The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 1

Forward by EC – thoughts on my eighth novel and my imaginary realm of Danubia

My newest novel “The Girl with No Name” and its protagonist Danka Síluckt came into my thoughts at the beginning of October 2012. The plot unfolds in my fictional country of Danubia, but is different from my other novels because of its time-frame. The story spans a 10-year period in the middle of the 1700s, so none of my previously-created characters nor any trappings of 21st Century life show up in the newest project. The only character from a previous novel that briefly enters into "The Girl with No Name" is Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna, the wife of Prime Minister Vladim Dukov, who serves as the story's historian and narrator. I wanted write an adventure that examines an important era of Danubia's history, during which the country survived an external threat and began its transition from a post-medieval society into the modern country that appears as the setting of my previous novels.

In "The Girl with No Name" I seek to explore, both for myself and for the fans of my previous Danubia novels, my imaginary country through the eyes and experiences of my character Danka Síluckt. I wanted to create a character that has the chance to observe all levels of Danubian society, changes as a result of her experiences, and matures as the novel progresses. She witnesses several events important to the history of the country and has a series of lovers and relationships as she travels. Through Danka’s travels I tried to lay out the Danubian Duchy’s geography, provide my vision of what the country actually looks like, and give names to its various cities, towns, and regions. Several people have expressed interest in using Danubia as a setting for their own fiction, so I wanted to give those readers a systematic lay-out of the country they can use as a framework for their writings. Throughout much of the novel her circumstances force her to be naked in public, in a society in which nudity is accepted and sometimes mandated.

In my previous novels I have been purposely vague about the countries surrounding Danubia’s borders. Because of the way I wrote this particular story, I was forced to be a bit more specific, but still sought to avoid writing anything that conflicts with real-life European history and geography too blatantly. For the purposes of "The Girl with No Name" I had to create a second imaginary nation (the Kingdom of the Moon) that invaded the Duchy during 1754, but once again, tried to minimize having to alter real history from that time-period. The Kingdom of the Moon is a fictional entity that existed during the mid-1700’s and then disappeared in 1764, just long enough to meet the needs of my story’s plot. To be more specific about Danubia’s location, territory occupied by the Ottoman Empire lies to the south, Austria and Poland lie to the north, and Russia lies to the east. If Danubia existed in real life, it would be somewhere close to the region of Transylvania.

The plot takes place during the European Enlightenment, a time in which Danubia was transformed from a semi-medieval country into a modern one, largely due to the decisions of my character the Grand Duke. Some details of the Grand Duke’s behavior and goals are modeled after real European leaders at the time, most notably Catherine the Great of Russia and Fredrick the Great of Prussia. The Grand Duke's rival, the Vice-Duke of Rika Chorna, is loosely based on the royalty of France in the early 1700s for fashion, and the royalty of Spain for incompetence, which at that time was in decline due to extremely weak leadership.

Another difference in the creation of this novel was how I wrote it. In all of my previous novels I wrote the story from beginning to end. While writing "The Girl with No Name" I started writing the first chapter and the last chapter simultaneously. I wrote the chapters featuring Danka's time with the Grand Duke and the battle scenes next, and finished by filling in other events that take place in the middle of the novel. This was the first time I wrote the beginning and the conclusion of a novel together, before writing anything else. There have been previous projects in which I started writing without even knowing how the story would conclude, but in the case of Danka Síluckt’s adventures, I knew from the beginning how she would end up and how her adventure would finish.

Introduction - By Master-Historian Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna

Every country has its legends; the stories of people whose lives have transcended historical reality into that strange space between truth and fantasy. The Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia (or the Danubian Republic, as we prefer to call ourselves today) is certainly no exception to that common trend throughout humanity. In our case we have the stories of the Ancients, the Byzantine Priests who converted us, the exploits of King Vladik the Defender and his son-in-law, and songs about the Nymphs who defended the Duchy when almost all of its men had been killed.

However, Danubia’s favorite story has always been the saga of the girl-with-no-name. She shows up in historical records starting around 1750, and seems to have completely disappeared around ten years later. According to witnesses who claimed to have seen her, she was the prettiest, smartest, and nicest young woman imaginable. However, she was condemned to always be on the run, tormented by the Destroyer who followed closely behind her. In earlier versions of the story, the Destroyer, who at the time still was identified with the Christian Beelzebub, had a semi-human form and rode on her shoulder. Later, the story goes that she was running from the Destroyer. Because the Destroyer could never quite catch her, the Destroyer’s vengeance was inflicted on anyone the girl-with-no-name tried to love.

The girl-with-no-name’s adventures began at her home in Rika Heckt-nemat. The legend claims that she was so beautiful that the town’s other women couldn’t bear to look at her, and demanded that the council’s elders order her executed. The girl-with-no-name made a pact with the Destroyer to escape, and as soon as she was gone, the Destroyer condemned everyone in the town to die from the plague. The girl-with-no-name ran from province to province, trying to find love, protection, and peace. Many men loved her, and all of them died tragically. When the girl-with-no-name fled to Danúbikt Moskt and the Grand Duke fell in love with her, to punish the Duke, the Destroyer burnt the entire capital.

In the end, no one knew what became of the girl-with-no-name. For a decade she wreaked havoc on the people who crossed her path and then vanished without a trace. She became the favorite subject of campfire songs and a story to scare children, especially boys and teenagers. I think every mother in Danubia is guilty of telling her sons to avoid strange women who seem too beautiful to be true, especially ones in the woods or on the roads, because somewhere the girl-with-no-name continues her tormented voyage.

In 1855, on the 100th anniversary of the Great Fire that destroyed the nation’s capital, the famous Danubian poet and song-writer Dangúckt Tók compiled the stories of the girl-with-no-name into a song, which, although over-simplified, continues to be the best-known version of the legend.

The girl condemned to wander…
The anguish in her soul…
Her Path in Life is destruction…
The darkness rides her shoulder…
In her eyes there’s nothing but pain…
She will reach out to you…
Yes, you’re the one who’ll save her…
But take her hand…
…and her kiss will seal your fate…
The Destroyer holds out his bait… …and for you, oblivion awaits…

One important job of the historian is to attempt to reconstruct the events that inspired a legend. Many historians will reject a legend on impulse, only to later discover archeological or documentary evidence that does indeed offer proof that events described in the story actually did happen. I take a different approach, because I believe that most legends are embellished truth, not pure fantasy. Those stories exist for a reason: they were based on something that at one time was factual. Therefore, we must start our investigation by taking these ancient stories at face value and only dismiss details as we find direct evidence that discredits them. Even when events turn out to not have taken place as described by the chroniclers, we can use other research to reconstruct what actually did happen and often end up with a narrative that is considerably more interesting than the one given in a simplified campfire song.

The girl-with-no-name always fascinated me. As is true for many defiant Danubian children, I remember several times going out into the forest and looking for her, and receiving the switch for my efforts. As an adult, I pursued plenty of “serious” historical research endeavors, but in the back of my mind I always wanted to find the truth about the girl-with-no-name. Whenever I looked at church records and personal diaries for other projects, I always hoped to find some reference to her.

My search narrowed when I read the diaries of a city councilman written during the years immediately before plague struck down Rika Heckt-nemat’s population. One paragraph that fascinated me focused on the punishment of a peasant girl called Danka Siluckt in the early summer of 1750. He described her as unusually pretty for a peasant, mentioned that she worked for him, and added that she was sentenced to the pillory for stealing apples. She was then either expelled from the town and fled, or thrown into the Rika Chorna by the city guards to drown. The councilman complained that the mystery of the girl’s disappearance kept him up at night and troubled his conscience.

An account from the town priest for the same time period corroborated the councilman’s diary entry. The clergyman added that Danka Siluckt was viciously mistreated by the townsfolk, especially the women, while she was restrained on the pillory and that it was a shame to see such a pretty girl treated in such a harsh manner. Surely the Lord-Creator would punish the city for such an immoral act. Interestingly, the priest also seemed unsure whether Danka Siluckt drowned in the Rika Chorna or somehow managed to escape the city.

So…I pursued that lead, suspecting that the-girl-with-no-name had started out as the peasant Danka Siluckt. I followed clues around our country, establishing a time-line of her travels and the events of her life. The search was not easy, because Danka was forced to assume different names during her travels, but I am confident I accounted for the ten years of her wandering.

I took it for granted that she was in Danúbikt Móskt during the Great Fire of 1755, and found references to a woman who matched her description in the diaries of several of the Grand Duke’s advisors, castle song-writers, and concubines. The most important reference I found for that period of her life was in the memoirs of Alexándrekt Buláshckt, in which he described his escape from the Great Fire with his family and one of the Grand Duke’s mistresses.

So…years ago I started looking for the girl-with-no-name, and I found her. Danka Siluckt’s story inspired me more than I can put into words. She was not a tragic figure at all, but instead an incredible young woman who overcame tremendous odds in a Duchy that was much harsher than the comfortable country we live in today.

As I traced her footsteps, I felt I got to know Danka. She’s part of me, as she is part of everyone who is a citizen of Danubia. And…as best as I could reconstruct it, this is her story...

Chapter One – The Apple Thief

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

Danka Siluckt woke up before sunrise, as always. She carefully got out of her bed to avoid disturbing her younger sister, Katrínckta. She cast her sibling a resentful look, irritated that Katrínckta got to sleep in most days, a privilege she couldn’t ever remember having.

Danka stumbled around in the dark, trying to grope for her work outfit. The first item she located was her peasant’s vest, hanging from a wooden peg that had been wedged between two logs in the wall. She slipped the flimsy garment over her shoulders. The vest was not a top that would have been considered appropriate for a young woman in most European countries at that time: it was sleeveless and completely open in the front. It’s only function was to protect the wearer’s back from the sun: it was not designed for modesty or fashion.

Danka felt around the wall before placing her hand on the second part of her work outfit, a worn and very dirty brown skirt. She pulled the skirt up over her hips and tied the drawstring. The skirt, never an attractive piece of clothing to begin with, most definitely had seen better days. Threadbare, torn, and tattered, it was little more than a rag. It was in such poor condition that Danka thought about taking it off again and not bothering with it. If she were to just stay home and work around her parents’ homestead, she would not have worried about the skirt. However, on this day her duties would force her to leave home and work closer to town, so she figured it needed to stay on. The next item she put on was her work boots. The boots were the only part of her outfit that had any value at all: if nothing else, at least Danka’s father saw to it that all of his children’s feet were properly protected against their harsh living conditions.

Finally, she retrieved her mother’s hat. Danka would be working outside all day, so her mother had given her permission to use it. The hat was a typical peasant’s hat, with a broad brim designed to completely protect the wearer’s head and neck from the sun. Danka had heard that in other countries men and women wore different work hats, but in Danubia a peasant’s hat was a peasant’s hat. The sun in the fields was as harsh on women as it was on men, so there was no reason a woman’s hat should be any different from one worn by a man.

Danka cast another resentful glance at Katrínckta, as the younger girl stretched in her sleep and sighed with the satisfaction of the luxury of now having the bed to herself. Dishonored little brat…I ought to grab her hair, drag her out of bed, and make her come to work with me. But no…Danka didn’t dare do such a thing. She would dutifully go off and work, while Katrínckta would sleep in and then spend her day at the pond pretending to feed the family’s ducks, but in reality just soaking her feet in the water and staring at the flowers falling from the trees or the birds flying in the sky. Katrínckta was worthless, but if Danka dared lay a hand on her, their mother would immediately take the younger girl’s side and brutally punish Danka.

Oh yes…lovely Katrínckta …delicate Katrínckta …sweet Katrínckta …always Mother’s favorite. Danka quietly picked up her shovel. She resisted the urge to raise it over her head and slam it against her sister’s sleeping face. That would be nice…I wonder if she’d be so pretty after a hit to her teeth with this shovel…if she didn’t have her teeth, then they’d all think I’m the pretty one…

Danka struggled to open the rough heavy door that led outside. She decided to leave it open and let the daylight wake her family. It was just starting to become light, a clear early summer dawn that promised a hot day. The young peasant then unlatched the door to the chicken coop. As the fowl squawked and filed down the ramp, Danka walked behind the dilapidated structure to check on an important secret she was keeping from her parents.

Buried, in a broken cup, she kept a stash of copper coins. She had saved 15 coins so far…and hopefully by the end of the day she’d add a couple more to her collection. She knew that what she was doing was risky, but she needed a decent dress if she could hope to get married. If her parents ever could afford a dress, Danka knew that Katrínckta would be the daughter to receive it. Katrínckta would be the one to get married, while Danka would be expected to just keep working. No, that wasn’t going to happen. Danka would have her own dress, regardless of her parents’ wishes, and she would get married first. She grabbed a feed bucket before leaving for work. The feed bucket would be needed for her plan to get a couple more copper coins.

Danka emerged onto the muddy path that connected her family’s homestead to the outside world. She passed the duck pond her parents shared with another family of peasants; then passed several other dilapidated cottages. They were all the same: hovels made from stones and logs, hidden under trees and bushes, and surrounded by flocks of ducks and chickens. Some had vegetable gardens, but none of the properties was large enough to support a real farm. These were the dwellings of the lowest class in Danubian society…the day laborers.

Carrying her shovel and bucket, Danka followed a somewhat better road that was roughly paved with flat stones, passing larger properties. There were several orchards and wheat fields, all neatly kept and surrounded by fences or stone walls. The houses were attractive, and instead of duck sheds, rabbit hutches, or chicken coops, the farmers had built real barns.

Danka came up to an apple orchard and jumped the fence. She looked around for the best apple, which would be her breakfast. She was not worried about the orchard owner, because Danubian protocol allowed a poor person to take a single piece of fruit or a vegetable from a rich person’s property per day. The tradition was ancient, based on the Church teaching that the poor have the right to sustenance.

Danka hid the apple core under some leaves and took a second apple. Now, she did have to be concerned about the owner. She looked around before committing herself to the second piece of fruit, because protocol only allowed her to take one apple, not two. One apple was sustenance, but the second one was theft. Well, thought Danka…that’s just too bad. There will be more theft from this orchard when I come back…a lot more.

When she finished her second apple and had hidden its remains, Danka resumed her trek to work. She walked along a tree-lined road towards the provincial town of Rika Heckt-nemat. By Danubian standards the town was large, boasting a population of nearly 20,000 people. Only the capital, Danúbikt Móskt, and the eastern city of Rika Chorna were bigger. The city was built on a hill, with its medieval walls still standing, a relic of an age before cannons. On the south side of the town there was another irrelevant relic of the town’s past: a stone pier and row of docks that at one time serviced river barges, but now faced nothing but an open field. For centuries Rika Heckt-nemat had been a major river port, but four decades ago, when the Rika Chorna river flooded and changed its course to the north, the city was left landlocked. What had been a riverbed now was a series of swamps that were gradually being drained and converted to farmland. Hence the city’s new name: Rika Heckt-nemat, which translated to “the river doesn’t flow here anymore.”

* * *

Danka approached a group of workers whose task for the day would be to dismantle part of the now useless pier and move the stones to a site where the town council had decided to build a well. Most of Danka’s fellow workers were men. There were only a few women present, and of them, Danka was the youngest and by far the prettiest. She resented being expected to do such arduous work. I’m not a man, she thought bitterly: why should I be treated like one? However, she also knew that she would not be working as hard as most of the others, because undoubtedly, as soon as her male co-workers realized that she was still unmarried, they would vie with each other to give her small favors and even perform some of her duties. She smiled and flirted with a couple of the nicer-looking laborers, to encourage them to help make her day easier. Even though none of the men really interested her, Danka figured there was no reason she shouldn’t take advantage of her appearance while she still was pleasant to look at.

Wearing a ridiculous-looking tri-corner hat and an equally absurd felt coat, a city councilman approached the work site to explain the day’s tasking. Accompanying him was a servant lugging sacks full of hard-boiled eggs and small loaves of bread, which put the workers in a better mood. At least this man had the decency to pass out food before passing out orders.

As the workers sat and ate, the councilman explained what he wanted. The town was building a new well, cistern, and aqueduct; a project that would take advantage of the ample supply of stones and bricks from the remains of the old pier. The workers would be divided into a group responsible for tearing apart the pier, another to dig the holes needed for the cistern and well, and a third group that would move the materials needed for the new project. The councilman pointed at Danka, telling her that because she had brought a shovel, she would be part of the digging crew. A few minutes after finishing her egg and bread, she joined a group of 30 workers filing out to the planned well site.

Danka knew that no one in her group would be participating in actually building the new infrastructure. Their task simply was to get everything set up for the builders’ guild. According to the view of the townsfolk, the laborers were dishonored and uneducated rabble, good for nothing except tasks such as moving rocks and digging holes. Their Path in Life was to sit in their cottages among their chickens and ducks, and wait until they were needed for a project. Once the project was finished, they were expected to return to their cottages and stay out of everyone else’s way.

* * *

Danka spent the morning at the edge of an ever-deepening hole, glumly moving shovelfuls of dirt into a wheelbarrow. She did not have the hardest task of the group, but still, it was not a pleasant way to spend the day. The worst part of her job was knowing that her parents would not allow her to keep any of the money she was earning. It was her mother who had arranged for her to be here and who had negotiated her salary. Therefore, Danka’s parents knew exactly how much she was earning and would demand she surrender all of her pay upon returning home. After all, she was part of the household and Danubian tradition dictated that everyone in a household had to contribute to everyone else’s well-being.

While Danka may have burned with resentment that her younger sister was not with her at the work site, her parents did not see anything wrong with that. There would be enough money in the family to marry off one daughter, not two. If that daughter could be married to a husband who owned land; that would benefit everyone. So…the plan was to save Katrínckta for marriage and use Danka for working.

Danka didn’t say anything, but she had no intention of spending the rest of her youth working for her parents and watching them dote over Katrínckta. As soon as she could afford a proper dress, her plan was to leave home and move into town. She wasn’t sure what she would do next, but she had convinced herself that the only thing she needed to find a decent husband was to change what she was wearing. After-all, she remembered the legend of the servant girl who, with nothing more than some magic, managed to transform her work outfit into a bridal gown, and in doing so got the heir to the kingdom to marry her. Her expectations were not so lofty, but surely she could wander the city in her new dress and attract some handsome young guild member or city official. Why not? The girl in the story did it…

* * *

The pace of work slowed as the day got hotter. Shortly before noon, the city councilman returned to the work site, this time accompanied by a female city guard and a couple of wretched-looking criminals tasked with carrying the mid-day meal for the work crew. The woman looked about 30, was very tall, and was dressed in the long gray dress and white tunic used by all female guards in the Duchy. In her hand she held a leather switch. She had a haughty expression and carried herself with an air of severe elegance.

It was evident the two criminals were very afraid of her as they struggled with their heavy loads of food. Danka could see why as soon as they approached. Their bodies were covered with welts from their merciless mentor. After the food had been distributed they knelt, staring at the eating workers with gaunt faces. The guard turned to her miserable wards and Danka heard the following:

“You see, dishonored ones, how people who work get to eat. Look at that delicious food and think about how much you’d like to have some. Think about how that bread would taste in your mouth. Just think, if only you weren’t wearing a collar, how you too, could be sitting with these people and enjoying your meal. Think about it.”

The guard ended her statement with a savage blow to the back of each criminal, striking so hard that they cried out. Danka realized that the guard’s performance was not just to torment the criminals: it also was meant to scare the workers into staying out of trouble.

* * *

As soon as the guard and the criminals had departed, the workers passed around a jug of wine and lay under a tree to rest. There was no rush to finish the well, so they would take a nap and resume working when the sun wasn’t so strong. Danka did not join the others. She excused herself, picked up her bucket, and walked back to the orchard where she had eaten her morning apples. She casually strolled along the fence, checking to see if any of the orchard’s employees were in sight. Yes, unfortunately, a few women were picking fruit, but none close to the road. Danka decided to take the risk.

She set down the bucket and slipped under the fence. Crouching to stay out of sight, she snuck up to a tree and carefully pulled down an armload of apples. She quietly moved them to the fence; then returned to pick some more. As soon as she had taken about 30 apples and moved them to the edge of the property, she slipped back under the fence and carefully placed the fruit in her bucket. Trying to stay calm and maintain a neutral expression, she walked back towards the town. Instead of returning to her work site, however, she approached an inn just outside the south gate. She went around to the back where the kitchen was located, looking for a childhood acquaintance who now was working as a serving wench. Danka traded the apples for two copper coins. It was a fair deal with no questions asked. The serving wench needed cheap apples and Danka needed the money. Danka returned to digging site just as her work-mates were waking up. Perfect. Another two coins were safely in her possession.

* * *

Danka did not hurry home after she and the other workers were dismissed for the day. During her mid-day foray into the apple orchard she had noticed how many apples there were and that many of them were in perfect condition for picking. Surly the orchard owner’s employees would not have time to harvest them all. Surly another bucket-full of fruit would not be missed. Another chance to sell some fruit…and another chance add coins to her collection…

Why not?

The pedestrian traffic along the road was much heavier at dusk than it had been at noon, so Danka had to carefully time her entry into the orchard. It helped that a group of children had entered to help themselves to one apple each. Danka followed them and helped them pull down better pieces of fruit. As soon as the children finished and continued on their way, Danka crouched, waited for a few moments, then started grabbing apples and quietly placed them in her bucket.

In spite of her caution, she was being watched. Farmer Tuko Orsktackt crouched only a few fathoms away, drawing upon his former career in the Grand Duke’s forest archery battalion to observe the thief without being detected. Danka blissfully shook the branches and continued to pluck fruit as the property owner noted, in careful detail, what she was doing. Farmer Orsktackt was a meticulous man, and wanted to make sure his legal complaint against the thief was completely accurate.

Danka moved back to the fence with her bucket full of apples. Instead of heading home, she returned to the inn and exchanged her loot for another two coins. Four coins in one day…an excellent take for such an impoverished girl. And to think…tomorrow she’d get another four coins. She’d have her dress bought within just a few weeks at the rate she was going.

Farmer Orsktackt quietly followed her to the Inn, and observed enough to make sure he was correct in his assumption the girl was selling the fruit instead of taking it to her family. Excellent. There would be no appeal for clemency, no sad stories about starving children or sick parents. As soon as Danka left, Farmer Orsktackt entered the inn and bought a beer and one of his own apples. Yes, indeed, this apple came from his orchard. He now had everything he needed to send the pretty young thief to the pillory.

* * *

Danka returned to her parents’ house to spend what would be her final normal night with her family. As always, nothing but unpleasantness awaited her. Her parents greeted her by demanding to know why she had returned home after dark. Not satisfied at Danka’s claim that she had tried to take a shortcut and ending up getting lost, Danka’s father struck her across the face and accused her of having a lover.

A lover…oh…if only that were true…if only...and it will be, soon enough. I’ll show you…all of you…when I’m in the city with my fine dress and I get married and have my nice house…I’ll see to it that Katrínckta wears a collar and spends her entire life shoveling pig shit…and I’ll make you watch. I’ll show all of you…

Dinnertime came and went. Danka’s father sat in the only chair the family owned, while Danka, Katrínckta, and two younger brothers sat on the floor. They ate out of a pot with a large spoon they had to take turns sharing. It was a wretched existence, but it was the only one the Siluckt children had ever known.

Later that night, when she closed the chicken coop, Danka added four coins to the broken cup and covered it back up. Then she took off her clothes and got in bed with her sister, the person she most hated in the world.

* * *

Early the next morning, Farmer Orsktackt stationed two of his employees within sight of the fence and instructed them to report to him immediately as soon as they saw a very pretty, but very poorly dressed, young peasant woman carrying a shovel and a bucket enter the property. Sure enough, shortly before sunrise Danka showed up, ate her allotted apple, and then took off for work. Curious to see where she was going, Farmer Orsktackt followed her towards the town.

Hmm…interesting…so it turned out she was an employee of the city council, working on that new irrigation system. More evidence to damn her at trial, given that Farmer Orsktackt was one of the project’s most important financial contributors. On top of everything else, the orchard owner was a personal friend of the city councilman in charge of the work crews.

Farmer Orsktackt decided to pay a visit to his friend instead of dealing with the hassle of going into town and trying to get an appointment with a court official. Each saluted the other by thumping his right fist against his left shoulder. After exchanging greetings and getting an update on the progress of the digging, the farmer inquired about the girl with the bucket.

“You mean the pretty one? Yes, her mother was the one who set her up with this job. I assigned her at the pit to shovel dirt into the wheelbarrows. Not the best worker, but the men like looking at her, so she’s good for morale.”

“Well, I have some bad news for you. There’s a bit more than her not being a good worker. She’s also been using that bucket of hers to take apples out of my orchard. She started two weeks ago…slowly…but yesterday it got worse. She came in twice, and each time left with a full bucket. Last night I followed her to the inn near the south gate, and found out that’s where she’s selling them.”

“Very well. I’ll have her arrested. As soon as my wife shows up, I’ll have her go out to the pit and take the girl to court.”

The farmer thought for a moment.

“I don’t want to do it that way, Councilman. What I’d prefer is to catch her on my property. Have a guard actually see her stealing the fruit. That way she couldn’t deny anything and we could make an example out of her.”

“True… true. But I’m not going to have a city guard waste time sitting on your orchard waiting over a bucket of apples. We do have other concerns, you know…”

“I’m not asking you to have anyone wait. I know for a fact that she’ll go during the mid-day break. All you have to do is have someone go to my farm just before you let your crew rest. As soon as she shows up and fills the bucket, you’ll have her.”

“Very well. I’ll do as you suggest. And the guard I’ll send will be none other than my wife. I’ll send Anníkki just before I release my workers for the mid-day meal. Assuming your little thief shows up, my wife will handle her appropriately.”

Farmer Orsktackt tightened his lips. “Handle her appropriately…” He had heard stories about the councilman’s wife. Anníkki was a meticulous guard, but had a reputation for cruelty. He saluted his friend and left the work site, beginning to wonder if he was really handling the girl’s stealing in the best way.

* * *

Danka spent a second morning sullenly throwing half-shovels of dirt into waiting wheelbarrows and thinking about her next apple heist. She began to think about strategy; the possibility she could take more than one bucketful at a time, hide the extra apples somewhere, and make two treks to the inn. Another possibility was to obtain or make a large cloth bag and perhaps put more apples in that. Anyhow, that would have to wait…for today she’d still have to content herself with just one bucketful and two coins per trip.

While Danka was thinking about apples, copper coins, and the dress that would change the Path of her Life, the councilman’s wife showed up with her two starving criminals carrying sacks full of food that was not for them. Her husband pointed towards the well and told her about Danka and the plan to catch her. Anníkki cheerfully set off towards the orchard, flexing her switch as she walked.

As soon as she was out of sight, the councilman told the two criminals to take two food rations for themselves before handing out the rest to the workers. He felt sorry for the unfortunate wretches, but did not like confronting his wife on such matters. Without saying anything, the two men ate like ravenous animals.

* * *

Danka ate her mid-day meal with the other workers. Then, as the others lay down to sleep, she grabbed her bucket and set off for the orchard. When she snuck up to the fence, she was pleased to see that no orchard workers were in sight. Excellent. That would make everything so much simpler. She’d grab her apples and sell them, and maybe even have time to relax before the afternoon work shift.

Had she been older and less naïve, Danka would have sensed that something wasn’t right and that she needed to leave immediately. It was too easy, with no one around. Instead of sneaking back and forth with armloads of apples, she simply took the bucket with her and within a couple of minutes had it filled with the best fruit. She hopped the fence and started her trek back to the inn. Her heart stopped when a man in Farmers’ Guild clothing and a city guard stepped onto the road in front of her, blocking her path.

“Good day, little thief! And just where do you think you’re going with my apples?”

Danka panicked. She tried to run, stupidly thinking that she could outpace her pursuers while still holding on to her shovel and apples. It was true that Anníkki could not go after her, because a foot chase was considered unbecoming for a female city guard. However, female guards had the right to order any nearby man to chase and apprehend a criminal, and it was already understood that Farmer Orsktackt would be the one to catch and restrain the thief.

He caught up to her immediately. Danka screamed and threw everything down. The bucket hit the road with a clang and apples rolled all around her. It didn’t help. The farmer grabbed her arm and dragged the struggling girl to where the guard was standing. Danka resisted, incoherently protesting that she was innocent. To her horror, she saw the guard unwinding the leather strips that would be used to tie her hands.

“Take the girl to the fence. Face her to the railing and hold her arms.”

Farmer Orsktackt obeyed, moving his struggling captive to the fence. Danka cried and desperately kicked at his shins while the guard wrapped one of the girl’s wrists with a strip, expertly knotted it, then wrapped the other end around the fence railing. She secured Danka’s other hand. To make sure the thief had no chance of pulling herself free, Anníkki secured her wrists with a second set of ties.

“Pick up the girl’s things and bring them over here. Make sure you get all the apples.”

Danka cried and helplessly pulled against the bindings while Farmer Orsktackt returned to the spot where she had thrown down her things. As soon as he returned, the guard grabbed Danka’s hair and jerked her head back and forth.

“Who is your Master, you dishonored little tart? Who pays for your living?” The guard slapped the prisoner hard across the face. “Tell me, before I break your neck!”

“I… the… the councilman… he…”

“That is correct! And do you know who I am?”

“City… honored… city… guard… Mistress…”

“Yes, a city guard, but I am also the councilman’s wife! Do you understand me? You are in the employ of my husband! You dishonored his name… and the city’s name… and my name… with your vile and loathsome actions!”

“Please Mistress… I didn’t… I… AIEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

The guard had picked up her switch and struck a savage blow on the criminal’s thighs, just below her skirt. Danka continued to cry while the guard grabbed her vest and tore it off her shoulders. The fabric was old and gave way easily. The guard then tore at the girl’s skirt, ripping the worn cloth. She produced a small knife and cut the drawstring. She tossed the shredded garment on the ground, next to the ruined vest.

Now wearing nothing but her boots, Danka was shaking with fear, so strongly that her captors could see her body quivering uncontrollably. The sight of a scared naked girl brought out pity in the farmer, but had the opposite effect on the city guard. The guard had worked herself into a sadistic frenzy and seeing the offender helplessly tied to the fence, stripped bare, and paralyzed with fear animated her.

The guard’s next target was Danka’s hair. She roughly pulled at the girl’s braids while she screamed. She landed a very hard slap across the peasant’s face before finishing undoing her hair.

“Now the world sees you for what you are, dishonored tart! You are a loose-haired savage slut!”

The guard picked up her switch and viciously slashed it through the air. Danka screamed from panic while the guard ran her hand up and down her naked bottom.

“Girl-meat. Dishonored girl-meat, meant for my leather. Prepare to suffer, dishonored thieving little tart!”

The guard struck hard as Danka screamed and pulled at her bonds. She twisted and jerked her body, but the bindings held tight and she could not evade the cruel blows. The guard smiled as she tapped Danka’s naked bottom and struck another cruel blow. The crack of leather on bare skin echoed throughout the orchard between the thief’s shrill screams.

Farmer Orsktackt was both fascinated and horrified by the girl’s punishment. Seeing the girl with her hair unbraided was a unique experience, because never had he seen a Danubian woman with her hair loose. The peasant was very attractive and had a nice body, so seeing her aroused him. However, the extent of her suffering, and the knowledge that he was responsible for making it happen, made him sick with guilt. He had not expected the councilman’s wife to tie her to the fence and whip her with the switch on his property, and certainly he had not expected her to undo the thief’s braids.

After 30 hard strokes, the guard paused. Danka has sunk to her knees and was sobbing uncontrollably.

“Very well, you miserable dishonored lying slut… now I’ll let you talk. You sold the apples at the Inn near the south gate, correct?”

The guard concluded her question with a cruel swipe at the girl’s welt-covered backside, crossing multiple weals and eliciting another shrill scream.

“Y… yes… Mistress… I sold… the apples… Inn…”

“For how much?”

“Two copper coins… per… bucket… Mistress…”

“How many coins do you now have?”


“I’ll ask you again. How many coins do you have?”

“Nineteen… Mistress…”


“Chi… chicken coop… house…. AIEEEEEEEEEEE!”

“Hmm… so your father will be happy to know that his dishonored little slut liar is keeping stolen money on his property! I’ll make sure he knows…”

Danka sobbed, not just from the pain, but from knowing that her dream was gone. Her father would either use the money on Katrínckta or have to return it to Farmer Orsktackt. She screamed when the guard grabbed her hair and pulled her to her feet. The guard struck savagely several more times and Danka sank back to her knees. When the girl’s sobs died down, she continued the interrogation.

“How many times did you steal apples from this orchard?”

“I… I don’t… maybe ten… eleven…”

The guard grabbed Danka’s hair and again jerked her to her feet.

“Yesterday… how many times?”

“Two times, Mistress.”

“What time?”

“Lunchtime… after work, Mistress.”

“Now. Why did you steal the apples? What did you want to do with the money?”

“Buy a dress, Mistress… AIEEEEEEEEEEE!”

“Buy a dress? Why?”

“Go… in town… be nice…”

The guard pulled Danka to her feet yet again and struck hard.

“You miserable dishonored slut… so you wanted to buy a dress to go whoring.”

The guard raised the switch. At that point Danka cared about nothing except trying to avoid any more blows. She sobbed and confessed to something that was blatantly untrue, that she wanted the dress to work as a prostitute. At that point the farmer interjected:

“Guard Anníkki… please. The girl’s confessed. There’s nothing more to be done here. I’m a busy man and I’ve seen enough. I insist you take the criminal to court.”

The guard gave the farmer a disgusted look, angry that he cut short her fun. However, he was right. The girl had confessed and there was no point in interrogating her any further. She untied Danka’s hands from the fence and secured her wrists behind her back. With a firm grip on her arm the guard led her towards the gate and a holding cell inside the city. The farmer, deeply regretting his part in the arrest, reluctantly followed, carrying Danka’s boots and her bucket filled with his apples.

As they approached the gate, a couple of Danka’s neighbors passed by. When the girl tried to put down her head and hide her face under her loose hair, the guard kicked her in the backs of her knees and forced her to kneel. She grabbed the captive’s hair and forced her to look up.

“Tell these men your name and what you did.”

“I… I’m Danka Siluckt… and I… stole apples…”

“She’ll go on the pillory tomorrow. Make sure her family knows, so they can see their daughter’s dishonor.”

Chapter Two – The Dishonored Outcast

In the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia, all accused criminals had the right to a trial. Serious offenders, people facing either the collar or the death penalty, automatically were assigned a Spokesman. Spokesmen were court employees whose duties included trying to find mitigating circumstances and exculpatory evidence for trial, and then to manage a convicted criminal’s life following the trial. Officially, the Spokesman assumed custody of the criminal after conviction, and worked as their client’s legal protector and mentor.

Petty criminals such as Danka always had a hearing to determine guilt and the circumstances of the crime, but did not have the right to a Spokesman. Their punishment only lasted a single day, thus in theory there wasn’t much at stake, even if a person was wrongly convicted. A day of public humiliation and then release back into the custody of the family – no big deal. The reality was much more complicated, because a person’s life, especially a woman’s life, often was ruined as the result of punishment for a “petty” crime. Danka knew that, with her unsympathetic family, she’d face a hostile reception after her release. She knew that her life would never be the same.

Her trial lasted five minutes. The guard dragged her before a bored local magistrate and explained her crime. Farmer Orsktackt, the trial’s main witness, answered a single question; were the charges against the peasant Danka Siluckt true. He sullenly responded that they were. He was under oath, so he couldn’t say anything else. As much as he wanted to complain about Danka’s treatment and argue that maybe she had been punished enough and should be let go, he never got the chance. He was dismissed and that was the end of his participation in the trial. The sentence was what everyone expected: the peasant Danka Siluckt would spend the night in a holding cell and the next day would spend about eight hours on the pillory. At the end of the day she’d be released into the custody of her family.

A court scribe copied the sentence and Danka’s name onto several sheets of cheap parchment. One copy would be attached to the courthouse door, one attached to the pillory in the city’s plaza, and one delivered to the Siluckt household.

Guard Anníkki led Danka to the holding cell. She untied the prisoner’s hands, but then chained her wrists to the wall. She smiled coldly.

“You may think you were dishonored today, but you weren’t. You haven’t experienced true dishonor. Tomorrow you will. I will humiliate you in a way you never imagined. I will destroy your dignity, and destroy it so thoroughly you’ll never recover. So, sleep well, Danka Siluckt. Tomorrow will be the most horrid day of your life.”

* * *

Farmer Orsktackt went home feeling very disgusted with himself. He couldn’t believe something as simple as dealing with the theft of some apples could turn into such a mess for both his conscience and his reputation. He now felt responsible for the peasant Danka Siluckt, since it was his complaint that got her into so much trouble. He now wished with every bit of his soul that he had never talked to his friend the councilman; that he had just dealt with Danka himself.

Protocol limited Farmer Orsktackt’s options for getting the peasant Danka Siluckt out of the mess he got her into. Since he filed the charge, he could not appeal for clemency, nor in any way be perceived as trying to protect her. But he did have to help Danka if he possibly could. His perception of morality and justice had been violated by his own actions. Somehow he needed to set things straight. He went to bed with his wife, but as soon as she was asleep, he got up, went outside, and spent the night praying to the Lord-Creator for some guidance about how he should handle the following day. The only response he received was a very strong feeling that he needed to be present for the peasant Danka Siluckt’s punishment and bear witness to what was about to happen to her. He received no other insight. So, the next day he rode his horse to the city gate and stabled him at the inn where Danka had sold his apples. He bought a bottle of apple cider and walked into the city. He took a look at the pillory and noted the peasant Danka Siluckt’s punishment declaration. The chains swayed in the wind and two ladders leaned against the frame, in anticipation of the day’s sentence.

“Lord-Creator…what have I done?”

* * *

Danka spent a totally sleepless night. She was terrified of what would happen to her the next day, but she also was extremely uncomfortable. The welts and bruises covering her backside throbbed and made it impossible to sit. However, she couldn’t stand up because the chains restraining her hands were too short. If she lay down, she couldn’t bring her arms down to her sides. She was hungry, and as the night wore on, increasingly thirsty. When the next morning finally came, she was totally exhausted. She waited in terror as it got lighter and lighter outside.

Finally the cell door opened and Guard Anníkki, accompanied by two male assistants, came into the room. One of the men unlocked her chains. He pulled her to her feet and held her roughly while the other tied her hands behind her back. Guard Anníkki said nothing, but her cruel smirk made it obvious that she had not forgotten her threat from last night.

“…the most horrid day of your life.”

Guard Anníkki took charge of the prisoner, firmly grabbing her arm and digging her fingers into Danka’s skin. Danka did not resist. Her terror had subsided into a numb depression and she was physically exhausted from the ordeal of the last 24 hours. The group exited the courthouse and emerged into Rika Heckt-nemat’s main plaza. Already a crowd of curious residents had gathered near the pillory, anticipating the day’s entertainment.

The guard forced Danka to get on her knees while she gave a speech that she had prepared specifically to humiliate her prisoner as much as possible. She mentioned Danka Siluckt’s full name over and over. She talked about Danka’s ridiculous desire to have a dress and to pretend she was something other than what she was: a dishonored menial worker.

One of the male guards pointed a crossbow to her stomach, letting her know that if she resisted, he’d shoot her and she would die an agonizing death. Danka obediently climbed up the ladder when the moment came. The guards secured her wrists and stretched her arms over her shoulders. Tears flowed down the dishonored girl’s cheeks as she felt the ankle irons wrap around her legs and heard the locks click shut. She was completely exposed, with her arms spread over her head and her feet resting on small platforms a half a fathom apart. She felt the chilly morning air blowing between her spread thighs against her exposed vulva. She could feel hundreds of eyes studying her body. Against her will she listened to various comments about her appearance and had to endure a multitude of sexual jokes.

Danka said nothing as the sun rose higher and the air became much warmer. Her arms and legs started cramping from being forced to hold an uncomfortable pose for hours on end, without being able to move. She could move and flex her arms a little, but she couldn’t move her feet. Increasingly her body was protesting against what she was enduring. Her back and shoulders started hurting along with her legs and arms. She thrust her head back and forth and heard the laughter of some of her spectators. She didn’t care. By mid-day the cramping was so unbearable throughout her entire body that she no longer cared about the crowd watching her.

The cathedral bell announced noon and Guard Anníkki called up to her in a tone of feigned sympathy.

“Do you need a break, Danka Siluckt? Would you like something to eat? To drink? You are due a short break, you know…”

“Please Guard Anníkki…”

“Yes, poor girl. We will accommodate you.”

To Danka’s surprise, the male guards actually climbed the ladders and unlocked the pillory’s cuffs. They actually were going to let her down for a while. The men rubbed her shoulders for a few seconds to get the circulation going in her arms. The prisoner was hugely relieved. She knew that the afternoon would be much worse, but for the moment she was on the ground and had the use of her arms and legs. She was horribly thirsty and drank a large cup of cold well-water.

Guard Anníkki waited, ready to play a horrible trick on the culprit. In her hand she held a freshly-baked bread roll. It looked like an innocuous snack, but the bread was full of strong spices that would burn Danka’s mouth as soon as she bit into it. The bread was important for the guard’s plan to totally humiliate the peasant Danka Siluckt and make it impossible for her to ever have a normal life in Rika Heckt-nemat, even as a dishonored day-laborer.

The guard calmly watched as Danka drank he first cup of water. She set down a large pitcher next to the cup before handing her the bread. Danka was so hungry that she took two large bites out of the roll before the burning started in her mouth. The burning quickly became unbearable and Danka instinctively reached for the pitcher. She drank cup after cup of water, desperately trying to calm the fire in her mouth and throat. She drank so much water that her stomach became stretched. As soon as the pitcher was empty, the Guard Anníkki told her companions to grab Danka’s arms and force her back up the ladder. A few seconds later the culprit was restrained spread-eagle, her arms above her head and her feet resting on the two small platforms.

Now the truly horrid part of the worst day of Danka’s life was about to begin. She had a pitcher of water in her stomach, water that very quickly would settle into her bladder. The pressure started building within half-an-hour of her returning to the pillory. The unhappy girl realized that she had been horribly tricked, but there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. Her muscles had started to cramp again, but that discomfort was nothing compared to the agonizing pressure on her bladder. She looked down at the guard, who held up the pitcher and smiled in triumph.

At first Danka thought, that if she put every bit of effort into holding her urine, she’d be able to make it until the end of the day. However, as more and more water seeped into her bladder, she realized that wasn’t going to happen. The cathedral bell struck one. It was just one o’clock. That meant she had three hours to go. No, there was no way she would make it.

The crowd watching her was much larger than it had been in the morning. 2000 residents, a tenth of the city’s entire population, crowded the plaza after having finished their mid-day meal. Danka grit her teeth in a futile effort to avoid pissing in front of all those people. It was no good. The only thing she managed to do was make the rush much worse when it finally came.

Danka sobbed as a torrent of urine poured out of her and splashed on the paving stones at the base of the pillory. The flow was loud and copious, clearly visible to anyone who happened to be watching at that moment. To the Danubians, who were the most fastidious of all the Europeans when it came to that sort of thing, there was no way that Danka possibly could have disgraced herself any worse than relieving herself in front of so many spectators.

The crowd started laughing. The mocking laughter seemed to go on forever, especially when Danka lost control of herself a second time and sent another stream splashing on the pavement. When the laughter died down, the mood of the crowd quickly became much uglier, especially among the women. The spectators whistled low and hissed to express their disapproval at the dishonored criminal. A group of boys ran out the gate and in a few minutes returned with bunches of stinging nettles tied to the ends of long poles. Guard Anníkki nodded her permission and the boys began rubbing the poisonous leaves over Danka’s skin, especially between her legs. As the stinging intensified, she screamed.

By the time the boys tired of tormenting the captive with the nettles, several workmen had brought in wheelbarrows full of sewage and pig manure. They positioned their disgusting cargo in front of the pillory. A group of vagrants who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty picked up handfuls of the sewage and flung it at the hapless criminal. The crowd clapped and whistled their approval every time a handful of excrement hit Danka in the face. By far the worst insults came from the women standing in the crowd. How dare this filthy dishonored slut try to become one of them… how dare she...

The clock struck two. Danka’s punishment still had two hours to go and the crowd was trying to think of something else that would further degrade the pathetic girl chained up in the pillory. Guard Anníkki quietly left the plaza and returned to the courthouse. Her task of ruining Danka Siluckt’s life was now completed, so she saw no point in sticking around. She figured that the crowd might kill the peasant, and if they did, she didn’t want to be present to take any responsibility.

Farmer Orsktackt was completely distressed over the spectacle in the plaza. Already the girl’s life was ruined, but now the spectators, especially the women, had worked themselves into a frenzy. He had seen this happen a couple of times before; the darkest and ugliest side of humanity, the lynch mob. 2000 people had the chance to direct all of their anger and frustration in their lives against a single hapless target, an ignorant peasant girl who had no chance of defending herself. Tightening his lips and cursing himself for having caused the hideous affair, Farmer Orsktackt realized it was up to him to put an end to it and take custody of the criminal. He approached a trio of city guards.

“Listen! I will not have my property and my name dishonored! If you can’t dispose of that criminal with dignity, then I will! Take her down, put her in a wagon, and take her to my property! I’ll deal with her!”

Farmer Orsktackt did not give the guards time to rebuff him. He placed a half-silver piece in each of their hands.

“As you wish, Farmer Orsktackt.”

“Yes, it’s what I wish! Put that girl in a wagon without injuring her, and take her to my property!”

With their cross-bows drawn, the three guards stepped in front of the pillory. They screamed at the crowd to step back, threatening anyone who did not obey with an arrow to the chest. Bewildered and angry at the guards’ sudden change of attitude, the mob pushed backward, murmuring in protest.

Danka was pitiful sight, as she hung limply in her chains and the slime from rotting garbage and sewage dribbled down her body. Her filthy hair covered her face. The guards ordered a servant to bring buckets of water and pour them over the culprit before taking her down, so they wouldn’t dirty themselves too badly when they threw her into the wagon.

Danka was only partially aware of what was going on, but the cold water splashing against her body and over her head brought her back to her senses. Rough hands tightly held her arms to prevent her from falling as the guards un-cuffed her and lowered her to the ground. The guards tied her arms behind her back and dragged her towards the south gate. Her limbs were numb and she could barely move. In spite of her escort’s kicks and threats, she couldn’t get her legs to work. So, two guards carried her, each grabbing her by an arm and by her hair. Some of the spectators wanted to follow, but the guard covering their departure pointed a crossbow at the townsfolk and ordered them to stay back.

“We’re taking her to the river! The show’s over! Go home!”

The guards hoisted Danka into a cart normally used to haul pigs to market. After dumping her face-down on filthy straw and fermented manure, they tied her feet together. They concealed their cargo with a horse blanket and set out for Farmer Orsktackt’s property.

Trying to avoid drawing attention, Farmer Orsktackt picked up Danka’s boots and bucket while everyone else was distracted. He hid both items in a sack and followed the wagon out the gate. Then he got on his horse and rode ahead to his farm.

A few minutes later, three city guards arrived at Farmer Orsktackt’s orchard in a very smelly cart carrying an equally smelly occupant. They untied the girl’s wrists and ankles before dumping her on the ground. They saluted the farmer and returned to the city. The went to the same inn where Danka had sold her stolen fruit, got drunk, and invented a story about how they threw the dishonored apple thief into the Rika Chorna river. They claimed that they had killed a truly evil criminal, because the dishonored girl cried out for the Destroyer Beelzebub to save her before drowning. The men got so drunk and told their version with such convincing detail that they ended up believing it themselves.

Chapter Three – The Fugitive

“Master Tuko. This poor girl…surely you don’t plan to take her to the guest cottage like this…”

“No, Servant Helgakct. I don’t want her in the house until she’s cleaned up. And make sure her hair’s properly braided before I talk to her.”

“As you wish, Master Tuko.”

Servant Helgakct brought a washtub to the front door of the guest cottage and filled it with water, while another servant helped Danka get up and walk to where she would have her bath. Danka sat through her bath in a painful daze, neither cooperating nor resisting as the two servant women bathed her and washed her hair. They decided that she was so dirty that she needed a second bath, and ordered her to stand shivering in the darkness while they dumped and refilled the tub. When they were convinced that Danka was adequately clean, they took her inside and made her sit while they combed and braided her hair. Danka’s new braids were tight and intricately woven; much better the loose careless job her mother always did on her.

Only after Danka was clean and had her hair decently braided did the two women offer anything to eat. She ate a delicious stew with a strange dark brown meat in it. When she asked about the meat, the servants told he she was eating beef. It was the first time in her life she had ever eaten beef. After dinner, on the insistence of the servants, she did something else for the first time: she had to learn how to properly clean her teeth, using a thread and a small brush with salt and water.

Danka was sore, badly bruised, and very tired, but she felt considerably better after her bath and her meal. She had recovered enough to wonder about her situation. She was worried, but no longer terrified. She assumed that had the farmer planned to kill her or harm her in any way, his servants would not have taken the trouble to bathe her and fix her hair.

She looked around the cottage and wondered what she would do about something to wear. There was no clothing anywhere in sight. Her own outfit had been reduced to shreds, so even if she could return to the fence to retrieve it, there wouldn’t be anything remaining that she could put on. She could only hope that someone would bring her some clothes before she had to leave the cottage. When the servants began to clean up and there still was no hint that they were going to bring her anything to wear, she hesitantly asked.

“You will need to speak with the Master about that. He specifically instructed us not to provide you with anything to wear until he has a chance to talk with you. You can cover yourself with that blanket, if you so desire.”

Danka got in bed and pulled the cover over her. She now understood that, until further notice, she had become a prisoner of the orchard owner. A well-treated prisoner, but a prisoner, nonetheless.

“Master Tuko wants you to rest. He will return your items to you tomorrow, but for now, you must rest and recover from today’s ordeal.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

Danka was worried, but fatigue had over-taken her. She was lying in the most comfortable bed she had ever seen, let alone used. She was clean and well-fed. Her muscles ached horribly, so she had no desire to move. She went to sleep.

For the first time in her life, she slept well past sunrise.

* * *

Danka awoke in broad daylight. Servant Helgakct was sitting at the cottage’s table, embroidering a shawl. As soon as she noticed the guest was awake, she summoned a co-worker with a tremendous whistle and handed her the shawl.

Danka badly had to pee. Servant Helgakct pointed towards an outhouse. There still was no hint of any clothing in the cottage, no more than the night before. However, Danka was desperate. She nervously stepped into the bright sunlight and ran to the outhouse. When she finished, she ran back.

“Please Mistress. What am I to do about something to wear?”

“Child, as I told you last night, you must speak with Master Tuko about that. You will have breakfast, and then he will talk to you.”

Danka’s attention was drawn to a plate of eggs, fruit, and bread. A cup of hot liquid sat on the table. It was bitter, but Danka enjoyed it. For the first time in her life she tasted tea.

Servant Helgakct advised the guest to get back in bed and continue resting until the Master came. The peasant girl was still very stiff from the previous day’s ordeal, so she complied. The bright sun came through the door and she could hear the apple pickers singing as they went about their work. Danka wondered… had she simply come to the property a week ago and asked for employment, if Farmer Orsktackt would have given her a job.

As soon his servants finished cleaning up from Danka’s breakfast and took out the dishes, Farmer Orsktackt entered the cottage. Accompanying him was Servant Helgakct, carrying Danka’s bucket filled with apples and her boots. Danka instinctively pulled the cover up to her eyes.

The farmer ordered his employee to return to the house. Then he grabbed a chair and sat next to the bed.

“I’d imagine that you’re wondering why I brought you here, as my guest, since I was the one who set up your arrest. Would you like me to answer that question?”

Trembling, Danka nodded under the blanket.

“Answer me properly, girl. And uncover your face. You are dishonoring yourself by not conversing in a normal manner.”

Tears started rolling down Danka’s cheeks at hearing the word “dishonored”. How could she become any more dishonored than she was already? However, she complied with her host and lowered the blanket to her neck.

“Now speak, if you wish for me to answer your question.”

“Yes… Farmer Orsktackt… why… am I here?”

“I had to bribe three city guards to retrieve you. I didn’t know what else the mob was going to do to you and I didn’t want to find out. So, I paid them to take you out of the city, and here you are. For the moment, you are safe.”

Danka said nothing. She had no idea how she should answer the man who first condemned her and then saved her.

“I want you to understand that what happened to you yesterday was not what I expected. All I wanted was to force you to stop stealing my fruit, and perhaps make an example of you so that others wouldn’t try taking my harvest. I did expect that you’d spend a day on the pillory, but that was all I thought would happen to you. The rest of it, I mean, the crowd, and the way the councilman’s wife treated you, your parents, was not what I intended. I now deeply regret having brought the guards into our affairs. As I said, the only thing I wanted was for you to stop stealing my fruit.”

“I… I apologize about stealing from you, Farmer Orsktackt.”

“The fruit no longer matters. You’ve been punished many times over for your crime. There’s nothing more to be said about that. There’s nothing more to be said about any of your life here. It’s over. The whole town thinks you’re dead. And your parents… you understand that your parents officially disowned you?”

Danka shook her head.

“Answer me properly, girl.”

“They… actually disowned me?”

“Yes, and your father sought the city’s permission to kill you if you ever attempt to return to your family’s property. You’re dishonored, and he doesn’t want that affecting the rest of your household. To enforce the request, the city council lent him a sword.”

Danka stared blankly as tears streamed down her cheeks. A sword. Her own father was planning to kill her just because she no longer was of any use to him. Now she really knew how little her parents thought of her.

“I could never imagine doing such a thing to my children, but I am a rich man and could afford to keep a dishonored relative. I know your family’s situation is different. You’re no longer useful to them, so they need to be rid of you. And… also… to help themselves to the coins you saved, no doubt.”

The farmer continued: “Not that the sword matters. Like everyone else in Rika Heckt-nemat, your father thinks you are dead, that you drowned when the guards threw you in the Rika Chorna. So… your existence as Peasant Siluckt’s daughter has ended. You will leave this city and you will start a new life with a new name somewhere else. I am returning your bucket to you, filled with fresh apples. I put a note in there explaining that I gave them to you, if any guard stops you. I had my seamstress clean and repair your boots. Tonight, after you have rested and recovered, you will walk out the east gate of my farm, follow the path that keeps you away from the road, and you will keep going until you’ve eaten all of your apples.”

“I… I’m grateful… I mean… that you saved me… and that you want to help me… but I don’t understand, Farmer Orsktackt. I’m just a dishonored thief. I’m nothing now, not even a well-digger. I dishonored myself on your land, and I wanted to steal from you as much as I could. Why are you helping me?”

“I have my reasons. Part of it is my eldest daughter is almost your age. Next month my wife will braid her hair for the first time. She will have a nice celebration and I will present her with a fine dress. The neighbor’s boy is interested in her, so, I presume, after her hair is braided and she has her dress, I will allow him to court her. In other words, she’ll have all the things you wanted. That’s important, because when I saw you tied to the fence, and later on the pillory, I imagined how, with nothing more than a change in the Path in Life; that could have been my own daughter, and not you.

“There’s more. Some of it I can explain to you, and some of it I couldn’t explain to anyone. As an archer in the Grand Duke’s battalion, I did things… I mean… we all did, that each of us will have to answer for on the day we hold up our mirrors before the Lord-Creator. I can’t change any of that. Now, you have become another part of the Path of my Life that I must justify when I hold up my mirror. You are a thief, but you had your reasons to do what you did, and I don’t believe your soul is broken. I don’t want to be responsible for your death. I want you to live. I want you to leave this city, find a new Path in Life, and prosper. So, I will provide what you need to safely escape. What becomes of you after your escape will be the result of your own decisions.”

Danka wondered how, as a young woman travelling alone, she could possibly go anywhere. She had never been any further from her house than the city market, the town cathedral, and her work site. She hadn’t even gone as far as the northern or western districts of Rika Heckt-nemat, nor had she ever seen the Rika Chorna, which now flowed to the north of the city.

The farmer was wondering the same thing. How on earth would the ignorant girl sitting in front of him ever be able to fend for herself? Well, she’d just have to. Whatever fate awaited Danka, he had to send her on her way and see to it that she never came back. Neither he nor the girl had any choice. She’d have to leave, and that departure needed to be as soon as possible.

None of the townsfolk could know that she was still alive, nor could anyone find out that he had rescued her. If his neighbors realized he was sheltering a criminal, and above all a criminal who had stolen from him, he’d be dishonored and expelled from the Farmer’s Guild. It wasn’t just Danka’s life at stake, nor just his own. He also had his family and the Guild to think about.

Farmer Tuko Orsktackt had traveled across the entire Duchy, first with the Duke’s archers’ battalion and later to buy supplies and tools for his farm. He was well aware that a lone peasant girl was an easy target for every rapist, slaver, and brigand travelling the road. He dared not give her any money, nor any decent clothing, because such things would make her worth killing. The land-owner could think of only one way Danka could get away from Rika Heckt-nemat and survive long enough to establish a new life somewhere else.

It was a completely dishonorable solution, but one that would be very effective. The Farmers’ Guild had an important secret that its members occasionally used when they needed to move gold or diamonds from one city to another. It was a fake Public Penance collar. By the mid-1700’s the Danubian Church already had re-introduced the pre-Christian method of performing Public Penance, in which a person who wanted to atone for sin humiliated himself by surrendering his clothing and anything else that could be worn. Instead of clothing, the sinner wore a metal collar that marked him as being in the custody of and protected by the Danubian Church. A person wearing a Church collar was prohibited from wearing anything else.

Brigands avoided persons performing Public Penance because they never had anything on them worth stealing. Anyone touching a woman performing Penance would be forever condemned by the Lord-Creator to the Hell-Fire, and the worldly punishment for such an offence was crucifixion. Danubian society took Public Penance very seriously, which meant that anyone performing it was protected by a multitude of taboos and the full authority of the Church. A person wearing a Church collar was completely safe almost anywhere.

Tuko Orsktackt had, in his possession, a fake Church collar that could be unlatched and taken off as easily as any necklace. It had been made for him several years before by a Guild artisan and its purpose was to disguise him while he was travelling with large amounts of the Guild’s money. In theory the collar was an accountable item that the other Guild members could demand to see at any time. However, Tuko had a dispute with two other Guild farmers the previous year and now someone else was tasked with carrying the group’s coins. Tuko’s replacement had his own collar, so it seemed that the Guild had forgotten about the one still in his possession.

There was some risk involved, but Farmer Orsktackt calculated he could give his collar to Danka. That would allow her to freely travel the roads, with everyone assuming she enjoyed Church protection.

“Girl, you haven’t been anywhere. Not even as far as the top of the nearest hill, I presume?”

“No, Farmer Orsktackt.”

“So the journey that you face frightens you. Is that not so?”

“Yes, Farmer Orsktackt.”

“I’m worried about it as well. I’d accompany you if I could, but I can’t. There is only one thing I can do for you, and that is to provide you with a disguise that will grant you safety as you travel.”

Tuko placed the collar in Danka’s hands. “Not even my family or my servants know I have this. You must not let anyone see it until nightfall. Never… never! let anyone see you putting it on or taking it off.”

“But… Farmer Orsktackt, this is all you’re giving me? I can’t…”

“You may think you can’t, but you have no choice. If you go out on the road, by yourself, wearing anything but this collar, you’ll be dead or enslaved by the end of the day. It’s safe passage for you. It comes with a heavy price, but it’s safe passage.”

Tuko explained how the collar worked and even divulged its purpose, to disguise Guild members when they were transporting large sums of money. Tuko hated betraying a Guild secret to a peasant, but he felt that it was necessary for Danka to understand how important the collar was and the sacrifice he was making by entrusting it to her. The collar was an extremely valuable item that had to be treated with great care. It could not be replaced.

“You’ll have to go to the mirror and try out the collar. Practice putting it on and taking it off. Then you’ll need to practice putting it on and taking it off without looking. When you’re crouching outside a city gate or hiding behind a tree, you won’t have the benefit of using your reflection.”

Danka reluctantly pushed aside the blanket. Given her circumstances, trying to display modesty around Farmer Orsktackt was not possible. Anyway, he already had seen her figure in its entirety, so there was nothing more to hide from him. She stood up, positioned herself in front of the mirror, and started fiddling with the collar mechanism. She realized that Farmer Orsktackt was studying the welts on her backside, but she tried to ignore him.

Danka was surprised and fascinated by her reflection. She was pleased by how sophisticated she looked, now that her hair was braided by a woman who actually cared about doing it properly. The young peasant also realized how much she looked like her sister. As much as her mother kept calling Katrínckta “the pretty one”, actually the two daughters were almost identical.

Danka practiced with the collar a couple of times; then turned away from the mirror to practice using touch only. The farmer nodded approvingly when she completed that task.

“There’s another thing you must know before you leave. Can you read?”

Danka blushed and twisted her hands.

“Answer me, girl. Can you read?”

“No, Farmer Orsktackt.”

“Well, there’s no time to teach you how to read, but you are going to have to learn the alphabet so you can recognize letters. Maybe it’s something you can practice whenever you’re sitting alone and have nothing else to do. I’ll have my servants’ tutor instruct you. Put the collar away. Don’t let her see it.”

Danka spent the next several hours learning how to copy and draw letters. She discovered the mystery of all those strange lines, that each shape represented a sound. She was quick to memorize the alphabet and remember which sound each letter corresponded to. The tutor regretted not being able to spend more time with Danka, because it was obvious the girl could have been taught to read within a few weeks.

Farmer Orsktackt returned with troubling news. The guards’ story about her calling out to Beelzebub just before she drowned had made its way through Rika Heckt-nemat’s population. Suddenly everyone was very worried that her corpse had not been seen floating in the Rika Chorna. The city was in a panic about it, with guards and volunteers searching the shore downstream for any trace of Danka’s body, just to verify that she was indeed dead and that Beelzebub had not rescued her.

“I was going to suggest you follow the river to Danúbikt Móskt to see if you could get a job there. Now you can’t go that way, because several hundred people are looking for you. You’ll have to go east, upstream, towards the mountains.”

Danka noted with growing concern that the sun was getting lower in the horizon. The farmer observed the day’s impending end as well.

“Eat, and get some rest. I’ll wake you at midnight and will accompany you as far as the first hill.”

* * *

The full moon was directly overhead when Farmer Orsktackt woke his guest.

“Put on your boots and collar, girl. It’s time.”

“Yes, Farmer Orsktackt.”

As the peasant pulled on her boots, her host explained what else was in the bucket besides apples. He had given her a supply of salt and a brush to allow her to keep her teeth clean, a knife that could be used for both cutting food and a dagger, and a forged Church letter to go with her collar, granting her access to any chapel to spend the night.

“There is important protocol you must remember. Whenever you talk to a Church official, you have to kneel and wait for that person to address you. That’s part of the collar. If you forget to do that, the clergy will become suspicious. Don’t worry about making up stories or excuses. They’re not going to ask you anything, not even your name. They might ask you for your letter, which you’ll have. But they won’t ask you any questions. Your sin, and your penance, is between you and the Lord-Creator.”

Danka finished putting on her collar, made a final adjustment to her hair, and sadly looked at her host. Farmer Orsktackt picked up the bucket.

“You must forget your name. Don't refer to yourself as Danka. And your family, they mean nothing to you now. So rid yourself of that legacy. My advice? Don’t make up any new name. Let people call you whatever they want. Then, when you must move on, forget… and let the next person call you whatever he wants to. If you don’t give away your life’s story, you’ll be very surprised at the fictitious Paths in Life people decide to ascribe to you.”

They stepped outside and walked across the moonlit orchard. They crossed a vegetable garden and reached the property’s east gate. The farmer opened it, and with that Danka began her wanderings. He led her along a small path that made its way across a sheep pasture before exiting onto a road that passed several wheat fields. Ahead loomed a forested hill; its dark mass looking very ominous in the night.

“People are scared of the woods. That’s why you’re often safer among the trees than you’d be anywhere else.”

They continued along the forested part of the road. It was so dark they barely could see. The farmer walked very quietly, employing the habits he had learned years before as an archer. Now they were going uphill. Danka was scared, because she knew that as soon as they got to the top, she’d have to continue alone.

They passed the summit and stopped in a clearing facing to the east. The moon already was well to the west and there was a hint of light in the eastern sky. Danka had forgotten that summer nights were very short and that she would not be walking in the dark much longer.

Danka already was much further from her home than she had been in her life. Everything was very strange: the hills, the moonlit river, and the distant lights that marked the next town. Her fear went away: she now was very curious to explore her new world.

“This is where we part ways. I have just enough time to return to the town and report to the city council. Today I will join the others and search for your body.”

Danka smiled shyly in the pale moonlight.

“I’d ask you to forgive me for ruining your life, but from what I understand, you didn’t have much of a life to ruin. You wanted to escape from your family, and now you’ve done it. You may want to look at your life in that way.”

“I… I suppose you’re right, Farmer Orsktackt. I did… I wanted to get away… I mean… I even prayed about it...”

“Then the Lord-Creator granted you your wish, is that not so? Not in the way you were expecting, but when the Lord-Creator grants a wish, it never is in the way a person anticipates. Before you go, there is one more thing I want you to think about. You’ve seen the dark side of humanity and suffered the cruelty people can inflict, for no good reason. It just happens and you need to be ready for it. Don’t trust anyone… but keep your heart open. Occasionally you will cross paths with people who will be nice to you. They are out there… the few decent people, and you must be prepared to share kindness when you come across it.”

The farmer tapped his companion’s collar.

“What’s the most important thing to remember about your disguise?”

“I’m not supposed to tell anyone about it, and never let anyone see me put it on or take it off, Farmer Orsktackt.”

“What’s another thing to remember?”

“Get on my knees when I talk to the clergy. Show them the letter if they ask me about it, but don’t say anything else, Farmer Orsktackt.”

“Good. The first village with a church where you can sleep is about a day’s walk from here. You’ll get there before sunset. As soon as you enter, go to the Church. Get some sleep there, and then you can think about where you will go next.”

The farmer had so much more he wanted to tell the young peasant. So much more, but there was no time. They had to part ways. He didn’t know how to say goodbye to her. He abruptly turned and walked back the way he came, without saying anything. She watched him until he disappeared into the trees.

She picked up her bucket, turned east, and walked towards the first faint light of the pre-dawn.

Chapter Four – The Penitent

The road re-entered the forest, so for the next hour Danka continued walking in darkness. She had to go slowly to avoid tripping and to avoid wandering off the road. However, the birds were singing, so the spooky silence of the deepest part of night had passed.

When Danka emerged into another cleared area, the sky was already bright. She crossed another sheep meadow and passed an inn. Several men were outside, getting their horses and mules ready for the day’s travel. They all stared at her and several made admiring comments:

“It’s a pity all the lasses don’t run around like that one.”

“It’s an even greater pity all the lasses don’t look like that one.”

Not knowing what else to do, Danka picked up her pace and moved away from the inn as quickly as she could.

That morning she passed many men and boys on the road. They were from all sectors of Danubian society: farmers, squads of the Duke’s soldiers, trading caravans, vagabonds, stage coaches, and the occasional noble. There were a few women and girls on the road as well, but they were always accompanied by at least one man carrying a weapon. All the men and boys stared at her with unabashed lust; all the women and girls stared at her with blatant curiosity. At first Danka was terrified by all the staring, then she merely found it irritating. By mid-day she began to enjoy the attention. She had been almost invisible at home, but here, in this strange province, everyone seemed interested in her, or at least in looking at her.

A Priest and Priestess approached Danka. She remembered to kneel, placing her hands in front and touching her forehead to the ground. The Priest blessed her and handed her a piece of bread. Free bread… hmmm… that was one benefit of Public Penance that Farmer Orsktackt had neglected to tell her about.

By midday her arms became sore from carrying the bucket and she was hungry. She realized that she had forgotten to eat. She ate some of her apples and continued; her bucket now somewhat lighter. Throughout the afternoon she continued to eat apples as she walked. She passed through several villages, looking around at all the new buildings and people with fascination. In one peasant’s farm she saw goats for the first time in her life and wasted half an hour staring at them. As the sun started to get low in the horizon she witnessed a stage coach accident; a wheel from an overloaded stage coach collapsed, causing the vehicle to fall sideways and spill its load of passengers and cargo. She watched the ensuing fight between the driver and several passengers, which came to an abrupt end when one of the horses ran off and everyone set out to capture the animal. It was a fascinating spectacle for a young person who had spent her life just working in her family’s garden and doing odd jobs.

As sunset approached she entered another large village. She realized that she had wasted too much of her day looking at all the new sights and that nighttime had caught up with her. She was about to panic about that when she noted the steeple of a church. She remembered her collar and Farmer Orsktackt’s promise of a free night’s bed wherever there were clergy members. She approached the church, located the Priest, and remembered to kneel. Sure enough, after glancing at her letter the Priest took her to a cottage inhabited by three apprentices, a young man and two women who were only slightly older than Danka. The trio tasked the visitor with cleaning the kitchen and handed her a bowl of stew and a loaf of bread. She cleaned her teeth at the well before going to sleep.

Danka stayed at the village for three days. The apprentices offered her free lodging and food in exchange for cleaning up and washing clothing and bed linens. In the afternoons they helped her practice drawing alphabet letters. At the end of the third day she spelled out her first word: “A-P-P-L-E”.

On the fourth day she continued walking east, with her supply of apples greatly diminished. The next large provincial town was about three days' walk past the first village. Danka knew exactly what she needed to do before sunset: go to the next village and report to the local Priest. She was in no hurry, so she could take her time looking at all the new and fascinating sights along the road. To most travelers, the road was no different than any other stretch of the western half of the Duchy, but for Danka, who was seeing everything for the first time; the trip was one of wonders and surprises. She passed an orchard with strange orange fruit and for the first time in her life tasted a peach.

She took a ferry across the Rika Chorna River and spent a pleasant morning bathing and napping on the northern shore, feeling the warm breeze on her naked body as she ate a couple more apples. The bucket was much lighter when she finished her break. She only had six apples remaining, which meant that she would not be able to continue past her next stop without having the money to buy some food. She was not particularly worried, however. She figured the Clergy members at the Church would help her, and possibly assist her in finding employment. She spent the rest of the day walking to the next town, the provincial center Starívktaki Móskt, which in Danubian meant “City of the Ancients.” The town received its name from a pre-Christian temple, which looked like the Temple of the Ancients in the capital but was much smaller. The local temple was a favorite pilgrimage site for people who did not want to go all the way Danúbikt Móskt to visit the main one. There were a couple of cathedrals in the town as well, so Starívktaki Móskt was an important center of the Danubian Church, second only to Danúbikt Móskt.

The town was attractive, but in a way totally different from Rika Héckt-nemát. The architecture in Danka’s hometown mostly consisted of multi-storied brick and stone buildings, typical of what would be seen in other Christian countries at the time. Many of Starívktaki Móskt’s buildings were pre-Christian, and many of the newer ones copied the style of the older structures. Rika Héckt-nemát was much more enclosed than its neighbor to the east. Starívktaki Móskt had wider streets and the fronts of most of the houses had pillared entrances and large windows. The houses in Rika Héckt-nemát were grey, brown, and blue; while the structures in Starívktaki Móskt were mostly white and bright yellow. Danka wandered around the town with a bewildered expression as she took in all the new sights.

The day was drawing to a close, so Danka made her way to the Temple to see about a place to sleep. She knelt before an old Priest and Priestess, who immediately complained that her kneeling posture was incorrect. She needed to stretch her hands out in front and keep her forehead to the ground. More importantly, she needed to arch her back and spread her knees.

“You’ve been dishonoring your duty to the collar by not presenting yourself properly. You will understand that your duty to the collar is total submission, and your posture must be one of complete humility and the abandonment of all modesty and pride.”

To drive home the lesson, the Priest left Danka in her corrected kneeling position while he attended other duties. Several people walked in and out of the temple while the Priest was absent. The men always walked behind Danka and studied her exposed bottom-hole and vagina at their leisure. Yes indeed, the corrected kneeling position was one of absolute exposure and submission.

Finally the Priest and his partner returned. “Now speak. What do you need from us?”

“I’m traveling and I request a place to sleep, Priest.”

“What else do you want from us, Penitent?”

“I’d appreciate a meal, Priest.”

“Yes, and what else do you want from us?”

“I… I’d like to know if there’s work for me, Priest.”

“…and what else, Penitent?”

What else? What else could there be? Well… Danka wouldn’t mind a husband, preferably one with a nice house in the city, but she knew better than to say that to Clergy members. She thought about her efforts to learn the alphabet… maybe that’s what they meant. She decided to try “learning” as an answer, but needed to phrase her request with as much humility as possible, since it seemed that was what those two were after.

“I’m ignorant… I don’t know very much, Priest, and I need to learn… what… what the Church has to teach me.”

“Now we’re coming closer to what you really need. You said it yourself: you’re ignorant. Yes, you are. If you don’t even know how to kneel correctly and are putting your worldly desires ahead of your service to the Creator, then your ignorance dishonors you. That collar means something, girl. It’s not just so you can walk around from Church to Church asking for a free bed and free meals. You’d better straighten your priorities, or I’ll take that collar off your neck and send you away with nothing. Do you understand me?”

Danka trembled, terrified that the Priest would carry out his threat and discover she was wearing a fake collar. Fortunately for Danka, the Priest misinterpreted her fear and assumed she understood that she had offended the Creator (he did not use the more common term “Lord-Creator”) and was ready to comprehend the true meaning of Public Penance.

“Y… yes… Priest… I… under… understand.”

“Very well, dishonored sinner. You will be granted your selfish desires. You will clean your dishonored body, you will fill your dishonored stomach, and you will rest your dishonored head. Tomorrow you will wake up, and we will address your obvious ignorance.”

He whistled in a pattern of high and low whistles, summoning a totally naked female seminary student. The young woman knelt, using the correct position.

“Apprentice, you will take this visitor to the dormitory. Attend to her needs. She is blatantly ignorant, so don’t assume she knows anything. Teach her, and correct her.”

“Yes, Senior Priest.”

“Rise. On your feet, both of you.”

“Yes, Senior Priest.”

Danka was taken aback by the Priest’s rough, insulting treatment. She was more worried about his apparent insight; that he suspected something was not right about her arrangements with the Church. She wanted to flee, but knew that running off was absolutely the worst thing she could do. It was possible the Church would send someone after her. Even if the Church did not pursue her, she’d never be able to set foot in Starívktaki Móskt again. However, what most held her were her physical needs. She had to eat, sleep, get cleaned up, and hopefully find employment. If she spurned the Church, that night she’d have nowhere safe to sleep, nothing except her last apples to eat, and the next day would wake up with no options except going back to stealing.

The residence for the female seminary students was much larger than the one where she had stayed in the village. There were eight official apprentices and four penitents living in a large whitewashed stone house that looked very ancient. It had a courtyard that boasted its own well and a stone bath. In the back the house was a dining area and the nicest kitchen Danka had ever seen. To both the left and the right of the entrance were sleeping quarters. The apprentices slept two in each room while the penitents shared a larger communal room.

The courtyard was full of drying bed linens. The bedding was only one of the duties of the penitents. The penitents had to earn their keep: in exchange for meals, beds, and religious instruction they had to maintain the house and keep everything clean.

The arrangement was acceptable for the penitents. Church protocol mandated that penitents had to perform menial tasks for the Clergy as part of their sentence. To be a penitent was to accept humility, abandon all pride, and serve others. Serving seminary students was not an onerous life. Yes, the penitent women spent a large portion of their day working, but the work was clean and not physically taxing. The women had clean beds to sleep in, ate well, lived under the Church’s protection, and were free to leave whenever they wanted.

Danka was the youngest woman among the penitents. There was a shy woman only slightly older than her who had an illegitimate child and had been disowned by her family. There was a woman who must have been about 30 who, like Danka, had been sentenced to the pillory for petty theft. There were two other women in their forties who had become accustomed to the Public Penance lifestyle and had served the seminary students for years.

