A short story prequel to THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS…
By the north end of Scotland, by the North Sea, near the point of John o’Groats, lived a man, Tam, who was clever with his hands, so clever that he crafted time-pieces of rare beauty when time-pieces were rare altogether. One day while walking the shore a selkie spied Tam and loved him in the instant and she changed her form to that of a bonny young maid. When Tam clapped eyes on the selkie-maid he loved her in turn, and so he took her to wife.
For several years they lived in happiness. One day Tam told his selkie-wife that he needed to purchase more parts for his time-pieces and that would require a journey far south to Inverness. She begged him not to go, for she had an ill feeling, but he made ready nevertheless. Just before leaving Tam pressed his most astonishing watch into his wife’s hand, telling her to mark the time until his return.
But the unfortunate Tam fell prey to robbers not far along his journey, and they tossed him into the sea.
Tam’s selkie-wife waited and waited, until walking by the shore she came upon a washed-up leather bag she recognized, and she knew her Tam was drowned. In her grief and anger she turned into a witch-wife, and placed a cursed magick upon the watch and left it in her hut for those robbers to find, for fit punishment. She then returned to the sea to be a selkie forever and to be reunited with her Tam.
But the watch was discovered by a poor fisherman who did not have a robber’s heart, and he took it to his laird, and from there the magickal witch-wife’s watch began its journey.
The full moon sheds a silver light over the heath. The tinker’s caravan, pulled by a heavy-footed dray, creaks and groans. The tinker has stilled the cheerful bells and doused his lantern, and the thick heather muffles the dray’s footfalls, as the caravan makes away from the coast. A fox watches from the top of a granite boulder. A badger pauses in its dig. A weasel ducks into its shelter as the caravan passes. Every few minutes the tinker glances back, his sharp eyes glinting in the moonlight.
He stops as he ascends the last hill before the moors, and turns right around and looks back, drawing his hood over his head as the bitter chill settles. One yellow light shines from Lochleven, the castle from which the Queen is making her escape southwards just as he makes for the Highlands. The small sealed casket – sealed by her before his eyes, with an inscription he cannot read – the casket behind his seat holds a singular possession that belongs to the Queen, a possession he has been tasked with carrying to safety, for she flees on foot and lightly attired and in disguise.
He lusts after the contents of the casket, a lust that grows the further he is from the Queen.
He makes his way across the moors, not stopping until the moon has set and the night is full dark, when he finally drives his caravan into a thicket by a burn. He is weary but unhitches the dray before climbing inside the caravan and tucking his body around the carved casket for a brief but restless sleep.
When his caravan is discovered, time has taken its toll. Vines creep up and over the wood whose surface now only hints of the once bright colored paint. The wheels have sunk deep into the muck of the burnside. Reeds rattle at the door, knocking against it like skeletal fingers.
The boys who find the caravan dare one another to enter, and when they do, there lies the husk of the nameless tinker, arced around a space, his arm draped as if he would protect some precious thing.
The man is about to pay for his theft. He’d begged and pleaded – he isn’t a Gyptian, he said, no, never; but he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain how he’d come by the casket, still sealed. And so they drag him to the tree, as he weeps and carries on, and they nail him to the tree by his ear, as is the law, and then cut that ear right off, leaving it for the birds, leaving him, bleeding, on the mossy ground. They take the casket, of course, as evidence.
The border reivers strike with impunity, and this dark night they put a small village to the torch. As they carry off the spoils, among the loot is a carved casket still locked with a lead seal.
Their leader contemplates the casket as he paces his firelit hall. Something about the casket troubles him and he’s not used to feeling troubled. Perhaps it is the seal itself, its Latin inscription: Memento mori.
Remember that you must die.
He leaves it untouched and retires.
In the morning, it is gone. The lucky man is blessed with a full and comfortable life.
The fae has heard the rumors. A small sealed casket. All who have possessed it by theft or desire have been cursed, even though the seal is unbroken.
The fae is certain that some profound magic must lie within that casket, and he is certain he can handle some profound magic. He makes for the Highlands on a black gelding, following the trail of rumor and muttered prayers.
When he reaches the castle of most recent rumor the keep is already in flames. The fae stands at the edge of the woodland watching the despoiling clan ransack the ruins, shouting and laughing. He waits, his only hope of finding the casket his patience.
But there is no casket. He searches the ruins, sifting ash and rubble, but finds nothing. He’ll have to follow the marauders. Eventually, if the curse is true, they will also suffer the consequences and he will seize the booty. And then he will find and use the magic it contains to his own purposes.
The fae does not know that history will bear down upon the clans and the casket, and the casket will be lost again along with many lives, in a rising that has no hope, and the memory of the casket and its contents will sift into the recesses of his mind.
Among the important possessions once belonging to a dead Queen is a beautiful but terrible watch. How she came by it is a mystery lost in the depths of time. The watch is in the shape of a skull whose mouth opens to reveal the dial. The skull is engraved with symbols pertaining to time: Adam and Eve, proving that time devours all things; a serpent eating its tail, the symbol of eternity. This watch holds a powerful magic, a dangerous magic, and a curse.
Legends of the watch in its casket have traveled far, across the moors and heaths of Scotland, across the rolling hills of England, across the Channel, across the continent, and even to the middle of Europe. They have traveled for centuries, until they reach a time of strife which beckons dark magic and all the misery and mischief it can make.
This is no ordinary watch, but the cursed witch-wife’s watch. Whether it makes magic for good or ill is left to whoever possesses it next.