Chapter 8: The Sea Hag.

“Rapunzel!" the Hag called more peremptorily from below.

"Oh, I must let her in!" the girl said, jumping off the couch and becoming human-sized.

"You mustn't!" Grundy said. "She and I are natural enemies!"

"I don't know what to do!" Rapunzel exclaimed, distraught.

"Whatever you do, don't let her in!" Grundy said. "She is an evil creature."

"Rapunzel!" the Hag called again.

"I just can't believe what you say about Mother Sweetness!" Rapunzel said, going to the window.

Grundy realized that the more he tried to condemn the Hag, the more it damaged his own credibility in the damsel's eyes. He would have to face the Hag directly. He dreaded the prospect, but saw no alternative. "Then let her in," he said with resignation.

Rapunzel was already taking the combs out of her hair and letting it drop down outside the Tower. Then she braced herself as the Hag took hold below.

Grundy saw how the slack went out of her hair and how it jerked as it was hauled on. But this did not seem to discomfit the girl as it might have; her head moved only marginally as the hair took the weight of the climber. He realized that this was part of its magic: not only did it add no particular volume or weight to her head, it nullified the weight of what touched it, as far as Rapunzel was concerned. She really seemed to be a creature of two magic talents--but he knew that the magic of heredity didn't count as a talent, so her size-changes weren't a talent. The rules of magic could seem devious at times, but they were reasonably consistent.

What was he going to say to the dread Sea Hag? He was horrified by the prospect of this confrontation. She doesn't have any other magic! he reminded himself desperately. All she can do is kill herself and take over the body of whoever lets her. I don't need to be afraid of that! But he was afraid. He wished he could have avoided this scene. If only he had left before the Hag returned!

All too soon the Hag reached the window and scrambled in. She was indeed an ugly creature. She wore a black cloak and black cap with a dangerous-looking hat-pin, and black high-heeled boots and black gloves; even had she been beautiful, her aspect would have seemed sinister. Her facial features were not physically deformed; in a picture they might have seemed ordinary, considering her evident age. But evil animated them, causing her mouth to be lined with cruelty, her nose to project snoopiness, her ears to be attuned to slanderous sounds, and her eyes to focus on all that was ugliest in the situation. Grundy hated her instantly and thoroughly--but he was also sickly afraid of her.

"Mother Sweetness!" Rapunzel exclaimed, embracing the Hag. That appalled Grundy, but he dared not protest.

The old woman glared about, her nose sniffing. "I smell an intruder!" she snapped. Then her mean old eyes fastened on Grundy.

"I--I have a visitor--" Rapunzel explained faintly.

"That's no visitor--that's a wretched golem!" the Hag hissed.

"You aren't any great beauty yourself, picklesnoot," Grundy retorted automatically, before he realized what he was going to do. His terror of the Hag reduced him to his most fundamental nature: the smart mouth.

"I'll get rid of it!" the Hag exclaimed. She strode to a closet and fetched out a broom.

"Whatcha going to do with that, witch--ride it?" Grundy demanded.

"I'm going to sweep you right out of this Tower!" she exclaimed, coming at him with the broom.

"Oh!" Rapunzel exclaimed, appalled by this violence.

Suddenly Grundy realized that this could be a way to convince the damsel of the truth about the Hag. Let the evil witch show her nature! "You couldn't sweep the dust out of your ears, old snoop!" he taunted her, dodging nimbly to the side as the deadly broom swept across.

"Stand still, you runt, and I'll flatten you!" the Hag grunted, smashing the broom down at him.

But Grundy had had decades of experience dodging just such attacks, and readily avoided the blow. However, he paced himself so as to be just a little way clear, so that the Hag would not know how clumsy her attack was.

This had an unanticipated effect. It fooled Rapunzel too, and she screamed as the broom landed. "Ooo, you'll squish him!" she cried, horrified.

Grundy was quick to take advantage of the situation. He scrambled to the damsel and hauled himself up her skirt and to her pretty shoulder. "Don't let her squish me!" he pleaded in her fair ear.

The Hag, enraged, raised the broom like a club and charged forward--only to discover where Grundy had gone. She paused, broom threatening.

"What are you doing. Mother Sweetness?" Rapunzel cried, distraught. "I've never seen you like this!"

