Agatha opened the door to the Grubby Shoat. She paused, and, while her eyes adjusted to the gloom, a gust of wind blew a squall of rain through the door. Despite the fog of candle and fire smoke, she saw the elderly barkeeper turn pale. “Be at ease, old man. We seek more virile prey.”
She waddled to the bar, a rough-hewn plank set on empty barrels. The water dripping from her hooded cloak left a wet trail on the moldy rushes covering the dirt floor. The mildew stench from the rushes mingled with the odor of fetid ale to produce a miasmic bouquet.
Agatha spotted five village men sitting on a bench. Exactly what she hoped to find—a flock of potential bed partners. The men sucked in their breath when they saw her, but she refused to let their reaction dampen her excitement.
When her sisters, Bertha and Carla, entered the tavern, a collective groan came from the table. One of the men jerked his knee, kicking the rickety table in front of the bench and scattering their leather ale cups.
Agatha opened her cloak. Underneath, she wore a dark kirtle a few sizes too small for her ample thighs and stomach.
The men sobbed.
Bertha smiled at the table. “Some of you lads will have an unforgettable experience tonight.” She and Carla opened their cloaks. Both were dressed similarly to their sister.
Agatha ignored the panicky response to Bertha’s announcement. Men always looked like doomed cattle when the sisters were on the hunt. She didn’t understand the reaction, but assumed it was quite natural.
“Good eve, Sisters Wyrd.” Having regained his composure, the elderly man behind the plank nodded to them. “What can I serve you?”
“A round of mead with raw eggs on top,” Agatha replied.
“‘Tis a celebration.” Carla, a svelte two hundred pounds and the thinnest of the three, grinned at the old man.
“Aye, a great day.” Bertha leaned on the plank, bending it into a deep arc.
The barkeeper watched the plank with a look of alarm.
“We avenged an insult to our Granny,” Bertha added.
“You witches talk in riddles. I do not ken your meaning.”
“When Granny learned that Malcolm had killed MacBeth and was now king,” Agatha said, “her coronation gift was an offer to become his Royal Sorceress.”
“And the fool rebuffed her,” Carla said. In the fashion of the younger witches, she had let her nasal hairs grow long enough to braid. “An insult to all witches and even Hecate, our goddess.”
“Men are simple in the brain, methinks.” Agatha shook her head at the unfathomable ways of men. “Granny is not as pert as we three, but she’s no beldam and would have graced the royal court. The king now regrets his refusal.”
“Aye, you should have seen the look on Malcolm’s face.” Bertha gave the barkeeper a gapped-tooth grin. The man shuddered. Once a week, Bertha used an herbal cream that made warts grow. She had a fat, cucumber-colored one on the tip of a beak-like nose and a smaller, amber one on her left cheek. She called them beauty spots.
“Dark of mien, he was,” Carla said.
“What did you do?” the barkeeper asked as he placed the drinks on the plank.
“We placed a powerful curse on Malcolm and his spawn.” Carla held a hand over her mouth as she cackled.
Agatha grinned and clapped Bertha on the shoulder, splattering water from her soggy cloak.
“Is the curse secret?”
“Nay. One of Malcolm’s descendants will be the first married man to leave a toilet seat standing,” Bertha said, and giggled.
“What’s a toilet seat?” The old man gave them a questioning look.
“‘Tis a mystery and beyond the ken of all here.” Agatha hugged herself in joy. “And so, my pretties and I want to celebrate and have a bit of fun.” She hefted her mug, took a sip, and savored the sweetness of the mead for a moment before swallowing.
“What’s next?” Carla asked. “This lot doesn’t appear very interested in us.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the men.
“I’ll offer them a choice and then they’ll show some interest.” Bertha winked at her younger sister.
“Prithee, what choice?” Carla asked.
“Watch.” Bertha turned to the table and swiveled her hips.
The men, woodcutters and swine herders, were young but looked middle-aged, worn down from work, poor food, and disease. They shifted in their seats and glanced at one another. Two had trouble breathing.
“What will it be, lads?” Bertha batted her eyes. “Pleasure . . . or pain?”
“I can use a bit of pain.”
“Pain, if you don’t mind.”
“What are the choices again?”
Bertha scowled and tossed her head. A small twig fell out of her brown locks.
Agatha suspected their plans for the night had gone awry, as usual.
The barkeeper shook his head. “It takes a rare talent to be an unsuccessful slut.”
“How would you like to spend the rest of your days as a toad?” Bertha glared at the man.
“What news, old man?” Agatha changed subjects before Bertha did something rash like casting a spell. She wasn’t the sharpest spell-caster in the family and could easily set the place on fire by mistake.
“A monster has appeared by the village in the loch, and the fisherfolk refuse to go out on the water.”
One of the men at the table approached the sisters. He trembled as he said, “What does this portend, oh Sisters Drearie?”
“Drearie, is it?” Bertha boxed the man’s ears. “It means Nessie has finally molted and now wants to play.”
The man retreated.
“Nessie is Hecate’s pet monster,” Carla said to the innkeeper. “Hecate gave it into my care on my fifth birthday. It was a wee tadpole and she charged me to raise it and protect it. I loosed it in the loch last year.”
“The Laird of the Loch has vowed to kill the monster,” the barkeeper said.
“Kill Nessie?” Carla scowled at the man. “How dare he threaten a defenseless pet.”
Agatha gasped. If something happened to Nessie, Hecate would hold the sisters responsible because of her charge to Carla. She would be in no mood to listen to explanations or excuses, and her retribution would be harsh. This Laird of the Loch had to be stopped before he imperiled their safety. “We must hasten to the loch to see what is amiss.”
“Bah!” Bertha exclaimed. “Every time we try to lose our virginity, something comes up.”
“Hah!” Carla scoffed. “Our maidenheads are intact because nothing ever comes up.”
Bertha heard merriment, wheeled on the peasants. “See if you think being cockroaches is funny.” She extended her hand.
The men dove under the table just as their leather cups turned into flower vases.
“Oh, bugger this.” Bertha placed both hands on her hips and stamped her foot.
“Attend me!” Agatha said. “Let us fetch our brooms and fly to the village and see what is amiss.”
“Aroint thee.” Carla sneered. “I hate flying at night. I always get lost.”
“If you had memorized the star charts you wouldn’t get lost.” Agatha wagged a finger under Carla’s nose. “And we must go to the loch before something happens to Nessie.”
“And how do we see the stars on a rainy night?” Carla’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“We shall use landmarks tonight. Follow close behind me.”
“But, Nessie is Hecate’s pet,” Bertha whined. “Why do we have to fly to its aid?”
“Hecate placed it under Carla’s protection. The Goddess will hold us accountable and will cause us grief. To the loch we must go.”
“The fisherfolk at the loch are lusty lads,” one of the men said.
“Aye,” another said, “randy they are.”
“Insatiable, I hear,” said a third.
As she left, Agatha heard the men guffaw and slap each other on the back.
In the morning, the sun gradually burned off the mist that hung over the loch. Four boats sat drawn up on the rocky shore and a squadron of blackbirds circled and fought over a pile of stinking fish guts. A narrow dirt track ran east to west, carved through a forest of pine and elm trees.
Agatha and Bertha stood on the shore and awaited Carla’s return. She had disappeared into a fog bank, riding on Nessie’s back.
Two fisherfolk approached along the path that led to a small cluster of wattle-and-daub huts. “Is it safe, then?” one asked.
“Safe as can be.” Bertha simpered and sauntered closer to the burly, fair-haired younger man.
He stepped back a pace.
“Nessie isn’t a monster, you see,” Agatha said. “It’s a pet.”
Both men looked dubious.
“Even now, our sister rides Nessie to the shore,” Agatha said.
The men’s jaws dropped open.
Carla, wearing a kirtle without a covering robe, climbed out of the water. Her dripping garment molded itself to her body. Rolls of flab, like lumps of wet sand, shimmied and shifted as she walked. Her nasal braids, undone by the water, were plastered to her face like a misplaced mustache.
The first of the fisherfolk averted his eyes.
The second gagged.
“I warned Nessie to be wary of strangers,” Carla said, approaching a boulder. “Methinks I’ll take off my kirtle and let it dry on yonder rock.”
The men fled toward the huts.
“So much for the lusty lads of the loch.” Bertha shook her head.
“Fore!” The voice boomed from up the road. “Christ’s blood! A slice!”
A small white ball landed at Agatha’s feet. “What foul dropping from a noisome fowl is this?”
Bertha rolled her eyes.
“Fore!” A second ball, accompanied by still more cursing, landed close to the first one.
Agatha nudged the balls toward the water just as a richly dressed, beefy man emerged from the woods carrying a hooked stick. A claymore rode on his left hip, and fat legs extended beneath a kilt that defied gravity by staying on the man’s huge belly.
“Who dares to play with my balls?” The man stood with his hands on his hips.
Agatha sucked in her breath. “I dare,” she cooed. “If you like.” She gave the stranger a lascivious grin.
The man ignored her, retrieved the balls, and dropped them into a leather pouch hanging from his belt. He straightened up and did a double take, staring past Agatha. “Is that a naked crone I espy?” He shuddered. “Squire! To me!”
A young man ran up to the stranger. “Laird?”
“Take your cloak and cover that hag. She offends my eyes and puts me off my feed.”
The squire blanched. The laird pushed him in the back. The lad walked toward Carla. Slowly.
“And might you be the Laird of the Loch?” Agatha asked.
“I am Laird MacMulligan. And who might you be? All three of you look passing similar. Sisters, I’ll propose.”
Agatha heard a slap and a cry from the squire.
“Sir!” The lad ran to the laird, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “She struck me.”
“For what reason?” MacMulligan raised a bushy eyebrow.
“She told me to put my cloak on the ground and to lie on it with her. I refused and she slapped me.”
“‘Tis easy to be virtuous in the face of overwhelming ugliness,” MacMulligan said. “Sterner challenges await thee, boy.”
A man in armor approached MacMulligan. “All is ready, Laird.”
“Very good, Captain.” MacMulligan nodded. “Load the men into the fishing boats and drive that monster to yonder shore so I may slay it. I’ll have its head o’er my mantle.” He drew his claymore and waved it about.
The captain hastened toward the shore, shouting orders.
Agatha sensed Hecate’s hand squeezing the back of her neck.
All three sisters hissed at the laird.
“Do not kill Nessie,” Carla yelled from behind the rock. “She’s a pet.”
“I must. For ’tis the onerous duty of noblemen everywhere to protect the common folk from such dangers, lest they flee the village and thus deprive me of my just taxes.” He stroked his chin. “What be your names?”
“The Sisters Wyrd, we are,” Agatha snarled.
“Hark.” The laird drew back and made the sign to ward off evil. “The same that cursed my kingly father and his issue.”
“And if your father is the king, then you must be Malcolm’s spawn.”
“Aye, I’m Malcolm’s son, and now I shall slay your pet monster to gain a double boon. I’ll avenge my clan while I protect the tax money.”
“If you’re the son of Malcolm, have you seen a toilet standing around, then?” Bertha asked.
“Your riddles make my head spin, foul sister.”
Agatha bit her lip. Bertha and Carla hadn’t the wit to come up with a strategy to save the beast. It always came down to her doing all the planning while her sisters stood around and preened. Hecate’s wrath would fall heaviest on her because she was the oldest.
Splashes and squeals of alarm came from the loch. A few minutes later, the captain, dripping and squishing like a sponge, reported to MacMulligan. “‘Tis no use, Laird. The beastie is clever and swamped the boats. Except for the shallow water, our lives would have been forfeit. Look, Sire, how my breastplate does wondrously rust out e’en as we speak.”
“Go then and shine your armor.” MacMulligan patted the man on the shoulder. “For on the morrow, we shall launch even more boats and so bring the serpent to the shore where I may slay the creature for my greater glory. Its head shall hang o’er my mantle.”
“You do so at your peril,” Agatha said, relieved that Nessie had given her time to come up with a plan.
“Pshaw.” MacMulligan took a ball from his pouch and dropped it at his feet. “Fore!” He swatted it with his stick. “By the fates! A hook!” The laird watched the ball’s flight then roared, “Squire!”
The young man with a twist of linen stuck up one nostril kneeled to receive his orders.
“Find the ball in yonder laurel bushes and kick it onto the road so I may enjoy a favorable lie.”
“I do so enjoy a favorable lie.” Bertha batted her eyes and ran her hands down her hips.
The squire ran off and MacMulligan followed, making a wide detour around Bertha.
Once the laird was out of sight, Carla meandered up to her sisters. “How can we protect Nessie from that murdering laird?”
“I don’t know.” Agatha bit her lip.
“With more boats, the laird might succeed on the morrow,” Bertha said.
“He should leave Nessie alone.” Carla scowled at her sisters.
“We’ll have to convince him of that, won’t we?” Agatha said, and ran a hand through her hair. They were all balanced on the cusp of Hecate’s anger and retribution.
“Why do we have to do the work?” Bertha patted her nose wart. “It distracts us from finding men.”
“Are you blind?” Agatha crossed her arms. “Hecate will blame us if harm comes to Nessie and she will punish us. Mayhap, Hecate will even exile us to the land of the English.”
“Nonsense.” Carla waved her hand. “The goddess likes me. She would never send me to live with the bloody English.”
“She likes you as long as you protect Nessie.”
“Why should I get blamed?” Bertha blinked a few times. Her face displayed consternation. “I had naught to do with Nessie.”
“Aye.” Agatha nodded her head. “And if you do naught to save the beastie from the laird, Hecate will be sore wroth with you.”
“Carla’s right. It’s not fair.”
Agatha sighed. Once again, she stood alone and unaided by her thick-witted sisters. “Mayhap, we should meet with the laird’s squire,” she said.
“‘Tis a waste of time.” Carla shook her head. “If the lad won’t lie with me, the comeliest of us all, what chance do you have?”
Agatha ignored Carla’s comment. She had an idea. “We need to know more about why the laird hits the wee ball,” she said. “Then, we can form a plan.”
That night, Agatha paced around the fire while she clutched her cloak tightly to ward off the cold. The light from a quarter moon made a silver shaft on the surface of the loch.
A breeze stirred the leaves, whipped the flames, and chilled her bones.
Bertha and Carla assumed their big sister would develop a plan based on information obtained from the squire and now slept soundly. Indeed, their snoring panicked all the wild creatures within fifty yards.
Agatha’s plan was fraught with danger, based as it was on the squire’s scraps of information. The laird had a single passion and that was whacking the white balls. He never traveled anywhere without driving a ball before him, and he desired to be the foremost player in the land. Was this obsession enough to protect Nessie? She leaned against a tree and stared at the night sky. Would she see tomorrow night’s sky?
If she gauged the laird’s temperament wrong, Hecate’s bloodlust would be aroused.
In the half-light of dawn, Agatha and her sisters waited for the laird. The features of an angry Hecate were visible in a dark cloud hanging over the loch. Agatha positioned the three of them among the trees near the road because, if the goddess became angry, they could be dodging ice balls the size of their fists. Hands clenched, Agatha leaned against a tree.
“This better work,” Bertha said. “I don’t want Hecate mad at me, a mere innocent.”
“My thoughts also.” Carla leaned against a tree. “Hecate is most inconsiderate to include me.”
Agatha wanted to spit at their selfish chatter. “Hush,” she said. “I hear the tramp of many feet.”
“Fore!” A ball arced through the air, smacked into a tree, and rebounded into the loch. “Saints alive! I’ve lost another ball.”
Laird MacMulligan led his soldiers to the shore of the loch and spotted the women. “Good morrow, sinister sisters.” He glared at them. “Today, I avenge my clan for your grievous curse. Captain?”
“Put out in the boats and fetch me the foul beastie.”
“I shall not fail you, Laird, e’en though my breastplate fills with rust.”
“Speak not so fast, oh spawn of Malcolm.” Agatha wagged a finger at MacMulligan.
“To injure Nessie is to court disaster.” Bertha crossed her arms.
“A tragedy never before seen.” Carla nodded for emphasis.
“Vex me not, foul sisters, lest you suffer grievous wounds from iron implements.” MacMulligan grasped the hilt of his claymore.
“Do you think to overawe us with mere weapons?” Agatha held out her hands with the fingers apart. On her left hand, tiny lightning bolts jumped from finger to finger. On her right, flames burned at the end of each finger.
“Touch Nessie and you’ll rue the act,” Carla said.
“How so?” The laird glanced from sister to sister while he licked his upper lip.
“Nevermore to hit a true drive.” Agatha chortled at the expression on the laird’s face.
“And,” Agatha snickered, “your putts will ever fall away from their goal.”
“Quicksand, rabbit warrens, mole holes, thorn thickets,” Bertha said. “Thus is the fate of your white pellets.”
MacMulligan cleared his throat. “A dire destiny for merely doing my duty to protect my taxes. And the fisherfolk, of course.”
“Rather you should protect Nessie and gain our blessings,” Agatha said.
“Ne’er to lose in match play is what we dangle before your unsporting eyes,” Agatha said.
“Ne’er?” The laird looked at the sisters through widened eyes.
Agatha saw that the laird was half convinced. “Ne’er,” she said. “And, to be the foremost duffer in the land.”
“To gain this boon, what is the cost?”
“Protect Nessie and the advantage is yours.” Carla smiled.
“Protect the beastie and lose my taxes, you say. A devil’s bargain.”
“Nay,” Agatha said. “Nessie will increase your wealth.”
“What?” MacMulligan waggled his eyebrows. “How?”
“Travelers will come from afar to marvel at the sight of Nessie.” Agatha felt a surge of relief as the laird gawked in surprise.
“Bringing gold withal to your greedy hands,” Bertha added.
“Gold. And match play wins. Can you deliver or do you just make comely speech?”
“These gifts are yours, unless you harm Nessie,” Agatha said. “And Nessie will nay harm the fisherfolk.”
“Captain!” MacMulligan shouted toward the shore. “Unman the boats.” To the sisters he said, “I must leave, for I have great work to do. I must be about organizing a championship match.” He stroked his chin. “I’ll call it the Greater Alba Open . . . or maybe the Alba Greater Match.”
Agatha watched the laird and his soldiers leave. She turned to her sisters and said, “We’ve given the villagers a portion of joy this morn. Let us see if the village men are grateful enough to harvest our maidenheads.”
Carla and Bertha cackled as all three waddled off toward the village.
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