From the author: A new witch registers her complaints with her village, and gets a surprise visit in the night. This story is part of a larger collection based in the fictional Scottish village of Inverover, which has all sorts of things going on in it.
Mary Redmayne was not at all taken with her new bog. Actually, her bog was fine. The forest was fine. Even the village wasn't bad. What she was not impressed with was the people.
They kept leaving children.
Not smart children there to learn about herbs, or brave ones there to challenge the new witch, but annoying ones with hungry mouths and smart tongues. They arrived at her house after wandering the woods, being brought there by Alasdair, and they were usually tired and upset.
Mary did not approve.
"Why are you a witch? You're pretty!" squawked the one, Sam, eight years old and lanky as a willow. He'd babbled his whole life story, a long one for so few years, which had thankfully included the names of his parents.
"Being a witch isn't about being pretty or ugly, it is about nature and wisdom." She tutted, tucking him into her spare wading boots and traipsing off towards the village.
"My dad said only ugly old women become witches."
"Does your dad often talk of witches?" Mary asked, taking his hand.
"He talks about lots. He threatens to feed us to the bog witch if we misbehaved."
"There are more of you?"
"Aye, there's six of us. I'm the second youngest."
"Are you the loudest?" she asked.
"Naw, but I'm the most trouble. I don't mean to be, I just like food."
"Most children do."
"Dad said that I was too much trouble for not enough work, so he was going to leave me for old Mrs Mackay and she'd make soup of me."
"She probably would have, but she's not in the bog anymore."
"Best not ask. Are you looking for bog monsters?"
"There's no such thing!" Sam cried, glancing about. It was a good bog, a mix of soaked peat and heavy old trees that sang in the wind. It had a lot of hiding spots for monsters. Sam imagined he could see shadows moving about them, low, hunkering things slinking along the edges of the road.
"There are many, but they won't hurt you so long as you're with me," Mary assured him.
"Is it your bog now?"
"And you're taking me home?"
"I certainly am. You're young and I have no need for an assistant."
"What about soup?" he asked.
"I make my own. No children."
"Mrs Mackay ate children. That was how they got good harvests; they left a few of 'em to stock her larder."
"I don't need children to stock my larder. I can hunt and grow my vegetables and Alasdair brings me things occasionally."
"You have a manny?" Sam cackled with glee.
"No, Alasdair's not a man." She sighed, shaking her head. "He's that long shadow that's been keeping pace with us since we left."
Sam squeaked, pushing closer to her.
"Will he eat me?"
"You're a bit big for him. I think you'll be safe enough." There were others in the forest that would but the boy didn't need to know that.
"He's your friend though?" Sam asked, glancing at the shape.
"Yes. He knew Mrs Mackay too. He's been around a long time."
"Ok. Why is he here?"
"He'll be walking me back once you're home. So I get back safe."
"Like a proper gentleman then." Sam nodded in approval.
They made the village by early evening. The moon was full and fat, lighting the roof slates like fish scales. Sam led Mary to his door and she knocked, one hand around his shoulders.
A tall man answered with a scowl. He squinted at her, mouth pulling into a tight line.
"What do you want? It's a poor time to be bothering good men."
"Good men don't lose their children in the bog," Mary replied, nodding to Sam. He was half folded into her cloak and peeped out at his father.
"He wasn't lost." The man laughed, closing the door and stepping into the half light. "He's eating me out of house and home and I have other mouths to feed. He was an offering."
"I don't want children; they're your responsibility when you have them, John Sutherland!" Mary croaked in her shock, hugging Sam. "Besides, the boy's fit for work and he walked here from my house with no issue, why aren't you taking him out to farm?"
"I do help in the fields," chimed Sam.
"Aye and eat half the pantry once you're back," muttered his father. Mary felt Sam flinch and glowered at the taller man.
"I am the witch of your bog and I tell you now if I catch you abandoning Sam again I will come to your house with a box full of pixies and let them run amok."
"Old Mrs Mackay liked them!" John sputtered.
"Old Mrs Mackay died choking on a finger bone she hadn't fished out of her soup. I have no plans of doing the same," Mary hissed back, fury blossoming. "If the village needs help then send one of the older farmers to see me and we can talk. None of you have tried that, you just abandon your children. I've had four in as many months."
"Well it's an offering isn't it?" John huffed, glowering down at her.
"Not to me, it's not. Agnus Mackay has been dead nearly half the year and none one thought to check?"
"Agnus Mackay wasn't a mouthy bitch like you," John muttered and Mary let out a barking laugh.
"I wouldn't have said that." She smirked, tugging Sam aside as footfalls came thundering behind them.
John crashed into the wall, the feet of a large wolf pinning his shoulders. The creature panted at him, golden eyes watching him behind teeth longer than he'd seen on anything.
"If you talk to her like that again I will rip out your throat," the wolf said and John's eyes flew wide as saucers.
"Alasdair, no threats," Mary soothed, stroking him.
"He means you harm, I mean him harm."
"You were in the woods, I saw your eyes!" Sam cried, running up and burying his face into the coarse fur.
"You're lucky Alasdair did bring him to me," Mary said to John, "Or you could have had a dead child and no luck either. I'm going back now, but if you harm him I will know. Do better by him, John Sutherland."
The man nodded, his eyes still on the wolf.
"And you behave yourself too, Sam. Don't wind up back in my bog."
"Yes Miss Mary." Sam nodded, still stroking Alasdair.
"Right then, a good night to all," Mary said, patting Alasdair's flank and walking back towards the forest.
"You didn't tell him what I was," Alasdair commented as they walked through the trees.
"I told him you were with the forest. Seemed to do the trick."
"I'm your familiar: do you not wish to claim me?"
"I could never claim you, you're as much of the forest as you are anything like mine. And who would be silly enough to claim a creature of the Fair Folk?"
"I am charged to be yours," he sniffed, pink tongue lolling out of his jaw.
"You're charged to help: you don't belong to anyone but yourself. And that lad had no reason to know, it would just get him into more trouble."
"He smells of the stuff, there will be more for him."
"Perhaps," Mary agreed, "But he'll find his way."
"As you say," the wolf agreed, sitting at the doorway. "I'll keep bringing them."
"Thank you, Alasdair." She smiled, running a hand over his head. "And for accompanying me back too."
"I'll pass on your wishes to Jack?"
"Good night then."
Mary slipped into her house, stoking the fire. She didn't mind returning the child. At least it got her a word in with the parents and she should receive some contact from the village now. Villages could be funny about their witches, some got on fine and some liked to pretend that they didn't need a wise woman or favours from the forest. It didn't bother Mary either way, so long as she didn't keep getting children.
She woke the next day to a bright sky and the will to set about clearing the bog a little. Agnus had let it get wilder than Mary liked, but each witch had her own way.
She was knee deep in the garden when the farmers arrived. Two stocky men, fairly into their forties she supposed, came stomping up to her door.
"What can I do for you gentleman?" she called from the garden.
"You're the new witch?" asked one with salt and pepper hair. He looked weathered but not terribly so, the red brush to his nose and cheeks healthy.
"That I am."
"John Sutherland says you attacked him last night. But you're a slip of a thing," laughed the other one, a ginger haired man Mary immediately disliked.
"I didn't attack John. He'd managed to lose his boy Sam in the bog and I took him home. "
"We're sorry for that, John was going by the previous hags, I mean witches, wishes. I'm Iain Thomson," said the salt and pepper man with his hand held out. Mary wiped hers off then took it in a firm grip.
"Mary Redmayne. As you may already know, since my arrival was intimated to the village."
"It was, we've been remiss in not coming," Iain nodded, smiling over his shame.
"So if you don't want children what do you want?" interrupted the ginger man.
"Let the woman speak, Anson," Iain said, elbowing him.
"I don't need much. I have my garden, and I hunt. I would take some salmon from the river if you have enough. If not then I'll take an old ewe or two."
"You'll be lucky to keep animals in this forest, that giant wolf will be off with them," Anson laughed.
"The forest and I have an understanding, Anson was it?"
"Anson Bremner," he said, hand out. Mary met it with equal strength, pleased at the shock he showed.
"And what does the village need?" she asked, turning back to Iain.
"The usual things. Help with the sick, good hunting, a full harvest."
"I'll do as much as I can. Send someone for me if there's sickness, and for the rest I'll discuss it with the forest."
"Trees make a lot of conversation do they?" Anson asked and Mary felt the glare Iain sent him.
"To those they want to, aye," she said in a low drawl, "But mostly I talk to the fair folk and the lord of the forest."
"For which we're very grateful," Iain quickly interjected, pulling his friend off with him. "We'll let the village know your terms, Miss Redmayne. I'm sure there'll be no problem."
"My thanks to you," she replied, watching the men make off through the brackish water. Men had never been an issue for Mary, she neither liked them nor disliked them, but there were certain ones that got her nose wrinkled.
The girl was a surprise. Mary had been settled for the evening, reading a new book about medical herbs when she heard knocking. Curious, Mary rose, finding a skinny young woman stood shivering in the dark on her doorstep. She held a small lantern but it cast little. A mound of dark fur sat next to her, eyes looking up at Mary.
"Are you lost?" Mary asked, ushering her in.
"She's not lost, she came to me to get to you," Alasdair supplied, padding in.
"Sam told me about the wolf," she said in a small voice, wrapping her arms around herself. She sank into the chair offered and tugged Mary's shawl around her shoulders.
"Sam should be quiet."
"He knew the wolf was your friend, said it would get me here. He couldn't remember the way himself."
"How do you know Sam?" Mary asked.
"He's my brother. He never stops talking about you."
"Why are you here?"
"Sam said you knew about herbs and medicines. You were wise."
"I know this and that."
"I'm pregnant," the girl said in a rush, "And my dad found out, and he's in a temper. He's off to beat the lad and then he'll be back for me. I need help."
"If you want a poultice to be rid of the child I can do that, but it would have to be your decision not his," Mary said firmly, kneeling down in front of her. "We'll not be doing anything you don't want, here. What's your name?"
"I'm Ailith. I don't want rid of it, I want to keep it. But dad says we haven't enough food for a wee 'an and I have to leave it on the kirk steps!" She burst into tears, burying her face into Mary's shawl and shaking.
"Have you spoken to the dad?" Alasdair asked, nuzzling her arm with his snout.
"Aye," she said miserably, lifting her face a little. "He said he'd join the navy and send us money home, but he's useless on the river never mind on a proper boat."
"You'll stay here then," Mary said, getting the girl a bowl of soup.
"What?" said woman and wolf in unison.
"You can stay. The house is plenty sized for more, and I have food enough for a growing stomach." She handed Ailith the soup and a spoon, sitting to table with her.
"I can't pay you," Ailith said.
"You'll earn your way. I can help you with the birth and once the child is here and healthy you can choose what comes next. You have a home here till you're ready for somewhere else."
"I can read," Ailith said between spoonfuls, "And brew. And I know how to keep bees."
"I've no bees yet, but they might be an idea for next spring. What age are you?"
"Mary, no need for titles here," Mary said with a chuckle.
"Can I ask a question? If it's not impolite."
"I'll soon let you know if it is."
"Sam said you had no man about the way. Is that true?"
"It is. I have Alasdair for company and a forest to be getting on with. It keeps me busy enough."
"It must be nice not having someone try and claim you." Ailith sighed, finishing the bowl.
"You'll have no such claims on you unless you want them," Mary said, clearing the bowl and bringing a cup of sweet milk. "We can go to the village in the morning and collect some items."
"I'll get Sam to bring them. If your wolf-"
"Alasdair. If you're going to live here we should call each other our names," commented the wolf, sprawled in front of the fire to warm his belly.
"If Alasdair could tell Sam, he'll bring what I have. He still has your boots."
"That would do fine. I'll show you the rooms and you can pick one."
She chose a large one close to the stairs, easy access to the kitchen when it was needed, and Mary gave her blankets for the night. Ailith retired, leaving Mary to go back to the expectant wolf.
"Don't look at me like that," she said to his gloating smirk. The wagging tail didn't help.
"I thought you didn't like children," he replied innocently.
"I don't. But the girl deserves her own choices. And if she can bring bees it'll be worth keeping her just for the honey."
"As you say." He chuckled, stretching himself out and shaking. "I'll find the boy in the morning."
"Thank you, Alasdair," Mary said, opening the door for him. "My best wishes to Jack."
Sam arrived the next morning in a tangle of limbs. Alasdair's fur was ruffled from the journey and his ears flat against his skull in disapproval.
"Miss Mary!" Sam shouted, running up to her and hugging tight. "I told Ailith you'd have good ideas."
"That's very kind of you." Mary laughed, looking the boy over. It had been a season since he'd been left and he had grown into his frame some, his legs a little stronger and arms less bare.
"You're the smartest lady I know besides my mum," he beamed. "And I brought your boots too."
"Thank you for that. Ailith's upstairs if you want to see her." The boy's face lit up at that and he rushed off.
"Trouble's brewing," Alasdair said after the boy was away.
"How? She only came last night."
"She told one of the other sisters and the girl told her dad. It was meant well, but he's raising friends to come and take her back."
"Five or six. The boy doesn't know."
"They'll come in the day," Mary sighed, "None of them will have the bollocks to come here at night."
"Most likely. Want me to get Jack?"
"Best had." She nodded, rubbing her forehead.
Alasdair vanished off into the trees and Mary set about putting some water on to boil.
"Do either of you want something to eat?" she called up the stairs.
"Always!" Sam shouted back.
"Alright, I'll lay some breakfast out."
Sam had just finished telling Mary stories of his schooling and work in the fields when there was a heavy knock at the door. She rose and opened it to see the red face of John glaring down at her.
"I'm here for my girl," he said, looking into the kitchen.
"You can come in and have a speak to her, but the rest of them stay outside." A quartet of men stood a little way back from John, farm tools in hand. Mary noted with distaste that that Anson was there. She knew the others from around the village but not their names. "Morning Anson," she called, just to spite him. He had the decency to look away.
"I'll be having her back, witch."
"For one who was busy losing children last season you're awfully quick to want this one. You can talk."
John glowered at her for a long beat then nodded, stepping in.
"Ailith you get yourself home right now!" John started and Mary whipped in front of him, finger in his chest.
"I said you come in and talk, you do not raise a voice in my house!" she hissed.
"I'll do what I want with my family," he spat back, reaching round her to grab Ailith's wrist.
"Oh no you will not," Mary laughed, pouring her tea pot over his arm. He let out a yelp and released Ailith. She shot up from the table and to the foot of the stairs. Sam was in front of her in a blink, arms up and back to make himself as large as possible before his sister.
"Bugger this," John growled, stalking towards the door. Mary followed him, shoving him through as he opened it and stepping after him. She tugged it shut behind her and planted her feet.
"You'll not lay a hand on either of those children."
"You have no right to her: she's my child."
"She has the right to choose what to do with herself and her child."
"You shut your mouth!" he shouted, rounding on her. "There's five of us here woman, we can take her if we want."
"You are in my bog, in my forest, and if you try to force anything here you will have consequences."
"Like what? You little dog isn't here, there's only you," he growled, reaching towards her.
"She is more than capable of gutting you like a hare, John Sutherland," boomed a voice from the forest. The men whirled round, tools up, watching the dark trees. A shape rumbled out of them, tall and broad with glinting green eyes. It reared up to its full height, heads above them, and fixed a furious glower.
"Morning, Jack," Mary called.
"I know each of you and I know you had favours from the forest. You for fish Anson Bremner, and you for deer John Sutherland. You have sought a good harvest for you but not your neighbours Hamish Donn, and you sought to poach without being caught Colin Millar. William Hambleton you sought your wife in the forest and found her too, many moons since. Do all of you forget what has been given?" Jack continued.
"What in the heavens is that?" squeaked Anson.
"That's the Green Man, Jack of the Green. He is the one I commune with so you don't have to." Mary smiled, enjoying their fear.
"And I am never considered little, John," growled a voice beside Jack. Alasdair came trotting into view with his tail wagging and teeth bared.
"You can return to your village, or you can continue to threaten her. If you've very lucky only she will harm you," Jack said, flexing his arms out. Little living things flitted to and fro over his chest and hair, whisper quick and dark in the morning sunlight.
"I'll hurt you too. I make no promises for safe return," Alasdair commented over the thump of his tail on the ground.
"John, your girl is nineteen and she can marry that idiot," Anson murmured, looking between wolf and Green Man.
"Aye, he said he'd join the navy," agreed the one Mary thought might be Hamish.
"Sod the navy, his dad'll give him fields, or buy him some. You know Alan won't see a grandchild done badly," sighed William, sheathing his knife in the back of his trousers. "And I'm not fighting a wolf that can talk, never mind whatever that is."
"He's called Jack," Mary reminded them. "Now be off with you, or we'll see you off."
"Bugger this lot, Ailith is fit and well John, send Michael out to speak to her once his bruises are down and he can walk again, they'll be fine," Anson agreed.
"My family won't have that shame!" John howled, purple with rage.
"What shame?" asked Alasdair. "A husband, with land, and a child? You have six pups and your land is small. Are you ashamed?"
"They're not even married," John groaned, hand to his eyes.
"Neither where Ingrid and I when we had our handfasting, it's not a scandal." All eyes turned to William. "What? It used to be the way. I know the Ministers don't approve but you've got to see as you can bide together before you jump in for life. Young 'uns have always done it."
"He makes a good point. Now leave," Mary said, making shooing motions with her hands. "Though you or your wife are welcome back to talk, John."
"Aye," he said quietly, still looking to William. "Perhaps I'll bring her past to see where Ailith is. She'd like that."
"That's grand. I bid you all well gentlemen, unless you have other grievances?" Mary asked, hands on her hips.
"None, Mary," Anson supplied, jostling the other men off.
"What about Sam?" John queried.
"He'll be back home once he's happy Ailith is settled I shouldn't wonder."
"That'll be fine. If she needs for anything have Sam tell us and we'll send it out with him."
"That would be good of you John." Mary nodded.
"I'll be seeing you then," he said, returning the nod and making off after the others.
"Thank you for that Jack," Mary said, walking over to the giant.
"You're very welcome, saves some idiots meeting the end of your knife. Making a body rot down is a tiresome endeavor."
"They'd only bleed a bit, I'd not kill them yet." She chuckled, smiling at the wag she could see to Alasdair's tail.
"Call me if they come again," Jack said, ambling back into the forest.
"Right my friend, shall we see how those children are doing?" Mary asked Alasdair.
"We should. I want to hear more about these bees, we've not had honey in an age."
"Well get onto that first then," Mary chuckled, leading him back to the house.