It had been three weeks since Maggie lost her tail.
The regulars didn’t know about that yet; they only knew Tam hadn’t been around for a bit. Sinking into seats that had been worn into their individual contours, warning themselves round the crackling open fire and listening to the records on the jukebox Elsie refused to replace, they speculated idly about what punishment Kate had imposed this time to keep her errant husband in line.
It had been two weeks since the witch first came into the bar.
The usual daytime crew had been setting up for the dominoes, moving the tables into place and picking the first round, arguing, as usual, which group would have to encompass the exciseman when he arrived.
She slipped in silently, but was quickly noticed and a hush spread through the room. Slight of build, long glowing hair flowing over her ethereal skin, ending a good few inches below her skirt, she smiled in practiced ignorance of the deliberate effect, and slid over to the bar.
Her short, paisley petticoat skimmed the top of her thighs. The bewitched eyes of the room fixed themselves on its hem as she crossed her legs.
Elsie, unaffected by the charms, finished washing up the glass in her hand. The room realised that it was staring, and paid pointed attention to the game about to start. The background murmur reasserted itself, and Elsie turned to the new customer.
“Can I help ye, Hen?”
A voice made of music and promise spoke. “I’m looking for a man.”
The room choked on its drinks.
“A very… particular... man.”
Soutar Johnnie laid down his hand, pushed back his chair and smoothed his full black moustache. “Excuse me lads - I think I need to go be... particular.”
Wee Charlie objected to the disruption to the game, but was almost convinced that the integrity of the game was not compromised if Sally was substituted in, on the grounds that the hand had not been seen. It’s only being a friendly game, they eventually managed to reduce his outrage to suppressed mutterings and furious glares at the oblivious offender.
It had been one week since the devil arrived in the bar.
The usual evening crowd had been milling around, the aparently particular Soutar missing again, watching the full-time results or settling themselves in for the night near the fire. He slipped in silently, but was quickly noticed and a deathly silence descended on the room. A face of pure white that had never seen the blessing of the sun was buried in his deep beard, from which no light escaped. Glinting red eyes occasionally flashed from the side of his dark glasses.
Even the auld yins seated in the corner, paper opened at the crossword page, oblivious to the world, lowered their heavily chewed pens and eyed him warily.
He lumbered forward like a huge, powerful dog just barely under control and growled softly at the room. The room looked elsewhere.
Elsie tried to rally. “Can I help ye, Son?”
His words hit the consciousness, seeming to bypass the ears. “I’m looking for a man.”
The room was very definitely looking elsewhere and busied itself in its drinks.
The devil drew out a whip and placed the coiled spring on the bar. Made of grey horse-hair, once shining and radiant as it flicked away flies, it had been twisted and plaited into a fearsome strap, and had an internal, baleful dark luster that lusted to be unfurled.
The devil lifted it to his nose, and snuffled and sniffed, memorising the scent of the mettlesome mare.
“Who owns the horse to which this belonged?”
The room looked at each other and gave a collective, anxious shrug. The Soutar was pushed forwards. “I’m sorry, Big Man - naebody here.”
“Indeed?” The devil walked to the furthest corner, and claimed the shadows there as his own. “Then I shall wait.”
And he did. Each night, at sundown, he would appear in the doorway, survey the room with a long sniff, and take his place.
It had been one day since Maggie grew her wings.
Or at least, one day since Tam could no longer deny what was happening.
Ever since that night at the Kirk, when he had known he was dead, he had been thankful to her.
Ever since he had fled, knowing without a doubt that the hellish legion was going to catch him - knowing that he would be sorely punished for his insolent spying on their activities - knowing that his foolish, drunken, lustfilled catcall to the beautiful young fiend would be the last mistake he would ever make on this earth - knowing down to the terrified cold stone forming in the pit of his stomach that there was no escaping his fate - until, at the last, the panicked race to the running water was won, and the magnificent beast beneath him brought off her master hale, leaving the screaming hordes on the other side of the bridge...
He went to the stable and let Maggie snuffle her way into his pocket. Always fond of her, the sacrifice she had made for him meant that he would never part with her. Or deny her any treat.
Maggie teased out the sugar lumps with her yellowing teeth, lips curled back to allow greater purchase. Her giant molars crunched happily as Tam brushed her bare rump, gently wiping round the healing wound where her tail had been ripped from its roots.
Then he brushed and stroked her back, feeling for the growing lumps. There was definitely bone there. His hands ran over the sinews, feeling their warm pulse under his fingers.Then they unfolded. The stable was too small for their span, and the ends folded under the pressure. Unsullied, newborn feathers lay perfectly along their length.
