Home > Barrow Witch

Barrow Witch
Author: Craig Comer

1

 

 

SCOTLAND, 1885

 

 

Effie hugged her arms tight about her chest. The coat she wore did little to stave off the biting wind, despite its thickness. She’d chosen it because its green reminded her of the deep heart of a forest. But the decision seemed foolish now. Frost collected on the heather and bracken around her. A thin blanket of white dusted the hills above. The afternoon light faded, stealing with it the little warmth the day had brought.

“Ruin,” she breathed. She clenched her walking cane in frustration. Her nails dug into the wood. Even with the wind, the stench of death hung in the air. She and her companions had tracked it to its source.

Edgar Talmadge’s slight frame knelt before her. The back of his woolen coat stretched as he examined the remains of Tam Lorrie. The poor farmer had not made it far from the village of Braemuir before something, or some things, had savaged his arms and chest. He lay in a tangle of bracken on the slope of a hillock overlooking a small glen.

Edgar had taken in the gruesome sight stoically. He’d seen more of violence in the past few months than his young years warranted—barely a hint of whiskers brushed his cheeks—but he prided himself in proving useful to Effie.

And lately that meant dealing with certain horrors.

“The same as the other,” came a voice. The frozen ground crunched as Jaelyn stepped into view, emerging from behind some heather. The brownie of Clan Kae was tall for her kind, but that only brought her to barely above Effie’s waistline. Her trousers and jacket had golden scrollwork on the cuffs, though the garments had seen rough use over the years. Her sharp eyes and angular cheeks were drawn into a fierce expression. She opened her mouth to add something more but chose to merely run her tongue over her snaggled teeth.

Effie didn’t need the thought spoken aloud. They’d found Hamish Harrelson two days past in a similar state. Both villagers had been sturdy men, their arms and shoulders full of the muscles hard days of working fields provided. They’d known the land, too. They’d lived in the hills and glens around Braemuir all their lives.

“We don’t know for certain,” said Effie. “I won’t turn back.”

Jaelyn nodded. “Aye’ya, I ken ye well enough to know better.”

“The girl might be hiding somewhere or hurt.” Effie tried to convince herself the words could be true, but they felt desperate. Clara Bowman had been missing almost a full week. Effie had stumbled onto her disappearance from Braemuir while hunting for a pack of fell beasts. Wulvers, according to rumors in Dunfermline—wolf-like creatures with the snouts and curved fangs of a boar. Yet rumors in Stirling spoke of a rampaging giant, and in Dunblane they’d whispered of a host of goblins. The details had changed, but there were too many tales, and too much evidence, to deny something dark lurked in the hills.

Still, Effie refused to simply accept that Clara had met the same fate as Tam Lorrie and Hamish Harrelson. Not until she saw evidence of it. Hope, if ever so slight, was something she had learned to cling to over the past years.

Edgar rose and brushed clean his coat. “The good lieutenant best hear of this,” he said. His voice held the thick brogue of a Glaswegian. He swung his gaze across the hills to the north. “Do you know? Er, can ye?” He trailed off. A blush rose to his cheeks, as it often did when he inquired after the abilities of her fey blood.

A Sithling, Effie appeared as normal as any other Scottish lass, a young woman with a rounded face, cheery hazel eyes, and thick crop of auburn tresses. But the blood of the ancient Daoine Sith coursed through her, granting her the gifts of Fey Craft.

She smiled kindly and pointed to the east. “The lieutenant and his men rove the hills toward Perth.” With her fey senses, she could feel them, tiny auras in the distance that radiated the essence of each man. She bit her lip. They had split from the lieutenant in the village, each taking a different direction to search for the missing farmers and lass. But the days since had spread them farther apart, and they would lose the rest of the day waiting on the lieutenant to return, if he bade her call at all.

“They are too far to be of use to us here,” she said. She adjusted her coat once more, wishing the dress beneath held a thicker weight, or better yet, that she wore woolen trousers like Edgar and Jaelyn. “We must carry on without them.”

“Aye, as Caledon does without ye,” quipped Jaelyn.

Effie glared at her companion but refused to take the bait. They had squabbled enough on the matter. The steward of the Seily Court negotiated with the crown near Balclune. She could almost feel him at the edge of her senses, if only because his strength was so vast. She had declined his invitation to join him there. Her place was not among lords. But more so, she knew the treaty they coveted would never be signed so long as the Barrow Witch roamed the countryside.

The Hag o’ the Barrows. The Banshee. The Wailing Woman. The last of the Sidhe Bhreige who’d escaped the Downward Fields had many names. What people called her depended largely on which tales their mums told them as wee bairns. It was Edgar who’d taken to calling her the Barrow Witch, though they knew little of the creature beyond the impression of her gender, and that came from those twisted and wicked enough to revere her as their Mother.

“All our efforts must be spent aiding the crown’s soldiers,” said Effie, repeating herself for what felt like the hundredth time. They had spent months seeking the Barrow Witch’s warren to no avail. Using Fey Craft, Effie had even called on the birds and critters of the Highlands to aid them. But her strength was not so considerable, even bolstered by the steward’s blood, to scour every nook and cranny of the empire.

Jaelyn snorted, though her distain for the crown’s soldiers held less bite in it than it had a year earlier. The Barrow Witch had seen to that, Effie knew. The ancient and devilish fey had spread her madness across the Highlands, into the cities, and as far south as Newcastle. The banshee’s touch most called it. It warped the thoughts of men, turning gentle folk to thuggery and causing riotous mobs to form without rhyme or reason. Villages had been put to the torch, and crazed bands roamed the countryside, wreaking havoc on all they passed.

The Barrow Witch had found allies among the fey, as well. Rumors of fell beasts had sprung up on the heels of the banshee’s touch, and Effie had little doubt those they now hunted were also part of this Unseily covenant. A chill rushed through her more frigid than the wind. She’d faced a cult of the Barrow Witch’s disciples in the bowels of Edinburgh’s Town Below. The memory of it still haunted her. Jaelyn might never admit she feared the Sidhe Bhreige, but Effie made no effort to hide her dread.

Edgar studied the remains of Tam Lorrie. When he spoke, it came barely above his breath. “We cannae just leave him here. We do that, and his soul may never find peace.”

“Nor shall we,” said Effie. She considered what to do, but her gut already told her what must be done. “You will go and fetch help from the village while we press onward. Gather a dozen men there and stay together.”

Edgar shook his head. “Nay, that would leave you alone. I cannae do that. I’ve given my word to see you safe.”

Jaelyn cackled. “Alone? Do ye think me a figment of yer imagination? Come, boy, it’d be a blessing not to have ye stomping around making so much noise, and with the stench of the cities on ye, scaring off everything a mile round.”

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