Myth Monday: The Twelve Horned Witches (Irish Folktale)
By Kara Newcastle
It was late at night, but Fidelma MacDonagh wasn’t ready for bed. Not just yet; she had put her little ones down some time ago, and her weary husband had turned in shortly after that. The maids had decided to go to sleep a little while before, but Fidelma wasn’t ready. She was always something of a night owl, and she valued this time after her family and servants had gone to bed. It was quiet, there were no distractions, and Fidelma could relax. Sometimes she would read by the fire, other times, like tonight, she would sit and work on her embroidery. She liked this time.
Fidelma paused in her stitching to examine her progress. She was adding a border to a dress she had made for her baby girl, Bluisne, all of three years old. Fidelma had wanted to treat her little girl to a new dress—nothing too fancy, as Fidelma was sure the baby would dirty it soon enough—but she wasn’t about to give a plain frock to her baby. No, Bluisne deserved the very best.
It was then Fidelma realized how dark the room had gotten—she had been working for so long that the fire had died down and her candles had melted to almost nubs. Shrugging to herself, Fidelma finished off the stitch and cut the thread, carefully returning her sewing to the basket at her feet. Fidelma stretched, then heaved herself out of her favorite chair. Time to go to bed—
A sound thundered at the front door and Fidelma jolted, a gasp hitching in her throat and her hands flying to her chest and her hammering heart beneath. Stunned, she stared at the door, jumping again when a second round of knocking pounded at the wood. Her eyes widened. Who could it be at this hour? It wasn’t unknown for neighbors to be up and about in the dead of night, but they typically didn’t visit her because they knew her children would be fast asleep. They wouldn’t want to disturb them.
Fidelma’s closest neighbors were the kindly Fitzpatricks from the road, a loving couple well advanced in their age. Maybe it was one of them. Maybe something had happened, and their stableboy had rushed down for help.
Alarm fast dissolving into worry, Fidelma rushed for the door, sliding back the bolt and cracking it open. “Aye, who is it? Is everything well?”
Something shoved hard against the door and Fidelma gasped, stumbling back with the impact. Instinct told her to throw her weight against the door, but it pushed open hard, sweeping her back as though she had been no heavier than one of Bluisne’s rag dolls. Staggering back, Fidelma looked up at the dark figure in her doorway, cursing herself for not bringing a candle with her, for not calling her husband first, for answering the door in the first place. She opened her mouth to demand the stranger’s name, but as they stepped into the light cast by the fire, all Fidelma’s protests died in her mouth.
Standing before her was a tall woman, a woman Fidelma didn’t recognize. She was dressed in a strange gown that hung straight down from her shoulders, and an odd robe swept in behind her as she strode into the house. Her face was pale and sharp, her eyes cold and hard like flint. She carried a satchel in one hand, a hand tipped in long, pointed nails that reminded Fidelma of icicles.
But the one thing that Fidelma could not stop staring at was what was in the middle of the woman’s forehead. From the center of her brow sprouted a single, long, straight horn.
Arching a thin eyebrow at Fidelma’s gape, the strange woman pushed past her, striding straight up to the fireplace. With her free hand, she pointed a finger at the hearth, and the fire roared to life. The woman then turned and pointed at Fidelma’s rocking chair. It slid across the floor towards her, pushed by invisible hands. Huffing, the horned woman gathered her robes around her and sat down, placing her satchel at her feet. Opening the bag, the woman withdrew a pair of carders and a large lump of wool. Placing the wool between the teeth of the carders, the horned woman began to comb out the fibers.
The woman went to work, silently moving the paddles through the knotted wool. Fidelma stared at her, unable to summon the will to move or speak, hardly able to even breathe.
After an endless moment, the horned woman glanced at her. The look was brief, but cold.
“Close the door,” she said.
Fidelma started. “Wh—?”
Huffing through her narrow nose, the woman looked past Fidelma and waved a carder at the door. Fidelma felt an ice-cold wind rush past her, and she jumped with a scream as the door behind her slammed thunderously shut.
Frowning, the horned woman turned back to her wool, combing out the knots and burrs. She continued this way in silence, pausing once to pass the cleaned wool onto the floor.
Her brow furrowing around her horn, the woman looked up at Fidelma. “Where is the witch of the two horns? She takes too long to arrive.”
Fidelma felt her heart drop. “Arrive … where?”
No sooner did the words pass her lips than another series of thunderous knocks rattled the front door. Fidelma screamed and spun around, backing away from the door as rapidly as she could.
