by Vonnie Winslow Crist
Stirred by a bone-chilling wind, the lone tree in the unsanctified section of the cemetery rattled its bare branches. Duffy had the eerie feeling that Witchman’s Oak sensed what was to happen today. He chewed on the hard skin left by a burst blister on his right thumb and studied the tree.
By order of the Edgewater town council and with the mayor’s approval, Duffy was to remove Witchman’s Oak before Christmas despite local lore proclaiming the tree haunted. Personally, he thought it was a terrible mistake to cut down the oak if for no other reason than the shade it provided in the summer. Rousted by another cold gust, the huge iron bell hanging from a rusted hook embedded in the tree’s trunk clanked its agreement.
Duffy felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and glanced around – nothing but grass, grave-markers, fence, a few birds, and cloudy sky. He shook his head. He may have been a superstitious gravedigger and cemetery caretaker, but he was not an ignorant man. In fact, had his grandfather left him any money when he died last spring, Duffy would have started college this fall. Instead, he’d taken over his grandfather’s job and cottage. Perhaps it wasn’t the future he’d dreamed of — but he had steady work, food on the table, and could retain ownership of the cozy stone house he’d grown up in.
And so, out of curiosity and for a bit of mental stimulation, Duffy had decided to learn more about Witchman’s Oak. Before the mayor had even signed the tree’s execution decree, he’d gone to the local Historical Society to locate information on the solitary oak in Edgewater’s potter’s field. He’d discovered an account of a man accused of witchcraft who’d been hung in the town square. According to entries in the diary of one of Edgewater’s founding fathers, after the hanging the witchman had been sealed in a casket with a four-leafed clover, three daisies, a sprig of St. John’s wort, and a branch of mountain ash. Then, the coffin had been hauled to the cemetery. Once there, bread and salt along with a bit of churchyard mold had been scattered over the casket. Next, the burial box had been covered with dirt and sprinkled with water from a baptismal font. Lastly, an oak tree had been planted over the grave.
Another tattered document stated that years later, a stout iron hook had been hammered into the witchman’s oak and a bell secured in the crook of the hook. And there was a faded paper that forbade any other grave or disruption of the sod for twenty-one feet in all directions.
The bell clanged again as Duffy pulled the starter on his chainsaw. The mayor and town council were penny-pinchers. That unfilled ground in the middle of the pauper’s section of the cemetery looked like a waste to them. Once the oak tree was gone, he had no doubt they’d find a way to charge a fee for burying the poor and unidentified in the newly available space. He swept his sandy-colored hair out of his eyes, crossed himself just in case, and began the task of cutting down Witchman’s Oak.
As he sawed, a murder of crows gathered and perched on the three-rail fence that surrounded the unmarked grave portion of the Edgewater Town Cemetery. Fastidious creatures, they preened their glossy, black plummage then polished their beaks on the fence rails. Later, when Duffy took a water break, he heard the corvids cawing in raucous voices. He wasn’t sure if they were shouting: “Cut. Cut. Cut.” or “Halt. Halt. Halt.” Either way, the bird’s intelligent eyes studied him with unnerving intensity.
While he’d been using the saw to notch all the way around the oak’s wide trunk, the clouds had thickened and the temperature had dropped. Though only late afternoon, with the heavy cloud cover, it was growing dark. Today was the winter solstice, and the season seemed to be arriving on schedule. But December or June, Duffy had a job to do. So without further delay, he pulled his work gloves back on and cut horizontally into the south side of Witchman’s Oak.
The tree shivered. Duffy pulled the chainsaw away from the trunk, stepped back. The oak groaned, and then the top of the tree tumbled to the ground with a harsh knelling of iron bell, a loud tearing of wood, and a ground-shaking thud. The crows flapped their wings and screeched, but refused to abandon their front row seats for the tree-removal.
Duffy looped a thick chain around the severed trunk, attached the two end links to his tractor, and hauled the gnarled treetop to a refuse area at the rear of the graveyard not far from the caretaker’s cottage. Once he’d unhooked the chain, he attached a small wagon to the rear of the tractor and chuffed back to the stump. He’d turned off the tractor and climbed down from its seat to load up his tools for the day when the ground began to tremble.
As the earth quaked violently for about thirty seconds, Duffy was knocked to his hands and knees. And it was from this vantage point that he witnessed Witchman’s Oak’s stump split. Then, four of the roots from the north side pulled up from the ground and tore a chunk of the stump with them. Duffy could make out the shape of an over-sized calf in the animated root-stump. The beast snorted and shook like a wet dog. Dirt and debris showered down on the ground and the still-prone Duffy. As the rest of the oak stump lifted up, the animal lowered its head and glowered at him with malevolent eyes.
