A Wyrde Woods Tale
By Nils Visser
Part 2: The Bottle
It was a small, silvered bottle, long-necked and bulbous below. It was sealed with an aging stopper. Joy drew in a sharp breath at the sight of it.
“Nifty, ain’t it?” Maisy asked. “Whoopsie daisy!”
The bottle seemed to slip from her grip, falling down…
“NAUN!” Joy shouted.
…but deftly caught by Maisy’s other hand.
Maisy chuckled at her trick but Joy wasn’t amused at all.
“Bettermost give that to me,” Joy said, her tone causing Maisy to frown but hand over the bottle immediately. Joy held it firmly in both hands.
“What is it?” Will asked.
“Witch bottle,” Joy answered.
“It belonged to a witch?” Maisy’s eyes grew wide. “I may have shook it about some. It ain’t empty, there’s stuff in there, solid stuff I reckon.”
Joy knew well enow what would be in a witch bottle. She had one of her own, carefully concealed in a secret location.
Blood, horn, root, thorn, tooth, bone, wood, and stone.
A witch bottle was an object of great power. Joy shuddered again when she recalled the moment she’d been fooled into thinking it was going to crash on the ground, breaking open mayhap. That…here…in the light of a full moon…would have spelled moil to be sure.
“What does it do?” Will asked. “I’ve never heard of a witch bottle before.”
“It be said,” Joy answered slowly, “that it protects the witch it belongs to from evil spirits and magical attacks.”
“And the witch lived happily ever after,” Will quipped.
“We should open it!” Maisy suggested.
Joy shook her head. “Naun, we dursn’t. There be part of the witch’s soul in there. If we let it out there’ll be a peck of trouble.”
“Blimey! We should definitely open it!” Maisy looked at the bottle eagerly.
“How did you find this?” Joy asked, unwilling to believe that a witch bottle could be so ill-concealed that a casual coke at the crumbling remnants of a cottage’s foundations would reveal it.
“Valkerie found it,” Maisy answered. “She started digging in a corner, went down all the way up to the tip of her tail, then pulled it out.”
Valkerie, back on Maisy’s shoulder now, dooked, seemingly proud of her excavation skills.
Ferrets! Regular little thieves.
“I wonder who it belonged to,” Will said.
Only one person in Tuckersham it could have belonged to.
Joy closed her eyes briefly, fighting the urge to impress her friends with her knowledge.
Unfortunately, Maisy had come to know her all too well.
“Joy! You know, dontcha?”
“Oh, do tell!” Maisy urged. “I’d tell you if I knew, wouldn’t I?”
“Well that ain’t hard,” Will said. “You hardly ever stop talking.”
Maisy glared at him, before turning to Joy again. “Mates don’t keep secrets, do they?”
Joy felt guilty, harbouring a great many of them as she did. There’d be no harm in it, she reckoned, though this wasn’t the bettermost place to be telling it.
“I reckon I ken whose bottle it is,” she admitted reluctantly.
“I thought so, didn’t I?” Maisy said with satisfaction.
“Whose?” Will asked.
“When Tuckersham was still full of folk, afore they were struck down by the plague, one of them was a wise woman, a skilled healer. Her name was Nan Malone.”
A Guardian of the Wyrde Woods.
“Go on,” Will encouraged Joy.
“Nan Malone lived here all her life and knew her neighbours well. She treated their hurts, helped birth their children, and eased the passage of those at the end of their life’s journeys.”
“And she battled monsters!” Maisy added. “Casting mighty spells. Abracadabra, ain’t it?”
Joy shook her head. “Nan Malone were a healer. Howsumdever, there were a monster, of sorts.”
“I knew it!” Maisy declared triumphantly.
“A dark shadow of old, naun seen in living memory for so long folk thought twere a storyteller’s fancy. Howsumdever, it returned to the night sky over the Wyrde Woods, swooping down to seize fowl, sheep, even calves. Folk were afeared it might take to their children. Some went to Nan Malone who counselled that it wouldn’t and twere bettermost to leave the creature be…”
“How did she know?” Will asked.
“She were a Wise Woman, weren’t she?” Maisy said.
Joy nodded. “Justly. The Wise Ones pass on the lore of their people, the tales of the Wyrde Woods.”
She was surprised and a little disappointed that neither Maisy or Will connected this with Joy’s own knowledge of the matter. Mostly relieved though, because she had been sworn to secrecy with regard to the lessons she had started to follow. Lessons of the type not taught at the village school.
“What happened next?” Will asked.
“There were folk who refused to believe her. The Stupes, I call them.”
“Stupes?” Maisy asked.
“Folk who don’t see further than the end of their own noses,” Joy explained. “Happy to deny the obvious, happier to preach the unlikely, and happiest to blame others for their own misfortunes.”
“Oh! I know loads of Stupes, don’t I?” Maisy said.
“So do I,” Will added.
“They multiply,” Joy acknowledged.
It was a concern for the Guardians of the Wyrde Woods. Many of them, like Joy’s own mother, continued to live much as they had always done, in sync with the cycle of the seasons. There was a sense though, that the world was changing fast, with an ever-growing number of Stupes whose limited ability to use their own minds was a liability for all. The warring madman in Germany of how easily they could seize control.
She continued, “One of the Stupe leaders decided to hunt the dark shadow and kill it. He took his two sons with him and the three were never seen alive again.”
“Torn into tiny, bloody shreds,” Maisy said. “Weren’t they?”
Joy hesitated. That wasn’t exactly what had happened, but how much should she tell?
And how much do they ken? They’ve already described…
She glanced at the ruined church, acutely aware of the weight of the silvered bottle in her hands, before speaking again, “Other Stupes chose to lay the blame at Nan Malone’s feet. They twisted her words against her. Claimed she had tried to protect the creature…”
“Bastards!” Maisy exclaimed.
“Zackly,” Joy agreed. “Stupe tongues started wagging, gifty blevers that they were. And the lies grew in the telling, as did the number of folk repeating them. Those who dared speak otherwise were mocked and ridiculed. Tmight have been that they didn’t change their minds, but it were certain more and more kept their teeth-traps shut, frit of being the next Stupe target. Afore too long, it were said that Nan Malone had summoned the dark shadow in the first place, that it were her creature. That she were a witch.”
Joy glanced at the bottle before winding up the tragic tale. “It reached a fever point. A mob chased Nan Malone out of her house, then out of Tuckersham. Tossicated on their own power to do such a thing, they set off in pursuit…” Joy’s voice died away and she examined the bottle once more.
Blood, horn, root, thorn…
Maisy said, “They caught her, didn’t they?”
… tooth, bone, wood, and stone.
Joy nodded. “Ere Nan Malone could cross the bridge over the Taunflow. There’s a gurt old chestnut tree there. They hung her by the neck from one of the branches. A few months later Tuckersham was struck by the plague.”
Both Maisy and Will stared at the bottle in silence.
A scritch owl screeched in the distance, and then repeated its call. Joy looked up in the direction of the Taunflow.
She was alarmed to see lights flickering in the distance. Their consistency was impeded by tree trunks but they didn’t have the beguiling quality of Will o’ the Wisps – which Joy knew how to deal with. Instead, the lights were harshly and artificially bright, as well as accompanied by coarse male voices.
Valkerie uttered a warning hiss.
“There’s people coming this way,” Will said.
“Quick, follow me.” Joy led them through the gap in the low wall that separated the path from the churchyard, and then wove a way through the dilapidated headstones and tombs.
“The dead walk among us!” Maisy pronounced in a low voice.
“With these zombie eyes, he rendered her powerless,” Will whispered. “With this zombie grip, he made her perform his every desire!”
“Ha! You would fancy that, wouldn’t you, Brighton-Blighter?” Maisy said.
“Shut up!” Will responded.
“Hush now, the both of you,” Joy told them. She would have preferred not to enter the graveyard, or rather, not to have come this close to the ruined church, but there was some safety in the particular tomb she led her friends to. It was close by a church wall, larger than most, with a heavy slab of stone as lid. The moonlight revealed the chiselled shape of a dragon on it. Ellette Hornsby, one of the Wyrde Woods dragon-slayers, had been laid to rest here. Like Nan Malone, Ellette was counted as one of the Guardians of the Wyrde Woods. It was the safest place in Tuckersham that Joy could conceive of.
They crouched behind the tomb, the cousins no longer needing reminders to be silent as the torch-bearing men were close enow for the children to overhear their discourse. It was mostly grumbling about being sent to lope around at this time of night on behalf of ‘his Lordship’. Daring a peek, Joy recognised them as gamekeepers from nearby Malheur Hall, three men in all, shotguns slung over their shoulders.
Henchmen sent out by Mordecai Malheur to apprehend poachers no doubt, even though any poacher worth his salt would have easily noted their approach and melted away into the night.
Joy relaxed. They’d wait until the men had passed and then call it a night. She hadn’t been sure as to what she’d find at Tuckersham, but Nan Malone’s bottle was ample reward. It was an object of great power and Joy was keen to dive back into her books to discover possible uses for it.
 The witch bottle from Sussex kept at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford has a label that says the old lady in Hove who donated it remarked “…and they do say there be a witch in it and if you let un out there it be a peck o’ trouble.”
 Barn owl
 White Zombie (1932)
White Zombie (1932)
Read part 1 here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/?p=8186
More about Nils Visser here – https://nilsnissevisser.co.uk/