Author: AJ Cooper
Piorin stretched his arms toward the top of the bed, but he couldn’t reach it. His nanny grabbed his tiny hand and hoisted him up onto the soft, cold linen.
“I will never be a warrior,” Piorin said. “I’m too small.”
“Maybe one day you’ll be big and strong; sometimes, norgs grow in spurts.” His nanny smiled widely. “You may become a brave warrior yet. And you will be a wise warrior; you will remember to always bring your sword and pony wherever you go.”
“Don’t laugh,” the nanny said and ran a hand through his brown hair. “There are things out there who eat norgs. And whatever you do, never go into the western swamps. In them are snakes and harpies. But worst of all, there are hags who will gobble you up.”
Piorin loved his nanny’s stories, but even as a child he did not believe in hags. And besides, as a member of the House of Bayne—the most ancient and powerful clan in the Kalamar Forest—his parents expected absolute bravery out of him.
When his nanny went missing on Piorin’s thirteenth birthday, he mourned in private. His father Filosha already looked down on him for his tiny size, and his mother Branwyn thought him too emotional. He cried into his bed—the bed where his nanny told him her stories.
When Piorin reached puberty, and he hardly grew at all, he received the unfortunate nickname of Shortsprout—which followed him everywhere he went, and even the scullery-maids and servants used it against him. His parents, who wanted a powerful warrior as a son, seemed the most disappointed in his stature. All this made him miss his nanny all the more.
Still, the traditional ceremony took place when Piorin turned seventeen. In a small clearing in the wood, the servants lit torches. The dancers performed a pavane to the sound of pipes and drums. The partygoers ate a feast of venison and hard cider. Pink and blue ribbons draped from the trees, and the norg-children danced around maypoles.
At sundown, Piorin waited in the center of the clearing. His father walked up to him and handed him a sword. The clan blacksmith had named it Elvathan: “Death to Enemies.” The clan sorceress had dipped it in eldritch waters while hot, and woven the blade with intricate magic: spells of ivy and scrub-brush and green growth; spells of harsh sunlight and pricking thorns and choking vines. The clan priest named him Pirosha—“sha” being a title equivalent to the human “sir”—and his father brought him a handsome silver pony, which Pirosha named “Luna,” or, in their language, “Light.”
“You are a man now,” said his father, whose beard by now had turned gray. “Serve me well. You will lead armies against the spiders and the harpies. You have trained all your childhood with the sword; now you have one of your own. You have no brothers or sisters; you are the only one who survived to adulthood. Therefore, you must carry on your mother’s and my lineage.”
Eirin, high priest of the earth-god Peong, stepped forward as his father turned and walked back. “It is an honor to die in battle,” he recited. “But it is a greater honor to live in victory. Remember this throughout all the wars you wage, all the lands you conquer, all the innocents you save.”
Piorin knew the speech was only ceremonial; norgs no longer fought each other, nor did anyone die in battle. The House of Bayne already conquered the whole forest.
The priest continued the rehearsed, ceremonial speech that had not changed since its inception. “When Lord Bayne crossed the great snowy mountains and wandered to this land, we drove the harpies from the forest and into the western swamps. When the Big People from the south tried to conquer us, we made a treaty. Once the people called us dwarves; now, that is improper, for we do not live under earth nor do we create great works of iron. We are thin, and we shave our beards. We are the norgs, the dwarves of the forest. Remember this always.”
“I will,” said Pirosha.
That autumn, when the lush green oaks turned to shades of red and orange and brown, and the air turned chilly, Pirosha’s father grew ill. At the same time, rumors spread that strangers had entered the Kalamar Forest. There were rumors in Lockland, the land-between-two-streams, that a Gray Ghost wandered the woods, singing a captivating song and drawing people out of their homes that were never seen again. Some said a dark spirit had possessed the lord of Honeymead Village, who had fallen into a delirious state and given mad orders. And when Pirosha heard the Gray Ghost singing in Bayne’s Dain—the chief province of Kalamar—he decided to act. He fetched his pony from the stables, got his sword, and was just about to leave through the gate when his father’s bodyguard stopped him.
“Your father wishes to speak with you,” they said.
Pirosha grudgingly obeyed, going into the stone-hewn fortress where he and his family lived.
Lord Filosha slumped lifelessly in his throne, yet he still spoke. “Do not leave, my son,” he said. “Do not go into the forest and chase after the Gray Ghost.”
“Why not?” said Pirosha.
“Because I said so. Is that not adequate reason, shortsprout?”
The name hurt him and was unlike his father, but he dared not question him. “I suppose it is, milord,” said Pirosha. “But I do not understand.”
“You need not understand,” said Filosha. “Only know that it is against my wishes for you to fight the Gray Ghost.”
“Father,” Pirosha said, “how did you know that’s where I was going?”
Filosha flashed a yellow smile. “I know many things, young Pirosha, that you will not begin to imagine.”
Pirosha shivered. His father seemed not himself.
That night, a captivating voice filled the forest. Pirosha listened from his bedside window.
Come to me, and dance, and sing
Come to me and honor your king
We bask in joy, and you should follow
For a male has been born in the Hollow!