By: Dawn DeBraal
A massive willow, an imposing sentinel, stood at the edge of Weeping Hollow, a haunted forest alive with the pain of the trees who lived there. Trees were put on this earth to give off oxygen, offer shade, and provide shelter to humankind and animals.
When a hanging occurred, decapitation of a rider as a horse ran under a low-lying branch, a tree tipped over in a storm onto a man's home, no one hurt more than the tree. A witch cast a spell gathering all the suffering trees to grow in one place so they could mourn their losses.
As an old troll, Montara, the gatekeeper of Weeping Hollow, came to his village to die, asking that he be buried in the place he had watched over all his life. Montara's only male relative, his nephew, Tempor, was the next in line to guard the haunted woods. Tempor pleaded with his clan not to force him to follow tradition.
"Mother, I will die of loneliness out in the Hollow." There was no way he felt he could ostracize himself like his uncle, living in the middle of Weeping Hollow for hundreds of years, shunned and alone, but alas, Tempor's fate was sealed.
On the day Montara was buried, no one entered the woods; they encouraged Tempor to bury his uncle under the large willow tree at the Hollow's edge. He had only once visited his uncle's shack as a child and was unsure where it was. He chose to build himself a rudimentary home on the edge of Weeping Hollow and took his time bringing wood from an un-haunted forest to construct it.
As the guardian, all Tempor had to do was to steer humans and beasts away from the Hollow. As time went by, Tempor found he enjoyed the job, admitting he liked being away from the rest of the clan. No one told him what to do; nothing was asked of him. He'd made peace with and was content to abide by the clan rules. Trolls are a very tight-knit group.
Tempor went fetch some dry wood from the pile before the rains fell. He could hear the rolling thunder after lightning flashed across the skies. Leaves fluttered down from the trees around him in the wind. He gathered an armload of wood and brought it to his porch.
He heard a cry for help on his third trip. The sentinel willow blew sideways in the wind. Tempor was afraid to enter the woods with its ancient rotting trees, but the pitiful cries propelled him beyond the entrance. Branches came down around him as he crashed his way further into the woods. The desire to find the owner of the cries far outweighed his fear of the haunted forest.
Before him stood his uncle's house; seeing it Tempor was shaken he had ventured this far into the haunted forest finding the elusive home. The voice cried out for help again, and he moved beyond the cottage.
He found a human under a fallen tree, helplessly pinned to the ground. Tempor lifted the large, rotted tree off her with all his strength. Trolls are known for being strong. The human was so tiny that he took pity on her.
Scooping her up, Tempor trotted into his uncle's house. It would provide shelter in the storm. As he entered the shack, he heard the rain coming down hard. He couldn't see beyond the door.
"This was my uncle's house. I will help you," he said looking around he found a place to put her. Tempor started a fire in the fireplace. Everything was perfect, the way his Uncle Montara left things. Firewood in the basket, flints on the mantle.
The woman wasn't bleeding, which Tempor thought odd, no bones appeared to be broken. He had the fire burning brightly and he searched the cabin for food. His uncle left behind a well-stocked pantry of canned goods, one of which he opened and placed in a pot over the fire. The odor of home-canned venison stew filled the room.
"That smells wonderful," the human said, raising herself on one arm.
"You are awake. Human, what were you doing in the haunted forest? No man or beast should be here. Weeping Hollow is hallowed ground for the trees."
"I had no choice. I wanted to get home before the storm, but a tree fell on me, pinning me to the ground. Thank you for coming to my aid. I was afraid that with Montara gone, no one would hear me.
"You knew my uncle?"
"Yes, I know him. He is the keeper of the Hollow."
"He is no longer. I am the keeper now. My uncle died a few months ago."
"I am so sorry to hear that. I only saw that the cabin was empty." Tempor stared at her face. The woman was so pale, so slender. Were all humans like this? He'd never been this close to one.
Tempor put the stew in a dish, placing it before her. He was ravenous and ate what he had served himself. Scooping out the rest from the pot over the fireplace, he finished off everything, noticing the human had not eaten any of hers.
Then he pulled the home-canned jars from his uncle's pantry. He would find a way to bring his uncle's food supply back to his cottage and take the woman out of the Hollow. He was not comfortable staying here. The trees gave him the creeps; they moaned and groaned day and night in their sorrow. How could his uncle live here so long? Tempor lay down in front of the fire, thankful the wind had subsided.
In the morning, he searched, finding a cart built by his uncle, filling it with the canned goods and things he wanted from the cabin, then layered several blankets on top, where he placed the woman.
"I will care for you at my home. What is your name?" He asked politely. She seemed much more alert today.
"Adwina. Thank you."
Tempor pulled the cart through the woods along an imaginary path. With each jolt, the woman moaned. He felt sorry for her, but there was nothing more he could do.
The voices of ghosts whispering in the forest made him want to hurry, and he sighed in relief when he reached the sentinel willow leaving the Hollow behind. Tempor could have sworn the willow tree bowed to touch his cart. He carried Adwina inside his cottage.
Tomorrow he would resume guarding the forest and scaring off humans. It bothered him that Adwina could have gotten past him.
There was something strange about the woman. She was not afraid of the Troll, which was unnatural for a human. A troll's size alone can be intimidating. Tempor sharpened his weapons as he did every night. When satisfied with his work, he blew out his lamp and slept before the fire.
In the night, he woke to find Adwina sitting in a chair. He knew she was feeling better. The questions he had hesitated to ask her while she was ill now bubbled out of him.
"Why were you in the woods?"
"I live there."
"No one lives in Weeping Hollow," he thought she must be confused from her fall.
"Oh, there are many of us who live there. You don't see us." Tempor thought that was an odd thing for her to say.
"No one is allowed in these woods. It is a sanctuary for traumatized trees," he told her. Adwina gave a little laugh.
"The trees are not the only life, traumatized. Many in the Hollow have suffered grave losses." Was she saying the ghosts of the humans who had befallen horrible fates also lived within the trees? Tempor thought about the whispers in the wind. Had the witch who moved the trees to the forest also taken human souls? Were those ghosts the voices he heard when he walked the woods? He said this aloud to Adwina.
"Yes, dear Troll, we are part of the forest. We sought peace to heal our wounds, but it has been far too long of a time mourning our losses. We want to get back to our places and stop wallowing in pity. The ghosts of those dead want to see their loved ones, enjoying life. We wanted Montara to move on, but he refused to go forward. It was the old ways, he told me. We are sick of the old ways."
Tempor was shocked. "Does this mean you aren't alive?" He shrank back from Adwina with the thought that he was talking to the dead.
"I fell with the tree after it broke in the storm. Did you see blood? All of us have been waiting to see the new caretaker. We wanted to talk to you about helping us break the spell and letting us go. You are the last of your lineage if you never have a child. Our spirits would be free to leave, and our trees would be among the living again. Please help us".
"I have to die for you to be free?"
"Yes, that is correct, but I would be willing to take you back with me. It's a beautiful place where they hung me after stealing a horse from the man who killed my family. While he murdered my parents, I stole his horse and fled. With the help of his henchmen, he came after me and strung me up in that tree, where I was stuck until the storm brought me down.
It was too much for Tempor to take in. The whole forest was alive not only with mourning trees but with the dead they helped create. No wonder no one wanted to enter the Hollow. To free them, he must die without an heir. It was too much, he flung open his door and pointed out into the night.
"Begone, spirit. Haunt me no more." Adwina came off the chair and left his house without so much as a limp. The spirits had taken advantage of his good nature. Would they come to haunt him? He wished he had asked her.
Tempor looked out his window every day to find Adwina in his sight, standing next to the sentinel willow. She was there when he woke and stood all day long. She had begged him to break the witch's spell and send all the trees in Weeping Hollow back to their homes. That could not happen without paying with his life.
It had been weeks. Tempor could take it no longer. He was nearly mad with worry and lack of sleep. The voices of the dead grew louder in protest, urging him to set them free. He stood before Adwina.
"You will take me with you?" Adwina nodded.
"What must I do?" Tempor asked, defeated.
"Say that you are done guarding the forest. The witch's spell is over." Tempor was a beaten man.
"I am no longer watching over Weeping Hollow. I release the trees and their inhabitants back into the world from whence they came. I break the pact made with the witch. The trees and their haunts are free to go."
"Come a bit closer." Adwina urged. Tempor came closer, reaching out to her, ready to take her in his arms, when the sentinel willow wrapped its long hanging branches around his large neck. Her tendrils whirled and twirled around him, choking the life from him when she pulled him up from the ground. Tempor kicked his feet until life's breath left his body.
The dead souls left with their trees, plucking them from the ground, replanting themselves from where they had come. There was no longer a forest where one once stood, only Adwina standing at the base of the sentinel tree. She called to the Willow to let Tempor down. The tree obeyed, setting him down. Adwina put her hands on the dead Troll.
"Tempor, wake." He woke with a startsunshine all around him, for the haunted forest was no more, only the sentinel willow remained.
"The storm destroyed my tree. Willow has graciously offered to take us home. Come, we must go now." Adwina extended her hand, Tempor took it. She pulled him up into the tree. The Willow's roots shuddered pulling themselves from the ground. They flew through the sky.
A bird sang. Hearing its sweet song, Tempor awakened. Where was Adwina? The Willow had planted itself overlooking a large field. Tempor went to climb down to search for Adwina but found it impossible. He was a prisoner in the boughs of the Willow, he called to the woman.
"Adwina, help me. I cannot get down," She appeared before him with a sad look.
"I am sorry Tempor, but you are part of the Willow now. You are a branch, and a branch cannot walk around as a man can."
"But you told me the witch's spell would be broken if I gave my life."
"I am the witch, Tempor. I no longer am a branch on a tree. You have freed me, and I thank you for this. I will come and visit you now and then." She came forward to hug the willow goodbye.
Tempor was enraged that Adwina had tricked him. He reached through the branches and bound Adwina with Willow's soft tendrils when she came forward to embrace the tree.
"Let me go, Tempor!" she screamed.
"Oh no, my love, you will not leave me to stand alone in this field. We will be together for eternity."