Witches are abroad! Halloween is coming, and soon I’ll be guesting on Mari Wells‘s blog, talking about Scottish witches. So to get you in the mood, here’s a short story inspired by a legend from my neck of the woods…
The witch could see the caravans through the trees. They were an incongruous background to the activities taking place in the ruins of the old Kirk. She pulled a face. Legacy was all very well, but she sometimes wished their rituals happened in a different location. After all, it seemed wrong to summon the Evil One not a hundred metres from shower blocks and chemical toilet sheds.
“Stop daydreaming, Sister!” The voice cut through her thoughts. Aunt Aileen, brandishing a large wooden ladle, broke through her reverie and brought her attention back to what The Sisters were doing. They all called each other Sister, although none of them actually were. They were all related, albeit sometimes distantly – connected by their ancestry, going all the way back to the famous Lochie Witches of the 1700s. Those witches, however, had not had to contend with a busy road on one side and a caravan holiday park on the other. Back then, the Kirk had been remote and hidden amongst the trees at the foot of the Crag. Now, tourists roamed the grounds by day, although admittedly, there were not too many of them braving the Scottish weather at this time of year. At night, there was always the chance that a gang of lads and lassies from the nearby town would want to use the place for drinking or shagging or both.
The coven was the bedraggled remnants of those witches of the 18th century. Not for the first time, Fenella found herself wishing that more of the female line had died out. If they could no longer gather thirteen witches, then she wouldn’t be freezing her arse off on Samhain, trying to summon Auld Nick with fragments of ancient spell books, and a coven consisting of seven senior citizens, three working mums, two singletons and a precocious fourteen year old who was enjoying it all a little too much. Every year they tried to replicate what their infamous ancestors had done, and every year nothing happened, apart from Nana Anne setting her dress on fire and her cousin Jess falling over a tree root and twisting her ankle. Until last year, when the spell might be said to have worked. They had indeed conjured “auld Nick in shape o’ beast” – to quote a famous poem – except the beast in question was a large black beetle. The only reason that they knew the beetle was the Evil One was by the mark on its carapace. It had waved its antennae at them reproachfully and then spent the rest of the night sitting on Evie’s shoulder, much to the teenager’s delight. It hadn’t seemed inclined to do anything else – but then what could he do as a beetle? The 18th century coven had summoned him in the form of a huge black dog, which was much more the thing. Apparently the great hound had roamed the hills all night, terrorising locals and sheep, until the dawn sent him back Below.
Nana Anne stated she was positive she knew which part of the spell had gone wrong and this year they would succeed – properly. Fenella put her thoughts to one side and, at Aunt Aileen’s frantic ladle-waving, returned to the circle of Sisters around the cauldron. The potion was complete and being stirred by the three most senior coven members: Nana Anne, Nana Evelyn (her niece Evie’s namesake) and Aunt Aileen. It was the job of the others to chant the spell, ensuring that the last word was spoken at precisely six minutes past seven. Fenella had often wondered about the significance of that time, but it was in one of the spellbook fragments that had survived unscathed and was very definite. The hour – or six minutes past – was fast approaching. She joined hands with her other Sisters and, at a nod from Nana Anne, started to chant. At the exact same moment, the three witches in charge of the cauldron changed direction with their ladles and stirred counter-clockwise.
The skies above darkened further, if such a thing were possible during a Scottish autumn. Angry clouds gathered overhead and the wind picked up, whistling round the old stone walls of the Kirk and sighing through the trees. The surface of the liquid in the cauldron became as shiny as glass, and even with the stirring of the ladles the massing clouds were reflected in it. The wind was howling now, sounding like the mournful cry of a dog, and Fenella’s scalp prickled. This felt different to the last time, sure enough. There was a…presence, that was the only word she could think of…to the storm, an intensity that she hadn’t encountered before. She chanted with more purpose, her voice stronger and clearer. The others had felt it too, even young Evie, whose face had lost its this-is-fun-because-I-shouldn’t-be-doing-it look and taken on a determined expression. As the climax of the spell was chanted and the ladles made their last turn counter-clockwise, the clouds reached down from the sky, tendrils of grey searching like groping arms in the dark until they found their target – the cauldron. The link that formed between the liquid and the clouds looked like the tornado from The Wizard Of Oz, except for the colours contained within it. The blue-black of the night sky vied with the steel grey of the clouds and the glassy texture of the potion, which itself flashed all the colours of a prism as the column spun faster and faster. Fenella twisted her wrist, not letting go of her Sister’s hand, and sneaked a glance at her watch. They had finished the chant at exactly six minutes past seven. Just as she looked back at the column, it collapsed in on itself, swirling into nothingness in the bottom of the cauldron. There was a single crack of thunder overhead, but no rain fell. Instead, the ensuing silence was absolute. Hardly daring to breathe, the Sisters all leaned forward, but cautiously, in case a massive hound jumped out of the cauldron at any moment.
This, unfortunately, did not happen.
What did happen was that from the cauldron came a short, sharp bark.
Evie was the first one to move forward. Letting go of her Sisters’ hands, she stepped forward three paces and peered over the edge. Her face broke into a massive grin.
“Has it worked?” Nana Anne asked eagerly – far too eagerly for a ninety-year-old woman, Fenella thought. And what a stupid question! If they had indeed conjured the huge black dog of legend, it should have bounded out of the cauldron at the precise moment that the column disappeared. There was no room in there for anything larger than – oh no – surely not…
“Well,” Evie said slowly, “It’s kind of worked…” She reached both arms into the cauldron. When they came out, they were holding a black dog.
A little black dog.
There was a moment of stunned silence. On the one hand, it was a dog. This was a definite improvement on last year. On the other hand, Auld Nick wasn’t going to be doing much terrorising this year either. He looked like…
“I think he’s a Scottie,” Evie said hesitantly. “That’s good, isn’t it? I mean, we are a coven of famous Scottish witches.” Fenella groaned.
“I suppose it is him?” asked Nana Evelyn. She stepped round the cauldron, careful of any treacherous tree roots, and stood beside her granddaughter. Smoothing the dog’s fur back, she checked behind his ear. Sure enough, there was the mark. “It’s him. Well. Sisters, we must congratulate ourselves. This is a step forward from last year.” The dog wriggled. Evie put him down on the overgrown floor of the Kirk. Once again, Auld Nick glared up at them with a reproachful expression. Being a dog this time rather than a beetle, it was much more effective. The Sisters hung their heads, not wanting to meet his eyes. All except Evie, who seemed oblivious to the undercurrents running between the little dog and the older coven members. She scooped him back up and cuddled him. He wriggled a few times, then gave up, barked his sharp bark again and licked Evie’s face with a long pink tongue. She giggled.
“He seems to like Evie,” Aunt Aileen remarked, as dog and girl proceeded to romp around the Kirk grounds, chasing each other, the one barking, and the other laughing. “He did last year, too. I wonder what that means?”
“Sisters!” Nana Anne’s voice, surprisingly strong, cut through all their thoughts. “I agree with Sister Evelyn. It is another step forward. I will study the text fragments and next year, I am sure we will succeed and bring forth Auld Nick in his true beast shape. And perhaps after that, we will do what our predecessors never succeeded in doing, and bring him forth in the ultimate form.” There was a pause as everyone considered the implications of that. From the woods, the excited barks of a small dog were heard, mingled with Evie’s shouts. Fenella wondered if she should make sure they were all right, and then decided she was worrying needlessly. Nobody else would be in the woods at this time of night in this weather. As a Scottie dog, the Evil One couldn’t do more than bite a few ankles anyway. And her niece was still too young to be of any danger. Fenella suspected, however, that when Evie came of age she was going to be a witch to be reckoned with. After all, they hadn’t succeeded in conjuring Auld Nick at all until last year – the first time Evie had been part of the coven. And on both occasions he seemed to prefer Evie’s company… Fenella resolved to bring this up at the next meeting. For now, let the Sisters revel in their nearly-success, and let Evie romp around with her new playmate.
“I expect he’s catching rabbits, or something,” cousin Jess remarked to Fenella, as they each sipped a mug of mulled wine to the background of whooping and excited barking. “Not quite sheep, but still… Must be boring, being cooped up Below. Bet he’s glad to get out in the world for a bit, even as a Scottie dog.” Fenella giggled, and then bit the laugh back. The older coven members wouldn’t approve, but now the drama of the ceremony was over, it all seemed ridiculous once more. Grown women in a freezing ruin, trying to summon the devil for a night of – what? If they ever truly succeeded, what were they going to do with him? Well, obviously, she and Jess…and maybe one or two of the others…but Nana Anne? Aunt Aileen? Fenella suspected that if Auld Nick did ever appear in all his glory, the coven would be seriously depleted, as several of the older members would die of a heart attack.
In the woods, Evie and her canine companion had ceased exploring the undergrowth and were now resting on a grassy bank, sheltered by the trees. Evie lay on her back, the little dog lying on her chest, gazing into her eyes. The young witch broke eye contact for a moment to stare up at the inky black sky through the bare branches above. Then she met the dog’s eyes again.
Her gaze was far more than that of a teenage girl.
“I’m sorry you’re not a huge hound,” she said. “I’m sure if I looked at the texts I could work it out, but they won’t let me until I’m sixteen, and that’s two years away. Mind you, they are getting better at figuring stuff out. I’m sure you’ll be a big dog next year. But that’s not the ultimate aim, is it?” The dog panted at her in that smiley way that dogs do, and licked her face again.
Evie smiled back. “The year after next, then. I’ll be sixteen – of age. They’ll let me read the spells. I’ll figure it out, and persuade them to try my suggestion. I can be very persuasive. Some of them didn’t want me in the coven last year, at thirteen, but I convinced them. So I’ll get my way, and then…” She paused to savour the delicious thought for a moment. So did her companion, his eyes sparkling and his tongue licking his lips – although he might have just been thinking about rabbits – or sheep. Evie doubted it, though.
She knew what witches had always really summoned the devil for.
“I’ll conjure you in the form of a man”.
(Apologies to a local legend for playing around with it, and being creative with the location of various landmarks. This was originally going to be a much darker story, but it went off in a different direction. I think the ending promises darker things to come, however…)