The Cunning Man

– The Cunning Man –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

It’s of a jolly beggarman came tripping o’er the plain
He came unto a farmer’s door a lodging for to gain

The farmer’s daughter came she down and viewed him cheek and chin
Says she, “He be a handsome man. I pray you take him in.”

The farmer’s daughter she got up to bolt the kitchen door
And there she saw the beggar standing naked on the floor
He took the daughter in his arms and to the bed he ran
Gently, gently, with me, sir; you’ll waken our goodman

The beggar was a cunning loon, and ne’er a word he spake
Until he got his turn full done, and come sun at daybreak.
“I am no lord, I am no squire, of beggars I be one
And beggars they be robbers all, so you re quite undone.”

She took her bed in both her hands, and flung it to the wall
“Devil go with thee, Gaberlunzie, my maidenhead and all!”

— King James V of Scotland (16th C)

Table of Contents


*** *** ***

01. High Road in the Autumn

He walked along the high-road in the autumn, and the apple trees dropped golden leaves. The fallen leaves obscured his feet. There was a tangled crunching as he walked.

The wind slid by, trailing hints of chill, and odors of far woodsmoke. The trees all shook their leaves in greeting, and nodded with their crowns.

“Hullo, Father Wind!” Hazelthorne called out. The wind tugged at his threadbare cloak, and curled in his dark brown beard. He laughed aloud.

“What news have you to-day? What’s that? You’ve been up to the Arctic, where fields of ice lay frozen all forever underneath a pale, disdainful sun? The snow-elves there are whispering, and plot with Brother Winterstorm, to bring their kingdom south, down here, to England, once shorter days are come? Your news is old! I know it comes, the cold! Didn’t I see the geese, crying out their woe, all flying, homeless exiles, from the empire of snow? Aren’t the tree-gnomes all mad busy, minting up their store of gold?”

He laughed, and stooped and straightened, flinging up his hand. A swirl of leaves flew up from him, and spun and floated, rattling, in the air.

There was a rustle in the bush nearby, a sound of rapid motion. “Hurrying and scurrying, I declare!” Shouted Hazelthorne with joy. “Who’s making all that noise? Who’s there?”

And when no-one answered back, he muttered, “Likely just a frightened hare… Go, rabbit! Change into your winter cloaks! White is all the fashion this time of year, I hear!”

A colder wind slid by, and sent a gush of leaves into the air. Hazelthorne wrapped his cloak more close. “I could use a warmer pelt myself. May be if I get to Carleon-on-Thyme on time, and help good Goodwife Prudence find her missing man, she’ll pay me with a warmer cloak. Ah, me! We’ll see, and we’ll do what we can.”

He walked until he came to Farmer’s Bridge, which crossed the river they called Thyme. The bridge stones all were sound, though slick with moss, and old. Hazelthorne tossed out a penny to the water, just in case there were a troll. The money sank without a sound.

He crossed the Farmer Mattock’s land. Mattock’s men were hauling straw to rick. Hazelthorne waved his hand and called hullo, jumping up and down, and flourishing his walking-stick. Some of the men glanced sullenly his way, but none waved back, which Hazelthorne thought odd.

The road now split, and at the fork there was a pile of stones put up for a reason no-one living now-a-days could quite recall.

Turning left, he walked, and passed the house and shed of Applethorpe the smith. The clashing sound of his hammer crashing on his anvil rang and echoed in the air.

At the road’s end, near the large oak tree at the edge of town, Sheriff Burghley and two men were waiting for him.

“Are you William Hazelthorne, the Cunning Man?”

“I am, and am proud to be.”

“Goodman, you are under arrest.”

Hazelthorne was flabbergasted, tried to speak, could not.

Sheriff Burghley said, “You are under arrest for disobeying good King Edward’s law, practicing the witchy arts, consorting with the devil, and doing sundry other things which Christian men, by right, should never do.”

“I’ve not stole nor harmed!” Hazelthorne exclaimed, “Nor can I fly up in the air! I’ve a knack for finding things folks lose. There’s no harm in that, no breach of law in that, is there?”

“Come along.” The Sheriff said, and took him roughly by the arm. “You were seen talking to spirits in the wind.”

Hazelthorne now saw a young boy, perhaps of ten years age, standing by and watching all of this with awe. His face was smeared with dirt, and a snarl of grass and leaves was tangled in his hair. His eyes were wide with fright.

“So here’s my little rabbit, eh? Those who go tell tales should sure make sure there’s truth in what they say,” said Hazelthorne, smiling strangely.

The Sheriff’s men dragged Hazelthorne away stumbling and complaining and clutching at his walking stick.

The boy, in terror of that smile, turned and fled.


The boy ran back toward his home. Several times he heard a flapping, flopping sound, like the noise of supple batlike wings. But when he threw his glances back across his shoulder, nothing was in sight but clustered ranks of rustling leaves. So many leaves. Anything could be hidden in them. . .

Long-fingered shadows swelled up across the land as sunset drew nigh. The world grew dark around him as he ran.

The sinister noises in the air seemed louder to him now, more persistent, more close.

Nonetheless, he slowed. He remembered what was waiting for him back at home.

He stopped. He stood by himself in the gloom. Raising up his hands, and closing eyes suddenly hot with tears, he called out, “Come on! Come get me! You can’t be any worse than he is!”

The tree behind him tossed its branches in the wind, and made a creaking, muttering noise. Another tree nearby now creaked as well, as if in answer.

The boy bolted and ran.

It was dark when he got home. There was a bulky shadow standing in the lit-up rectangle of the door.

The man who was not his father said, “Will! That you? What’ve I told you about tarrying out at night? It’s a devil time. ”

The figure was holding a strap.

“We won’t have you gadding about all hours a-night.”

He heard his mother’s voice, from inside, saying, “Will! Aren’t you wicked for going off to idle while your chores need doing! Off ’til dark! Your father and I were worried sick nigh to fainting!”

The boy came forward toward the light. He spoke without a tremble in his voice. “Father’s dead. This is just some man you live with who sits in father’s chair and sleeps in his bed.”

The man who was not his father cuffed him roughly across the mouth. The blow jerked his head to one side and banged it on the door post. He felt dizzy, and sat down on the stoop.

The boy thought–He can’t make me afraid. He can make me hate them, but he can’t make me afraid.

Rough hands reached down to yank him to his feet.

*** *** ***

02. Cellar of the Shire Reeve

With no other place more suitable to put him, the Sheriff’s men hauled Hazelthorne to Sheriff Burghley’s cellar. They opened up the trap doors. Stairs of dark brown brick led down.

Hazelthorne complained and struggled, claiming that he feared the dark, that Justice herself would avenge his evil treatment, that the dank air would give his back a cramp.

With no ado, the two man tripped him and sent him stumbling down the stairs. He fell into a pile of burlap which stank and smelled of carrots.

The door shut. A chain rattled overhead. A locked clicked. Then, silence.

“Ah, locked in for to-night!” he mused. “Alak for my poor plight. Innocent, yet vilely accused! Sinless, yet abused! My blessed Christ, such things they dare to do …Oops! But I forget…they did such things, didn’t they, to you?”

He spent a few moments hauling sacks of carrots in a pile, and striking them with both hands as if to fluff them soft. Then he flopped atop the pile with an enormous breathy sigh, arms and legs sprawled wide, grinning, though there were none to see it, with a vast majestic pleasure.

“Won’t my happiness abound! No sleeping in the cold to-night, no thorns, no stony ground. How sweet! Some of this to lay upon, and some to eat!” And he wriggled a carrot out from between the loose burlap fiber of the sack he sat on.

After a moment or two, he noticed that his scarf was missing. He wondered when he had lost it.

* * *

Later, when he heard a noise above, he woke. A faint thin yellow shimmer glimmered overhead. He saw a pair of feet on high coming down a set of wooden stairs.

A young priest, clean-shaven, and appearing not much older than a youth came down, holding a feeble lantern. In the other hand, he carried a small book, bound in dark brown leather.

“I suppose you to be William Hazelthorne, the Cunning Man.”

“As to that, I do suppose that I must be, unless the true man Hazelthorne has turned himself to wisps of air, and slid out through the cracks of yon locked door, and left me here, a mockery, constructed out of burlap-lint and carrot stalks, and blown to life with magic eructations, which he had the foresight to vivify before he left.”

“I see.” The priest carefully sat down upon an empty barrel next to a rusted plow. “That hypothesis I deem unlikely. Therefore I take you to be he.”

“Egad! Can it be so? A man without a trace of any humor whatsoever? ‘Tis a marvel! Folk would pay a penny for a peek to see you at a country show.”