Before Duffy could get to his feet, a bearded, shaggy-haired man wearing a gray shirt and pants sprang from the hole left by the uprooted stump. With a motion as smooth as the swing of a baseball bat, the man in gray pulled an ax from his belt, jumped to Duffy’s side, grabbed him by his shirt collar with impossibly big hands, and pressed the ax blade against the skin of Duffy’s neck.
“Name!” ordered the man in a gruff voice.
“Irwin?” The bearded man removed the blade from Duffy’s throat and yanked him to his feet. “Stand up, lad. ‘Tis time to prove if your bloodline is a worthy one.”
“I’m not sure what…”
“Have ye still the bow and fiddle?”
Duffy was tongue-tied. The wild-looking man before him was gently stroking the huge stump calf with one hand and picking dirt from between his teeth with the forefinger of the other. Thankfully, the nasty-looking ax had been returned to a loop on the man’s belt.
“Are ye daft? Answer me, lad.”
“Yyyes,” stuttered Duffy. “I have an old violin and bow at the caretaker’s cottage. They’ve been wrapped in a cloth bag and stored in back of the closet for…”
“Generations and generations,” finished the bearded man. “Henkie Trow,” he proclaimed grasping Duffy’s hand and shaking it vigorously. “Spooty, my faithful buggane, and I won’t harm ye if the fiddle and bow are still intact,” Henkie said as he patted the black calf, then pushed Duffy in the direction of the caretaker’s cottage.
“To my knowledge they’re in good condition,” responded Duffy as Henkie and he walked. He noticed that his companion had a pronounced limp, but thought it best to not mention the problem. Duffy also noted Henkie was broad shouldered, barrel chested, sharp toothed, and extraordinarily hairy. Fear quelled Duffy’s curiosity about the cloven-footed buggane trotting beside them — he refused to even glance in its direction.
“Of course, I’ve never really tried to play…”
“And wise it was to never play a trow’s fiddle.” Henkie smiled a toothy smile. “I suppose I’d have to use my ax on ye, laddie, if you’d plucked a tune on Henkie’s Fiddle.”
Duffy shook his head. “I’m not musical at all, sir.”
“Sir!” Henkie chortled as they reached the front door of the cottage. “Stand watch, Spooty,” he added with a wave of his hand. “You may consume any who approach.” The bearded man turned to Duffy. “Invited me in, lad, and show me my fiddle.”
It took what seemed like hours to Duffy for Henkie to meticulously examine his bow and fiddle and proclaim the instrument unharmed. He tried to sit unnoticed on a bench near the fireplace, but his guest’s glittering black eyes monitored his every movement. When Duffy scratched his nose, Henkie lifted his head and watched. When he tilted his head back and forth a few times to try to release some tension, Henkie pursed his lips and peered in Duffy’s direction.
“Darkness,” said Henkie Trow in a voice loud and deep enough to make Duffy jump. “Darkness, yuletide, ax, bow, and fiddle are all that’s needed for settling a blood-debt. Of course, a buggane eager to wreak havoc is a bonus.” Henkie chuckled and began to sharped the blade of his ax.
Duffy’s eyes widened. He looked at his guest, but dare not speak.
“My name is not Henkie Trow, though you may call me by those words,” said the bearded man as he continued to sharpen the ax. “I am indeed a trow, a being of faerykind. Trows rarely choose to initiate trouble with men, but we’ll not back down from a fight.”
Henkie rubbed his elongated thumb along the ax blade. Nodded, then spoke. “Trapped, but not dead I’ve been. Locked by plants and such in an earthen prison. Luckily, plants decay and men forget. Once the iron bell was removed by you, laddie, Spooty and I were free as birds.”
As if on cue, Duffy heard a tapping at the window. There on the other side of the glass were the crows from the graveyard. He scanned the room. Feathery faces with bright eyes were pressed to glass panes in every window.
“Spooty and I lived by the river when the first men arrived” explained the trow. “They named their settlement Edgewater, and soon coveted the land by the riverbank where I resided in a small green hill. I was happily tending my gardens and playing my fiddle when they plotted to take what was mine.”
Henkie stomped his feet. The whole cottage shook. “Charged I was with witchcraft. A trow with witchcraft!” He scowled, then looked at Duffy.
