The first two Followers among those who had left the settlement for the winter returned in the middle of March. The men braved several days struggling up mountain trails covered with icy mud, leading four pack mules loaded with spices, dried fruit, books, and correspondence from Sebernekt Ris. The men’s arrival was a time of excitement in the settlement as its residents spent their meals reading letters and listening to the newcomers’ updates on events around the Duchy.
One of the men, a middle-aged field-surgeon named Ermin, also brought some bad news. In October he had left in the company of his pregnant wife, but returned as a widower. In January the wife had suffered a miscarriage and died of blood-poisoning a few days later. Ermin was distraught, because he was unable to help her and never managed to figure out what happened. He spent the day after he arrived with Babackt Yaga, carefully describing his wife’s symptoms and the measures he took trying to save her. The Cult leader kept a journal in which she detailed unsolved medical cases, and now faced the unhappy task of adding one of her Followers to its contents.
Danka never understood why, but of all the middle-aged men in the settlement from whom she had received instruction over the previous summer, she had liked Ermin the best. He had traveled widely and was interesting to talk to. He also was an excellent instructor for the newcomers, patient and capable of explaining complicated subjects so that anyone could understand them. If an initiate did not grasp what he was teaching, he did not automatically assume it was because of his pupil’s stupidity or stubbornness.
Precisely because Danka liked Ermin, Babackt Yaga tasked her with helping him unpack and setting up his bath. The alchemist figured that Ermin needed to talk and knew that Danka was an excellent listener. She also calculated that being alone with Ermin might help Danka begin winding down her relationship with Kaloyankt. She disposed of Danka’s current lover by sending him on a fishing expedition with another young female Follower.
So, Danka accompanied Ermin to the bathhouse. She took his clothes and dropped them in a tub of hot water as he settled into the bathtub. She stripped as well, taking advantage of the heated water to wash her own clothing. She then covered his head with soap so she could shave his face and scalp. He had not been shaved since the end of January. He sat quietly while his young companion cleared away two months’ growth of hair.
After she finished shaving Ermin, Danka told him to just relax while she dealt with their clothing. The Followers had constructed a rolling device to extract water from wet clothes that was much more efficient than trying to wring them out.
She noticed her companion staring at her body as she moved about the room. She couldn’t fault him for it: after having spent two months alone, he couldn’t be expected to look away from the bare figure of an attractive young woman. Danka realized she was somewhat attracted to him as well. The years had taken their toll and he was not particularly good-looking, but she liked his personality and appreciated his talent for teaching. Most importantly, she found him interesting to talk to. She patiently listened as he described what happened to his wife and his own feelings of guilt and sadness. His situation was frustrating, because he understood medical knowledge was advancing and eventually the ability to help a woman in his wife’s situation would be developed. That was fine for future generations, but didn’t do him any good.
As she passed the clothes through the roller, she continued with the conversation. Her background did not give her much experience for expressing sympathy, so she did not try to comfort him with kind words. Instead she encouraged him to go into technical detail about what went wrong with his wife’s pregnancy and what would have been needed to save her. She prompted him to talk as a doctor and a teacher, not as a grieving husband. As always, she wanted to learn. As Ermin’s teaching instincts took over and when he continued to talk about the miscarriage as a medical practitioner, his emotions began to recover.
Danka returned to her companion to rinse off his head and make sure she had not missed any spots. She decided to rub some more soap on his back. Without thinking about what she was doing, she massaged his shoulders. When she inadvertently brushed his skin with her breasts, he reached up, grabbed her arm, and pulled her to his front. He looked up at her with a hungry expression. Suddenly, the mood in the room completely changed.
“You do understand, young lady, that it’s been over six months for me. I have not touched a woman for six months. If you wish to tempt me, there will be consequences.”
Danka was shocked. She hadn’t really thought about sex, but how could she have been so oblivious? She was naked, with a naked man, in a warm room, and had just spent the last hour letting him watch her as she went about her duties. Finally, she was massaging him. Yes, that would indeed be tempting for any man. Yes, there would be consequences. She realized that’s what she wanted. She glanced into the bathwater and noted that he was hard.
She wasn’t sure what to say, but with her free hand she caressed Ermin’s arm. So… it was decided. She would give herself to him. That afternoon her body would belong to Ermin, not Kaloyankt.
Ermin let go of Danka’s arm. He knelt in the bathtub and grabbed the girl’s shoulders. He kissed her hard on the neck and ran his wet hands up and down her back. He stood up, kissed her passionately, and ran his hands over her bottom. She massaged his penis, making it as hard as she could. And yes, he was hard. He certainly would have no trouble entering her.
The bath house was not set up for love-making: there was no comfortable place to lie down. Danka noted a sturdy worktable. That would have to suffice. Actually, the table gave her an idea. She placed her hands on the surface, spread her legs, and looked back at him. She assumed the traditional submissive love-making position.
She looked back at him and smiled. I’m yours. Take me. I surrender myself to you.
Neither lover really understood what was going on in Danka’s mind at that moment. There was no hesitation, nor a single thought about Kaloyankt. She was desperate to give herself to Ermin. Without saying anything, he placed one hand on her shoulder and caressed her bottom with the other. He explored her vulva and slipped his finger into her wet pussy. He teased her clitoris and ran a fingertip around her trembling sphincter. He continued to tease to make her desperate, to make her truly want it.
Finally, he pushed her down onto the table and motioned her to arch her hips to expose herself as much as possible. Six months… he had waited six months. He thrust very hard as six months of pent-up desire and frustration poured out of him into Danka’s eager body. She squealed with pleasure and he grunted loudly. Oh yes, so good.
Babackt Yaga stood near the back wall of the bath house listening to her two subordinates. She was deeply satisfied. Hopefully, Danka would realize on her own that her Path in Life did not include staying with Kaloyankt. He was a fine young man, but it was not his destiny to be Danka’s husband. The alchemist knew that his Path in Life would take him back to Severckt nad Goradki. He would take over his father’s house and help transform that city. To fulfill his Path in Life, he needed a girl acceptable to the town’s nobility. Danka wouldn’t suit him, nor would life among the spoiled aristocrats suit her. They needed to separate. Now that Danka had betrayed her relationship with Kaloyankt, hopefully leaving him would be much easier.
