It was the size of one of the Big People, wrinkled and green. It was a creature—a woman!—with algae for hair and needle-thin teeth, shut eyes and folded hands. It was a Sea Hag, a hideous lady of the water, and if Pirosha made a single movement, she would sense him and drag him under.
Trembling cold seized him. He shut his eyes and waited, praying to the dear gods that she wouldn’t smell him—after all, she was under water—or that he wouldn’t move and she, sense the tremor of his step.
When he opened his eyes, she had floated by. Pirosha swallowed his fear and walked toward the illumination. He prayed every second that he would not run into another Sea Hag, floating in the swamp and waiting for a meal to snatch. When his nanny had warned him not to wander beside lakes as a child because of Sea Hags, he hadn’t believed her. Now, he did.
At last he came to Hag Hollow. For once Pirosha could see the night sky and the billions of stars. Hags of all kinds, much taller than Pirosha, had joined hands in a circle and were dancing as they sang a song in their grating voices:
A child was born on Midsummer’s Day
A male child, a hag-child—Lord Milkweed, I say!
His eyes are bright scarlet, he’s hungry for bread
Bread made of crushed-bones! From the best bones he’s fed!
Every variety of hag Pirosha knew danced in the circle: the gray Death Hags who fed on life force, who appeared when a person was about to die; the purple Night Hags whose ugliness could kill (thank Peong, Pirosha did not look at them closely); the green Sea Hags; the blue Dream Hags who appeared in nightmares; the white-and-red Pox Hags who caused ravaging disease; and many more, of other colors, that Pirosha did not recognize.
At the center of the circle lay a green baby with bloodshot eyes, gnawing a bone in his already-grown teeth. A pile of bones sat at his feet.
If he had not been green-colored, and a norg-eater, Pirosha would have considered Lord Milkweed the most beautiful baby in existence. Pirosha’s nanny had told him hag males were as beautiful as their mother and lovers were hideous. Their powers of magic vastly exceeded any other of the hags; yet they only lived to age 33.
Despite his efforts at silence, a whimper escaped Pirosha. He hesitated again, then took an awkward step forward toward the muck… and a coarse hand caught him by the scruff of his collar.
“Hello, Pirosha,” said the voice of Granny Nightshade.
Nightshade brought Pirosha into the center of the dance circle, right next to Lord Milkweed. Pirosha shielded his eyes so that he could not view the death-inducing ugliness of Nightshade.
“Why must you be so evil?” he said. “Why must you eat, and eat, and eat? I came here to defeat you, but now I know that it is impossible. You Big People are far too strong for me… I am little even for a norg.” A hot tear streaked down Pirosha’s cheek.
“Hush, hush now,” Nightshade said like a mother to her child. She cradled him in his arms, which sent a fiery streak of anger through Pirosha’s body.
Pirosha clenched his teeth and made an effort to channel his rage. He grabbed Nightshade’s neck and tried to squeeze, to either strangle her or die in the effort. It was no use; her neck was thick as bone.
Pirosha sighed in frustration. “My nanny was right! I should never have gone into the swamp.”
“Yes, your nanny was right,” Nightshade said. “So why did you disobey her?”
“I disobeyed her because you hags threaten to end our lives in Kalamar. You killed my father… you kill, kill, kill! Eat, eat, eat!”
“You are brave,” Nightshade said. “You will go down in history as the bravest norg who ever lived. You will have many adventures in your lifetime.”
“What are you talking about? This will surely be my last adventure!” Pirosha said. “And so be it! I will die knowing that I tried to stop you.”
The hags kept dancing round the green baby.
“There are things out there that think of children as snacks,” Nightshade said. “And whatever you do, don’t go into the western swamps, for in them lies death.”
“Wait!” Pirosha said. “My nanny said that! So long ago I’m surprised I can remember. And you—were you watching me my entire childhood?”
“Not watching,” Nightshade said with a knowing smile, and Pirosha grew angrier. “Know that it is I who birthed Lord Milkweed. The spirit of nature chose me out of all my sisters. I will not harm you, Pirosha. I do not plan on it. I, Nightshade—high mother of the Murk Coven, second only to Granny Yaga in power—will not let you come to harm tonight.”
“I will kill you or die trying!”
“You may try!” Nightshade said. “But you won’t, and you can’t, nor will you die trying. Tonight was the greatest test of your bravery. I will not let Kalamar come to harm. I will be your guidance. I wanted to test your mettle. And you have proven yourself brave! Brave enough to come into the swamps where your nanny told you not to. Brave enough to face Hag Hollow.”
“Did you kill my nanny?”
“No,” Nightshade said. “She and I are the same; I was, and still am, your nanny.”
“I disguised myself in the form of a norg; I was sickeningly beautiful in that form. By your father’s seed I grew pregnant; I lay pregnant for three years; young Milkweed clawed inside me ceaselessly.”
“You killed my father.”
“Only so that you would be rightful Lord of Kalamar.”
“I didn’t ask to be Lord of Kalamar.”
“It is your destiny.”
The hags sang a little louder.
Pirosha grabbed his pentacle and cried out, “I call upon you, Lord Peong, to protect me!”
Nightshade grabbed all his amulets, tore them from his neck, and cast them to the floor. “Do not try to use magic against your nanny!”