Part III – the Hag of the Mountain
We woke up the next morning to a slow drizzle. Not the most auspicious start to the day considering what lie ahead of us. After sleeping in clothes still damp from the lough I had at least hoped that the Cornumbrian sky would let up it’s incessant incontinence and allow us to dry off, but it wasn’t to be. Dougan assured us that he could find the Old Woman’s lair and so off we set after a rudimentary field breakfast.
As we drew closer to the mountains, the rain increased rather than decreased and the wind got up. As we hit a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, we startled a crow. Quick as lightning Elowyn took it down with her bow in case it was a spy of the hag – once bitten, twice shy and all that. The road we took turned into a narrow goat track as we climbed, cutting through ravines and teetering round bluffs.
Emerging near the top of Mount Beinnmarbh, the Hag was already waiting for us on a large rocky ledge outside her cave. “So! Conall sends his puppies after the strayed bitch, then? If you want her, you must fight my seven sons for her, or bring Conall on his knees with fitting compensation for my sister.” Her sons were great hulking grey-skinned brutes with crude flint axes that looked as though they would be best avoided. The Hag retreated into her cave, leaving her ‘sons’ to keep us at bay. “Grimlocks” according to Dougan in a conversation later, the unnatural offspring of a Mountain Hag and something else unmentionable. Blind from birth, but as strong as oxen.
We rushed the ledge so as to not completely lose the advantage, letting Nab’han climb above us so that he could rain down arrows from above. The battle was furious and bloody, the grimlocks swinging wildly with their axes and us trying to land blows with our swords on their tough hides. But in the end the last one went down, as everything does before us. Elathan and Dougan then scouted around for spoor on the ledge to find out what we were about to be up against. As well as the obviously humanoid footprints from the hag and the grimlocks, we were appalled to find canine prints about the size of Elathan’s outstretched hand.
The stench emanating from the cave was almost overpowering, even for me. Poor Nab’han lost the contents of his stomach, retching on bile before he could enter. A pungent mixture of dog, bear and the now familiar stench of hag. Peering into the cave I could make out a bear wall of rock with open space out in both directions. Gingerly we entered, weapons drawn and prepared for the worst. We made almost a complete circuit of a huge, litter-strewn cavern before finding two passages leading away from the far corner. From one we could see a flicker of light and so we entered the other, pitch black tunnel. Elowyn decided to magically enhance her vision with her power so that we could progress without lights, but ended up psychically exhausting herself. It was a waste anyway, as there was little of mention to find in the hag’s bedchamber.
Returning to the other narrow passageway we emerged in another torchlit chamber. Snarling in front of us were three of the largest wolves I have ever seen, and I have seen a few in the Pagan Mountains. Easily standing as high as myself at the haunches they were clearly well trained or they would have leapt on us as soon as we appeared, but the witch appeared to have them under control. We were about to back up so that we could fight them on our terms, when the hag called out, taunting us: “Do you not think that you had better be ready to catch your princess when she falls?”, and with that she set a candle under the rope holding the rickety wooden cage containing a very worried looking maid above a deep pit.
There then followed one of the most desperate and intense battles that I have been involved in. We knew that we had to get to the princess before the rope burned through, dropping her into stone knew what fate below, but the wolves were in the way. Snarling, they rose to the attack, effectively pinning us in the entry way and preventing all but Elathan and myself from putting our swords to use. Elowyn was barely able to use her bow in order to try to stick arrows into the beasts over our shoulders. Meanwhile Dougan sliced the top off a waterskin, passing it forward for someone to douse the flames. As Elowyn passed it to Elathan, it seemed as though time itself slowed for a moment as he seemingly effortlessly flung it at the rope between sword blows. As the skin connected with the rope, spilling its contents down the hemp there was an awful shriek of frustration from the hag, who egged her hounds on all the more. Finally I downed one at the same time that Dougan, making the most of a window of opportunity, launched his spear at the misshapen harridan, catching her squarely in the shoulder. I was finally able to edge my way round the pit to confront her one-to-one when all of sudden everything went dark. Even I with my tunnel-trained eyes couldn’t see by fingers in front of my face. Nevertheless I swung out blindly with my blade, trying to connect with the space where the hag had been moments before. Nothing! She must have moved. Putting all my effort into concentrating on hearing I heard a stone on the floor scrape off to my left. Striking out blindly this time I connected and felt the blade sink deep into her flesh.
The darkness fled from the room and there lying at my feet was the last of the three sisters. Now we had the advantage on the wolves, able to come at them from both sides. Still, it was a close thing for Elathan, who almost had his throat taken out by one of the creatures. If Dougan hadn’t got there in time, the creature would have certainly ripped out his windpipe, armour or no. We had done it. Siandabhair was safe. We had succeeded.