The next day Danka had finished some outdoor chores and was about to return to Babackt Yaga’s study to continue working on transcribing a book. It was still too cold to walk around naked, so she was wearing her coat and boots. As usual, she was bare between her waist and her knees. She saw Ermin repairing a fence. She could tell by his expression that his mood had greatly improved. She now understood the reason that Babackt Yaga had wanted her to be alone with him and was strangely excited to see him. It wasn’t that she simply wanted another round of sex: she wanted something more that she really couldn’t define. She realized that she wanted him to take her again. She wanted to submit to him, a desire she had never experienced with Kaloyankt.
The two Followers exchanged some comments about the day’s chores, before the conversation shifted to the book Danka was working on. Ermin gave the young woman some observations about the translation, but was distracted by the strange look in her eyes. Without really thinking about what she was doing, Danka placed her hands on the fence and smiled. Ermin’s penis started to stiffen. He grabbed her hand and led her behind a storage cabin, to a spot that was hidden from the rest of the camp. There happened to be an abandoned barrel partially buried in the ground, at perfect level for what the two lovers wanted to do. Danka got on her elbows and knees, exposing herself as much as she could. Ermin caressed her bottom and teased between her legs. Already she was wet, but Ermin made an odd comment, originally meant to be a joke, that set loose a wild fantasy in her thoughts.
“You really are an undisciplined temptress, young lady, distracting me from my duties and ignoring your own. Perhaps your bottom is more suited for touch of the birch rod than the touch of my hand.”
Her heart pounded at the thought of submitting to discipline from him. As her lover’s hand gently stroked her bottom, she went wet thinking about what it would be like to endure the birch rod. To be alone with him in a hidden part of the forest, to be bent over, feeling his fingertips on her unprotected skin, but knowing that the sharp sting of the birch rod was only moments away… yes… she knew that she wanted it, as long as it was Ermin wielding the switch. She thought about the anticipation, of going out among the birch shoots and finding the perfect rod, peeling off the bark and cutting it to the right length. Oh yes… then she’d shyly hand it to him… and surrender herself.
Ermin’s fingertips gently traced her wet labia and teased her clitoris. He was surprised by how wet she had become. Her breathing was coming out in gasps. Fascinated by her reaction, he patted her bottom and added:
“You haven’t answered my observation, young lady.”
“I, I’d like that.”
Danka was shocked by her own answer. Yes, it was something she suddenly craved, but she couldn’t imagine confessing such a strange desire.
“Yes my love, you would like it, wouldn’t you? Naughty girl… I knew it. Then I’m obligated to accommodate you. As soon as the snow clears I’ll take you to the birch grove and we’ll spend a nice long afternoon there.”
With that he entered her. She experienced a delicious orgasm as her thoughts filled with the strange fantasy that she was destined to share with her newest lover.
Kaloyankt returned from his fishing trip in a strange mood. He was eager to make love to Danka, but there was something very strange about what he was doing. It seemed he was desperate, as though he wanted to prove to either himself or to her that they were still a couple and still committed to each other. Danka wondered if he suspected her relationship with Ermin. However, she reasoned it was much more likely that he had cheated on her by making love to his fishing companion, which would have been fine with her.
Instead of paying a visit to Altar of the Equinox, the Followers spent March 21 through March 23 stranded in their settlement. A late winter storm covered the entire northern mountain range with heavy wet snow. Nearly half a fathom fell in less than a day, forcing the followers to spend their time cleaning off rooftops and clearing paths instead of giving honor to the Ancients. The leader retreated into her study which, during a moment of crisis, was unusual for her. No one saw her for three days. When she emerged, she was sullen, morose, and appeared depressed. She seemed reduced in stature, as though she had lost something in her soul. She had nothing to say at the moment, apart from announcing that she had decided to send three of the newest Followers to the seminary in Danubikt Moskt. Out of five recruits, only Danka and Kaloyankt would remain behind. After a moment of silence, one of the young women asked:
“So, we shall not be working in the villages this summer?”
“No. That is no longer your Path in Life. Your Path in Life will be to serve the Ancients through the Danubian Church. You’ll be safer there than anywhere else.”
The young Followers looked at each other. Safer? That was an odd thing for her to say.
Babackt Yaga’s settlement remained isolated for two weeks following the late snowstorm. The snow started to melt within a few days of the storm, but on March 30 the temperature rose and there were two days of heavy rain. The snow was now gone, but the paths were covered in deep mud and washed out in many places. It wasn’t until the second week of April the Followers began using the trails.
Meanwhile, in the settlement Danka continued with her studies and her daily chores. She also struggled to balance the two men in her life. Unlike her relationship with Kaloyankt, from the beginning both Danka and Ermin knew their affair was just that, an affair. There was not a chance they could stay together. And yet, he excited her, for reasons she could not have explained, even to herself. She loved being submissive to him in a way that never would occur to her when she was with Kaloyankt. With her younger lover she would never even think of assuming the submissive love-making position, but with Ermin it seemed to come naturally. As for the promise of a birching in the woods, had Kaloyankt suggested such a thing, she would have brushed him off with a joke. Had he insisted, she would have become angry. And yet, with Ermin, the promised afternoon of discipline and love-making in the birch grove was something she very much anticipated.
As she lay awake, pondering the strange twist in her love life, she wondered what it all meant. She could only hope it wouldn’t end badly. She was still known as “Kaloyankt’s woman” around the settlement and her partner seemed totally oblivious to what she was doing with the Elder. Ermin was tremendously helpful with being discreet. He had his own reason to be quiet: the older women would have disapproved had news about his relationship with the peasant girl become public.
On April 15 the entire settlement packed up for traveling. There were 50 Followers from Babackt Yaga’s compound and the area surrounding Severckt nad Goradki. The Followers’ first destination was the town of Nagoronkti-Serifkti. They spent several days in a frustratingly slow descent as they led pack animals loaded with books, manuscripts, equipment, partially prepared ingredients, and finished potions. The trek down the mountain was uneventful, apart from its physical difficulty. Upon emerging into the flat farmlands of the Western Valley, the Followers put on their formal garments, picked up their skulls, and marched solemnly along the road leading to their destination. They marched at night with their skulls lit, singing ancient hymns in a ritual that had been going on for 5000 years. Along the roads, groups of True-Believer Christians stood quietly and gawked.
Upon arriving in Nagoronkti-Serifkti, Babackt Yaga’s group greeted more of their brethren and set up camp. The town continued to be surprisingly receptive to the Cult of the Ancients, in spite of it being full of True Believers. The Followers had the local Priest to thank for the welcome, given that he was much more concerned about what the Followers could do for his parishioners than he was worried about their Pagan beliefs.
The Followers spent three days in Nagoronkti-Serifkti. During that time, Danka and her companions had little to do, so they took advantage of their free time to walk around the town and the surrounding area. She felt very proud of herself as she showed off to the locals, especially to well-dressed young women and men that were her age. Strange to think, just two years ago they would have dismissed her as an illiterate and dishonored laborer. Had she approached them, they would have hissed and kicked her. Now, they were intimidated. Yes, now, when she looked at them, they were actually afraid of her, afraid of the haughty-looking girl in the sinister back dress.
And the skull on my staff… yes it is real… and I saw the man to whom it belonged when he was still alive. You’ll never match any of that. None of you.
Her thoughts wandered to her hometown of Rika Heckt-nemat. It was not far from Nagoronkti-Serifkti; less than a days’ journey south. Could she go there? Oh, how would she love to return in her Cult outfit and show off and then… and then… and then what? Well, if she went back unaccompanied and her neighbors remembered the Beelzebub story, it was quite possible they’d finish what they started: strip off her outfit, tie her hands, and throw her into the Rika Chorna. That thought made Danka understand a very important reality: her Follower’s dress only protected her and gave her status if she was with other Cult members. As soon as she was alone, she’d be just as vulnerable as she was while wearing her laborer’s clothes.
So… Danka was smart enough to understand that returning home in a Follower’s dress wasn’t going to do her any good. Her Mistress would never approve such a trip and even if she did, the girl’s status as a Follower would be irrelevant. Rika Heckt-nemat was a city of True Believers, where the town council was even more hostile to the Followers of the Ancients than the leaders of Severckt nad Goradki.
However, the temptation of seeking status and power so she could seek revenge did not leave Danka’s thoughts. She wondered: if I can’t do it as a Follower, then how could I do it? She tried to suppress the idea, but it stubbornly resurfaced.
Status… power… revenge…
The long solemn line of Followers marched west from Nagoronkti-Serifkti. They traveled slowly, in single file, with their skulls showing their presence and lighting their way. Each night additional groups of Cult members joined the main procession. They sang ancient hymns and chanted as they marched. They only traveled during darkness and stopped to set up camp as soon as the sun came up.
During the day, the Followers not tasked with cooking or attending pack animals engaged in the usual medical routine; spreading out among the nearby villages to vaccinate the locals against smallpox, perform surgeries, and sell medications. The Cult doctors were welcomed by most of the local villagers, in spite of their strange songs and sinister-looking clothing. Babackt Yaga’s subordinates adjusted their prices according to people’s ability to pay and were perfectly willing to accept trade goods or workers’ services in lieu of silver. When performing operations or delivering a baby, they only demanded payment if the procedure was successful. Even villagers who were totally destitute received attention. The Followers always needed help digging out cave-charcoal, so many of the poorest clients trekked up to the mountains to spend a couple of days pulling black rocks from the ground as reimbursement for medical attention for family members.
With Kaloyankt accompanying her as a bodyguard, Danka spent most of her mornings in village squares or marketplaces selling finished potions and recipes. The birth-control paste was the favorite; Danka could count on selling all of her jars within an hour or two of presenting her wares. Nervous young women, many of whom were keeping their purchases secret from their husbands or fathers, furtively approached her with silver coins as soon as they discovered what she was selling.
The procession left the Western Valley and turned northwest, traveling several days along a winding road through hills and mountains. On the final day of the journey the Followers did not stop when the sun came up, but instead continued moving towards their destination of Sebernekt Ris. In the distance Danka could see the East Danube River and a huge waterfall on the northern horizon. Above the waterfall there were yet more hills, most of which lay beyond the Duchy’s northern border.
Sebernekt Ris was situated in a stunning location, on top of a hill with the main road passing by to the east and steep slopes running to the East Danube River to the west. Danubia’s northernmost city guarded the only access that connected the Duchy to north-central Europe. The waterfall blocked the river as a possible transportation route, so the only way into the Western Valley was by traveling along the road. There was a fort with a cannon battery facing to the north and the main city had two walls encircling it. The city was surrounded by gardens that concealed traps and defensive positions. Assuming that a foreign army could ever force its way past the cannon crews guarding the border defenses, they would still have to capture Sebernekt Ris before moving south.
Danka knew through her history studies that during the reign of King Vladik the Defender there had been two major invasions passing through Sebernekt Ris by armies from the Holy Roman Empire trying to conquer the Danubian capitol. On both occasions the invaders had captured the town and killed most of the inhabitants, but there they remained trapped, unable to make it past the rugged terrain and King Vladik’s guerrilla archers. It was interesting to see the place in real life and try to imagine how it must have been when the King’s Royal Army was battling the invaders.
Babackt Yaga’s old friend Fitoreckt ran the town’s university and print shop. Both institutions were set up inside a large compound that included a bathhouse and bakery. The instructors all wore Cult of the Ancients uniforms, but many of the students were dressed in ordinary civilian clothing. Students stepped outside to unload the pack mules, while the travelers entered the compound to bathe, change their clothes, eat, have sex, and sleep.
The trip was an annual event that mixed religious fanfare, getting all of the Followers together in one place and delivering translations and medical research for printing. Following a huge feast there were singing competitions with sweet-cakes given out as prizes. Danka and her two companions from the previous year won prizes by singing the seduction hymn they had used to capture the Austrian fortune-hunters. The singing was followed by the annual naked dance. All of the Followers, the elders and leaders included, stripped and spent the next hour dancing rhythmically around several bonfires. The dance was followed by the Great Fire Benediction, where everyone had to make love to at least one person he or she had never met. Danka was thrilled and took full advantage of being able to experiment with different partners and without worrying about any consequences or obligations. She wore herself out having sex with six men, ranging from an initiate from Sebernekt Ris to an Elder working in Nagoronkti-Serifkti.
The next morning Danka was one of the first Followers to wake up. She was surrounded by hundreds of naked, sleeping bodies. The entire compound reeked from the stench of sweat and stale sex. Danka knew that undoubtedly she must have been among the most offensive, with the sweat of six men covering her body and their semen dripping out of her vagina. She didn’t know what to make of her situation, now that she was alone with her thoughts. Her body ached and her vulva was raw, but she certainly had no regrets. No Christian could ever do what she had just done. Her thoughts wandered to the uptight Seminary student in Starivktaki Moskt, the one who had taught her how to read. She’d love to see that judgmental woman’s expression if she only knew what her former student had just done. With that the young woman rushed to the bathhouse to bathe ahead of the waking crowd.
She passed Babackt Yaga, who was lying with her arms around a young man who couldn’t have been any older than Danka. The leader’s century-old body was not a pretty sight. Danka smiled and suppressed a laugh. Not bad, Alchemist… 110 years old and you’re still going… not bad at all.
Some of the Followers began departing the day after the Great Fire Benediction, mostly medical staff who would be working in the villages surrounding Sebernekt Ris. Meanwhile, Babackt Yaga and Fitoreckt organized the annual trading expedition that would cross the border. There were items the Followers could not obtain in Danubia, such as amber, copper, jade, chalk, dyes, and several alchemy ingredients. For those items they would exchange medicines, Danubian mushrooms, potions, magnifying glasses, fine linen, and vanity items such as crafted jewelry. A total of 40 Followers would travel north, leading teams of pack-mules and driving several wagons. They changed out of their Followers’ uniforms for the trip. The men put on Trader’s Guild outfits and the women wore average Danubian dresses. The trip was extremely important, so both Babackt Yaga and Fitoreckt would lead the others.
Danka was thrilled as she sat in a wagon riding next to Kaloyankt. Never could she have imagined that she’d actually have to opportunity to leave the Duchy and see a foreign land. Her excitement built as they traveled north of Sebernekt Ris and passed over a ridge between two hills with steep rocky cliffs.
There was a small fort on the road itself, but the more important defenses guarding the route were higher up. Danka knew that the Kingdoms of Austria and Poland, both of which were much larger and more powerful than the Duchy, lay on the other side of the border. However, there had been no foreign invasion attempt since the early 1500’s because of the region’s topography. The cliff-sides were a perfect defensive location, in which the Danubian Royal Army had constructed underground forts filled with captured enemy cannons. The Duchy had been fortifying and improving their positions for two centuries. As long as there were enough soldiers to staff the forts and operate the gun batteries, the northern border now was impenetrable.
After passing the fort and cliffs, the Followers could again see the East Danube River, but now they were above the waterfall. They descended a short slope leading to a small tributary of the main waterway. The smaller river formed the Duchy’s northern border. The region to the north was covered by low hills, most of which were treeless and were being used as sheep pastures. A stone bridge, guarded on both sides by garrisons of border guards, spanned the river. On the opposite side, about half an hour’s ride north of the border, was the town that was the trading expedition’s destination.
The group stopped on the Danubian side of the bridge. They split up: Babackt Yaga would stay behind with the group managing the animals, while Fitoreckt would lead the group making the crossing. Danka would go with the group crossing over because of her experience with bartering and because she had studied German and Slavic. The young woman had her doubts concerning her abilities, but was determined to do her best. She knew having to trade with foreigners was another of Babackt Yaga’s challenges that she’d have to pass.
Kaloyankt explained that the foreigners were scared of witches and would be very likely to burn the alchemist alive if she fell into their hands. Therefore their Mistress had to stay on the Danubian side of the border. He explained how the trading would be arranged: the Danubians crossing over would take a single wagonload of wares. After those items were sold or traded the wagon would return and a second wagon would transport another load. The precaution was necessary to prevent the entire caravan from being attacked and robbed.
“They need what we’re bringing. They’d prefer to slit our throats and take our things for free, but they can’t do that if we have only a small portion of our trading goods with us at a time.”
Danka didn’t know what to expect on the opposite side of the bridge. Unconsciously she had expected everything to be exotic and beautiful, for the Duchy’s northern neighbor to be a land of beauty and mystery. The foreign land was none of that. The trading group found themselves surrounded by stench and squalor as they passed filthy hovels and hoards of malnourished sick children. She observed the peasants working in the fields and noted that the women were much more heavily dressed than Danubian peasants would be. All of the women were wearing aprons, long sleeves, and headscarves. As a peasant’s daughter, Danka couldn’t imagine working outside in such an outfit on a hot day.
The Danubians entered the town. The inhabitants were different from the visitors in every way imaginable. Everyone, except people who were obviously poor, seemed way over-dressed. The women wandered about in large frilly dresses and covered their heads with shawls. The men wore heavy coats with multiple rows of buttons. The hair of both sexes was totally different from the hairstyles of the Duchy. Instead of shaving their heads or cropping their hair short, the male foreigners wore their hair in long pony tails. A few official-looking men had an abundance of white curly hair, which Danka later learned were actually wigs. The women had their hair done-up, but it was not braided. A big difference was the use of hats. Many of the foreigners wore them as symbols of status, which contrasted with the Danubians. In the Duchy hats were a practical item worn by workers and peasants. Guild members wore them as well, but average citizens, especially women, tended not to use head garments.
There were plenty of soldiers milling about. They wore colorful uniforms with tall black hats and carried huge muskets, contrasting with the soldiers of the Duchy, who wore tunics and had light comfortable uniforms designed mostly for running and mobility.
Danka winced at the stench of the foreigners. Unlike the Danubians, they didn’t bathe and they didn’t wash their outer clothing. Many of them were missing teeth and the odor coming from their mouths was something to behold.
The traders passed the town’s cathedral. The priests were all men, dressed in black and carrying crucifixes, in a similar manner as the True Believers in the Duchy. The foreigners moved their hands in front of their chests upon passing the entrance of the church. Danka later learned the gesture was to form an imaginary cross and it was related to the execution of the Son of Man, who the foreigners called Jesus Christ. There were several statues of a woman inside the cathedral which Danka knew through her reading represented Jesus’ mother Mary. It was interesting and a little frightening to see all those statues and the veneration of the Virgin Mary in real life.
The local leaders were hostile to the Danubians, especially the priests, who viewed them as heretics. The average residents were simply curious about the strange-looking traders. The Danubian men were dressed in trader’s tunics, wore their hair extremely short, and had shaved their faces. Even stranger were the women, who were wearing nothing more than traditional white dresses and shoulder shawls, with nothing covering their heads or arms. They casually spoke to their men with confidence and behaved in an arrogant manner unbecoming of a proper Christian woman.
The Followers entered the town market to set up in several stalls they had previously rented. Danka and three older female Followers would barter, but had instructions to only interact with foreign women. They were not to have any conversations with men, because the Danubians had a separate stall set up for male customers. Meanwhile Fitoreckt and an assistant would barter with the local tradesmen to sell their linen and other bulk items.
Danka’s language studies helped her while she was talking to the foreign women. She couldn’t speak well, but she spoke just enough to communicate. She was the youngest member of her trading group, but of the four she was the most talented for haggling and bartering. She cajoled the customers and forced them to admit the Danubians were offering goods that could not be bought from anyone else.
“Our lives are short, and the Lord has numbered our days. Do you really wish to wait until next year to buy what we are selling? Is not the silver you spend today worth the year you will have ahead of you to use your purchase?”
Danka noted what strategies worked to convince the foreign women to part with their silver and what was less effective. As the day progressed she became better at what she was doing, to the point that her companions let her do all the talking and contented themselves with assisting. The foreigners tended to underestimate the young Danubian, but quickly learned the girl was extremely shrewd.
The Followers had three wagons they were using to move their trading goods across the border. They emptied a load of Danubian goods in the marketplace and waited until the wagon was filled with foreign items. A mounted messenger returned to the Danubian side of the border to tell his companions to send the next wagon to the bridge. The new wagon waited until the first one had safely crossed back into the Duchy before proceeding north.
A group of foreign priests entered the marketplace to watch the Danubians with disapproving expressions. When the church bell struck four, they approached Fitoreckt.
“You’ve stolen enough from our people, you thieving heretic. Now take your whoring women and remove your satanic presence from our town. You have defiled and insulted us long enough.”
Fitoreckt ordered the women to pack up immediately. They loaded their few unsold items into the waiting wagon. The Followers were ready with an armed escort to get everyone safely across the border. The women sat in the wagon while the men guarded them with crossbows. Now that the day’s trading had ended and the Danubians had nothing more to offer the foreigners, their situation had become considerably more dangerous. The local priests were disgusted by the presence of Danubian heretics in their city and wanted nothing more than to kill all of them. The locals could have attacked and slaughtered the Followers with the smallest provocation. The only thing holding them back was knowing that if the traders were killed, they wouldn’t be back the following year with their goods.
Danka noted the hostile expressions of the townsfolk and the bewildered stares of hoards of dirty, starving children as she rode out of the foreign town. What a thoroughly miserable place, she thought to herself. So this is what the rest of the world is like?
Danka was enormously relieved when the expedition crossed the bridge and returned to the blessed territory of the Duchy. So… now she could say she had seen a foreign land. Yes, it was true that her foreign experience was nothing more than spending a day in the marketplace of a town right on the other side of the border, but that was enough for her. She had learned many things during her trip, the most important of which was what it meant to be a Danubian. She could take pride in who she was and where she was from. The Duchy had plenty of faults and problems, but life there was certainly better than it was on the outside.
Danka was thrilled when she and her companions passed through the protection of the cliffs guarded by those blessed cannons and fortifications. As the expedition climbed the hill returning to Sebernekt Ris, she was grateful to the gun crews and border guards. Yes, if what she saw and experienced in the foreign town was the life the foreigners had to offer, it was best to keep them out.
Two days after the trading expedition returned to the Followers’ compound, Danka and Kaloyankt had to say goodbye to their three companions who, along with six other newly-initiated Followers from other places, were heading to the capitol to become Seminary students in the Great Temple. A sympathetic Priest provided them with identity papers giving them new names and biographies that did not mention anything about their membership in the Cult of the Ancients. In Danubikt Moskt their lives would totally change. Not only would they have to suppress many of their beliefs and customs as Followers, but they’d also have to find marriage partners. Babackt Yaga and Fitoreckt had warned them not to attempt to marry among themselves. They’d have to find different partners and maintain a professional distance from each other.
Danka, Kaloyankt, and Ermin were part of a group remaining behind in Sebernekt Ris when Babackt Yaga and her entourage returned to the forest settlement. They became a medical team that performed surgeries, mostly on laborers and farmers suffering from broken bones or bad cuts from work-related accidents. They vaccinated children, treated infections, and performed autopsies.
In the middle of June, Ermin and his assistants were tasked by the local magistrate to determine the cause of death of a guild member who died under suspicious circumstances. Ermin determined that, sure enough, he had been poisoned. The Follower was called as a witness at the trial of the man’s nephew, who was suspected of wanting to take over the victim’s business. With the assistance of Danka and Kaloyankt, Ermin had conducted his own investigation and found out where the nephew had purchased the ingredients to make the poison. The verdict was guilty and the sentence was separation of the soul from the body.
For the first time in her life Danka witnessed a public execution. At noon on the day following the trial the man was tied to a post. Five city guards with longbows lined up and in quick succession shot five arrows into the prisoner’s chest.
The Summer Solstice was approaching. Now that Danka and Kaloyankt were officially Followers of the Ancients, they would travel with the others into the mountains for the annual celebration, to be held at the Altar of Blood-nourishment. Fitoreckt led his group to the sacrificial site along a narrow road approaching from the west; a section of the secret path Danka had not previously seen. She realized that she now knew the entire route running along the northern mountains from Severckt nad Goradki to Sebernekt Ris. If she ever needed to secretly move from one of those cities to the other, she didn’t have to travel the main road passing through the western valley.
The Followers spent the first day of the Solstice celebration completely naked. The day was filled with singing, dancing, and a feast. After sunset the elders lit the red lanterns and the celebrants spent the shortest night of the year having sex. As usual, the rule was that everyone had to make love to at least one person they had not previously met.
Danka made love to seven men that night. She decided to add a rule for anyone who wanted to copulate with her. Her lovers would have to lie on their backs and she would straddle them. Some refused, but she was pretty enough that plenty of others acquiesced. She totally loved being on top, feeling the pulsating penis pumping semen into her eager body. She experienced seven wonderful orgasms with her seven lovers. She was very sore towards the end, but she pushed herself and was rewarded with pleasure. When she finished, her vagina hurt, but the pain had resulted from something what was forbidden among the Christians and thus made her feel stronger.
This is the way Lilith fornicates, she thought to herself. This is the way she does it, and this is the way I will do it.
After spending the second day of the Solstice celebration resting, bathing, finishing off the previous day’s feast, and performing various rituals honoring the Ancients, the Followers dressed in their formal Cult outfits and prepared for the main part of their gathering. Over the past two months the Cult had captured eleven men who would be sacrificed. Nine of the men were fortune hunters, and the other two had attempted to kidnap the daughter of an Elder, without realizing who she was.
Danka proudly held her skull-staff and chanted with her companions as the terrified, struggling, screaming victims were dragged onto the altar one-by-one. Her Mistress was ready with her ancient dagger, naked as always with her body covered with chalk and charcoal in a pattern that made her look half-way between a skeleton and a ghoul. She stared into their eyes with a wild and cruel expression as she raised the knife. The red fire reflected in her eyes made her look truly demonic. The victims, every last one, screamed in terror as the Cult leader plunged the blade into their chests. It had to be that way, because ancient custom dictated that a victim had to be screaming when he was killed.
Ermin, Danka, and Kaloyankt returned to Sebernekt Ris with Fitoreckt’s group after the Solstice instead of traveling on to Babackt Yaga’s forest settlement. Danka was perplexed by the arrangement. She had spent the past month wondering why she and Kaloyankt were staying behind, why the others had left for the Seminary in the capitol and she hadn’t. Babackt Yaga and Fitoreckt knew their young disciple would be curious and that they owed her an answer. Fitoreckt offered to take Danka to the top of the hill so she could see the waterfall. Kaloyankt, who already had seen the waterfall the previous year, spent the day in Sebernekt Ris helping Elders prepare medications.
Danka and Fitoreckt mounted horses and rode up to the crest of the hill. The Elder allowed the girl to sit quietly and appreciate the scenery. She could see the lands of the foreigners to the north and the Duchy to the south. On the western shore of the East Danube River there were steep cliffs that made crossing the river from that direction impossible. She realized that Danubia was a natural fortress, a land in which its inhabitants could live in peace because it was so difficult to get into. Soon enough she would learn that peace was truly a gift from the Creator, a very fragile gift that could break at any time.
“Danka Siluckt, your Mistress asked me to bring you here so you can see for yourself some of the work of the Ancients and the Creator. But you also have questions, which you should now ask and I will attempt to answer.”
“Well… Alchemist Fitoreckt… I guess I’m curious about… the Great Temple… and us… why everyone… the young people… are having to go there.”
“The answer is that the Ancients have revealed to your Mistress and me that the remnants of the Old World are about to vanish. We, the Cult of the Ancients, are destined to disappear with the passing of those remnants. And yet, somehow the Old World must continue to safeguard the well-being of the Duchy. Our final tasking from the Ancients is to figure out how we can contribute when, as a Cult, we are no more. The only answer is to place our people in the heart of the Danubian Church. It is from there our inheritors will continue to guide the future of the Duchy. The Cult only has a few hundred members, while there are hundreds of thousands of Old Believers. So, if the Ancients indeed wish to continue watching over the Duchy’s people, who do you think they would favor?”
“I… I guess they’d favor the Church, Alchemist.”
“Exactly. They’d favor the Church, not the Cult. Your Mistress would say that it is not our Path in Life to question why that should be… why after being served for so long the Ancients would turn their backs on the Cult and favor the Church. She would argue that it is our Path in Life to simply accept what is happening with humility. I know the answer, however, even if your Mistress would argue that I am speaking with arrogance. Alchemist Babackt Yaga lives completely in the traditions of the past, and that is how she trains the people whose Paths in Life cross with hers. From your time with her, you know what it is like to live in the manner of the days of old, when our people lived among the trees. You can also understand that time has passed. Most people don’t live in the forests anymore. The future of the Duchy will be in the villages and cities, not in the Realm of Nature. The Ancients need to follow our people into the reality of the New World, but they cannot do so through the Followers.”
Fitoreckt paused to make sure Danka didn’t have any questions or comments. She did, but couldn’t put them into words. The Elder continued:
“Alchemist Babackt Yaga understands the will of the Ancients as much as I do. She also understands that her Path in Life is about to end, and when that happens the traditions of the forest will become nothing more than memories. A month ago she ceded leadership of the Cult to me, and the Elders voted in secret to allow that to happen. So, I am the one leading our transition, the one who is moving our people into the Danubian Church. It is our Path in Life to influence the Church by having our people join their Clergy. So, I have seen the future and am making the arrangements. With every passing year the Church will serve the Creator and the Ancients more and serve the Roman God less. The Ancients are finding their voice for the future, and the Followers in the forest are destined to be no more.”
“Then… if it’s our Path in Life to join the Old Believers’ Priesthood, why aren’t you sending me and Kaloyankt? And… why just the two of us? I mean… Alchemist Babackt Yaga told me she didn’t want me to stay with him… with Kaloyankt, that is. Did she change her mind on that?”
“Not at all. Soon your Paths in Life will separate and the only thing you will keep of each other will be memories. Your lover’s Path in Life is to wait until his father dies, and then to return to Severckt nad Goradki and take over his family’s household. He will become an important and influential man in that city, and when the time comes, he will use his wealth and position to serve the Ancients. He will live in comfort and dote upon his wife and children. Exactly the life you envisioned for yourself, is it not?”
“Yes, Alchemist. The life I want… ”
“It is not your Path in Life to be his partner. You already know that. It is not your Path in Life to sit in luxury and watch your children grow and pass your time embroidering and listening to music and reading novels and gossiping with your friends. That life does not suit you. If you seek it, you would become a tool of the Profane One and bring grief into your household.”
“So… what is my Path in Life?”
“We don’t know. The Ancients have not yet revealed your destiny to us any more than they have revealed it to you. Your Mistress has desperately sought an answer concerning what to do with you. All I can say is that you must continue learning and improving your knowledge. Our time is short and you must bear witness to your world and learn as much as you can.”
At the beginning of July, Ermin led a team of Followers to a farming center with a large water-mill called Daguruckt-Tok. The town was about halfway between the nation’s capitol and Nagoronkti-Serifkti. On the map it appeared tantalizingly close to Rika Heckt-nemat, which lay to the southeast. However, the two city councils bitterly rivaled each other and citizens from each town were prohibited from visiting the other. The feud was so severe that the residents had torn down a stone bridge along the road connecting the two towns in the early spring of 1750.
The Clergy members of Daguruckt-Tok were Old Believers and welcomed the Followers. The welcome was warm and appreciative, unlike the grudging tolerance granted by the Senior Priest of neighboring Nagoronkti-Serifkti. They were housed in a residence owned by the local Clergy and received the best food produced in the town. The city council provided a wagon and several mules to assist the Followers’ vaccination campaign and attending injuries.
The Followers spent the next two months attending to the medical needs of Daguruckt-Tok and the surrounding villages. Danka perfected her skills performing simple operations and re-setting broken bones. She assisted Ermin as he prepared smallpox vaccine and ether for surgeries. She attended several births, including one during which she and another female follower managed to save a baby who was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck.
Over the summer Danka continued to make love to both Kaloyankt and Ermin. At the beginning she tried to keep her relationship with the Elder secret from her younger partner. She could not keep the sexual part of her relationship with the older man secret because of the close proximity of everyone’s rooms, but did try to hide the emotional part. It was accepted that Followers were not monogamous in their sex lives and Ermin was a widower. However, as the summer progressed, Danka understood that she increasingly enjoyed Ermin’s maturity and was bored trying to converse with Kaloyankt.
Kaloyankt did not help his situation with his reaction. He was smart enough not to openly confront Danka about Ermin, but he insisted on having sex with her as much as possible. She responded by forcing him to lie on his back so she could pretend to be Lilith when she was with him. She forced him to assume submissive positions for love-making and he always complied. The more he went along with her demands, the more the relationship began to deteriorate. It was as though he had lost all of his backbone with her. She lost respect for Kaloyankt and understood the time had come to completely disengage herself from him.
Instead of simply telling her lover that she did not want to have sex with him anymore, she decided to see if she could leave him in the arms of another woman. Daguruckt-Tok had a perfect candidate, the Senior Priest’s daughter, who had braided her hair immediately before the Followers arrived in July. She had noticed the girl looking at Kaloyankt and also at her, with a jealous expression. So… the Priest’s daughter was interested in Kaloyankt. Good. He had a lot to offer her. Perhaps it would help if her father knew about Kaloyankt’s background and that he came from one of the wealthiest families in Severckt nad Goradki.
Danka struck up several conversations with the Priest and spent a couple of days setting up a meeting between her lover and the Clergyman’s daughter. At first the Priest thought she was trying to seduce him, but no… it seemed the Follower just wanted to talk. They discussed politics and differences between various city councils. Danka kept pushing the conversation to Severckt nad Goradki. Finally the opportunity came for her to mention that one of her fellow Followers was from that city and heir to a large fortune.
The Priest took the bait. He and his wife decided to have the young man eat dinner with his family. That certainly was a bizarre situation, a Follower sitting at the table of a Priest. The Clergy members quickly verified that Kaloyankt indeed came from a wealthy family. From that day forward they invited him to dinner on a daily basis. He wanted to refuse, but Ermin angrily insisted that he had no right to jeopardize the good relations the Followers enjoyed with the town council in Daguruckt-Tok.
“You will accept the honor of sitting at that Priest’s table and you will serve the rest of us by doing so. You will behave yourself with that family and do everything you can to accommodate them.”
Kaloyankt approached Danka to explain the situation and beg her to forgive him. Danka responded with words and thoughts that seemed not really to be her own:
“There’s nothing to forgive, Kaloyankt. Don’t you understand the will of the Ancients? It’s not your Path in Life to stay with me. You can’t offer a life that would suit me. And you need to take a hard look at me. I’m a peasant. I’m a peasant with some education, but I’m still a peasant. How well do you think I’d fit in with all your fancy neighbors in your father’s house?”
“I don’t care about him, or the neighbors, or his house. He’s dead to me. That life is no longer mine. I belong in the forest. The only person I care about is you.”
“Then you need to stop caring about me. I’m telling you it is not my Path in Life to be your wife. That honor belongs to another woman, not me. And you already know who she is.”
“The Priest’s daughter?”
“No. I don’t want her. I don’t love her.”
“You don’t love her? Do you think that matters? Do you think what you feel for me matters? Because it doesn’t! You need to find a respectable wife who is acceptable to your father’s friends and then you need to go home and assume your responsibilities to your family! That is your Path in Life! You’re not going back to the forest, you’re not going back to Sebernekt Ris, and you are not staying with me! You have your responsibilities to go home and redeem your family’s name from the dishonor of your father! You need the right partner to do that and that person is not me!”
“… and my feelings for you don’t matter?”
“No! They don’t!”