The horned woman scowled. “What’s wrong with you? Open the door for your guest!”
Shocked anger shot through Fidelma and, forgetting whom she was speaking to, she rounded on the one-horned woman, her teeth bared. “’Tis no guest of mine!”
A bizarre light danced in the horned woman’s eyes, like a flicker of candle flame passing behind two dark windows. “Open the door.”
A shriek ripped from Fidelma’s throat as something hard and frigid and huge slammed into her, lifting her off her feet. She felt the toes of her shoes dragging across the floor as the invisible creature carried her swiftly over to the door, flinging her viciously against the wood.
The horned witch returned her gaze to her carding. “Open the door.”
Wheezing in shock, Fidelma shook her head, then choked on a cry as the cold thing grabbed her hand, lifted it up and slapped it down on the bolt. It folded her fingers around it as she struggled, holding her hand fast and forcing her to slide the bolt back again.
The second the bolt moved back, the door shot open again, slamming into Fidelma and knocking her back hard against the wall. Her head spinning, Fidelma staggered, barely able to register the form that glided into her house.
It was another tall woman, clothed in the same strange robes. She had two horns sprouting from her head.
The two-horned woman smiled and greeted the first, then beckoned for a chair to slide over to her. She sat down beside the single-horned woman, placed a satchel down by her feet, and from it removed a distaff and more wool.
The pair passed the wool between them, carding and winding, whispering back and forth in volumes that Fidelma could not hear. As she huddled there against the wall where she had been thrown, the door thudded shut of its own accord.
No sooner did the door close than the two-horned woman glanced up at Fidelma. “Where is the witch of three horns?” she asked. “She takes too long to arrive.”
All of the blood in Fidelma’s body turned to ice in her veins. She stared at the horned women, barely able to breathe. “Three horns?” she rasped.
Instantly, knocking hammered at the door behind her. The horned women raised their eyebrows expectantly at Fidelma.
Every inch of her body quaking, Fidelma shook her head hard. “I will not!”
The single horned woman curled back her thin lips. “If you wish to preserve the safety of your family, you will let your guest in.”
There was no mistaking the cold threat in the horned woman’s voice and, tears streaming down her cheeks, Isabel stiffly turned to open the door, admitting in a witch with three horns. For the next hour that was all Fidelma did: she opened the door and admitted another witch in, each with one more horn than the last. Each one entered, greeted her sisters, then sat down with wool and carders, distaffs or spinning wheels that they had conjured out of their bags, laughing and making merry as though they were ordinary women. When the final witch appeared, the tallest one in grand skirts, her head adorned with twelve arching horns, a great cheer went up amongst the witches. “Our queen is here!” they cried, prompting a devilish smile to spring to the face of the twelve-horned witch.
The queen strode into the room, unfurling one long finger and crooking it, as if beckoning for something to follow. Fidelma’s knees nearly buckled from terror as she watched a large loom glide silently through the door, following the twelve-horned witch.
The twelve-horned witch pointed that long finger to the center of the room, and her infernal loom floated forward, coming to a gentle stop before the blazing fireplace. Turning about to take in the progress that her coven had done, the queen nodded approvingly. “Very good, my dears. Let us continue our work.”
Trembling, Fidelma slowly closed the heavy oak door, sagging against it. She waited by the door, expecting yet another knock, and was only slightly comforted when none came. The entire coven must have been there in her home now.
The witches returned to their work and their queen took her place at the loom. They began to sing, a melody of words Fidelma couldn’t recognize, but the tone was vile and shook Fidelma’s very soul. The sound of their voices filled the house as they prepped the wool, passing the yarn to their queen, who began to work the loom with inhuman speed.
So engrossed in their work, not one of the witches spared so much of an eyeblink in Fidelma’s direction. Fidelma swallowed hard, then carefully slid along the wall, edging around the coven until she reached the hallway. Certain that she had not been seen, Fidelma bolted into the dark hall, charged up the stairway and raced first to her bedroom, where her husband slept. Fidelma grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him, doing her damnedest not to scream for him to wake up, lest she alert the witches. To her terror, her husband did not stir, even when she soundly slapped him across the face. He would not wake up.
Her stomach in knots, Fidelma abandoned her husband and ran to each of her children’s beds, shaking them and hissing their names, finding them just as still and silent as their father. As Fidelma tried to rouse the maids awake, she heard a dark voice call up from the floor below, “And where is the lady of the house?”
Her heart seizing, Fidelma shrank down beside the maids’ beds. She dug her fingernails into the bedpost, fighting to slow her breathing. Her mind raced; everyone in the house must have been under some sort of spell. She couldn’t wake them—she would have to leave them behind and run to the Fitzpatricks’ house, send the stableboy there to get help. The thought of leaving her children and husband behind made her want to die, but—
“It would please us greatly if ye would join us, Lady MacDonagh.”
It was the voice of the twelve-horned witch. Fidelma bit her lip hard; she did not want to go back down there …
Pain riddled through her body and Fidelma choked, her eyes blasting open as she felt her legs beginning to straighten, her fingers scraping as they pulled away from the bedpost. She struggled, feeling that ice-cold presence forcing her to stand, pivoting her around to face the doorway of the maids’ room.
“Come down, or we will make ye come down.”
Tears springing to her eyes again, Fidelma bit out, “All right! All right, I am coming down.”
A chorus of cruel sniggering answered her, but the presence instantly released its hold on her body, causing Fidelma to stagger forward. Quickly raking the backs of her hands over her eyes, Fidelma took a trembling step, moving back into the hallway, down the stairs, returning to the main room, though every fiber of her being screamed for her not to.
The witches were still gathered there, but they had paused in their work, each of their heads turned expectantly towards Fidelma as she hesitantly entered. The twelve-horned queen leaned against her loom, smiling frigidly. On the loom, Fidelma could see a blanket or banner of some sort, ornate with dark colors. Fidelma could clearly see that the yarn the witches had spun had not been dyed, and that they had already assembled several feet of cloth in a matter of moments, whereas it would have taken ordinary women several days to accomplish so much. It renewed the terror within her.
“Lady MacDonagh,” the twelve-horned witch said. “I would be most appreciative if ye would be kind enough to serve refreshments to me and my coven.”
Fidelma knotted her fingers in her skirts, hoping that would stop her hands from shaking. “Ye … ye are welcomed to any wine I have.”
The witch queen’s smile widened. “Nay. We would like water.”
The request stopped Fidelma short. For a moment, all of her fear evaporated, and she stared at the queen in confused disbelief. “Water?”
“Aye.” Lifting her clawed finger, the twelve-horned witch pointed first in the direction of Fidelma’s kitchen, then snapped it back to Fidelma. Fidelma jerked back in fright as something crashed loudly in the dark confines of her kitchen, then screamed in terror as a small object came hurtling out, flying across the room and smashing into her chest. It pressed hard against her, driving her back up against the wall until her hands flew up and grabbed it, tearing it away from her body.
Stunned, Fidelma stared down at the object in her hands.
It was her metal sieve.
“Collect well water in that and bring it to us,” the twelve-horned witch said.
Fear flaring into anger, Fidelma snapped her head up. “I can’t possibly collect water in a sieve!”
“Do yer best.” Grinning, the twelve-horned witch gestured to the front door, and it roared open on its own. Again, that cold presence slammed into Fidelma, barreling her forward across the room and out the door. All around her, the horned witches cackled in delight.
As she reached the threshold, the presence gave Fidelma one hard shove and she flew forward, crying out as she fell heavily onto the flagstone pathway, the sieve sent spinning out of her hands. The witches’ laughter grew louder and more horrible as Fidelma scrambled to her feet, snatching the sieve off the ground. Beside herself with fear, the poor woman stumbled towards the well in her front yard, not knowing what else to do.
Senselessly, Fidelma picked up the wooden bucket and heaved it over the tall lip of the well, feeling the rope burning through her palms as it passed. As soon as she heard the bucket plunge into the water, Fidelma wrenched it back up, tipping it over into the sieve. The cold water sluiced through the holes of the sieve, pouring back into the well and saturating her dress. Panicked, Fidelma threw the bucket back into the water, filled it, pulled it up, and dumped the water back into the sieve.
As the water streamed back out, Fidelma heard the queen of the witches shouting from her home, “Don’t tarry long, Lady MacDonagh—we need drink to go with our cake!”
Alarmed, Fidelma spun around, seeing the witch and each of her twelve horns illuminated in her doorway by the snarling fireplace behind her, making her look as though she stepped straight out of hell. The sight made Fidelma recoil. “C-cake? I have no cake in my house.”
The queen grinned wickedly. “No, my dear Lady MacDonagh, but my sisters and I are making our own … sweetened with the blood of yer family.”
Fidelma’s heart stopped dead in her chest. “No!”
“Oh, ‘tis just a wee bit. They’re all sound asleep and did not feel a thing.” The queen nodded her ugly horned head towards the well. “We are waiting for our drink.”
“I can’t fill a sieve with water!”
Unperturbed, the queen witch shrugged. “Then perhaps we should sate ourselves with the rest of your family’s blood,” she said mildly.
Without another word, the twelve-horned witch turned and walked back into house.
All of the strength seeped out of Fidelma and she dropped like a stone beside the well, burying her face into her hands and sobbed, screaming in despair. How did this happen? What could she do? Her family was going to die!
The voice was soft at first, so soft that Fidelma couldn’t hear it over the sound of her own weeping. It spoke again, louder, insistent, and yet gentle. The soothing sound, so alien after all that had happened that night, jarred Fidelma out of her tears and she froze.
“Fidelma … listen to me …”
Horrified, Fidelma wrenched away from the well. God Above … the voice was coming from the well!
“Don’t be afraid,” the voice said, echoing softly up out of the confines of the well. “I am the spirit of the well. You have heard of beings like myself.”
Sure that she had lost her mind at this point, Fidelma stared at the well, blinking stupidly. “I … a-aye. Since I was a child.”
“Then you know that we seek to help good people such as yourself. I can help you save your family and drive the horned witches from your home forever.”
Shocked, Fidelma sprang to her feet. “Ye can? Oh, please, spirit! Help me save my children and husband!”
“I will. Listen to me closely, Fidelma. The first thing you must do is line the sieve with clay and moss, and then draw my water and fill it.”
Fidelma didn’t stop to question, but immediately set to work. She scraped up clay from her yard and peeled moss off the stones of the well, packing them into the holes of the sieve and then filling it with water. “Aye? What now?”
“Take the water and approach your home from the north. Go inside and say, ‘the mountain of the Fenian women and the sky over it is all on fire!’ This will drive the witches out of the house. You must then go to your children, and wash their feet in the water. Pour the water over the threshold of the house, then seal the door with a crossbeam. Feed your children and husband pieces of the blood cake, then take the banner the witches were weaving, and place it half in and half out of a locked chest. This will undo all their evil. Can you do this, Fidelma?”
Her hands tightening on the handles of the sieve, Fidelma nodded. “Anything for my family.”
Taking a deep breath, Fidelma approached the house from the north. Reaching the open door, she braced herself, then shouted inside, “The mountain of the Fenian women and the sky above it is on fire!”
The queen witch’s voice shrieked, “Whaaaaaat?!”, and instantly all of the coven began to scream in horror. They all swarmed out of Fidelma’s house, crying out in horror, leaping into the air and swooping away like birds in flight, soaring towards their mountain home. Wasting no time, Fidelma raced inside and ran to her children’s rooms with the well water. She bathed each of their feet, then took the water and poured it over the threshold, as the spirit of the well instructed. Slamming the heavy door shut, Fidelma dropped the massive crossbeam over it, then turned and ran to the witches’ loom. There she found their wicked banner, pulled it free of the loom and rushed to one of her chests in the far corner. She stuffed half of the banner into the chest, leaving the other half hanging out. Closing the lid, Fidelma then fastened a weighty lock on it.
Hurrying to the fireplace, Fidelma recoiled at the sight of one of her cake pans set on the coals, filled with a dark red cake. Carefully pulling it free, Fidelma carried the cake to her husband and children, breaking off pieces of the cake and sliding them into their mouths. Instantly, the spell was broken, and everyone who had been under the sleeping spell roused themselves awake.
Before Fidelma could take a moment to rejoice and tell them what had happened, an eerie shrieked rattled every inch of the house. From outside, Fidelma and her family heard the twelve witches shouting, “She tricked us! She broke our spell and locked us out!”
What sounded like twenty-four fists all began pounding on the barred front door. “Blast you!” the queen of the witches shrieked. “Let us in!”
Herding her bewildered husband and children behind her, Fidelma faced the door and shouted, “Never! I broke yer curse. Ye can never enter here again!”
“How did ye know? Who told ye what to do? Wait … The well has a guardian spirit doesn’t it?! She told ye what to do! Curse ye both! Blast ye both to hell!”
Outraged by their defeat, the witches took to the air again, screaming obscenities at the Spirit of the Well as they departed. The twelve horned witches never returned to Fidelma’s home, but the following morning, Fidelma discovered that one of the women had dropped their cloak as they fled from the home. Fidelma hung it as a trophy, and it remained within her family for five hundred years.