“My humor is sufficient to my needs.” The young priest neatly folded his vestments across his knees, so that they would not be mussed by hanging in the straw and muck of the cellar floor. “Permit me to introduce myself: I am the reverend Pastor Ignatius Farthingale.”

“My condolences, on that, Father. That is truly a proud and monumental behemoth of a name.”

“Pity — even if offered as a jape — shows a gentleness of spirit that belies your outward rascally and buffoonish form, especially when that pity is offered by one in your forlorn and hopeless estate. It is toward that gentility of soul I hope to bend my embassy, that you may relent in causing ill, where, as I am so far fond to hope, in your simplicity, is no wise deliberatively intended.”

“You’d better wait. My wit is still tangled off somewhere aft of ‘forlorn and hopefully estate’. ”

The young priest clasped his hands across his book and leaned forward.

“Do you have any reckoning of what bad punishments the justice of the King has stored against yourself?”

“Haven’t thought on it a wink. No, Father. Seeing how I never harmed a soul, they can either do me justice-things, or do me punishings, but can’t do both at once, I think.”

“An unjust whipping cuts as deeply as a just one.”

“My back may hurt, but not my soul. They say a man can suffer any pain whatever, if he keep his conscience whole.” Hazelthorne made an expansive gesture with his arms, and struck a pose.

The priest seemed unimpressed. “Would you not prefer to keep both whole and unscarred, your conscience, and your back?”

“And what would you prefer, good Father? You’ve spoken much of beating me, but never once of praying for my soul, I see.”

“You are a good man. I see the signs of it in you, despite your mask of drollery. I propose a covenant. Upon your promise to go away from here, nor ever to return, I will use what influence I may with Sheriff Burghley to achieve your liberty…Come…what will you say?”

Hazelthorne rumpled his beard with his fingers and his thumb.

The young priest sat quiet and still.

“Father — If I had no right business in this town, in an instant I’d agree. But will you be so unkind to Goodwife Prudence as to leave her husband’s whereabouts a mystery? This is stony-hearted more than ever thought I a man of God to be.”

Father Ignatius squinted at him.

“The pretense of magic art, which you counterfeit to have, can nowise help the woman Prudence Howard. You may froth and shake and mutter sundry brabble in strange voices, or gaze into a looking glass, or do some other false and empty show. Can you, in conscience, claim these cheats and sleights will be to that unhappy women’s good?”

“Father, may I die if I speak falsely, by the sign of Jesus’ Cross which I make across my heart; I am a true magician. I know the planets and their figures. I have seen the fairies dance by moonlight. I know the runes. I have the art.”

“The art of lunacy, perhaps, and pretense.”

“Gracious Father! I am in awe…do you no believe in magic power at all?”

“How can any man have power when Almighty God has all?”

“And Devils? Fairies? Leanan-sidhe?”

“Sprites and Devils have but incorporeal substance, can tempt the minds of men, but otherwise can do no work within the world, nor alter Nature’s Law, which is God’s ordinance.”

“But…There’s magic in the Scriptures…The Parting of the Red Sea!”

“The holy scripture’s witness reassures us that, upon a time, it could be thus, when Providence suspended Nature’s Law, to settle the foundation of the Holy Church. But we are in the dotage of the world, living near the end of time. The land is full of tremblings, sicknesses and fantasies, as Earth enters its senility and Judgement Day draws nigh. The need of miracles is past. All those who now-a-day lay claim to sorcery and to fantastic art do but perpetrate a harmful cheat.”

“And what of my chase, Father?” Hazelthorne dropped his bearded chin upon his breastbone. “I seek the Matron Prudence Howard’s man, lost these two years, dead or run away, to tell her if she be a widow or no. Where is the harm in this? Even if it be false and empty show (which I hotly tell you it is no such!) It will at least sooth her worrysomeness and grief of soul, at last, the truth of it to know.”

“There is Another to whom she ought to turn for guidance and comfort of her soul. You country witches presume an office to yourselves reserved more properly to the Holy Church.”

Hazelthorne opened his mouth, closed it again, shook his head a tiny shake. “Father, of course you’re right. Thank you for showing me the light.”

Father Ignatius stared at him a while. Hazelthorne squirmed.

The young priest said. “I can well believe now you knowingly practice no deceit. You have no skill at it at all. Out with it! Speak your mind!”

Hazelthorne hesitated.

*** *** ***

03. Shepherds and Witchmen

Father Ignatius said, “Please. Surely you do not want the sin upon my soul of seeing you explode from the strain of refraining your remark.”

“Begging your pardon, Father, and meaning no disrespect. Do you take your office from the Pope in Rome?”

“The late King Henry, may he rest in peace, made himself the head of the church in this land.”

“Do you say mass? Do the church bells ring to keep the storms at bay? Devils and flying witches herd thunderclouds as we herd sheep, or so the common people say. Do you make the sign of the cross to drive a hex out from ailing sheep, or men, or goats? Set prayers when laying the foundations of a barn, or rub holy water on the keel of a newly launched-out boat?”

“We do not any of these things. They are false and apostate practices, rank sorcery and conjuring, pagan artifice from Rome.”

“Do you find lost goods by hanging the Holy Scripture from a key? Or find out if a missing man is dead by saying his requiem mass, and seeing if the candles flinch, or see the ghost’s reflection in the psaltery?”

“Not since…no. As you know well, these superstitious blasphemies were cleansed from our good church, thrown out with all Popery.”

“In which case, Father — pray for me if to say this is a sin — how can you not understand? If the Church had not let go her job, there would be no business for we cunning men to be in. You no longer protect these folk with holy water, holy oil, phylactery and holy wafer. So they go to witchcraftmen to buy a magic ring. Not to sin. Just to feel a little safer.”

“If these practices truly did what so they counterfeit to do, they would be true, and the Church would embrace them. Yet they be false. I grant you and admit the common people cling to these false beliefs, false practices, false thought. But the mission of the Church on Earth is to educate mankind, to drive the false before it as the dark is driven off by shining lamps; it is not our mission to seek praise among the many, or, by pandering to the good opinion of the crowd, to win it!”

Father Ignatius relaxed back slightly, and continued, “In your case, Prudence Howard seeks now to confirm her lost husband dead.”

Hazelthorne was silent, squinting and frowning, as if troubled in his thought.

“I ask you, for the woman’s sake, if not for your soul, not to work your falsehoods here” The young priest said.

Hazelthorne was silent.

Father Ignatius continued: “I put it to you as a case. either Robert Howard is alive, or no. Either you will say to Prudence what happens to be so, or you will not. There are four possible outcomes. If you tell her wrongly that he lives, you puff her up with false and faulty hope, to bring her small joy now but greater anguish later. If you say wrongly that she is a widow, you will make her an adulteress. And if, by random chance, or guess, you say rightly of his life or death, you indeed will comfort her and give her hope, but in so doing, will teach her to ignore the only source of true comfort and true hope in this sad world, and draw her soul away from the bosom of the Holy Church.

“In none of these four cases, Cunning Man, do you perform a service and a good which you pretend yourself ability to do. There is no magic in this world. If compassion for Prudence Howard moves you, surely now you see that you will help her more if you avoid her. You but cause her ill if you remain. Is there a greater good that you can render her, or yourself, or any in this township, other than swiftly to depart?”

Hazelthorne turned his head aside and stared into the thick black shadows looming in the corner of the cellar.

The father’s dim lamp flickered. The massive shadows seemed to sway and move. There was a slither of noise, and a tickling clicking like the scrape of claws on wood.

Without turning his head, Hazelthorne said, “I will wager you, good Father, if you are willing to let me have my way, not for a long time, but only for a day, that I will do such good here that even your heart will think it well worth while. But I warn you — it will be a harsh bad good, harsh as Truth herself undressed; not the sort of good to make you smile.”

“What do you know? By what magic do you pretend to know it?”

Hazelthorne said into the darkness. “Well, Beelzebub? Shall we tell the Priest our guess? Or is it better kept mysterious?”

Hazelthorne turned to Father Ignatius and asked, “Tell me, Father, how long in this parish must a man be missing ere the law will call him dead? Seven years?”

But the Priest, wo began to make the sign of the cross but halted his hand, was staring in fear at the shadow.

In the darkness, a bright pair of eyes stared back. They were as bright as copper pennies, and not like human eyes at all.

“It seems to me, ” the young priest said, “that if there is nothing on Earth but what God has put here, that…I hope…that is Burghley’s cat, isn’t it? Is it?”


Toward midnight, perhaps, or later, a slinking shape slithered, quick and silent as a passing shadow, over top the cordwood stack, danced a moment on the rusted plow, and slid across the air to land on Hazelthorne’s generous stomach.