Unsure how to respond, Duffy shook his head and did his best to appear shocked by the very thought of a trow charged with witchcraft.
His expression of dismay and outrage seemed to satisfy the burly trow who resumed his tale. “Four liars told untruths. A dishonest judge found me guilty and sentenced me to death. And then, those five foolish men took possession of my land and gold.” Henkie wagged a finger in the air, then ran it across the front of his throat like a dagger. “Five foolish men who turned a friendly trow into a haggersnash.”
Duffy wasn’t certain what a haggersnash was, but he was certain the word had to do with anger and revenge.
“Are these families still bullying the people of Edgewater?” asked Henkie prior to rattling off five surnames.
Duffy couldn’t suppress a gasp. The trow had named the mayor and four members of the town council. Their families were the wealthiest and most powerful in the county. “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, sir. There are some people with those…”
“I can locate the villains myself,” said Henkie as he stood. “But to make certain your kindheartedness doesn’t get the best of ye, I’ll be keeping you in eye-shot. Grab your coat, lad of Irwin blood, for tonight you ride the winter wind astride old Spooty.”
Ignoring his protests, Henkie dragged him out the cottage door. Bow and fiddle in hand, the trow leapt onto the rough back of the oak tree buggane, leaned down, grasped Duffy under his arm, and swung him up onto Spooty, too. No sooner had he landed on the malformed calf’s back, then Spooty shot into the air. Afraid of tumbling to the ground below, Duffy wrapped his hands around Henkie’s waist. The trow howled, the buggane flew faster, and dozens of shrieking crows flapped alongside of them as they skimmed above the housetops. Duffy squeezed his eyes shut as they neared the mayor’s home.
The buggane’s hooves had hardly touched the ground, when Henkie hopped off the shape-shifting faerie creature. But hard as he tried, Duffy found himself unable to dismount. Spooty swung his head around and gave him a warning glare. Duffy stopped struggling, and sat quietly on the oak calf.
Henkie tucked his fiddle under his chin and drew the bow slowly across the strings. The crows, who’d alighted in the nearby trees, laughed. Then, the trow began to play a fast-paced tune. The spritely notes poured from the wooden instrument with such speed and sweetness, that Duffy felt lightheaded. From the corner of his eye, he saw the crows begin to move about on the limbs of the trees like black-suited dancers. Had he been able to climb down from Spooty, Duffy knew he’d have been compelled to dance, too.
Within seconds, the back door of the mayor’s house swung open. Out waltzed five men — each holding a handful of playing cards in one fist and either a bottle of beer or a glass of amber fluid in the other. Duffy remembered it was Saturday night, so the mayor and his councilmen would have been gathered for their weekly stag-night poker game.
A twisted grin spread across Henkie’s face as he played faster and faster on his violin. The trow nodded at Duffy and the buggane, turned towards the river, and began limping his way to the mayor’s boat dock. The mayor and the councilmen twirled and two-stepped their way across the lawn and down the path behind the fiddling trow. The crows, still laughing and moving their thin legs in time with the music, flew above them. With a snort, Spooty trotted after the enchanted parade.
Still unable to dismount, Duffy had a sparrow’s ticket to whatever was to happen next. And as Henkie stood on board the mayor’s boat wielding his magical fiddle, Duffy knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. And it wasn’t.
As soon as the mayor pirouetted onto his boat, the trow struck him once on his head with the broad side of the ax. The mayor dropped like a stone to the deck. Henkie repeated the process with each of the four town council members. When the descendants of the five foolish men who condemned the trow and stole his land and wealth sprawled unconscious, Henkie took his ax’s blade and slit each man somewhere on his body.
After the blade had tasted the blood of the five men, Henkie nimbly hopped from the boat to the dock. The crows, who now danced on the dock’s planks and pilings, cheered. While chanting in a language that Duffy didn’t recognize much less understood, the trow hacked a large hole in the vessel’s starboard side. Whistling a shrill tune, the trow next untied the boat and shoved it away from shore. As she drifted out into the current, Duffy saw the words Money or Nothing painted boldly on the boat and shivered.
Suddenly, the trow resumed fiddling with renewed ferocity. Fish of all sorts jumped upward from the dark waters of the river. They twisted in the air, mouths opening and shutting, then fell to the water with a cacophony of loud slaps and splashes.
About fifty yards offshore, the Money or Nothing was sinking rapidly. His smile now stretched to grotesque proportions, Henkie did an awkward jig while still playing his fiddle, then stopped playing. The silence that followed was louder than the music had been moments before. The trow gazed directly at Duffy, again made the knife-across-the-neck motion with his forefinger, then pointed at the mayor’s half-submerged boat.
“Eat!” shouted the trow in a voice that rumbled like snow thunder.
The murder of crows lifted into the air and winged their way to the Money or Nothing’s deck. The thousands of fish swam to the vessel and surrounded her with a ring of shimmering, squirming, scaled bodies. As the feeding frenzy continued, the buggane rose up on its hind legs. Spooty whirled around, snorted, and bellowed in a most uncalf-like manner. When Spooty stopped dancing, Henkie jumped onto the buggane’s back in front of Duffy.
“Away! All debts but one are paid,” shouted the trow.
Duffy held tight to Henkie as they zipped into the air, soared over the treetops, and eventually alighted in front of the cemetery caretaker’s cottage. He tried not to think about the mayor, the councilmen, the crows, and the fishes. But he had a feeling the grizzly demise of the five men would haunt him for the rest of his life. As he slid to the ground, Duffy noticed it was beginning to snow.
“Inside, laddie,” urged the trow. He opened the door and nudged Duffy. “Keep watch, Spooty,” he called over his shoulder before stepping into the cottage.
Duffy stumbled across the room and flopped down on the hearthside bench. He put his head in his hands. No matter how tightly he squeezed his eyes shut, he could still see the flashing silver of the fish as they fought for a taste of the mayor and councilmen. And who to tell? No one would believe a tale of a trow and buggane out for revenge.
“Let it go, lad.” Henkie patted his shoulder. “Ye could not save those who owed the faeries a debt.”
Duffy raised his chin, met the intense gaze of the trow. “But I wanted to save them just the same.”
“It’s done.” Henkie yawned, stretched his arms over his head. “Now, Henkie and Spooty must return to the Greener Forest. Duffy Irwin, can you hold your tongue and keep faerie secrets?”
Duffy studied the still-bloody ax on the trow’s belt and Henkie’s black, pupil-less eyes. He nodded. “By the time the authorities find the boat and whatever remains of the bodies, the deaths are sure to be classified as accidental. I have no evidence that contradicts that assumption.”
The trow patted his shoulder once more, then stood. “As payment for faithfully guarding Henkie’s fiddle and bow, those of Irwin blood will always be faerie-blessed. And for freeing my buggane friend and me, ye are welcome to whatever hides below this hearthstone.” Henkie stamped his foot on the edge of the flat stone in front of the fireplace. The stone flipped up to reveal a hole filled with gold coins.
“’Tis faerie gold, but it’s real — not glamour.”
Without further comment, the trow strode to the door and flung it open. Spooty snorted and shook off the coating of snow that covered his back. Henkie climbed onto the buggane and smiled one last time at Duffy.
“Laddie, choose whatever future suits ye,” said the trow. “But don’t be too hasty to leave this cottage — for there is more than one secret buried in potter’s field.”
Before Duffy could respond, Spooty spun round and galloped westward towards the thick forests of a game preserve. Though the falling snow obscured his vision, he thought he saw Henkie raise his violin to his chin. And then, Duffy Irwin, faerie-blessed cemetery caretaker and rich man would have sworn he heard the lilting strains of a fiddle tune.
About the Author
Vonnie Winslow Crist is an author and illustrator living in a rural Maryland. She is editor of The Gunpowder Review and senior editor at Pole to Pole Publishing, a speculative fiction small press. Vonnie’s books include The Enchanted Skean (a Compton Crook Award Finalist), Owl Light, The Greener Forest, and Leprechaun Cake & Other Tales. Her short fiction has been published in Chilling Ghost Short Stories, Tales of the Talisman, Dia de los Muertos, Faerie Magazine, and elsewhere. Vonnie’s paintings have been featured on the covers of Bards and Sages, FrostFire Worlds, Outposts of Beyond, Illumen, and Scifikuest. A cloverhand who has found so many four-leafed clovers she keeps them in jars, Vonnie strives to celebrate the power of myth in her writing and art.
About the Narrator
Born in Scotland, Andrew Reid is a teacher and author currently living in Sweden. He writes fantasy and alt-history, and harbours an unhealthy obsession with coffee. Not to mention being a damn fine Destiny team mate, if you’re looking for one. His first fantasy novel, Kingdom’s Fall, is currently available on Amazon.