Babackt Yaga and her followers walked in silence throughout most of the morning. At the beginning there were only three companions, two young men and a middle-aged woman. Eventually they were joined by a young couple armed with longbows and carrying four dead hares and a sack of roots. Another older man later joined the group, lugging several fish.
All of Babackt Yaga’s companions were dressed alike. The women wore black, long-sleeved dresses with dark red aprons, while the men wore black robes. The women’s aprons and the men’s robes were embroidered with a red skull. Everyone carried a real skull mounted on a long staff. Even in daylight, the group had a very sinister appearance.
Danka nervously followed the others, very self-conscious about being the only naked person in the group and not wearing a Church collar to give legitimacy to her nudity. She continued to be scared, traveling with the strange group and unsure if Babackt Yaga really was planning to spare her life. However, she had no choice but to follow. She knew that she could never hope to escape from a group of people who undoubtedly knew the woods as well as they knew the insides of their homes. Also, even if she had been presented with the choice, Danka really did not have much desire to escape. Mentally and spiritually, she was exhausted from the traumatic events of the past two weeks. The more she thought over her situation, the more she realized that she had nowhere to go. Even if she could return to Severckt nad Goradki, what would she do there? The first thing people would ask her was what had happened to her master Bagaturckt. The thought crossed her mind that, if the horses had been re-captured, she might already be considered a fugitive.
The group traveled along the main trail for a while, heading back in the direction towards Severckt nad Goradki, before turning onto a side path that led north. As soon as the alchemists were out of sight from the main trail, they stripped off their clothing, consolidated everything into a cloth bag, and handed it to Danka to carry. As they ascended into increasingly steep terrain, the naked alchemists made frequent stops to collect berries, herbs, and roots, which they carried in sacks that grew heavier as the morning wore on.
At midday the terrain flattened out and the group emerged into a cleared area. There were several well-kept gardens surrounding the strangest house Danka had ever seen. The structure was round instead of square, but what made it truly bizarre was that it was four fathoms above the ground, perched on top of three large tree trunks. The roots of the trees extended above the ground, reminding Danka of enormous birds’ feet. Suddenly Danka remembered, as a child she had heard stories, of a witch who lived in a house in the forest that stood on huge chicken feet.
Babackt Yaga did not give the newcomer a chance to rest. She collected the hares and fish from her followers and ordered the captive to accompany her to an open shed that contained a kiln and an outdoor kitchen. Danka was perplexed that she did not see any firewood: instead she noticed a large pile of black rocks. Babackt Yaga directed her attention to a stone table.
“Very well, ‘bloody one’, I wish to see for myself if your Temple nickname was justified. Clean these animals so we may eat.”
Danka expertly skinned and gutted the hares before preparing the fish. Babackt Yaga carefully observed the newcomer and seemed satisfied that Danka had told her the truth, at least as far as handling meat was concerned. The next detail the alchemist wanted to know was how well Danka could cook. Babackt Yaga called over one of her female followers and ordered her to start cooking, with the newcomer to assist. She ordered the captive to assist the woman who was normally assigned to prepare meals. The cook questioned her and figured out that Danka knew some recipes and seasoning techniques that were unique to the Danubian Church, thus verifying another portion of the newcomer’s claims.
The cook ordered Danka to pick up some of the black rocks and move them to the stove. The rocks were unlike anything she had ever seen: heavy, totally black, and powdery. The cook then shocked her assistant by throwing the rocks into the oven and setting them on fire.
“A secret of the Ancients. We call it cave-charcoal. It’s special charcoal the Ancients placed in the ground for us, and it burns much better than anything we’d get from trees. When the winter darkness descends upon us and the cold blows off the mountains, you will give thanks many times over to the Ancients for this present we have taken from the ground.”
Hearing those words helped calm Danka’s nerves, not because cave-charcoal was going to keep her warm over the winter, but because the cook apparently took it for granted she would be with the group (and thus still alive) at the end of the year.
While her captive was busy with dinner, Babackt Yaga sadly spread the mushrooms on a drying rack to make sure they were completely dry. Later she would take other measures to ensure they would be preserved indefinitely, until she needed them for medicines and potions. Given the scarcity of the species, the supply was enormous, but it also represented the destruction of a large percentage of the world’s remaining living specimens. Babackt Yaga’s only consolation was that at least she recovered the mushrooms and had them for her own use; that they had not been taken to Vienna. However, they were irreplaceable. There would be no new mushrooms sprouting up the following year to replace the ones that accursed fortune-seeker had destroyed.
A purse of gold, how absurd, a purse of gold, if only that ignorant dilettante had known. “The Joy of the Ancients” was worth far more than any amount of gold.
Even though he was dead, anger against Bagaturckt and his loathsome pseudo-scientific friends in Vienna welled up inside the alchemist.
A purse of gold indeed.
Danka did not have her midday meal with the others. She was not yet an accepted member of the group and thus did not have permission to share their table. She ate alone, sitting at the base of one of the trees that held up that strange suspended house Babackt Yaga called home. She noted the drying mushrooms and wondered about her bucket. She had seen the alchemist taking it up into the house with Bagaturckt’s items, so presumably it was still there.
After the midday meal, three followers stayed behind to clean up, while the others departed the compound. (Later Danka would learn that Babackt Yaga had planted rare herbs and fungi all around the area surrounding the settlement, and it was up to her followers to check on the plants to make sure they were healthy until it was time to harvest their ingredients.) The compound was completely empty, apart from three people in the kitchen area. Babackt Yaga approached the newcomer and ordered her to follow her inside the raised house. She pulled a rope and a ladder came down automatically.
The interior of the building was carefully laid out, to take advantage of every bit of space and still provide a comfortable work and research area. The furnishings were simple, but were made from fine materials and expertly crafted. One wall was completely covered by bookshelves filled with books written in various European languages. Another wall was completely covered by shelves containing jars and expensive-looking vases full of alchemy ingredients. There was a writing desk and a table filled with strange-looking glassware. There were assorted storage trunks. Babackt Yaga directed Danka’s attention to neatly folded stacks of black and dark red linen.
“You will take one red cloth and one black cloth. Your first duty to me will be to prepare a dress for yourself. In the forest we live uncovered, as we have been created. Among the non-believers we show ourselves in the cloth of our forebearers.”
Danka took her cloth and looked at Babackt Yaga, waiting for further instructions.
“You will understand, as long as you do not speak to me as a liar, the Ancients have called upon me to spare you. They do not want your blood, because the blood of the ignorant and the blood of the bystander is unacceptable for the nourishment of the earth. Do you understand me so far?”
Danka was frightened and bewildered by the alchemist’s talk of blood, but she managed to respond that she understood. Babackt Yaga knew that her captive was not truthful; that she really had not understood.
“You just lied to me, Danka Siluckt. You are trying my patience. Answer honestly. Did you understand what I just said?”
“I… I guess… I mean… not really… Babackt Yaga… ”
“That’s better… somewhat, Danka Siluckt. An important rule for seeking knowledge is to never falsely claim you understand something when actually you don’t. You didn’t understand what I just said because there is no way you could understand, given your ignorance. You don’t comprehend the ways of the Ancients, so how could you comprehend my words?”
“Yes, Babackt Yaga.”
“Very well, I will give you your first lesson about the ways of the Ancients. I said that you were ignorant and a bystander. I did not say you were innocent. You participated in the destruction of something precious, something that cannot be replaced. Your actions were under duress and characterized by ignorance, but those facts do not change the outcome of what happened. In your case, punishment is not appropriate, but the Ancients will call on you to atone for what you did. You will understand that punishment and atonement are different?”
“Yes, Babackt Yaga. That’s one of the things the Priests taught me at the Temple.”
“Good. Now, to enlighten you about ‘the Joy of the Ancients’. The name humans gave to those mushrooms is unfortunate and erroneous. Those mushrooms don’t bring joy; they provide something much more important. When properly prepared with other ingredients, they provide restoration. Those mushrooms actually have regenerative powers. I will give you an example: myself. Would you like to guess how old I am? Try, Danka Siluckt. Guess how old I am.”
“I’d guess… maybe… you’d look around 60… maybe 65… Babackt Yaga.”
“That is the age people guess, for the most part, except that my vision is still clear and my hearing is that of a lass. The truth is that I was born in the year 1642. I am 109 years old. I am growing older as the years pass, but the regenerative powers of the mushrooms have slowed the aging process in my body. I’ve calculated that I age one year for every four years a normal person ages. To understand the mushrooms, you must understand that what is a blessing for me, and a few other select Followers, is a curse for the mushrooms. The mushrooms live many decades and mature very slowly. That also means they reproduce very slowly. When we harvest a mushroom, we have to prepare for its replacement. We know how to replace the mushrooms, but the process is difficult and not always successful, so we are very sparing in our harvesting. It would be tempting for all Followers to receive the longevity potion, but we understand such a thing is not possible. I was granted that privilege because of my research, my ability to perform medical operations, my knowledge of foreign languages, my work as a translator, and my potion-making skills. My Path in Life is to pass as much of that knowledge as I can to my apprentices. People come into my life, they learn skills to fight the Profane One’s curses, most of them eventually depart, and living among the Christians they apply those skills.”
“You’d… maybe… you’d teach me some things… Babackt Yaga?”
“It’s possible. First, you will be called upon to atone for your offense against the Ancients. Once you have demonstrated your willingness to protect the remnants of the Old World and have proven your ability to learn, there is knowledge you can take away from here that would help you combat the Profane One. Now. To return to the topic of the mushrooms. Every passing year there are fewer and fewer of them, because fortune hunters plague these forests. They seek the mushrooms for pleasure, which is a great tragedy. We were hoping to speed up the reproduction of the mushrooms to prevent their extinction. I am convinced such a thing is possible, and then the restorative powers would be available to more people. Bagaturckt’s actions set back that goal, possibly forever. That streambed was the only place that I know of where the mushrooms were reproducing on their own.”
Danka felt sick. She took a breath, struggling with the feeling that she needed to add a grim detail about her outing with Bagaturckt.
“You are troubled, girl. Speak your mind.”
“I hate to say this, but I was the one who spotted the first mushroom. Bagaturckt had just entered me, and I wanted to wash his filth out of my body. So, I went into the stream, and saw… I don’t know, Babackt Yaga, maybe he would’ve found them anyway, but it was I, I who spotted the mushrooms. I wasn’t sure if it was what he was looking for, but I pointed them out, and his whole face changed, like he was possessed.”
There was an uncomfortable pause in the conversation. Babackt Yaga broke the silence.
“Had you known what I just told you, and what Bagaturckt did to the streambed, what would you have done?”
“I would have thrown some leaves over them, Babackt Yaga, and kept quiet. But I didn’t. Something you should know, I guess.”
“What you said confirms what I thought about you. You were a bystander. You were ignorant. You’re not guilty, but you’re not exactly innocent, either. You do not deserve punishment, but you do need to atone for your part in what happened.”
“Yes, Babackt Yaga.”
“As of today, you will begin preparation for atonement. I will tell you what you need to do when the moment comes. I will call upon you to perform some duties that will seem strange, and appear to contradict some of what you learned at the Temple. I am not saying that anything taught at the Temple is wrong, but you will need additional knowledge for your life in the forest. The ways of the Ancients, the knowledge of pre-Christian times, are things that cannot be taught by those who do not follow the Ancients: not by the True Believers, nor by the Old Believers.”
Danka thought about the numerous pieces of knowledge she had learned during her year living as a penitent. She wondered, not only about what she had learned so far, but about the people who had taught her. She had questions. However, at that moment she was unable to articulate them. Babackt Yaga noted her captive’s pensive expression.
“Perhaps you’d like to know what I think of the Senior Priest at the Temple in Starivktaki Moskt. Perhaps that is as good a starting point as any.”
“Yes, Babackt Yaga.”
“His character is flawed, which partly explains Bagaturckt, both how he was raised and his father’s blindness to his greed and depravity. And yet, as flawed as the Senior Priest is as person, he does wish to understand the Ultimate Truth. Unlike many Christians, he respects the Ancients and has never deliberately acted against them. He wants the Danubian Church to represent our people and our traditions, so he has formally renounced the teachings of the Roman Church. Those are my observations. He is a flawed man who seeks direction from the Creator. That’s the best answer I can give you.”
“Yes, Babackt Yaga.”
There was another uncomfortable pause, with the alchemist seemingly lost in thought.
“As for his son, it is a pity, that the Profane One decided to separate his soul from his body and deny me that privilege. Bagaturckt’s blood would have made a fine gift, a fine gift indeed, for the Ancients.”
Danka looked at Babackt Yaga with a totally bewildered expression, unsure if she understood correctly. Would she have offered Bagaturckt’s blood to the Ancients?
“The time will come when you understand what I meant by my last comment, when you are closer to atoning for your actions.”
Babackt Yaga changed the subject.
“Your Path in Life has led you here, because it is the wish of the Ancients. Your first duty will be to prepare your dress. Your second duty will be to learn how to sing as the Ancients sang, in what the Christians call ‘archaic Danubian’. You will leave my alchemy lab and seek out Jasnackta, our best seamstress. She will guide you through the steps needed to prepare your dress.”
Danka spent the following two weeks putting together her outfit. She already knew how to sew and repair poor-quality clothing, but her previous experience was useless for preparing a dress suitable for the Followers of the Ancients. The uniform had to be made with care and respect. So, for two weeks Jasnackta patiently guided the newcomer, cut-by-cut, measurement-by-measurement, and stitch-by-stitch as she prepared the clothing that would become her identity anytime she left the forest and appeared in public. Later there would be other duties, such as gardening, food gathering, cleaning, and repairs, but all of that would wait until her dress was ready.
Danka started with another duty the day after arriving: singing. Every night after dark she joined the other women among the Followers practicing hymns that were thousands of years old. The hymns were different from the songs she had learned at the Temple in Starivktaki Moskt: very mysterious and with a pagan sound that was sinister. Among the songs she learned was an ancient calling of seduction used in pre-Christian temples:
Man’s first woman had fruit in her garden
Sweet fruit no man would resist
She knelt and offered her very best
He came to her to indulge
Sweetness beyond what he had known
Man and woman joined
I have fruit in my garden
Sweet fruit no man will resist
I kneel to you and offer my very best
Come to me and indulge
Sweetness beyond what you have known
Man and woman joined
During the time she worked on her dress, Danka continued to live completely naked. After having spent a year wearing a penance collar, she was used to not wearing anything made from cloth. However, in the camp of the Followers of the Ancients she did not even have her collar or her boots. Both items were locked up with her bucket. As she walked around in the woods or performing her duties, completely devoid of any human-made object on her body and her bare feet in constant contact with the ground, she learned what it was to live in a true state of nature.
The black dress and dark red apron felt strange when Danka tried them on for the first time. In the warm summer weather the items were hot, uncomfortable, and felt unnatural. However, the outfit would become an important part of Danka’s life, giving her identity and marking her as a member of a group most people would not dare to offend or cross.
As she held the finished outfit and ran her fingers over its tight stitching, Danka saw irony in her Path in Life. Twelve months earlier, her journey had started because she wanted a fine dress that would attract young men to her. Now, for her trips to Severckt nad Goradki and the surrounding villages she did have a fine dress, but its purpose was totally the opposite of what she had sought. No eligible young man would dare approach her or flirt with her while she was wearing a uniform that identified her as a Follower of the Ancients. She would be marked as a member of a cult that maintained itself aloof from average Danubians.
Two days before the summer solstice, Babackt Yaga and most of her followers traveled to a secret location to conduct celebrations and sacrifices. The only members of the group who did not travel to the holy site were the uninitiated apprentices. There were five young people in circumstances similar to Danka: they had their outfits but had not yet earned the embroidered skull logo or staff. For the uninitiated, the days around the solstice were a time for relaxing, to go berry picking and fishing, to wander about, or just to sleep.
Among the uninitiated was a reserved young man called Kaloyankt. He was from the town of Severckt nad Goradki and spoke with an educated accent. Danka had caught his attention from the moment she entered the settlement. Now, with the others gone and little to distract the newcomer, he decided to invite her fishing.
Danka accompanied him, out of boredom more than anything else. Her feelings about going with Kaloyankt were mixed. It wasn’t hard to figure out what he wanted, but still, the idea of having a friendship with another follower greatly appealed to her. With several weeks now separating her from the year she had spent at the Temple, she wondered how she tolerated living that entire time with just one person to talk to. Also, she was curious to see what being with an upper-class young man would be like, compared with the wretched impoverished men of her youth and the self-centered dilettante Bagaturckt. Kaloyankt seemed relatively trustworthy and if things with him went badly, she could talk to Babackt Yaga.
Danka followed Kaloyankt along several trails to a pond that she already had visited a couple of times. Both Danka and Kaloyankt were completely naked: even their feet were uncovered. They strolled in absolute silence, listening for any changes or possible dangers in their environment. When they arrived at the pond, they went swimming before sunning themselves on some rocks and preparing their fishing lines.
It turned out that Kaloyankt had invited Danka on the outing because he needed to talk. He started by asking her about the house she had visited in Severckt nad Goradki. Danka was evasive with her answer, but she gave away enough information for Kaloyankt to understand that she had indeed been there. Then he surprised her:
“You know, that fortune hunter you were with, that ‘Master’ Bagaturckt, he was a friend of my father. When I was a teenager, I saw him, several times, at my father’s house.”
“Your father, it’s your father who owns that house?”
“… and set up that room? … and hired the servants?”
“So, then… You know, you know what happened to me with Bagaturckt?”
“Yes. I don’t need to ask you about the details, because I already know. I saw what went on, in that room many times when I was a boy. I watched, never spoke up about it, never tried to warn any of the women. I watched my father and his friends, never did anything, but I always felt guilty about it. Then, last fall during the equinox, the Creator spoke to me, told me I needed to get out of the house. That I needed to renounce my father and his fortune, go to the woods, and confront my Path in Life.”
“Which brought you here?”
“Yes. Just like you. Well, in some ways the same and in some ways different. I came here on my own, but I didn’t know what I was looking for. I got lost, and Babackt Yaga found me, just like she found you. And, serving the Ancients became my Path in Life.”
“But you don’t have your skull.”
“No. I haven’t atoned for my father’s actions, so I don’t have my skull.”
“But really, what do you have to atone for? You didn’t do anything… ”
“… and did you? What did you do? You were a bystander who watched a dishonorable act and did nothing. You are neither guilty nor innocent. I am the same as you. A bystander. A witness. Neither guilty nor innocent.”
The conversation was interrupted by a catch, a fine large perch that would feed them both. They landed the fish and returned to the settlement to cook and share a meal.
The next day was the day of the solstice. Danka had agreed to go with Kaloyankt for a second outing. She wasn’t interested in talking about Kaloyankt’s father, but she wanted to share some of her experiences at the Temple and get another person’s perspective. Also, noting his interest in her, she figured she’d make love to him if he asked. She administered herself a dose of birth-control paste… just in case.
She followed him to the pond, admiring his naked backside as he walked. She resisted the urge to touch him as she realized that she was aroused and wanted him to take her. He seemed different from Bagaturckt: hopefully sex with him would be different as well. They picked enough berries for a snack before going to the pond. They swam, frolicking with each other before returning to the rocks to dry off in the sun.
Kaloyankt couldn’t keep his eyes off Danka. She truly was a lovely sight: a woman at the very beginning of her youth, her body fit from her constant movement and evenly tanned from long hours outside, and fine delicate features that were so different from the usual drab appearance of a peasant-girl. Kaloyankt found everything about Danka desirable, even her rough unrefined rural accent. She was a girl of nature, totally different from the sheltered indoor women inhabiting the fine houses of Severckt nad Goradki.
Danka was not sure what to expect, but she was looking forward to having sex with Kaloyankt. He was precisely the type of man she had been hoping to attract the year before. She sat quietly, waiting for him to begin. She had not yet discovered that women can initiate love-making just as easily as men.
Kaloyankt began by running his hands over Danka’s body. He kissed her, starting with her neck, then moved to her lips. He was hard by the time he kissed her breasts and sucked her nipples. She responded by running her hands over his back. From the beginning his bottom had excited her, so her hands moved to that part of her lover. She actively explored him, which was something she had never tried with her first lover. Kaloyankt ran his fingers between the girl’s thighs and over her vulva. She was wet and gasped with pleasure as he touched her.
