The architecture of Severckt nad Goradki was similar to the northwestern section of Danka’s hometown of Rika Heckt-nemat, where the city’s wealthier families lived. However its setting was completely different. Instead of sitting in a flat river valley, Severckt nad Goradki was built on a hill and surrounded by steep hills and mountains. The only fields were located along the road approaching from the south: the forests began immediately on the north side of the town. The city’s inhabitants were mostly wealthy, because apart from working as a house servant, there was nothing in the area for poor people to do.
Bagaturckt took his companion to a friend’s house, which was one of the largest in the city. The friend was absent on a hunting trip, but he had left instructions with the servants to let Bagaturckt stay overnight and use the guest suite. The servants led the travelers to the nicest room Danka had ever seen. For the first time in her life she saw vases that had been imported from China and rugs imported from Persia. There was a huge fluffy bed with the covers turned down.
Bagaturckt ordered the servants to bathe his woman, re-braid her hair, and make sure she had something to eat. The experience turned out to be very strange and unsettling, because the servants told the penitent that she was to keep her hands at her sides and let them wash her and fix her hair. She stood quietly as the women soaped and lathered her body, paying special attention to her vulva and bottom. They volunteered only one observation: “everything must be perfect for the Master.” Even after eating, Danka was not allowed to clean her own teeth. One of the servants held her wrists while the other carefully rubbed fine salt mixed with mint extract around her teeth and gums.
In the meantime, he retired to the bathhouse and got cleaned up as well. He did not bother to get dressed. Oddly enough, even though they had just spent two days traveling together, she had not yet seen him unclothed. In a few moments that would change.
When Danka entered the room, she was a bit shocked to see her love naked, even though she fully expected to surrender her virginity that day. She was excited… she was about to find out what it was to quit being a girl and start being a woman… and with the best man she possibly could have.
Bagaturckt started out tenderly. He wanted to make sure she was aroused and relaxed to make the session as pleasurable for him as possible. Virgins didn’t come along very often, so he was careful to take full advantage of one whenever he had the opportunity. He moved her hand to his stiffening penis.
“Grab it. Not too tight. Move your hand up and down, slowly.”
When Danka complied, he went completely erect within seconds. He moved his fingertips to her vulva, gently tracing the opening to make sure she was wet. Yes, she was. He touched her clitoris and teased her. Good. The girl was ready.
“Lie on the bed. Spread your legs. You will understand the first time will hurt, but that pain is the Creator’s way of letting you know you are fulfilling your duty to me. Your suffering is a blessing in the eyes of the Creator. You would be wise to remember that and obey what I tell you.”
The mood of the room immediately changed as soon as Bagaturckt got on the bed. He pushed the penitent’s thighs upward so he could get in better. He rammed into her as hard as he could. She felt the tissue inside tearing apart and was shocked at the pain. She cried out and tried to push him back, but he grabbed her hands and pinned her to the bed. He grunted and thrust as hard as he could, over and over. After-all, for a woman to understand her place with him, it was important to make the first time as painful as possible.
Danka cried out again, from both pain and terror. She felt like she was being completely torn apart.
“Bagaturckt! Please! Hurt!”
He slapped her hard across the face.
“Of course it hurts! It’s what you deserve!”
She felt his penis pulsating as he climaxed and unloaded his first round of sperm. He pulled out of her and she instinctively covered her injured vagina. Blood was coming out. Her upper thighs were covered in red. It seeped through her fingers and soaked her pubic hair.
Bagaturckt didn’t give her the chance to worry about her injuries. He dug his fingers into her hair and yanked her off the bed. Danka was crying as he positioned her in front of him.
“Put my penis in your mouth. Lick it off and suck until I’m hard again. I’ll break your neck if you dare bite down on me.”
Danka gagged on the taste of semen and blood, but she was terrified and desperate to obey. In a few minutes he was hard again, ready for another round.
“Get on the bed. On your knees. Just like you would at the Temple. Kneel before the Creator, Penitent.”
Danka complied, even though she was shocked at the blasphemy. She spread her knees, arched her back, and extended her arms in front, lewdly exposing her bloody crotch. She was crying and trembling with fear. Bagaturckt was totally aroused at the sight of blood trickling down her thighs and the girl’s submissive posture. Her trembling body and quiet sobs added to the erotic spectacle.
“Stay in position. Do not move. If you want, you can cry out, but do not dare move.”
Bagaturckt picked up a heavy strap and struck hard at the girl’s upturned bottom. She screamed and he hit her several more times. She was sobbing loudly and her whole body was shaking. Lovely, the blood, the welts, the crying, the fear, this was what made fucking a virgin so great. It was what made spending several weeks patiently seducing her worth it.
Bagaturckt was more than ready for a second round. His penis was as hard as before, ready to pump another batch of semen into her. He moved behind her and, as roughly as he could, pushed inside. He was determined that nothing would remain of the girl’s virginity when he finished with her. He was rewarded with more crying and more blood, although not nearly as much as the first time.
Bagaturckt left the room to get cleaned up. Danka remained on the bed, lying on her side with her hands between her legs. The pillow beneath her face was soaked with tears, and the sheet beneath her body was soaked with sweat and blood. She couldn’t believe how much it hurt. She was in shock, because she had not expected sex to be so – awful. She certainly hadn’t expected her lover to be so – awful.
Danka dozed off. She woke up when Bagaturckt re-entered the room. He was still naked and had yet another erection. She noticed that he had a shiny glob of pig-fat on his fingertips.
“Lie face-down on the bed. Take that pillow and put it under your hips.”
Danka was bewildered at the command. When she moved too slowly, Bagaturckt picked up the strap. The penitent quickly moved to get the pillow under her and position herself as directed. It didn’t do her any good. She screamed when he laid two cruel blows across her naked backside.
“You will learn to obey me, girl. You’re mine now, until I say otherwise. I expect complete obedience.”
“Yes… yes, Bagaturckt.”