The Hag lowered the broom and composed herself, not wishing to disillusion the damsel. After all, if Rapunzel ever got the notion that the Hag was evil, she would not cooperate by yielding her body for the Hag's use.

This, Grundy realized, was the true confrontation: the question of whether Hag or golem was telling the truth. If he could win that, he would be able to rescue the damsel; if he could not, then all was lost.

The Hag forced a smile to her malevolent face. "I am only trying to rid this chamber of this rodent," she explained.

"Ask her why she keeps you prisoner here," Grundy suggested.

"But you are not a prisoner, my dear!" the Hag protested before Rapunzel could speak. "This is your home."

"Ask her why you never get to go out," Grundy prompted.

"But someone must remain to supervise the lighthouse lamp," the Hag said. "It operates independently, but sometimes it glitches, and then it must be promptly attended to. You know that, my dear. Now just let me remove this vermin--" She extended her gloved hand.

"Ask her why she doesn't tend the lamp while you go out," Grundy said quickly.

"But you don't know the outside world," the Hag said.

"Yes I do. Mother Sweetness," Rapunzel said. "You have taught me all about Xanth, haven't you?"

This made the Hag pause. She had of course taught the damsel only what she felt it was safe for the damsel to know and that would also be useful after she took over the body herself. Naturally a lot had been omitted, but it would be awkward to admit that.

"Has she told you about the way the Monster of the Sea never uses the lighthouse beam?" Grundy asked the damsel.

"But the Monster does use it," the Hag protested as innocently as she could pretend.

"How odd that the Monster told me the opposite," Grundy remarked.

"Rapunzel, are you going to believe this little liar?" the Hag demanded.

Now Rapunzel hesitated. She really did not know whom to believe. "I--"

Grundy saw that straight dialogue was not going to do it. He would have to force the Hag's hand more directly--and that would be risky. "Maybe I'm wrong," he said to the Hag. "If I stop insulting you, will you let me alone?"

The sinister calculations passed almost visibly across the evil face. The Hag didn't know how much he might have told the damsel before the Hag's return, or how much of that the damsel believed. Certainly she didn't want him staying around to utter more truths to the damsel. She would try to eliminate him at the earliest opportunity. "Why of course, you little--creature," the Hag said with a semblance of sincerity.

So far, so good. "Then I'll just cross over to the bed and rest myself," Grundy said. He climbed down Rapunzel, who was a bit startled by the procedure, and scooted across the floor to the bed. He hiked himself up the leg of it. "Stay alert," he muttered to Snortimer as he passed.

He reached the top, and made himself comfortable. "How about something to eat, old crone?" he inquired politely.

The Hag stiffened. As he had suspected, she had not taught Rapunzel the meaning of terms like "crone." The damsel probably thought it was a respectful address, and the Hag dared not signify otherwise.

Then the Hag smiled, though it was as if she had to use hooks to stretch her grim mouth into the configuration. "Of course, Golem. I'll be right back." She trundled out to the kitchen.

"Mother Sweetness always speaks the truth to you?" Grundy asked in the moment that granted him. He knew the Hag was listening, and would zip right back if he tried to disillusion the damsel.

"Always," Rapunzel agreed.

"So if you ever found her deceiving you in one thing--"

"Here is your food," the Hag said, back already. She carried a chunk of hardbread almost as big as Grundy himself.

"That's great, old trot," he said with a smile. "Set it down right there." He gestured to the foot of the bed. But the Hag was bringing it right to him.

"I know this will do you good," she said between her clenched teeth.

"On your mark. Snort," he murmured, low-level.

Suddenly the Hag dropped the roll and grabbed Grundy.

"Ha, I've got you, you little chunk of garbage!" she exclaimed.

"What are you going to do with me, grotesque Hag?" Grundy demanded loudly.

"I'm going to wring, your stupid tiny sniveling neck, Golem!" she said.

"But you promised to leave me alone, snotface!"

"And you were fool enough to believe me, you bit of rag and bone!" she exclaimed with satisfaction.

"But that means you broke your word, prunebottom!" he said as if shocked.

"Oh!" Rapunzel cried with maidenly dismay.

The Hag glanced back at her. "Oh, shucks!" she muttered. "Well, I'll get her straightened around after I'm rid of you. She always listens to my side, when there's nothing else." And she took hold of Grundy's head and started to twist.

