.
“The trunks of the young trees had disappeared. But many tracks showed where my brother’s sledge had stood, and his oxen. We could see that he had been there a while before his doom befell him.
“Whatever occurred in that Killing Wood happened quickly, and violently. Blood was spattered up into the barren tree branches, and all over the glade on the ferns and bracken. We never found Paddy’s body, nor did we find his oxen or sledge.” With that, Old Scutter fell silent.
Leryn too was silent.
Finally, the old man said, “I don’t blame you if you disbelieve me. But ask Polcock. He’ll tell you how the glade looked, the stench that smelled of a slaughterhouse….”
“I have no reason to doubt your tale. But why are you so quick to discount everyone else who has a story to tell?”
Scutter rose from his chair, pulling his cap on. “I don’t want folks to get curious, right? Bleakbourne’s a dangerous place. Curiosity’s deadly. Don’t want to lose no one else.” He left, closing the door behind him.
“He’s right, you know.” Galahad gazed into the fire. “Some things should be left alone. That grove is one of them.”
Leryn shivered. “What happens if some innocent goes in there? I suppose Paddy Scutter wasn’t an innocent.”
Shrugging, Galahad said, “Cut no wood there, and you’ve nothing to fear.”
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Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff