Pirosha tried to make sense out of the song, but it was futile. Pirosha never heard the song in his life, and his court minstrel knew hundreds of songs. The ethereal voice only caused the garden-snake of unease to wriggle in his stomach.
After a little effort, he fell asleep.
In the morning, Pirosha heard that a mother and two children had wandered off into the forest that night, northeastward into the wilds toward Summervine, and not returned. He determined at that moment that he had to disobey his father, or he would not be serving his first priority: the realm itself. He slipped into the forest and evaded the guards.
Into the oaks, he rode on his pony Luna: deep into the chilly, red-gold forest in the cold light of dawn. He had to get to the bottom of the song, and the mystery of the errant Gray Ghost.
He rode the pony northeast as fast as it would take him. About two miles in, the scent of something cooking hit his nose. It was a foul, rancid smell. He followed it fast and drew his sword, and at last came to a forest clearing. There, a cauldron boiled above a burning fire. Next to it was a woman in a gray cowl, humming as she stirred the pot. She was huge—the size of one of the Big People, if not taller. She began sniffing.
“I smell the flesh of a norg,” she said. “His musk is royal. Granny Nightshade might gobble you up, but she will cook you well. And you will be ground-up and served as mash to the holy gullet of newborn Lord Milkweed. What greater honor is there in all Varda?”
Pirosha drew his sword quietly out of its eelskin sheath. Then he raised it above his head, and prepared to charge.
It was then that Pirosha realized Granny Nightshade had, instead of nails, long claws that extended from her fingers—razor-sharp claws that looked like they could tear the skin off a norg’s bones. He couldn’t see her face, and he didn’t want to.
Pirosha charged as his heart thundered inside his chest. At last he was within striking distance of Nightshade; he hacked downward with his sword—and her claws, hard as steel, blocked effectively. Then she pushed him hard, sending him flying off the pony. He hit the ground with a painful thud.
“Ah, I can see you now,” said Nightshade. “You are small, even among the norgs. Making mash out of you wouldn’t satisfy Lord Milkweed; he is a hungry baby and craves much raw flesh.”
Pirosha stood up. Despite his fear, a growl escaped him; he didn’t mind norgs calling him small, but a witch? He charged again; with one swipe of her claws, she cut his arm.
“You are brave. You would have made a good warrior. Too bad today is your death-day.”
“How do you know that?” Pirosha said.
Nightshade let out a squawking, gooselike laugh. She grabbed the folds of her cowl. “Because no norg can handle the wondrous nature of my appearance.”
The cowl dropped. Pirosha’s heart went up into his throat. She was naked; her skin was wrinkled and bluish-purple. Her breasts were small and disfigured. Her eyes—her eyes!—they bulged, mismatched in size: bloodshot, yet deathly hungry for flesh. Moles, warts and boils covered her sharp, jutting face; and yellow teeth were thin as needles and twisted.
Pirosha screamed and shielded his eyes, falling onto the floor. The blood from his arm collected around him. If he had looked at her for more than one second, his heart would have ruptured. “Never have I seen such ugliness!” Pirosha screamed.
Granny Nightshade laughed bashfully. “Oh. Thank you.”
“You will haunt my dreams forever.”
“You shouldn’t flatter me so!” she said. “I could force you to look at me for longer… then you would die. But I won’t do it. Do you know why?”
“Because I like you, young norg. You are bolder and stronger than any norg I’ve met. You are much stronger than your father, whom I possessed…”
“What do you want from us? Why did you come?”
“The child, Milkweed, has been born,” said Nightshade. “I have crossed the border to announce it. He is Hag-Odam, the one who will lead our race to dominate Kalamar. When he is grown, all my coven will come. We will hack and burn the forest, and reshape it into our image. My deed is done; I have announced Milkweed’s birth to all; and I will return in seven years, when the holy child has come of age. If you wish… pay your respects in Hag Hollow.”
She vanished, flying away in the pot on wings of shadow.
When Pirosha returned to Bayne’s Dain, the clan physician bound his wounds, yet they could not heal the memory of the uncloaked Nightshade.
As he wrapped the bandage tight, the physician said without much regret, “Your father died this morning.”
Pirosha went to his bedroom. He shut the door as hot tears streaked from his eyes. He would never get the chance to prove his worth to old Filosha. He would never get the chance to win his father’s respect and love. The hag had sent him plummeting into death.
At the funeral the next day, Pirosha’s wellspring of tears had run dry. But a fire kindled in him. He would avenge his father. He would go into Hag Hollow, into the swamps, and he would slay the queen hag. Either that, or he would die trying.
The next day, he went to the clan sorceress. She outfitted him with charms: a pentacle to ground him in the earth; a steel Cerne’s Cross for the blessing of nature; a star amulet to protect him from the Hag’s Eye; and a dozen rings to grant him the sorceress’s protection. She performed a ritual of smoke and incense, read him wise sayings from the Book of Earth, and anointed him with oil.
Piorin left the estate in the care of his mother. Then, once the magic was finished, he hopped on his pony and rode west… west into the forbidden swamps, the land his nanny told him never to visit.
At the eaves of the Murk Swamps, he hesitated. Harpies lived in the swamps: hideous, winged creatures and masters of poison. Yet when Pirosha’s ancestor, Lord Bayne, defeated them, they made a truce: norgs could go into the swamps without incident, as long as they didn’t make trouble. Killing a norg without good reason would be an act of war. Yet often those who went into the swamp never returned, though no war had waged between the harpies and the norgs for a hundred years.