Today was market day. The sun was shining bright, and Tam was talking himself into going into town. He was sure that creatures of the night would not venture forth on such a day. No-one had ever heard of a wean’s being snatched off at midday. In any event, Tam was keen enough for a wee hauf to risk it.
He could be home by dark, easy. If he took the back road in, and timed it right, Kate would never even know he’d been out the house.
Maggie stamped and fussed at the door. He soon found that the old saddles would no longer fit, and slipped back into the house. Kate had planked the housekeeping yet again, but it didn’t take more than a few minutes to find the new hideyhole.
Maggie deserved the best; that meant his trip into Ayr was definitely not a selfish one. She needed a real craftsman to make her new saddle. It was for her good. Pure coincidence that he might need some refreshment while there. Taking half the money with a quick prayer that it wouldn’t be noticed too quickly, he leapt onto her blanketed back, and they were off.
Elsie had a wee courtyard round the back where Maggie usually stayed when Tam was in the bar. Her hooves clacked over the cobbles that had been specifically omitted from the upgrade work for her benefit. The sun angled in over the rooftops and glinted in the water trough.
Tam slid off her back, and waved to his pals through the window. He liked being able to see Maggie when he was having a wee hauf, and today, his friends were also enjoying the view.
She stretched out her wings and brought them together, then flicked them out, showering the courtyard with tiny droplets and basking in the miniature rainbow created.
Soutar Johnnie greeted Tam at the door. Ignoring Tam’s broad grin and outstretched arms, he got straight to the point.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Saying hello? What do you think I’m doing?”
The Soutar grabbed his arm and ushered him into the empty lounge bar. “Somebody’s looking for you. What have you done, you cack-heided tumshie?”
“Ach, yer havering. Who’s looking for me?”
“Oh.” Tam’s hands went cold and he stumbled back into a nearby anonymous seat. “Aye, that’s mebbe a wee bit of a problem.”
“Aye… and he’s got a horsehair whip, that from the look of her, I would say mebbe came from Maggie? And he says he’s looking for her owner. Sit doon…” he pushed Tam back into his seat. “He never comes round til after sundown. So we’ve got a wee bit yet.”
Willie Bailey came in a few minutes later. He never went into the bar itself, unless to he was actually playing - it wasn’t worth it. The sleekit wee bastards never gave anything away at this time of day, or when they weren’t distracted. But with a couple of drinks down them, and thinking he was engrossed in the heat of the game, sometimes, if he were lucky, one of them might let something slip.
Last time he’d managed to put Jamie away for a couple of years, and he’d almost got barred then; he’d had to be more careful since then. Elsie wasn’t one to turn away a paying customer that didn’t break too many fixtures and fittings, but if she started losing business, it would be a different story.
So he tended to avoid the main bar, but made sure he spent enough in the deserted lounge to make it worth her while tolerating his presence, and making sure the regulars didn’t malkie him on the way out.
Tam rolled his eyes when he saw Bailey. “That’s all we fucking need. I thought she’d finally barred him.”
“The exciseman? Naw, he’s the one that buys a’ the dear shite on the top row. Did I tell you he’s after ma wee Eilidh noo?” He winced, and then a slow grin spread across his face. “You know what? This is exactly what we fucking need…”
The witch hurried to the bar. The signs she had read earlier that day did not please her; the three seagulls had been harder than usual to catch, and their spread entrails steaming on the sand told her that today would be her last time with John. Determined to make the most of it, she spun silk into her hair, wrapped her aura in roses, and called Elsie to book a room upstairs.
Bailey held a particular hatred in his heart for Tam. He knew he was at it. And in all the years of trying, all the times that he’d almost had him, when he knew that he had something hidden in those saddlebags, the swine had never spent more than a few hours behind bars.
The culmination had been when he had been convinced by hushed, overheard conversations that Tam was smuggling goods inside his beef cattle. Unwilling to wait for the vet, in case Tam got wind of the raid and managed to get the animal out of the cramped, sweating market in time to escape justice once more, Bailey had taken matters into his own hands.
Stumbling out of the dimness of the pen into the blinding sunlight with nothing more than a crushed foot, ruined coat and stinking arm, he realised from the hooting audience waiting that there had never been any contraband. He mustered as much dignity as he could and walked away.
Which would have been the end of the matter if the bastard hadn’t then reported him to the Cruelty.
The Soutar approached Bailey’s table. His feet shuffled and he pulled nervously at his jacket. “Mr Bailey? Would it be at all possible tae have a wee word wi’ ye?”
“MR Bailey is it now?” Sensing the chance to have a rare upper hand, he leaned back into the cushions. “And what would the likes of you be wanting to talk to me about?”
“Um… can I mebbe buy you a wee drink?” Sweaty hands rubbed together.
“I’m fine, thank you.”
The silence grew.
“Um.. mind if I sit here?”
“It’s not my bar.”
He sipped his drink as the Soutar pulled a stool across and perched on the edge.
“See - the thing is - I don’t know if you’ve heard about ma wee niece?”
Bailey smiled inwardly, and kept a blank face as he shook his head.
“My sister’s wean. Eilidh. Eilidh McKenzie.”
“McKenzie… McKenzie.. oh yes. Such a shame. Still, I’m sure that justice will prevail.”
“I was wondering if mebbe you could dae something for her? What wi’ us being on the dominoes team together an’ that?”
The Soutar looked from side to side. “What if I could dae a wee something for you?”
“You couldn’t afford me. If I were bribable. Which I’m not.” His smile spread across his face as the Soutar fidgetted some more.
“I wisnae thinking money exactly…” He gave a quick, furtive glance over to where Tam was sitting, engrossed in the game on the telly above the bar.
Now this could be worth something. If he had something on that character… Bailey leaned forward. “Why don’t you buy me that drink?”
Maggie loved the attention. Pretending not to notice the audience at the window, she preened, trotted, and beat her wings towards the sky, casting shimmering shadows on the wall.
“Isn’t he your pal?”
“Aye, he is.” Johnnie looked down. “It’s no’ like I’m enjoying this, ye ken. But she’s family…”
Bailey smiled in a comforting manner and patted his shoulder. “I understand. Trust me; you help me get that horse, and her troubles are over.”
Soutar Johnnie tried not to recoil from the weasel’s toothy grimace, and nodded his lowered head.
“So that is his horse outside?” Bailey wanted confirmation.
“Aye. She’s a beauty, isn’t she? And very valuable now…”
Bailey nodded. The horse was indeed everything that was claimed, but more importantly; he knew she meant the world to Tam. He had seen him stagger out in the wee hours, forgetting his hat or his coat, but never forgetting to take a sweetie for his Maggie. To lose her - obviously, an upstanding pillar of the community like himself would prefer that punishment was delivered through the courts, but as he seemed immune to legal means, a more direct approach was very tempting.
Of course, there was no way that he would interfere in the due process of the law, but there was no need for Soutar Johnnie to know that just yet. And with no evidence, the worst he could do when he realised that his precious niece was going away would be to make this pub a place to avoid for a wee while. Bailey could live with that.
“So let’s go over it. Sally’s running a card game,” (illegally, he noted internally, and filed the information away) “and you’re going to persuade them to let me play. Sally will be in on it; a few wins, a few jars, and then I take him for everything he has… then in a fit of generosity, forgive the debts for the horse?”
The Soutar buried his face in his chest. “Aye. Will we get on wi’ it?”
Elsie pointed her at the back room when she asked for her John.
She wafted in on a cloud of elegance, and was at his side. “John…” she breathed into his ear. He smelt delicious. She knew that her heat against his back made his hair stand on end, and she ran her fingers up his side. He gasped.
“I’ve got us a room.”
“Um - Sally, this is Willie Bailey. Willie, Sally. See ye later!”
Upstairs, she had made it perfect. Naked, he lay back, and watched her move across the room.
“You are so beautiful.”
“I know.” She smiled. “I wish we had longer together. I would have loved to have savoured you for longer.”
“What?” He struggled into a sitting position. “What do you mean?”
“Shhh….” She pushed him back down, and finished the warding that would make the room private. Private and sound proofed. Their own little nest.
She ran her tongue across her sharp, gleaming incisors and smiled. Yes, it would have been nice to have had the time to make a proper meal; but sometimes a snack would suffice. She gestured, and he was unable to move.
The sweet, spiced scent of his fear filled the room, and she sampled it with quick flicks of her tongue, gulping down his delectable terror.
Smoothing down his chest hair, she knelt beside him, took the first bite and grinned at his howl through the blood.
“What part of “witch” didn’t you understand?”
“Where’s that horse of mine?”
Flushed with success, and feeling the warm satisfaction of an unhappy Tam - he had even got hold of the arsehole loser’s coat - Bailey strode to the window.
The dark shape in the corner stirred. A brief, speedy gleam of red flashed as he looked over the top of his glasses.
“Your horse, is it?”
“Aye!” He grinned at Tam, who was heading back to the lounge, and raised his voice so it would carry. “She’s all mine! And the best horse you’ll find anywhere.”
“So I’ve heard.”
The growing form flowed out from behind the table. Bailey felt a cold snuffling at the nape of his neck, the short hairs waving like a field of ripe barley in the cold breeze.
The darkness sensed Maggie in the fabric of the worn tweed jacket, and felt a stir of warm satisfaction.
“I’m honoured to be in the presence of the master of such a loyal beastie.”
Bailey bowed. “Thank you!”
The devil was at his other ear. A brief whistle sounded.
“Unfortunately, I despise spies.”
The red spray had stained Elsie’s favourite flock wallpaper. He could feel the pool of blood congealing in the small of his back, sticking the sheets to his skin; warm and slick as it left his body, it cooled during the trickle down him to a sticky, itchy mass.
His useless screams resounded round the room. She smiled and swallowed, and moved towards him again.
A brief whistle sounded.
“Now? Really?” She stopped and listened to the air. “Please? Just a few more minutes… it’s not fair! Come on, please?”
The argument lost, she flicked her hand. Freed, he curled into a ball of pain.
“Such a shame, my love. We could have been wonderful together.”
Bailey had realised something was very wrong, and was backtracking wildly.
“It’s no’ ma horse!”
“But you told me it was your horse. Lying to a new acquaintance is so impolite, don’t you think?”
"Well, she is now, but she wisnae! I just got her tonight!"
"Indeed?" The devil clicked his fingers, and the window swung open. "Call her."
With no choice, but hoping that this was his chance to prove he was telling the truth, Bailey whistled. "Here, horsey horsey!"
Maggie flew through the window to his side. She nuzzled his cheek.
"Get off me, you stupid animal!"
Maggie nudged him, and buried her nose in the sugar pocket.
"She isnae mine! Shoo! Bad horse!" Then he realised. "It's no' ma coat!"
"Not your horse? Not your coat?" The devil seemed amused.
"Naw! She's just fond of the coat!" Maggie was crunching again, her long pink tongue manipulating the treats around her mouth. Bailey stripped off the coat and threw it into the corner. "See? Shoo! Bad horse!"
Maggie gave a pained whinney, and stepped towards him. She stretched her neck around him and stroked his hair with her soft lips.
"Enough. It's time to go." The devil made to whistle again, but the witch appeared in the doorway. "Finished?"
She shrugged, obviously still upset with him. That was fine. She had only been part of his legion a few weeks, but showed so much promise.
A whirlwind brought forth a funnel of flames from the fire, blinding everyone who wasn't expecting it. When the room recovered its sight, they were gone; devil, witch, man and horse.
When they got back from the hospital, Tam helped his friend over to his seat.
Johnnie gingerly lowered himself down and settled with a sigh. "It's gonnae have to be your round." he said.
Drinks in, they sat in familiar contemplation of the fire.
"So when you said you had a girlfriend..."
"She was awfy nice-looking, mind. I thought that myself."
“Just a shame about how she was trying to eat your intestines.”
“Aye… to be honest, I would have to say that that kind of thing does tend to put a wee crimp in your relationship.”
Tam nodded sympathetically. “It’s a’ for the best. You deserve better. Somebody that’ll value you. Somebody that’ll be happy tae see you. Somebody that’ll leave you alive in the morning.”
“Suppose.” The Soutar took a drink and wiped the foam from his moustache. “Mind you, I’m no’ sayin’ we couldn’t have worked something out. She did have her good points.”
“Aye, a souple jade she wis…”
They drank deeply, remembering her good points. Then The Soutar sighed.
“See when it wisnae tryin’ tae separate ma flesh fae its bones… the things that wee mooth could dae...”
Elsie put another two pints in front of them and cleared the empties with practiced grace. She smiled over her shoulder on her way back to the bar as they settled back into their chairs.
The night went on, and more punters fell in.
“Where is he?” Wee Charlie spotted the empty corner.
“Who?” asked The Soutar.
“The de’il - he’s awa then?”
“Aye, wi’ the exciseman.”
“Thank fuck for that,” said Wee Charlie. “Bastard kept cheating at the dominoes.”
When Tam fell into his yard that night, after walking the muddy mile uphill from the bus stop, he found the front door bolted from the inside, and a note informing him he could use the missing money for a hotel.
Sighing, he headed to the stable. It wouldn't the first time he'd slept there.
He stopped in the doorway, the world becoming a better place. Maggie had returned and was placidly grooming her wings in the stable, nibbling the smooth grey feathers into place.
She was, after all, a loyal beastie.