There was an interruption of Danka’s studies from the end of September until the end of October. The Church staff, like everyone else in the country, had to put forth all of their energy into harvesting and preserving food for the winter. The men hauled bushels of firewood and charcoal, along with fruit, vegetables, and vinegar to the women’s residence throughout the month. The women toiled to convert fruit into preserves and pickle as many vegetables as possible. Danka was familiar with the fall harvest routine, but it was nice to have a large well-supplied kitchen as a workspace and decent food and seasonings as ingredients.
In the middle of October Danka received a nickname from the Temple’s top Clergywoman.
Among the students and penitents, she was the only one that had no qualms about slaughtering animals. Danka’s lack of sympathy towards livestock served her well in a household of squeamish companions: every time someone showed up with an animal the others were very happy to turn over the task of killing it to the newcomer. Chickens, rabbits, sheep, pigs… it didn’t matter. The young peasant was quick with the knife or the cleaver and the animal was dead before it had a chance to realize what was happening.
Danka received her nickname on an occasion when the Senior Priestess visited the residence, immediately after she had killed and gutted three pigs. The penitent was a savage sight at the moment, standing with a large knife and her body and face completely covered with blood. She immediately knelt, but the Priestess was so amused that she ordered her to stand up and return to work.
From that moment, Danka was known as “the bloody one” instead of “the new visitor”. Receiving an identity from the Senior Priestess was an important accomplishment, because it demonstrated that the Clergy members had fully accepted the new penitent as a member of their community. She was not “new” anymore. The danger of anyone questioning her Public Penance had long passed.
The coming winter became more of a hardship for the penitents as November passed and the weather became increasingly colder. The seminary students put on their dresses, but the penitents did not have that option. No matter how cold it was outside, they were prohibited from wearing any clothing. In theory the restriction included shoes, but in reality none of the Clergy were so cold-hearted that they would force penitents to walk around in the snow with no protection for their feet. Danka still had her boots and for the first time in four months was allowed to put them on.
Danka’s world shrunk considerably after the first snowstorm. She and the other penitents spent as much time as possible in the kitchen, the only warm spot in their residence. The only other place to go was the study room, which had a fireplace. So… when she was not working, Danka read the books that the seminary student had assigned.
“The bloody one’s” lessons resumed after the fall food-preserving rush had ended. The seminary student was as determined to teach as the penitent was to learn. She had mastered basic reading, so now it was time to move on to calligraphy, arithmetic, and the use of the abacus. During December, the penitent’s mornings were split between the three topics. She enjoyed arithmetic and learning the abacus, but hated calligraphy. Her clumsy hands rebelled against the art of fine writing, so the penitent decided to ignore writing and concentrate on math. By the end of the year Danka had mastered adding and subtracting.
The seminary student was not pleased. She was determined to force the penitent to learn how to write cursive, because Danubians did not consider a person was truly literate without having that skill. She came up with a plan to force Danka, on her own, to want to switch over from writing block-letters to formal script. The winter solstice and new year were approaching, along with Christmas. (The Old Believers were not enthusiastic about celebrating Christmas, but there also were True Believers living in Starivktaki Moskt, so the Temple included Christmas in the December celebrations to keep everyone happy.) The multiple celebrations meant that lots of hymns and announcements had to be written on parchment and passed around. The seminary student volunteered to write out a portion of the announcements and tasked “the bloody one” to assist. Danka was directed to write page after page of lyrics. For several days she struggled to keep up writing in her usual block letters. Certainly her ability and comfort writing block letters increased with all that practice, but she was unable to keep pace with anyone else. She regretted not having learned calligraphy as she watched the seminary student and her companions write out page after page with relative ease. As Danka labored in frustration, the trainee glanced at her with an expression that clearly stated: “Now you can see why knowing how to write is important. This time, I’m not going to offer to teach you. When you are ready, you will have to ask.”
Finally Danka did break down and asked to restart the calligraphy instruction. While the change of attitude was too late to help her during the preparation for the December festivities, she was determined that the following year she would not have to go through the embarrassment again.
She paused. The following year… was she planning to still be with the Temple that far into the future? So… what would the following year bring for “the bloody one”… the girl with the knife… the outcast… the former peasant? Where would her Path in Life take her?
The new year came and went. The final round of religious festivities was followed by several feasts that offered “the bloody one” the chance to try several foods she had never tasted before, including imported nuts, dates and figs. There was endless singing, poetry readings, and listening to music. For the first time in her life, Danka actually had fun during the end-of-the-year holidays.
Considering her alternatives, she began the new year under seemingly ideal circumstances: she was well-fed, living in a safe place, and rapidly making up for her deficient upbringing. The final task of learning how to write cursive was daunting and hugely frustrating, but she forced herself to push forward, knowing that her mentor had gone through great effort to obtain parchment and ink for her practices. The winter passed with her sequestered in the reading room, painfully writing over paper that already was covered many times over with letters from previous practices, or working on the new mathematical topics of multiplication and division.
When she was not practicing, Danka was reading. She now had the ability to read directly from the holy books of the Danubian Church. She memorized some Psalms from the Christian Old Testament, as well as key passages from the Book of the Ancients and the Book of the True Path. She could read the text from hymns, which helped her during the Temple’s singing practices. In March, Danka’s mentor handed her a book that described all of the important places in the Duchy, including areas in Lower Danubia that had been lost to the Ottoman Empire. Danka didn’t have a clue what the Ottoman Empire was, so the apprentice handed her another book about Danubia’s history. Now, this truly was amazing, being able to learn about different times and different places without actually going there.
The descriptions of cities like Danubikt Moskt, Sumy Ris, and Rika Chorna made “the bloody one” anxious to see them. They sounded like fascinating places, with all those people and stuff to look at.
“The bloody one” didn’t think about how quickly nine months had gone by until her mentor started talking about the upcoming celebration of the March equinox. She tasked the penitent with producing copies of the Senior Priest’s sermon, along with hymns and various announcements related to the day’s events. Danka was reluctant to assume such an important task with her writing skills still not completely developed, but the student responded: “You will serve the Creator as I have instructed, I will be satisfied with your work, and that’s the end of it. Why learn if you’re not planning to use your skills to serve the Creator?”
So, for several days, Danka slowly and laboriously copied the text as instructed. She didn’t produce her copies at a fast pace, but that was not a concern for her mentor. When she finished, the student looked over the sheets and congratulated Danka.
“You are now literate. You can read and write. Your Path in Life will demand that you work on your skills and improve, but my part is finished.” Then she added: “We will go before the Senior Priest. I want to show him that you have completed this portion of your Path in Life.”
A few minutes later, Danka nervously knelt beside her mentor in front of several Clergy members. When the two women knelt upright, the student handed her ward’s papers to the Senior Priest. After examining them, he addressed “the bloody one”.
“You declare before the Creator these papers are the product of your efforts?”
“Yes, Senior Priest. It is my handwriting.”
The Priest handed the penitent a copy of the Book of the True Path and instructed her to read several paragraphs he chose at random. Danka complied and read aloud. He directed his attention to his student.
“You have done well, Apprentice. Your student is indeed literate and you have pleased the Creator and the Church with this tasking. You may consider it completed.”
“Thank you, Senior Priest.”
“The bloody one” now understood the trainee’s motive for teaching her was not completely altruistic. As part of the requirements for taking vows, all Danubian Clergy apprentices were required to teach at least one completely illiterate person per year how to read and write.
When they left the Temple, the apprentice noted Danka’s disillusioned expression. She understood why the penitent would be upset, upon realizing it was not out of friendship that she had spent so much time teaching her. The apprentice also knew how, as a future Priestess, she needed to respond.
“Penitent, you will understand that whatever emotion you felt for me was displaced. I am not the one who gave you the opportunity to read. That opportunity came from the Creator. I was merely the Creator’s instrument to fulfill the Divine Purpose in your Path in Life. If you wish to express gratitude, you should go into the Temple and give thanks to the Creator.”
The equinox celebrations included the annual Blessing of the Crop Seed, in which all of the nearby farmers brought in a portion of the seed they wanted to plant for an official blessing from the Senior Priest. The event also was an opportunity for the Church to pass out experimental seeds, both for plants which had been cross-bred and for imported plants that were entirely new. The Church maintained several experimental farms around the Duchy where penitents and apprentices worked with plant-breeders to find better crops and farming techniques for the country’s farmers.
The experiments incorporated an important part of the Old Believers’ theology. The Creator had prepared the Earth for humans long before giving life to the Ancients, who were the ancestors of humanity. The Ancients were all-knowing, but their descendants rebelled against them and the Destroyer forced the younger generation to forget everything they had learned from their parents. The Creator recalled all of the Ancients to the Realm of the Afterlife. The Creator then commanded it would be up to the humans left on the planet to recover that lost knowledge, to learn how the Earth worked and how best to live in it. As a result, the Danubian Church was much more open to scientific discovery than its counterparts in the rest of Europe. To the Danubian Church, every new understanding of how a scientific process worked brought humanity closer to the Knowledge of the Ancients and ultimate redemption. Crop experimentation that resulted in better food were especially important for recovering what was lost in “humanity’s great rebellion”.
The return of warm weather also meant the return of the male penitents, most of whom had wintered with their families. Leading them was a very handsome, and very pompous young man dressed in new Western European clothing and riding a horse. Danka noted the apprentice’s disapproving look when the young man knelt in front of the Senior Priest. More shocking was a very faint hiss, so quiet that only Danka could hear it. It was very obvious the trainee did not like him.
The apprentice later explained the young man was the son of the Senior Priest and that his name was Bagaturckt. “He’s traveled all over: Vienna, Warsaw, Florence, Berlin, and in one of those foreign cities the Destroyer broke his soul. That man is lustful, proud, and greedy. He’s everything we are not supposed to be. The Senior Priest is a fine man, but the Destroyer blinds him every time he is around Bagaturckt.”
“Bagaturckt didn’t study for the Priesthood?”
“He can’t. The children of Clergy members cannot become Clergy themselves. That protects us from the vices of the nobility and keeps the Church open for everyone, not just a few favored families. When you behold a dishonored tool of Destroyer like Bagaturckt, you can understand that policy is wise, very wise indeed. Bagaturckt would bring the Destroyer into the heart of the Temple if he could take vows.”
“You… you really hate him, Apprentice?”
“I do. We are not supposed to hate, but I hope the Creator understands that my hatred of Bagaturckt is quite justified.”
As the weather became warmer, the apprentices put away their dresses and resumed their summer-time lives of constant nudity. The exception was Danka’s mentor. Her dress was in sorrowful condition, but she kept wearing it. The same was true for her fiance: his robe was threadbare and torn, but he did not seem worried about preserving it for another winter.
The reason became obvious when the apprentice cheerfully announced that she and her fiance were getting married on the last day of April. The very next day Danka’s mentor and her husband would be ordained as Clergy members. (May 1st was the traditional day that the Danubian Church ordained Priests and Priestesses, while June 21st was the traditional day new apprentices entered seminary studies.)
The wedding was simple and humble, as demanded by Danubian Church protocol. The only people present were the Senior Priest and his wife. The couple was married in their apprentice outfits: there was no special dress for the apprentice. The only other person present was Danka, who the apprentice had selected to hold a bouquet of flowers and her wedding jewelry. The couple exchanged vows on their knees. They stood up and Danka handed the traditional Danubian marriage jewelry to the groom: a silver ring, a silver necklace, and a silver hairpiece. The new husband took the items one-by-one and placed them on his wife and clergy partner. The entire affair was over in less than half an hour. The couple disappeared for the rest of the day to consummate their marriage.
The induction into the Priesthood on the following day was much more elaborate. The families of both the new Priest and the new Priestess were present, along with the Temple’s entire staff and several town officials. Danka and the other Temple women sang while the new Clergy members knelt naked for the last time in their lives. They handed over their tattered apprentice robes for the ritual burning. Once the old clothing was reduced to ashes, they received a final blessing from the Senior Priest. Then, the Temple’s other Priests and Priestesses brought out new clothing, a long black robe with golden embroidery for the new Priest, and a black dress with red trim for the new Priestess. The clothing totally changed their appearance and how the rest of the world would see them.
There were several other gifts for the new Clergy members, including new copies of the Church’s holy books, staffs, and ritual cleansing bowls. The couple would take the items to their new home, but they would remain property of the Church. Danubian Priests and Priestesses did not own anything. They were committed to a life free of material possessions and lived off the generosity of their parishioners.
Immediately after ordainment the new Priest and Priestess would travel to a provincial village and take over a church from a Priest and Priestess who were old and whose health was failing. A squad of city guards showed up with two spare horses and a pack mule to escort the couple to their new home. “The bloody one” was the last person in the Temple to say goodbye to the new Priestess. According to protocol, she now had to kneel, just like she would with any other member of the Clergy. When the Priestess told her to stand up, Danka couldn’t think of what to say. Finally the Priestess spoke:
“Penitent, the Creator cares much more about you than you realize. And, I too, am blessed for having known you. Your friendship was a gift that will stay with me.”
The young Priestess did something not common among the Clergy, she kissed the penitent’s hands. She then joined her husband and the guards as they mounted their horses and disappeared from the penitent’s life.
Danka knew that she should have been happy for her mentor, but she was not. The apprentice had been her only friend in the Temple. The others had accepted her, but treated her with indifference. She knew that, with the apprentice out of her life, she’d have to assume the silent and isolated lifestyle of the other female penitents. She didn’t want to live like that.
Many of the Temple staff noted special goodbye given by the new Priestess to “the bloody one” and the penitent’s teary expression as the entourage left the Temple. Among them was Bagaturckt, the Senior Priest’s flamboyant son. He noted how pretty the young penitent was, how she stood out among the drab women of the Temple. She was the perfect image of naked innocence, a young woman who clearly had no experience with men. He wondered if she was a virgin. She certainly looked like one.
Bagaturckt’s weakness was seducing and dominating women. They fascinated him and he wanted to experience being with as many as possible. He wanted them, and momentarily desired each one he had been with. There had been countless Danubians, along with Poles, Prussians, Florentines, Austrians, Magyars… all of them lovely… each worthy of a poem or a song. He collected experiences with women in the same way other men collect books or antiquities. And from each woman he learned something, details about the feminine sex that assisted him with his next conquest. Yes, there had been so many, all of them beautiful, each in her own way. And now, looking at the naked little penitent kneeling at his father’s Temple, Bagaturckt knew who was destined to be the next object of his desires.
Before moving on an intended lover, Bagaturckt observed her and people surrounding her to gather as much information as he could. His initial observations already had provided a lot of information on “the bloody one”. Her nickname and how she got it indicated that she came from a lower-class background, because the daughters of nobility and guild members almost never killed farm animals. The girl’s behavior during the departure of the new Priestess was that of a person who had lost her only friend. Too bad it had to be with that particular apprentice, because that might complicate things. However, Bagaturckt knew the “the bloody one’s” mentor did not like to talk about herself, so it was unlikely she had divulged much information about their time together. It seemed the penitent did not talk much with anyone else in the Temple and was totally intimidated by the ordained Clergy members.
As he led the male penitents to Temple gardens and conversed with them, Bagaturckt picked up more information about “the bloody one”. The new penitent had shown up the previous summer after walking into town from the west, carrying a bucket with a few apples. Whoever collared her had not given her any instruction about Church protocol. She was so ignorant that initially the Clergy were suspicious, but immediately after she arrived, the apprentice took responsibility for the newcomer and prevented anyone else from the Temple from interacting with her. Whenever the apprentice went anywhere, she took “the bloody one” with her. It seemed she enjoyed going out and getting away from the Temple. She spent the winter learning how to read, write, do arithmetic, and sing. Prior to showing up at the Temple she was completely illiterate.
Bagaturckt volunteered to escort the female penitents on their outings to the Temple gardens. The men did the heavy work, but the women were tasked with maintaining the flowerbeds and collecting the flowers that decorated the Temple during the summer. He observed “the bloody one” as she moved among the plants. She seemed sullen and lost in thought. Obviously she needed some cheering up.
He started slowly, asking “the bloody one” about her work in the garden and what she thought of it. Unwittingly Danka gave him a lot of information by responding that Temple work was very light compared with what she had been used to before leaving home.
“Your home is to the west of here?”
“So… how do you find your life here? Not in the Temple, but in Starivktaki Moskt? Does the city please you?”
“Starivktaki Moskt is a nice city, but I find it small and a bit restrictive. I’ve seen other places… had dinner at the Duke’s castle, and visited the lands beyond… to the west.”
Bagaturckt noted the curious look in the penitent’s eyes.
“I understand that you find strange places interesting as well, is that not so?”
“Yes, Master… but I’ve just read about them. I… I haven’t traveled much.”
“That’s a pity, because a young person ought to travel. There are so many things to see. It’s sad to see a beautiful young woman like you pass her life away picking flowers in a garden.”
Danka blushed at the thought of being called beautiful by someone as handsome and sophisticated as the son of the Senior Priest.
“You are beautiful, you know. I hope people have told you that, because it is true.”
The penitent blushed again, because no… no one had told her she was beautiful. Whether or not it was true, people just didn’t say things like that at the Temple.
“You… you really think so, Master?”
“I truly do. And please… I am not your master. It would greatly please me if you use my proper name, Bagaturckt.”
“You are a rose in a field of dandelions and daisies. You are a swan among the ducks. You are a cathedral among the cottages. Yes, that is the nature of your beauty.”
Danka was dumbstruck. Never before had she heard anyone talk like that, and certainly not to her. Bagaturckt took note of the girl’s expression and continued:
“You are a gift the Creator has bestowed upon the world, and woe will come to those who fail to appreciate the Creator’s blessing.”
The penitent totally forgot about her mentor’s hostile reaction when she first saw Bagaturckt. In her eyes the man was the nicest one she had ever met. He certainly knew how to make an ordinary girl feel special. Who else in Danka’s life had ever bothered to do that for her? Before leaving, he kissed her hand and departed with a promise:
“I will write a poem for you tonight and bring you a present tomorrow.”
Bagaturckt would indeed write a poem from the penitent, although it was more accurate to say he would plagiarize one for her. The young man had studied poetry in his spare time and had a supply of poems stored in his memory that he could use on his conquest of the moment. It didn’t take much to write out someone else’s poem on a sheet of parchment with a couple of name replacements and hand it to some unsuspecting woman or girl. That night he grabbed 30 sheets of parchment from his father’s study and wrote out 30 different poems that clearly referenced the penitent. He had not bothered to ask her name, nor did he need to know it for his intentions. Not knowing her name made the poems sound more mysterious anyway.
During his time at his father’s temple, Bagaturckt became “the bloody one’s” world. True to his words, he had a poem for her each time he saw her. And there were presents as well: dates, salted almonds, Turkish delight. Increasingly he touched her, starting with her hands, then moving to her arms, shoulders, and back. Danka was so enamored with him that she never thought of resisting or trying to slow him down.
Bagaturckt had a specific plan for the penitent. Because she was a virgin, he wanted to take her somewhere he could truly enjoy the experience of deflowering her. He did not want a quick tryst on a hillside or hidden in the woods: he wanted to save the penitent for a truly special round of sex. He would open her, as a present to himself. He would be the first man to enjoy her body and was determined that he would enjoy everything she had to offer. He would indulge his desires and take away every bit of her innocence. Then, he’d dispose of her, either by returning her to the Temple or finding some other relatively safe place to leave her. It wouldn’t be the first time he had done that.
Bagaturckt considered himself a man of the Enlightenment, but in reality he was a dilettante. He dabbled in pseudo-scientific projects and belonged to various groups of like-minded men around central Europe, which was an important reason he was traveling so much. During the summer of 1751 he wanted to travel into the mountains at the northern edge of the Duchy to explore and search for some special alchemy ingredients. Specifically he wanted to find and bring back samples of a rare mushroom that only grew along a single streambed in northern Danubia. The plant was known as the “the joy of the Ancients” and it was a unique species of hallucinogenic psilocybin mushroom. By the mid eighteenth century it already was rare, and botanists believe it later went extinct around 1820. Bagaturckt’s friends in Vienna doubted the existence of “the joy of the Ancients”, so he wagered a purse of gold that he could find, preserve, and deliver samples of the unique hallucinogen.
Bagaturckt wanted a trustworthy companion who was used to living outside and dealing with harsh conditions, so his best option was to find a peasant girl to accompany him on the trip. It was obvious that among the women of Starivktaki Moskt, there couldn’t have been a better candidate than “the bloody one”. She was pretty (which mattered the most), but she also understood outdoor life and could do things like cook over an open fire and handle dead animals. She wasn’t close to anyone in the Temple and it seemed no one in the Temple would greatly miss her if she left. Also, she admired him (which was only natural and appropriate) and was willing to do what he told her to do.
After securing two horses, Bagaturckt’s next concern was getting “the bloody one” out of the Temple. For that, all he needed was the permission of his father. The Senior Priest acquiesced, as he always did whenever his son wanted something. Sure… you can take her. Probably will do her some good to move about… she seems a bit restless anyway.
Bagaturckt approached the penitent with the happy news; that she’d have the chance to travel with him and see one of the most beautiful areas of the Duchy. They would travel to the northern provincial capitol of Severckt nad Goradki and then keep going, into the highlands and the very edge of the country. He talked about the towering mountains and waterfalls, thick forests and ancient trees… about a land of mystery and magic. And she was going to see it.
So, on the first day of June the Senior Priest’s son, accompanied by his favorite Temple penitent, departed Starivktaki Moskt. They were riding horses with special Church markings to ward off the Destroyer and potential attackers. Besides, Danka was still wearing her penance collar and remained naked, which further discouraged anyone from bothering her and Bagaturckt. Danka’s collar was another reason Bagaturckt found her useful as a traveling companion. Because she didn’t know if she would return to the Temple, Danka took her bucket, along with a copy of the Book of the Ancients and the items Tuko Orsktackt had given her.
Traveling by horse, Bagaturckt and his companion embarked on a two-day journey northward. They traveled through numerous villages and traversed countless farms and orchards. Bagaturckt talked endlessly about his travels, rightfully assuming his companion was eager to hear more about the outside world and the experiences of a bold adventurer. When they stopped, he indulged himself kissing her and caressing her body. She was eager to be touched and eager to give herself to him. She shivered with pleasure when he fondled her breasts and touched her thighs.
They stopped for lunch and she listened to another poem he had dedicated to her. She cuddled in his arms and enjoyed the feeling of protection. As he held her, she imagined being married to the fine man, serving him and being everything a good wife should be. She’d go with him to all of those foreign places and do everything to make his life wonderful. She would strive to be the best wife she could be.
Now she knew why she had to endure so much suffering. The Creator was testing her and preparing her for best man a woman could possibly have. She no longer feared the future. She was happy, and she knew that there would be many more years of happiness with her beloved Bagaturckt.
Historian’s Note: “The Bloody One” sounds more awkward in English than it does in Danubian. The Danubian word for blood is “grobackt”. The name “Dekgrobackta” would literally translate to “the woman covered in blood”. “Dek” is an affirmative prefix that is widely used in Danubian and converts many nouns into adjectives. The “a” at the end of an adjective often converts it to a nickname that describes a woman or girl.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –