Ham Coggins stumbled against a large oak. Sweat beaded his brow as he tried to catch his breath. He checked the burlap sack slung across his back. It was heavy with chickens he’d nicked from a farmhouse several miles down the road. Was it my fault the farmer and his wife had gone off, leavin’ them fat hens for the taking? he thought.
The chickens would be a change of fare from the stringy rabbits he’d been eating. Coggins was new to the area, but not a stranger to living on the road. He had a knack for finding crude men like himself and convincing others to part with their goods. He’d left Haversham in a hurry over a dispute with a tavern owner. The argument ended with a knife in the man’s belly, prompting Coggins to flee the town in a hurry. Too bad, that was my best knife, he remembered thinking.
Alone for the moment, he’d just crossed a stone bridge in an odd bit of the woods. The east side of the road was wooded and showed some sign of cutting, but the west side looked untouched. Large oaks towered in the woods making a canopy of shade. The forest floor was open and easily traveled.
The sound of riders made Coggins run to the west to hide in the old growth. He didn’t wait to see who came galloping along the road. Confronting mounted men was not Coggins’ style…a lone farmer or some milk maids, yes, but not armed men.
The forest seemed to open up before him. The large oaks kept vegetation down near their base. Coggins decided to amble for a bit through the woods. Maybe this would make a good hideout for a week or so? Something flew past the robber, high and swift. Before he could focus on it, it was gone. Then he heard the rustling of leaves.
A whirlwind of oak leaves blew around him in a frenzy. Coggins felt a hard tugging at his cloak, his purse, and even his beard. He swatted around him, batting fiercely and falling to the ground. The sack was split open wide, chickens flapping away into the woods. His coin purse, light enough to begin with, was cut. Copper pennies fell to the ground to land among the remnants of his cut beard.
This was more than enough for Coggins. He pulled himself to his feet and ran. The woods no longer looked open and inviting. He could feel the trees closing in. Coggins ran for the road, but must have lost his bearings. An open glade stood before him. In the afternoon sunlight he saw a carpet of emerald green grass and a strange circle of toadstools that reached up to his knee. Cursing his luck, he kicked one of the toadstools in frustration. The purple and yellow fungi sailed into the nearby woods. Then Coggins saw the leaf men for his first and only time.
The branches of the trees were filled with them. More came diving in on sparrows and jays. The toadstools swarmed with an army of tiny green warriors. Arrows that were no more than porcupine quills, pricked his skin, some sinking deep. Tiny warriors climbed onto his shoulders, slashing his face with razor sharp rapiers. Each cut was little more than a nick, but the wave of leaf men washed over the robber.
Coggins fell onto his back and looked up at the sky. The trees ringed his view as the leaves trembled and then grew still. His life ebbing away, he had no time to review his misdeeds and transgressions. He simply thought, I wish I had gone the other way…
Notes on the Spiritwood
There’s a short stretch of woods just south of the town of Bree. The locals have heard tales of this patch of woods for as long as anyone can remember. Don’t go travelling through the Spiritwood. If you’re wanting to hunt or cut timber, you’d best stay east of the road. Everyone in the border town of Bree knows this. The hunters, woodcutters, and even the highwaymen know to stay clear–at least anyone with any sense.
What happens to those that enter the Spiritwood, no one can really say. Maybe a bit of bad luck will befall them or sometimes they just don’t come back. No matter. A good dose of superstition has kept many a traveler safe.
It’s a custom for locals to cross their fingers as they cross the ancient stone bridge that borders the Spiritwood. Cross all the fingers you want, it will do no good if you decide to trample through the Spiritwood.
Stay tuned for part 2 in which I detail the Leaf Men.