His snores were interrupted by his howl. A high-pitched shrieking sang out from the creature crouching on his chest, a mewling yowl.

He raised his hand to bat the furry shape, and yanked it back, scratched and clawed, criss-crossed with small, sharp, hot lines of pain.

“Beelzebub! You pest! I was trying to rest!”

Heavy footsteps sounded on the ceiling overhead; the thud of hard hands pounding at the inside door. Sheriff Burghley’s voice came down: “Silence, Witch! Cease your noise and wrack! If I come down, I’ll drub you such a drubbing as you’ll not soon forget, I warrant! No noise again!” Dimly in the distance, he heard a woman’s vice call out, “Soft, my husband! He is conjuring a demon from the vasty deep!”

“I’ll see what a few knocks from a good oak staff will do to his magicianry if he wakes me up again this night!”

The footsteps receded.

So it was that Hazelthorne winced and grunted as the little creature turned around and around again atop his stomach, sinking tiny, sharp, hooked claws into his coat and beard (and skin) with every step. Hazelthorne gritted and ground his teeth, sweated, puffed, but held his peace.

Finally, the creature curled itself into a soft warm ball upon his chest, purred softly once, and slept.

*** *** ***

04. The Slumbering Creature

Hazelthorne petted the creature sleeping on him, and had his finger licked by a warm, rough, gritty tongue. His hand picked up small straight bits of fiber from the fur. What was it? He sniffed, he put a small bit in his teeth to taste. Wet grass. It was tiny slivers of grass still wet from the dew.

He puzzled over that a while. Then he smiled in the darkness, closed his eyes, and began to nod asleep.

Much later, when the weight left his chest, he woke again. By touch, he found the woodpile, chose two stout sticks of proper height. He began to search, by touch, for tools.

Cockcrow woke him next, and the smells of newborn day. It was still dark. He lay upon his carrot-pile, not bothering to stir, puzzling over certain noises he had heard, or dreamt he had.

Thin lines of dull red light came slowly from the cracks between he timbers of the door. The objects in the cellar slowly took on size and shape. Hazelthorne saw now that there were two doors. One in which the dawn-light came (down which he’d yesterday been thrown), and the other, which led up to the cottage proper, through which the priest had come.

Hazelthorne sat up, and saw three sets of footprints in the floor-mud, one much smaller than the other two.

He spun his walking stick deftly in one hand, and held it up, saying softly, “Gentle Spirits in the air! Show me where, now show me where!”

He moved the rod back and forth most slowly, like a hound seeking scent. At one point, the walking stick seemed to twitch and jump within his hand.

He stood. He stepped toward the lumber pile which filled up more than half the roomy cellar. The rod wagged back and forth.

“Come out, my little one. We know you’re there. You cannot hide yourself from the sprites who live, unseen, inside the air.”

A moment passed.

“Come, come! Do I cause you fright? I think I might. Why else did you wait so long? Did you think my powers would be weaker in the morning light?

A young boy’s voice muttered grumpily, “Mm not afraid ‘fanything.” And a lad crawled out from behind the woodpile and stood sullenly. His face was but a pale shadow in the greater shadows of the gloomy cellar. Nonetheless, Hazelthorne recognized him.

“Well! My little tale-telling hare! What are you doing down here?”

“My name is William Howard. I’m not a hare.”

“So you aren’t! So you aren’t! We have the same name we two. I’m a William just like you! Here’s my hand on it!”

The boy waited until Hazelthorne’s outstretched hand was very near him. The boy’s hand came up, rabbit-quick, with something sharp shining in it.

Hazelthorne jerked back, yowling. An angry slash was scratched across the bottom of his arm, shallow, no more than a cut in the surface of the skin.

Hazelthorne looked down, glaring, angered and amazed. He had dropped his walking stick so that he could clutch his wounded arm. A drop of blood had collected at his elbow.

The little boy stood sullenly, holding a thin paring knife, so thin as to almost be a needle.

Angry, Hazelthorne reached forward and snatched the knife out from the child’s hand.

The boy backed up.

There as a sound of heavy footsteps overhead, and a loud voice: “God’s Wounds, you Witch, you’ll learn to curb your noise! I trow my staff is stout enough to break your bones! You’ll have such a drubbing as the world has not heard before!”

With a leap and a bound, Hazelthorne was up the stairs. He slid the knife tip into the door-crack near the hinge, and drove it home by slamming the heel of his palm into the pommel of the blade. He said in a quick and breathless rush, “By wood and Welkin! By flood and Flame! Thou door stick fast and fast remain!”

He heard a noise and turned his head. The boy was gone.

Sheriff Burghley roared: “By Jesus’ teeth you’ll know how vain your prayers to the devil are, when I give you a crowning to rock your brains out of your skull!” The door shuttered in its frame, and creaked, but did not open.

“By the Virgin Mary’s Nipples, get your shoulder off this door, or by Jesus’ Bile, I’ll slit you fair.” And three feet of sword-blade slid in through a knot-hole in the door-planks at stomach level.

The blade wiggled and the sword-tip slashed back and forth in the air, encountering nothing. the blade pulled back out the hole. Burghley’s voice was silent for a moment, perhaps in thought, or, perhaps, in fear.

The came a series of loud, heavy blows. A door-plank cracked and splintered. The bulk of Sheriff Burghley filled the doorway as he kicked the broken halves of the door aside. One of the sections sagged crookedly aside and fell away. Stubborn as a bull, with grunting lunges, Burghley wedged his way into the narrow opening.

He stood a moment without motion, one foot on the topmost stair, one foot still outside, surrounded by a haze of dust and floating motes of wood. Rays of dusty light streamed in past his shoulders.

He turned and looked back, calling, “Marigold! Go fetch Nob and Jack! Hazelthorne’s escaped us.”

A woman’s voice called back. “I told you! It’s back luck to catch a witch!”

“Cease your prattle, woman, and go!”

*** *** ***

05. The Reverend Pastor Ignatius

The Reverend Pastor Ignatius Farthingale stood by the covered well in front of Burghley’s cottage, gazing at the older man with a look of polite disbelief on his features.

“Hazelthorne flew away?” asked Father Ignatius, enunciating the words slowly and clearly.

“What? Who says that he did?” Burghley scowled.

“Your message said. . .”

Burghley frowned impatiently and looked at his wife. Marigold stepped back, flinched and looked down. Her fingers toyed nervously with the hem of her apron.

Burghley said, “He’s gone.”

“And how came this to be?”

In the early morning, he raised a God-awful — eh, begging your pardon, Parson — raised a racket. When I went down to teach him to mind his manners…”

Marigold said: “He did his conjuring in the night. We were wakened by unearthly yowling and voices…”

“…’Twas the cat a-screeching, I tell you. The door was jammed…”

“…he closed it with runes of binding…”

“…with a knife…”

“…a conjuring knife, an athame. . .”

Father Ignatius held up his hand for peace. The pair fell quiet. “And have you this knife?”

Burghley brought it out. Marigold said, “Douse it with holy water ere you touch it, Father, or else the evil influences will contagion you!”

“Holy water is a pagan thing, used by the Church of Rome. Remember this.” He looked toward the blade. “This looks more like a fruit-knife than like a witch’s magic tool. And see how the nail-heads in the handle are sunk? This is Smithy Applethorpe’s hand-work. Here is his trade-mark.”

Marigold leaned forward. “Aye, but how’d the witch-man get it, eh? Into a cellar closed fast, past bars and locks?” She nodded triumphantly, as if that settled the point.

Father Ignatius said, “Sheriff, you forced open the door and looked in, to find an empty room?”

“I did. And Hazelthorne will pay the cost to restore the door I stove in.”

“Did you leave the room at any time thereafter?”

“You’d be thinking he might’ve hid, and skulked off when I went to go look for him, walking right out my own front door?”

“Is it possible?”

“No, Father. That were my own first thought, and I took guard
against it. I stood at the door until Marigold got Nob and Jack.
Then I searched the cellar. There’s a hole in the stones behind
the woodpile. I found my shovel he’d used to pull the last stone

Marigold nudged her husband. “Tell the pastor!”

“It was just a hole.”

Marigold said, “There weren’t no dirt nor any other brick inside. The witch-man couldn’t have dug so great a hole as that, not in one night, not so silent as never to wake us sleeping in the very next room!”

Burghley muttered, “‘Tis true, Father. I heard his voice plain as I hear yours on ‘tother side of the door. I broke that door right quick. He had time to pull away one stone, or two, in that time, but not dig such a hole.”

“Nothing human could dig so great a hole as that so quick!” Marigold concluded, nodding, eyes wide.

“Next I looked for prints. It was wet last night and the ground were soft. But all I saw were small feet, small like a little boy…”

“…or like an elf! And tell him about the other marks!”

“…there were little round hole in the ground. Like as someone set a kitchen stool down. Small and round…”

“…they say that fairies shoe their horses with round shoes so as none can tell whether they be coming or going! Tell him about the dog…”

“…So we fetched Nob’s dog to sniff him up, me having kept his scarf just in case. I snatched it off his shoulder as we pushed him downstairs, and he didn’t seem to note…”

“…Nob’s dog couldn’t find no scent!”

“… There weren’t no scent at all, Father.”

“… not any scent at all…”

“…So I went to ask farmer Crookshank’s men, their fields being on that side…”

“…no scent at all, like he flew off up into the air, and left no trail…”

“…Pat Churchwood, what works on Crookshank’s land said he saw him, but also said he hadn’t, and we didn’t get no clear answer on that…”

“…Patrick Churchwood said the man went by not in any human shape…”

“…He didn’t seem too much clear on what he saw. I’ve sent Jack to fetch him, if you want to ask…”

“…Not in any human shape, those were his very words!”

Father Ignatius held up his hand again. “Sheriff. Could the hole have been made prior to last night, without it coming to your attention?”

“I don’t think it likely, Father…”

“…what with us in and out of that cellar each day at every hour? How could we not see such a hole as that… ” Marigold chimed in.

“…but it’s possible. The hole was behind the cordwood which we stacked up against the winter. We keep some in the cellar on account of how wet our stack got two years past, and wouldn’t light at all… ”

“…you remember how cold that winter was don’t you, Pastor?”

“…not likely, but it’s possible.” Sheriff Burghley sounded as if he doubted it. He looked up. “Here comes Jack and Patrick. Jack ! What’s taken you so long, curse your bones?! What in God’s…uh. Sorry, Father.”

The two men came up. Pat Churchwood greeted the Reverend Pastor respectfully.

Father Ignatius said, “God has kept you in good health, I trust?”

Churchwood took off his hat. “Got a small rick in my back which hurts me to stoop. But besides that, I’m fit.”

“Good. I am pleased. Since you had been absent from morning services these past two Sundays running, I had been afraid that some disabling disease had consumed you to the point where you were bedridden, and could not rise.”

“No, father…I…well…that is. . .”

“What was it you saw this morning? Did you see the man Hazelthorne making his escape?”

“I did see him go by, Father. Very strange it was about his shape.”

“What about his shape?”

“Very tall.”

“He’s a tall man, my son.”

“Not so tall as that.”

“As what, Patrick?”

“D’you know where the hedge Barnobas Sumpter planted four years past runs nigh Farmer crookshank’s orchard? There’s a footpath on the far side of the hedge. I saw the cunning man, by dim dawn-light, walking gown that path. I could see his head above the hedge. His shoulders were hunched up funny, and he was bobbing and waving with most awkward stepping.”

“Did you raise a hue and cry?”

“No, Father.”

“Why not?”

“On account of I thought no one would believe me, seeing as how it were so odd.”

“What was odd?”

“I saw Hazelthorne’s head above the hedge as he walked by.”

“What’s odd on this, my son?”

“Father, that hedge is eleven feet if its an inch.”

Father Ignatius Farthingale was silent a moment. Then he thanked them all, and slowly walked away.

Marigold said, “Now I hope we’ll see some good of our young priest! If Father Theobold were here, he’d have blessed our doors and windows with holy oil and horses’ shoes ere this, to bar the witch from coming in again.”

Sheriff Burghley said, “Peace, woman! Theobold was a Papist, and ’twas best the King’s men took him off. We’ll have no foolishness with horses’ shoes from our new priest. He’s been to school and owns four books.”

“No horseshoes, eh?” She pointed, “and look. Why else would the Father be paying a call on Applethorpe the Smith this time of day?”

Sheriff Burghley rubbed his chin and didn’t reply. Patrick Churchwood said, “He may be young, but he has books with figures in them. Figures and diagrams! My Burt saw them once when he cleaned the chimney in the Parson’s house.”

Jack, the Sheriff’s man, slapped Churchwood on the shoulder saying, “Go to! You think the Parson’s magic can overcome old Hazelthorne’s? Parson’s younger than my son Edgar. And weren’t it Hazelthorne what found the candles and fixtures stolen from a church up by Harrowshire Township, and them buried in a new-made grave?”

Sheriff Burghley rumbled, “Don’t heed such tales. No witch could find lost altarworks, nor even touch them.”

Churchwood said, “Our Parson will find his man, alright. Stands to reason.”

“How?” demanded Jack.

“Two things. Any man what has such books must know some magic. Why else have figures and diagrams?”

“Maybe so. Maybe not.” Said Jack. “But no magic can find a man unless you have a piece of that man with you; a hank of hair, or finger-clippings. Stands to reason.”

“You didn’t see.”

“See what?”

“The knife.”

Sheriff Burghley said, “That’s the Witch’s knife. I found it in the cellar. The Parson wanted it.”

Churchwood nodded sagely. Jack gave him another shove. “What?” demanded Jack.

“That’s the second thing.” Churchwood said. “There were blood-drops on the knife.” He nodded, “Yes. I suppose the Pastor’ll find the man all right.”

*** *** ***

06. The Goodwife Prudence

Later that day, Goodwife Prudence Howard was surprised to hear a visitor knocking at her door.

She stood stock still, holding the dish she had been cleaning with a rag. She wondered who it was. Most of her visitors would not come at this hour, nor would they be so polite as to knock, rather than to bellow.

She crossed slowly to the door. “Who…who is it?”

“It is I, my daughter, the Reverend Pastor Ignatius Farthingale.”

“Just…just wait a moment, will you, Father? I need to…put something away…it goes in here…yes…in here.”

A moment later, smiling sweetly, the young woman opened the door.

Father Ignatius, squinting in the sunlight, wore a solemn expression. He raised his hand and made the sign of the cross. “May God bless this house and all who dwelleth in it.”

“Thank you, Father, won’t you come in?”

He stepped over the threshold, and surveyed the inside of the cottage with a studious eye.

Opposite the door was the chimney of which Goodwife Prudence was so proud, like a small room made of brick, with an array of pots and pans hanging down on chains. Before the chimney was a table made of sawn planks. On the mantle-piece were the Howard’s plates and cups, and a row of knives held in a rack. There was an empty slot in the rack.

To the left was a bed hung with curtains. At the foot of the bed was a large chest. To the right was a cot for the boy. Beyond the cot was a wardrobe. The wardrobe door was slightly open: inside he could see a man’s winter cloak and a pair of boots. Above the cot, the cottage’s one window it the room. “Won’t you sit, Father?” She put her hand on the rooms only chair, which stood near the fireplace at the table’s head.

“I will,” he said, and sat down on the trunk at the foot of the bed.

The woman sat down on one of the two stools near to the table. She folded her hands in her lap demurely, but gave the priest a forthright stare.

Father Ignatius noticed uncomfortably how slim Prudence Howard’s ankles were, and with what good shape her skirts folded and flowed down her hips and legs. She wore and apron tightly tied around her middle, accentuating the trimness of her waist and the fullness of her bosom. Her dress was unlaced at the throat, and Father Ignatius could see the smooth line of her neck.

Her cheeks were wide and freckled; her mouth was generous. Her insolent eyes were dark and deep; her eyebrows black and nicely arched. A few wild strands of red-brown hair escaped her kerchief and curled in the air, or clung down her throat like ivy.

She looked to be nigh on five years or more older then the priest.

She gave him a bold look, and raised one black eyebrow, as if to say well, then?

But the young priest was suffering a qualm, and could not bring himself to speak as yet.

She said, “Our chair is not good enough for you to rest your bottom on, then, Pastor?”

“It is not that I disdain the seat of Robert Howard. Rather, it is that I will not settle myself in the chair of Edward Lake.”

She drew in a sharp breath. She pursed her lips and looked down at her lap. she said, “Tell me plain, Father, why are you come?”

“My daughter, I came to ask if there is any deed which oppresses your conscience, which you would care to unburden to me.”

Again she raised an eyebrow. “When I was younger, I said my confessions to Father Theobold. But he was taken away.”

“While the practice of confession has been relinquished in this land, ” said the young man, “I am still your ghostly counsellor, and the Book of Common Prayer urges me to act in every way your spiritual comforter, guardian, and guide.”

Again she looked down. “Father, you are most wrong to rebuke me. I know you say that I have sinned. You think me a corrupt and evil jezebel. It is hard, powerfully hard, to bear such words and such evil thinking. But Edward Lake and I are wedded, man and wife. There’s not a body in this township who didn’t see he and I jump the broom together. How often must I say it? Edward is my husband, soul and body, and I’ve loved him since we were children. Every man and jack in this town says we’re wed but you.”