“Until I say otherwise” Those words were another severe blow to Danka’s illusions, but she had other things to worry about. Bagaturckt got on the bed and spread his lover’s bottom-cheeks. He dabbed the pig lard around the girl’s anus and put some on the tip of his penis. He pushed down, using his bodyweight to force himself completely inside. Danka’s sphincter and intestines immediately protested in pain. She struggled, but he pinned her arms to the bed and held her tight. Once again, he wanted the experience to be as painful as possible so she would remember it for the rest of her life. When he finished, he hit her with the strap again and left the room.
Danka curled up into a fetal position and resumed crying. She would not be able to get back to sleep. The raw pain in her violated sphincter and the deep ache in her intestines added to the burning coming from her vagina and the welts from the strap. Besides, what other horrible things was that awful man going to do to her?
Just hours before she had been full of love and was giving thanks to the Creator, but now that love and gratitude were gone. She hated the Creator. She hated herself. She most certainly hated Bagaturckt.
She remembered the words of her the young Priestess, spoken just a few weeks before: “We are not supposed to hate, but I hope the Creator understands that my hatred of Bagaturckt is quite justified.”
Yes, Priestess, your hatred of him is justified. Very justified. So, you couldn’t have warned me?
But Danka knew the answer to her own question. The Priestess did try to warn her, but was trying to avoid being too obvious. Anyhow, even had the Priestess been more direct about the warning, she wouldn’t have listened.
The house servants entered the room at sunrise and ordered Danka to accompany them to the bath house. She struggled to get out of bed while they watched with indifferent expressions. Danka blushed upon seeing all the dried blood, semen, sweat, tears, and smeared feces on the bed sheet. The servants didn’t react, apart from pulling off the bedding as soon as she was on her feet. She tried to cover herself, but two women ordered her to put out her hands. They grabbed her wrists and led her out of the room.
A warm bath already was awaiting Danka when she entered the bath house. An older servant placed a chamber pot in the corner and ordered the guest to relieve herself before getting in the tub.
“It’ll hurt and you won’t want to do it, but you have no choice. You’ll heal faster if you get all the piss and shit out of you now. It might feel like your Path in Life has ended, but it hasn’t. All the virgin lasses go through this and all of them survived. You’ll survive as well. You’re no different than any of the others.”
“The others? How many others?”
“Many. Every time the Master or one of his friends finds a virgin lass, they take her up to that room. They even gave a nickname to it: the ‘Graveyard of Virtue’.
“… and Master Bagaturckt?”
“He doesn’t come here as often as the Master’s other friends, but Master Bagaturckt’s Path in Life has taken him to the foreign lands, where he indulges himself, to be sure.”
“… but, he’s come here with other girls… virgins?”
“Yes, but today is the first time we’ve seen him in two years.”
“Two years? And… the last time… did he have a girl with him?”
“Oh, yes he did. And that one was special. A seminary student from the Temple in Starivktaki Moskt. I heard him tell the Master of the house it took him months to convince her to come up here. He was quite proud of himself, proud that he indulged his desires with a virtuous woman of the Church.”
As she sat on the chamber-pot, wincing while she painfully emptied her intestines, Danka thought about what else she should ask. The servant attending her seemed chatty and she needed to take advantage of that. The penitent was still devastated and traumatized, but she knew feeling sorry for herself wouldn’t help her. She needed to extract herself from the grasp of Bagaturckt, but she was in a strange town and couldn’t do anything without more information. She decided to ask some more questions about the seminary student as soon as she finished and got into the bathtub.
“I… I was curious, how did he… convince a Temple apprentice to come up here? And, how did he get her out of the Temple?”
“The same way he convinced you to come up here, I’d imagine. Poetry, love talk, gifts,” The servant thought for a moment. “Yes, and with the seminary student Master Bagaturckt talked about the Lord-Creator and the forest. yes, that’s it, he used the name of the Lord-Creator to seduce her. He talked about the forest and how she’d see the best and most beautiful place the Lord-Creator had given to the Realm of the Living. And he did take her there, but I’d imagine, after what the Masters did to her, she no longer cared.”
“Masters? As in, more than one?”
“Oh yes. Master Bagaturckt humiliated that student as much as he could. After he deflowered her, he wouldn’t let her bathe until he took her before our Master and two others who were visiting at the time. He made her show herself to them and then asked her what she thought the Lord-Creator would say about her virtue, now that the only memory of it was the dry blood running down her thighs. She cried and the men made fun of her. Finally, he did let her bathe. He indulged himself with her again. On the third day he took her to the chambers of the my Master and then presented her to the others. On the fourth day, as promised, he took her to see the forest.”
“But, I don’t understand, why? Why would he do that, to a seminary student? Why humiliate her like that? What did she ever do to him to make him hate her so much? And, what did I ever do?”
“That question is easily answered. Master Bagaturckt hates virtue. More than anything, he hates women who consider themselves virtuous. Everywhere he sees virtue, he tries to destroy it. My Master and the others feel the same way about virtuous women, although perhaps not as strongly as Master Bagaturckt.”
There was a pause and the servant continued:
“Master Bagaturckt did not hate the seminary student and he doesn’t hate you. He hates no one. But he hated your virtue, which is why he brought you to this house. Now, let me ask you something. Did you go through the door into that bedroom willingly, or did he force you?”
“I… I guess I went in there willingly.”
“You guess, or did you enter that room according to your own wishes?”
“I went in there because I… I thought he loved me. I wanted to give myself to him.”
“Which is indeed what you did. You willingly went through that door, and you willingly presented your body for him to enjoy. That is the way it has been with all of you. There is not a single woman who ever was forced into that room. Each one of you walked in there willingly.”
“But it was because we were tricked.”
“No, not because you were tricked. You went in there because you only saw what you wanted to see. The only deception was the deception you inflicted upon yourself.”
“But, I did it out of love.”
“Yes, just like all the others, you did it out of love. That is a problem, isn’t it? Love is very dangerous. Love can be a blessing from the Lord-Creator, or a curse from Beelzebub the Destroyer. Of the two, which do you think is the most common?”
“I guess, for me it would be the curse.”
“Not just for you. For most people it would be the curse. That is the lesson you will take away from this house. Love is a curse much more often than it is a blessing.”
“So, what should I do now? Can you help me escape?”
“There’s no need for you to escape. Master Bagaturckt already took from you what he wanted. He’ll keep you for a month or so, and then he’ll find a place to leave you. I advise you to stay with him until that time comes, because he will want to be assured you are safe.”
“Safe? How can I be safe? He just ruined my life!”
“Remember what I said earlier. He hates virtue and wants to destroy it. If there’s no virtue left in you, you’ll be more than safe with him. He’ll want you to stay alive and pass that lesson to others.”
“I don’t want to stay with him for a month. I don’t want to see him, ever. I’d rather… ”
“Yes, you’d rather die, I know. All of you say the same thing. And if you die, what good would that do? Do you really want to hold up your mirror to the Lord-Creator with your Path in Life as it is now? I wouldn’t. When the month passes and you are left to make your own decisions again, you can fix most of what was broken in that room. Not all of it, obviously, but you’ll be surprised how much the simple passing of time can repair your soul. And if Master Bagaturckt wishes to take you into the forest, you should go. It has places that are worth seeing and knowledge you’ll never obtain in the city.”
When Danka did not reply, the Servant added: “There is something I can do for you to make sure you pass the next month without having your life disrupted any more than it is already.”
The servant pointed at a set of shelves near the door. Mostly they contained soaps and perfumes, but there was one shelf containing some small brown ceramic jars.
“Take a couple of those jars on your way out and put them with your other belongings. As soon as your insides heal from ‘the loss of your virtue’, you need to take a finger-full of that paste and rub it completely around your womanhood. You need to rub it on the inside, as deep as you can. Do that once each day and if you can, right before sex. Do it right, and that paste will prevent you from getting pregnant.”
“Paste? That actually works?”
“I don’t know how it works, but it does. You might have noticed on the way in, this town does not have nearly as many children as most places around the Duchy. The only children who live here are the ones that were actually wanted by their mothers. If a woman doesn’t want a baby, she uses Babackt Yaga’s paste, and the moon passes her by.”
“Babackt Yaga? Who’s that?”
“She’s an alchemist who lives up in the mountains. She’s been there as long as I can remember, and I’m not young. Her alchemy is something to behold, because her potions can heal many of the curses Beelzebub the Destroyer has inflicted on us. Her potions can’t heal everything, and she’ll tell you that herself. But many evil things can be healed, or simply prevented, including an undesired baby. I’d imagine you don’t want to carry Master Bagaturckt’s child?”
“That’s how I can help you. Take two of those jars. You will need to wait until your injuries heal, or that paste will burn your insides. But once you’ve healed, you should be able to use it with no problem.”
Danka stood up and reluctantly took two jars.
“I will take you back the ‘graveyard of virtue’. I know the masters, and I can tell you something important about all of them. They become bored very quickly. Do what Master Bagaturckt says. Don’t resist him. Don’t challenge him. Don’t let him see your suffering. Follow that advice and he’ll probably return you to the Temple before the next moon.”
As she accompanied the servant to the guest room, Danka pondered the advice. She had no reason to mistrust the servant: if anything the servant had placed considerable trust in her by giving her those jars of Babackt Yaga’s paste. She’d follow the advice concerning Bagaturckt. She’d hide her emotions, put up with his depravity, hope Babackt Yaga’s birth-control paste actually worked, and wait for him to dispose of her.
Bagaturckt returned to the ‘graveyard of virtue’ a few hours later, after Danka had the chance to eat, rest, and accustom herself to her unpleasant circumstances. He ordered her to get on her elbows and knees on the edge of the bed and hold that position. He roughly fondled her sore vulva and shoved his fingers into her vagina. She bit her lip and closed her eyes, but stayed quiet.
“Hmmm, not much blood. Looks like you’ve healed.”
“Yes, Master Bagaturckt.”
In a flash of inspiration, Danka decided to call her lover “Master Bagaturckt” instead of “Bagaturckt”. She would distance herself as much as she could every time she had to talk to him. She would address him with the formal form of “you” instead of the familiar form, once again, as a means of establishing social distance. She would be obedient in the same way a servant had to be obedient, but she would be cold and indifferent around him. She would consider herself his servant, not his lover.
He took off his clothes and roughly took her from behind. The experience was painful for Danka, because she was not aroused and still was recovering from losing her virginity the night before. However, except for a few grunts, she did not make any noise. Frustrated by the lack of emotion, he grabbed the strap and hit her across her upturned bottom. She cried out each time she was hit, but struggled to keep still and keep her crying to a minimum.
“So you enjoy the strap, my little slut?”
“I am here to please you, Master Bagaturckt. My body is for you to enjoy. What I want doesn’t matter, does it?”
Bagaturckt was at a loss how to proceed. He had wanted to further humiliate the penitent, and then drag her before his friends, to break her and make her cry even more. The seminary student had been a lot of fun; crying, praying, insisting that she loved him, and totally incredulous over everything he did to her. It seemed the peasant girl wasn’t falling for any of that. She would not resist anything he wanted to do to her, but she would obey him as a mistreated servant, not as a hurt lover. Her attitude about having sex with him would be exactly the same as if she were ordered to sweep the floor or gut a chicken.
He ordered her to lick his penis. She obeyed and managed to get an erection out of him. He pushed her to the bed and entered her. She lay quietly, neither cooperating nor resisting, as she waited for him to finish. She thought to herself – I just have to get through this. Just get through it. A month, the house servant told me it’ll be a month. I hope it’s not any more than that.
Bagaturckt was completely disappointed. He left the room and did not return until sunrise the next day. He went out drinking with his friends and did not mention the peasant girl he had deflowered and who was still locked up in the guest bedroom. With her quiet sullen obedience, it was very possible the others would have made fun of him had he attempted to pass her around.
Bagaturckt decided to head into the mountains a couple of days sooner than he had originally planned. Breaking the peasant girl had turned out to not be nearly as much fun as he anticipated. However, as much as he wanted to get rid of her, he still needed an assistant to accompany him into the mountains, to attend to things such as cooking and grooming the horses while he searched for his mysterious mushrooms.
The couple rode into the hills overlooking Severckt nad Goradki. The view was exciting: rolling sheep pastures rising higher and higher, leading up to the dark forest beyond. The day was beautiful and clear, allowing Danka to look south and observe the entire central region of the Duchy. She could see portions of the Rika Chorna River in the distance and, if she had a telescope with her, she would have been able to make out Rika Heckt-nemat and Starivktaki Moskt. It was fascinating to be able to see so much at once. For a few moments she enjoyed herself as she managed to ignore the fact she was traveling with a man she loathed.
As they entered the forest, Danka’s attention was turned to keeping up with Bagaturckt and trying to maintain control of a horse without knowing anything about riding. The spectacular view vanished: now there was nothing to look at except huge trees and her companion’s back. They traveled slowly, because Bagaturckt frequently stopped to look at a compass, consult a map, or write some comments in a journal. The terrain became much steeper as the afternoon wore on. Finally, just as the sun was setting, they arrived at clearing with a small alter and a campsite where they would spend their first night.
“Get us enough firewood to make it through sunrise. You are responsible for maintaining it. Also, start a pot of water to boil and fix us a portion of the dry meat in my saddlebag.”
“Yes, Master Bagaturckt.”
Bagaturckt gave Danka an irritated look but said nothing more.
After they ate and Danka washed their utensils, Bagaturckt went to sleep. Danka looked at the sleeping man with complete disdain and hatred. Her acting and the effort to hide her emotions had been perfect, but still she was devastated by what he had done to her and by what he had planned to do to her. Now he was silent and helpless. It was nice to not have to hear his voice or deal with his stupid ideas.
Although her nemesis now was asleep, Danka never contemplated seeking revenge by attacking him. She still considered herself inferior to most of the people surrounding her. She may have become literate over the past year, but she remained an impoverished unmarried young woman with no title, living in a culture dominated by married men who owned property. Regardless of what he had done to her, Bagaturckt remained a “Master” who was socially superior to her. After-all, he was the son of a Senior Priest. It was safe to assume that if she killed him and was caught, she’d face execution regardless of the motives or circumstances. Besides, she could not imagine the Creator was pleased with her, living a life of lies under a fake collar. Maybe what had happened was the Creator’s way of punishing her for all the lies she had told over the past year. Certainly a murder would not improve her prospects in the After-Life.
Another issue weighing on Danka was the reality that she had little experience dealing with men or boys. What she had witnessed during her childhood would not have persuaded her that women had any rights. She was used to seeing her father routinely beat her mother and many of her neighbors doing the same to their wives and daughters. She had no way of knowing whether Bagaturckt’s treatment of her was acceptable in the view of Danubian society. She suspected that it was not, but her past experiences gave her no guidance.
As she tended the fire, the main question in Danka’s mind did not concern Bagaturckt at all. She was more worried about whether or not she should return to the Temple in Starivktaki Moskt. Apart from a safe place to sleep, there was nothing waiting for her there. The seminary student who had mentored her was gone and she had no other close friends. She certainly would never have any respect for the Senior Priest or Senior Priestess, considering they had raised a son who was so depraved and whose soul was so broken. She didn’t want to study for the Priesthood, nor end up like those two older women who had spent most of their lives in the same place and doing the same thing, year after year.
She understood that it would be better not to go back, but if she didn’t, then what should she do?
The following day the couple continued their journey, passing through a forested valley and crossing in front of some spectacular waterfalls. Their trek took them northwest and towards several streambeds. Bagaturckt began searching in earnest for his mushrooms, following maps and copies of journals. A couple of times that day he ordered the peasant girl to get on her hands and knees. He’d take off his pants, enter her, and mercifully was finished within a few minutes. Neither he nor the girl considered it making love. For him it was little more than stress relief, for her it was nothing more than one of her obligations as his servant.
At the end of the second day they made camp in a clearing near a stream. It was an idyllic spot, worthy of a poem. Bagaturckt scribbled one into his journal while the peasant girl collected firewood. As he watched her, he admired her naked body. He decided to include a few lines about her as well, even though he no longer was very interested in her. Still, she could be the source of fantasy and go well into a poem.
Danka started the fire, cooked, and ate a silent meal with Bagaturckt. When he dozed off, she took the utensils to the stream to wash them. She decided to jump in and rinse off. It was a lovely evening, with a moon that was almost full and fireflies dancing in the woods all around her. An occasional bat or swallow passed overhead.
A much larger shape passed over, completely silent. Danka’s heart stopped, because it was way too large to be a bat or swallow. She must have been imagining things. The shape passed over again, this time very close. It looked like a bird, but incredibly large. She tried to figure out where it went as it vanished into the black forest. The bird flew over a third time and landed on a branch near the river. Danka couldn’t run: it seemed the streambed held her feet tight. Whatever that bird was, she’d have to face it or chase it off.
“Hello? Bird? Is that… ”
A pair of huge eyes, illuminated by the moonlight, suddenly emerged into the peasant’s view. She was so scared that her knees shook and her breathing became difficult. She felt very cold.
From a distance she heard the hooting of an owl. Then the one close to her answered with a loud hoot that shot straight into the girl’s bones. The eyes, which seemed suspended in the darkness, did not budge. They became the only thing she was able to see. Nothing more than a pair of large hostile eyes.
Then the owl spoke to her. He did not speak through hoots or by making any other sound. He spoke to her soul.
“You know your true Master, Danka Siluckt. It is I.”
“No. I don’t. I don’t know you.”
“Ahhh, but you do, Danka Siluckt. Remember what the scripture says: ‘The Destroyer enters the Realm of the Living through the mouth of the liar’. You will not escape from me, liar.”
Danka said nothing, but the cold terror completely filled her soul. The voice continued:
“You tried to ignore the warning last year. You convinced yourself it was just your imagination. Thought I would just go away. Why would I do that, Danka Siluckt? Why would I just go away and leave you in peace? Why?… Why?… Why?… ”
The owl’s final words faded into hoots. The bird took off and flew over her head, so close that she felt the brush of air from his wings.
The couple traveled deeper and deeper into the mountains, checking streambed after streambed. Bagaturckt collected samples of rare mushrooms, but for several days the “the Joy of the Ancients” eluded him. He did not despair, because he knew the mushroom would be hard to find. His Vienna friends would not have wagered a purse of gold had they suspected searching for “the Joy of the Ancients” would be easy. He had all summer to locate his elusive treasure and a girl to make his life comfortable during the search. He liked the forest, at least during the summer and enjoyed writing in his journal.
Danka, meanwhile, lived in mortal fear. At dusk, everywhere she looked, she saw owls. Usually they were ordinary owls, but every so often, she’d see that owl, the one that carried the Destroyer’s messages.
She knew the Destroyer was watching her and waiting, but waiting for what? Was her own death approaching? Danka thought about the separation of her soul from her body, as she followed Bagaturckt from streambed to streambed. If her death was about to happen, was that necessarily a bad thing? Was there any joy in life that she’d be leaving behind? Anyone she cared about or who cared about her? Did she really have anything to live for at all?
Two nights later, Danka stood in another streambed after cleaning up the remnants of dinner. A large black bird approached in the darkness, flew over her, and landed in a branch near the water. The cold feeling returned. When she tried to move her feet, the ground tightly held her ankles. The bird looked at her. Once again the moonlight illuminated his eyes.
“Danka Siluckt. Our Paths in Life merge again.”
“Yes, Owl. You’re, you’re planning to separate my soul from my body?”
“Not yours. At least not yet. Someone else’s, perhaps. Maybe I’ll grant you another wish.”
“Another wish? You haven’t granted me any wishes. My only wish is for you to go away.”
“Liar. Of course I granted you a wish, liar.”
Danka momentarily saw her mother, uncontrollably sobbing and cradling a body. It was her sister, Katrinckta. Danka’s sibling had her hair braided and was wearing a white dress, but she was no longer pretty. Her face was horribly swollen, with darkened features and an agonized appearance. Danka saw her mother’s expression in detail. She was shrieking and mad with grief.
The illuminated eyes reappeared.
“So you see, Danka Siluckt, I do grant wishes.”
The owl took off and flew over Danka’s head. A cold gust of wind swept by as the bird passed. The ground released Danka’s feet.
She fell on her hands and knees and threw up. She drank some water and tried to clean her teeth. She returned to the campfire and contemplated Bagaturckt’s sleeping body.
That reminded her, Babackt Yaga’s paste. She hadn’t the chance to put it in that day. She went to her bucket and retrieved a jar. Once she finished she returned to tend the fire. It seemed that eyes were staring at her, but she knew that nothing would approach her in the presence of Bagaturckt.
A wish. Well, I wouldn’t mind seeing this man dead…
That thought was answered with a sensation of extreme cold sweeping through her body.
The next day Bagaturckt took his companion past a waterfall, the highest they had seen so far. He decided to leave the horses tied near the stream and find a way past the cascading water, to see what was above it upstream. They spent the entire morning climbing a steep slope, but by noon they had made their way into to a picturesque valley with vegetation Danka had never seen before. She looked at the mountain beyond, and noted that its top was covered with grass and moss, not trees. She would have been curious to go that way, see why there were no trees, but she figured Bagaturckt would not be interested in exploring in that direction.
Bagaturckt took off his pants and ordered her to get on her hands and knees. As always, she complied, but she was irritated he had to spoil her memory of the lovely place by wanting sex at that very moment. He finished within a few minutes and pulled his clothing back on.
Danka rinsed off in the frigid water. When she glanced around at the nearby rocks, she noticed a strange sight among all those strange plants; mushrooms totally different from any she had ever seen. They were metallic bluish-green in color and perfectly round. They were one of the strangest things she had ever seen in nature: they really did not look like something a person would expect to see in the Realm of the Living.
She wondered if she had found what Bagaturckt was looking for. She was not thrilled about helping him, nor did she want to see him destroy those beautiful mushrooms, but she did want her outing with him to end and to have him depart from her life.
“Master Bagaturckt. I found something. Some weird mushrooms. Maybe it’s what you’re looking for, Master?”
Bagaturckt approached. As soon as he saw the mushrooms his expression changed. Danka was frightened, because his look was one of unrestrained evil glee.
“Yes. This is it. This is what I wanted. And they doubted me. All Vienna will know me now. The purse. It’s mine! All mine! The gold, mine!”
Bagaturckt ordered his companion to stay with the first batch of mushrooms while he wandered up and down the stream looking for more. He returned with two large cloth sacks full of specimens. He then proceeded to pick all of the mushrooms where Danka was sitting. She looked at him with disgust. If his purpose was merely to prove the existence of “the Joy of the Ancients” then, why not just take a few samples and leave the rest? Why did he have to clean out the entire streambed?
“All mine… ‘the Joy of the Ancients’ belongs to me… Yes… ”
Of course, there was not a single word of thanks to Danka, the person who actually discovered the mushrooms. After-all, she was nothing more than a servant and not worthy of sharing any credit.
The return trip was difficult. The slope was very steep, there was no marked trail, and both the man and the woman were weighted down. He had the bags of mushrooms that he had to be careful not to bump, and she was weighted down with everything that he had carried up. It was dark by the time they returned to the horses.
Bagaturckt laid the mushrooms out on several cloths while Danka stumbled around looking for firewood. As soon as she had a fire going, the master pulled the cloths close to the heat to begin the process of drying the fungi. He and the servant spent the entire night carefully brushing off the dirt and separating the stems from the tops. The next day was hot and sunny, so Bagaturckt decided to stay in the clearing and dry his loot as much as possible before returning to Severckt nad Goradki.
They stayed two days. Except when she had to pick berries or collect firewood, Danka finally had the chance to sleep. She was exhausted from having spent days riding all day and tending fires all night. She also found it hard to close her eyes in the dark after being totally traumatized by her nighttime visions. During the day everything seemed different, which allowed her to rest.
Bagaturckt was too worried about his mushrooms to worry about his companion. He built a stick platform in the sun, where he laid the cloth to allow the air to circulate underneath. He carefully counted the specimens and drew pictures of some of them. Danka knew that if she tried to take any samples or even touch them without permission, her master would kill her. Not touching “the Joy of the Ancients” was fine with her. She suspected the mushrooms were cursed by the Destroyer the moment they were picked and had no desire to be anywhere near them.
On the third morning after harvesting the mushrooms, Bagaturckt announced that he was ready to return to Severckt nad Goradki. The mushrooms were dry enough to transport. The master carefully rolled up the cloths with the mushrooms tucked inside and returned them to their bags. He had picked so many that they didn’t fit and he needed somewhere to put the ones left over. He spotted Danka’s bucket. Without asking her permission, he grabbed it and pushed in the rolled cloth. He took no notice of Danka’s other belongings lying at the bottom. He mounted his horse and tied the bucket to his saddle. Danka despaired at the thought of those evil mushrooms being kept in her bucket and her bucket being taken away from her, but she said nothing. All she could hope would be that she’d have her possessions returned to her as soon as they returned to Severckt nad Goradki.
They moved quickly in the direction from which they came, covering in a single day the same distance that had taken them four days coming out. Darkness fell and Bagaturckt reluctantly dismounted. They already had covered more than half the distance towards Severckt nad Goradki, but the rest of the trip would have to wait until the next day. They couldn’t go any further in the dark.
Danka was not thrilled about stopping. She could feel the Destroyer’s presence, a premonition confirmed by the occasional dark shape flying overhead. She heard the twittering of bats… but it was not the bats that scared her. It was the owl… that owl… the one that was waiting for her.
Fortunately they stopped at one of their previous campsites where there was some spare wood left over from their last fire. Danka gladly lit it and started dinner. While the peasant girl was cooking, the master examined some of the mushrooms, to make sure they were still dry and fresh. He decided to keep three tops and three stems in his hand before putting the others back into the bucket. He set the bucket next to his bedroll and contemplated the magic he held in his hands.
“‘The Joy of the Ancients’ is mine now. I am worthy of it, and it is worthy of me. My Path in Life is to deny myself nothing, to experience every pleasure the Realm of the Living has to offer. This is it: the joy that the Ancients left behind, the joy that transcends mere mortality. I found it, and I will share it, but before I do, I will not be denied. I will indulge, experience. It is my Path in Life.”
Danka watched as, one piece at a time, he placed the mushrooms in his mouth and thoughtfully chewed them. For a while nothing happened, apart from Bagaturckt staring blankly into the fire. His gaze eventually grew more vacant, but apart from that he seemed very relaxed. His mouth started to move, as though he were speaking silently. The fire was starting to die, but Danka was terrified at the thought of wandering into the darkness to find more firewood. She was as immobilized by fear as he was by his trance… or by whatever it was that was happening to him.
“Honor and greatness are mine… honor and greatness are what I deserve… my Path in Life… lead the Enlightenment… . my honor… ”
An owl… that owl… landed on a branch overlooking the clearing.
“What? Girl, what did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything, Master Bagaturckt.”
Bagaturckt angrily looked around: “Who said that!? Who’s questioning me?”
Shaking with fear, Danka pointed at the dark shape sitting above them.
“Ha! Beelzebub! You! You came to take what is mine? That won’t happen, pathetic spirit! You’re nothing! A bird! A fucking owl! You can’t do any better than become a dishonored bird, you loathsome, tiny, puny, helpless, pathetic apparition?”
Bagaturckt ran to his horse and unsheathed his sword.
“You won’t mock me, pathetic apparition! I’m so much more than you! I am the Creator! I’m more than the Creator, I’m the God of Rome! I’ll strike you down and eat you for breakfast, pathetic Beelzebub!”
“How dare you! Now I will chase you! Now I will kill you, Beelzebub!”
Bagaturckt mounted his horse. It was obvious that he was completely insane, believing he had transformed into either the Creator or the Roman God. However, he was more than simply a madman riding around on a horse. It seemed there really was something much larger in him, struggling to get out. And, why not? After-all, he had defiantly eaten food reserved for the Ancients. Perhaps that food was far more than a human body could withstand.
Mocking Bagaturckt, the owl flew from one side of the clearing to the other, passing immediately in front of the master’s face. He chased the bird, but the owl took off again and flew towards the stream.
“How dare you! How dare you defy me! I will cut you, Beelzebub! I will cut you!”
Bagaturckt led his panicked horse into the stream, but the owl changed course and flew back towards the camp. It landed on Danka’s horse. The animal shrieked in panic and tore itself loose. Danka screamed as her horse galloped along the path and disappeared into the darkness. Bagaturckt was wild with rage. He crashed around in the woods as the owl flew ahead of him, barely keeping out of his sword’s reach. He was howling like a mad wolf. The sounds coming out of his mouth were no longer those of a human.
Danka stood helplessly as her master rode through the dark woods around the camp, screaming and cursing. The owl re-emerged into the clearing, with a man savagely swinging his sword in pursuit. The horse nearly trampled the penitent. The owl flew directly towards Bagaturckt and openly challenged him. The man backed his horse directly into the fading campfire. The horse shrieked upon feeling the embers’ heat and became as uncontrollable as his rider. He charged back into the trees. Suddenly in the distance there was a tremendous crash of breaking branches and thrashing leaves. The horse whinnied and re-emerged into the clearing, riderless. He did not stop. He ran towards the path and, like Danka’s mount, galloped along the trail that led to back to Severckt nad Goradki. The sound of hoofs became fainter and fainter.
Danka was left standing in total silence. As much as she hated Bagaturckt, she was hoping to hear his voice, even if it was nothing more than a moan or a call for help. For a long time she listened, but the only sounds reaching her ears were the normal sounds of the nighttime forest. No. He was not going to call out to her. She’d have to investigate, go in the direction of that crash, and see what happened. With every bit of courage she could summon, she carefully picked her way through the trees and brush, feeling her way through the darkness.
