As we count down to the release of THE RED WINTER, here’s another excerpt from the book. This is chapter 2. The book will be released as an e-book on November 25th.
Ch. 2 – Shrope Hovel
Scholars classified hags among the lower orders of semiexotic, semi-intelligent beings. Their abrasive natures, willingness to be displeased, and readiness to eat the offending party set them apart from polite society. Lurking on the fringes of towns and villages, they inhabited dank cottages or burrows where they might brood over slights real or perceived. Strangers were meals, cooperation rare, and commercial enterprise unknown.
Which is why the Shropes were such an unusual family. The closer one ventured to Shrope Hovel, the plainer it became that they were not merely the area’s most prominent hags, but also the leading creatures of any size, type, or persuasion. Ample evidence could be found in the form of regular signposts advertising the hags’ presence and services. The latest stood upon a knuckled hill, its copperplate a siren’s song to the weary and stupid.
Ease your feet and fill your tum
Rest your sore and aching bum
We got soft beds and fragrant soaps
Seasoned travelers Stay at Shropes!
Shrope Country Inn & Day Spa ~ 5 km
~ Humans welcome—Cash only ~
A pair of travelers stopped to contemplate the sign. The smaller of the two was Max McDaniels, a strapping youth in his late teens with wavy black hair and an amused glint in his hazel eyes. Max read this latest aloud, sparing his companion the need to fish for his monocle. The Russian ogre listened patiently until the call for cash-bearing humans. With a snort, he shook his head and spoke in a deep rumble.
“Bellagrog has fallen into old ways. Bob hopes his Mum has not.”
“They can’t have any customers,” said Max. “Who’s dumb enough to stay at a hag-run inn?”
The ogre gave a noncommittal grunt and gestured for the canteen. Weeks of summer sailing had scorched Bob’s fair skin, but his back was straight and his blue eyes were bright with anticipation. His long strides swallowed up miles of gray-green hills, little rivers, and quiet woodlands in the west of what had once been England. Sipping from the canteen, the ogre turned to await the rest of their party.
Most appeared within the minute: a man, a woman, and a sagging mule that wheezed as he clopped toward the summit.
“L-lemonade,” cried the mule. “My kingdom for some lemonade!”
With a grimace, the woman tugged at the mule’s bridle. Despite her youth—for she was not yet thirty—Hazel Cooper’s ramrod posture, old-fashioned glasses, and short brown hair lent her an academic air. Almost anyone would have marked her for a teacher. A prim mouth and withering stare hinted further that this was not a teacher to provoke. The mule, however, was oblivious.
“Come now, Hazel,” he chided in a patrician baritone. “You’re a so-called Mystic. What say you conjure up a trough of lemonade and put this smee in proper order, eh? Hop to it, woman. Pip! Pip!”
The teacher pursed her lips. “If you’re parched, turn into a camel, Toby.”
The shape-changer scoffed. “A camel? Humbug! During my glorious career, I’ve taken many forms, but never the ignoble camel. It’s hardly a guise worthy of me.”
As a newlywed, Hazel Cooper should have been enjoying a blissful honeymoon. But she, along with many at Rowan, had sacrificed personal wants in order to aid the war effort. Had she known her sacrifice would require traveling with a pompous smee, she might have reconsidered.
“Rather arbitrary standards for a former dung beetle,” she observed coolly.
“That was entirely different,” Toby sniffed. “I only employed that disguise to steal the crown jewels of Bohemia. I had to smuggle them out, you see, and—”
The command was delivered in a quiet Cockney accent that brought the smee to an indignant pause. The speaker was Hazel’s husband, a middle-aged man, lean as a greyhound and pale as a specter. His clothes were black, along with his boots and a brimless wool cap that framed a face so scarred and burned it resembled a molten mask.
And while looks can be deceiving, in this case they were not. When things went bump in the night, Rowan sent William Cooper to silence them. As Commander of the Red Branch, it was his duty. As a dangerous man, it was his calling.
“I’ll remind you that I’m lugging almost all the baggage,” Toby groused. “I could be something sleek and sexy like . . . like a cheetah! Instead, I persevere as a lowly mule. And why? Why, to stagger on weary legs in abject service of my fellows. Some might grumble. Some might clamor for recognition or gratitude, but not I. You’ll never hear me complain of—Oh thank God!”
The smee had glimpsed the sign.
“I call first bath!” he roared. “You heard me. And first crack at the buffet, too! The very thought of potatoes and cheeses, fruit pies and sweets . . .”
The Shropes could not have wished for a more eager and clueless victim. While Toby pranced and tittered at the prospect of a bed and a bath, the others took turns with Max’s spyglass, which provided a view of the valley, several farms, and a distant cluster of buildings and pavilions.
“Half an hour if we set a decent pace,” said Cooper, returning the glass to Max. “Let’s get moving before we get caught in that.”
