This is my retelling of a local legend from Staffordshire. I take no credit for the story–most of that is extrapolated from local lore. I merely coloured it in for your reading pleasure.
Charles Talbot, Fifteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, grew restless in the back of his carriage. Every bump from the uneven road rattled through the bench and up his spine. Rain drummed against the wooden roof and seeped through cracks in the doors, streaking down the black lacquer. He opened the lavender curtains and peered at villainous clouds which darkened the evening as night. Silhouettes of the Alton and Oakamoor woods flanked the road. Charles banged his cane against the ceiling and a hatch in front of him slid open. It bore the earl’s coat of arms: two hounds either side of a shield depicting a lion rampant.
“My lord?” called the driver over the rumble of wheels and groan of wind.
Charles scowled. “Get a move on. I want to reach Alverton Lodge before this storm sets in. Stop for nothing.”
“Very good, my lord.”
The hatch closed, dulling the racket of weather and wheels. Charles lounged back, covering himself with a blanket against the autumn cold and the carriage slammed to a halt, throwing him from his seat.
“Damn your eyes, you fool man!” he snarled and scrambled up from the carriage floor. “I told you stop for nothing.”
The driver reopened the hatch just a peek, no doubt fearful of a jab from the earl’s cane if he slid it further. “Begging your pardon, my lord, there is a woman in the road. She is asking for you by name.”
“You should have ridden her down.”
The door blew open. Biting wind and icy spray rushed into the carriage.
A crone kneeled in the mud by the door, harassed by wind and rain. Her shoulders sagged under the weight of her saturated cloak, its ragged wool darkened to a charcoal hue. “Kind lord, I beg thee a boon; a single coin. I ask little and know you have much.”
Her gnarled hands were shaking as she cupped them, awaiting the earl’s charity. They looked shrivelled, numb and raw. Rain dripped off her cowl and trickled down clumps of wild, silver hair that clung to her soaked face. The wretched creature edged closer, pleading in her scratchy voice.
“Please, my lord, for I hunger so.”
The earl hesitated. A sudden gust disturbed the beggar’s cloak, revealing a Triple Goddess symbol: crescent moons either side of a full moon. Eldritch runes circled it, seared into her aged flesh. He recoiled at this sigil of witchcraft.
“Go!” the earl shouted. He kicked the woman and slammed the door.
She landed on her back, splashing into filthy puddles as the horses bolted and dragged the carriage onward. From the ground, she glared after the earl, her cowl tossed back and sludge spattered on her ancient face. Spitting mud, she clawed at the sky and declared: “For every branch of the Old Oak Tree here that falls, a member of the earl’s family will die!”
A fell wind carried her voice into the carriage and Charles Talbot pulled his blanket tighter against the sudden chill while he watched her from the rear window. The storm’s first bolt of lightning stabbed behind her, framing her malicious expression. A peal of thunder punctuated her curse. One shaking arm outstretched, the beggar succumbed to cold, wet and hunger. She died penniless and discarded in the road.
At Alverton Lodge, a blazing hearth, bountiful food and fine wine greeted the earl. Despite his luxury and the attentions of his family, he found little comfort that night. Fitful dreams plagued him: images of the witch and of lightning flashing. He envisioned the Old Oak in flames. During his many wakeful bouts, shadows stalked across the walls and lurked in the recesses of his opulent chambers.
The howl of wind and patter of rain woke him the next morning. While the earl dressed, a flustered servant dashed into his chambers. Trepidation peeked through the lad’s red-faced breathlessness.
“Forgive my intrusion, my lord. There has been a terrible accident.”
“It is your son. He is dead, my lord.”
Charles paused half way through buttoning his cotton shirt. “Dead? When? How?”
“Riding in the woodland. A malady most horrific, for a branch from the Old Oak fell and smote him from his horse.”
“The Old Oak,” Charles breathed and slumped on the edge of his four-poster bed. His only son, his heir, was dead. His stomach wrenched as his troubled dreams and encounter with the witch rushed through his mind. “Did he say anything before he passed?”
“It was probably the concussion, my lord, but he spoke of an old woman stood under a branch of the tree. He said she smiled and claimed she had exacted the price of cruelty.”
For a moment, Earl Charles Talbot stared through his servant. “The curse. The voice on the wind. The hex.” The witch had said for each branch that falls a member of his family would die. How far did the curse go? Were his wife and brother safe? His nephew?
“My lord?” The servant gulped and wrung his hands. He avoided eye contact and edged toward the door.
Charles shook the demons from his head. “Round up the men and send word to the blacksmiths of Alton.”
“What shall I tell them, my lord?”
The earl looked him in the eyes, his jaw set. “Tell them we meet at the Old Oak. We shall bolster it with such chains that neither storm nor sorcery may cleave another branch.”
So goes the legend, but what of the truth? Would a man go to such lengths based on superstition alone? To this day, the Old Oak stands. Atop a flight of stone steps in the ancient woodland of Alton, heavy chains dangle from the great tree. Visitors still report feelings of unease in the shadow of the oak, as though the witch’s malevolent gaze remains focused upon its cursed branches. Proof, you ask? By all means, I shall provide:
Thanks to Linda Epstein for her editing skills. Appreciated as ever.