She touched countess tree trunks, but eventually her hand landed on something at eye level that was not a tree. It was a large object that was not fixed to the ground, but hanging. She explored with her hand and realized she was touching a boot. Yes, and there was the other one. She felt upwards and touched a pair of legs clothed in thick trousers. She tugged at the corpse, but apart from swinging it a bit more, she was not able to budge it. And a corpse it indeed was; there was no question she was touching a body that had been separated from its soul. She let out a shriek as pulled back her hand. The sinister cold feeling swept through her body. She couldn’t breathe.
Calm… calm… breathe… must breathe… calm… go back… wait…
She immediately realized how bad her situation had become. Yes, she had hoped to see Bagaturckt as a corpse, but not like this. Now she was alone, in a pitch-black forest, with no weapon except a dagger that was not even with her, no food, no supplies, and no horse. She didn’t even have a fire, because she had neglected to keep it burning. Instinctively she groped her way towards the clearing, although really there was no point, because without a fire the clearing was no safer than anywhere else. The worst detail was that she couldn’t see anything. The leaves completely blocked the sky and all source of light. She continued stumbling around, but she had lost all sense of direction. She was so panicked that she forgot about the first rule of being alone in the forest: to be a quiet as possible and listen for anything or anyone approaching.
Finally Danka did see light. It was a strange orange color. She was so desperate to see something, anything, that she instinctively stumbled towards it, without thinking it was very likely that light would be leading her towards, and not away from, danger. She continued pushing through the brush. To see… just to see. The light moved down and vanished. Danka despaired, because now she was hopelessly lost. She couldn’t control her breathing and was letting out panicked gasps. She tried to hold her breath. To her horror she could hear the sounds of movement all around her.
The orange light reappeared, much closer. She screamed when she saw what it was, an illuminated skull. When she turned around, there was another orange skull behind her. There were two more on either side.
“Beelzebub… Leave me alone! What did I do? What did I do, for you to torment me like this?”
An old woman’s voice answered back.
“Trespasser, don’t you dare speak the name of the profane one in this forest!”
“You’re… you’re not Beelzebub?”
“I told you not to speak that name! And no, I am not!”
“Who are you?”
“And who are you, trespasser?”
“I… I’m a penitent… from the Temple… in Starivktaki Moskt.”
“You’re lying, trespasser. You’re not from there. They don’t use the Christian name for the profane one at that Temple. So, tell me who you are, trespasser, and where you’re from. If I have to call you ‘trespasser’ again, it will be the last time anyone will call you anything.”
“I… I’m Danka Siluckt. I’m from Rika Heckt-nemat, originally. But I was at the Temple. I’m not lying about that, Mistress.”
“Very well, Danka Siluckt. Are there any other names in your life? Other things people might have called you?”
“No, Mistress… well… at the Temple they did call me ‘the bloody one’, because I was the only penitent that butchered animals… the others didn’t like doing it.”
“Very well, Danka Siluckt, ‘the bloody one’. You will now explain to me why you are in these woods… what brought you here.”
“I came here with my master.”
“Who is your master, Danka Siluckt, ‘the bloody one’? What was his business in this forest?”
“He’s… his name is Bagaturckt. He’s from… ”
“I know Bagaturckt. And I know where he’s from. And I know who he serves. Do you know?”
“Yes, Mistress. I know who he serves.”
“Which is why you were calling out to the profane one… ”
“No, Mistress. That wasn’t the reason. It’s… I was being chased. I wanted to be left alone.”
“So, Danka Siluckt, ‘the bloody one’, where is your master now? Can you lead me to him?”
“I think he’s dead, Mistress. And it was… the… profane one… who killed him.”
Danka explained the circumstances of Bagaturckt’s death and the escaped horses.
“We saw the horses. They ran by us as we were coming up the trail. Now, we will return to your campsite and find your master, or his body. If Bagaturckt is dead, that would be good news for the Duchy, but bad news for me, because I wasn’t able to kill him myself.”
The group’s leader moved her skull-lamp in front so Danka could see her face. She was dressed in black clothing. She looked very old, but her eyes were still clear and powerful. Her hair was completely gray, but it was done up in braids just like the hair of every other Danubian woman.
“Danka Siluckt, I want you to understand that your fate is in my hands. I have not yet decided what your fate will be, because I haven’t learned enough about you. I may spare you, and I may not. Either way, the decision will be difficult. If you can accept that I now control your destiny, I won’t have to restrain your hands. But, restrained or not, you will understand that you’d have no chance of escaping.”
“I… yes Mistress… I know that.”
Oddly, the old woman’s words calmed Danka considerably, even though she had just spoken of the possibility of killing her. The terrible cold feeling that tormented her over the past several days had vanished.
The old woman’s three companions led Danka though the forest. Even though she knew that her life was still in danger, she felt at peace, partly because she was grateful not to be stumbling around in total darkness. It also was a relief to know she was traveling with people who had declared themselves enemies of both Bagaturckt and Beelzebub the Destroyer.
The skull-bearers and their captive made their way to the path. They turned left and walked several minutes before arriving at the dark campsite. Danka looked up and noticed the sky was beginning to lighten.
Light… sun… oh yes… so happy not to be in the dark…
“From this place, can you tell me in which direction you think Bagaturckt was riding, when his soul separated from his body?”
Danka pointed in several directions as she spoke: “He started fighting with the owl here… then rode in that direction… then that way into the stream… then he came back… was over there… and then he went that way… and that’s where I heard the crash… and his horse came out there… and ran off in that direction… ”
“When we have the benefit of light, we will investigate your claims. Meanwhile, you will state your business with Bagaturckt.”
“He was looking for mushrooms, Mistress. A special kind he called… ”
“… the Joy of the Ancients.”
“I trust you were unsuccessful in your quest?”
“No… Mistress. That’s not true. He did find a place with a bunch of those mushrooms. He got enough to fill two large sacks and a bucket.”
“Two large sacks and a bucket? That’s impossible. There’s only one place that has so many… and there’s no way you would have found it.”
“There was, Mistress. A stream, in a pretty place… with a lot of strange plants. It was above a waterfall, really high up.”
Danka could tell, even in the faint pre-dawn light, that her captor was dismayed upon hearing her last words.
“Show me your sacks and you bucket, Danka Siluckt”
“They’re over there, where Bagaturckt set up his bedroll.”
The old woman signaled to one of her followers to retrieve the sacks. She was horrified when she opened them and looked inside.
“Mercy of the Ancients… by the mercy of the Ancients… what have you done?”
“I… I was thinking he shouldn’t have taken so many, Mistress, but… ”
“Taken so many? Do you realize… have any idea… what you just destroyed?”
“Not really, Mistress. I just know that Bagaturckt wagered a purse of gold in a foreign city… I think it was called Vienna… that he’d find some of those mushrooms. And when he found them… he wanted to take as many as he could.”
“You don’t have anything else to say for yourself?”
Danka realized that she had participated in something terrible. She also understood that she probably was only a few minutes away from meeting the Creator in the After-life. And yet, she was strangely calm. She’d tell her captor what happened, find out what was so important about those mushrooms, and then face judgment.
In detail, she described her trip with Bagaturckt. She described his obsessions and “the graveyard of virtue”. She talked about her conversations with the house servant in Severckt nad Goradki and the trip into the forest. She talked, not to plead for her life, but to explain the facts. She concluded:
“I didn’t want anything to do with those mushrooms, Mistress. I always thought they were evil, from the moment they were pulled from the ground. When I watched Bagaturckt eat them and saw what happened, I realized I was right.”
By the time Danka finished, it was light enough to see through the trees. The old woman again asked where Bagaturckt had been when Danka last saw him. The trespasser led the others towards the spot she thought he had been killed. After looking around for several minutes, she saw him. His body was hanging, with his neck wedged in the fork of a low tree branch.
The old woman’s companions struggled to take down the corpse. It was not a pretty sight, because the neck was distended and the face bloodied and deformed from the blow. Danka noticed the dead man’s sword lying in the brush. She picked it up, and without understanding why, held it out for her captor to take. The old woman seemed surprised, but she accepted the sword.
The assistants dragged the body to the campsite. They stripped off Bagaturckt’s fine clothing (which they would sell), turned the body over, and drove a stake into his back. One of the assistants left for a few minutes and returned with a large square piece of wood and an inkwell. The old woman wrote:
The love of money is the root of all evil.
Because I loved money, I stole from the Ancients and destroyed what can never be replaced. I showed my evil face in their presence and received what was rightfully mine. Do not mourn for me, because I was a tool of the Destroyer, and this is where my service to the Destroyer led me. I am now safely in the Destroyer’s arms, enduring the Hell-Fire.
The old woman turned to Danka.
“You are ignorant about the mushrooms. Later I’ll explain their significance. I will trust that your were a mere witness, nothing more, to your former master’s depravity. As angry as I might be, I cannot condemn a bystander. I will ask you a question. If I spare you, do you think you can atone for what your master did to the Ancients?”
“I don’t know, Mistress. I’ll try, if you tell me what to do.”
“Then we’ll start by having you address me properly. I’m not a ‘Mistress’. The people of these woods call me Babackt Yaga.”
“Yes, Babackt Yaga.”
“The next thing you will do is take off that counterfeit penance collar. I’ll let you keep it for the future, but for the time you are in my service, you are not to wear it or show it in my presence.”
Danka was shocked that Babackt Yaga knew right away her collar wasn’t real. It had fooled everyone else, but not the old woman. Reluctantly she took it off.
Babackt Yaga picked up the bucket and handed her skull staff to Danka. Her followers gathered the other items scattered around the campsite and emerged onto the trail.
As she carried one of Babackt Yaga’s staffs and walked behind her followers, Danka realized that her Path in Life had changed. She would not be returning to central Danubia, at least not any time soon.
The staff she carried symbolized that she now was committed to staying in the mountains and serving Babackt Yaga.
The two Temple horses were captured by the townsfolk near Severckt nad Goradki. A junior Priest from the town’s cathedral took the horses south to Starivktaki Moskt. The Temple’s Senior Priest read through his son’s correspondence and found a stack of poems. They were all dedicated to “the bloody one”. He must have loved her dearly to have written all those beautiful poems.
Leaving Bagaturckt’s writings at the Temple, the Senior Priest frantically returned with the messenger to Severckt nad Goradki. A group of Clergy members left the town to search the trail for the unfortunate Bagaturckt, and also for the penitent who was the subject of his admiration. They finally found his badly decomposed body, at a campsite with a stake wedged in his back and a wooden sign with a very sinister message next to his head. Obviously poor Bagaturckt had been horribly betrayed and murdered by that evil penitent.
Yes, from the first day he saw that peasant girl, the Senior Priest had known that something wasn’t right about her. Unfortunately, he failed to act on that suspicion. That failure to confront true evil had cost him dearly: the life of his favorite son.
Bagaturckt was buried with honors at the cathedral in Severckt nad Goradki. When the Senior Priest finally returned to the Temple in Starivktaki Moskt, the place was full of hushed gossip about the evil penitent girl who had destroyed the life of a fine young man. More rumors came in from the west, from Rika Heckt-nemat, which recently had lost almost its entire population to the plague. There had been an evil peasant girl there too, the one who set off the sickness by calling out to Beelzebub the Destroyer when the city guards tried to execute her.
The rumors speculated that the peasant girl who killed Rika Heckt-nemat’s people and the penitent who killed the Senior Priest’s son must have been the same person, a true servant of Beelzebub the Destroyer.
Historian’s Note: Most likely the owls Danka saw were greater highland owls, a species of owl that inhabit old-growth forests and currently are protected under Danubian law. The Danubian word for “why” is “somu”. Traditional Danubian folklore associates the hooting of the greater highland owl with the origins of “somu”, which was one of the first questions given to humans during the Epoch of the Ancients.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –