A short story prequel to THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS…
THE WITCH-WIFE’S WATCH
In the Depths of Time
On 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 along 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 to the south. 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 selkie-wife’s hand, telling her to mark the time until his return.
The watch was in the shape of a skull whose mouth opened to reveal the dial. The skull was engraved with symbols pertaining to time: Adam and Eve, proving that time devours all things; a serpent eating its tail, the symbol of eternity.
“As eternal as my love for you,” Tam told his selkie-wife as he departed. “And so that time will not take its toll.”
But the unfortunate Tam fell prey to robbers not far along his journey, and they tossed him near death into the sea.
Tam’s selkie-wife waited and waited, until walking by the shore she came upon a washed-up satchel she recognized, and she knew her Tam was drowned.
In her grief and anger she turned from selkie-wife into selkie-witch, and placed a curse upon the watch. She bound a piece of her soul inside to make mischief to all who walk the land on two legs and might use this watch, for she hated men, blaming them for robbing her of her love.
The selkie-witch left the watch inside a casket in her hut and then returned to the sea to be a selkie forever, and to hope to be reunited with her Tam.
The casket was discovered first by a fisherman who took it to his laird, and from there the cursed selkie-witch’s watch began its journey.
In the Deep Silent Sea
Over many years the selkie who was Tam’s beloved has not found him, in all the dark pockets of water, sand, rock, and coral, though she has searched and searched.
Over the many years while she searched the cursed witch’s watch has ruined many lives of men.
The selkie swims to the very depths of the sea, where lives the oldest of old wise whales, to seek his help.
“You placed a curse upon this watch,” he says. “Because your curse was born in hatred of all who walk the land on two legs you will not find your Tam, for he was born a land-man. You must undo the curse.”
“But I bound a piece of my soul inside this watch,” she cries. “I cannot undo it without undoing myself.”
“Well, then,” he says, “you must balance your curse.”
“But how?” asks the selkie, desperate.
“With a promise,” he says. “Those who use the watch to gain power or do ill may suffer from your curse, but those who use it to make good will be blessed.” He nods. “Only then may you find your Tam.” And he adds, “And only if the watch is used for good.”
He sinks away into the abyss.
Though she still harbors hatred of those who walk the land on two legs, the selkie will balance the watch’s curse so that she might be reunited with her Tam.
The selkie finds the rocky cliffs and rises from the waves and sends her magic and another piece of her soul across the moors and fens, over the burns and kills, until it finds the sealed casket that carries the witch’s watch. Anyone who uses the watch for good will find strength. Anyone who uses the watch for ill will find despair.
The watch is then balanced and carries a witch’s curse and a witch’s promise.
But it also carries a newly born magic, and that magic is bound with time. For time, no longer of Tam’s making, will take its toll.
On a May Night
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 in disguise.
He lusts after the contents of the casket, a lust that grows the farther he is from the Queen. He doesn’t know that this object carries a curse, a curse that will touch the Queen quite soon, condemning her to the axe.
This unfortunate tinker thinks of using this object – the witch’s watch – to gain power over others.
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 and chilled – has he caught a fever? – but he 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 years later, 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.
In a Deep Vale in Autumn
The gyptian who prised the casket from the tinker’s unbending arms, long before the boys discovered the caravan, has not broken the seal. He doesn’t know the meaning of the words imprinted in the lead, but he senses the wrongness of the thing. He has kept it hidden, his mind a back-and-forth of desire and restraint.
Then one day when he is quite old, he has had enough. Restraint overwhelms desire. He takes the casket to the deepest part of the forest and leaves it there to rot. Lucky, lucky man.
But the casket does not rot, and when the hunters stumble upon it they carry it home, a trophy to compensate for their lack of game. They arrive home and break the seal and open the casket.
They fight over what’s inside, and two hunters die, and more follow as they use the watch for ill, and the village sinks into despair and starvation.
On a Winter’s Night
The border reivers strike with impunity, and this dark night they put the desperate village to the torch. As they carry off the spoils, among the loot is a carved casket still carrying a broken lead seal.
Their leader contemplates the casket as he paces his firelit hall. Something about it troubles him and he’s not used to feeling troubled. Perhaps it is the broken seal itself, its imprinted Latin inscription: Memento mori.
Remember that you must die.
Without ever opening the casket he re-heats the lead and solders the seal and retires.
In the morning, the casket is gone. The fortunate man is blessed with a full and comfortable life.
In a Chilly Spring
The fae has heard the rumors. A small sealed casket. Almost all who have possessed it by theft or desire have been cursed.
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 dragon, 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 distractible fae mind.
In the Deep Silent Sea
The selkie roams the dark sea, searching, searching. She has lost two parts of her soul and a portion of her magic and she grows weak. So many of those who used the watch have used it for ill. Some have let it be.
But none have yet used it for good.
For the selkie, time has taken its toll. She will not be reunited with her Tam until her witch’s watch fulfills her promise. She fears she may not ever be reunited with her Tam.
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.
The legends have given the watch a name: Death’s Head.
The legends 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 a time of war among those who walk the land on two legs, and they seek power wherever they can find it – even within a magical Death’s Head watch.
Whether this witch’s watch makes magic for good or ill is left to whoever possesses it next. The selkie who gave the watch its magic hopes that the possessor will use it for good and fulfill her promise so that she may find her Tam. But time, oh, time. It has taken its toll. She yearns, fading.
Who will possess this watch now? Someone who will find themselves in a castle, perhaps, in Scotland, maybe, facing a terrible evil? Someone with much to gain, and much to lose? Someone who can reunite a selkie with her Tam?
In a Hut in the Orkneys…
…is a boy whose parents have given him a casket.