"Now, Snort!" he screamed.

A huge hairy hand reached out from under the bed and grasped the Hag's thin ankle. It squeezed and yanked.

The Hag let out a truly grotesque shriek and dropped Grundy. Simultaneously there was a snort of deep disgust:

Snortimer's, because of the poor quality of the ankle he had had to grab.

Grundy was ready for this. Instead of falling, he clung to the witch's hand, scrambled to her arm, and up to her shoulder. There in her cap was the huge metal hatpin he had spied before. While she flailed with her arms, trying to catch her balance, he took hold of the round knob at the base of the pin and hauled the length of steel out of the hat. In a moment he had a fine sword.

The Hag finally managed to wrench her foot away from Snortimer's grasp. Grundy jumped down to the bed, holding his weapon. He bounced several times, as if on a Mundane trampoline, but kept his balance.

"What's a Monster doing under this bed?" the Hag screeched.

Grundy scrambled off the bed and dashed across to Rapunzel. "Are you satisfied now?" he called to her. "You saw her break her word!"

"There must be some misunderstanding," Rapunzel breathed, distraught. "She couldn't have meant to--"

"Hey, old bag!" Grundy called to the Hag. "What are you going to do with me when you catch me again?"

"I'm going to bite your troublesome little wooden head off, and spit it into the sea, Golem!" she called back. "Right after I hack this Bed Monster to pieces and cook it in the pot!"

"No misunderstanding, as you can see," Grundy said. "She's an evil old woman, who has deceived you all along. She cares nothing for you, only for your body--when she's ready to take it for herself."

"No, no!" Rapunzel cried, completely shocked. "That can't be true!"

"Hey, old dog, how old are you?" Grundy called to the Hag. "Is it true you were born yesterday?"

"I'm thousands of years old!" the Hag cried, stalking him again with the broom.

"That's impossible!" Grundy exclaimed. "You don't look a day over a century!"

"This body is only sixty years old," the Hag said, swinging the broom. "I took it forty years ago from the last girl I raised in this Tower."

"Just as you are going to take Rapunzel's body," Grundy said sneeringly as he dodged the swipe. "Of course nobody believes such nonsense."

"Nonsense?" she screeched. "I'm a Sorceress, you contraption of rag!"

"You mean to say you never cared for Rapunzel at all, old frump?"

The Hag, intent on stalking him, had grown heedless of the damsel's presence. "Of course not, Golem! No more than I cared for any of the fifty maidens I used before. They're all mere fodder for my longevity."

Grundy saw Rapunzel lean against the wall as if about to faint. She had had enough. "Snortimer!" he cried in Monster-tongue. "When I douse the light, you go tie the damsel's hair to the chair, get her out the window, and help her climb down. I'll distract the Sea Hag."

Snortimer snorted agreement from under the bed. Then Grundy lunged at the lamp with his weapon, running it through. The glass chimney shattered; the flame shot high, then puffed out. They were in darkness.

"Think that will save you, Golem?" the Hag cried, bashing at the spot with the broom.

"No, but maybe this will," he cried. He strode forward and plunged the hatpin where he judged one of her big feet was.

He scored. The pin stabbed into bony flesh. The Hag let out an ear-splitting screech and jumped back. She wasn't seriously damaged, for the leather of her boot protected her foot, but now she was twice as angry as before.

There was an exclamation from Rapunzel. "Go with Snortimer!" Grundy cried to her. "Make yourself small, get on his back; he'll take you safely down!"

"But you--" she faltered.

Grundy lunged at the Hag's ankle, catching it a grazing blow. "I will follow, once you are safe!" He jumped back as the broom came at him again, telling its position more by sound than sight.

"You little piece of excrement," the Hag cried. "When I get through with you, you won't be more than a spot on the wall!" And the broom smashed down with such force that the wind almost blew him off his feet.

"You can't even catch me, you big piece of excrement!" Grundy responded.

"Just let me make another light!" the Hag said. She fumbled her way to the kitchen, where there was evidently another lamp.

"Going down," Snortimer called in Monster-tongue.

"On your way!" Grundy replied. "I don't know how much longer I can distract her."

The Hag came back, carrying a new lamp. Light flooded the chamber. "Where's the damsel?" she screeched, abruptly realizing what had happened.

"She's gone, old fang," Grundy informed her. "She has escaped your clutches at last."

The Hag dashed to the window. "She's descending her own hair!" she cried. "I'll cut it off!" She drew an immense carving knife she had evidently brought from the kitchen.

Oops! Grundy hadn't counted on this! One slash with that knife, and Rapunzel and Snortimer would both plunge to the rocks below.

He charged forward--but now the Hag could see him. She pointed the terrible blade at him. "Come within range, Golem, and I'll skewer you right through your big mouth!"

Grundy hesitated. Her threat was no bluff; she could and would do exactly that. He would not be able to do anyone much good if she wiped him out. Strangely, he felt no fear, now, just a wary frustration; how could he distract the Hag long enough to allow Rapunzel and Snortimer to reach the foot of the Tower?

The Hag reached behind her and caught the hank of hair that went out the window. It was securely knotted to the chair, and the chair was too big to fit through the window, so the anchorage was good. But now the Hag slowly brought the knife to the taut hair. "One cut, and poof!" she cackled, grinning.

Grundy thought fast. If he charged in, she would skewer him, then cut the hair. His hatpin was no match for her knife. If he threw the hatpin at her, it might distract her a moment, but couldn't really hurt her, and then he would be without any weapon. If he insulted her again, she would merely get even by cutting the hair. He had to find some other way.

He found it: logic. "If you cut that hair, Rapunzel will fall to her death--and you won't have a nice young body to take over. You'll be stuck up here with no way to get down and no body left to take but mine."

"Yuck!" she exclaimed. She looked at the knife, then withdrew it. "You're only half-right, Golem, but that's enough. I'm not limited to whatever's close at hand; when I become a ghost, I can travel any distance to seek a new host. But it is true that I don't enjoy pot luck; I'd much rather have the body I have so carefully prepared, young and beautiful and packed with exactly the information I have chosen. So I won't kill her." She grimaced. "But you I have no use for. You I can dispatch now."

She lunged for him, her blade sweeping through the place where he stood. But Grundy, alert for exactly this treachery, jumped straight up, came down after her hand passed, and stabbed a mighty stab of the hatpin into the back of her hand.

"Yowch!" she screeched, wrenching her hand away. The pin was caught in it; Grundy had to let go lest he be carried along. But he made good use of this new moment of distraction. He ran to the lamp and shoved at its base, trying to push it over. In darkness he would be relatively safe.

"Oh no you don't!" she exclaimed, recovering herself enough to snatch up the lamp. It had been too heavy for him to budge quickly enough; that ploy had failed.

Grundy scrambled for the window. He grabbed the hair and started to let himself down outside.

The hair was now slack below him; Snort and Rapunzel had reached the bottom! But now the Hag's head poked out the window. "I don't want her to die, but I'm happy to have you die, Golem!" she exclaimed, putting the knife to the hair again.

She had him this time! Grundy could neither let go nor stop her; his life was in her hands. But perhaps his wit could save him. "If you cut it, you'll still be trapped up there," he said. "You can kill yourself and seek another body--but right now Rapunzel won't accept you, so you'll be stuck with whatever else is handy, and then you'll have to die again to get to Rapunzel. You'll have to get her up here again, without her hair to climb on. That's an awful lot of trouble to get one silly golem."

"Confound it!" she swore. "I hadn't thought of that! I don't like to die any more times than I have to. It hurts, for one thing, and I'm disoriented for a while after I move into a new host. The girl would be apt to get away."

"Too bad, old wrinkle!" he agreed.

For a moment he thought he had overdone it, for her knife slashed at the hair. But then she stopped. "You'll not trick me that way, Golem! I will preserve my descent. But maybe I can still get rid of you!" And she took hold of the hair and started to shake it.

Grundy's grip on the hair was already tiring, for he was not used to sustained hanging. Now he was banged against the ivory wall. He was in worse trouble than ever; even if she stopped moving the hair, it would not be long before he fell on his own. It was a long way down!

But at least he had saved Rapunzel! If he had to die, this was the way to do it. He had at least done somebody some good.

"Get away, monster!" the Hag cried angrily. Grundy wondered at that, as his hands lost power; he was hardly a monster!

Then his grip slipped. His little hands tore free of the hair, and he fell into the night.