The two older penitents ordered Danka to pull off her boots and undo her braids. She had to go through both a ritual and physical cleansing before she could enter the household. While the two younger penitents prepared a bath, the older women and Danka presented themselves to a seminary student for the ritual cleansing.

The seminary student issued the normal prayers for knowledge and enlightenment, but, like the Priest, she surprised the newcomer by using “Creator” instead of the usual “Lord-Creator” to refer to the Church’s supreme-being. She then released the subordinates to allow Danka to bathe, have her hair re-braided, and be accepted into the household.

After her bath, Danka knelt upright while one the older women started fixing her hair. She asked about the seminary student’s strange prayer and her refusal to use the Lord-Creator’s entire name.

“Child, we are Old Believers. We use the prayers of our ancestors, not the prayers of the Romans. The Creator is the true name of the Master of the World. ‘Lord’ and 'God' came from the Romans, which is why we don’t use it.”

The penitents showed Danka their dormitory, which contained eight beds plus a makeshift crib for the baby. The newcomer set down her bucket and boots next to one that was unoccupied. She realized her remaining apples weren’t going to stay fresh much longer, so she offered them to her companions. As she pulled out the last of the apples, she noticed a small piece of folded cloth at the bottom of her bucket. She decided to leave it alone. She could see what it contained when the others weren’t looking.

At dinner eight apprentices entered the dining hall. They were young, serious, educated women. Just like the penitents, none of the trainees was wearing a stitch of clothing. Nudity was not a requirement of studying for the Church priesthood, but during the summer there was a practical reason for it. The initiates were each issued a single dress at the beginning of their education. That dress had to last during four years of study: if it wore out before the initiate took her vows, the Church would not replace it. The purpose of the restriction was to encourage the initiates to pay attention to detail and care for every item issued to them by the Church. In practice, the custom forced initiates to wear their dresses as little as possible during warm weather so they’d last through four winters.

The five penitents knelt while the seminary student who had brought Danka to the house introduced her to the others. In keeping with Church tradition, no one asked Danka where she was from or why she was performing Public Penance. Even her name was of no interest to the apprentices.

Danka was surprised when she and 30-year-old were ordered to set 13 places at the table and not just eight. She expected, because they were serving, that the penitents would eat separately. They had to serve the apprentices first, but the trainees did not touch their food until the penitents had filled their plates and sat down as well. Danka later learned that because the women shared the household, they shared the dining table as well. It was a very strange experience, eating in a formal setting with other women who were obviously from a different social class.

The apprentice who had introduced the newcomer took note of the way she ate. The Senior Priest had repeatedly referred to Danka as ignorant. Judging by the way she hunched over the table and ate with her hands, it seemed his assessment was accurate. If she didn’t know how to eat properly, what else didn’t the new girl know? She decided to find out after dinner. If the new penitent had issues, it would be to everyone’s benefit to find out about them before she talked to the Senior Priest the next day.

The apprentice requested that Danka be excused from cleaning up so she could talk to her. The apprentice planned to ask her some questions about basic theology, but on a flash of intuition she realized the first thing to find out about the newcomer was if she could even read. She ordered Danka to accompany her to the house library and ordered her to sit at a study table. The apprentice opened a printed copy of The Book of the True Path, turned several pages, and told the newcomer to read the following passage:

The Destroyer enters the Realm of the Living through the mouth of the liar.

Danka went pale. She trembled and started sweating.

“Read, Penitent. Tell me what this line says.”

“Apprentice… I… I mean… I can’t.”

“You can’t read?”

“No, Apprentice. I can’t.”

“So you really have no idea what you’re doing…”

“No, Apprentice. I don’t.”

“So the Senior Priest was right about you.”

“Yes, Apprentice.”

“Very well. Normally it’s not my prerogative to ask such a question, but in your case I need to know. Why are you wearing a Church collar? What did you do to convince anyone the collar was appropriate for your Path in Life?”

Danka shook, terrified that the Apprentice was about to figure out her secret. Her only option was to divulge a portion of the truth. The Apprentice tapped her shoulder.

“Speak. What did you do to convince anyone the collar was appropriate for your Path in Life? Not a difficult question to answer, Penitent.”

Danka started crying. Between sobs, she answered.

“I… I was stealing apples…from a farmer… he called a city guard… they arrested me… she whipped me… I… I confessed… stole… sold the apples…”

“Why were you selling stolen apples?”

“…because I wanted a new dress…”

“Why did you want a new dress?”

“My parents… sister… I have a sister… they want her to get married… me to work… so she could get married… I wanted… to get married first… dress… go in the city… find a husband…”

“So let me make sure I understand. Your parents were making you work so your sister could get married. You didn’t think that was your Path in Life, to work so your sister could benefit. So you stole apples and sold them, to buy yourself a dress. That is correct?”


“And with your dress, you were going to walk into the town, and some rich man was going to see you and fall in love with you. That was your intention?”


“And you thought just having a dress was going to change the Path of your Life? Why did you think such nonsense? Who told you that?”

Danka told the apprentice about the story she heard, the tale of the serving girl with the magic dress who went to the King’s ball and got the Crown Prince to fall in love with her. The Apprentice was so taken aback by the stupidity of Danka’s assumption that for a moment she couldn’t react. Finally she pressed the newcomer for additional information.

“So, you were caught by the farmer and a female city guard, correct?”

“Yes, Apprentice.”

“…and what happened? Apart from the whipping, I mean?”

“Pillory…” Danka responded quietly. Then, remembering what the mob did to her… the very people she had been hoping to impress and whose society she wanted to become a part of…she broke down crying.

The apprentice decided to stop interrogating the Penitent at that moment. It was not difficult to guess what happened next. She had seen multiple pillory punishments. Usually they were uneventful: the criminal spent a day exposed to the city; then wore a penance collar until the family accepted the offender back into their household. There were instances, however, where the spectators went beyond simply observing and started taunting the helpless offender. Once the insults and jeering started, the taunting could get out of hand very quickly and the crowd became uncontrollable. There usually was no particular reason the spectators got out of control; sometimes it just happened.

The apprentice assumed she knew the outcome of Danka’s punishment. When the spectators started attacking her, it was likely a Priest intervened and ordered her taken down. Since the girl was dishonored beyond redemption in her hometown, the Clergy member issued the penance collar so she could get away and make a new life somewhere else. That would explain why she had no theological knowledge. The apprentice thought it was extremely irresponsible to send a penitent away with no instruction, but she could understand the Priest’s reasoning; the dishonored girl had to leave as quickly as possible. The apprentice was right about everything concerning Danka except for one important detail. She did not receive the collar from a Clergy member: she received it from the very man who had her arrested.

Danka’s crying made the apprentice assume that whatever happened to her on the pillory must have been traumatic and that no further questions were necessary. The peasant girl was very fortunate that the apprentice did not bother to ask who issued the collar.

The apprentice waited for the penitent’s crying to subside before moving on to another topic. “I don’t see how we can address your ignorance if you can’t read. Do you at least know the letters?”

“Yes, Apprentice.”

“You know how to read and write letters?”

“A little, Apprentice.”

“Very well, let’s see what ‘a little’ means to you.”

The apprentice brought a wooden tray full of fine sand and a stylus that Danubian children used to learn the alphabet. Paper was too expensive to waste on simple learning and writing practice, so typically a student used the stylus like a pen to draw letters in the sand.

“Draw me the letter ‘A’.”

Danka easily drew the letter.

“Now draw the next five letters in the alphabet…”

Danka complied. The apprentice smoothed the sand and told her ward to write more letters.

“If you know any words, I want you to write them out for me.”

Danka wrote the word “A-P-P-L-E”.

“How appropriate. That’s your first word. Not a bad start. So, you’ve been practicing?”

“Yes, Apprentice.”

“Now. I will have you write some letters to make some words. I want you to sound them out and see if you can figure out what they are.”

The apprentice patiently spelled out several words letter by letter, giving the student time to draw them. The words were simple; such as “cat”, “sun”, “bird”, and “nut”. Danka struggled with sounding them out, but eventually pronounced all of the words correctly.

Early the next morning, the apprentice took Danka to the old temple and addressed the Senior Priest. Danka was still terrified that he would figure out her secret, but now she had the apprentice on her side.

The two women knelt in the appropriate position, with their legs spread, their backs arched, their hands extended in front, heads to the ground, and bottoms spread and completely exposed. When the Senior Priest gave them permission to kneel upright, the apprentice requested that both she and the penitent have the day off for writing lessons. The response was that the two women could have the mornings to work on the lessons and Danka would be tested at the end of each week to check her progress. So, that was it: Danka now was committed to learning how to read and write.

The apprentice spent the rest of the morning having Danka practice the sounds associated with each letter and writing simple words. They only stopped when the cathedral bell announced it was mid-day. The lessons became part of the daily routine of Danka and her mentor. She worked hard and learned quickly, earning the respect of her tutor.

The apprentice noted: “You may be ignorant, but you’re definitely not stupid. That may sound like an insult, but it’s not. I’d rather be ignorant and smart than educated and stupid. I have seen plenty of stupid people with education and I can attest such people are tools of the Destroyer.”

By the end of her first week Danka had completely mastered the alphabet and could spell and write one-syllable words. Learning, like her exploration of new places, became an adventure for the young peasant. Just like her trip to a new province, the world of letters and written words opened up an entirely new part of Danka’s brain, forcing her to think in ways that had never occurred to her when she was still with her family. She was changing and realizing facts about the real world, the most important of which was now knowing that buying a new dress would have made no difference whatsoever in finding an upper-class husband. Upper class women had different skills and knew a bunch of things that Danka had yet to master, only one of which was reading.

After cleaning up from lunch, the five naked penitents settled down for their midday nap. Danka waited for the others to fall asleep so she could finally see what was in that folded cloth sitting in her bucket. When she opened it, there was a piece of parchment with a note and…a silver coin. Danka had never touched a silver coin, let alone have one in her possession. By the standards of her family’s neighborhood, it was a huge amount of money. Now she truly understood how much Farmer Orsktackt wanted to make amends for what had happened to her. She could not understand the note, but it was written in block letters instead of cursive script to allow her to interpret it as quickly as possible. Now she had a specific assignment in reading, something she’d have to master and practice to understand. She practiced tracing the letters in her writing tray until she had the pattern memorized. Then she’d sound out each letter and try to interpret the words. On the first day she figured out C-O-I-N, T-H-I-S, and Y-O-U. The others were beyond her grasp at the moment, but now she was able to sound-out, read, and write three new words.

* * *

Danka was the constant companion of the apprentice for the rest of the month. In the mornings she labored with her efforts to learn how to read, sounding out and writing longer and ever-more complicated words. The apprentice was impressed with her ward's progress, and also by her determination. Yes, the peasant had arrived as ignorant as a rock, but she was determined to overcome her deficient upbringing.

The apprentice liked having Danka with her. She continued to talk to her in a condescending manner and always looked at her as a social inferior, but still she enjoyed Danka's company. She could talk freely and test how to express Church doctrine in a way that an ignorant person could understand it. She practiced singing hymns with her ward and in exchange learned several bawdy peasant camp-fire songs. The girl's very roughness fascinated the fastidious apprentice and opened her understanding of a social group she had only seen from a distance.

During the afternoons Danka accompanied the apprentice on her rounds about the town. She especially enjoyed going to the market and haggling with the vendors over the price of food. The apprentice, coming from a wealthy family, was not worried about saving the Church money during her purchases, an attitude which mystified the peasant girl. Danka instinctually contested every purchase and astonished her mentor by forcing the vendors to cut their prices in half.

The apprentice read passages of both the Bible and the Book of the Ancients and explained to Danka the difference between the two books. She explained that there were two competing factions trying to assume control of the Danubian Church. The faction that controlled Danka's hometown of Rika Héckt-nemát and Rika Chorna was called the "True Believers", while the faction controlling Starívktaki Móskt and the main Temple in the capitol called themselves the "Old Believers". The "True Believers" mostly followed Christian beliefs, including the idea that the Lord-Creator existed in the form of a man and had a son called Jesus, and that Jesus, or the "Son of Man", was the person to whom most prayers should be directed.

The Old Believers countered that the idea that the Creator could have a human form and also have a son, who was executed by human soldiers of all things, was ludicrous. The Old Believers took most of their philosophy from the pre-Christian Book of the Ancients. They drew some ideas from the Bible, mostly from Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and Isaiah, but their main focus was the Bible's predecessor, the book that outlined the more ancient beliefs of the country.

The apprentice was very clear where she stood in the conflict. "We are not part of Rome. Therefore, it makes no sense that we should accept the Roman Lord and pray to his executed son. It just makes no sense."

* * *

Danka spent the rest of her time working with the other Penitents. She did not particularly enjoy being with them because their only conversations focused on chores. Protocol determined that a Penitent could not talk about herself or her life. Danka already knew penitents kept quiet around Clergy members, but she was surprised that the penitents also kept quiet around each other. Weeks went by and she knew no more about her companions than she did when she first met them. At first the silence was hard on Danka; to live with people she really could not converse with. Later she realized how much the silence worked to her advantage, because after the initial scare she had with the Senior Priest, no one questioned her motives or her right to live under the protection of the Church. Whatever her faults, she was accepted as a full member of the household.

Three times a week all of the women associated with the Temple gathered in the Cathedral to sing. Priestesses, seminary students, and penitents combined their voices in religious hymns and "formal" music. The majority of the songs were unaccompanied by instruments, but each woman's voice had a unique role in the songs. From the first day, the music director expected Danka to fully participate and learn where she needed to add her voice to each composition.

Danka felt more at peace with herself during the singing than at any other time of the day. She was part of something much bigger: just one voice among many, and yet with a unique role. She applied herself during the songs, determined to add her part to the women's collective effort. The music itself, sad, beautiful, and peaceful, calmed her nerves and helped her to push aside the trauma of her exile and the stress she was under trying to become literate. She felt enchanted with the Creator's peace during the practices and was always disappointed when they ended.

* * *

For several days after arriving, Danka wondered if there were any male seminary students or male penitents working for the Temple in Starívktaki Móskt. At the end of the second week a group of dirty naked young men returned to the Temple with a wagon train loaded with supplies. There were over 20 men altogether. The majority were wearing penance collars, but eight were not. The eight un-collared men knelt before the Senior Priest and waited for him to look over several purchase documents related to the group's outing. Danka noticed the eight female seminary students waiting anxiously with bouquets of flowers, including her mentor. As soon as the men were dismissed, each paired up with one of the women. Following protocol, the women gave the flowers to the men and the men gave a basket of fruit to the women. They left to eat together and chat about the trip.

Danka later learned that Danubian Priests and Priestesses, especially among the "Old Believers", were expected to marry upon graduating from the seminary and before taking vows. That was why there was always the same number of male and female trainees attending a seminary at any time, because an unmarried person could not join the Clergy. Courting a marriage partner during seminary studies was as important as pursuing theological topics, given that Priests and Priestesses spent their lives working in pairs and were expected to have a close and flawless relationship.

The two older female penitents led the men to a Temple storage annex to offload the supplies. Unlike the seminary students, there was no relationship at all between any of the male and female penitents. Most of the men did not even live on Temple property, but instead were staying with family members. Their life circumstances were different from the women as well; most expected to wear their collars no more than a year or so and then resume normal lives. The women lived with the Clergy because their situation was much more long-term and their families had rejected them.

* * *

After two months of struggling with the strange world of letters and words, Danka was more-or-less literate. She had so pleased the apprentice that the trainee approached the Temple Senior Priest and asked to be given several pieces of paper and an ink-well. Now Danka could practice writing on real paper with a real quill, instead of scratching letters in sand. Over the next several days the peasant filled every spot on the sheets with letters, words, and sentences. The apprentice triumphantly returned to the Clergy with the papers, showing them that she had managed to teach an illiterate adult how to read and write.

Now... finally... Danka could decipher Farmer Orsktackt's letter. Laboriously spelling and sounding out each word, she read the following:

If you are reading these words, then you will understand I was correct about you and that it is your Path in Life to be much more than the peasant I saw in my orchard. I do not know what your Path in Life will be, but I am confident it is not to dig wells and steal apples. The Lord-Creator has much more planned for you.

I am giving you a silver coin. I ask that you keep it with you and not spend it unless your life depends on it. The purpose of that coin is to keep you alive, should the need arise. This way, no matter what your struggles, you will never be completely destitute, you will always have what you need for an emergency. Just remember, once the coin is spent, it is spent.

You will discover that life is like your coin. Once you spend your precious time on something, that time is spent and you will never have it again. Remember to appreciate every moment and every opportunity the Lord-Creator has granted you.

I wish you safe passage and happiness. I did what I could to give you the chance to escape. The rest is up to you.

Tuko Orsktackt - Rika Héckt-nemát Farmer's Guild

Danka folded the letter and picked up the coin. She spent a long time staring at it, memorizing every detail. She had wondered what to spend it on. In spite of the apprentice's skepticism about her plan to buy a dress, she had thought about using it for that purpose. However, there would be no dress purchase, because Danka now realized she was obligated to keep the coin with her. Its purpose was to save her life and it could not be spent on anything more trivial.

Danka was so immersed in her day-to-day activities that she failed to notice the passing of the summer. She did not keep track of dates, but had she been working outside she would have noticed the changes among the plants and animals signaling that autumn was fast approaching and the unpleasant dark days of winter were only weeks away. She didn't think about any of that: she was too immersed in her literacy and theological studies to notice anything going on immediately outside the Temple. At the end of August, her seminary mentor assigned her first full-length book: a theological training manual for children about to become teenagers. The assignment signaled that by the end of the summer Danka was reading at the level of a 12-year old.

On the first day of September hundreds of nervous-looking children and their parents gathered in the town plaza, while the seminary women, the penitents, and several Priestesses stood on the Temple steps singing Church hymns. The ceremony was for the annual Departure from Childhood, a ritual that, during the 1700's, was held once each year in most of the provincial towns. Traditional Danubian society considered a person as a child until the age of 12 and an adolescent over the next three years. Adolescence was the most difficult period of a Danubian's life, because young teenagers no longer could live the care-free existence of a child, but did not yet have any of the rights of an adult. The girls would not braid their hair, nor the boys shave their heads, for another three years. However, they were about to experience the difficult reality of assuming adult responsibilities.

The 12-year-olds were wearing black prayer robes and each was carrying a toy. Each was accompanied by a much younger child, either a sibling or a cousin. The 12-year-olds and their companions assembled at the steps of the Temple, while the other family members knelt in the Temple plaza.

The Senior Priest and his wife stood on the steps, waited for the choir to finish their last song, and addressed the public. His speech was the one he gave every year about the Creator's Path in Life and personal transition. He began with one of the few passages from the Christian Bible's New Testament that was still quoted among the "Old Believers":

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abides faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."

The Priest paused for several moments as the assembled children fidgeted nervously. Finally he continued:

"The time has come for you to put away your childish things. It is your Path in Life. Whatever joys you had as a child have passed. Your Path in Life now will be totally different. The Creator commands that you put away all childish things."

The older children responded by handing off their toys to the younger ones. The younger children scampered back to their families, each happy to have something that had been treasured by their older sibling. The custom stipulated that the item given away had to be the adolescent's favorite toy or childhood item, the loss of which officially marked the end of the first phase of the Path in Life.

The choir sang another hymn before the Senior Priest continued. There was a lengthy prayer to the Creator, asking for guidance for this year's group of adolescents, along with the hope their lives will be charitable - that the presentation of the toy will be only the first selfless act out of many throughout their lives.

Danka recalled with bitterness the year she turned 12. She had to give up her only doll to her sister, who passed it to a friend who immediately lost it. That was the day she learned that her Path in Life was indeed to serve. She would give and Katrínckta would take. The Lord-Creator had determined that she would give charity, but not expect any in return. As a result, Danka's bitterness against both her family and the Lord-Creator festered over the following three years. If that is my Path in Life, then I will find a different Path in Life. I have no reason to accept the Lord-Creator's plans for me. I hate the Lord-Creator and I'll say that to his face if he ever has the courage to confront me. If I have to suffer the Hell-Fire for it, then I'll just deal with it when the time comes.

Now she was watching other adolescents forced to surrender their childhood. She felt sorry for them, because her own life after turning 12 had been nothing but hardship and misery. She wondered how many of those girls standing in black robes would be stuck in equally grim Paths in Life.

* * *

The passing of September 1 reminded Danka that the summer had ended and that the weather would be changing within a few weeks. Already she noticed the days rapidly shortening and the nights becoming less and less comfortable for being outside with no clothing. When she arrived in Starívktaki Móskt her intention had been to stay just a few days, but the lure of living in a comfortable place and learning how to read encouraged her to postpone her departure.

She expected the Clergy to tell her to move out at some point. However, by the end of the summer it seemed that was not going to happen. She was doing what she was supposed to do and earning her keep. The seminary student rarely left the Temple grounds without having the penitent go with her, which pulled Danka away from the more routine chores in the house. If the other penitents resented Danka continuously leaving, they never said anything about it. It was clear she was following the orders of her mentor, not acting on her own.

During most of her time at the Seminary, Danka's only real interaction with anyone was with her mentor. The relationship was a strange one: Danka was not only the trainee's unofficial student, but also her personal assistant, sidekick, companion, servant, and confidant. She could never be completely sure how she would be treated when the trainee whistled at her to set down what she was doing and depart on yet another outing. Usually the seminary student was totally bossy and condescending, but there were other times she shared her doubts and frustrations, treating the penitent in the same way she'd treat a close friend.

For Danka the interactions were a welcome break from the silence of her companions and kept her from getting bored, even when her mentor was not being pleasant with her. More importantly, whenever Danka had to talk to any of the Clergy members, the seminary student took it upon herself to go with the penitent and speak on her behalf. Danka was still very intimidated by the Priests, so it was a relief not to have to converse with them.

* * *

Right after the Path in Life ceremony for the 12-year-olds, the Church women's choir began practicing for important celebration that the "Old Believers" had revived, the Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead was important to both factions of the Danubian Church, but all of the details, even the date on which it was held, differed. The "True Believers" celebrated at the beginning of November, the date it was celebrated in other parts of Europe. The "Old Believers" celebrated on the date of the September equinox, in deference to pre-Christian traditions.

During the mid-eighteenth century, the Old Believers held their version of the Day of the Dead in two places, the capitol Danúbikt Móskt and the provincial center Starívktaki Móskt. In both places Temple apprentices and penitents commemorated the equinox by painting their bodies with chalk and charcoal to assume the appearance of dead spirits. The body painting was very simple, but the resulting appearance was totally sinister, halfway between a ghost and a skeleton. Starting in the mid-1800's the number of marchers and the length of the march would increase considerably when the Ministry of Justice mandated that collared criminals also would participate each year they wore a Ministry collar. However, the judicial reforms of the late 1700's had not yet taken place and during Danka's life collared criminals had little contact with the Danubian Church.

After sunset the townsfolk gathered in the Temple plaza and knelt in their traditional black prayer robes. There was a lengthy service while the penitents and seminary students slowly marched around the plaza carrying torches. The torches were the only light in the city that night, because all other fires and lanterns had to be extinguished.

It was common for the torch bearers to have visions during the march, and that night Danka had one. The fire from the torches merged into a massive fire in her imagination. It seemed all of the Duchy was burning... city after city. Among the burning ruins she saw thousands of bloody corpses. When she recoiled from them, they reached out to her. She screamed and tried to step back, but there were just as many corpses behind her as in front. There was no escape.

Suddenly everything went black. She was standing alone in a forest clearing. A large owl was staring at her.

"You know your true Master, Danka Síluckt. It is I."

"No. I don't. I don't know you."

"Ahhh, but you do, Danka Síluckt. 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 woke up. She was still marching.

No... no... no... That was just a bad dream... had to be... no relation with reality... best to forget... yes... forget... not tell anyone... bad dream... just a bad dream... just stay at the Temple... focus... forget... try to forget...

* * *

Historian's Note: The Danubian Clergy was completely unaware of the ruse being used by the Farmer's Guild involving counterfeiting penance collars to safeguard their currency couriers. Had anyone from the Danubian Church realized that Danka was wearing a fake collar, the resulting scandal would have been huge. It is likely the Clergy would have taken Danka to the Great Temple in Danúbikt Móskt and she would have been interrogated until she gave up the person who gave her the collar. The Danubian Church then would have investigated the Farmer's Guild and tracked down the artisans that were making the group's collars. The Church leaders would have approached the Grand Duke to request the execution of the artisans and the dissolution of the entire Guild. By 1750 Public Penance had become extremely important to the Old Believers as they sought to restore the ancient practices of the Duchy's faith. Even in modern times, wearing the penance collar with devotion and piety remains one of the most sacred tenets of the modern Danubian Church. Using a collar for something as worldly as moving money would be considered a heinous act of blasphemy in Danubia.

So, what motivated Farmer Tuko Orsktackt to give up his guild's counterfeit collar, considering the risk it involved? The answer was that there were some circumstances unique to Rika Héckt-nemát's society that set the town apart from the rest of the Duchy, most notably the inhabitants' tendency to fall into bouts of mob hysteria. The panic over the Beelzebub story was typical of the town's behavior at the time. The fact that Farmer Tuko Orsktackt was willing to take such a huge risk by giving Danka his collar indicates the extent of the danger he believed he had placed himself and his family in by rescuing her.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

End of part 1

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