“In the eyes of the town you may indeed be wed.” The young priest said. “But you must be widowed ere you wed again; and no woman is wed unless she takes her vows before a priest. Think not of how you are seen in the eyes of men. Think of the eyes of God.”

Prudence looked up, her eyes bright and fierce with anger, shining with unshed tears. She stood up, shouting. “If I’m a whore it’s you that makes me so! You! You! I’ll have you yet speak right of me! You’ll see!” And she began to weep. She put her hands before her face and ran out of the cottage. She ran away and was gone.

The Reverend Pastor Father Ignatius Farthingale sat on the trunk, blinking owlishly.

“If you are as clever as I take you to be, you will readily conceive and imagine how the Goodwife Prudence Howard hopes to make use of you to undermine my authority. If the general opinion of the town agreed with her belief that her husband Roger had passed to his reward, then my insistence that she wait the stipulated seven years would be overborn by public outcry. But since you cannot now appear in the public eye, for fear of Sheriff Burghley and his men, her plan is foiled and still-born. Once she realizes this, you shall have no more allies in this village willing to shield you, as you have found in her. None but she has any reason so to do.”

He stood up, smoothing his priestly garments with his hands. “Of course, if I have been mistaken, and you are not hidden where I think you to be, it has done me no harm at all to speak my thoughts aloud. Now I go; I trust you shall as well, but take yourself farther off.”

And he went over to the chimney, replaced the fruit-knife in the rack, turned, and exited, shutting the door behind him as he left.

With the door shut, the cottage was gloomy.

There was a stealthy noise at the window. A small hand came up over the sill. Then another. The window was filled with a wriggling body.

The boy jumped from the window to his cot, then to the floor. He stood silently a moment, glancing nervously here and there around the room. He pulled aside the curtains of the bed, then got down on his hands and knees, then went over to peer inside the wardrobe.

Crossing back to the center of the room, he looked up, squinting. Then he looked frightened, and touched his forehead, his belt, his left shoulder, and his right.

A low, strange, moaning warble began to fill the room, unlike any noise made by bird or beast. The boy’s whole body flinched in startlement. He crossed himself again, looking in every direction, supernatural terror on his face.

The moan became a chant: “Ollay, ollay, oxen free! William Howard can’t find me! I’m hiding where he’ll never think to see!”

A look of resolution battled with the fear on the boy’s face. His expression hardened into one of stubborn pride.

“A he he! He won’t find me! Not if he searches for a century!”

The boy marched over to the mantle piece, and, taking down a large brass key, crossed to the chest at the foot of the bed where the priest had been sitting a moment before. Inserting the key, her turned it three times. There was a click.

He opened the lid. A man’s huge buttocks came up into view, and his back, and his slowly straightening legs. Then two meaty hands came up, and grabbed the back. The figure straightened up, groaning and sighing. Ponderously it turned. It was Hazelthorne.

Willy looked up and said, “I found you. See?”

*** *** ***

07. In the Hope Chest, and Out

Moaning and puffing, still holding his back, Hazelthorne carefully stepped out of the chest. He leaned over once more, put his hand in the chest, rummaged a moment, then straightened again, holding a slim gold ring.

“Indeed, you found me!” He said, tossing the ring back in the box. “I wonder, though, why you didn’t look in this hope chest first. It’d be the first place I’d go.”

“That man told me never to go in there.” The boy explained. “He keeps it locked up.”

Hazelthorne picked his walking stick up out of the chest and closed the lid. He squatted down next to the boy, who backed up, a look of suspicion on his face.

“You’re not feared of me no longer, are you, Willy?” said Hazelthorne. “You can’t be in no fear of any witch once you gave that witch a scratch. It would be silly.”

Willy said, “I scratched you. Drew blood. Your spells won’t work on me. “Willy straightened up. “Besides, Preacher Ignatius has stronger magic than you. I heard him talking with the spirits in the air just now. He laid a curse on you to make you leave town.”

“The Reverend Pastor has a kind of magic which is very strong. Stronger than, mine, I think, but not as kind. I can only use mine to help people. What people lose, I find. I think the Pastor can do much greater good than me, but also, if his heart go wrong, can do much, much greater wrong.”

“You don’t know any other spells?”

“Well, I know a charm or two. There’s one I used earlier today which kept a knife wedged in door long enough for me to crawl away.”

The boy said, “I’ve saved your life three times. You have to grant me a wish.”

Hazel straightened up, looking alarmed. He rumpled one hand through his tangled thatch of hair. “I don’t see…how are you counting? Once, perhaps…not three. . .”

The boy ticked them off on his fingers. “Once just now when I let you out of the box. You thought you tricked me but I would’ve let you out anyway. Twice is when you followed me out of the Sheriff’s house which you couldn’t done if it hadn’t been for me. Except…how’d you get away from Nob Welkenson’s dog? did you fly?”

“I came across the ground above the ground, its true, nor did I touch the ground with my foot or with my shoe. If such travelling can properly be called a flight, why, to be sure, I flew.” Hazelthorne said. “But you’ve only counted twice to rescue me, not thrice.”

“The third time is right now, when I didn’t go get the sheriff. Third time’s the charm. You owe me a wish.”

“Not I, ” said Hazelthorne. “That only works on fairy-folk, you know well as I.”

The boy squinted. He said in a trembling voice. “But your magic won’t work if the fairies don’t help you, and they won’t if you don’t act fair.”

Now Hazelthorne looked troubled again. He paced back and forth in the cottage, glancing out the window, playing with his beard, swinging his walking staff behind him like a tail. He turned.

“I give, ” he said. “You’ve got me dead to rights. One wish. One. But don’t ask me beyond my power to do, or evil luck and tragedy will come and visit you.”

“I want to be a witch, ” young William said. “Make me a cunning man like you are.”

Hazelthorne was flabbergasted. “I…I…I cannot…I don’t know how. . .”

“How did you become one, then?”

Hazelthorne sat down on a stool, took out a handkerchief, and mopped his cheeks and brow. In a moment he had regained his composure. “My six brothers are each older than I am, and my six uncles older than my Dad. One winter’s night I ran out from the house, because my Father’d beaten me, because I had been bad. I had stole my mother’s wedding ring and threw it in the branches of a leafless tree. It fell onto a twig too high for me to climb and get — I wasn’t very big. That night, still aching from the my father’s blows, I slept within a lean-to, warm, despite the snows, and dreamt a woman came and sang to me.

“She was dressed from head to toe in green. She wore a crown of woven leaves, as if she were a sceptered queen. Her face was very fair. She said she was my fairy-wife, come hence to give me part of her estate. I said that I was lost. She smiled at me, wondrously warm and kind, and said that what was lost, she’d give me wherewithal to find. When I awoke, a branch from the tree I’d tossed the ring into were there. About as big as this, about this thick. ‘Twas this, in fact, this very walking stick.”

Young William examined the object with wonder. He reached out carefully to touch it. A sort of harsh, nasty look crossed his features. Hazelthorne had seen that look on grown men’s faces. It was disquieting to see that look on one so young.

“Boy — tell me true. Why is becoming a cunning man suddenly so dear to you?”

“I want to hurt people and get away with it.”

“No. No!”

“Why not? The mayor has the sheriff to beat on people. the squire can hire ruffians and bully-men from Northhampton to do his dirt. Preacher can call God to damn their soul’s to hell. Who have I got? Who have I got?”

The boy began to cry and carry on.

Hazelthorne knelt down and spread his arms. “You’ve got me, lad. You’ve got me.”

They embraced. The boy’s tears wet Hazelthorne’s shoulder and his beard. Hazelthorne whispered, “I’ll help you, lad. You’re just the same as I once used to be.”

Young William said, “We got to go. Mom went to get that man to throw the preacher out. They should be coming back by now.”

Hazelthorne pulled up. In the distance he heard voices, one soft, sad, feminine, the other loud, masculine and coarse.

Young William said. “Can you fit out the window?”

Hazelthorne winked. “There’s not a window nor a hidey-hole too small to let me squeeze out when its time to sneak away. But first I’ll take what your good mother agreed would be my pay.”

He stole the winter coat out from the wardrobe and launched himself into the window. For a moment he groaned and strained and wheezed, legs (still inside) kicking in the air. His arms (outside) clutched and pushed the window frame. Little William pushed at his knees and buttocks. Hazelthorne thrust his walking stick between his belly and the sash, and used it as a pry-bar to work his bulk outside. He whispered a fervid prayer and rapped his knuckles on the wood. He slid forward, fell headfirst.

Young William slithered quickly out, only stepping upon Hazelthorne once or twice in his haste to get away.

They heard the cottage door come open.

A loud voice shouted, “I’ll thrash him, man of God or no! Kill them all if I need do to have my woman and have a moment’s peace!”

Young William and Hazelthorne made frantic shushing motions to each other. William pointed. Hazelthorne winked. The two of them slunk off through the bushes.

Since both were good at sneaking off, neither made much noise.

*** *** ***

08. Time For Truth

Not long later, Hazelthorne caught up young William by the shoulder. “Now its time for truth, and so — now its time to tell me what you know.”

“About what?” Fear and guilt were plain upon the young boy’s face.

“Ever since I learnt your name, I pondered why? Why would Prudence Howard’s son set the Sheriff onto me as soon as I came by? The lad must know his mother’s mind. Its not Robert Howard I’ve been sent to find. I was sent to prove for once and all he’s dead, so your mother can make the Pastor look a fool, and marry Edward Lake instead.”

The boy nodded.

“But you want none of this to come to be. But if you thought I’d find your father among the living, or even hoped it so, you’d have no quarrel with me. I want to know. You’re so sure your father’s dead. What makes you think it so?”

Young William’s lips both trembled. He clutched his stomach with both hands. He sat down and began to cry.

Hazelthorne waited patiently.

The boy cried.

Hazelthorne leaned on his walking stick and said nothing.

Finally, young William spewed out a long complicated story, interrupted by digressions, by fits of crying. The gist of it was that Edward Lake and Robert Howard had been friends since youth, hunting partners. But when Prudence’s parents had given her hand to Robert in marriage, the friendship soured. Often the two bitterly quarreled. Father Theobold had tried to make the two made up their old friendship. They had gone on a hunting trip together. They came back; Edward had been shot in the leg with an arrow.

When the recruiters came through, they took every able bodied man to fight the rebels in the pay of the church of Rome. Edward Lake, with his wounded leg, was left behind.

A year went by. The rebels were put down. Robert Howards’ regiment returned home. Several people, including the new Anglican priest, Ignatius Farthingale, had seen Robert Howard and other men from Carleon-on-Thyme quartered in Northampton not twenty-five miles downstream. But when the contingent marched back home, Robert Howard was not with them. One or two of the men said that Robert Howard had gone ahead, alone, too eager to return to his pretty young wife to wait for the rest of the company. But he did not arrive. Over the next few days and weeks, stragglers came back to town alone, or in twos and threes. No sign of Robert Howard.

“Where, for goodness sake, during this time, was Edward Lake?”

Young William said, “Out hunting.”

“I’ll say. Did no-one suspect what Eddy Lake had gone to hunt that day?”

“Sure…but…But he swore on the Bible, in front of the church, in front of God, that he hadn’t seen a soul that day.”

Hazelthorne squinted and rubbed his jaw. “Maybe so. I can see that a man could kill another for a woman’s sake. But not that he’d swear his soul down into Hell just for a woman, though.”

This comment sent the boy into another bout of tears.

Hazelthorne teased and poked and joked at the boy until childish anger swept the tears away, and then, to distract him from the anger, said, “Come on! We have mighty deeds to do. If you’ve fit, and if you feel like it, I have a charm I’ll show to you.”

“What is it? Can I call up a devil?”

“Not quite. Remember that I only do a magic that is white.”

“What’s the spell? Then the boy looked thoughtful a moment, and said, “I’m all ready. Won’t you tell?”

Hazelthorne laughed long and loud. “I think I know a trick we two can play, to lift the Pastor’s curse, so I won’t have to go away. Now for my spell to begin, we’ll have to find the sheriff and go turn ourselves in.”

And the two made their way through the autumn bushes. The wind gushed by. Many-colored leaves swirled up into the air.


It was late in the afternoon, nigh to eventide. The sun was like an orange ball settling through the smoke of burning leaves towards harvest fields stained brown and ruddy in the dying light.

The Reverend Pastor Father Ignatius Farthingale stood by Sheriff Burghley’s covered well, admiring the ivy crawling up the beams. He felt the impulse to toss a stone into the well so as to hear it make a multi-echoing splash so far below.

He restrained the impulse, sighing wistfully. “Perhaps I shall be older soon, and earn a small deal more respect. ” He wondered if there were any concoction he could add to his hair-soap to make his hair go prematurely white.

Sheriff Burghley came walking up shaking his head mournfully. He had a thick oak staff which he swung back and forth haphazardly, absentmindedly decapitating flowers, knocking clusters of leaves from bushes.

“I don’t see why I can’t run him out of town.” The Sheriff complained.

“But would it be King’s Justice so to do? And by what charge? The boy William Howard has repudiated his testimony. There is no one now who has come forward to say Hazelthorne does witchcraft.”

“Theft. He has Edward Lake’s winter coat.”

“Which he gave to us. Have you taken it over to Nob Welkenson, for his dog to sniff?”

“I don’t see why we ought do anything the Cunning Man might say.”

“I see that we have naught at all at risk. Hazelthorne will do his tricks this evening. He has told us so himself.” He picked up his book and straightened his robes. “Come. Shall we go observe the performance? Nob and Jack will be waiting.”

And they both walked on down the path.

Sheriff Burghley said. “In any way, by tonight, we’ll have Hazelthorne arrested once again.”

“Does it contravene the King’s Law to perform a magic spell in pretense, not to call the spirits, but only meant to put the audience in fright?”

The Sheriff shrugged. “How are we to tell if spirits truly will be there or no?” He seemed pleased with the idea, and gleefully thrashed the leaves off a bush with a thwack of his oak staff.


Nob and Jack and Burghley found a secret spot, thickly screened by brush, where they could hide, and see without being seen. Nob’s dog, obedient to his master’s signal, was quiet and still. The priest had gone home.

They had a clear view of Prudence Howard’s cottage.

The sun went down. They waited, talking in low voices.

Edward Lake came down the path, dragging William Howard by the arm. As he approached the cottage, the door opened, and Hazelthorne stood there, outlined in lamplight.

Edward Lake was talking. The three men could hear part of his loud comment, “…no way in a thousand years you could have guessed where the boy was hiding. How could you…?” But then the cottage door was shut, and the men heard nothing more.

Time went by.

A weird and high-pitched keening noise rose up on the night air. Nob’s dog’s hackles rose; it growled. Nob hushed it. A strange blue light was seen to flicker in the cottage window. Streams of blue light fled out from the chimney and shone against the underside of overhanging leaves. The ghastly wailing split the air again. There was a noise from the cottage; gibbering and shouting. A woman screamed.

A rich, foul odor curled in the Sheriff’s nose.

Nob said: “Jack soiled himself. He’s afraid.”

Burghley said: “Jack! Get home and change your pants. Come right back, or by God’s Groin, I’ll cudgel you witless!”

By the time Jack returned, the unearthly blue light had faded.

*** *** ***

09. Clean Against the King’s Good Law

The Cottage door swung open, and Hazelthorne came out. He said something over his shoulder to those inside. “…by dawn’s first light. We will find out where he lies then. Good night.”

And he walked down the path.

Burghley said to Nob, “Remember! If Edward Lake stirs from this house to-night, follow him! You’ve got his cloak so you can scent-wisen the hound. Don’t let yourself be seen at any cost!”

Nob said, “Will he surely lead us to Roger Howard’s corpse?”

“The cunning man has said so, hadn’t he? Witchcraft may be a sin, and clean against the King’s good law, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”

Jack whispered fearfully, “Where you off to, Tom?”

“When we’re on official duty, you call me Sheriff, by St. Peter’s penis, or I’ll kick your head in two! I’m off to arrest the cunning man.”

Nob said, “I thought he was helping us to find if Roger Howard has been murdered. . .”

“Yes.” Said the Sheriff. “But just because witchcraft works and does us good, doesn’t make it not against the law.”

And he moved off through the bushes.

There was some noise and out-cry, and Sheriff Burghley’s angered shouts.

Jack said. “They’re sure to hear that at the cottage.”

Nob said, “I think that Tom. . .”

“Call him Sheriff when we’re on duty!”

“Tom’s ruined it. No one’s coming out of there to-night. Look. They doused the lamp. They’re going asleep.”

“We have a long wait. Have you got the dice?”

“How can we play in the dark?”

“We can feel the spots by touch. Come on.”

Burghley came back a little while later. “I’ve got the witch.”

Nob said, “You’re cellar’s broke. Where’d you put him? The parson’s house?”

“How’d you know?”

“Stands to reason.” Jack answered for him.

Hours passed.

Sheriff Burghley fell asleep, leaving orders to wake him up if anyone stirred from the cottage. Nob and Jack traded turns at taking fitful naps beneath the leaves.

Burghley woke up later. Nob and Jack still watched the house.

Sheriff Burghley said. “Too bad. I think the witch’s plan’s gone all afoul. That’s what comes of Devil-work.”

The front door opened and a tall figure came out.

“Then again, maybe not.” said Nob.

They watched intently. The figure passed down the track, but it moved away from them, going towards the village, not out toward the woods. The figure went behind the cottage and moved away.

“We’re in no good position, by Jesus’s Snot!” Whispered Burghley. “Didn’t think he’d be heading that direction.”

Nob said, “Now what? If he crosses the common green, there’s o way under heaven we can snitch after him without us being plain and easy seen.”

Jack said, “Go to! He’s just risen early. No corpse could be buried in the village square. The cunning man is a false prophet. I say we go home ourselves, and sleep.”

“Maybe so.” Sheriff Burghley muttered. “Maybe not so.”

“Look!” said Nob, “Something’s clumb out the window.”


The inside of the parson’s cottage was pitch-black. Outside, not far away, the church bells rang their song. Shivering echoes rang out in the darkness before the dawn.

There was a crash. The door broke open, dribbling ragged splinters from its lock. Edward Lake stood within the frame, lit from behind by the rays of the moon. He held a naked sword in hand. The morning wind rustled and tossed his hair, swirling his cloak. The air was cold like ice.

He stepped in. He could see a bulk atop the bed, too large to be the priest, saw a thicket of beard-hair sticking up from overtop the blankets. A gentle snoring whispered in the air.

Coming forward quickly, he raised the sword. He held it awkwardly, as if it were a butcher’s knife.

Then he paused.

Lake reached out and snatched the blankets off. Underneath was a bulky pile of blankets and rolled cloaks, a wooden bucket with a beard tied to it, and a bladder which smelled of blood.

The snoring stopped.

Lake straightened warily. One shaft of moonlit fell across the bed. Besides this, the room was dark.

A voice from the shadows spoke: “Edward Lake. I can feel the pressure of your thoughts, smell the stench of all your malice, rage, and hate. Does it frighten you to know I knew that you would come?”

Lake sneered and laughed. “What care I that you knew? Let all the village know. Eddy Lake has come to kill himself a witch. Who’s to say that I do wrong to slay a devil’s handyman?” He slashed at the shadows, to his right, to his left.

“You will not by ear determine where we are. I know the slight of throwing my voice far.”

Lake lashed out again with the sword. It whistled through the air, meeting nothing.

“You think yourself so clever to have waited ’til the dawn. To wait until you knew the pastor would be gone.”

Outside, the churchbells rang.

“It took no wit to figure where they stowed your carcass, witch. The Sheriff’s cellar has a hole in it.” He stabbed toward each of the four corners of the room. He paused, thinking.

“I know your thought,” whispered the voice in the darkness. “Now you begin to fear you will be caught. The Sheriff’s men have followed you. Soon they will be nigh. they know you killed Roger Howard. Soon they’ll catch you. Soon you’ll die.”

Lake stooped and stabbed underneath the bed. Nothing was there. Still, stooping, he scuttled back towards the chimney. He took a piece of flint out from his poke and struck it against the sword-blade. Sparks flew.

“I know the secrets in your mind. I know them, monstrous, foul, unkind. How did it feel that day, waiting by the farmer’s bridge near Mattock’s piece of land? Did your leg still ache, as you stood there, bow in hand? do you recall how fine Roger Howard looked in his officer’s buff coat? When you killed him, did he make a rattle in his throat?”

Lake struck the flint again. Sparks fell from the sword, but failed to light the kindling in the grate.

Lake said, “I do not believe your witchy powers, not yours, not any of them. You could guess where I waited; its where my stepson waited to catch you. There are no other roads to town on that side.”

“And about the bow? If the Powers didn’t reveal it to me, how then can I know?”

Flying sparks caught the wood-shavings in the grate. Lake blew. A quick flame flared up. He spun to his feet, sword out.

Hazelthorne was overhead, head brushed against the rafters. He was standing atop two long poles of wood, higher than a man would naturally think to swing, and, balanced by some strange magic, did not fall.

His face was shaven clean and painted all white. A long sheet was draped all about his bulk and trailed down.

“Trick or Treat,” said Edward Lake, smiling like a wolf. “Come down and I’ll make you a ghost for true.”

*** *** ***

10. The Living Ghost

Hazelthorne’s eyes rolled back in his head, showing only white. “Spirits of flame! I call thee in thy master’s name!” He flung his hand in a commanding gesture towards the fireplace, reaching and pointing.

The fire gave off a rushing gush of smoke; unearthly blue flame crawled across the log; blue light flickered in the room. The flare startled Edward Lake; he thought he heard an eerie voice behind him in the fire. His reflex was to turn and stab.

The sword-point was fowled for a moment in the firewood. Hazelthorne fell forward on his stilts, white sheets billowing vastly all about him like the sails of a storm-foundered ship.

Lake jumped to get away from the oncoming bulk. Hazelthorne fell like a meteor.

Hazelthorne failed to land straight on. One of his boots struck Lake in the shoulder and spun him around. Hazelthorne landed awkwardly on one leg. His arms spun like windmills as he crashed backwards.

Hazelthorne was on his back; Lake was on his feet. With a spray of sparks and smoking wood-chips, Lake pulled the sword free from the fire-place, Hazelthorne had risen to one elbow, dazed and gasping. Lake advanced upon him, eyes lit up with triumph, his sneering smile wide. Smoke still curled up along the length of blade he held before him.

Father Ignatius walked in the door, holding a feeble lantern. Lake, crouched above his prone and helpless foe looked up, smoking sword in hand.

Father Ignatius raised both his eyebrows. “My son, I hope I merely behold a deceiving appearance. I trust that you do not intend to shed blood on holy ground.”

Lake swung the sword to bring its point to bear on the young priest. His eyes were wild and fierce. “Ill luck you came back, Father. But no great loss. Maybe the next pulpit thumper that they send will wed me to my wife so I’ll not have to endure the sneers and vile words of this whole town.”

Hazelthorne dazedly got his other elbow under him.

The young priest said, “Do you mean to kill me, then? The concept is absurd. I will be martyred, and sent instantly to the highest sphere of Paradise. You will be irredeemably condemned to hellflame and perdition.” He stepped in, turned his back on the man threatening him, and set down the lantern.

Lake hesitated.

Father Ignatius straightened and turned. “What? Still brandishing that weapon? Put it straight away before you cut someone.”

Lake stepped forward, body tense with menace, shoulders hunched, sword ready for a deadly blow.

Father Ignatius looked at him with impatience and contempt, but made no move either to retreat or to ward off the coming strike. “Use what reason God has given you. Do you accomplish any purpose by threatening me, other than to imperil your soul? Do you think these townsfolk will let a man who killed their priest live comfortably with a woman not his wife, nor do any vengeance to him?”

Again, Lake hesitated.

Hazelthorne, scuttling on his hands and knees, sheets flapping, tripping and flopping around him, made towards the open door. Lake turned and stepped into his way, sword raised. Father Ignatius calmly stepped between the two.

“Worry not, ” said the young man. “Men only murder when they deem it a reasonable path to achieve their ends. No such cause exists here. Edward Lake will kill no one.”

Lake sneered. He began to drew back the blade to run the young priest through.

Hazelthorne’s voice came up from the floor. “Father, it’s not that I don’t believe in reason and in everything you say. I think you’re wrong. I don’t think murder works that way.” And to Lake he said, “Watch out! The Sheriff’s been following you all night! He’ll be here soon, all right!”

Father Ignatius said, “No. I met him on the common green. They had given up, and had to go back home to rest.”

Hazelthorne shouted, “You stupid! Never tell a man who’s about to kill you that the Sheriff’s not coming!!”

“Truth is truth, though we die for it. ”

Hazelthorne got to his feet and moved to the left. “Not me! Not while there’s still a chance to flee. ”

Lake, meanwhile, had been listening to all this with a look of amazement mingled with contempt upon his face. When Hazelthorne jumped up, he became alert again, swung the sword toward Hazelthorne. He missed, but cut part of the flapping sheet away. The slice was clean; the blade was as sharp as a shaving-razor.

Hazelthorne said, “Now, Eddy-boy, who’s better to attack? If you move to get one of us, to the other you must turn your back. “And he began to circle to the left.

Lake stood uncertain for a moment. His blade-point twitching back and forth, pointing now at Hazelthorne, now at the priest.

Then he backed up and stood in the doorway.

“But there’s only one door.” he said.

“You will not bar my way.” Father Ignatius said calmly. “God will heap retribution upon your soul in Hell if you attempt it. Since you cannot evade or oppose divine and omniscient judgement, what logic is there in your defiance?”

Lake cursed and spat. “What a penny’s worth do I care for your pompous puppet of a god? There is no god. Once glance upon the pock-marked face of all this cursed world is sign enough of that! Men lay dead in graves for years while their murderers enjoy the sweet bodies of their widows. There is no god but Nature! The only sin is not to do what nature tells us to, not to eat when hungry, nor drink when we crave drunkenness. The only sin in nature is to abstain from a woman we desire because some pate-shaven priest believes she belongs to another. A pox on your false god! He would strike me down for saying so if he were more than just a tale and figment!”

Father Ignatius looked bewildered and scared. He backed away, courage vanished.

Hazelthorne muttered, “Maybe he already has struck you down, you clown.”

Lake laughed harshly, and lowered the sword. “The Father is right! There’s no reason for me to threaten anyone here. What have I done to cause alarm? I’m sure the Father will forgive my blasphemy and foulness if I do the proper penance and show the right contrition. Father! Forgive my threats and oaths! I may be a bad man, sinner that I am, but have done nothing truly wrong. ”

At that moment, there was a motion in the doorway behind Lake. He turned.

*** *** ***

11. Truncheons and Lamps

Sheriff Burghley, Nob, and Jack came up, led by little William Howard. Nob and Jack were carrying truncheons and lamps.

“See!” said young William, “I told you he was here!” And to Hazelthorne he said, “They were going home to sleep, but I was outside watching and when I saw you were going to get killed, I went and got them.”

Sheriff Burghley yawned, and said, “Well, Hazelthorne! What’s become of your daft plan now? Did Lake confess, or tell you where the body is, as you assured us he would do?”

Lake turned a smug look at Hazelthorne. The gleam in his eye told Hazelthorne that Lake had not been fooled, had never been fooled, had not believed in any of his spell-work.

Hazelthorne went over near to the fire and picked up his walking-stick from where it lay. He whispered, “Is it true?” He turned to Lake. “You came to kill me, not because you feared my power, but only because you thought I might cause troublesomeness to you.”
The walking-stick felt warm in his hand, and seemed to throb with a pulse, as it did when he found out something he sought.

Lake said, “Confess? What have I to confess? I have a temper, and a rowdy tongue, it’s true.”

Sheriff Burghley said, “Father. . ?”

Father Ignatius was in a study of abstracted thought. It took a moment for his eyes to come to Sheriff Burghley’s puzzled face. “Not in my hearing, no. He did not confess the deed, but what he says give me cause to suspect that he rejoices in it. ”

Lake said, “May I go?”

Sheriff Burghley said, “Father, has the witch’s magic turned up any fact? Any ground on which we can hold Goodman Lake?”

Edward Lake smiled in triumph.

The young priest said, “For the murder of Roger Howard, no. But he has broken and entered my house, with force, and armed, to commit mayhem, and attempt the murder of my guest, William Hazelthorne. To attempt a murder earns a gallows rope no less for its failure than for its success.”

Edward Lake said, “If you must, Sheriff, take me off. I won’t scruple to spend a night or twice in your cellar. ”

Sheriff Burghley shook his head. “Father, I can hold him on such a charge as that only ’til the jury gathers. No one in this town will call a man a murderer because he came to slit the throat of some vagrant witch.”

Lake said, “Who’ll say that I do wrong to scratch the witch whose put a curse and hex on my poor stepson? Why else would my stepson withdraw what he had said, seeing the witch talk to devils in the air? Why else say he didn’t mean what he first said, except that the cunning man had bedeviled him and put him in fear?”

Young William didn’t say anything at first, frightened by the presence of so many adults who stood there. But he turned to Hazelthorne a pleading look. And then he said, “It’s true. He put a spell on me.”

Hazelthorne frowned down at him, surprise and sorrow on his clean-shaven face. Young William turned away, and hid behind Sheriff Burghley’s legs.

Nob yawned. “Can’t we go yet, Tom? Er–sorry. Didn’t know we were still official. ”

Hazelthorne straightened up. He pointed his staff at Edward Lake. “Son of evilness, beware! You may have deceived your hunters for this night, but your wickedness soon will come to light! You hid behind the stand of stones overlooking Farmer’s Bridge below. He came walking in his officer’s buff coat. You put an arrow to the string. You shot him with your our bow. You looted out his corpse and took his golden wedding ring! His blood was spilt; his ghost still cries, and will be satisfied only when you’re caught, and killed!”

Edward Lake said in a low, tense voice, “Sheriff, are you going to stand there and let this witch here curse me with his magic? I have no gold ring. You may come and search my house from foundation to roof. You will not find the ring.” He smiled at Hazelthorne.

Father Ignatius seemed weary and confused.

Sheriff Burghley said, “Father, should I run the witch out of town? His visions are no evidence.”

Father Ignatius muttered to himself, “Officer’s buff coat?” He could not know such a detail unless there were a reason understandable through natural thought to conclude…” He straightened, saying loudly, “No. Hazelthorne has done a good service by frightening Edward Lake into revealing himself. Arrest Goodman Lake at once!”

Sheriff Burghley open his mouth. He asked, “Why?”

“Where could Lake acquire a sword? Who besides a military officer could have one? Bring it here. Observe. If it bears the mark of Roger Howard’s regiment, we have what evidence we need.”

A moment later, Nob, Jack, and Sheriff Burghley had bundled Edward Lake, still cursing and struggling, out of the cottage, and clubbed him soundly with their truncheons. When he collapsed, they carried him off, his feet dragging limply behind.

Before he left, Father Ignatius asked, “Goodman Hazelthorne, tell me truly how you knew that Roger Howard was shot by an arrow?”

“My word! Didn’t you see how awkwardly Edward used a sword? He must have killed poor Howard while standing far away, otherwise he wouldn’t be here to-day.”

“As you have promised, you have indeed served us a use in this community. Your methods, nonetheless, are most chaotic and defy the Church. I hope you will be gone ere nightfall. You best had leave before the Sheriff recollects that you, by right, ought to be his prisoner for the crime of fleeing jail. Thank you, and good day.”

The Reverend Pastor nodded to him politely, and walked out toward the church.

Hazelthorne said, after he had gone, “Actually, I saw it in my vision in my mind. I knew you would not believe it so, seeing as how you make yourself so blind.”

Hazelthorne turned to young William. “I think I know why you spoke against me so.”

William said, “My mother threw the wedding ring away. She was crying. She knew. If that man who is not my father gets hung, I thought she might hang too.” He rubbed his face but did not cry. “I’m not going home again.”

Hazelthorne shook his head. “She didn’t know at all. If she had, why would she have asked me to come call?”

William hugged him. Into his belly, William mumbled, “I want to go with you. I want to know magic. Take me with you. ”

Hazelthorne shook his head. “Lad, tell you true, my life is mostly bad. What? Come sleeping on cold rocks, hiding under hedges and cornrows, getting run off by Sheriff’s men? No friends but wolves and crows?”

William looked up. “You promised. You promised to teach me magic.”

Hazelthorne squatted down. “Will you obey, and do just what I say? There’s a spell the priest can teach you, to do a thing no one else here can do. It is a magic mightier than mine. You can speak with men long dead, hear their greatest thought, visit places, in an instant, far off in time and space, where greatest deed were done, and mighty battles fought. You will know the secrets of the earth, and the motions of the stars and planets high in upper space, know things from times before your birth, and hear words of greatest philosophers and sages, and saints who looked the Lord Almighty God into His face.”

He straightened up. “Where I go, I go alone. But if you agree to get the priest to teach you to read books, I’ll know. You’ll be there in my memory, and I won’t feel quite so lonely when I’m on my own.”

And the boy solemnly agreed.

Hazelthorne turned and gathered up his clothes. He threw of the sheet, and dressed. He bade the boy goodbye, and walked away off through the fields.

The red glow of the dawn had barely lit the Eastern rim of the world. Hazelthorne walked past the pile of stones. The cold wind rippled by and made him shake, He thought he saw a few tiny flakes of snow fly by. As he came to the mossy bridge, he looked sadly down at the water. He had no penny now to throw.

Hazelthorne walked onto the bridge. A sudden patter of small and rapid steps rushed up behind. He turned.

Young William stood there, half-hidden by the huge folds of the furry winter cloak.

“I found it in Nob’s house. That man won’t need it anymore, ” William said, “And so–I thought that you should have it, to keep you warm upon the high-road when you go.”


*** *** ***


Watch this space next week for another tale of wonder, fancy, or phantasmagoria!