The Agent pointed to a band of dark clouds looming beyond the northern hills. Already, the wind was picking up. Before they continued, however, the ogre cleared his throat.
“If Bob may say a word. He knows you have important business elsewhere and that you did not have to take him to find his little Mum. Bob is grateful.”
“Of course,” said Hazel. “We wouldn’t have it otherwise.”
“But,” added the ogre emphatically, “you must let him handle his affairs. Bellagrog may be difficult. She may not agree to let Mum go. You must not interfere.”
“You’re not going to throttle her,” said Cooper, looking seriously at him.
The ogre’s hands were spotted with age yet gnarled and tough as old tree roots. Glancing at them, he chuckled. “No. Bob is gentleman.”
Toby stomped a hoof impatiently. “Yes, yes, we’ll stay out of your incomprehensible ‘hag quest.’ Now, stand aside and let me set the pace!”
The eager smee went trotting down the hill, their baggage bouncing atop his back as Bob and the rest hurried after. Max lingered at the hilltop to await the party’s stragglers.
The first to arrive was Scathach, a lithe young woman with black braids, gray eyes, and a fearsome infantry spear that rested upon her shoulder. Giving Max an exasperated look, she nodded toward a patch of trembling undergrowth. Something suddenly bolted forth, a black blur that might have been a kitten as it bounded up the hill.
But kittens were not nearly so dense. They did not have spiny coats or oversized claws, and they did not devour meat and metal with equal voracity. The snorting blur was not a kitten but a juvenile lymrill. Juvenile in both age and demeanor, for Nox knew better than to scramble up her steward and sprawl across his shoulders as though he were her slave. Despite many lectures, bribes, and pleas, the lymrill refused to behave and Max’s clothes were now heavily scored and patched.
“Your father was never this bad,” Max hissed, shifting her surprising weight. His charge merely yawned and methodically cleaned her claws.
“She rooted out a stoat,” said Scathach, coming up the hill. “Big one, too.”
Max nodded; he could smell the blood. “Shrope Hovel’s just a few miles ahead.”
With a grin, Scathach slipped her hand within his. “I can hardly wait!”
Other than Bob, no one was enjoying the trip to Shrope Hovel more than Scathach. It had been nearly two thousand years since the warrior maiden had inhabited this world. She had forsaken eternal life to return, but she never appeared to doubt her decision. If anything, mortality seemed to infuse her with a greater appreciation for life and even its mundane little joys. She loved learning about new things—or even very old things if they’d escaped her attention once upon a time. Her latest interest was hags.
“And so they sniff you?” said Scathach, continuing their earlier discussion.
“Only if they’re reformed,” said Max. “Reformed hags memorize some scents as ‘not for eating.’ Once a hag has sniffed you properly, you’re safe from her. At least in theory.”
“And do they smell? I imagine hags would smell very, very badly.”
“I can’t believe you’ve never encountered any hags.”
“There weren’t any in my homeland, much less the Sidh.”
Max smiled. “Wherever humans live, hags won’t be far away. They’re pretty wily. Bellagrog’s clever as a fox.”
“And she’s the head Shrope,” Scathach clarified. “Mum’s older sister.”
“Right,” said Max. “She fled to Rowan when Astaroth came to power. Mum had been at Rowan for decades, but when her sister showed up, everything changed. Hags are strictly hierarchical and Bellagrog’s bigger in every way. Mum got shoved off to the side. And that was before the haglings even came along . . .”
Max nodded gravely. “Bellagrog spawned them one night and by morning they were all over the kitchens. Bawling. Pooping. Attacking. We had to fit them with muzzles. I wonder how many are left.”
“What do you mean?”
Max considered how best to explain. “Haglings have it kind of rough. By the time the Shropes went on trial, I don’t think there were more than five or six.”
Scathach looked unsettled. “What happened to the others?”
When Max patted his stomach, she gasped.
“Oh no. She’d never dare gobble up her nieces. But Bellagrog . . .”
“Their own mother ate them?”
“They’re not the only ones. Spiders do it. Hamsters, too, I think.”
“Hamsters don’t run country inns.”
“Well,” said Max, “I never said a hagling’s life was easy. Anyway, some must survive. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any hags. I’ll bet Number Five’s still kicking. She was a tank.”
Shaking her head, Scathach gazed ahead at Bob. “Why does he care so much about hags?”
“He doesn’t,” said Max. “He cares about Mum. They were like an old married couple. Always bickering but devoted to each other. I always thought Bob kept Mum in line. But now I think he needed her as much as she needed him. Maybe more.”
“So why did she leave?” asked Scathach. “Wasn’t she innocent?”
“Not exactly,” said Max. “Mum was just as guilty as Bellagrog of trying to cook that Workshop man. But in light of the circumstances and her testimony, the Director suspended her sentence. It was Bellagrog who ordered her to leave.”