Danka lay on her back as Kaloyankt entered her. He thrust hard, over and over. His love-making was rough and vigorous, but that was what Danka expected. So far she had not experienced tender sex. She gasped with delight as pleasure overwhelmed her. For the first time in her life, she experienced an orgasm.
A few minutes later the couple was rinsing off in the water. They still had to catch their next meal, so the romantic moment of love-making transitioned to the practical task of sitting quietly and waiting for a fish. During the wait, they talked.
Danka talked about her year at the Temple and her lessons with the seminary student. Kaloyankt was impressed when she told him that in less than a year she had learned to read, write, do simple arithmetic, use the abacus, obtain a fundamental understanding of music, and memorize numerous hymns.
“If you could do all that in just a year, I think you’ll learn alchemy very quickly. I know that as soon as she returns, Babackt Yaga will start teaching you some of the recipes. You’ll have to start learning the plants and formulas. She’ll test you to see how well you can remember things. If your memory is good, you’ll become responsible for tasks that are more complicated.”
Danka Siluckt was beginning to understand that she was blessed with an exceptional memory and the capacity to grasp new ideas and concepts very quickly. During her year at the Temple she had been held back by having to direct all of her efforts into learning how to read. Having mastered that basic skill, during her service under Babackt Yaga there was nothing to interfere with her ability to learn a wider variety of subjects. She could remember simple recipes after having seen them just once, so within a few days Babackt Yaga had her studying recipes that were more complicated. She received instructions on how to measure temperatures, weigh ingredients, calculate time, and work with fractions. Babackt Yaga watched as Danka prepared medicines, with no guidance apart from following a recipe book. She understood the importance of identifying plants: when tasked to go out into the forest and find ingredients, she always returned with exactly what was needed.
Working the gardens was not a challenge for Danka at all. Her previous experience as both a peasant and seeing the experimental Church gardens in Starivktaki Moskt prepared her for working the gardens in Babackt Yaga’s settlement. She already had a basic understanding of plant selection, so new ideas such as cross pollination and breeding plants for specific traits were easy for her to grasp.
Danka took pride in her work and her learning. She fully understood the importance of mastering potion-making and taking great care with the details of every recipe. She remembered the servant’s words about her instructor: “Her alchemy is something to behold, because her potions can heal many of the curses Beelzebub the Destroyer has inflicted on us, many evil things can be healed, or simply prevented.” She was excited to think that the mystery behind those potions had vanished; that she now knew how they worked and even how to prepare some of them.
In the middle of July, Danka and Kaloyankt left the forest with Babackt Yaga and four fully initiated Followers. It was the first time since her arrival that Danka would leave the woods or see anyone other than a Follower. The group walked directly south, taking several steep and perilous shortcuts to hasten their trip. Before exiting the forest they put on their uniforms. As soon as they emerged into the open, they mounted a wagon driven by two guards who were waiting for them. The Followers rode the rest of the distance to a town called Nagoronkti-Serifkti and their destination, the settlement’s church.
The Priest explained that a guild apprentice and three hired workmen had been on the roof making repairs, unaware that the beams were not strong enough to support the weight of four men. They fell through and sustained injuries ranging from broken bones to severe lacerations. The men were lying on cots in the main chapel because the Clergy had been afraid to move them.
Danka would later learn that the Priest had to make a difficult decision to request assistance from the Followers. Nagoronkti-Serifkti was settled by True Believers, the faction of the Danubian Church that least got along with the Followers of the Ancients. However, the Priest needed to help his men if at all possible and only the Followers had the medical knowledge to do anything for them.
Between the four men there were two broken legs, three broken arms, several broken fingers, and some serious lacerations. Babackt Yaga was relieved, because all of the injuries could be fixed. She directed her followers’ attention to the man who was bleeding the most, knowing that he needed attention first.
Danka watched as Babackt Yaga set up some glassware and mixed several ingredients. Her assistants poured alcohol into a bowl and demanded boiling water and clean linen be brought to the operating site. The alchemist directed Danka to hold a mask to the injured man’s face. He became sleepy, which would help keep him calm while his injuries could be sewn up. For the first time in her life, Danka watched an operation that actually closed an open wound.
The Followers, including Kaloyankt, moved to setting the broken bones. Babackt Yaga administered a drug she called opium to ease the pain and then applied her chemical mask. It was a difficult and grim task to stretch out the limbs and set them in wooden frames, but Babackt Yaga seemed satisfied that the limbs would all heal, which was not always the case, depending on the nature of the fracture.
Danka was present just to observe, but she marveled at what she was witnessing, the actual repair of injuries. She had seen neighbors die from similar mishaps in her parents’ settlement. It was a shock to find out those deaths could have been prevented had anyone among the day-laborers possessed the equipment and knowledge the Followers of the Ancients were using.
After making sure the patients had woken up, Babackt Yaga issued some more opium and instructions for caring for the injuries. When the Priest asked her about payment, the alchemist responded:
“You know my payment, Priest. It’s the same as always. The Ancients demand the blood of the desecrater. When desecraters pass through this town, you will send them in my direction and you will advise me.”
“As you wish, Alchemist.”
“I have another demand, Priest. It has been two years since I cut the children here. I trust you have not had any cases of the pox?”
“No, Alchemist, we have not.”
“I brought my pox potion. At sunset I want you to ring your bell and gather all the people of Nagoronkti-Serifkti. I will cut any children or youth that were not cut two years ago.”
The townsfolk gathered in the church square as the daylight faded. Danka noted that many of the older people were marked with smallpox scars, but none of the younger people had suffered the affliction. The last smallpox epidemic in Nagoronkti-Serifkti had passed two decades before. As the townsfolk pushed their terrified children towards the church, Kaloyankt explained to Danka that Babackt Yaga had spent many years studying diseases and had learned some interesting details about smallpox. It turned out that cattle had a similar version of the sickness and that Babackt Yaga had figured out it was possible to create an antidote for the human smallpox from the cow version. She did not dare tell anyone the antidote came from sick cows, because no one would have accepted vaccination. The public would be vaccinated, but in a way that was acceptable to the thinking at the time.
The Priest conducted a brief service and issued a series of prayers while the Followers prepared the vaccination knives and the solution. The residents needed reassurance that the Lord-Creator had approved what was about to happen to their children, so the event had to be preceded with religious fanfare. The unvaccinated children were marched in single file towards the alchemist and her assistants, accompanied by hymn-singing and holy fires.
Danka had expected to be a mere observer, or perhaps assist in a minor way. However, Babackt Yaga ordered both her and Kaloyankt to step forward, strip off their clothing from the waist up, and kneel in front of the long line of children. She uncovered a small metal rod with a saw-tooth end, dipped it in a jar of ointment and placed it against Danka’s left shoulder. Then she looked towards the sky and screamed:
“Beelzebub! The Lord-Creator and the Son of Man cast out your vile presence! Never shall you touch this lass with your evil pox!”
Danka winced as the knife tore into her skin, leaving a small bleeding cut. Babackt Yaga whispered:
“Now you wear the mark that will protect you from the pox. Do not touch your shoulder. Stand behind me, with your left side facing the people so they can see your injury. Do not move until I give you permission.”
Babackt Yaga cut Kaloyankt’s shoulder in the same manner, and screamed the same chant to the Roman Christian God and his son. The naked initiates quietly stood behind their mistress, as proof she was not about to do anything to the local youth that she would not do to her own followers.
For the rest of the night, Babackt Yaga cut the shoulders of children and shouted: “Beelzebub! The Lord-Creator and the Son of Man cast out your vile presence! Never shall you touch this child with your evil pox!”
The accompanying pain from the procedure and screaming of each patient were interpreted as confirmation of the casting out of a curse, not as a simple medical procedure.
As she watched the proceedings and resisted the urge to touch her throbbing shoulder, Danka was able to look upon religious ceremonies and spiritual fanfare from a totally new perspective. Babackt Yaga spent the entire night lying. Her Pagan beliefs did not accept in the divinity of the Roman Son of Man, and for her using the Roman name Beelzebub to refer to the Destroyer was an insult to the Danubian cosmos. She didn’t believe in her own theatrics, but she had to perform for the people so they could accept what she was doing to their offspring. Babackt Yaga had her own faith and her own world-view, but that view was not accepted by the True Believers. Faced with a practical task that she needed to accomplish, she hid her beliefs and put on a performance that met the spiritual needs of a town of Christians.
By the end of the summer Danka had embraced her Path in Life as an initiate of the Follower of the Ancients. She remained intimidated by Babackt Yaga but at the same time deeply admired her. The old woman’s knowledge of the world seemed limitless. She was anxious to share with others, and Danka had become her favorite student. The girl learned fast and her ability to remember new ideas and information was exceptional. So, Danka’s daily life became one of constant learning, mostly of things that were practical and could help people in the real world. She started reading Babackt Yaga’s translations of foreign scientific works and frequently used a dictionary to look up and learn complicated words she did not understand. Whenever she came across any strange word or concept, she wrote it down and memorized it.
Danka spent some of her time alone reflecting on what had happened between her and Bagaturckt. The trauma from her ordeal with him was fading, but she came out of the experience changed. The best comparison she could think of was her hometown Rika Heckt-nemat and the flood that took place decades before. The town, the people, and the Rika Chorna river were there before the flood and remained after the flood, but when the river changed course, the area was not the same after the waters receded. Eventually life went back to “normal”, but “normal” preceding the flood differed from “normal” following the flood.
So… how was Danka different after her own flood, the one that swept away her virginity and much of her naivety? Her ideas about love, trust, and finding happiness through another person certainly changed. Before Bagaturckt she had believed that her happiness depended on finding it through another person. She also had been convinced love and sex went together. By the end of her first summer in the forest her emotions were hardening, making her less vulnerable to the whims of the men in her life. She also understood that love and sex could be separated: in fact, often the two had little to do with each other. She took that lesson to her relationship with Kaloyankt, that she could have sex with him without necessarily being in love with him.
She spent the summer making love to Kaloyankt whenever they had a few minutes to spare. She enjoyed her time with him, but as the summer progressed she realized her feelings towards him were ambiguous. She couldn’t figure out why that would be, because she admired him and knew that had she met him just a year earlier, she would have been desperate to marry him. However, in the settlement of Babackt Yaga, marriage was not a priority for any of the Followers or the initiates. They had a multitude of other worries and just didn’t think about such things, so neither did Danka. It was clear that Kaloyankt was deeply in love with her, but he too adhered to the unspoken custom of the Followers; that as long as he was working in the forest, marriage was not a priority or something to be discussed.
Still, Danka did enjoy the sex. Babackt Yaga showed her a book from a place called India that had pictures of different sexual positions. She was eager to try them during her escapades with her lover. He obliged, happy to be with a woman that constantly had new ideas and wanted to try new things. However, the constant experimenting with new positions planted a subversive idea in Danka’s thoughts. Kaloyankt was not the only man in the world. What would having sex with other men be like? Did different men have different styles of making love? Was there any difference between making love to a young man and an older one? Between a noble and a farmhand?
By the end of the summer Danka realized something about herself that would have shocked her just a few months before: that if the opportunity presented itself, she’d be willing to have sex with someone other than her current lover. Not just willing, but it was something she actually wanted. She looked around at the other men in the settlement, noting the differences in their physiques and wondering how they might differ from Kaloyankt if she had the opportunity to offer herself to them.
During the last week of August, Babackt Yaga ordered Kaloyankt, Danka, and three other initiates; a young man and two young women, to her study. Two older men also were present; the two Followers who had been with Babackt Yaga the longest and enjoyed their leader’s full trust. The initiates knelt as the alchemist made an important announcement:
“The Priest from Nagoronkti-Serifkti contacted me with some interesting news. A group of fortune-seekers is coming up into the forest today. They are traveling to the ancient Alter of the Equinox, because they are planning to raid relics stored in the cave. The Priest gave them a map to the site, which is the same map I gave him the day we cut the children. With your assistance, we will intercept the fortune-seekers and capture them. If we are successful and their blood is pleasing to the Ancients, you will have the opportunity to atone for your offenses. That includes you, Danka Siluckt, especially you. Perhaps you will be pleased to know the men we are planning to capture are from Vienna. They are friends of your former Master. Therefore, you will assume the most important role in bringing them under our control. Have you memorized the Temple Song of Seduction?”
“Yes, Babackt Yaga.”
“Let’s hear you.”
In archaic Danubian Danka sang:
Man’s first woman had fruit in her garden
Sweet fruit no man would resist
She knelt and offered her very best
He came to her to indulge
Sweetness beyond what he had known
Man and woman joined
“Excellent. You’ve learned well, Danka Siluckt.” Babackt Yaga address the other two women. “I want to hear you sing with her. Follow her. Merge your voices as much as you can. Sing, as though you were one.”
Danka led as her companions sang along, carefully following her voice. They adapted their voices to the pitch of Danka’s voice in a technique Babackt Yaga called “spiritual merging”. The effect was music that sounded supernatural, which was exactly what would be needed for the Followers’ plans.
“All three of you have pleased me with your efforts and your learning. If the Ancients bless us, tonight you will atone for your actions and tomorrow you will earn your skulls.”
Babackt Yaga ordered Kaloyankt to leave the house. She unbraided Danka’s hair, handed her a scarf to hide it under, and a comb that she would use later that night.
The members of Babackt Yaga’s settlement dressed in their dark clothing. The Cult members carried their skull-staffs and other items needed for the night’s outing, while the two other female initiates walked out carrying small lamps and a supply of special lamp-oil. The only item Danka carried was her comb.
Kaloyankt, his fellow initiate, and two other men assigned to serve as lookouts already had departed. They went out disguised as brigands, wearing light brown clothing and soft shoes that had been chemically treated to confuse sniffing dogs. They quietly observed their prey: three heavily-armed Austrians on horseback guarded by two Danubian mercenaries and accompanied by a servant leading two heavily-loaded mules. The group had four large hounds with them. Word of Bagaturckt’s fate had reached Vienna by the middle of July, so this group was not about to take any chances. Kaloyankt later commented that a better way for those men not to take any chances would have been to stay in Vienna.
The first challenge to resolve was neutralizing the hounds. The scouts laid out pieces of drugged meat in places the dogs would find them, but where their masters would be unlikely to see. The meat was in small amounts and hidden inside the skins of squirrels. The purpose of the ruse was not to poison the canines, but to drug them so they would continue walking with the group, but not be alert enough to respond to noise or sniff out any danger.
The next part of the capture would depend on calculating exactly where the group would be when dusk fell and they would stop for the night. There were three clearings the mercenaries could choose from as likely locations to set up a camp. By late afternoon it appeared they would be approaching the second one just as it was starting to get dark. Babackt Yaga scouted a location where Danka and the other two women could set up after sunset, a small cleared area on a hill overlooking the camp that would be visible, but difficult to access quickly in the dark.
Followed by their now-listless dogs, the group set up camp while the mercenaries looked around the woods to search for possible danger. They found nothing… certainly the dogs did not sense anything out of the ordinary, so the group tied their horses and lit a fire.
Meanwhile, Danka and her companions quietly moved to the hillside and placed their oil lamps in a circle. The oil had been chemically treated to cast pale green light on Danka’s body. Following Babackt Yaga’s previous instructions, Danka took off her dress and knelt in the middle of the circle of lamps. She uncovered her hair and started combing it in the dark. After her accomplices lit the lamps and retreated into the darkness, she began to sing:
Man’s first woman had fruit in her garden
Sweet fruit no man would resist
She knelt and offered her very best
He came to her to indulge
Sweetness beyond what he had known
Man and woman joined
After the first stanza, the other women accompanied her to add mystery to the ancient song of seduction. Danka continued to comb her hair and proceeded with the next verse.
I have fruit in my garden
Sweet fruit no man will resist
I kneel to you and offer my very best
Come to me and indulge
Sweetness beyond what you have known
Man and woman joined
The Danubian guides had been prepared for just about anything, but they had not been prepared to see a naked forest nymph singing a Pagan tune on a hillside. It was an illusion, it just had to be: there was no way that weird green light illuminating the girl could be natural. And the singing, was it one voice or several? Danka continued, in an ancient language none of the trespassers could understand:
I keep my garden under water
With sweet fruit you will not resist
I reach my arms to the surface
I will pull you to the depths
Deeper and deeper into my garden of pleasure
From which no man ever returns
In the dim light Danka could faintly make out the bewildered faces of the five men as they approached through the thick brush, each with a sword or crossbow in his hand. One of the Austrians pointed a large musket at her. A black cloth slipped over the face of the man farthest to the rear and he disappeared from view. The next face to vanish belonged to the man carrying the firearm. As he passed out, a Follower quickly grabbed the weapon to prevent it from being fired. In quick succession each of the remaining faces vanished behind black cloths.
The captives remained unconscious while the Followers immobilized their hands and feet. Another group of Babackt Yaga’s assistants captured the mule-handler and took control of the horses. The operation went perfectly. With no struggle whatsoever, five heavily armed fighting men, an assistant, numerous weapons, fine horses, four hunting hounds, and expedition supplies had been seized by the Followers. Danka and her companions continued to sing, until Babackt Yaga realized that she needed to tell them to stop. The other initiates extinguished and collected the lamps while Danka got dressed.
Within minutes the Followers had the campsite cleaned up and were moving north with their unconscious prisoners. The captives had to be carefully monitored during the journey, to make sure they stayed alive but without regaining consciousness. The group spent a night of non-stop walking and climbing, passing through groves of thick trees and finally emerging into a large open meadow. Standing alone on a small hill was their goal, the Altar of Blood-nourishment. They arrived at the holy site shortly after sunrise.
Above ground the holy site was little more than the altar itself, built under a small stone roof supported by pillars. However, the ground underneath was filled with an ancient labyrinth of tunnels, chambers, and passages. The underground complex was enormous, comparable in size to the catacombs of Rome. And yet, it was a secret that only a few dozen living souls knew about. The captives were taken into separate cells where Babackt Yaga would interview them. She spoke fluent German, so she would be able to talk to the Austrians with no problem. Although she was convinced all the treasure hunters were worthy of being sacrificed, she needed to be absolutely sure.
While she waited for the captives to wake up, Babackt Yaga called together the five initiates who had participated in the capture. She told Kaloyankt and the three others they had earned their skulls and would become full members of the Cult, an event that would be celebrated on the day of the fall equinox. She answered Danka’s question before she had a chance to ask.
“As for you, not yet. I have another tasking for you.” She dismissed Danka’s companions and continued: “Today, you must determine the fate of a man. Will he go on the altar and bleed with the others, or will he leave the forest? You will make that determination.”
Danka wasn’t sure how to react. Having such a huge responsibility thrust upon her was not something she could have anticipated. It certainly was not something she wanted. The alchemist continued:
“I am convinced five men in that group have offended the Ancients many times over. Unless one of them has a huge surprise for me, at midnight I will drive my knife into five bodies. The sixth man, the mule driver, is the one I don’t know about. He might be a willing party to the fortune-hunters, or he may be like you, an ignorant bystander. You will talk to him, determine what is in his heart, and then you will decide what to do with him. I will honor any decision you make, even if I think it is incorrect. However, I will expect you to explain, in clear detail, why you made the decision you made, what specific facet of his Path in Life he shared with you that made you decide whether he is worth sparing or not sparing. Before you run-off and spare him with no consideration, you will need to remember that he must be kept silent concerning what happened here. So think about it. If you spare that man, how will you ensure he will not talk about us or seek to avenge his companions? If you condemn him, how will you justify your decision when you hold your mirror before the Creator? So, that is your dilemma, Danka Siluckt, the riddle I place at your feet. Answer it correctly, and you will atone for your offense against the Ancients and earn your skull.”
“Yes, Babackt Yaga.”
Danka accompanied a Cult elder to the underground passageway, full of resentment that while the others were going to receive their skulls with no further effort, she was going to have to pass an extra and extremely difficult test of character. Later she would realize Babackt Yaga had a very good reason to put her through the ordeal of deciding the mule-handler’s fate. It was true the others were going to be initiated with no further tests, but they had been serving Babackt Yaga for nearly a year and already had proven themselves. Danka had been with Babackt Yaga a mere three months, so the alchemist was convinced an additional tasking was necessary to determine if the newcomer was ready to join with her companions. Babackt Yaga was impressed with Danka’s ability to learn quickly, comprehend new concepts, and memorize everything from hymns to plant species to alchemy formulas. She was a gifted girl, so the Cult leader wanted to bring her into her closest circle of confidants as quickly as possible. However, she couldn’t justify doing so unless the newcomer could prove she was capable of gathering enough information to make a difficult decision.
Carrying an oil lantern, the elder led Danka through several dark passageways to a small cell. He opened the door and ordered a frightened young man to come out. Danka knew that before she talked to him, she needed to establish her superiority. With her rough lower-class accent, that might be a problem if the mule-handler was a guild-member. On a flash of inspiration she ordered him to strip. That should take care of it, thought Danka. Guild-member or not, if he’s naked and I’m wearing my dress, I’m the one in control here.
Danka’s idea worked. The man cowered in terror as soon as he finished undressing. Danka announced that she wanted to take him outside for a while to talk. The elder tied his hands behind his back and blindfolded him so that he would not know how to navigate the passageways. Upon exiting, Danka requested the elder to take off the blindfold and untie his hands. The initiate ordered her captive to kneel.
“You are not free. You need to understand that. You will do whatever I tell you. If you take a look at those woods, you will see they go on for a long way in every direction. We know the trails and you don’t. So, you are no closer to escaping than when you were locked in that cell. Do you understand?”
“My title is ‘Initiate’. I am an initiate of the Followers of the Ancients.” Danka was thrilled at the thought of referring to herself with a title. She realized she actually had a title. She was an initiate of the Cult of the Ancients, and if she completed her current assignment, after the equinox her title would be “Follower of the Ancients”. She’d no longer be a peasant or a laborer; she’d be a woman with a title and an assigned place in society.
“That’s better. Now, who are you?”
“My name is Tihomirikt. I’m from the borderlands south of Horkustk Ris. but, I don’t live there anymore. I had to leave.”
“Foreigners came up from the south, from the other side of the border. They drove everyone out of our town. Killed my father, and my uncle. And so we went north; my mother, my aunt, cousins, my younger brother, and we’re staying outside Danubikt Moskt.”
“So, what brought you here? Why are you working for Austrian fortune-seekers?”
“When we camped outside the capitol, the Grand Duke’s men gave us some food, but they told us we’d have to leave if we couldn’t find work. They asked if any of us were guild members. My father was, and I was an apprentice. We belonged to the Horse-Trainers’ Guild. But my father was dead, and I hadn’t completed my final tasking to become a member, and all of the men who could vouch for me were killed, so the only proof I had was my word.”
“Very well, you claim you have training as an apprentice with the Horse-Trainers’ Guild, but you have no way to prove it. You did not answer my question. Why are you working for foreign fortune-hunters?”
“The guards told me that traders’ caravans in Sebernekt Ris were looking for horse handlers. So, I left my family and went north to see if that was true. It wasn’t, but there were some people who wanted a worker to handle their pack-mules. I decided to take the position. I hated it. I dishonored the memory of my father and the Horse-Trainer’s Guild by accepting a mule-handler’s job, but I wanted to make sure my family didn’t have to move again. So, the two guides from the Duchy, the ones who are working for the foreign fortune-hunters, hired me to lead their pack-mules and care for their horses.”
Interesting story, thought Danka, assuming it’s true. In just a few sentences Tihomirikt provided her with a lot of information that she would have to verify. She didn’t know much about the situation along the Duchy’s southern border, but she had heard rumors that many Danubians had fled their homes over the past year because of an invasion from a foreign monarch who called himself the Lord of the Red Moon.
She ordered Tihomirikt to stand up and follow her to the edge of the meadow. She glanced at a gully with a small stream that flowed into a rocky pool. She noted that her captive smelled as bad as his mules and his stench irritated her. She ordered him to bathe, while she watched. When he finished, she ordered him to kneel in front of her while he shivered and the water dripped off his body. She was totally fascinated by what she was doing. For the first time in her life she was giving orders to a man who was obeying her. There was no hint of resistance or resentment coming from Tihomirikt, because he understood that he was very likely to die unless he pleased his captors.
Danka’s thoughts were in turmoil. She knew that she had to verify Tihomirikt’s story, without knowing much about the Horse-Trainers’ Guild and without having seen any of the places he had mentioned as part of his travels. She had no way of knowing whether he really had a family, or whether or not they were refugees living outside Danubikt Moskt. She pondered how to question him, but realized that the best way to proceed would be to use his experiences to satisfy her own curiosity about the cities of western Danubia. She’d simply encourage him to talk about his life and give descriptions of all those new places. Then she’d make him talk about the Horse-Trainer’s Guild and how they educated their apprentices. Finally, after she had gained his trust, she’d find out about the fortune-hunters and figure out how much he knew about their plans.
It turned out Tihomirikt badly needed someone to talk to. His life was ruined and his employers had insulted and mistreated him. He moved back and forth in his narrative, talking about his father and his lost town, talking about the fine horses he had trained with, talking about the fearful flight northward and refugee life in the capitol, and his fear of the unfamiliar mountains of northern Danubia. It turned out he was nothing more than a hired-hand of the fortune-hunters. He didn’t know what they were seeking, nor did he really care. He just wanted the experience to be finished, to receive his pay, and return to his family. So, in Danka’s mind, one question was answered. Tihomirikt would not make a suitable sacrifice on the Altar of Blood-nourishment. He would have to be released. Her dilemma now was to figure out how to ensure he did not pose a threat to the Followers after he was freed.
As she pondered how Tihomirikt should be released, she admired his body. She was curious to touch him. Since he was her prisoner and forced to do whatever she wanted, she knew she could satisfy her curiosity without fear of him forcing himself on her or rejecting her. She was in charge.
She ordered him to lie on his back on a flat rock, close his eyes, and extend his hands over his head. She traced his chest and thighs with her fingertips. He became erect immediately. Curious, she touched his penis and ran her fingers over his testicles.
“Have you ever been with a woman, Tihomirikt?”
“No, Initiate. I haven’t.”
“I’d imagine it’s something you dream about, isn’t it?”
“Life is full of strange dreams, Tihomirikt. If you knew me, you’d know that is true, in my life especially.”
Danka took off her apron and laid it over her captive’s face. Then she took off her dress and tossed it aside. Finally, she returned to massaging his already-hard penis.
“You are dreaming now, Tihomirikt. You will not dare wake up until I give you permission. Do not move your hands and do not uncover your face. Remember, dreams can become reality and reality can become dreams.”
Danka was about to satisfy something that she had been curious about for several weeks. She wanted to know what it would be like to make love to a man by straddling him, by being on top instead of having to assume a submissive posture. Making sure he was hard enough to push completely inside, she lowered herself over his erect member. She rocked back and forth, completely enjoying a new sensation, not just how his penis felt inside her, but also the feeling of being in control during sex. For the first time, Danka was in completely in charge of her love-making. The tremendous psychological rush pushed her to have the best orgasm she had enjoyed in her life.
He moaned and she felt his semen pumping into her. When he finished, she ordered him not to move while she rinsed off in the pool. She then put on her dress and retrieved her apron. When she finally allowed him to open his eyes and sit up, he looked totally bewildered, as though he was unsure if he really had entered her or if he had been dreaming.
Without saying anything more, she ordered the captive to return with her to the tunnel entrance. He was terrified when he realized that he was about to be blindfolded and taken back to his cell. As soon as her prisoner was locked up, Danka devised a plan for disposing of him in a way that ensured he would never pose a threat. The Followers of the Ancients would have to give up some of the booty they had captured from the fortune-hunters, but Danka knew that would be of little concern to Babackt Yaga. Sure enough, when she shared her plan with the alchemist, she could tell Babackt Yaga was very pleased with her judgment.
“Your plan is as good as anything I could have concocted. Your scheme balances wisdom, mercy, and caution. As soon as we can tranquilize him and collect what we need, I’ll have him taken out of here.”
“Am I going with him, Babackt Yaga?”
“No. If it were any other night, I’d hold you responsible for escorting your prisoner. However, tonight you will have to bear witness to the appeasement of the Ancients, so the Great Spirits demand that you stay with us at the Altar.”
Tihomirikt’s masters would not be so lucky. Their conversations with Babackt Yaga confirmed they were nothing more than grave-robbers. They had education and titles and were pursuing their loot in the name of “knowledge”, but they remained grave-robbers. Their Paths in Life were offensive to the Followers of the Ancients. Only the flow of their blood could atone for what they were planning to do.
Danka took her place among the other women shortly before midnight. The female followers stood in a circle around the Altar, dressed in their black outfits and wearing hoods to obscure their faces. Each woman held her skull-staff, which cast off a sinister orange light. The altar area was illuminated by oil lamps with oil treated to burn red. The lighting was designed to highlight the terror of the sacrificial victim: the dim red altar surrounded by a circle of orange skulls, accompanied by a chant that had not changed in 5000 years.
The women’s role was to recite the ancient Blood Hymn while the male Followers brought out and restrained the subjects. Like the women, the men were dressed in black and their faces obscured by hoods. The group’s leader was completely naked, but her body was covered with white chalk highlighted with charcoal dust. The make-up was similar to the body-paint used by penitents during the Day of the Dead, but more elaborate and thus more scary-looking.
Danka sang with the others, holding a staff she had borrowed from one of the male Followers. In spite of the grim event she was about to witness, the main thought running her mind was the satisfaction that she was about to have her own staff, with its unique skull, crafted in her honor. The staff would show the world and the Ancients that she was a fully-accepted “Follower”. She was excited and proud, and also without much pity for the sacrificial captives. If she felt any sympathy at all, she whispered “Bagaturckt”. Her former master’s name became her personal chant. Whenever she was called upon to neutralize pity, the memory of the tormentor who had taken away her innocence was all she needed.
The victims were brought out and sacrificed one-by-one. The men brought out the first fortune-hunter. He screamed and viciously struggled when he realized where he was being taken and what was about to happen to him. The screaming and the struggle were part of the sacrificial ritual. With difficulty the men managed to position their subject on the altar and chain his wrists and ankles. They cut open the victim’s shirt and marked a spot near the heart where Babackt Yaga would plunge her knife. The leader showed up, carrying a large and very crudely-made bronze dagger. Danka vaguely wondered how many victims that dagger had entered over the centuries.
Babackt Yaga’s most trusted elders helped her get on the altar and straddle the fortune-hunter. He was screaming maniacally. Perfect. In archaic Danubian, the old woman shouted:
“The dirty blood of the vile offender will cleanse the earth! Ancient ones, we implore you to accept this red river of life, a gift for the nourishment of the world!”
The leader expertly plunged the knife into the exact spot marked by her assistants. The screaming suddenly stopped. She plunged the knife a second time into the victim’s neck, severing the artery and producing the flow of red river needed to sustain the cosmos of the Cult of the Ancients.
The stench of fresh blood hit Danka’s nose. It didn’t bother her in the least. It was the same smell she experienced every time she had to butcher an animal for dinner. Like her companions, she continued to chant as the body was taken away and the next screaming victim brought to the altar.
The next morning Tihomirikt woke up in an unfamiliar village, sleeping under a tree next to the local Priest’s house. His head ached in a very strange manner and it took him a long time to completely come to his senses. He realized he was lying on a comfortable bedroll and dressed in elegant clothing. A sword and an expensive Austrian musket lay at his side. He looked around for his employers, but didn’t see anything except a fine horse, like the ones his father used to train.
Where was he? Was he dreaming? Or had he been dreaming and just woken up? Did he have employers to whom that horse belonged, or was the horse his? Was the musket his? How could he be wearing expensive clothing, if the clothing wasn’t his? What about the mules? Had there been mules? He looked around. No mules, just the horse.
There had been a girl, a completely naked green nymph singing on a hillside, or was she the cult member wearing a black dress? The nymph and the girl looked alike, but no, there were no such thing as nymphs, or were there? Had he made love to a nymph? Or the girl in the black dress? Both? Neither?
His thoughts returned to his outfit, his musket, and his horse. What a strange dream. I need to get my bearings, figure out where I am.
He looked in his saddlebag. It contained a stock of dried food and three pieces of gold. Gold. My family. I must go back and make sure they are well.
Before Tihomirikt left the village, he stopped at the city square to purchase sheets of parchment and an ink-well. The girl in the forest, the one of his dreams… he’d have to write about her so he wouldn’t forget.
Historian’s Note: At this point in my narrative, as a researcher I must insert a comment about the Cult of the Ancients and the popular distortion of history. Nineteenth-century romanticists and historians tried to obscure the reality that human sacrifice was an integral part of the Followers’ beliefs, a practice that dated back five thousand years.
When the Cult of the Ancients formed, human sacrifice was common throughout Europe. The ancient Danubians conducted human sacrifices as well. The children’s storybooks, poems, and songs that romanticize the Followers, as well as commercial tour-guides who lead excursions into the North Mountain National Park, fail to mention that reality. However, one cannot understand the Followers of the Ancients without accepting the fact they obtained the skulls they carried on their staffs from sacrificial victims. It is also important to remember that the Followers were much more sparing with their sacrifices than most pre-Christian cults. An average peasant or villager had nothing to fear from the Followers, which partly explains why human sacrifice in the forests of northern Danubia was tolerated and continued centuries after the practice had died out everywhere else.
Finding and capturing suitable sacrificial subjects was challenging, because only the blood of those who directly offended the Great Spirits was acceptable. The blood had to be from an able-bodied adult who, through his own decisions and deliberate actions, had physically harmed a Follower or who had desecrated or intended to desecrate a Holy Site. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fortune hunters, especially foreigners who did not respect ancient Danubian lore, were the main source of victims for the Altar of Blood-nourishment. The challenge for the Followers was that usually fortune hunters were aggressive, well-armed, and traveled in groups. Identifying, luring, and subduing such victims was difficult and dangerous, but was also an important part of the sacrificial ritual. It had to be that way, because the blood of a person who was helpless, weak, or innocent would bring a curse to the Ancients instead of nourishing the Earth’s life-cycle.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –