Harald's Story

Meeting the Hag

Harald stepped quietly along the unlit path, using his dark cloak to obscure his presence as much as possible. He passed the last light of the nearby village several minutes ago, so the chances of anyone spotting him in the growing blackness were slim. Of course, this was assuming anyone was around to spot him. Most people made sure they were sitting before a warm fire or snuggled in bed long before this late hour. In fact, Harald wished he was in such a warm place, himself. But he needed the hag's help. And when you seek the hag's help, you seek it on her terms.

Harald wasn't sure which would anger the nearby villagers more if they found him, the fact that they had caught him an a botched burglary attempt three nights ago or that he's now having dealings with the hag.

Not that the villagers didn't have dealing with the hag. Truth be told, everyone has done business with the hag at one time or another. Every region -- and often, every village -- has their own hag. She's the crazy old woman that everyone knows is a witch but no one will say it out loud. In this village, most people had reason to seek out her services, but hated to admit it. The villagers feared her, and avoided her whenever possible. So officially, consulting the hag was considered a bad thing, and even occasionally brought some criminal punishment -- though usually minor -- when one was caught in the act.

Harald usually preferred to avoid the hag, too. He feared her as much as any other villager. But given the string of bad luck he'd had recently, he decided it was time to face his fears. After all, bad luck was especially hazardous for those who made their living by stealing from others. Why, he had barely gotten away the other night when he had sent a stack of dishes crashing to the floor, waking the owners of the house he was robbing. How he had managed to knock those dishes over when he could've sworn he never got within three feet of them was still a mystery. So here he was, trudging through the night, looking to meet up with the hag.

After several more minutes, he saw a small fire up ahead, just off to one side of the trail. Harald adjusted his course and headed for this new objective. As he approached, he could see a small figure moving about the edges of the dancing fire. She appeared to be tending a pot hanging over the flames. As he approached, he realized this figure was too lithe to be the old woman. He panicked for a moment, almost bolting before remembering that the woman had taken on a young maiden as her pupil a couple years ago. He decided this figure must be her and walked up to the fire.

The young girl, about fourteen and dressed in hides looked at Harald with blue eyes. "Are you the thief who seeks the services of my mistress?"

"I am," Harald replied, a bit nervously. "Is she here?"

"She's nearby. She's preparing the site where she will do her work."

"You mean she won't be doing it here by the fire?"

The girl laughed voraciously. "No! If you want to call forth one of the old ones of royal blood, you must do it upon their mounds. And 'tis better done away from the light of a fire, so she had me cook dinner over here. Besides, it's very rude to be cooking your dinner upon the grave of one you plan to ask for help." This latter, she said with a giant grin.

"It's poor manners and a lousy witch that burns a fire on any grave, and you know it, girl," barked a weary voice. Both Harald and the girl turned to see an old woman, bent with age and hard work, approach from another direction. Her hair was long, gray, and unkempt, and she was dressed in hides like the girl, but was also draped with a few finer furs as well. "Enough of your glib wit, anyhow. Tonight calls for a more serious tone. Please serve our guest and me with that stew. Surely you've finished it by now?"

"Yes, Mistress," replied the girl in a more subdued tone. As the old woman sat facing Harald, the girl located two bowls, filled them with a thick stew and gave them to the adults. Harald ate a few bites and found the stew to be edible, but meager fair even from a lowly burglar's standpoint. He found himself observing the hag, wondering how she managed to survive. The old woman wolfed down several bites of her meal, seemingly unaware of her client's gaze. After a moment, she paused her eating and fixed Harald with her eyes. "I'm glad you got my note. I had hoped that I could solve your problems without going to this extreme. But while I can determine that it is spirits that are troubling your efforts to, let us say make a living, I cannot determine why or convince them to stop. For that, I will need the old king's help. And that means sitting out here on a burial mound in the cold night air."

"I understand. I will do anything if it will help turn my luck around," Harald replied.

"That's good to know. But you need to know that your luck could get worse, Harald Erickson. You may well die tonight."

"Die?" At this news, the blood fled Harald's cheeks.

"Your family is not from these parts, thief. You are not kin to the old king or any of his familial lines. You have no strong grounds for making requests of him, and he may take offense. If he does, there may be trouble. I am more than able to protect myself. I may even be able to protect the girl, as she has learned enough of my ways to help me in the process. But that will certainly be the limits of my powers, should things go poorly. In that case, you will be on your own."

"But you feel this may not be the way things happen? After all, I fail to see why you'd make the attempt if you thought all hope was lost."

The old woman sighed and stirred her remaining stew for a bit. "No, I think there is a chance you will find the help you seek. I was able to gain enough information on your family history to know that before turning to crime a few generations ago, members of your family were well liked in this community. They even did a great many favors for descendants of the old king. I'm hoping that this will be sufficient for him and he will be inclined to overlook both your foreign ancestry and your family's more recent thievery. But I must warn you of the dangers so you cannot accuse me of leading you into disaster without your knowledge or consent."

"I understand. And if you are willing, I would like to proceed regardless of the dangers."

"Very well, then let us talk about what we will be doing tonight. Girl! More food!"