“I mean… it almost sounds like… that you don’t love me… that you never loved me… ”
“It doesn’t matter, Kaloyankt! Why can’t you understand? It doesn’t matter whether I love you or not! I can’t stay with you! It’s not my Path in Life! It’s not yours, either!”
Kaloyankt sat quietly, his eyes full of tears. Danka coldly concluded the conversation.
“I’m planning to spend the night with Ermin. Meanwhile, you need to prepare for your dinner with the Priests and their daughter. She loves you. I don’t. Remember that the next time you talk to her or think about me.”
With that, Danka left the room. As soon as she stepped outside, she felt sick. She was horrified by the shabby treatment she had inflicted on a wonderful man who she really did care for. She resisted the temptation to go back and beg him to forgive her. She knew that she did what had to be done, but it was no consolation. She hated herself, every bit as much as she hated herself when she gave her body to Bagaturckt.
Two days later Kaloyankt received word that his father had died. Included in the correspondence was a will that stipulated he would inherit his family’s fortune, but not until he married a Christian wife in a Christian ceremony. The will also stated that the family servants would not be paid until the conditions of the will were met and Kaloyankt presented himself to the local Priest with his new wife and paperwork proving she was a Christian married in a Christian Church. The will did not stipulate that the wife had to be a True Believer; just that she had to be Christian.
Kaloyankt knew that he was obligated to go home and take care of his family’s servants. He understood his Path in Life and his duty to those who depended on him. He proposed to the Priest’s daughter and she accepted. The entire town turned out for the wedding and the city council provided an armed escort to make sure the bride and groom made it safely to their new home in Severckt nad Goradki.
As she watched the entourage depart, Danka wondered about the suspicious timing of the death of Kaloyankt’s father and the conditions stipulated in that will. Very interesting that the father would die precisely at the moment the Followers needed Kaloyankt to return to Severckt nad Goradki. Very interesting that the will would clearly insist on him having a Christian wife, precisely at the moment such a partner was available. Not a True Believer, just a Christian.
Babackt Yaga knew everything there was to know about poisons and quietly entering people’s houses. She also was an expert at forging documents. It wasn’t hard to figure out what really happened…
Kaloyankt spent his remaining time in the Realm of the Living serving the Ancients and the Creator. He took his father’s place in the Severckt nad Goradki city council. A few years after he returned home, he used his family’s influence to assist the Old Believers when they seized control of the local church from the True Believers.
He was kind to his wife, and later to his children and grandchildren. However, during all the years he lived with the Priest’s daughter, he could never love her. His heart always longed for Danka. He spent the rest of his life writing mysterious stories, poems, and songs about his lost love of the forest. He published his work under various pen-names, giving the residents of Severckt nad Goradki the impression they were written by different men. The works were infinitely depressing and became favorite reading throughout the northern part of the Duchy.
Kaloyankt had to keep his writings and his feelings secret from his family, so he never mentioned himself or Danka by name. When fans of the various writings talked about them and speculated about the ideal girl and the author’s tragic love for her, they usually referred to her as “the girl in the poems, the one with no name”.
Historian’s Note 01: One of a wife’s duties to her husband in traditional Danubian society was shaving. Normally a woman would shave her husband’s face once per week and her husband’s scalp once every three weeks. If a man lost his wife, he would not shave for 60 days as a symbol of mourning. A man who was not yet married, widowed, in the military, or traveling could be shaved by any available woman, as long as her social status was inferior to his.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –
Historian’s Note 02: In traditional Danubian society, a man of higher social status normally took a woman of lower social status from behind. The lower-class woman presented herself to her partner in the customary submissive position before sexual intercourse. As mentioned in the main narrative, she placed her hands on a table or other surface such as a fence and bent over to display her backside. According to protocol, once she assumed the position, she could not speak or move her hands until given permission. It was understood that when a woman presented herself in such a way, her lover was free to do with her as he saw fit; to include vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, or punishment. The submissive posture was not commonly used by women having sex with a social equal, which would have made Danka’s behavior under those circumstances unusual among the Followers.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –
Historian’s Note 03: The Christians living just north of the border were hostile to the Danubians because Sebernekt Ris was run by Old Believers who were heavily influenced by the Followers of the Ancients. The Old Believers were increasingly turning away from Christianity and adapting pre-Christian beliefs, something that foreign Christians looked upon with horror.
The True Believers in Danubia were the most “Christian” of the three religious sects in the Duchy at the time. They accepted widely held beliefs concerning the divinity of the Son of Man and the virgin birth. Mary and other Christian Saints were venerated as Ancients, but even among the True Believers the Virgin Mary did not have the same importance that she had for Christians living outside the Duchy.
Only men could officially be priests among the True Believers. Unmarried women could become nuns, which in practice allowed them to serve as Priestesses. The practice contrasted with the Old Believers, who insisted on having an equal number of Priests and Priestesses, all of whom had to be married to other Clergy members to be ordained.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –
Historian’s Note 04: Death by arrows was the only accepted form of execution in the Duchy at that time, and it was considered a point of honor for a group of guards to kill their prisoner with the first volley. The attitude of Danubian culture towards killing a prisoner was to do it as quickly as possible and avoid being overly gruesome about it. The Danubian method of killing criminals to minimize suffering and gore contrasted with most of Europe throughout the Middle Ages and the period of the Enlightenment. It is interesting to note the method of execution changed only once during the Duchy’s history. In 1790 the Grand Duke ordered that five muskets would be used to kill prisoners instead of five longbows.
Firing squads of police officers using modern rifles remain in use today. In recent decades the number of executions in Danubia has ranged from 6 to 9 per year. Offenses warranting capitol punishment include un-provoked murder, sexual assault on a child, treason resulting in damage to Danubia’s national security, an overt act of war against Danubia, and being the leader of a criminal organization that has committed acts of violence. All executions are now carried out in the courtyard of the Central Police Station in the nation’s capitol. Danubia is the only member country of the European Community in which criminals are still executed, because leaving the nation’s judicial system intact was one of the Parliament’s conditions for joining the EU. There is no system for imprisonment and it is unlikely Danubian culture would ever accept the practice of jailing criminals. The only way criminals can be punished in Danubia is by judicial collaring or death.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –