The Warlock O' Oakwood
: Tales From Scottish Ballads
"Ae gloamin' as the sinking sun
Gaed owre the wastlin' braes,
And shed on Oakwood's haunted towers
His bright but fading rays,
Auld Michael sat his leafu' lane
Down by the streamlet's side,
Beneath a spreading hazel bush,
And watched the passing tide."
The bright rays of the setting sun were shining over the valley o
Ettrick, and lighting up the stone turrets on the old tower of Oakwood.
For many a long year the old tower had stood empty, while its owner, Sir
Michael Scott, one of the most learned men who ever lived, wandered in
distant lands, far across the sea.
He had been a mere boy when he left it, to study at Durham and Oxford:
then the love of learning had carried him first of all to Paris, where
he had been famed for his skill in mathematics; then to Italy, and
finally to Spain, where he had studied alchemy under the Moors, and had
learned from them, so 'twas said, much of the magic of the East, so that
he had power over spirits, and could command them to come and go at his
bidding, and could read the stars, and cure the sick, and do many other
wonderful things, which made all men regard him as a wizard.
And now that he had come back to his old home once more, the country
folk avoided him, and gazed with awe at the great square tower where,
they said, he spent most of his time, practising his magic art, and
holding converse with the powers of darkness.
The King, on the other hand, thought much of this most learned knight,
and would fain have seen more of him at his court in Edinburgh, but Sir
Michael loved the country best, and spent most of his time there,
writing, or reading, or making experiments.
This evening, however, he was not in his tower, but was sitting by the
side of the Ettrick, studying with deepest interest all the sights and
sounds of nature which were going on around him. For he loved nature,
this studious, quiet, middle-aged man, and the sight of the little
minnows darting about in the water, and the trouts hiding under the
stones, and the partridges coming whirring across the cornfields, gave
him as much pleasure as all the wonderful sights which he had seen in
Suddenly he raised his head and listened. Far away in the distance he
seemed to hear the sound of trumpets, and the "thud," "thud" of horses'
hoofs, as if a body of men were riding quickly towards him.
"Some strangers are approaching," he said to himself, "and if I am not
mistaken they are soldiers. I will hasten home and learn their errand.
Mayhap it is a message from his Majesty the King."
He rose to his feet slowly, for his limbs were somewhat cramped with
sitting, and walked with stately dignity to the tower.
The riders had just arrived, and, as he expected, they bore a message
from the King. As he approached, a knight clad in full armour rode
forward, preceded by a man-at-arms, and, bending low over his horse's
neck, presented to him a parchment packet, sealed with the Royal Seal.
"The King of Scotland, whom God preserve, sends greetings to his loyal
cousin Sir Michael Scott," he said, "and whereas various French sailors
have committed acts of piracy on the high seas, and have attacked and
robbed divers Scottish vessels, he lays on him his Royal commands that
he will betake himself to France with all speed, and deliver this packet
into the hands of the French King. And, further, that he will demand
that an answer to the writing contained therein be given him at once,
and that he hasten back with all dispatch, and draw not rein, nor tarry,
till he deliver the answer to the King in Edinburgh."
Sir Michael took the packet from the messenger's hand and bowed gravely.
He was accustomed to receive such orders, and everyone wondered at the
marvellously quick way in which he obeyed them.
"Carry my humblest greetings to his Majesty," he answered, "and assure
him that I will lose no time, but will at once set about making my
preparations. By dawn of day I will be gone, mounted on the swiftest
steed that ever the eye of mortal man gazed upon."
"Is it swifter than the horse which his Majesty keeps for his own use at
Dunfermline?" asked the soldier curiously. "For if it is, it must indeed
be a noble animal, and 'twould fetch a good price among the barons of
the court. Ever since his Majesty has turned his mind so much to horses,
his courtiers have vied with each other to see which of them could
become the possessor of the swiftest animal."
"My horse is not for sale," said Sir Michael shortly, "not though men
offered me his weight in gold."
The young officer bowed again. There was something in Sir Michael's tone
which forbade him asking to see the horse, much as he should have liked
to do so; so, giving a signal to his men, he turned his horse's head in
the direction of Edinburgh, and rode off, leaving Sir Michael standing
on the doorstep gazing after them, a strange smile on his face.
"A good price," he repeated; "by my troth, 'twould need to be a very
good price which would buy my good Diabolus from me. But I must go and
Muttering strangely to himself, he turned and entered the tower.
He went up the narrow, winding, stone stairs until he reached a little
iron-studded door. This door was locked, but he opened it with a key
which hung from his girdle, and, entering the low-roofed attic-room to
which it led, he locked it again carefully behind him. The attic was at
the top of the tower, and through the narrow windows which pierced three
of its walls, a glorious view was to be had over the surrounding
But Sir Michael had not come up there to admire the view; he had other
work to do--work which seemed to need mysterious preparations.
First of all, he proceeded to dress himself in a curiously shaped black
cloak, and a hunting cap made of hair, which he took down from a nail in
the wall. The cloak was very long, and completely enveloped his figure,
and, when he had pulled the hairy cap well down over his eyes, no one
would have taken him, I warrant, for the quiet, middle-aged, master of
When he was dressed he took down a leaden platter from a shelf by the
door, and, opening a cupboard, he took out a little glass bottle full of
a clear amber-coloured liquid, which glowed like melted fire. Setting
down the platter on a little round table in the middle of the room, he
dropped one or two drops of this liquid on it, and in an instant they
broke into tongues of flame which curled up high above his head.
It was a strange and weird fire, enough to frighten any man, but the
still, dark-robed figure standing beside it never moved, not even when a
number of tiny little imps appeared, clad in scarlet, and green, and
blue, and purple, and danced round and round it on the table, tossing
their tiny arms, and twisting their queer little faces, as if they had
He waited patiently until the little creatures had finished their dance
and disappeared, then he seized the platter, and, going to one of the
narrow windows, he flung it open, and, pushing the platter through it,
he threw it, with its burning load, far out into the gathering twilight.
He watched the fire as it fell, in glowing fragments, among the oak
trees which surrounded the tower, then he opened a small, black,
leathern-bound book, which lay chained to a monk's desk which stood in a
corner. Opening it he read a few words in an unknown tongue, then he
turned to the window again and waved a little silver wand over his head
"Come, Diabolus. Come, Diabolus," he muttered, and then he knelt on the
floor and waited eagerly, his eyes fixed on the Western horizon.
The sun had sunk, but the sky was clear, and one or two stars had
appeared, and were shining out peacefully, like little candles set in a
Presently, however, big black clouds began to appear, and pile up, one
against another, till the little stars were blotted out, and the whole
sky became as black as night.
In a little time the dull muttering of thunder could be heard far away
over the woods. It came nearer and nearer--crash upon crash, and roar
upon roar--while the lightning flashed, and a perfect tempest of wind
arose and lashed the branches of the tall trees into fury. Truly it was
an awful storm.
The wizard felt the solid masonry of the tower rock beneath him, but he
was as calm as if only a little gust of wind had been passing on a
Still he knelt on, peering eagerly into the darkness. At last his eyes
grew bright and keen, for he saw a shadowy form come floating through
the air, driven by the wind. He knew now that his charm had worked, and
that this was his familiar spirit--the spirit over whom he had most
control--who had come in the form of a great black horse, with flaming
eyes, and flowing mane, to carry him over the sea to France.
With one bound he flew through the window, and alighted on its back.
"Now woe betide thee, Diabolus," he said, "if thou fliest not swiftly.
For I must be in Paris by daylight to-morrow."
The huge black horse shook its mane, and snorted fiercely, as if it
understood, and without more ado it flew on its way, its uncanny
black-cloaked rider seated on its back.
As soon as they had disappeared, the storm died away, and the moon rose,
and the little stars shone out over Oakwood Tower as clearly and quietly
as if there had never been a cloud in the sky. Meanwhile Sir Michael
Scott and his huge black charger were flying over hills, and valleys,
and rivers, in the darkness. They even flew over the sea itself, and
never halted until the day broke, and there, far below, lay the city of
Paris, dimly seen in the gray morning light.
In the King's Palace the lackeys were hardly awake. They gazed at one
another in astonishment when the heavy iron knocker on the great gate
fell with a knock that echoed through the courtyard.
"Who dares to knock so loudly at this early hour?" asked the fat old
porter in great indignation. "Whoever it be, I trow he may e'en wait
outside till I have broken my fast."
But before he had done speaking the knocker fell once more, and there
was something so commanding in the sound that the little man hurried
off, grumbling to himself, to get the key.
"Beshrew me if it doth not sound like a messenger from some great king,"
said a man-at-arms who was standing by, and the porter's heart misgave
him at the thought that perhaps by his tardiness he had got himself into
But when he opened the great door, instead of the company of armed men
whom he dreaded to see, there was only a solitary rider, muffled in a
great black cloak, and wearing a hairy cap drawn down over his face,
seated on an enormous black horse. The stranger's dress was so
outlandish, and his horse so big, that the porter crossed himself.
"Surely 'tis the Evil One himself," he muttered; and when the lackeys
heard his words, they crowded round the doorway. They, too, were puzzled
at Sir Michael's appearance, and began to laugh and jeer at him.
"He is like a hooded crow," cried one.
"Nay, 'tis an old wife in her husband's clothes," shouted another.
"Surely the cloak belonged to Noah," cried a third.
But they started back in dismay when the muffled figure pushed up his
cap, and demanded an audience of the King.
"I come from the King of Scotland," he said haughtily, "and his business
brooks no delay."
A shout of laughter greeted his demand.
"Thou a messenger from the King of Scotland!" they cried. "A likely
story, forsooth! The King of Scotland sends not beggars, in old rusty
suits, as his ambassadors. No, no, my good fellow, thou askest us to
believe too much. Whatever thou art, thou art not a king's messenger."
"What!" cried Sir Michael. "Ye refuse to do my bidding! and all because
I am not decked out in crimson and gold, and ridest alone without a
retinue. Well, ye shall see that it is not always wise to judge of a man
by his outward appearance. Make way there." And without wasting any more
words, he leaped from his horse, and, throwing its bridle over a pillar,
he strode right through the middle of them, and made his way to the
King's private apartment, without even waiting to be announced.
Now the King of France was accustomed to be treated with great ceremony,
and when this dark-robed man strode into his bed-chamber, and held out
the parchment packet to him, demanding an instant answer, he was very
indignant, and refused to open it.
"Thou sayest that thou comest from the King of Scots," he said. "Well, I
believe thee not. If thou wert Sir Michael Scott, as thou sayest thou
art, thou wouldst have come with an armed escort, as befitted thy rank
and station. Therefore begone, Sirrah, and count thyself happy that I
have not had thee thrown into one of the palace dungeons, as a
punishment for thy insolence."
"By my troth," cried Sir Michael angrily, "if this is the way thou
wouldst answer my master's demands, I trow I can soon bring thee to a
better frame of mind."
Without waiting for an answer, he flung down the parchment packet on the
floor, and strode out of the room in the same way that he had entered,
leaving the angry King gazing after him in astonishment.
"The fellow is mad," he cried to the nobles who stood round. "See to it
that he is shut up until he comes to his senses."
But Sir Michael had already reached the courtyard, and passed through
the great door to where his horse was waiting outside. He lowered his
voice and spoke gently to the mighty beast.
"Stamp, my steed, and show the varlets that we are better than we seem
to be," he said. And at his bidding the gigantic creature lifted one of
its forefeet, and brought it down with all its might on the pavement.
In an instant it was as though an earthquake were passing over the city.
The great towers of the Palace which frowned overhead rocked and swayed,
and all the bells on a hundred church steeples chimed and jangled, until
the air was thick with the sound of them.
The King and his courtiers were very much alarmed at these strange
events, but they did not like to own that it was the mysterious stranger
who was the cause of them. All the same, the King called a hurried
council, and when the nobles were assembled, and seated in their places
in the great hall, he opened the parchment packet, and took out the
papers which it contained. When he had read them his face flushed with
anger. The King of Scotland's demands were very urgent, and moreover
they were stated in no uncertain language, and as he considered that he
was a much more powerful monarch than King Alexander, he did not like to
be dictated to.
"Ah," he said, "so my Lord of Scotland lays down his own terms with a
high hand. Methinks he must learn that this is not the way to obtain
favours from France."
"Ay, so in good sooth he must learn," repeated the nobles in one breath.
"And in order that the lesson be made plain, we advise that his
messenger be cast into prison, and that no notice be taken of his
"Your advice pleases me well," said the King. "Command that the officers
seize the fellow at once. Certs, he may think himself lucky that We
permit his head to remain on his shoulders."
The command was given, but Sir Michael had been growing more and more
impatient that no more notice seemed to be taken of his errand, and when
the officers of the guard appeared, and, instead of handing him the
French King's answer, as he had expected, laid their hands on him to
drag him off to prison, his anger knew no bounds.
"What," he cried, "doth the King still refuse to listen? By my troth, he
shall rue the delay," and once more he whispered in the black horse's
ear, and once more the mighty creature lifted its great forefoot and
brought it down with a crash on the pavement.
The effect was even more terrible than it had been before.
In an instant great thunder clouds rolled up from the horizon, and a
fearful storm broke over the city. The thunder rolled and the lightning
flashed, and strange and weird figures were seen floating in the air.
The great bells which hung in the steeple of the great Cathedral of
Notre Dame gave one awful crash, and then burst in two, while the towers
and pinnacles of the splendid church came tumbling down in the darkness.
The very foundations of the Palace were shaken, and rocked to and fro,
till everyone within it was thrown to the ground. The King himself was
hurled from his throne of state, and was so badly hurt that he cried
aloud with pain and fear.
As for the courtiers, they lay about the floor in all directions,
paralysed with terror, crossing themselves, and calling on the Saints to
help them. They were so terrified that not one of them thought of going
to their Royal Master's aid.
The King was the first to recover himself. "Alack! alack!" he groaned,
rising to his feet. "Woe betide the day that brought this fellow to our
land! Warlock or wizard, I know not which, but one of them he must be,
for no mere mortal man could have had the power to work this harm to our
While he was speaking a loud trampling of feet was heard outside the
great hall, and all the lackeys came tumbling in, pell-mell, without
waiting to do their reverence, just as if the King had been any common
"O Sire," they cried, "grant the fellow anything and everything he asks,
and let him be gone. He threatens that he will cause this awful beast to
stamp yet once again, and, if he does, the whole land of France will be
ruined. If your Majesty but knew what harm hath been wrought in the city
"Yes, let him begone," wailed the courtiers, slowly beginning to pick
themselves up from the floor, and feeling their bones to see if any of
them were broken.
And, indeed, the King was nothing loth to grant their request, for he
felt that if the mysterious stranger were allowed to stand at the door
much longer his whole kingdom would be tumbling to pieces about his
ears. Better far that the King of Scotland should be satisfied, even
although it was sorely against his inclinations.
With trembling fingers he picked up the papers and once more read them.
Then he wrote an answer promising to fulfil all the Scotch King's
demands and he sealed up the packet, and flung it to the nearest lackey.
"Give it to him and bid him begone," he cried, and a sigh of relief went
round the hall, as a minute later the man returned with the tidings that
the great black horse and its outlandish rider had vanished.
"Heaven grant that when next my Cousin of Scotland sends an ambassador,
he choose another man," said the King, and there was not a soul in all
the palace who did not breathe a fervent "Amen."
Meanwhile, Sir Michael and his wonderful steed were speeding along on
their homeward way. They had crossed the north of France, and were
flying over the Straits of Dover, when the creature began to think that
it might work a little mischief on its own account.
It had taken a sudden fancy to remain in France for a while, and it
thought how nice it would be if it could pitch its master, whom it
rather feared than loved, over its head into the water, and so be rid of
him for ever.
It knew that as long as it was under his spell, it had to do his
bidding, but it knew also that there were certain words which could
break the spell even of a wizard, and it began to wonder if it would be
possible to make Sir Michael pronounce one of these.
"Master," it said at last slyly, for when it wanted it had the power of
speech, "I know little about Scottish ways, but I have oft-times been
told that the old wives and children there mutter some words to
themselves ere they go to bed. 'Tis some spell, I warrant, and I would
fain know it. Canst tell me the words?"
Now the wily animal knew perfectly well what words the children of
Scotland were taught to repeat as they knelt at night at their mother's
knee, but it hoped that its master would answer without thinking.
But Sir Michael had not studied magic for long years for nothing, and he
knew that if he answered that the women and children in Scotland bowed
their knees and said their Pater Noster ere they went to bed, the holy
words would break the spell, and he would be at the mercy of the fiend,
who, when he needed him, was obliged to take the form of a horse, or
serve him in any other way which he required.
So he shook the creature's bridle and answered sharply, "What is that to
thee, Diabolus? Attend to the business thou hast in hand, and vex not
thy soul with silly questions. If thou truly desirest to know what the
bairns are taught to say at bed-time, then I would advise thee, when
thou art in Scotland, and hast time to spare from thy wicked devices, to
go and stand by a cottage window, and learn for thyself. Mayhap the
knowledge will do thee good. In the meantime think no more of the
matter, unless thou wouldst feel the weight of my wand on thy flanks."
Now, if there was one thing which the great horse feared, it was the
wizard's magic wand, so he put his mind to his work, and flew with all
the swiftness he possessed northwards over England, and across the
Cheviots, until at last they came in sight of Edinburgh, and the Royal
Palace of Holyrood.
Here Sir Michael slid from his back, and dismissed him with a little
wave of his wand. "Avaunt, Diabolus," he said, and at the words the
magic horse vanished into thin air, and, strange to say, the black cloak
and hairy cap which the wizard had worn on the journey seemed to fall
from him and vanish also, and he was left standing, a middle-aged,
dignified gentleman, clad in a suit of sober brown.
He hurried down to the Palace, and sought an instant audience of the
King. The lackeys bowed low, and the doors flew open before him, as he
was led into his Majesty's presence, for at the Court of Holyrood Sir
Michael Scott was a very great person indeed.
But for once a frown gathered on King Alexander's face when he saw him.
Kings expect to be obeyed, and he was not prepared to see the man appear
whom he had ordered off to France with all speed the day before.
"What ho! Sir Michael," he said coldly. "Is this the way that thou
carriest out our royal orders. In good sooth I wish I had chosen a more
Sir Michael smiled gravely. "Wilt please my Sovereign Lord to receive
this packet from the hand of the King of France?" he said with a stately
bow. "Methinks that he will find that in it all his demands are granted,
and that I have obeyed his behests to the best of my power."
The King was utterly taken aback. He wondered if Sir Michael were
playing some trick on him, for it was absolutely impossible that he
could have gone and come from France in twenty-four hours.
When he opened the packet, however, he saw that it was no trick. In
utter amazement he called for his courtiers, and they crowded round him
to examine the papers. They were all in order, and all the requests had
been granted without more ado. Reparation was to be made for the damage
that had been done to the Scottish ships, and in future all acts of
piracy would be severely punished. It was evident that the papers had
been taken to Paris, for there was the French King's own seal, and there
was his name signed in his own handwriting, though how they had been
carried thither so quickly, nobody ventured to say.
"'Tis safer not to ask, your Majesty," whispered one old knight, making
the sign of the Cross as he spoke, "for there are strange tales afloat,
which say that the Lord of Oakwood keeps a familiar spirit in that
ancient tower of his, who is ready to do his bidding at all times; and,
by my soul, this goes far to prove it."
The King looked round uneasily, in case Sir Michael had heard this last
sentence. He felt that if this were true, and he were a wizard, as men
hinted, it was best not to incur his displeasure; but he need not have
been afraid. The Lord of Oakwood loved not courts, and now that he had
done his errand, and the papers were safe in the King's hand, he had
taken advantage of the astonishment of the courtiers to slip unobserved
through the crowd, and, having borrowed a horse from the royal stables,
he was now riding leisurely out of the city, on his way home to his old
tower on the banks of the Ettrick.