Still, Pirosha forced himself to enter into the thick, watery growth. He crossed the bridge into the river and reached an overused, hole-covered path. He cut through thick, thorny growth and entered the swamp. Above him hung a canopy so thick that Pirosha felt he walked from day into night.
Here he would inquire for directions to Hag Hollow.
The first “village” he came to in the dark recesses was a collection of huts from which smoke and the scent of roasting crawfish floated out. The walls of the huts were made of clay and sticks; the roofs, dried yellow reeds. Signs hung above some of the huts, which Pirosha couldn’t read although they were in Dwarf script, and read like a conglomeration of hissing noises; the harpies had no writing system of their own prior to contact with the dwarves.
Feeling his heart race as the harpies moved toward him—the raven-winged, predatory females and the wingless, scrawny males—Pirosha touched the hilt of his sword. Met with sharp hisses, he removed his grasp. “Hello,” he said. “Do any of you speak Dwarvish?”
“Me do,” a black-haired harpy woman said in a thick, spitting accent. “I am Mina. I am wise-woman of Mugrat Village. Only wise-woman in leagues.”
“I inquire for directions to Hag Hollow.”
A few harpies gasped. Then, dead silence.
“You look smarter than you talk,” said Mina. “Hags are ravenous. Hags have been robbing children of ours. Eating them in their swaddling clothes. No one help us harpies. Hag Hollow is deadly. You will not survive, not with the most amulets in the world. Not clothed in the sun, not clothed in the stars. Male-hag has been born; a feeding frenzy has started to feed him. Bad times. Dark times.”
“I repeat myself,” said Pirosha. “I inquire for directions to Hag Hollow.”
“Fool, you are,” said Mina. “We harpies do not care whether you live or die. However, if you are eaten, one of us will not be. I will lead you to Buckwort Village. Hag Hollow is four leagues up Barkflower Path, and one short walk west into the swamp. We call the hollow Heart of Darkness because it is a source of all evil.” She paused. “I will lead you to Buckwort. I see you are brave. Even the harpies honor that. I hear in your part of world… the males are warriors. Queer… I never heard of such things. But I will lead you, brave-male.”
“Thank you, Mina,” Pirosha said.
They ate a full meal of barely-cooked crawfish. Then, after grabbing a crude iron knife, a sling, and a few stones, Mina took off down the path and Pirosha followed her on his pony.
They rode on. They passed through the muddy, overgrown bog and Pirosha occasionally thought of taking some of the large pink or orange swamp-flowers to brighten his day; however, Mina told him they were “deadly poisonous.”
As he rode poor Luna, Pirosha wondered at how a harpy was helping one of the norgs. None of the norgs back home would believe it. But there was a saying attributed to Lord Bayne: “Nothing brings two together like a mutual enemy,” referring to the First War.
At dusk, they came to Buckwort Village. Mina shrieked. Pirosha looked ahead. The entire village seemed to have sunk below the muck; the dozen huts were half-submerged, as if someone or something had drawn them into the mud with a spell. Skeletons—picked clean of meat—floated in the water.
“Tiacka save us!” Mina cried.
A whimper escaped Pirosha, and suddenly the amulets hanging around his neck felt heavy as millstones.
“The hag-baby will eat us all!” Mina howled.
“Hush! Hush!” Pirosha said. “You’ll draw attention to us.”
“Sorry,” she whispered. “This is the biggest city I know. All dead! All dead! The great wise-woman Hiskwort taught me here. She is sure dead.” She turned to Pirosha, cheeks streaked with tears. She shrieked again.
“Hush!” Pirosha growled. “Someone will hear you.”
But she kept sobbing loudly. Something green began to rise out of the water.
Pirosha took off on the northward-leading path and galloped away as Mina’s agonizing death-cries filled the swamp. Guilt seized Pirosha, yet he knew that if he stayed back to protect Mina they would both die and the hags would never be stopped.
As he rode up the path, hands shaking, he shut his eyes and prayed that Peong would grant him protection.
Pirosha knew that sleeping was a terrible idea. He rode up Barkflower Path as night fell. As the swamp grew pitch-black and completely unnavigable to norg eyes, Pirosha realized he had not brought torch.
What a fool I am!
Then lights appeared all around, granting dim illumination. It became evident that the orange swamp flowers had begun to glow. Eventually Pirosha’s eyes adjusted and once more, the land became visible. He took a few deep breaths, then coaxed Luna on.
At the marking Mina described, he hopped off Luna. He did not want anything to happen to her; to Pirosha, animals were always innocent and using them for warfare was always cruel. He brushed her mane, and bade her a quiet night and to run off.
He hesitated. After ten seconds of waiting, he took a trembling step into the thicket. He felt eyes watching him at all corners, but he knew it was just his imagination. At least, he told himself he knew. As he walked westward—west toward the long-set sun—he prayed without cease, eyes nevertheless open. He drew his sword out quietly. He made sure not to step into any noisy pools or crunching leaves; hags could not see very well, but they had a much better sense of hearing than norgs or even the Big People—especially the Big People.
As he made his way through the tangled brush, torchlights appeared in the distance. He crept toward them as silently as he could. Then something in the water caught his eye: green, yet a lighter color green than any plant he had ever seen. He looked down, observing in the dim light, and saw it was not a plant but something bigger.