As you would expect, one of the first references to witches in the diary I found was associated with the Portuguese town most famous for its witches: Montalegre. Actually, every Friday the thirteenth, the town organizes an event called “The Witches Night” to celebrate this same tradition.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, when neither my wife nor my daughter wanted to leave home, I went there. There was no highway leading to Montalegre, so I had to use the local roads. For much of the way, they were wide and well-maintained, but a few dozen kilometers before reaching the town they became narrow and winding. Slowly and carefully I drove up and down hills covered with pine and eucalyptus trees.
Finally, after a last climb, I saw Montalegre. Built on a hill that towered over a vast, empty and sparsely wooded plateau, it was an impressive sight, especially on a greyish day like that. At its highest point, above a mixture of new and old buildings, rose the medieval castle, its massive keep looking like it could weather the Apocalypse itself.
According to the diary, the witches of the region only came out after dark. It was almost winter, so I didn’t have long to wait and then decided to pass the time at a local pub.
I took the opportunity to ask for more information about the place where the diary said the witches gathered and more accurate directions to it. The employee told me how to get there without asking question. However, a customer sitting at a nearby table, a somewhat old man with a hat and a walking stick resting on the chair beside him, heard the conversation and said, “Don’t go there! That’s where the witches gather at night. When they find someone near there, they cast a spell on the person. If they are in a good mood, they will only give you the runs, if not, they’ll give you a disease that will weaken and kill you. That’s how a neighbor of mine died. He got curious and…
The warning didn’t dissuade me from going to look for witches. On the contrary, it only confirmed that I was on the right track.
I paid and went back to the car. I left the town, driving through the road that crossed the east side of the plateau. There, on a grey day like that, it wasn’t hard to see why the region gained its supernatural reputation. A moor flanked the road. Here and there grew a tree and occasionally you could see a pond, but it mostly contained rocks and undergrowth, among which rose small elevations. According to the diary, the meeting point of the witches hid behind one of those.
I parked the car at the beginning of a path which, according to the pub employee, would take me there, and I started to follow it. Almost immediately, I became glad I had brought my best mountain boots. The road was bumpy, rocky and muddy. With any other footwear, my feet would have been quickly soaked and sore.
It took me just over an hour to get to the small rise I sought. Behind it, I encountered a small grove with half a dozen trees and some bushes. In the vaguely circular space between them, I found the recent ashes of a fire. There was no doubt I was in the right place.
The sun had already disappeared under the horizon, so it shouldn’t take long for the witches to come to that night’s meeting. I hid behind a thick bush, opposite the path, and waited.
About an hour later, I started hearing someone coming. The night had, by then, fully fallen, and the sky was overcast, so, away from any street lighting, I saw little more than darkness. I heard the person entering the clearing from the trail, and shortly after, the sound of wood logs being thrown to the ground. Suddenly, a small flame lighted up and moments later, a fire was burning strongly. Next to it, I could now see a woman of some age. She was all dressed in black, including a scarf covering her head.
For a few minutes, she stood there, waiting. Then a second woman, younger but wearing similar clothes, appeared coming from the trail. They had barely time to greet each other when a third and then a fourth joined them. The last two members of the group took a little longer, but once they arrived, the six formed a circle around the fire. Then they took off their clothes, and I saw them more clearly.
The youngest was little more than twenty years old, while the oldest had long passed her eightieth birthday. Contrary to what some legends say, I saw no unusual marks on their bodies.
Naked, they started dancing around the fire, singing something in a language I didn’t recognize.
The dance lasted about half an hour, their bodies writhing in a chaotic, but at the same time beautiful, almost mesmerizing, way. Even the older witches showed remarkable, supernatural, even, agility and flexibility.
When they finished, they fell down, facing the fire. Suddenly, from the flames, jumped a small creature with bright red skin. It had pointed ears, between which grew two tiny horns, and a sharp snout full of teeth-like needles. Small wings, clearly unable to support his body in a constant flight, protruded from his back.
He was followed in quick succession by five others. Promptly, they all joined the witches and dance resumed. What was the purpose of that ritual, I couldn’t even imagine.
There was an obvious similarity between those beings and the ones summoned by the cult I had found in the convent of San Francisco, in Viana do Castelo. However, at the time, I didn’t realize that. I was too concerned to find out if those were the Night Witches or not. If I had realized that, perhaps some of the deaths that occurred later could have been avoided.
Suddenly, one of the creatures left the dance circle and began to sniff the air. After a few seconds, he turned to his companions and said, “We are not alone.”
A chill went down my spine. He was clearly talking about me.
The witches and the other imps stopped dancing and singing. I got ready to run, but it was too late.
“Get out of there!” said the first imp, with a shrill voice, towards the bush behind which I was hiding. “And don’t even think about running away. I and my brothers see very well in the dark and we are faster than we seem. We’ll catch you for sure. And you won’t like what we’ll do after that.”
The creature laughed cruelly.
With a mixture of fear and curiosity, I stepped out from behind the bush and approached the fire.
“It’s dangerous to come here after dark,” said one of the witches, one of the youngest, with a grin. “And even more if you peek at our rituals.”
“Are you the Witches of the Night?” I asked, going straight to the point. After all, what else could I say.
Hearing that name, the imps snarled and the witches spat into the fire.
“Don’t mistake us for those bitches,” said one of the older witches.
“We are devotees of the horned one, Beelzebub, the devil. It’s him that gives us our powers,” said a middle-aged witch. “The Witches of the Night came out of nowhere and nobody knows where their power originates or who they serve. But they aren’t like us.”
“Bitches!” shouted an older witch. “They appear out of nowhere and think they are better than us. They don’t go to the Great Coven, don’t respect our master, and don’t even recognize us as sisters.”
“What is your interest in them?” asked one of the imps.
Even though I was already used to speaking with strange creatures, I hesitated for a second. There was something disturbing about those creatures. However, I ended up telling the story about the deaths, the goblins, and the black figure in the abandoned house.
For a moment, no one said anything. They didn’t know how to react.
Finally, the imp that interrogated me said, “Get out of here. But, remember; we are only letting you go because you want to interfere with the plans of the Witches of the Night. Don’t come back.”
Without another word, I did so. On the trail, about midway back to my car, I heard the witches and the imps resume their song.
For much of the drive back home, contrary to what was usual, I couldn’t think about what I had just discovered. The narrow roads with dozens of bends required all my attention, especially at night. But once I got to better roads, my mind began to wander.
Those weren’t the Night Witches, that was clear, but the contempt they have shown them and the fact that they consider them a sect apart was an important discovery. Unfortunately, this didn’t answer the mystery of who the Night Witches were, what they wanted, and where to find them. It just thickened it.
When I arrived at Braga, it was almost dinner time. I called my wife and my daughter to see if they wanted takeout from Burger King. I wanted to compensate them for my absence.