“Couldn’t she just have refused?”
Max shook his head. “Hag Law,” he explained. “Scholars think hags are mindless brutes, but they haven’t spent much time with them. Hags have all kinds of rules and customs about vendettas, gatherings, and who gets to be the boss. Bellagrog declared Hag Law and ordered her sister aboard the ship she was boarding. That was that. Mum didn’t even bring a suitcase.”
“But if Mum has to obey Bellagrog, how can Bob get her back?”
Max shrugged. “I don’t know. But he doesn’t want us to interfere.”
“If that’s the case, maybe we should have left him to it,” observed the ever-efficient Scathach. “This detour’s cost us nearly a week.”
“The Fomorian isn’t going anywhere,” said Max. “And Rowan’s fleet won’t land for a month. We have plenty of time.”
“And you know what they say about making hay.”
“That it’s a very good thing?”
“To make it while the sun shines.”
Max eyed the darkening sky and the pall settling over the landscape. “Well,” he reasoned, “if that’s true, we’re out of luck. Come on.”
Nox didn’t even stir as they caught up with the others and hurried on to Shrope Hovel. The weather was growing wild, spurring the group from a brisk hike to an anxious trot.
“So much for summer,” laughed Scathach, catching Hazel’s hat as a freezing gust nearly whisked it away.
The strange weather was an inconvenience for travelers, but it was wreaking havoc on the workers about Shrope Hovel. Dozens were running to and fro, trying to reinforce pavilions, tie tarps over rosebushes, and rescue what appeared to be preparations for a party. Chinese lanterns tugged at their tethers while colorful streamers soared clear away, twisting and tumbling over barns, buildings, and a leaning curiosity that could only be Shrope Hovel. In all the excitement, it took a moment for Max to register two surprising facts: he had yet to see a hag, and all of the workers were human.
With a clap of thunder, the clouds burst, drenching one and all in torrents of icy rain. Abandoning their efforts, the workers ran for shelter as lightning laced the sky. Max and the others hurried after, kicking up gravel and weaving through a noisy phalanx of sheep, goats, and geese. They piled in after the workers, crowding into a dark barn that smelled of dung, hay, and wet clothes.
It was only when someone lit a lamp that the workers noticed strangers among them, much less a ten-foot ogre. There followed an earsplitting shriek, an ineffectual panic, and finally an expectant silence.
“Hello,” said Bob, nodding politely. “We are looking for Shropes.”
“You ain’t gonna eat us, then?” cried an unseen voice from the crowd.
The ogre looked amused. “Bob is sorry to disappoint.”
There was a ripple of nervous laughter and some of the workers stood on tiptoe or inched forward to get a closer look. They were a mixed group: men and women, young and old, with hard faces and many scars. They reminded Max of Rowan’s refugees and those he had seen at Piter’s Folly, a human settlement in the midst of demon lands. Each had undoubtedly survived many horrors, but to find humans working for hags struck Max as profoundly odd. Apparently Toby agreed.
“Are you being held against your will?” he demanded of a nearby boy. When the astounded child failed to answer the talking mule, the smee spoke as though to a simpleton. “Are the hags using you for food?”
“No,” said a woman. “They use us for farming.”
Toby gave a disbelieving snort. “Farming you for meat, no doubt. Well, never fear, good woman. Your savior has arrived.”
“Whatcha saving us from?”
“Grim death in a hag’s belly.”
“They don’t eat us, sir.”
“We ain’t slaves. The Shropes pay good wages.”
“Well, I guess that’s fair,” she muttered, the others nodding in agreement.
Shushing Toby, Hazel apologized for startling them and inquired if rooms were available at the inn.
“Ain’t none to be had,” said a man. “Inn’s all stuffed up with hags, three and four to a room. Must be eighty of ’em here for the Naming, though Mistress Bellagrog might have to cancel if this storm don’t let up.”
“Naming?” asked Hazel, raising her eyebrows.
“The haglings are getting proper names,” explained the little boy.
“I see,” said Hazel, glancing at her companions. “And is Bellagrog home?”
“She’s went out for a carriage ride,” said the man. “But the little one’s about. I saw her tending her hives. There she is now!”
Turning, Max glimpsed a squat silhouette trudging toward Shrope Hovel. Squinting at the figure, Bob lumbered out into the storm.
“Mum!” he called, giving a shy, almost hesitant wave. Turning, the figure merely stared as though Bob were a mirage, an echo from another life. Then, with a sudden wail, she tottered forward and clung to the ogre’s waist.
Even when Bob kneeled, Mum could not quite reach his shoulder. Instead she buried her face in his armpit and sobbed like a child rescued from a nightmare. For a time the two simply huddled in the rain, the ogre patting the hag’s wilted topknot.
Toby turned to his companions. “Is she always this unstable?”
