The sun dropped below the horizon, leaving an empty orange glow behind the trees on the ridge above him. Terry huddled beneath the purloined tarp and flicked at the pile of sticks and branches with his lighter. The damp wood refused to ignite, mocking him as the chilly wind swept up from the lake.
Terry threw his lighter to the ground and slumped back beneath the tarp in disgust. It didn’t matter. He didn’t have anything to cook anyway. His fishing rod leaned against a tree a few feet away, mocking him with its bare hook. As if sensing his agitation, his stomach growled again. If he couldn’t find food soon, he would have to admit defeat and go crawling back with his tail between his legs. He wouldn’t do that. He couldn’t do that. He was right, damn it.
Clenching his teeth, he leaned toward the bundle of kindling and held out his palm. He let a single guttural word slide past his lips, just enough to cause the wood to smoke and spark. The tiny flicker of power was enough to send his world spinning and his stomach roaring again, but the flames caught and he allowed himself to lean back into the makeshift tent. The warmth was a pleasant change from the cold damp of the last few days. Of course, it would only last until the park ranger showed up and made him put it out, but until then, he’d be warm.
“Y’ain’t very good at this, are ya?”
Terry looked up to see a pair of enormous black eyes flickering red and orange in the light of his fire. The glossy black orbs were set in a wide, flat face framed by thick waves of brown hair hanging down in strands like weeds.
As he stared, the fish creature came a little closer, letting the light slide over silvery scales. The body was mostly human, but the shapes were wrong. It was sagging skin and folded flaps of flesh. Terry knew what it was, but couldn’t bring himself to mouthed the words.
“Y’all can say it, I’m a river hag.” As Terry watched, the hag came fully into the firelight. She — and it was definitely a she in all of its nudity — stopped and put webbed, clawed hands on her hips. “Y’all act like y’aint never seen a woman before.”
Terry scrambled backward into his tarp, entangling himself fully before he even had a chance to get away. As he struggled with the tarp, the hag began to howl with the glee.
“Now that ain’t no way to greet a lady,” she said. “‘Specially one that came to bring you dinner.”
Terry managed to pull himself free of the tarp but was still having a hard time finding his voice. Spirits powerful enough to manifest in the world were always dangerous and he barely had enough strength left in him to light a fire. The fear gnawing at his mind took control of his tongue and he said the only thing he could think of.
“Are you going to eat me?”
The hag laughed again. The force of her guffaw sent rippling waves across the lake and a brilliant light shown in the corners of her eyes. “Eat you? Lord have mercy. Aren’t you just precious. I ain’t gonna eat you. If I was gonna eat ya, you’d done be ate.”
“So, what are you going to do with me?” Terry asked. Somehow, he managed to find his feet, but in his hunger and exhaustion, he was more wobbly than threatening.
“Feed ya. Boy, I been watching you for three days. You is the worst fisherman I ever saw. But Old Saddy, she gonna take pity on you.” The hag reached behind her back and pulled free a pair of large catfish. As soon as he saw them, Terry could see the resemblance.
He wanted to accept. He needed to accept. It was clear he was never going to catch a fish on his own.
“What’s it going to cost me?” Terry asked. He knew enough about spirits to know there was always a price.
“Shoot, you are brighter than you seem. Maybe they’s right about you.” The hag tossed the fish down on the ground next to his fire where they flopped and wriggled and gasped for breath. “I’ve seen some things. Can feel it in the water. Change is comin’ and Old Saddy plans on being ready. So tell me, mage boy, what you doing out here all alone?”
“None of your business,” Terry said. His eyes stayed with the fish, wondering what the best way to cook them would be.
“Maybe y’all consider that my price,” the hag said. “Y’all tell me what you doing, and y’all can have the fish.”
“There’s only one of me,” Terry said. “You said so yourself. I’m alone.”
“Boy, I been ‘round as long as water flowed in the Mississippi. I know you ain’t never alone. Not in the way you think you is.” The hag took a step back and sat down on the far side of the fire. Even sitting, her eyes met Terry’s. “Now, cook your fish and tell me what’s troubling you.”
Terry weighed his options. He could starve to death, admit defeat, or put an ounce of trust in a spirit he didn’t know. He decided to go with the least painful option.
“All right. I can’t go home. If I do, they’ll know what I’ve done. My grandfather will be pissed. There are a lot of rules, but I managed to break all of them.” Terry gestured down at the fish. “Is that a good enough answer?”
“I dunno, does it feel like a good enough answer?”
Terry sighed. “No, I guess it doesn’t.” Still, he squatted down beside the fire, pulled out his pocketknife, and began to clean the fish. “He didn’t want me to go to the Academy. He knew what they were planning. But I went. I became their weapon. He taught me how to fight, but he also taught me when the fight. I didn’t listen to his lessons. I listened to the Order. How can I go home? How can I face him with him knowing what I’ve done?”
The river hag made a clicking noise in her throat and shook her head. “Way I reckon it, a grandpappy loves his grandson. A good grandpappy will love his grandson no matter what the fool boy did. But, what do I know? I don’t have any sons or grandsons. Daughters all the way down.”
Terry shook his head, not sure how to answer. He stayed silent while he finished cleaning the fish and laying them across the fire. Once they were sizzling and popping and the smell was growing pleasant, he leaned back on his heels and looked up at the river hag again.
“What did you mean about change?”
She made the clicking noise again. “You don’t see it. Do you? Balances are shifting. Tides getting broken. You can feel it in the water. But you don’t much care for water do you?” She leaned back on her long flabby arms, webbed feet toward the fire. “I sold you two fish in exchange for your answer. What are you going to pay me for mine?”
Terry pulled the fish free from the fire. He tore off flaky pieces and shoving them in his mouth. The taste was amazing and his stomach gurgled in satisfaction as he ate. He didn’t have anything. The only meal he’d had for days, she’d provided. He wouldn’t even know what to offer a river hag.
“I’ve got nothing you need.”
“Oh, but maybe you got something I want. Tell me, mageling, are you familiar with Altoids?”
“You mean the mints?” Terry asked. Was she being serious? He couldn’t tell.
“I do. Spearmint. Can’t get enough of them, can’t go into town to buy myself. Let’s make a deal. I will answer any question you ask in exchange for a full tin of spearmint Altoids.”
“That’s only an awfully good deal,” Terry said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any Altoids right now.”
“Well, maybe there is something else,” the hag said. She leaned forward, eyes sparkling red and orange from the firelight. Her face and narrowed and hardened. “The time will come when I’m going to need a way out of this lake. You promise right now to carry me out when I say it’s time, and I’ll let the spearmint slide, just this once.”
“What’s that mean? Carry you out?” Terry asked.
“It means this old spirit gonna piggyback on your soul. I don’t think you’ll mind. I won’t be the first, will I?”
“No. No, you won’t.” Terry took another bite of the fish giving himself a chance to think it over. She couldn’t force him, even if he made the deal. He had to accept the spirit in. There was absolutely no danger in making the promise. “Okay, it’s a deal. When the time comes, and not tonight, I will carry you from the lake to the destination of your choice.”
Saddy nodded. “Yes, yes you will. So you want to know what change is comin’.” She leaned farther forward, letting the light cast strange shadows across her scales. “I’ll tell you. The time has come. The seventh has been born. And me and you, boy, we got roles to play.”