There is a wizard on Elmswood Hill. They say he is a good man who helps the crops grow. But he is still a wizard, and so one must be careful. All the children of Elmswood know to cross not his path. All the men of Elmswood know to accept not his gifts. All the women of Elmswood know to stab not his blackened heart.
But why not cross his path? You ask. The road to the top of Elmswood Hill cuts straight through Elmswood Forest, as you well know. It is a long straight road and always empty, perfect for playing. But it is the wizards road. Not ours. When the road gets dark in the middle of the day, when the trees branches reach and stretch and creak their ways across the line of sky above the oh so straight road until the sun’s light is blotted out, then the wizard comes.
Two young boys were playing on the road. They ran as fast as they could up and down the long straight road. They picked up sticks and hit each other with them. They picked up rocks and threw them into the tangled woods. They played and played until they fell down exhausted in the middle of the long, straight road. They squinted up at the midday sun and huffed and puffed, lungs burning as they lay there, their raucous laughter sending eddies of kicked up dust swirling. Soon they fell quiet, to match the woods around them. Not a birds chirp, or a rustle of leaves. Just a low rumbling. A cracking. A creaking. The trees on the side of the road groaned and bent and grew, like petrified hands reaching out to each other. The road became very dark. A few last droplets of sunlight still rested on the two, now quite serious looking, faces of the two boys. One of them, Finley, was quite scared.
“It’s cold Tom. We should get off the road.” Said Finley. Finley did not know quite why he wanted to get off the road. It was a feeling deep inside of him. The best word he could come up with for it was “cold”, so that was the word he used.
“No. I don’t want to get off the road. I’m not done playing.” Said Tom, stubbornly. He picked himself up off the ground and, with an air of defiance, began chucking stones again. Finley stood too, and wrapped his arms around himself. The trees had stopped moving now, but still there was a low rumbling noise. Finley watched as the rocks on the road began to dance and tumble as he felt the rumbling run through the ground and up his legs and into that deep-seated cold. Finley ran off the road behind a tree.
“Tom!” He called as he ran, but he did not wait. The rumbling was quieter here, he could even hear birds again. Through the gaps in the trees Finley saw a carriage, pulled by six wild looking black horses thundering down the long straight road. Tom looked up, rock still in hand. He froze there. Get out of the way Tom! Thought Finley desperately. He squeezed his eyes shut. The rumbling got louder and louder and then… It stopped. Finley opened his eyes. He saw Tom there looking up into the eyes of a thin black horse that had stopped only inches from where he stood.
The wizard let down his reins and got off of the carriage. He walked up to the boy, standing taller still than the horses. They bared a striking resemblance to one other. Wild eyes, thick black manes, tall and thin with muscles stretched taut across bone.
“Thief boy,” The wizard said in a deep voice heavy with malice.
“Pardon, sir? I’m only playing, sir,” Said Tom. Though he was a stubborn boy, he knew how to speak to his elders.
“You’re a thief boy. Hold out your hand.” Trembling, Tom obliged and held his hand out flat.
“Other hand, boy!” Barked the wizard.
Tom hesitated, then held out his closed fist.
“Show me.” Said the Wizard. Tom opened his hand to reveal the small rock that rested on his palm. “Thief boy.”
“Pardon sir, I found this rock here on the ground.”
“My rock, boy. My ground,” The wizard gestured all around him with a bony finger , his black robes billowing as he did so. “My road. My forest. Understand, boy?” Tom’s eyes widened as he looked all around him and back at the wizard. He nodded.
“I believe in fair punishment boy. You take my rock. The very earth upon which I live. Fair enough for me to take same from you.” Said the wizard. Tom did not understand. There was a silence between them as Tom stared intently at his feet and the wizard stared intently at him. Then the wizard withdrew a thin white wand from the folds of his robe and rapped the child firmly on the head before turning on the spot, climbing back into his carriage, and setting his horses into a rumbling gallop once more.
Once the dust cleared and the rumbling had stopped and the sun shone once more upon the path, Finley left his hiding spot and walked tentatively towards Tom who was lying on the ground once more. This time he was not laughing. He was moaning. And writhing. His moans warped harshly into more screeching tones. Finley bent down and picked up his poor friend, and was surprised to find lifting him hardly difficult at all. He set off at a run down the long, straight road, back to Elmswood. Tom writhed and screeched and writhed some more. Finley was finding it harder and harder to keep a hold of him and had to keep adjusting his grip. Though Finley could see the edge of the town from where he stood because the road was so very straight, he seemed to hardly make progress towards it because it was so very long. With a yelp of surprise, Finley dropped Tom to the ground. He had just felt sharp spikes poking his arms. Had the wizard set a curse to prevent Finley from carrying Tom? No, Finley looked down at Tom and saw that he was, indeed, covered in small black spikes which had just pierced through his skin and were growing as he watched. Finley could do nothing as he watched on. Tom’s fingers elongated into hideous claws, even as his arms shortened. His hair fell away, pushed out at the roots by even more thin black spikes. His whole body was twisting and turning and shrinking now at an alarming rate. Even his face changed now, his eyes grew smaller, his nose and mouth became pushed together as though he was mere clay to be sculpted. His new mouth opened to let out what Finley assumed would be another screech of pain. It was a screech, but not pain. The screech of a small black bird. For that is all that was left of Tom, who hopped to the edge of the long straight road and took flight into the trees, leaving the earth upon which he lived behind.
And so the children of Elmswood are sure to cross not the path of the wizard.
But why not accept his gifts, powerful as they must be? You ask. But why not stab his blackened heart, terrible as he surely is? You ask. Ah my friend, these are stories for another time. For now, you should rest.