“Shhh!” they hissed.
At last, the hag wiped her nose on Bob’s shirtsleeve and waddled with him, red-eyed and blinking, into the barn.
“Th-there’s my Max,” she simpered, patting his hand and giving him a look of deep affection.
“And that uptight teacher I never cared for. Hazel-Boon-with-Peas-and-Gravy. Yes, yes, that was her name.”
“Hazel Cooper,” said the teacher. “William and I were married last month.”
“A lid for every pot I guess,” said Mum. She looked Cooper up and down, mildly disappointed.
“Still a beanpole, eh? Most humans plump up by forty.”
“Well, I want to plump up now!” declared Toby. “Are you going to feed us or not, hag?”
With a startled “Oi!” Mum spun to face the impatient mule. “What we got here?”
“A master spy, saboteur, bon vivant, and international—”
“Stew meat,” finished Mum, pinching the mule’s shoulder with a distracted air. Recovering herself, the hag brightened and gazed about. “Yes, yes, we’ll feed you. We’ll fatten you right up. The inn’s bursting with relations but we’ll squeeze you into the Hovel. Maybe Bob will even help his Mum make lunch. That’s if the big oaf hasn’t forgotten how to cook!”
The ogre’s eyes twinkled. “Bob remembers.”
“No, you don’t! You could never manage without me!”
“Mum,” said Max. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet. This is Scathach.”
Turning, the hag smiled and offered a curtsy. “Bea Shrope, love.”
“May I call you Mum?” asked Scathach.
“Do, girl, do!” urged the hag, gliding closer. “Pity such an angel should carry such a sharp spear.”
“Mum,” said Max. “Please sniff her.”
The hag’s smile curdled. “This ain’t Rowan.”
“I know,” said Max. “But I’d consider it a personal favor. And, as you’ve noticed, Scathach carries a very sharp spear. . . .”
With shrewish indignation, the hag plucked up Scathach’s arm. She sniffed once, blinked rapidly, and sniffed again. “There’s good stuff here,” she muttered, pinching and kneading the flesh. “Rich flavors, smooth textures. A terrine, maybe . . . yes, a delicious, delectable terrine.”
Scathach remained stoic. “Thank you.”
“Done!” shrieked the hag, flinging the arm aside and wheeling on the watchful workers. “I’d get busy with those decorations,” she said pointedly. “If Bellagrog returns to find things all ahoo . . .”
“But the storm,” protested the foreman. “These winds!”
Mum shrugged even as a gale made the rafters moan. “My sis don’t care ’bout no storm. She’ll want everything perfect for the Naming. Lots of folk to impress.”
Leaving the workers to their unenviable task, Mum led Max and the others on a soggy scamper to Shrope Hovel. Surveying it, Max could not decide what it reminded him of until he recalled the rhyme of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Indeed the Hovel looked like a shoe, or rather a battered, leaning boot cobbled together of various materials and styles. There was Georgian brick, Tudor beams, medieval thatch, an unfinished Gothic spire, and a broken Baroque column lying near the front door that served no apparent purpose other than to look fancy. Max guessed it was stolen.
Despite its peculiarities, the Hovel looked warm and and inviting. This impression of eccentric coziness was confirmed when Mum led them through a slanted door into a parlor with comfy chairs, an aged hearth, and bric-a-brac scattered about the many shelves and cabinets. Many portraits of hags lined the walls: hags in white wimples, hags in Flemish hoods, and a mottled, glaring enormity that could only be the infamous Nan.
The Hovel’s ceilings were lower than most human dwellings. Max and Cooper had to duck knotted beams while poor Bob had to crouch as best he could and shuffle behind as Mum led them on a tour through various rooms. She chattered all the while, sharing tidbits like an enthusiastic docent.
“That’s where Bellagrog pulled my pants down in front of a faun I liked.”
“I used to hide in this sideboard when Nan was hungry. It locks from inside.”
“See that dent in the wall? Bellagrog used me like a battering ram.”
“But why would she do that?” inquired Scathach, looking perturbed.
The hag tittered. “I called her ‘grotesque.’ ”
“And why did you do that?” sighed Hazel.
Mum merely shrugged. “It was the biggest word I knew. I called everything ‘grotesque’ when I was a hagling. Used to make Nan laugh.”
“Speaking of haglings,” said Max. “Where are they?”
“Oh, they’re off in some secret location,” answered Mum. “Sea-kwest-erred, as Bel says. Haglings is always sea-kwest-erred before a Naming. I don’t know where they are. More importantly, neither does Bel.”
Ignoring their stares, the hag continued down a twisting corridor that finally opened upon the grand and spacious kitchen. Even Bob could rise to his full height, creaking up to survey its redbrick walls; wormwood cabinets; and array of stoves, cauldrons, and ice chests. Mum scurried about, lighting lamps, shutting windows, and heaving wood into the nearest stove. Smacking soot from her hands, she looked anxiously at Bob.
“Do you like it?”
“Very much,” said the ogre, taking an apron from his pack. “Let’s cook.”
While the others relaxed around a table, Rowan’s former chefs boiled water, laid out ingredients, heated skillets, and began to bicker in their old familiar way. Soon there were onions sizzling, biscuits rising, and other delicacies that brought the smee to a swoon. Relieved of his packs, Toby had shifted into a black bear whose keen nostrils quivered as he padded about, drooling over various dishes until Bob shooed him away.
Outside, it grew so dark it looked like night was settling. Heavy rain lashed the windows, but the kitchen was snug and its table laden with steaming crocks and simmering dishes. Mum was humming, her topknot bouncing as she scurried here and there for napkins and silverware. Max was feeding Nox a piece of bacon when the bear wedged himself in at the table.
“I called first,” said Toby. “You were all witnesses.”
“There’s plenty,” said Hazel. “Even you aren’t that greedy.”
“Don’t underestimate me.”
“Well, I’m so hungry I could eat a house,” said Max, elbowing Toby over.
“And Nox could eat a mouse,” added Scathach.
“And I could eat me an OGRE!”
This last pronouncement did not come from the table. It issued from the hallway and was delivered with a throaty chuckle that made Mum shriek and drop a serving dish. The bowl shattered on the tiles, scattering buttered peas. Every head turned to stare at the mountain now filling the doorway.
Bellagrog Shrope was home.
Mum’s sister had grown since leaving Rowan. She had always been a sizable hag, but now she was positively titanic—over five feet and three hundred matriarchal pounds simmering in a rain-soaked bustle. Suspicious eyes skipped from face to face as the hag chewed the butt of a cigar. Removing a bergère hat, she tossed it deftly onto a little stand where it proceeded to drip on the tiles.
“Well,” she growled. “Ain’t this a surprise? Ol’ Bob, Boon, Cooper, and Handsome Max sitting ’round my table comfy as slippers. A fair maiden and a black bear, too. I done stumbled into a nursery rhyme. Come on in, gals, and have a look.”
Bellagrog made way for a trio of hags to push in from behind her. The shortest was the shape and color of a blueberry, the next was bony and wore thick glasses, while the third’s heavy makeup was so smeared from the rain that her features remained a gluey mystery. Inhaling deeply, she tittered as Bellagrog introduced them.
“This bonny blue girl’s Smidge, the skinny-mini’s Specs, and the gigglin’ hulk’s Gurgle.”
“Ooh, they smells delicious!” squealed Gurgle, revealing a row of brown jagged teeth. “Just the thing after a soaking. If ya doesn’t mind, I’ll have the lad. . . .”
“Oi!” bellowed Bellagrog, snatching the hag before she could lay a hand on Max. “They is guests. Unexpected guests, true, but guests all the same. Hag Law!”
“Hag Law,” repeated the others sulkily.
“And anyway,” continued Bellagrog, “have a look at his wrist, Gurgle. No, the other one, you twit. That mark there.”
Clutching her shawl, Gurgle blinked uncomprehendingly at Max’s tattoo.
“Red Branch,” explained Bellagrog. “Take a bite and it’s curtains for poor, dumb Gurgle. And there ain’t just one at this table, but three,” she added, pointing at Cooper and Scathach’s tattoos. “Now fancy that. War in the kingdoms, winter winds in June, and three Red Branchies in me kitchen. Something wicked’s afoot!” She whirled on her sister. “Why they here, Bea?”
“Th-they were in the neighborhood,” stammered Mum, sweeping up the broken dish. “They just p-popped by.”
“Bwahahahaha!” cackled Bellagrog. “If you buy that, you’re thicker ’n Gurgle. You expect me to believe this lot just happened by on Naming Day? Leave that mess and roll some kegs to the inn. Pre-party’s in full swing. I’ll be wantin’ a word with this crew, so don’t hurry back. In fact, it’s best you stay away.”
At this Mum exploded in teary hysteria.
“They’re my guests and this is my Hovel, too, and they came to see me!”
Bellagrog turned upon her sister like a planet rotating toward its moon. “And I’m Bellagrog Shrope,” she growled. “First-spawned, grandest-named, and carver of the Yuletide goose. Do as you’re told, Bea, or it’s eyeballs for earrings. Hag Law!”
“Hag Law!” cried the others.
Mum wilted in her sister’s shadow. “B-but I’ve waited so long to see my Bob!”
“Almost three years now,” jeered Bellagrog. “ ‘S-someday my Bob will come. S-someday m-my Bob will rescue me!’ ” The other hags cackled at the impression, but Bellagrog merely shook her head. “Get going, Bea, and let a gal think.”
As Mum bolted out, Bellagrog shuffled over to the head chair occupied by Scathach. The hag jerked a thumb.
“Move it,” she ordered. “And fetch some more chairs from the dining room while you’re up.
Everyone works at Shrope Hovel—Dang it, she don’t need yer help!”
This last outburst was directed at Gurgle, who was quietly slipping out after Scathach. Bellagrog rubbed her temples wearily. “If you’re gonna cook up my food, you might as well eat it. Dig in, already. Cold bacon’s a sin.”
“I couldn’t agree more!” declared the black bear.
“And what the heck is you?” asked Bellagrog, scooting over so the hags and Scathach could squeeze around the table. It was too many people for Nox, who jumped off Max’s lap and stalked out of the room.
“I’m a smee, madam,” replied Toby, wisely bypassing his usual litany. “Toby the Smee.”
“A smee!” exclaimed Specs, peering at him down her long nose.
“Why you giddy ’bout a smee?” asked Bellagrog, sliding some ham onto her plate. “Never heard of no such thing.”
“Oh yes, we have, Bel!” crowed Specs. “We learned about ’em in the old rhymes.” She tapped the measure with a spoon.
It ain’t a yam
It ain’t a grub
You ain’t gonna find ’em in a shrub
A better bet’s to look in your tub
For the smee he likes his leisure.
He can change his shape—quick as a blink!
He can change his voice—and even his stink!
But the tasty smee can’t handle his drink
And that’s the way to catch ’im.
As she completed the rhyme, the other hags turned toward Toby.
“Wine?” pressed Smidge.
“Ale?” offered Gurgle, brandishing a mug.
“Twaddle!” scoffed Bellagrog, pushing back from the table. “This big ol’ bear wants a double whiskey from me private cupboard. Just the stuff on a nippy day.”
“Hear hear!” cried the smee, his mouth full of bacon. “Ouch! Who kicked me?”
“Toby will have water,” said Hazel pointedly. “Water that I will taste.”
Bellagrog sat glowering while others filled Toby’s glass. With a sigh she passed the fried potatoes and set about the ham. “Heard about your father,” she said, glancing at Max. “Condolences, love. Scott McDaniels was good company and I didn’t mind him sharing me kitchen. Humans ain’t always my thing, but he was okay.”
“Thank you,” said Max, oddly moved by her gruff sincerity. “He liked you, too.”
She shrugged off the compliment. “You get satisfaction? You get the one that murdered him?”
Max nodded. He had slain the demon Vyndra on Walpurgisnacht, but revenge brought little comfort—the man who had raised him was still dead and buried. Apparently Bellagrog saw it differently, for she smacked the table and jabbed a meaty finger at Gurgle.
“Hear that, girlie? He hunted down his daddy’s killer and got his vengeance right and proper. Take one of his and he takes ten of yours. He’s more hag than you!”
“It wasn’t quite like that,” said Max, but neither hag was listening.
“Don’t talks to me about what makes a hag,” Gurgle huffed at her hostess. “You gots humans by the score round here and you don’t take a nibble. Some say you gone soft since you lived at Rowan.”
“Who says?” roared Bellagrog. “Gimme names and they’ll be fattening me sows.”
Gurgle folded her arms. “Never mind who. Just answer one thing.”
“Let’s have it!”
“When’s the last time you supped on man?”
A vein throbbed at Bellagrog’s temple. “I got businesses to run,” she growled. “Fields to sow, crops to reap, soaps to sell, an inn to manage. Heck, I’m the biggest, richest hag in the land and you got the brass to question me at table?”
“You still ain’t answered the question,” pointed out Smidge, waving a sausage.
Bellagrog glared at her. “Couldn’t say when I last supped on man,” she muttered. “But I know when I’ll be having soused hag’s face.”
“But we’re your guests!” squeaked Specs. “Hag Law!”
“Hag Law,” chimed her mates.
Easing back, a simmering Bellagrog surveyed them. “Aye,” she conceded. “Hag Law it is. But I’ll say this, Gurgle. Your sister’s been gathering Workshop dust for years while you putter about. So don’t go lecturin’ me on what makes a hag a hag. If Gertie was my wombmate, I’d have brought her home.”
“Is Cousin Gertie your sister?” asked Max, turning to Gurgle. With a blushing nod, the hag inhaled an ear of corn.
“We came across Gertie in the Workshop museum,” said Hazel to Scathach. “The engineers display different species. Apparently, Gertie had the misfortune of falling into their possession. I’m very sorry, Gurgle.”
Cooing appreciatively, the hag patted Hazel’s hand and tried to heave her across the table.
Cooper promptly stabbed her knuckles with a fork, which caused the hag to shriek and release her prey.
“Sorry,” she said. “I never sat down with humans before. Did you know you go with peas and gravy, love?”
“I’ve been told,” said Hazel, massaging her wrist.
“Don’t you worry ’bout Gertie,” said Bellagrog. “Leave it to the Shropes to take care of what shoulda been done by her own. No Named hag shall go unrescued or unavenged. Hag Law!”
“Hag Law!” cried the others in a clash of tankards.
“And just how you gonna see to Gertie?” pressed Gurgle skeptically.
“You’ll find out tonight,” said Bellagrog. “Now I wants to know why we got so much company—and dangerous company, too.”
“What’s so dangerous about us?” asked Toby, licking his paws. “We come in peace.”
The hag fixed him with a crocodile eye. “You know the price on Max’s head? For word of him, Prusias would fill my pots with gold. Every assassin in Blys has it out for Max McDaniels. There’s probably a bounty on your sorry rump.”
“Me?” said Toby, taken aback. “Why should anyone have it out for me?”
“You’re from Rowan!” hissed the hag. “Ain’t no itty-bitty school of magic no more. When mean old Prusias came to gobble Rowan, he got more than he bargained for, didn’t he? Bwahahaha! Can’t say I didn’t raise a mug when I heard the news, but that game ain’t over. Blood money for Rowan folk’s mighty high—more if they got lots of trinkets.”
She pointed at Hazel’s magechain, a necklace whose many glittering ornaments were a testament to her accomplishments in Mystics. Smidge could be heard quietly calculating the teacher’s worth.
“So you’d sell us to your brayma,” said Hazel coldly.
Bellagrog chuckled. “Don’t know that there is a proper brayma round here. Some nosy bugger tried to tax our goods, but we learned him, didn’t we?” The hags giggled. “Nah, you’d have to walk far and wide to find a true demon in these parts. The bigger ones—the important ones—want lands closer to Prusias. Us Shropes are in the boonies and that’s the way we like it. Unless we got something they want, the demons will leave us alone. We don’t signify.”
Cooper tapped the table. “If you’re in the boonies, where do you get your information?”
Bellagrog shrugged. “Here and there. Goblins are blabbermouths if you toss ’em some coppers. Heck, I could tell you how many ships Rowan’s got heading for Blys.”
Cooper’s voice was dangerously quiet. “And how would you know that?”
Bellagrog abruptly scooted her chair away. “Careful round this one,” she muttered to the hags. “Don’t you be looking at me like that, William Cooper. It ain’t my fault that Rowan don’t know nothing about dryads.”
“Of course we know about dryads,” said Hazel. “Sylvan spirits that protect sacred groves. They take the form of beautiful maidens, inhabit the trees under their care, and were valued as ladies-in-waiting by mystic noblewomen. Dangerous if provoked, but fond of poetry, especially haikus and sonnets. Incidentally, they also make lovely scents. I got William a bottle for a wedding gift.”
The hags roared with laughter.
“I’ll bet you read all that in a book,” chortled Bellagrog, dabbing her eyes. “True enough I guess, but you’re missing the point o’ dryads. They’re the great gossips of the world! Every hagling knows they can’t keep secrets and that they whisper ’em on the breeze until another dryad takes it up. You think all that sighing in the trees is just the wind? Ever wonder why you never seen a hag tinkle by an oak?”
“I can’t say that I have,” said Hazel, unconcerned.
“Well, if you did, you might put a thing or two together,” said Bellagrog. “We stay on the right side of dryads. It’s Hag Law.”
When Max realized he’d unintentionally joined the chorus, he coughed and hastily wiped his mouth. “So what else have you heard about the war?”
Bellagrog spread her hands. “Not much else. Just Prusias’s Workshop thingees went mad and that he fled when the Faeregine appeared and cracked his crowns. That’s got everyone talking.”
“What’s the Faeregine?” asked Max. “It was Mina who drove Prusias away. She’s just a little girl.”
“Just a little girl,” chortled Bellagrog, shaking her head. “You think some ‘little girl’ scared off a great brute like Prusias? Bunk! The Faeregine’s come again.”
Max glanced inquiringly at Scathach, whose time in the Sidh made her an expert on many strange topics. But she merely frowned and shook her head as though the term puzzled her, too. Hazel sat up even straighter. Old Magic was one of her primary areas of study.
“Faeregine,” she repeated slowly. “Etymologically, that sounds like ‘Faerie Queen’ or ruler of the Fey. Am I correct?”
Bellagrog shrugged. “I got no clue what ettee-mole-ogically means, but no matter. Faeregine’s the old name as we learned in our rhymes. Even Gurgle will remember that one.”
With a reverent bow of their heads, the hags recited:
With every Age a Faeregine
Born of stars and summer dreams
Heaven’s gift, a midnight flower
She blossoms at the darkest hour
Hags must listen, hags must heed
The wishes of great Faeregine.
“The middle part’s peachy,” Toby critiqued. “But the beginning doesn’t quite rhyme and those last two lines—”
“Don’t matter,” growled Bellagrog. “Faeregine’s come again, sure as Sunday.”
“What do you think, Hazel?” asked Cooper.
His wife straightened her glasses. “Probably an old superstition. I’ve never come across the term in the Archives. If a Faeregine really appeared every age to save mankind, scholars would have written volumes.”
“Maybe yer scholars wasn’t listenin’ to the dryads,” Bellagrog needled. “And when did I ever say the Faeregine’s job was to save mankind? Typical human to assume it’s all about them. Heck, maybe the last Faeregine was busy rescuing other folk from man. No other creature’s made such a mess of the world. And now you’re off to make war again.”
“We didn’t start this war,” said Hazel coldly.
“But you’re gonna finish it, ain’t ya?” laughed Bellagrog. “One little victory’s got Rowan so puffed up she’s sailing off to root old Prusias out of his palace. Lots harder to invade a land than defend one. Hope your Director knows that.”
There was a quiet knock and they turned to see one of Bellagrog’s workers clutching his hat in the doorway.
Bellagrog cocked her head. “Whatchoo want, Jakes?”
“Beg pardon,” said the man. “But the decorations are blowing away as soon as we get ’em up. Even if the storm stops this minute, we’re running out of time. Can the Naming be postponed? Even tomorrow would be—”
Bellagrog nearly choked. “And let my freeloadin’ relatives stay another day? Not on your life! Anyway, Naming’s happening tonight, rain or shine. Get the lutins to help.”
Cursing softly, the hag lit another cigar and puffed in peevish silence before suddenly glancing at Hazel. “You can make twinkly lights and all that hocus-pocus nonsense, eh?”
“Well, get outside, eh? Time’s a-wasting and we need this place all gussied up for the Naming. Everybody works at Shrope Hovel!”
The teacher peered glumly at the rain-spattered windows. “Very well,” she said. Wrapping herself in a heavy blue shawl, she slipped out the back door.
As the door clattered shut, Max turned to Bellagrog. “How are you holding up with the war?”
The hag smirked. “War’s always been good for us Shropes. Been moving plenty of product. Next month we’re adding a line of canned vittles.” She pointed to a shelf lined with samples. “You come across anyone who wants work, you send ’em my way. I needs all the hands I can get. Three hots and a cot. Fair wages and a bonus for those that earns it.” She half turned to Bob. “I’m so desperate, I might even hire an old fart like you!”
As the hags cackled, the ogre spooned some strawberries into a bowl. With a groan, Toby pushed back from the table.
“Why do I do that?” he moaned.
“What’s the matter with you?” said Bellagrog.
The smee belched. “Dear me! My apologies, good hag, but it appears I’ve overindulged. Is there a place where I could lie down? It helps my digestion.”
An unimpressed Bellagrog nodded toward the hallway. “Parlor rug. But don’t you go snoopin’ or making a mess. And you stay put, Gurgle!” she added as the hag also made to excuse herself.
“Pristine’s my middle name,” said Toby, promptly belching again. “Just a few minutes off my feet and I’ll be a new smee. I think it must have been the cream. . . .”
As the bear padded out, Bellagrog turned back to Bob. “So, whatchoo say, old timer? Wanna work for me? I’ll even throw in a new apron.”
The ogre smiled. “Bellagrog is very kind. But Bob has job at Rowan.”
The hag nodded as though this wasthe answer she expected. She folded her brawny arms. “So whatchoo doin’ out here?” she demanded. “Fess up or get out.”
The ogre cleared some of the empty dishes. “Rowan needs allies,” he said in a measured tone. “We talk with those who might join fight.”
Bellagrog gave an incredulous laugh. “You askin’ the Shropes to fight Prusias?”
“No,” said Bob. “Rowan ask others to do that. But since we not far, I ask if we make little trip to visit Shropes on Midsummer. All haglings get names on Midsummer, no? Bob has always wanted to see Naming. And—he will not lie—he wanted to see his little Mum. Bob is old and it might be last time he can. But he wants no trouble. If Bellagrog wants, we go.”
The hag turned to Max. “That true, love? You’re in these parts seeking allies?”
Max nodded. “These parts” was open to broad interpretation. “The Director didn’t send three members of the Red Branch just to visit Shrope Corner.”
Bellagrog grunted. “I didn’t think she did.” With a low whistle, she swiveled back to study Bob with her shrewd, piggy eyes. “You sure are a sorry sack o’ something. So you tagged along to see your Bea. Whatchoo think she was gonna do? Run away with ya? Bwahahahaha! Ya don’t understand hags at all. Bea will do what I say till she’s pushing up daisies. But you be my guest tonight, Bob—for old time’s sake. Enjoy the Naming, have a bite or three, and then get your wrinkly behind off my property.”
The ogre bowed to show his appreciation.
A crash sounded from another room followed by a panicked shrieking.
“Murder! Mischief! Fire!”