A hand of frost clenched at Hendrie Tulloch’s chest as he waded from the shoal, carrying the slack body of the witch’s daughter. Any man so burdened would have sorrow in his heart, just as any sensible man would fear Mother Moghren’s wrath. Yet, it was something else that caused the chilled stir of dread: Truly, in death, little Elspet curled against his breast with more repose and childlike sweetness than ever she had shown in life.
No brave neighbor accompanied Hendrie past the village outskirts to the hovel in the fen. They foresaw unhappiness for any who crossed Mother Moghren’s threshold with mournful tidings. Every gossiping tongue in Pen Lammoch proclaimed that Mother Moghren was the devil’s wife. But no prayer for deliverance passed Hendrie's lip. He was a frugal man, saving even holy exhortations for when they might do him practical good. Only the patter of brackish water from the sodden black hair and coarse frock of the drowned child, dripping down along the legs of his breeks, announced their passing.
Breta Bunt, the reeve’s wife, hid her scarlet face from Hendrie. Standing so near without offering help shamed her. She stood aggrieved at poor Elspet’s fate, knee-deep in self-pity.
Good Calum Craik, the village carpenter and boatwright, broke the silence first. “Up now,” he told his son. “Go snatch the moor line of Master Tulloch’s boat, lest she drift. Empty the nets and fold them, as I’ve taught ye.” Calum had built the pine-plank dory for Hendrie and would have it looked after. The lad assented, making for the shallows at a run with his father calling after him all the way. “Mind ye bring anything he’s caught ashore to salt and keep by!”
Calum went next to his wife Elein, whose sister was Hendrie’s wife, Moira. Elein had just taken a fresh, crusty bannock from the hearth. “Go,” he entreated her, “and call on your sister. Take that bread along and Hendrie’s fish, which the lad’ll bring.”
Elein, flushed from the heat and sweat of baking, peered askance at him. “What trouble’s come, husband?”
“I know not yet,” Calum replied, scanning the dreary sky for storms. “Ill winds, I fear. Moira shall need the comfort of her kin, and soon.” His trembling voice was enough to speed her along. Nothing about such a visit exceeded neighborly kindness, yet it bore the scent of funeral offices for a man already dead. That, and the care of his widow.
Hendrie had never gone to the hovel in the fen, yet he knew the way. Mother Moghren’s trade in domestic charms and divinations had subtle influence throughout the village. Hendrie had never questioned his wife concerning her commerce in benign magicks, though he knew the sore wish of Moira’s heart to bear a child. Moira sold Mother Moghren fish, that much Hendrie knew, and to his knowledge, no Tulloch had shewn her anything but courtesy. Now, coming laden with the woman’s dead child, as the author of that misery, Hendrie felt doom rap upon his head. Some would have hidden the calamity to escape blame but, given the rumor of Mother Moghren's true powers, it went against wisdom to trust in the sheltering silence of other villagers.
The sight of Mother Moghren was familiar from Moira’s rambles about the village environs and her occasional visits to Pen Lammoch for goods and, at her doorstep, the crone of the fen received Hendrie with terrible silence. She might have been a slate idol in her heathen shrine of wattle and daub. Had she cast bloody pox on him at once or leapt forward to dash his brains with a stick, she could not have frightened him more. He knelt abjectly, laying Elspet’s body on the earthen floor with utmost care.
“Fair mother,” he implored in a reedy whisper. “Show mercy, I pray thee, to a piteous man. I bring thy precious wean in shameful sorrow for her mortal accident. After a hard morning at the nets, I failed to see the child splashing in the shallow. Careless was I not to have remarked her in time.”
The children of the village proper knew better than to wade blindly where the boats came in. As Elspet kept no society with those children, Hendrie had better sense than to lay a mote of blame on any but himself.
“The prow struck her head,” he gasped through tears, “and under the keel she’d gone before I could reach to save her. So delicate a thing, drowned in an instant.” He gave full account, lest he dishonor a mother’s right to know the hour and manner of her child’s passing. When the witch made no reply, Hendrie sought to soften her heart.
“My wife, Moira, tells me thou art a fisherman’s widow. I knew not thy husband, but none of us in Pen Lammoch are strangers to the sea’s cruel whim. Unto my last hour I’ll repent my part in this calamity and, if I cannot one day call myself thy friend, I hope at least ye’ll speak a word of pardon to me. O poor lady, pardon thy neighbor!” he entreated.
But Hendrie perceived a malign vibration of the air, and the witch’s lips and eyes danced in awful unison. Hendrie had thought she must be in a fatal fit of anguish, until her hitching breath became plain to his ears.
“Tha an diabhal a’marcachd a-mach,” she spat. It was Lowlanders’ language, mostly unknown to Hendrie, though he recognized that dreadful phrase. “An diabhal.”
“Djevelen plystrer ved vinduet!” she hissed more sharply, meeting his gaze. This utterance was in Norse or something like it, but the unwelcome invocation of “djevelen” came again.
Then, “An deofol plantast thann seod fram seod!” Three successive namings of the dark one could not be mistaken, and the tide of imprecation flowed likewise on. Although ignorant of their substance, Hendrie grasped their sense. He sat inert while they washed over him, expecting to wither and die there beneath her searing eyes.
The witch spat full upon the ground before him. A dismissal. The fisherman stammered a promise. “I’ll pay this debt, good Mother Moghren! By any means in my power. I swear it.” So saying, he withdrew from the hovel. From the silence that overtook the place once more, he knew not whether she’d heard or minded him.
Bryd Skeller passed Hendrie on his return to the village, and she tarried half-hidden in a thicket to study him. Bryd was a lass newly come to the bloom of womanhood, yet the flint of her grey eyes had the circumspection of a woman thrice her age: Her sharp senses perceived more than the common lot. She was on her way to the fen, having heard naught of young Elspet’s death. A quarrel with her father had occupied Bryd’s morning. She gnawed a painful split in her lower lip, a favorite target for her father’s knuckle. Malcolm Skeller was a brewer, and far too dissolute a man to resist the vice that lay within easy grasp of his trade. Bryd’s mother lay five years dead, leaving the daughter as first apprentice and helpmeet to the auld man. She bore her mother’s share of bruises alongside her own, quietly determined to outlive their dealer.
It was to salve her fresh hurts, and perhaps gain a device to ward away more, that she went to the fen. Bryd had no ambition to keep a cleaner house, pined for no young man’s heart, and had not conceived a child, yet she was a more regular caller on Mother Moghren than most. There was a respect and a friendly regard between them. At times, Bryd had even dandled wee Elspet while Mother Moghren saw to tricky alchemical business.
The fractured countenance of Hendrie Tulloch and the cry of maternal rage rising that moment over the fen told Bryd that she had best go softly. And so, she did, giving loving ear to the woman’s sorrows before asking aught for herself.
Because he bore no mark of the witch’s vengeance beyond a downcast bearing, Hendrie did not straightaway become a shunned man in Pen Lammoch. His one hope of grace, as he saw it, was to resume honest toil, sending any gifts and offerings he could spare to the hovel in the fen. Thus, might godly work and charity expiate his guilt.
He took up fishing as before, never going alone, but choosing times convenient for the brothers Cromertie to take their boat out alongside his. Even those windblown sons of fisherfolk
took notice of the change.
“Have ye seen a fellow look more hunted in yer life?” Hew Cromertie asked his brother one morning as they launched. He’d raised a hand in greeting to Hendrie, getting only a wide-eyed stare in return.
“Aye,” said Jacob Cromertie as he worked at unfurling the nets. “Father took me once to see a man hanged in Balfour. He wore that same face as he waited the drawin’ of the noose.”
Villagers grew used to seeing Hendrie check his steps in sudden fright, listening for phantom footsteps only he seemed to hear.
“It comes, but slowly tonight,” he murmured to Calum Craik once. “Other nights, it fairly hops with glee.” In the dusky light, it was doubtful, but not impossible, that something small pursued him, clinging to long shadows when he looked back for it.
“Can ye not smell the briny stink and rot of it?” he asked of Elein another evening, wrinkling his bloodless countenance in revulsion.
“It may be I can,” said Elein with cautious indulgence. She took the question for a sign of Hendrie’s growing madness, for nothing was in the air but the common redolence of a fishing village. Reading the thoughts of her heart in her diffident face, Hendrie turned away.
Had rough weather or sickness caused his accident, Hendrie might have pardoned himself in time, but he had fished that day fortified by an impious measure of Malcolm Skeller’s brew.
Moira Tulloch had grown somber. Hendrie suspected his trouble sowing sons in her was the cause. His wife cast no blame on him, yet she did not know all. In days past, Hendrie had kept lower company than the Cromerties. On many a journey to market, with ready silver in hand, he had sought his ease among strange company. Plenty of worldly women were susceptible to lures of whisky, sure. Yet, in his cups, Hendrie had sought variety. Young lasses and lads from sordid ports, untutored in the power of malted spirits, could be made to banish reluctance by generous doses of the stuff. His lowest limit, half-remembered, had woke to the shame of a youthful brother and sister he’d cajoled into sharing his bed with incestuous abandon.
Hendrie never contracted anything grievous in his wanderings, yet he had likely left a bastard on some highland or island, whilst in his holy marriage bed he was impotent: a tiller of soil as a farmer caught in drought. With Moira, he had persevered as hope dwindled, stirring himself beyond his cooled ardor with recollections of those on whom he had likely spent his allotment of good seed.
It might have served the house of Tulloch to befriend Mother Moghren and beg her aid yet, despite the urging of other Pen Lammoch women, Moira was reticent to bind any project so precious to the caprices of a witch. Now Hendrie had bound them fast, but in a wholly devilish spirit.
Within a fortnight, the decline of Hendrie's fortune was manifest. His burly frame withered from sleeplessness and lost appetite. Herring, cod and haddock avoided his nets with equal cleverness. The Cromerties, ashamed at the necessity, anchored their craft at greater and greater distances from his. Calum forbade his boy to touch Hendrie's boat again, let alone board and fish with him. Perhaps he sensed that, besides the proximity of the witch’s curse, Hendrie lacked the moral fiber to be trusted with the children of others.
It was not the sea alone that withheld its bounty from Tulloch folk: Moira's garden suffered a famine. Only the least palatable roots, often with tooth-breaking stones concealed in their fibrous flesh, came from the soil. Moira's hen laid a scanter yield of eggs each week. Exposure to fresh air made the thin shells weep and sweat through with rancid, blood-colored yolks. The cockerel vanished and was discovered atop a neighbor's dung heap, having pecked itself to death in some frenzy.
Ossie Bunt, the village reeve and lay preacher, kept a suspicious eye on Hendrie, spurred by the master gossip who tended his house and made his meals. Breta Bunt, his wife, possessed a keen sense of domestic order, yet before the cook-fire or away from it she spoke constantly and seldom charitably.
“It’s only shocking,” she declared over a tepid plate of clapshot, “the way that hagridden Tulloch moves among us, half a ghost himself, starving away to nothing and his poor wife compelled to bear it as well.”
Ossie prodded his meal with reservation. The potatoes were savagely chopped, as their half-raw state had precluded mashing them properly, while the bitter turnips had surely been the woodiest and most overripe in the larder. Instead of an attentive reply to his wife, he resorted as usual to an appropriate snatch of holy writ. “But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother in need, yet shutteth up compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in them?”
“I am full to my eyes with compassion,” huffed Breta, “for those who walk aright in the books of the Almighty and suffer without just cause. Know ye not that Hendrie Tulloch, in his hour of misfortune, went straightaway and abased himself to that witch of Endor to seek her favor? Would you visit charity on the house of such a tainted soul?”
Ossie reflected that he would gladly donate their supper to any unfortunate neighbor. Yet to stay his wife’s latest tirade, he mumbled something vague about keeping watch on Hendrie for signs of spiritual deterioration.
Seeing Hendrie carry the witch’s drowned child had been the first of three events in Breta's life that stopped speech cold in her throat. The second came weeks after, as she slept off indigestion from a sea trout stew, spiced with her own scorn and moral disapproval.
A tiny fissure in the Bunt cottage wall, just at Breta’s ear where she dozed, admitted a cold needle of night air. She was well used to the draft, which suited her temperament, yet she shuddered awake at the whisper of a voice. Lips pressed against the gap from outside.
“Who,” the spectral speaker demanded in mocking sing-song, “who spake cruel fancies to the witch’s child?”
Breta meant to cry out, but a weight upon her throat strangled the voice in her.
“Who,” the voice continued, “who bade Mother Moghren’s Elspet to go play at selkies in the shallows, where the boatmen come a-mooring?
Breta groaned, yet fearful paralysis held her still to listen. The sickly voice, not man’s nor woman’s, oozed in at her like pus from a boil.
“What soulless wretch told the wee one that digging for pearls would teach her the secrets of mermaids, and please her auld mother so?”
“Lies!” Breta hissed, finding her voice at last. Her denial, professed although her tormenter had not accused her by name, came with a hot surge of guilty tears.
Springing up to peer into the night, she found no prowler outside. Ossie would hear nothing of the visitation for, though Breta suspected certain culprits, their boldness and uncanny knowledge of her secret heart cowed her to the core.
The nearest Breta had to an outright enemy was Ursula Rattray, cousin to Bryd Skeller. Ursula kept a farm with her brawny dull-wit brother. They were orphans, nearly grown, and Ossie had granted them the right of their land for expediency's sake, rather than trust it to their inebriate uncle Malcolm. Ursula grew good barley and was a fair weaver, yet Breta found her high spirits and familiar manners offensively coarse. Whether she knew of Ursula's occasional familiarity with her husband Ossie or merely suspected it, she never missed a chance to attack the young woman's character. In so doing, she unfairly cast the longsuffering brewer's daughter in the same light for good measure.
Bryd Skeller, it happened, was chaste as milk despite her rough and battered appearance. A portion of the battery she suffered came from her father's piggish mates for refusal to yield. Whenever Breta's unjust gossip reached Malcolm, the contused patches about Bryd’s lips and eyes grew a shade darker.
Hendrie went daily to the fishing grounds looking so dreadfully sallow that Calum expected to see the dory drift ashore without its pilot. Calum knew not what his wife knew, for Elein faithfully kept at least one ghastly secret: Shortly before Hendrie's fateful encounter with the witch, Moira had found herself with child. Hope of some renewal in their lives lasted nearly two months until, without omen, the quickening ceased. Mischance it seemed, even amid so much ill fortune, until Moira beheld the contorted, silver-scaled form of what should have been her firstborn. The shock nearly finished her, and she lingered in dire frailty for some time.
Elein sent appeals to Bryd Skeller and Ursula Rattray for help. Ursula came alone.
“Alas, poor Bryd’s taken ill her ain self,” said Ursula, her demeanor indecently bright given the circumstance.
“Has she?” Elein said without any sympathetic inflection.
“Sure, I’ve never seen such a fever flush on her. She’s in no fit state to nurse another.”
Elein could not prove a lie in the excuse, though it rang false. “Aren’t ye kind to come then, girl?” she said, and goaded Ursula inside to tend Moira.
Hendrie had sat most of the day outside his home, witnessing Elein’s frantic activity on his wife’s behalf. By no force of will could Elein persuade him to stir his limbs for any helpful purpose and at length, she had let him be. Now, she stood above him, glowering through tears.
“Wretched man, must I speak aloud the sad news that your child is dead?” She refrained from describing the malformed creature Moira had brought forth, a mercy as much to herself as to him. As it was, he took her confirmation of the miscarriage in queerly resigned silence which gave the blood in her an ill turn.
Only later, after the rise of the moon, did Hendrie bolt up from fitful slumber with a soul-deep warble of horror. Elein found him cowering prostrate near the foot of Moira's bed.
“Awake, Hendrie!” cried Elein, shaking him. “Have your dreams taught you better how to grieve?” She glanced at her sister, whose quaking rattled the bed as she watched in mute fear.
Hendrie raised a quaking finger to the low, unlatched window. “Did ye see? Wife, dear sister, by all the devils about us, did ye mark it?”
“Mark what, ye pitiful thing?” Elein pressed, still trying to roust him. “There’s naught without, and naught but mad fever dreams within.”
He twisted away so violently that she fell back against the wall. “By all divinity, I swear it,” he moaned. “The child! That witch’s cub, that lipless curling mouth, that cheek bloated black by seawater…She makes bold to peer in at us!”
“Devils, divinity, bah!” spat Elein, stroking Moira’s damp hair. “Shake off this evil dream, and mind how ye speak such horrors before my miserable sister.” So saying she lay in the bed to soothe Moira toward sleep again, for Hendrie would not stir from the ground where he lay.
However much of this reached Breta Bunt, she had little opportunity to repeat it. The third check to her tongue was more permanent than the first two: Bulbous growths, coming in profusions every few days like toadstool rings, began to grow upon her face and jaw. They did not kill or even sicken the woman; they only disfigured her, impeding easy passage of both food and speech through her mouth. No homespun curative or scriptural balm could allay the tumors, and Breta withdrew by degrees from public view.
One evening, as the fishermen stowed their nets, Jacob Cromertie broke the taut silence. “I say, at dawn of the morrow, we make straight for the west bar,” he said. “The cod and sprat shall be lively there, and plenty for us all.”
Hendrie shook his head at the beneficent overture and sat in his boat with a childlike slouch of his frame. Looking out across the breakers, he murmured, “I shan’t go a-fishing tomorrow, lads.”
The brothers traded an uneasy look, for the tone of eerie resignation on Hendrie’s laps had the savor of despair. Purely in politeness, not wishing to show his relief, Hew pressed the unhappy man. “Will ye not? We two shall be lonely.”
“I’ve no heart left for it,” Hendrie said, a faint echo of the man they’d known since boyhood. “She follows me out now, paddling at me gunwales in open water.”
Jacob darted his eyes to the sea and back. “She? Who follows?”
Hendrie stood and stepped from the boat, leaving his tackle in disarray. “She’s learned to swim better, at least. If the sea will give me no fish and no respite from that sprightly ghoul, I might as well keep ashore.”
Hendrie was halfway back home, looking quite the shambling ghoul himself, when Jacob overtook him at a run. He pressed a crudely wrapped parcel of fish wrapped in oilskin.
“Take a share of my catch at least. For thy poor wife, man. For Jesus’s sake.”
Hendrie’s hands would not close around the gift, nor would his eyes fall on the giver. “For Jesus’s sake,” he intoned in pained whisper and turned away.
The next morning, a drizzly hour before sunrise, Moira ran from her home into the village common. She was unshod and shrieking in mortal dread. Calum and the Cromerties were among those roused to help. Calum took charge of the frantic widow, guiding her to his house as the brothers entered the Tulloch home to investigate.
However Hendrie came to die in his home that night, there had been no serenity or dignity about it.
“Christ, deliver us,” Jacob said on this third attempt at coherent speech. Hew burst into tears, tracing ungainly signs of the holy cross in the air on all sides of them.
Hendrie’s wasted flesh was pale and thin as a coat of limewash over his bones. His eyes had sunken in and gums receded so that a fanged skull seemed to look heavenward in silent prayer. The bed and bedclothes were one indistinct morass of putrefaction, as his whole body appeared to have run like a massive sore with a dark, viscous ichor of half-clotted blood and pungent seawater. A murder victim hidden for a year in a bog might look so, but the only certain identification of this man who’d lately walked in the sight of his neighbors came from his wife, near mad and soaked in his vile residue, who had lain down beside him that night.
Moira, unequal to the strain of dwelling alone, was fortunate to have loving kinfolk so near. The Craik home and attendant hospitality opened to her. She did not mind lodging in close quarters with the children. Indeed, it seemed a thin scrap of added comfort.
New day succeeded each long sorrowful night. In time, the family carried on without further misfortune. Calum abode in health and relative prosperity, troubled only by the odd dream of phantoms which his unfortunate sister-in-law might have tracked in on her heels.
Hew and Jacob Cromertie took Hendrie’s body in their boat to bury him at sea. They had scuttled the dead man's craft along with his nets, half a league beyond the edge of their customary fishing waters. Even Calum had consented to that spiritual precaution.
“Shall we say the Laird’s Prayer?” asked Hew as they surveyed Hendrie’s long swaddled carcass. A section cut and saved from the dead man’s net encircled the mouldy inner wrapping, binding great flat stones against it for weights.
Jacob knelt, thrust both arms beneath the body and lifted it toward the lip of the transom without waiting for help. “Speak yer prayer now, brother, if ye will.” Hew muttered the half-remembered words as he moved to assist. The corpse made a slap against the glossy water, but the splash of an offering gladly swallowed by the sea did not come. The Cromerties fairly hopped in agitation as Hendrie lay half-submerged before them.
“Will he not sink?” Jacob cried, blinking.
“Aye, see if I shan’t make him,” Hew muttered. He reached into the tangle at his feet and pulled forth a weighty knotted chain fitted with a stout hook for towing beached vessels. In frightened zeal, he swung it overhand, flinching at the sound as the hook thudded into an indeterminate part of the remains.
“See,” Hew rasped in distaste as the sinking chain did its pulling. “There goes the unhappy man.”
“Ah, no!” Jacob answered with a gasp. “Look, it only rolls him to face downward. He’ll still not pass beneath the waves.”
After another hour and the waste of Hew's good spare anchor, they gave it up and set Hendrie adrift. Returning homeward, they found with dismay that the tide had brought the body in before them. It bobbed like a lodestone over the spot where Elspet had died. The following dawn they tried again, with such extra bulk wound in the oilskin that both men together could barely lift it. They missed a full morning's fishing in the vain attempt, and found Hendrie awaiting them once more in the shoal.
Thus they contrived, under night’s cover, to hack the body asunder like mouldering timber. Unwilling to jinx their home fires, they placed the gathered fragments in the coals of the village smokehouse.
Ossie Bunt summoned the bishop Donald a Scrawall, from Saint Magnus Kirk, to come and take Pen Lammoch's witch in hand. Ossie had wavered until his wife's affliction tilted his balance toward action. Scripturally, he objected to witches, yet he little doubted that he’d had Mother Moghren’s help at least once, alleviating a personal complaint for Ursula Rattray in which Ossie held a stake.
Since Hendrie Tulloch’s decline, the hovel in the fen had attracted few callers. Mother Moghren had not lost her art, but grief had aged her morbidly. Inward bitterness began to taint her spells. Pregnant women took their chances on Providence alone, fearing any tincture she prepared might contain ruinous impurities. Even should the girl survive labor, the well-favored child she bore might grow to bite its playmates without cause, the ill residue of Mother Moghren's fury lingering in its constitution.
Ossie and the bishop called at the Skeller home, wanting rest and refreshment to steel them for the journey to the fen. They found the house in an uproar. Malcolm Skeller had done himself to death by falling into his own fire. Besotted friends who had been sitting with Skeller over a jug declared that the fire made a definite attack on him.“Devil tongues of flame, like,” declared one bleary fellow, “climbed his breath when he spat upon the hearth and leapt down his throat!”
Bryd Skeller, visibly ill-used and untaxed by grief, chided the foolish talk. “These men,” she told the bishop, “my father’s bosom friends, have sat all the while drinking their dead host’s brew.” Indeed, the men seemed almost past reason, the most coherent witness among them suspect. “I stoked the fire,” she continued, “when I came from the Rattrays' with fresh barley. I saw no devil in the hearth, and you two godly men may look for yourselves.”
Bryd neglected to mention the other item she had brought home: a packet of mossy
herbs gathered from the fen to sweeten the brewing fire.
Ossie and the bishop found the witch dead inside her hovel. The blood-chilling scene struck them dumb. In a gross travesty of Our Lady and Child, the crone lay in the embrace of her daughter's corrupted remains. Searching the hovel, they discovered no summoning candles, no phials of desecrated matter, not one foul book of magick. All such materials had been spirited away by diabolical agency. Outside the dwelling, a fetid heap of eggs, grain and salted fish rotted. These were Hendrie's propitiatory offerings. Tiny naked feet, their size matching those of the unburied child, had trodden them to flinders.
The men set fire to the hovel but, to their dismay, the dry wattle would not catch, nor did the witch's body properly burn. Her skin crackled asunder, loosing dark, stony innards which hateful suffering had hardened like lava glass. A stray flame lashed up, scorching the bishop's cheek and putting him in mind of the late Malcolm Skeller.
They hastened to the village where Ossie accosted the Cromerties.
“Brick up the witch’s hovel and leave it lie,” he commanded them.
“Sepulchre of eternal wickedness,” Donald a Scrawall muttered.
Ursula Rattray ran to the shore as the bishop boarded his boat for Kirkwall.“God save your grace,” she said without acknowledging Ossie. “Could I beg ye to bless this wee bag of trifles, to protect those I hold dear?"
The bishop, though irritable over his burnt visage, softened at the comely creature's charms. He obliged at once.
One midnight shortly after, Ursula brought her sanctified relics to meet Bryd in the fen. Emptying the silver into her apron—for silver it was, hidden under pebbles and shells—she planted the pieces in three concentric rings about the hovel. Bryd had meant to do this herself, but the consecrated silver imprinted her hands with blistering weals. Ursula lacked the proper seriousness for true discipleship, but Bryd and Mother Moghren had agreed that she made a loyal confederate for acts of necessity. She could keep secrets.
The rite complete, the two friends parted. Bryd returned home, eager to light her candles and peruse her newly inherited volumes of antique mystery. Unpledged as yet, she fancied herself a sort of lay reader to the mystical, with every expectation of growing in wisdom and stature, though in whose favor it would bring no good to speculate.
Every tongue in Pen Lammoch held that Mother Moghren kept house as the devil's bride. It was true so far as it went, yet no rumor touched the union's true essence. As a midwife, she had discovered a knack for talismans and elixirs. Widowed years later by the sea, with her child still at the breast, she felt every season grow harder and leaner. Stiff-nosed moralists denied her the small charities they so often preached, and pride checked her from taxing more kindly neighbors. Growing her own power became needful. When Elspet fell into sudden fever, Mother Moghren revived her youthful flirtations with auld Splitfoot, inviting him with earnest vows to renew his suit. Elspet's healing sealed their matrimony and, to his wife's joy, the unholy groom added much forbidden knowledge.
Whether by sickness or her stepfather's whim, tiny Elspet returned from death permanently altered. She was too silent for a child, with the staring alacrity of a large-eyed bird. She roamed the wood and other shaded places, questing after spiders and fishbones. Her gaze put up the hackles of any villager who crossed her path, and Breta Bunt most fatally of all.
They were fools who begrudged Mother Moghren her accursed bride price, thinking the devil had granted her occult powers merely to lift the burden of wholesome Christian toil. The fault lay in the belief that hell's prince, once yoked, was less a shiftless wastrel than any common husband. Having granted what small gifts of sorcery lay ready to hand, auld Splitfoot was content to idle away and watch the misery Pen Lammoch visited on itself, leaving the household particulars in his good woman’s charge.
To know a spell and to work it are two different things. That which Mother Moghren invoked, it fell to her to conjure. Countless chance factors could alter potency in everyday potions or good-luck fetishes. The more dire a curse, the greater the urgency to carry it off precisely as spoken, and the greater the drain on the enchantress to do so. Had Mother Moghren failed to honor any malediction cast on Hendrie Tulloch in justifiable passion of grief, even those proclaimed in dead tongues unknowable to mortal men, she would invite doubt. A fallible witch could expect no grace or leeway. Losing her fear would have meant losing all.
The fisherman had been penitent, aye, bringing Elspet with mournful tenderness when he might have fled. Still, he had killed her only joy, the daughter for whom she took on perdition. Fueled by spite, she worked her ailing body to its limit. Life had taught her absolute self-reliance. She was glad, though, of help from two friendly lasses at the matter’s crucial end. The brewer’s daughter came close to filling Elspet's empty place in her sick heart. Ursula, the cheery companion, had no real aptitude for the craft but lifted some pain from their unpleasant labors.
The bulk of the work fell to Mother Moghren, her acolytes only procuring items from the Tulloch home and the odious Bunt woman. They could not properly weave Elspet's hair into the fisherman's nets, pull fingernails to plant in the fishwife's garden, or make the lengthy incantations to give such acts power. Mother Moghren was compelled to creep along the ground and through windows to complete these rites in person. Most monstrous was the mischief she wrought on Moira Tulloch's unborn. Decency forbids description of it here.
The chief cost to her vitality was in sending Elspet's corpse to stalk Hendrie. She had meant to charge Elspet, even dead, with several other malefic chores, but the effort of sustaining an anima for the dead used her up speedily.
All that remained of Mother Moghren was the featureless crypt of her sealed hovel. The blessed and planted silver pieces neither bound wicked vestiges nor helped the witch to heaven. They were meant to afflict her widower's cloven feet. Tales more ancient than the isles tell of Satan's pet delight in strutting with mannish pride over the burial grounds of those he has betrayed in love.
Still, even he could not guess the depth of Mother Moghren's vengeance.
When on the third moonless night after her death he came to gloat, a sudden lameness in both hooves made him quail with unaccustomed fear. Scampering away like a whipped thing, he later returned. Yet, he still could not approach the hovel. He stood shuffling, foot-to-foot, with a diffidence he had never known, until night birds began to summon the sun.
Grey eyes watched the Interloper, glad of his chastening for the sake of another who could not witness it. Bryd Skeller had a full day's work to start at dawn, but the midnight vigil fulfilled a pledge that she knew well to honor. She had taken up her family business of brewing, having no fear of fire. She anticipated a second trade in midwifery, alongside Cousin Ursula, that Pen Lammoch might regenerate the life it had lately shed. In private, Bryd continued her study of the arcane in all its dreadful elegance.
The gaunt one hobbled away. Vanity would compel him back in tormenting cycles to the place he could not tread without pained remembrance. Bryd also turned homeward, content that his thorn was fixed. Peace fell over the fen. She murmured a phrase of Mother Moghren's, a benediction to her intimates from fonder days when she sat stroking Elspet's hair in warm morning light:
"So much, dear sisters, may we do. That much, my darlings, must we do."
DAN FIELDS graduated from Northwestern University in 2006. His work has recently been published with Sanitarium Magazine, Tell-Tale Press, Harbinger Press, Jolly Horror Press and Hellbound Books. He lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife and children. Since the appearance of the story "Cachette" in a 2015 issue of Indiana Voice Journal, he has published over a dozen stories in various online, print and audio formats. Many more stories and a few long-form works are forthcoming. Read more at www.danfieldswrites.com.
Photography by the Novel Noctule team.